Friday, May 31, 2013

4 Elements of Courageous Faith

Read Esther 4.

The total destruction of the Jews had been decreed.  Throughout the empire the Jews were in public mourning, fasting, and prayer.  Living in the palace, Queen Esther had no idea what was taking place.  When Mordecai conveyed the proclamation to her, he requested that she go to the king to beg and plead on behalf of her people.  After all, ultimately Esther's life was at stake.

Under the Persian law, anyone who barged in to see the king would be put to death.  These two cousins provide some of the greatest examples of faith in all the Bible.

1. Absolute trust in God's promises. (v.14)
If you do not intervene, God will use someone else.
Notice Mordecai's faith.  It was not in Esther.  He knew the covenant promises of God to Abraham and to David.  Though persecuted, one way or another, God would take care of His people.

2.  Absolute trust in God's timing. (v.14)
"Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?"
All of the events of her life, Mordecai's training of her, and her promotion to Queen of Persia came down to this one decision.  At the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Jesse Owens said, "This is it.  A lifetime of training for just ten seconds."

3. Absolute trust in prayer. (v.16)
Esther could not face this moment on her own.  She needed God's help to give her favor with the king.  Her preparation was three days of fasting and prayer by everyone involved.

4. Absolute trust in the outcome. (v.16)
Esther courageously went forward without knowing how it would turn out.  She believed so strongly that this was the right thing to do, she was willing to put her life on the line.

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."  Hebrews 11:1

Thursday, May 30, 2013

When Character and Courage meet

Read Esther 3.

Hitler was not the first to seek to annihilate the Jews.  It has always been a Satanic plot to destroy God's chosen people and thwart the unfolding of His plans.

King Ahasuerus promoted Haman to a position of power over all other leaders in the empire.  The man's ego demanded worship as a god and expected the people to bow down before him.  Esther's cousin Mordecai refused to worship anyone or anything except the God of heaven.

When Haman discovered that Mordecai was a Jew, his anger went totally out of control.  He planned not only to deal with Mordecai but to destroy every Jewish man, woman and child in the entire empire.  After all these were a conquered people that lived at the will of the king.  A form of dice were rolled by those who worshiped false gods to determine when to enact the slaughter.  Haman lied to convince Ahasuerus of the plan.  The king was in no danger; only Haman's pride.  With the date set, and Haman's offer to pay for it, the king gave his permission.

How could Mordecai stand when confronted by such overwhelming power?

1. He was a man of character.
Character is that inner moral strength coupled with self-discipline.  Without a firm set of personal values a person will be constantly giving it to the whims of popular opinion.  Without self-discipline one will never make the sacrifices needed to do what is right.

2. He was a man of courage.
Courage is the willingness to face danger or a crisis.  A courageous person is more fearful of the consequences of not doing what is right than they are of the challenge in front of them.

When a person of great character exercises great courage lives all around them will be influenced for good.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

4 Character Qualities that turned a woman into a Queen

Read Esther 2.

King Ahasuerus announced a Miss Persian Empire contest in order to replace Queen Vashti.

The Jews had been conquered, taken captive, and lived as slaves when the Medes and Persians defeated Babylonia.  Hadassah, commonly known as Esther, was being raised by her cousin Mordecai.  Being taken as a candidate for Queen of Persian, she never revealed that she was a Jew.  While the other women evidently asked for and received whatever they wanted, Esther did not.

Her different character and behavior did not go unnoticed.
"And the young woman pleased (Hegai, the man in charge) and won his favor." (v.9)
"Now Esther was winning favor in the eyes of all who saw her." (v.15)
"...she won grace and favor in (the king's) sight more than all the virgins..." (v.17)

There are at least four character qualities displayed by Esther in this chapter that set her apart from all the rest.
1. Discretion.
She was careful in what she said and to whom she said it.  She did not tell everyone all her business.  Somethings she kept to herself.

2. Humility.
She demanded nothing.  She made do with what she had been given.

3. Relational.
She connected with and earned the favor of those around her.

4. Obedient.
As a young woman, she was raised to respect those over her.  In the king's care, she listened to Hegai and followed his instructions.  Then, even as a queen, she responded well to her uncle's coaching and advice.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Only Marriage Design that Lasts

Read Esther 1.

King Ahasuerus ruled the Medo-Persian empire from India to Ethiopia.  In his pride, he wanted to show off his empire, his wealth and his power.  After a six-month tour, he threw a seven-day party.  In an inebriated condition, he had nothing left to show-off but his wife's beauty.  Queen Vashti demonstrated greater character in her unwillingness to be paraded before a bunch of drunken men.  Her decision could have cost her life.  It did cost her the marriage and her royal position.

The remainder of this chapter deals with how the king could save face in the light of his wife's refusal.  The best his advisers could suggest was to model the rule of his own home by putting away his queen and legislating marriage relationships for everyone else.  There is no mention of a loving relationship.

God's design in marriage is found in Ephesians 5.  Without these elements put into practice, no marriage works or lasts.  Oh, the couple may continue to live under the same roof, but the true enjoyment of the relationship is found only in how the One instituted marriage intended it to be.  Violation of these elements will not only ruin the marriage, but it will also bring hurt.  That hurt is often at the root of so-called alternative lifestyles.

"Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her..." (Ephesians 5:25)
It is the husband's responsibility and privilege to demonstrate sacrificial love to his wife and, in doing so, model Christ's love for His people.

"Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord."  (Ephesians 5:22)
To those women who have been hurt or have their own agendas, this is verse is not received well.  As a result, they won't have a lasting, loving marriage.  Often, they will bounce from one relationship to another.  I have never met a woman who would not gladly submit to the leadership of a man who would love her as Christ does.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Leader's Legacy

Read Nehemiah 13.

After all his hard work, after all the worship and celebrations, even after the public covenant they made, Nehemiah discovered the truth of Proverbs 29:18: "Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law."

Due to the wording of the King James Version, the above verse continues to be misused today.  The intent of that Scripture is that people need to hear God's word ( the "prophetic vision") and held accountable to keep it.  Otherwise, there will be no guard rails for living a life that pleases God.

The leader cannot accomplish and sustain an organization or people alone.  Dr. John Maxwell wrote about "The Law of the Inner Circle" that states, "A leader's potential is determined by those closest to him."

Nehemiah needed to return to Babylon and report to the authorities of the empire.  While gone, those he trusted back in Jerusalem proved to be disloyal to him, but even more they were disloyal to the LORD.  Decisively and forcefully, he corrected each violation of the covenant they had made.  Each time he paused to pray and asked God to keep in mind all the good he had done.

Throughout his time of service, Nehemiah depended upon God and put His word into real life situations.  Indeed, God did remember him for good and so do we.

Our legacy is what we leave behind for others to follow.  May all who come behind us find us so faithful.        

Monday, May 20, 2013

Music that Ministers

Read Nehemiah 11-12.

As Governor, Nehemiah took the next steps in reestablishing the city of Jerusalem and resettling of the people in the land.  While the national leaders lived in the city, 90% of the people did not.  There were fields to plant, herds to tend, and villages to populate.  These moves required all the leadership and organization skills that God had given to Nehemiah and others close to him.

The hard work of securing the city and organizing the people were complete.  Now, it was time to dedicate their work to the LORD and to celebrate in great praise and thanksgiving.

Musicians provided a key role in leading the celebration.  They divided into two parading groups; one went south, the other north.  With leaders visible to the people on the wall, the instruments played and the singers sang the songs of David and Asaph (The Psalms).

There were song writers, music leaders, instrumentalists and vocalists who were set apart for this ministry to serve alongside the priests and Levites.

Music is an indispensable part of worship.  It is not an add on to the service.  Rather, it is to be an expression of direct communication of the worshiper to God, give voice to personal testimony, and/or to encourage fellow worshipers.   Indeed, music is the only art form mentioned in the Bible that we will practice in heaven.

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God." (Colossians 3:16)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Moving from Praying to Doing

Read Nehemiah 10.

The leaders took time to spiritually prepare the people before they made a public commitment to the LORD.  It was more than a list of promises.  It was a declaration of action steps that they would do immediately.  They were willing to step forward and write their names on a covenant for all to read.  The names of the leaders appeared on the seal of the covenant.

What were those action steps?
1. They separated themselves from unholy relationships.
This was painful, but they had mixed allegiance to the God of heaven with the paganism surrounding them.

2. They vowed to observe all the commands of the Scriptures.
Specifically here, they would honor God by putting the expectations of Sabbath into practice.

3. They began behaving like stewards, instead of entitled owners.
They made sure that the local ministry had the resources needed.
They took turns serving the practical needs of the local ministry.
They gave 10% of the first of their income to that local ministry.
They declared, "We will not neglect the house of our God."
Two insights that made this work.
-Leaders can never expect the people do something they are not doing themselves.
Positional leaders living in disobedience will divide and strangle a ministry.

-Notice that there is no "working toward" separation, tithing and the rest.  Grace?  Certainly.  But, either a person is living in obedience to God or they are disobedient to Him.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

4 Elements in Preparation for Spiritual Renewal

Read Nehemiah 9.

The process of spiritually righting the culture in Jerusalem continued.  They had listened and been taught the word of God.  They had celebrated the Feast of Booths for a week.  Now, it was time to go deeper in committing themselves to live for God wholeheartedly in the future.  But before making those public promises to God they devoted themselves to fasting, the Scriptures, and prayer.  These things were done publicly and together.

1. Fasting.
They came clothed in sackcloth with dirt on their heads as an outward sign of humility.  It was a reflection of their deep, inner feelings of sorrow for their personal sin and their national condition.

2. The Word of God.
They stood for a quarter of the day listening to the Scriptures.  An open heart, ready to hear what God has to say, is fertile soil for immediate obedience and spiritual growth.

3. Confession.
They stood for another quarter of the day acknowledging their nation's historical disobedience to the LORD and their own.  It was for these reasons that they continued to live in slavery.

4. Worship.
They prayed.  Not only is this prayer a succinct walk through the Old Testament up to this point, it is a marvelous treatise of theology.  The Person of God, who He is and how He interacts with His people, up close and personally, is not to be missed.  This is the God of the Bible.  This is the One before whom we bow.  This is the One who alone is worthy.  This is the One in whom we have placed our lives and our eternity.

Friday, May 17, 2013

3 Keys to Changed Lives

Read Nehemiah 7-8.

With the walls rebuilt and the gates closed, the city of Jerusalem was finally secure.  The exterior work had been completed and now it was time to go to work on the inside.

Nehemiah led in a full census of each person within the city, nearly 50,000 in all.  Proof of ancestry was required to serve in the priesthood.  The priests were organized under the leadership of Ezra. The next step would be to address the spiritual needs among the people.

The people were called together for the purpose of hearing God's word.  The reverence and respect even for preparing to listen to the Scriptures in this chapter is noteworthy.  It was the inspiration for their worship.

With limited, hand-written copies, Ezra read aloud.  This was followed by the teaching priests helping "the people to understand the law."  How did they help the people to put the word of God into practice?  See the process in verse 8.

1. They read from the Scriptures.
What God said.

2. They explained the Scriptures.  
What God meant.

3. The applied the Scriptures.
What it meant to them.

When the people understood the application of God's word, they began to weep.  Someone said that good preaching should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.  Both are true here.  Once the leaders saw the impact on the hearers, they were quick to comfort.  The heads of households came together to for further study so they could lead their families in obeying God.  By the next day, they were putting God's word into practice with the Feast of Booths.

All too often we tend to make the discipleship process complicated, worship services something other than worship, and preaching devoid of the basic yet powerful process outlined here.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Why not just throw up our hands and Quit?

Read Nehemiah 6.

The wall had been completed.  All that remained was to hang the gates and the city of Jerusalem would once again be secure.  Surrounding enemies then stepped up the pressure to stop the completion of the work.

First, they tried to set up a meeting with Nehemiah.  But he recognized that this was a trap to kill him.  Five times they made the unsuccessful attempt to get Nehemiah to stop the work for this meeting.  Next, they falsely accused him of self-promotion and outright rebellion against the Persian Empire.  Then, Nehemiah turned to those closest to him for counsel, but he quickly realized that their advice was wrong.  In fact, there were insiders leaking information to the enemy.  Tobiah and Sanballat not only paid some to be informants, but Nehemiah discovered that one of the top leaders was the father-in-law to Tobiah!

At that point, many leaders would have thrown in the towel and quit with multiple good reasons.
-I am being lied about.
-There are plots to kill me.
-The people I trusted the most are disloyal to me and to their own people.
-After all I have done to help them, this is the thanks I get!
-I have worked day and night.  I am tired and do not want to endure this any longer.

But that was not the character of Nehemiah.  Why did he NOT quit?  What sustained him?
1. He knew he was doing what God wanted done.
Knowing he was right where God wanted him to be gave him confidence in the face of opposition.

2. He made the work his priority.
Because he saw this as God's work, not his own, he was not about to waste time on meaningless discussions.  This was especially true when he knew their true motives.

3. He placed his absolute trust in the One who called him.
As God's man, doing God's work, his reliance was on God to protect him.  This was more than a daily prayer.  Reading through this book, there is a moment by moment calling out to God for help.
"Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people". (5:19)
"But now, O God, strengthen my hands." (6:9)
"Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, according to the things they did..." (6:14)

When the work was completed, the result was not accolades for Nehemiah.  The enemy "perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God." (6:16b)

To God be the glory as we do His will and work today.

Friday, May 10, 2013

A Counter-culture Attitude at Work

Read Nehemiah 5.

If the external problems were not enough, Nehemiah now must deal with an internal threat.  A food shortage prompted those who were starving to sell or mortgage their homes and fields to other Jews in Jerusalem who had food.  Putting their possessions and themselves on the line at interest from each other in a time of famine created a form of slavery.

Nehemiah became so angry that he "brought charges against the nobles and officials."  He started at the top.  The city was in survival mode from external threats and now things were going from bad to worse with this behavior toward their own in a time of need.  These leaders, instead of taking advantage of their fellow Jews, they should have led in showing mercy to the poor.  The culture had been one where those in high position took advantage of the people and lived lavishly above everyone else.  When Nehemiah became appointed as governor, his view of positional leadership was threefold:
1. Stewardship.  It was God who gave them this opportunity and they would be held accountable to Him.  "Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God."  A steward takes care of the owner's property and makes decisions based upon what pleases the owner.

2. Sensitive.  He was cognizant that unbelievers were watching.  Those who belonged to the LORD should behave differently than those who do not, "to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies".

3. Service.  He did not demand to be served, but he saw himself appointed to serve.  "I also persevered in the work on this wall, and we acquired no land, and all my servants were gathered there for the work."  This he did in part at his own expense.  It was a privilege, not a right, to be where he was.

It was the attitude of Jesus.  "For even the Son of Man came not  to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Trust God and Work Hard

Read Nehemiah 3-4.

Dr. John Maxwell wrote a book entitled "Teamwork makes the Dream Work".  That is demonstrated in chapter 3.  The tasks were many but with organized teams, each taking a section of the wall, the work was be completed in an unusually short time.  With the completion of the wall and control of the gates, the Jews could live in the city with some semblance of peace and security.

However, whenever someone is cheering, inevitably someone is jeering.  Or, as one leadership principle states, "Whenever you make a decision, expect opposition."

The Samaritans, led by Sanballat, and Tobiah the Ammonite, the Arabs, and the Ashdodites laughed, mocked, ridiculed, threatened and tried everything they could discourage the people from rebuilding the wall.  It would mean the end of their taking advantage of the Jews.

Nehemiah's response was not in kind, but instead he prayed.  In his prayer, he acknowledged that the root of the ridicule was opposition to God Himself.  Next, he organized around-the-clock, armed security by family groups to protect their own. The leaders did not even take time to change their clothes.

It is a excellent picture of complete trust in God to do what they could not control, while doing everything humanly possible to do what they could control.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

When Preparation meets Opportunity

Read Nehemiah 2.

Someone defined success as when preparation meets opportunity.

Nehemiah poured out his broken heart before God.  He fasted and continued to pray for God to:
1. Give him success
2. Grant him mercy before the king
He was spiritually prepared.  He was praying for the opportunity.

Being a slave, any displeasure from King Artaxerxes could have meant dismissal or even death.  But he went back to work and trusted God to do what he could not do.  God can direct the hearts of leaders.  The king noticed his countenance and asked what was wrong.  Nehemiah was ready.  Very succinctly and to point, he stated his case.

This would not have happened if Nehemiah had not been a loyal and faithful person at work.  This, also,  played into the preparation for this moment.  Though a slave, obviously the king cared for this man and was even eager to help him.

More preparation would be needed as there was opposition awaiting him.  How would he handled them?  He had not seen the extent of the project.  How would he organize the work?  He had not told the local leaders about his purpose for being in Jerusalem and authority he had from the king.  How would he connect with them and engage them for the work?

He prepared himself spiritually, continually casting his dependence upon the LORD for help.  He step by step prepared himself and others to achieve the work ahead.

When the opportunity came to inform the leaders, they said, "Let us rise up and build."  The opposition laughed at them.  Nehemiah replied, "The God of heaven will make us prosper."

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Working while you Wait

Read Nehemiah 1.

Imagine your home without doors.  Anyone or any animal could simply walk in with no basic security for your family or your belongings.

This was the dilemma of Jerusalem.  The gates and walls had been destroyed.  Yet, the people were trying to resettle the land after the 70 years in exile.  Surrounding them were other people groups who did not want them to come back.  They took every advantage to discourage, infiltrate, embarrass, and apparently rob the returning Jews.

With the Persians ruling the vast empire from India to Egypt, Nehemiah lived in the capital, personally serving the king.  When he heard the bad news from his brother how the people back home were living in "great trouble and shame", it broke his heart.  He knew he had to go and be a part of the solution.  It would require the king's permission; the biggest hurdle.  One did not make bold requests of the king, especially slaves.  The king would have to initiate the conversation.  Only God could cause this to happen.

Nehemiah wept, mourned, fasted and prayed for days.  His prayer request was "give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man."

Nehemiah could have rationalized an escape.  He could have broken the code of conduct and approached the king, feeling the emergency warranted it.  Queen Esther did took that very action in her time of need.  But this godly man wiped his tears, went back to work, and trusted God do what he did not have the power to do on his own.

Many days are just like that for a person who is committed to pleasing God in daily life.  Living by faith means trusting God for what we cannot see, but at the same time knowing that God is at work on our behalf.  He will not disappoint.  The wait will be worth it.

"Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!" (Psalm 27:14)

Monday, May 6, 2013

Saying you are sorry is not Enough

Read Ezra 10.

This is an amazing picture of national repentance.  It began with one man, Ezra, who became so broken over the sins of his people that he publicly fasted, prayed and mourned.  God moved on the hearts of national leaders.  Shecaniah believed "even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this."  They called every person in the land to a solemn assembly and threatened anyone who did not attend.

The people sat in the public Temple square shivering in the cold rain, trembling before God as Ezra spoke.
1. He named the sin.  They had broken faith with the God of heaven.
2. He called for them to agree with God about what they had done.
3. He challenged them to do God's will and separate themselves from the source of their sin.

Andy Stanley preached a powerful message yesterday from Mark:31-38.  In it he emphasized that while salvation is a free gift from God, "if you follow Jesus it will cost you something."

Separating oneself from sin is often a very painful decision, requiring a courageous commitment to do what is right.  For some it may mean ending a sinful relationship.  For some it may involve stopping a sinful habit of action, thought and/or speech.  All of these bring us down to the essence of real life: do I live to please me or do I live to please the LORD?

One may result in a temporal pleasure.  The other will result in an eternal honor.

Even now there is hope.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Responding to the sins of a Nation

Read Ezra 9.

When Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, the spiritual challenges and needs of the people were worse than he could have imagined.  But that is why God sent him there.  The root issue was not racial but spiritual.  Nationally, only the Jews worshiped the true and living God.  Intermarrying with surrounding nations meant spiritual compromise as paganism would certainly be brought with the unbelieving marriage partners.

The response, not only by Ezra but "all who trembled at the words of God," was to sit in stunned silence and fasting for the rest of the day.  Then, at evening, this spiritual leader broke the silence with his prayer of brokenness.

1. He confessed specific, historic, national sins.
Their sins had resulted in them losing the blessing of the land and their freedom.  Even at this point, after 70 years of exile and captivity, they sinned even more.  It was not "their" shame only.  As a spiritual leader, Ezra owned the shame with them.  Note his use of the words "our" and "we" in his prayer.

2. He acknowledged that despite the nation's disobedience, God was gracious to them, had never forsaken them, and had remained faithful in His love to them.  God did this in order "to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God".

3. He made no requests of God.
In his devastation, for the moment, he could say no more.  He left the next step to God and His mercy.  "Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this."

Questions for us:
-Am I a person who trembles at the words of God?
-Do I see the problems in our nation as spiritually rooted?
-Do I feel the shame of the sin and evil of my nation?
-Do I fast and pray for God to revive my nation?  

Thursday, May 2, 2013

4 Indispensable Missional Elements

Read Ezra 8.

Ezra faced a 900 mile journey from Babylon to Jerusalem.  His mission was to teach and serve those Jews who returned from the exile.  Including all the Levites, priests and their families, the number of those who accompanied him would easily be in the thousands.  They carried millions of dollars worth of gold, silver and bronze.  The group gathered at the Babylonian canal of Ahava for three days to prepare.

Here are the steps he used before setting out on the mission:
1. To accomplish the mission, the right leaders needed to be in place.  He realized that leading the return and ministering to a nation of people were too much for one man.  He needed solid leaders around him; men of insight and discretion.

2. To accomplish the mission, everyone needed to be spiritually prepared.  Ezra proclaimed a fast "that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods."  They used this time to pray to the LORD "and he listened to our entreaty."

3. To accomplish the mission, the resources were handled with great stewardship and accountability.  Twelve leading priests were charged with that responsibility.

4. To accomplish the mission, God protected them along the way.  "...he delivered us from the hand of the enemy..."

Right leaders.  Prayer and fasting.  Great stewardship and accountability.  God's protection.  Those elements will work for any achievement for God.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The 3 Keys to experiencing God's Power

Read Ezra 7.

Ezra was teaching priest.  As a scribe, he hand copied the Law and the books of the Old Testament up to that time.  He was a scholar and "a man learned in matters of the commandments of the LORD" (v.11).  Along with other teachers, God called Ezra to return to Jerusalem from Babylonia and minister to the people as they rebuilt the Temple and the city of Jerusalem.

God moved the heart of the king of Persia, Artaxerxes, to encourage, authorize, and finance their efforts.  Three times in this chapter Ezra stated that "the hand of the LORD my God was on me."

There is no better confidence in life than when one knows they are where God wants them to be, doing what God wants done.  Contentment is the sister to such God-inspired confidence.

How did this man Ezra know God's will for his life?  How did he have such confidence?  How did he get to experience the power of God's hand on his life, including moving the heart of the king?

"For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD and to do it and the teach his statues and rules in Israel." (v.10)

1. To know God's word one must invest the time to study it.

2. To have confidence in God's will one must take action and put God's word into practice.

3. To experience God's power one must communicate God's word as He provides daily opportunities.