Steelers and Ravens Merger – Ephesians 2:11-22

At the risk of losing all the non sports fans and football antagonists, yet also in the spirit of the Fall season, I’m going to go ahead with the following analogy. For some of you, it is going to hit you on the head; but if you are not one of them, well, “give it the old college try.”

Living here in Western Maryland, we are at once in the distant “football fan boonies” of the Ravens to the east and the Steelers to the west. Every Sunday in church I see the mix of yellows, purples, and blacks.

Imagine if there was a restructuring of the NFL and the Ravens and Steelers were merged together into one new team called the Steel Ravens! And, imagine the color of the new team was designated as blue and silver! (Some others of you might have to imagine a Cowboys/Redskins, Packers/Bears, or likewise odious admixture of traditions.)

Could you make the shift? Think about all the office people with whom you’ve argued over the years because they were too stupid to see it your way! Think about how you are now going to be sitting in the stands with those same people, wearing blue and silver together. Think about how your favorite players are going to have to work together with their former enemies on the other side of the ball! Who is the new quarterback – Rothlisberger or Flacco? Don’t you suppose the whole thing might be just a little bit awkward?

YEP! And that is the sort of environment that Paul is writing about in our passage today. He is writing (in terms of our analogy) to the one fan base – the Gentiles – as he talks to them about how through the work of Christ they have been merged together with the Jews into a new team called “The Church.”  He reminds them as to how they were seen as total outsiders, without hope, and completely foreign to all the promises of God in his covenants with the Jewish people. But now, that has all changed, they’ve been brought near and made one through the blood of Christ.

For you see, Jesus and what he has done is bigger than the things that divided the two groups before. The old laws of the Jews have been done away with, and the wall of hostility that separated everyone has been broken down. Christ has truly made them into one new people – one new team – the Church of Jesus Christ. Now there is a new peace, as each has the same access to the same Father God.

So what is the practical result? It is that they are all to no longer act likes enemies and strangers. They are rather to see one another in a variety of illustrative ways: as fellow citizens of the same country, as brothers together in the same household, as building blocks who together with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone now form the greatest building ever constructed.

So, there is no room in such an arrangement for the old squabbles to break out!  There is no more yellow on one side and purple on the other, because there is only one new entity that exists. And the health and vitality of that new team is contingent upon the mutual support and love of previously disparate people now coming together to work together as one.

So today begins the first of five readings and devotionals that talk about point number four (of five) in our series on the vision statement of Tri-State Fellowship: We envision a multi-generational community of theologically-sound believers, who manifest Christ’s character, by applying biblical principles to daily life, encouraging one another spiritually and relating the Gospel to our culture.  Yes, we are one body in Christ – one new team, and we need to be about encouraging one another in every way … so let’s talk about that this week.

Ephesians 2:11-22 – Jew and Gentile Reconciled Through Christ

11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)—12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

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“I’m Not Making This Up!” – 2 Peter 1:12-21

Being a lifelong public speaker, teacher, communicator, story-telling kind of guy, give me a couple of minutes to dream up something, and I can lay a pretty wild yarn on you! And I do love telling stories that are funny or that illustrate a teaching point. When speaking, I try to always make it clear when I’m telling a made-up story by saying something like, “Imagine if there was a fellow who …” versus telling you something that really happened about which I was a participant or witness. But once in a while, one of those real-life true stories is so wild and unimaginable, that I feel like I need to qualify it by saying, “I’m not making this up – it really happened.”

In a way, that is what Peter is saying in today’s reading. He is communicating to his readers that he is not fabricating the things he is saying and teaching – that he really did hear the voice from heaven at Christ’s baptism, and that he was on the Mount of Transfiguration and saw the glory of Christ. And by sharing this message, he stood in a long line of prophets dating back from 500 to 1500 years – people who likewise shared information they gained through incredible experiences and revelations by the Holy Spirit.

Peter’s point to his readers is this: “I have not devised all the things you have been taught any more than the old prophets fabricated their stories. This is timeless truth that you had better heed in your lives if you want to be successful, and as long as I’m alive, I am going to remind you of these things. And I’m even making efforts to have it written down so that after I’m gone (looks to be pretty soon), you are going to continue to be reminded of this truth.”

And that is our vision as a church leadership – to have a multi-generational community of people who know and apply the Scriptures. This week we have seen that without Christ, you/we/TSF can do nothing … NOTHING. So we had better be tied to Christ and letting his life flow through us… and that demands we be people of the Word. All of this works together.

And speaking of “together” … that is the theme for this coming week – encouraging one another spiritually. It is a fantastic theme!  Really, it is – I’m not making that up!

2 Peter 1:12-21

12 So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. 13 I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, 14 because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. 15 And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.

16 For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.

19 We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

Confirmation Activation – 2 Peter 1:3-11

In our electronic and digital world, we often have to activate something we have received in order to gain the benefits and power of that item – be it a credit card, online account, or computer program. For example, with a new credit card that comes in the mail, our name is on it and there is nothing else we have to receive, but to activate it for beneficial use, we have to call a number or connect online to actually activate the card for its intended purposes and values.

So also, when we have come to know Christ and gained membership into his kingdom and family, we have access to a new divine power. But that benefit is useless unless we chose to activate it. And the way that we do this confirming and activating is by growing in the knowledge of God (verse 3), adding to our lives the associated character qualities that define Christlikeness (verses 6-8), and confirming our calling and election to Christ’s family by the persistent hard work of increasing these virtues throughout our lives (verse 10).

Again, as in several passages we are looking at this week, we have a listing of character and behavioral qualities that define a person who is connected with Christ – or, to use the words of Christ himself, these are elements that describe the quality and connection we as branches have to the vine.

The list today even has a sort of “flow” to it. It begins with faith, which is trust >> to which we add goodness – the desire to do what is right >> and if we’re to do what is right, we have to have knowledge of what is correct >> which helps us to have self-control, in that we are knowledgeable of a larger perspective on all things >> helping us to gain perseverance through whatever circumstances befall us >> and that ends up with an expression of a godly attitude and perspective >> helping us have a greater affection for other people who have great difficulties as well >> ending up as a person steeped in expressions of love. So see, it’s not that difficult – just a step at a time!

Peter says that anyone who is not on this continuum is like a person who is near-sighted and unproductive. Are you near-sighted physically? I sure am! Without visual correction, I’m pretty much lost on focusing on anything more than an arm’s length away! Left on my own in that condition, I would indeed be unproductive, as there is little that I could do while living in a world that is about 95% a total blur. And apart from abiding in the knowledge of Christ and in the vine, that is how we are, practically speaking. We are without power and sight, and we are sure to stumble.

So Peter concludes this thought by saying that we should make every effort to activate and confirm with our actions the blessings of our position in Christ. Just as it would be pretty crazy to carry around a credit card in your wallet that you had never activated, so it is foolish to be a Christian by name, but never proving it and using it through connection to the Lord. So get activated!

2 Peter 1:3-11 – Confirming One’s Calling and Election

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge;and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness;and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.

10 Therefore, my brothers and sisters,make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Vine Connections – John 15:1-17

When we built our home here in Maryland in 1995, it involved our purchase originally of an 8.4-acre lot that was largely untamed wilderness! The house went in the portion that was the least overgrown, and since then, I’ve worked here and there to recover, lose, and re-recover acres of the forest. I have yet to ever get past about 50% of it being manageable, and at this point of life, this may be one of those things I will never get done. I actually enjoy doing it. I can’t imagine a much happier day personally than waging war on the wilderness, clearing brush, pruning and cutting down smaller trees, etc.

Something that I have always found fascinating are the vines that stretch high up into the very largest trees in my woods. I’m talking 60 feet or more into the air – all wrapped around branches stretching way into the sky. They are so intertwined that there is simply no easy way to just pull them down out of the tree. Rather, I cut the vines at the ground (often the circumference of a small tree!), and over time, the dead branches will eventually come to the ground. Yes, all the leaves and stringy connections that are 60 feet into the air simply die off when they lose connection to the nutritional source of the primary vine.

Our passage today in John 15 is one that we can readily understand. This would have been even more true for Jesus’ time and agrarian culture. People were very familiar with working with vines – particularly in the growing of grapes. All the strength comes from the vine – everyone understands that. The orchardist cuts off the fruitless branches (no need to keep them as a drain on the vine) and prunes the healthy branches in a wise way in order to make them most productive.

Obviously, there are no disconnected branches out there bearing any kind of fruit! And here is where the analogy “jumps” a bit … as Christ says he is the vine, and we disciples are the branches. We need to stay connected. Unlike the natural world, as human “branches” we may choose to disconnect ourselves from connection to the vine. It may work for a short time, but ultimately the fruit from it is zero. There is little negotiating room here for what we can accomplish apart from Christ – NOTHING!

So how do we know if we are well-connected to the vine? Well, there will be evidence of the life of the vine in us. What is that life? It about love – love of others – love that looks away from self in the same way Christ through his sacrifice looked away from himself in choosing those who would be a part of the life-sustaining organism.  If the principle of the life of Christ is really alive and flowing through a believer, that person will be driven by a passion and love for other people. That is the characteristic of this vine. If that characteristic is present, we are connected to the life of Christ. If an opposite characteristic is present … well … it may be time for tracing back toward the roots to see what is wrong.

I didn’t make this up. It is there in the text, where it ends with the words, This is my command: Love each other. This is why I question and wonder and worry about Christians who are so focused on “my needs being met” or “I’m not sure I’m being fed” – all the characteristic stuff of looking toward self. I’m yet to hear, “I’m frustrated because I just don’t have enough avenues to love other people right now in this church!”  You get the picture.

John 15:1-17 – The Vine and the Branches

15:1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.

The Christian Team Jersey — Ephesians 4:17-32

Everyone knows I’m a rather partisan sports fan. I’m very proud of my teams – especially the ones I’ve coached (Wildcats!), as well as certain professional teams – and I’m quick to wear the team jersey of “my guys.”  I will occasionally tease church people when I see them wear an “enemy jersey” (like the Yankees or the Redskins as two notable examples) and will ask, “How do you expect God to bless your life when you’re walking around in a shirt like that?”

This is essentially the idea behind Paul’s writing to the Ephesians as we look at today’s passage. He is saying to them that there is a new way to live now that they are in Christ Jesus. No longer should they live as they did on the old team – a bunch who had no moral compass other than the gratification of selfish desires – and to rather live differently by wearing the jersey of the new team.  The terms Paul uses actually speak pictorially of the idea of taking off one garment and putting on another (verses 22-24).

Both for these new Christians in the first century who were living in the terribly secular society of Ephesus, and for us today who live in an increasingly hedonistic world, the admonition is not merely a cold “just do it!”  There are resources. There is the teaching of the Scriptures – for the Ephesians from Paul and Timothy and others, while for us it is the completed Word of God. And there is the tremendous resource of the indwelling Holy Spirit – God living within who guides us into understanding the Word and toward wisdom in life choices and perspectives. And so, the passage today says not to “grieve” this inner resource by resisting this power and authority and living like the rest of the folks in the natural world who have no inner compass whatsoever.

The practical nature of this application is listed in the final paragraphs today and needs little expansion beyond a couple of remarks.

An idea that comes back a couple of times in this passage is the issue of anger and holding onto inner rage. This is an emotion that does great damage within and seldom accomplishes anything good when expressed. It is allowing oneself to be eaten up from the inside out. The phrase where it says to not give the devil a foothold is especially interesting in the original language. This is expressed by a Greek verb that would immediately give the reader the picture of a military base of operation. So the meaning is this: If you hang on to anger, you are allowing the devil a base of operation inside of you from which he can launch his attacks into your life!  Why would anyone want to do that?

And the passage ends with one of the “one anothers” of Scripture – of forgiving … which follows naturally on the heels of the previous ideas. We’re to do it as Christ forgave us … so, not based on anything earned, but rather on grace extended. It takes a big person to do that; that is our calling!

So be big; put on the Christian Jersey and live like a champion who is part of a champion outfit!

Ephesians 4:17-32

Instructions for Christian Living

17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26 “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. 28 Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

A New Kind of Freedom – Galatians 5:13-26

As we begin the middle of the five weeks of this series and associated readings/writings, let’s re-orient as to the purpose.  “PATHWAYS” is the title of our series to present a five-point breakdown of the vision statement of Tri-State Fellowship. That statement is: We envision a multi-generational community of theologically-sound believers, who manifest Christ’s character, by applying biblical principles to daily life, encouraging one another spiritually and relating the Gospel to our culture.  So we have already talked about the multi-generational community component and the idea of being theologically-sound believers = people who know God’s Word. Now this week we take on speaking about applying biblical principles to life.

Imagine being confined for an extended period of time where you were unable to go anywhere or experience the things you would like to be doing. I’m not suggesting you think about being incarcerated in a jail and having your freedoms completely taken – though that idea would fit today’s passage quite well. But whatever reason – maybe health for example – that had you away from the normal ebb and flow of life for a very long time. But then … circumstances all suddenly change, and you are free to do anything anywhere! What would you do? How would you think? Would you want to just jump in the car and disappear for a few weeks at the beach, followed by a few weeks in the mountains, etc.?

The fact is that before we met Christ as savior, we were not free. We were actually, in biblical terms, completely controlled by the “flesh” – our natural sinful state of self-serving focus.

FREEDOM!  The moment of salvation and all that follows creates an entirely new era of freedom! But freedom for what? To do and serve one’s self and one’s own pleasures? Not really! That is not different than the old way of things! It is a freedom to … in the words of today’s text rather, serve one another humbly in loveand to Love your neighbor as yourself. When Christians fail to do this in the context of the church family, they essentially “go zombie” on one another! And we know from the TV show that this is NOT a pretty sight!

The Apostle Paul states it in stark terms that there are two powers at work: the flesh and the spirit. There is an inner war. The most oft-used illustration of this over the years of preacher-dom is to speak of it in terms of a dog fight that is going on inside. Which dog prevails? Well, the punch line is that it is the dog that is fed the most.

Our passage today goes on to make a list of the things that characterize the two sides of the flesh and the spirit. Some of the “flesh stuff” is pretty out there – like orgies and witchcraft. I’m not expecting any of you to be involved in something like that … but … discord, dissensions, factions – those are things we might actually find even in a place like TSF. So, where does that stuff come from?  Hmm… puts it in a different light.

Likewise also, with the positive list of characteristics of the life of the Spirit – look at the list. Is this an inventory that others would say describes you in the way you handle yourself in the church and the community?  These are all good questions for all of us.

And then I just love verse 25 – Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Only the older half of the folks reading this are going to connect with me here. But I always think of Gomer Pyle when I see this verse. Remember the weekly clip where he was trying to march in step with everyone else but was too uncoordinated to do it? And the Sergeant is right there in his ear yelling at him? Well, that is what we look like when we start to serve ourselves rather than others and hence get all out of step with the Spirit – we look ridiculous like Gomer Pyle, USMC.

Galatians 5:13-26 – Life by the Spirit

13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

Canning and Preserving an Attitude – Nehemiah 8

Imagine if all the pieces to a fabulous mansion home were dumped in your yard absolutely free. Every last thing you would need was there in a big pile – blocks, stones, boards, appliances … everything, down to the last nail and screw. But, there were no directions or prints as to what the house even looked like, let alone how to construct it. Imagine not knowing if it was a Colonial, a French Revival, Mediterranean, or Gothic. And to top it off, you get fined for every month you don’t complete it, but you’ll be arrested if you just carried it all away and dumped it. The great blessing became a great curse.

That is perhaps how the Jews of Nehemiah’s time (400s BC) felt about the Law of Moses – the Covenant given to them 1,000 years earlier. It was a law and agreement between the people and God, promising blessing for obedience, and curses for disobedience. Most of the 1,000 years since Moses had proven the curses part, that much was for sure. But the problem for the people also was that there was little access to even know the very Law they were supposed to follow. It was not as if they all had a copy of it on the bookshelves at home.

The entirety of the Law itself had at one point in history gotten lost in the ruins of the Temple (in the time of Josiah). After that, the nation had been carried off into years of servitude in Assyria and Babylon. And though it was great to be one of the surviving remnant few who lived in Jerusalem and Judea, and who had recently been led by Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of the city, these people knew very little about the Word of God beyond verbal traditions and stories. Ezra had come to teach them and they were grateful for this; and as his teaching was put on hold for a couple of months of building, now, there was a great gathering of the people on a holy day to hear the reading of God’s Word.

Let me give you the portion of the sentence from verse 1 today that is actually stuck back in the previous chapter … When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, <now 8:1>  all the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.

So the people were hungry to hear the Word. This occurred actually at this very time of the year. This is no small gathering of people – at least 30,000 to as many as 50,000.

The scene is not precisely explained, but Ezra is at the center of it on a large platform, surrounded by other leaders and Levites. Notice the great reverence of the people for the Word! Apparently what was happening here is that Ezra would read a section, and then the Levites would break the group into smaller groups and explain to the people what the meaning of the text was. This is interesting, because this process is essentially what we are doing during a sermon on a Sunday morning … or, like right now with this devotional!

Notice also the reaction of the people to all they are hearing and experiencing – they were weeping as they heard the words read to them!  Why?  Because, so many of them were coming to understand for the first time (or in a renewed way) how the nation had failed to obey God and all of the pain that it had brought upon them – down to that very day. But Ezra encourages them to not weep, but to rather rejoice. Unlike their ancestors, these people were ready to hear and to obey God’s Word. He told them to go and celebrate, for this was a great day. They did celebrate and began even to observe feasts that had been forgotten for years.

There are so many places to begin to apply this passage! Perhaps you are thinking of some as you have read along to this point. But I’ll just pick two things …

1.  The riches of our resources – Here are people who knew so little and had no access to learn much more. But their hearts were quick to love God’s Word and to obey it. What does that say about us? We have multiple versions of the entire revelation of God; we have resources of written explanations that would take us to the moon if stacked together; we have at our internet fingertips a cache of resources upon God’s Word that add up like the sands of the sea. And this is true at TSF. Why should God be patient with any of us who are not serious students of his Word – who fail to plug into all we have and flippantly go through the Christian life undernourished and distantly connected to the Lord?

2.  The grace of God and desire for blessing – We often think of the Law as a giant list of things that can’t be done or have to be religiously performed to appease God. And lots of folks also see the whole Bible and the message of Christ and the Church in the same way. But God wants relationship and worship and obedience so that he might bless us, not curse us! He’s in good shape; he does not need us … but he wants us to love him and serve him and live in fellowship – in order that he might shower upon us his grace. For that to happen, we must know and grow in his Word.

And so ends our second week of emphasis upon the Scriptures. I trust you see why the staff and elders included this so prominently in the vision statement. There is no success without it, and there is no gaining it without commitment and work. I’m sorry for your bad luck if you don’t see yourself as much of a student or learner. You’re going to have a difficult time with this Christian life, or be stuck in a mediocre lifestyle of just getting by. THAT is not our vision. I’d rather open the lid of “a can of attitude” that looks like these people in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Nehemiah 8:1-12

8:1 all the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.

So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.

Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there.They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.”For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

11 The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.”

12 Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.

 

How to be Truly Happy – Psalm 1

Everyone wants to be happy. I’m not sure the Bible guarantees that happiness is to be the common experience of the Lord’s people, as certain measures of sadness are inevitable in a sad and sinful world.

There are some other words that more appropriately describe the gift or promised blessings of God for his people who trust him. The first that comes to mind is “contented” – a peaceful state of rest and confidence in the Father through all things.

So, we need to find the happy condition of a sufficient, trusting state of contentment by steady faith in the Lord’s care of us. But how do we get there? What does this happy person look like?

Here are four descriptions …

Negatively Stated – There is a certain way the happy person does not behave. Look at verse one and especially follow the verbs …

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers,

Notice how the verbs show a growing trend of comfort with the pathways of those who don’t follow God – from walking, to standing, to sitting. We are much affected by whom we choose to spend our time. Even as we need friendship relationships with people who don’t know the Lord, toward the goal of bringing them to Christ, our bulk of energy and commitment needs to be with God’s people.

Positively Stated – So the flip side is to describe what a contended person does do to get to this blessed state…

but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.

Rather than spending his down time hanging out with the scoffing element and being negatively impacted by useless values and attitudes, the happy person is steadily and frequently delighting and meditating on God’s Word. This does not mean that all free time is given over to it, but it means that there is a pattern and plan to learn and grow. As well, there is a steady commitment to look for God and truth in all the situations of life. This takes some commitment, work, and time; it does not come as an automatic add-on with the membership card and welcome envelope.

Illustratively Stated – The writer gives us one of the great pictures in all of Scripture to help us understand how a peaceful person maintains his or her faith …

That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.

I think of this Psalm every time I ride Maryland Route 66 (Mapleville Road) as it goes north from the interchange at I70 and on up to Smithsburg. The route is through the valley of Beaver Creek. All along that stream are gigantic trees, many of them sycamores. They obviously thrive because it is readily apparent that their roots are in the water and a steady supply of moisture. And not far away, there are trees in the middle of fields and on hillsides. These trees are generally not so large or healthy, as their nourishment has to come from the storms which come and go with irregular patterns. The fruitful tree by the stream is the picture of success.

Stated as a Contrast – Once more, the writer gives an opposite picture, again from the arena of agriculture …

Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

Growing up next to my grandfather’s gristmill, it was always obvious which days the farmers brought in their grain crops to be sold and stored in his large bins. There was a shaking process of metal grates moving in opposite directions with the kernels falling through hole after hole, while the surrounding worthless chaff materials were blow out of the mill by fans – where the wind would catch this cloud of dust and blow it away from the building. It looked as if the mill was caught in a fire cloud of dust.

So the wicked are not being fruitful, they have no roots into anything that will last for eternity, and sadly their end is destruction. If you are following Christ, don’t be stupid and be like that!

Final Thought – It is again evident why we chose this passage as illustrative of our second theme – the centrality of knowing God’s Word. So are you prospering with contentment? What kind of tree are you? Fruitful? Are your roots into a stream of Scripture other than dependence upon the Sunday morning teaching and classes? Though we have many people bearing fruit on large trees by the streams of a faithful life, too many at TSF don’t choose to appropriate the vast array of resources we present. Neither do they take initiative on other days of the week to have their roots in the right place.

It is the leadership’s vision to see a church family that is truly hungry for and dependent upon the Scriptures, for it is the only way to succeed … to find happy contentment.

Safe Steps in Dark Places – Psalm 119:105-112

For the past two years we have had a new and different infestation at our house (I did not say IN the house!).  No, not stink bugs; I guess we’ve all accepted that having a few of them is going to be the new normal. In a way, our new problem is even just a bit more gross!  I never saw one of these things before last year, and I suppose it is due to the damp conditions we have had compared to many other summers. Of course, I am speaking of the Limax Maximus (did I tease you enough? If you don’t know enough Latin to know what that is, you can look at the picture below the Scripture today.)

These things come out at night. And though they mainly hang out on the sides of the house, they sometimes cross the sidewalk. And since they move at a speed of about three feet per hour, it is not like they are able to get out of the road if you are walking toward them.

I’m sure you can all imagine how Diana is totally grossed out by these slimy things! So, whenever she comes home after dark, she uses a flashlight app on her iPhone to light every exact step she is going to take. And honestly, stepping on a four-inch version of one of these creatures – though rare – is not dissimilar to stepping in dog … ah … stuff … and tracking it into the house.

The application to our passage today is immediately evident when you read the opening verse 105 – Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.

Imagine yourself living in the ancient world when this was written. There are no street lights at night. The darkness is probably beyond our experiences, apart from something like camping in a remote portion of northern Canada. Anyone who journeyed outside would have to carry a lamp sufficient to light the immediate steps ahead.

But the second phrase uses a different word – one that speaks of a bright luminary – something sufficient to light not just the steps, but also the visible path ahead. That word for a pathway or road (which is the Hebrew root for the boy’s name “Derek”) was one used not only in the literal sense of a path upon which to walk, but also of a proper way of going – the appropriate course to follow (as when Jesus said “there is a way that seems right to a man but whose path leads to destruction”).

Surely as TSF people, you can now see why we immediately jumped on this verse for our series we had decided to call “Pathways” – describing our way of going forward as a church. God’s Word is critical to success! It is true for individuals; it is true for the church. Without God’s Word, we do not have vision for safe immediate steps, nor capacity to have dangerous pitfalls enlightened. As well, we are dependent upon the Scriptures to have a vision for the pathway that we follow into the horizon. It cannot merely be something that is modern, cool, hip or current-culture market sensitive; it has to be grounded in eternal truth and realities. It cannot be something that merely appeals to our tastes, it must be grounded in truth and vital connection to God.

We are dependent upon the Scriptures for everything, so they must be taught and understood – no matter how hard that is to do, or whether it is culturally popular. Otherwise, we end up corporately stepping on slugs and tracking slug guts into the church – you get the picture and its application!

Psalm 119:105-112

נ Nun (This is the Hebrew letter equivalent to “N” … as this is an acrostic psalm/poem that is built section by section on the Hebrew alphabet.)

105 Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.
106 I have taken an oath and confirmed it, that I will follow your righteous laws.
107 I have suffered much; preserve my life, Lord, according to your word.
108 Accept, Lord, the willing praise of my mouth, and teach me your laws.
109 Though I constantly take my life in my hands, I will not forget your law.
110 The wicked have set a snare for me, but I have not strayed from your precepts.
111 Your statutes are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.
112 My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end.

Saturation Education – Psalm 19:7-14

I often hear parents talk about their concerns that their children are not getting anything out of the church service – particularly the teaching part of it. I would dispute that contention, and I would argue that the content of “getting anything out of it” may be too narrowly focused … and all of this is a larger topic for another time.

I only mention it incidentally to introduce my main thought today, which is one I’ve often had when in reflection upon my childhood and youth. You’ve likely heard me tell very varied stories of a powerful Christian heritage on one hand, yet with some significant weaknesses and deficiencies on the other. And that spectrum is true.

I’ll focus today on what was good and powerful, though not particularly planned strategically by my parents. My folks were pretty ordinary – the son of a farmer and the daughter of a barber, each with an educational attainment of an associate degree from a two-year business college. But they always had an interest in reading and growing in their knowledge of Scripture.

We never missed church, where the whole “covenant family” was together – a theological value insisted upon by the pastor, who would not allow even an infant nursery to exist. And we went to Bible conference camp meetings most summer weekends, and sometimes to other local churches on a Sunday evening when they had a well-known speaker. Christian radio was a regular part of life, and the living room was filled with multiple shelves of commentaries and other teaching literature.

Sermons, teachings, and readings were all discussed quite openly and freely. I don’t think I was very often drawn into the conversation, but it surrounded me. And if some liberal or theologically diverse pastor would write something in the newspaper or for whatever reason be in the news, my parents would be shaking their heads in amazement at the errors being stated.

What strikes me in retrospect is that I was able to make theologically-sound judgments at a quite young age – about beliefs other kids would have from their family/church. I was able to quietly know what was right and wrong from a biblical viewpoint – not because I was formally taught it, but much more because it was pervasive in my environment.

Today’s passage contains a quick listing of the good benefits that naturally accrue to the person who is highly cognizant of God’s Word in a pervasive way. Look at these benefits: a trustworthy and reliable foundation to make even a simple person wise, joy to the heart and soul, and direction in life that is timelessly true.

The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous.

What a tremendously valuable resource this is! Those who do not know the Lord and are unaware of valuing his Word are simply lost in the woods without realizing it. Even as a child, I could see this was true in the futile lives of classmates with families who had no such connection.

10 They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb.
11 By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward.

Though I’m extolling the virtues and benefits I gained in my home (a place which was a very positive experience in the big picture), there were some real deficits. There was a touch of legalism – though somewhat selective in topic; and certainly unjust prejudices were not corrected by all of the Scripture intake. But even in the best of circumstances in homes, families, and individual lives, there are going to be sins even of a willful nature. Beyond that, we all have a capacity for sins from an inability to see dark faults in those places where the trees of truth are hidden by the forest of personal human weaknesses. David concludes in what is a timeless prayer from the timeless Scriptures …

12 But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults.
13 Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression.

14 May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Knowing Scripture, and surrounding your life with God’s Word and the teaching of it … this is a big deal … big enough even to be a part of our church vision statement. Whoa – that’s big!