Thank God for spiritual heroes
Philippians 2: Give him a grand welcome, a joyful embrace!
When the church at Philippi heard about Paul’s imprisonment they wanted to do something tangible to help him. They decided to send one of their own, a man named Epaphroditus, to Paul, likely carrying an offering for him. The arrival of this good man warmed Paul’s heart, greatly encouraging him. Then, to his dismay Epaphroditus became ill, sick enough to die. Although it was touch and go for a while Epaphroditus recovered completely. Now, Paul’s writing a letter to the Philippian church and he intends to have Epaphroditus deliver it, returning home. The Apostle tells them that Epaphroditus is a real hero, a great man of God. He urges them to give him a hero’s welcome, telling them “people like him deserve the best you can give.” As I read about Epaphroditus today I’m reminded of some spiritual giants I’ve known in my life. A few of them are well known, at least in some circles. They’ve received a fair amount of deserved recognition. Several, though, never made it to the big stage. In my case, they’re some pastors I’ve known, either during my growing up years or as co-workers in the Kingdom. Some of these good people never pastored large churches and as far as I know never received any denominational rewards. Still, they’ve encouraged me and I’ve seen in them the heart of Jesus for their people. Today I remember a pastor who took time to sit down with a boy to explain sanctification in a way he could begin to grasp. I also remember a pastor who always had a smile on his face and a kind word to say to others even though he was going through some hard times. These are spiritual heroes who deserve a “grand welcome, a joyful embrace!”
Take Away: Thank God for the spiritual heroes who have influenced your life.
Grab a plank and hang on for dear life
Acts 27: He gave orders for anyone who could swim to dive in and go for it, and for the rest to grab a plank.
Paul’s trip to Rome starts out peacefully enough but ends in shipwreck. The attempt to move the ship just a few miles to a better winter harbor results in disaster as a huge storm sweeps in, driving the ship out to sea. The sailors do all they can to save themselves and their passengers but it appears that their worst nightmare has come upon them and that all 276 on board will be lost. Then Paul reports that for a short time overnight there was not, 276 passengers, but 277 on board. The Lord sent an angel to encourage Paul and give him a message for the entire ship’s company. The ship will, indeed, be lost, but everyone will survive without a scratch. Soon, it’s “land-ho” as an island is spotted. The ship strikes a reef and is being torn apart and the order is given to “abandon ship.” Swimmers dive in and the land lubbers find bits and pieces of the ship and float to shore. As a person who isn’t much of a swimmer I can identify with those “plank grabbers.” No doubt, I would have been one of them. Spiritually speaking, we’re all, to some extent headed for shipwreck. After all, no one’s going to get out of this world alive. The only hope I have of surviving this shipwreck is to hold on to some wood that will get me to shore. That wood just happens to be in the shape of a cross.
Take Away: I’m holding on to that cross for “dear life.”
Promise box theology
Zechariah 8: Is anything too much for me?
This section of Zechariah’s writing is made up of short “Proverbs-like” statements from the Lord. Years ago we had a little plastic box that had cards with individual verses printed on them. Each day we would pick a card and read the promise for that day. In spite of this fortune cookie approach to Scripture there was the positive aspect of our becoming familiar with all the good things the Lord has to say to his people. To those of Zechariah’s day, his short words of encouragement might have contained some of that “promise box” value. After years of putting it off, they’ve accepted the challenge of rebuilding the Temple. It’s a huge job and they’re overwhelmed by it all. In the midst of all this God’s prophet comes around every so often with a new word of the Lord to them. He tells them that the Lord cares about what they’re doing and that Jerusalem has a bright future. On this day, Zechariah encourages them to remember that the Lord’s helping them and nothing’s too hard for God. As I reach out to make this word of encouragement my own I’m reminded of the downside of using that old promise box. These words are spoken in a specific context. They aren’t about my getting a passing grade on some important test I’m about to take or my getting a raise at work. If I try to make these words about my wants then I’m guilty of twisting the intent of the Almighty. This promise is that God will help me to do what he calls me to do, even if that mission seems like an impossible task. This is a terrific promise just as it is and I need to respect it and not turn it into a tool for getting God to do stuff for me.
Take Away: The Lord will help us to do what he calls us to do.
Nothing more needs be said
Zechariah 4: So, big mountain, who do you think you are?
Zachariah’s well known vision and message continues with a wonderfully encouraging word to governor Zerubbabel. The task before him is a daunting one and there’s real opposition. Zerubbabel is tasked with following in the footsteps of one of the most famous kings of Israel, King Solomon, who built the first Temple. During Solomon’s reign, Israel was a powerful and respected nation. Now, Zerubbabel leads a relatively small number of returned exiles in a land that has hostile elements. In the language of this passage he faces a “mountain” of obstacles to his completion of this, the greatest project of his life. However, even though there’s much to stop him, there is even more to assure his success. The “even more” is God. The Lord’s pleased with his commitment to this task and the Lord’s going to see to it that he succeeds. My friend, once those words are said there’s nothing more to say and the only thing left to do is to do it. Through the centuries God’s people have discovered this passage, and many others like it, and have been both challenged and encouraged to do mighty deeds in the name of the Lord. Not only that, ordinary people like me have applied this “big mountain, who do you think you are?” approach to dealing with the ordinary, everyday circumstances of life. As Paul writes to the Church at Rome, “What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?”
Take Away: God’s Spirit, in me, makes the impossible possible.
Zechariah 4: You can’t force these things. They only come about through my Spirit.
This statement to governor Zerubbabel is part of one of the most famous portions of Zechariah’s writings. Zerubbabel has already accomplished great things in leading the exiles back to Jerusalem. Now, in response to the urgings of Haggai and Zechariah he’s ready to shoulder the task of rebuilding the Temple. His heart, and the hearts of his people, is in the right place. God is pleased with them. The Lord’s words to the good man and his people are wonderfully encouraging: the Temple will be rebuilt not because of some extraordinary human effort, but by the power of God’s Spirit. This doesn’t mean that the governor and people can sit back and do nothing while a Temple rises from the ashes of destruction, but it does mean that the power for this project is coming from God. The Lord is with them, not only approving of their actions but empowering them as well. With that in mind I see here that my efforts to accomplish things in the Name of the Lord aren’t limited by my own initiative, skills, or intelligence. Every program of the church should be eligible for the label: “God powered.” If that isn’t an encouraging word I don’t know what is.
Take Away: What we accomplish in the Name of the Lord we accomplish by the power of the Lord.
Preachers and listeners
Ezekiel 33: They love to hear you talk, but nothing comes out of it.
They’ve gotten used to Ezekiel. For years he’s preached his sermons and acted out various illustrations for them. His words are seldom encouraging, in fact, they’re down right condemning. Beyond that all his approaches to basically the same sermon have become to them like well-worn clothes: nothing to get excited about, but comfortable. These days, it isn’t unusual for folks to show up at Ezekiel’s house on a summer evening just to see what Ezekiel has up his sleeve today. They aren’t interested in responding to his message but they do find his rants somewhat entertaining. As a Sunday preacher I have to say that this passage is chilling to me. The folks at my church have also heard my sermons for a long time now. Sometimes I fear that they’re so used to me that, as it was in Ezekiel’s day, “they love to hear you talk, but nothing comes out of it.” It’s interesting how small things become big things as I think about stuff like this. For instance, a couple of weeks ago I suggested folks take a particular course of action. Yesterday I was handed something someone had done as a direct result of that sermon. I can’t tell you how encouraging that is to me. It’s also humbling. I’m flattered that anyone would come to my church and listen to me preach my sermons week after week. I’m encouraged that some folks actually take what I say to heart and literally respond by doing something they wouldn’t have done otherwise. I’m humbled that I have the opportunity to touch lives each week in this way, realizing that in myself I have nothing to offer. If anything “comes out of it” it will take cooperation with God by both preacher and listeners.
Take Away: Preaching must be much more than entertaining.
A speck of light in an otherwise dark sky
Ezekiel 28: They’ll live in safety. They’ll build houses.
For the next year or so after the unmourned death of his wife, the prophet Ezekiel turns his attention to the nations associated with Israel. God is displeased with them too and therefore judgment is coming to the whole region. The nation of Tyre, especially, is a target of Ezekiel’s condemnation. As Ezekiel finishes up with Tyre and Sidon, and just before he turns his attention to the juggernaut that’s Egypt, there’s a short paragraph concerning Israel. In an almost off hand way the Lord describes a renewed Israel that shines like a jewel among the nations, living in safety even as all the nations around are in turmoil. I think that if this paragraph was elsewhere that it wouldn’t get my attention. However, being here, surrounded by words of condemnation and judgment I find it very uplifting; something to hold on to. I also think this is a reflection of life. We know that each life has its share of trouble: days of pain and hurt and betrayal. In the darkness a tiny light shines like a beacon. This passage may not shine like John 3:16, but in this setting its light seems brighter than it would otherwise. And in the darkness of life, I want to keep my eyes open for that small light shining in the dark place giving me something to hold on to. Take Away: Even in the hardship of life God’s people have hope.
The chief cheerleader
2 Chronicles 30: Hezekiah commended the Levites for the superb way in which they had led the people in the worship of God.
The religious reform under Hezekiah rivals the great events of David and Solomon’s reigns. The newly refurbished Temple and the eager and capable work of those who serve there make for an impressive and satisfying worship experience for all that come. When the big celebration ends, Hezekiah makes it a point to go to the Levites and commend them for their superb work. In this, I see Hezekiah not only leading in vision and agenda but in thanks and appreciation as well. Good leaders do that. I do note that Hezekiah calls their work “superb” because that’s what it is. He isn’t some cheerleader who shouts out “We’re number one” when the team’s behind by 30 points. I’m reminded though that even when the work doesn’t reach the superb level there’s probably something positive that can be said. Once the leader establishes good will the way may be opened for some constructive comments on improving things next time. So, I see in this passage that leaders should lead in words and acts of appreciation for work well done. Also, I remember that while a leader isn’t to give false praise that genuine support can lead the way to opportunities to help others grow in their service of the Lord.
Take Away: Good leaders know how to lead the way in showing appreciation for work well done.
Pastor to people
2John: My dear congregation, I, your pastor, love you in very truth.
Compared to some books of the Bible, 2John isn’t much of a “book.” It’s more of an “email.” It’s just a few lines, written as a quick placeholder for a congregation by their pastor. He’ll fill in the material in person. He greets them by declaring his love for them. I can’t help but think, as I read this opening line, that’s it’s a beautiful thing when a pastor loves his or her congregation “in very truth.” Because of that love-based relationship John starts his note to them by encouraging them, telling them how happy he is with them. Anyone who thinks the pastor’s job is to “tell it like it is” and “set people straight” needs to spend some time here. John tells his church how much he loves them and how pleased he is with their faithfulness to Christ’s command that his followers love one another. It’s only after doing that that he moves on to warning them about some false teachers who are taking advantage of gullible Christians. He has more to say to them, but until he can be with them personally, he thinks this little “email” will do. The brevity of this letter speaks volumes about the friendly, loving relationship between this pastor and his congregation. I can’t help but think that sometimes saying less is saying more.
Take Away: Pastors need to love and appreciate the churches under their charge. Churches, on the other hand, need to love and appreciate pastors who lovingly care for them.