Archive | February 2023

Revival Begins in Me

Psalm 80 is a psalm that bubbles up from the anguish in the hearts of the people of Israel.  The psalm recalls how God brought Israel as “a vine out of Egypt” (verse 8), which God cultivated and grew into a wonderful vineyard that stretched from the mountains to the seas (verses 9-11).  But now the walls have been broken (verse 12), and “boars” have come in and ravaged the vineyard (the nation of Israel) (verse 13).  In response, the psalmist pleads for God’s help: “Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine” (verse 14). 

The heart of this psalm is a plea that is expressed three times (verses 3, 7, and 19—the final verse of the psalm): “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”

About this plea, Charles Spurgeon points out, “It is not so much said, ‘turn our captivity’ but turn ‘us.’  All will come right if we are right.  The best turn is not that of circumstances but of character.  When the Lord turns his people he will soon turn their condition.”

Psalm 80 is a fitting psalm for the beginning of Lent, for this psalm challenges each of us to turn our heart to God.

Somebody once asked British Evangelist Rodney Smith (1860-1947) how to have a revival.  In return, Smith asked the man, “Do you have a place where you can pray?”  When the man answered that he did have such a place, Smith said to him, “Tell you what you do: You go to that place and take a piece of chalk along.  Kneel down there and, with the chalk, draw a complete circle all around you.  Pray for God to send a revival to everything inside of that circle.  Stay there until God answers, and you will have revival.”

“Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”

According to legend, the angel Gabriel once called all the angels together.  Each one was asked to visit earth and bring back to heaven the gift he or she thought would be most pleasing to God—the gift that would make God most happy.  One angel saw a martyr dying for his faith and brought back a drop of the martyr’s blood.  Another brought back a small coin that an old destitute widow had given to the poor.  Another returned with a Bible that had been used by an eminent preacher.  Still another brought back dust from the shoes of a missionary who labored in a remote wasteland for many years.  Others brought back similar items.  One angel, however, saw a man sitting by a fountain in a town square.  The man was looking at a child playing nearby.  The man was a hardened sinner, but, looking a the little child playing, he remembered his own boyhood innocence.  As he looked into the fountain, he saw the reflection of his hardened face, and realized what he had done with his life.  Now, recalling his many sins, he was sorry for them.  Tears of repentance welled up in his eyes and began to trickle down his cheeks.  At that point the angel took one of these tears and brought it back to heaven.  According to the legend, it was this gift that God chose before all the others as the one most dear to God—the gift that made God most happy.

“Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”


Jesus: “Before Abraham Was, I Am”

Jesus startles us in his declaration, “Before Abraham was, I am” (in John 8:58).  Yet I find three wonderful realities in Jesus’ identification of himself as “I am”:

#1: Jesus identifies himself in connection to the God of Moses who could not be pinned down. 

When Moses wanted to know the name of God, hoping to gain some power over God, God refused to be confined by a name that would minimize our understanding of God to only one aspect of his being.  (God is All-Powerful, but God is also All-Compassionate; God is Holy, yet Christ involved himself in the muck and mire of this world.)  God simply declared to Moses, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14).  When Jesus declares himself, “I am,” and leaves it at that, he is linking himself to the God who revealed himself to Moses and who transcends every attempt we make to minimize God. 

#2: Jesus asserts his timeless nature. 

Abraham lived on this earth in a speck of time.  We can point to the dates in history in which he lived and died.  It all took place in the past.  Abraham was.  But Jesus transcends time; he walked through our history for a time, then he stepped out of history, returning to his timeless dimension.  Jesus is not constrained by time.  He is with us as much today spiritually as he was with the disciples when he walked the streets of Palestine with them. 

An editorial entitled “Live One Day at a Time” by an unknown author says it well: “There are two days in every week that we should not worry about.  These two days should be kept free from fear and apprehension.

“Which two days?  Yesterday is one, with all its mistakes and faults and pains.  We have no power to change anything that has happened in the past; no amount of money or wishful thinking or anxiety can bring it back.  There’s not a single act or word we can undo.  Yesterday is gone.

“The other day is tomorrow, which holds its own possible adversities, problems, and promises.  Tomorrow is largely beyond our immediate control.  We know that tomorrow’s sun will rise; but until it does, that day lies beyond our grasp.  It does not yet exist.

“This leaves only today.  We are able to face this single day, with its share of good things and bad.  But it’s when we add the impossible burdens of those two entities—yesterday and tomorrow—that we break down.  Remorse for the past or dread of the future can drive anyone mad.  But focusing our energy and attention on the present moment brings life and health; it’s the only time, in fact, that we are given to live in.

“God is timeless; he heals the past and assures us of his presence in the future.  But we experience God today, in this present moment.  Don’t let your preoccupation with the past or the future rob you of this gift.”

#3: Jesus focuses on the present because that’s where relationships are lived, and what Jesus wants most of all is relationship with us.

In the 2nd century Epistle of Diognetus, Diognetus writes, “May we embrace Christ as our Nurse, our Father, our Teacher, our Counselor, our Physician, our Wisdom, our Light, our Honor, our Glory, our Strength, and our Life.” 

The first five have to do with relationship.  May we embrace Christ as our Nurse, tenderly caring for us.  May we embrace Christ as our Father, pouring his love out to us.  May we embrace Christ as our Teacher, opening our eyes and our hearts to the ways of God.  May we embrace Christ as our Counselor, guiding us in how we should live.  May we embrace Christ as our Physician, healing the wounds and brokenness of our souls.  The latter six have to do with the blessings we gain from our relationship with Christ: wisdom, light, honor, glory, strength and eternal life.

God Listens to Our Miseries

Psalm 79 is a Psalm of Lament.  It is a psalm of pouring out to God one’s battered and bruised heart: “We have become a taunt to our neighbors, mocked and derided by those around us.  How long, O Lord?  Will you be angry forever?  Will your jealous wrath burn like fire?” (verses 4-5) 

Psalm 150 is a more joyful psalm.  It is a psalm of praise.  Indeed, the word “praise” appears 13 times in the six verses of Psalm 150.

Both Psalm 79 and Psalm 150 are included in Holy Scripture because God is as interested in our cries of pain and our moans of anguish as he is in our declarations of praise.  What God wants is for us to come to him honestly.  If it is pain or fear or anguish or anger or sorrow that fills our hearts at any particular moment, then that is what God wants us to bring to him. 

Amy Grant sings,

God loves a lullaby in a mother’s tears in the dead of night

Better than a Hallelujah sometimes.

God loves the drunkard’s cry, the soldier’s plea not to let him die

Better than a Hallelujah sometimes.

We pour out our miseries; God just hears a melody.

Beautiful the mess we are, the honest cries of breaking hearts

Are better than a Hallelujah.

The woman holding on for life, the dying man giving up the fight

Are better than a Hallelujah sometimes.

The tears of shame for what’s been done, the silence when the words won’t come

Are better than a Hallelujah sometimes.

We pour out our miseries; God just hears a melody.

Beautiful the mess we are, the honest cries of breaking hearts

Are better than a Hallelujah, better than a church bell ringing,

Better than a choir singing out, singing out.

The “Saw-Toothed History of Israel”

Psalm 78 recounts the troubled history of God’s people in ancient times. It recounts the wonderful miracles God performed on behalf of his people, rescuing them from Egypt, providing for them in the desert, establishing them in the land of Israel, and raising up David as their king. But over and over again, the psalm recalls how the people turned away from God: “A generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God” (verse 8), “They did not keep God’s covenant, but refused to walk according to his law” (verse 10), “Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert” (verse 17), “In spite of all this they still sinned; they did not believe in his wonders” (verse 32), “Their heart was not steadfast toward him; they were not true to his covenant” (verse 37), “How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness and grieved him in the desert” (verse 40), and “Yet they tested the Most High God, and rebelled against him” (verse 56). 

Over and over again, the psalm recalls that the sin and rebellion of the people was met by God’s discipline to bring the people back to him. And through it all we find reminders to God’s grace and goodness extended to them: “Yet he commanded the skies above, and opened the doors of heaven; he rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven” (verses 23-24), “Yet he, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them; often he restrained his anger, and did not stir up all his wrath” (verse 38), and “With upright heart he tended them, and guided them with skillful hand” (verse 72).

Eugene Peterson sums up beautifully what we find in Psalm 78: “A couple of years ago a friend introduced me to the phrase the saw-toothed history of Israel. Israel was up one day and down the next. One day they were marching in triumph through the Red Sea, singing songs of victory, the next they were grumbling in the desert because they missed having Egyptian steak and potatoes for supper. One day they were marching around Jericho blowing trumpets and raising hearty hymns, and the next they were plunged into an orgy at some Canaanite fertility shrine…. But all the time, as we read that saw-toothed history, we realize something solid and steady: they are always God’s people. God is steadfastly with them, in mercy and judgment, insistently gracious. We get the feeling that everything is done in the sure, certain environment of the God who redeems his people. And as we learn that, we learn to live not by our feelings about God but by the facts of God. I refuse to believe my depressions; I choose to believe in God. If I break my leg I do not become less a person.  My wife and children do not repudiate me. Neither when my faith fractures or my feelings bruise does God cast me off and reject me.” (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, p. 82-83)

Jesus: The Light of the World

The Feast of Tabernacles is often described as the most joyful of the great Jewish holidays.  It is known as the “Season of our Joy,” and worshipers are actually commanded to rejoice during this holiday.  The festival consists of festive music, and holiday food, and special decorations, and the lighting of candles.  At the time of Jesus, festivities in and around the temple included the waving of palm branches while chanting “Hosanna” to God, and a procession of people following the priest in bringing water from the Pool of Siloam to the altar in the temple.  Each evening of the Feast included special festivities called Simchat Bet HaShoevah, meaning “Happiness of the House of the Water-Drawing.”  During these festivities, four towering menorahs (candelabras) were lit, and the priests put on a “light show,” performing “torch dances” throughout the night while the Levites sang and played music.  It was said that the blaze of the torches was so bright that every courtyard in Jerusalem was lit by their brilliance all through the nights of the Festival.  The holiday was so filled with joy that rabbis commented, “He who has not seen the rejoicing at the Simchat Bet HaShoevah has never seen rejoicing in his life.”

The Feast of Tabernacles was a yearly reminder and celebration of how God took care of the Jewish people during the many years they traveled through the desert.  During the Festival, the people are to live in tabernacles—or make-shift tents—to remind them of how their ancestors lived during their years in the desert.

During their ancestors’ years in the desert, a cloud went before them in the day and a pillar of fire in the night.  That’s what the torches in the temple represented.

The Festival was also a Thanksgiving celebration, taking place at the end of the harvest season, just before the winter rains arrived, which is why they ceremonially brought water from the pool of Siloam to the altar in the temple, in anticipation of and in prayer for the rains that God would send to them for the upcoming year. 

The Festival also looked forward to the coming of the Messiah.  The bright lights throughout the night reminded the people of Zechariah 14:7 which prophecies that when the Messiah comes, “There shall be continuous day …not day and not night, for at evening time there shall be light.”  When the people waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna”—literally, “Please save us—they were looking forward to the rescue the Messiah would bring to them.

The day after the Feast of Tabernacles concluded, Jesus stood in the temple courts and announced, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).  In essence, Jesus was declaring to the people, “Though the Festival is over, I am still here!  Though the torches have been extinguished, I am with you.  And if you follow me, you will always have the light of life!”

According to Ronald Nikkel, President Emeritus of Prison Fellowship, “Charles Colson and several other Christian leaders once met with President Borja of Ecuador to discuss Prison Fellowship International’s ministry in Ecuadorian penitentiaries.  They had no sooner been seated…and begun to speak when the President interrupted the conversation with a story—the story of his own imprisonment years before being elected to the presidency.  He had been involved in the struggle for democracy in Ecuador.  The military cracked down, and he was arrested.  Without trial, they threw him into a cold dungeon with no light and no window.  No one knew where he was, and for three days he endured the solitary fear and darkness that can drive a person mad.  Just when the situation seemed unbearable, the huge steel door opened, and someone crept into the darkness.  Borja heard the person working on something in the opposite corner.  Then the figure crept out, closed the door, and disappeared.  Minutes later the room suddenly blazed with light.  Someone, perhaps taking his life into his hands, had connected electricity to the broken light fixture.  The darkness of the dungeon was gone.  ‘From that moment,’ explained President Borja, ‘my imprisonment had meaning because at least I could see.”

Nikkel adds, “Even more important than the light we see with our eyes is the light that Christ brings to our hearts, giving our lives the understanding and meaning only he can give.”

Jesus: the Bread of life

In John 6:35 Jesus describes himself as “the Bread of life.”  What does he mean by that?

Two things stand out to me:

1: Jesus is the basic substance of what our souls need to survive and to flourish.

Writing in the Wilmington News Journal (on 9/13/18), June Fryman shares, “I recently returned from a mission trip in Tanzania …. While we were there, we had several meals that included something called ugali.  It is finely ground cornmeal that has been boiled and made into a porridge/paste-like substance.  With your serving, you take a small bit, roll it in your hand, push the center with your thumb to make a small scoop, and then use it as a ‘utensil’ to scoop up a bite of some greens or stew or meat.  Ugali is a traditional staple for sustenance in Tanzania.

“When my husband and I lived in Taiwan, it was rice, or noodles.  What we learned was that some parts of Asia, like southern China, have rice as their traditional meal accompaniment; places like northern China, where wheat is more prominent, noodles become the main staple.  When I was growing up, it was potatoes.  Our garden was full of all kinds of vegetables, but the biggest part of the garden was potatoes….

“Jesus, being in Israel, said, ‘I am the bread of life.’  Bread was essential for life in the Middle East.  If Jesus had been in Tanzania, he would have said, ‘I am the ugali of life.’  In Asia, ‘I am the rice of life; or the noodles of life.’  If Jesus had visited our house, he would have said, ‘I am the potatoes of life.’

“If you go into any of these different cultures and ask the locals, they would say they do not feel full or completely satisfied unless they have their bread, or their ugali, or their rice, or their noodles, or their potatoes….

“So what does Jesus mean when he says, ‘I am the Bread of life’?  Well, simply put, he means that…we are not spiritually satisfied unless we have Jesus in our lives.” 

2: Jesus is the evidence of God amidst the people.

Leviticus 24:5-9 instructed the Israelites to keep 12 loaves of bread on the table in the temple.  These loaves of bread were to be a perpetual reminder to the people that God was with his people and that God was providing for their needs.  This bread was to be eaten only by the priests. 

At the time of Jesus, Jewish people believed the Messiah would bring manna (bread from heaven) to the people miraculously.  Without disputing their assumption about the Messiah bringing bread from heaven, Jesus refocused their understanding.  Yes, there were times of miracles when Jesus miraculously provided bread for the people, but most importantly he asserted himself not just as the bringer of bread but as the Bread of life itself (also known as the Bread of the Presence in Exodus 25:30).  Jesus was setting himself forward as the evidence that God was in the midst of his people caring for their needs—with a significant new development.  Jesus, as the Bread of life, is to be received by all people not just the priests.  In John 6:35 Jesus stresses, “I am the Bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” 

911 Prayers

My heart is moved by the psalmist’s expression of anguish at the opening of Psalm 77: “I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that he may hear me.  In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.  I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints.  You keep my eyelids from closing; I am so troubled that I cannot speak.”

The psalmist’s heart is so full of anguish that he cannot sleep but cries out wearily throughout the night.  When he thinks of God, he moans, and his spirit faints.  His mind is so troubled that he cannot come up with the words he wants.

Have you ever found yourself in similar circumstances?

Leith Anderson offers a hopeful perspective.  He writes, “They tell us the 911 emergency system is the state of the art.  All you need do is dial those numbers, and you will almost instantly be connected to a dispatcher.  In front of the dispatcher will be a read-out that lists your telephone number, your address, and the name by which that telephone number is listed.  Also listening in are the police, the fire department, and the paramedics.  The caller might not be able to say what the problem is.  Perhaps a woman’s husband has just suffered a heart attack, and she is so out of control that all she can do is scream hysterically into the telephone.  But the dispatcher doesn’t need her to say anything.  he knows where the call is coming from.  Help is already on the way.

“There come times in our lives when in our desperation and pain we dial 911 prayers.  Sometimes we’re hysterical.  Sometimes we don’t know the words to speak.  But God hears.  He knows our name, and he knows our circumstance.  Help is on the way; God has already begun to bring the remedy.”

Psalm 77 is a 911 kind of prayer.  The psalmist could only moan and faint, but he called out to God, and that was enough to get help started.

Ron Levin also shares some hopeful perspective.  He writes, “The carpenter I hired to help me restore an old farmhouse had just finished up a rough first day on the job.  a flat tire had made him lose an hour of work, his electric saw quit, and now his ancient pickup refused to start.  While I drove him home, he sat in stony silence.  On arriving, he invited me in to meet his family.  As we walked toward the front door, he paused briefly at a small tree, touching the tips of the branches with both hands.  Then opening the door, he underwent an amazing transformation.  His tanned face was wreathed in smiles, and he hugged his two small children and gave his wife a kiss. 

“Afterward, he walked me to the car.  We passed the tree.  I asked him about what I had seen him do earlier.  ‘Oh, that’s my trouble tree,’ he replied.  ‘I know I can’t help having them on the job, but I don’t want to impose them on my wife and the children.  So I hang them on the tree every night when I come home.  In the morning, I pick them up again.  The funny thing is,” he said smilingly, ‘when I come out in the morning to pick them up, there aren’t nearly as many as I remember hanging up the night before.”

Prayer is like a trouble tree.  When we put our troubles into prayer then come back the next morning to pick them up again, “there aren’t nearly as many as [we] remember hanging up the night before.”