Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The discipline of grace

Zechariah 11:7  So, on behalf of the sheep merchants, I became the shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter. I took two staffs; one I named Favor, the other I named Unity, and I tended the sheep.

This is a scripture that requires background information in order to see how it may point to God's grace in our lives. The Babylonian exile, which dated from 605 BC to 539 BC, took the people of several nations away from their homes, including Israel, Judea and Lebanon. After the people of Israel began to return to their homeland in 539 BC, the restoration of Israel and the rebuilding of the temple was delayed time after time.

The above scripture refers to instructions that the LORD gave to the prophet Zechariah. The symbolic shepherd used favor (grace) and unity to guide the flock, but eventually the staffs were broken, and the natural consequences of sin destroyed the flock. The flock doomed to slaughter represents mankind, yes, even mankind today. Although the average American does not closely relate to a shepherd analogy, it is still a useful image for us. We can understand the concept of caring for a group

We must remember that God disciplines with favor (grace) and unity. God does not use chaos and misery to discipline us, but He does allow the natural consequences of sin to play out in our lives. God uses grace to guide us through the consequences we endure because of sin, and it is good for us to remember that grace is a discipline that helps us to trust our shepherd, Jesus, more and more.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The old foundation of grace

"He said to me, 'This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts. What are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain; and he shall bring out the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!'" Zechariah 4:6-7  (NRSV).
The message of the old testament prophets of Israel and Judah may, at first, appear to have no correlation with our modern cultureHowever, despite time and cultural differences, human beings are still human beings, and our motivations and responses will always be human. 
Zechariah is a prophet of hope.  These prophecies were written in 520 B.Cafter the Jews returned to their homeland from the Babylonian exileThe main project of Zerubbabel, who was  the governor of Judah, was to rebuild the Jerusalem temple, which lay in ruins on the temple mountIn the verse above, Zechariah reassures Israel that the mount heaped with ruins will be cleaned and leveled, and a stone from the ruined temple will be placed in the foundation of the new temple to assure the continuation of God's intention to bless his faithful people.
The grace is the old foundation that assures the continuation of new hopeThe old foundation of grace is indeed oldGrace was in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth (Micah 5:2)Hope is what motivates humans today, just as it did long ago, and this same foundation of grace continues in our hope today, just as it did in Zechariah's dayGod's unending grace to sinners today provides us with the foundation of hope for a perfect homeland in heaven.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Grace and covenant

"At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people. Thus says the Lord:  The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest," Jeremiah 31:2 (NRSV)
The first part of the verse quoted above reiterates the covenant that God made with Abraham in Genesis 17:7God says to Abraham that He will establish an everlasting covenant with Abraham, and the covenant is quite simple, yet powerfulGod says that He will always be the God of Abraham and his offspringThis covenant is reiterated throughout the Bible, such as when God clothed Adam and Eve after they sinned (see Genesis 3:21), and in the first commandment that says "You shall have no other gods before me. (see Deuteronomy 5:7).  The finishing work of God's covenant is in Christ.  Paul, who was a Jewish scholar, reminds us that God's covenant with Abraham was made to Abraham and his offspring.  Offspring is singular, not plural and Christ is the one offspring from Abraham whose life and death embodied the total grace of God. Christ is the offspring that joins all of us to God. (see Galatians 3:16).
The Israelites always fought battles and suffered economically under the control of other governments.  The story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness represents a respite from control. The analogy is that in the wilderness, we may not be economically prosperous, but we learn to rely on God for all our needs.  There often is solitude in the wilderness, and it is in solitude that we discover that God is with us, and this is where we find grace. 
The covenant is a very important to the concept of God's grace, and as we see references to it in the New Testament and the Old Testament, we know that the covenant is a pervasive idea that God chose from the very beginning.  Jeremiah's message to the people of Israel, and indeed, to us today, is to take time in the wilderness to put God first, just as His covenant instructs us to do, and then we will find His grace. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Gracious speech

 Those who love a pure heart and are gracious in speech will have the king as a friend. Proverbs 22: 11

This proverb seems to suggest that a pure heart and a gracious manner or speech will reap the reward of having the king as a friend. However, there is another perspective to this teaching that we should consider carefully. Having the king (or an influential person or government official) as a friend suggest service to the government or to the public. This idea is demonstrated in the life of Joseph (Genesis 41:14-40), Daniel (Daniel 2:17-49), and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 2). These men were men of prayer who allowed God to speak through their actions and words in order to influence pharaohs and kings. In each of these stories, the pharaoh or king trusted a God-fearing man to speak the truth in grace.

Our greatest example is Jesus, whose gracious words and pure heart earned followers from all stations of life, including Pharisees such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimatheaus, who were highly respected Israelites. God uses our connections with influential people at work and in the public to accomplish His will on a larger scale. Gracious speech and pure heart are skill sets that we should demonstrate in every aspect of our lives. Through gracious speech, we are enabling God's grace to be broadcast into many lives. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Grace and humility

Proverbs 3:34 ESV: Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor.

James 4:6 But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

1 Peter 5:5: Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

Christian author, Jerry Bridges, mentions in his book, The Discipline of Grace, that the trait of humility, in regards to a Christian life, occurs nearly forty times in the Bible. Humility is not a highly regarded trait in American society. Our nation was founded, in part, by European immigrants who were seeking freedom from religious persecution, and seeking the right for the common man to have a voice in government. The dignity of the common man is a very popular theme in the history of our nation, and pulling up ourselves by our own bootstraps is a cliche` that often represents the American ideal of responsibility and success. Americans applaud the self-made man. It is no wonder that humility is not highly valued in our culture, and that other cultures often view Americans as arrogant and proud. Whether or not humility is a part of American culture, God's word well documents that grace is best received by a humble heart, and it is important that we consider humility in our Christian walk. The paradoxical truth is God's grace imparts power in our lives, but in order to receive God's power, we must become nothing, and He must become everything. Only in humility can we receive the true grace and power from God.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Grace and Parenting

"My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother:  For they shall be an ornament of grace unto thy head, and chains about thy neck." Proverbs 1: 8-9  KJV   
Adults should keep in mind that they have an opportunity to impart grace to children through discipline.  The book of Proverbs is a collection of ideas and teachings about what wisdom is, and about how we can obtain it. It is a rather easy book to read, and often only one or two verses will provide a basis for prayerful meditation. The verses quoted above are a good example of this The instruction and teaching of parents, which is the way that we are to discipline children, are compared to beautiful adornments on the son (or children).   
Obedience leads to wisdom, and the reason that we seek wisdom is because it gives us beauty1 Peter 3: 3-4 NASB  touches upon the idea of outward beauty as a metaphor for inward beauty.  It says:  Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. 
One of the many English definitions of the verb form of the word grace is to impart beauty, and this is the sense that grace is used in Proverbs 1:9There are many legends of ugly girls becoming beautiful women, and the gist of the stories center around the idea that outward beauty is a reflection of inward beautyOne story relates how a man married the ugliest girl in the village, and took her away with him for a yearWhen he returned to the village, he brought another woman with him who was more beautiful than any other woman in the village. However, upon close examination, it was discovered that she actually was the same ugly girl, now transformed into beauty by love of the man.  God does this for usHe loved us so much that His love transforms our ugly sin-filled lives into objects of grace.  And when we teach and discipline our children, our love imparts grace into them. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Grace and Marriage

"2You are the fairest of the sons of men; grace is poured upon your lips;  therefore God has blessed you for ever.  Gird your sword upon your thigh, O mighty one, in your glory and majesty!...6Your divine throne endures for ever and ever. Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity; you love righteousness and hate wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your fellows; " Psalms 45: 2-3, 6-7 NRSV

One of the few times that the word grace occurs in the book of Psalms is in Psalm 45, which is a wedding song for the king. God's grace toward us is exemplified in marriage when a husband and wife extend grace toward each other. In marriage, it is because of love for our spouse that we put up with annoying habits, careless, thoughtless actions and selfish attitudes. However, our grace filled love can not even begin to match the grace that God gives us.

Psalm 45 is about a king getting married. The Korahites, who were the temple singers who may have composed or collected this song, equate the king's beauty with his grace in verse 2. The parallel structure of the verse says that the king is fair (in the sense of beauty) and grace is poured upon his lips. Although there is no exact meaning to this line of music, the fact that it is a wedding song lends a connotation that the king's beauty is related to his graciousness toward his bride. One of the most beautiful symbols a wedding represents is the idea of grace—each spouse declares favor and grace toward the other, no matter what happens.

In the first chapter of the New Testament book of Hebrews, the second part of the scripture above is quoted. The idea in Hebrews is that the king is the Son of God--Christ, the King, is getting married! We are Christ's bride. Grace is upon His lips—He loves us more than we can ever know. This wonderful King's throne will endure forever and He has chosen us to reign with him throughout eternity. This grace is can never be fully comprehended by us. It is AMAZING!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Grace and grains of sand

I will give you thanks because your deeds are awesome and amazing.
You knew me thoroughly;
 my bones were not hidden from you,
when I was made in secret
and sewed together in the depths of the earth.
 Your eyes saw me when I was inside the womb.
All the days ordained for me
were recorded in your scroll
before one of them came into existence.
 How difficult it is for me to fathom your thoughts about me, O God!
How vast is their sum total!
 If I tried to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand.
Even if I finished counting them,
I would still have to contend with you. Psalm 139: 14-18 NET

Even though the word grace or favor is not used in this passage of scripture, the idea of grace abounds. The psalmist, David recognizes that his own existence is part of a great scheme—part of a great God. He sings, "All the days ordained for me were recorded in your scroll before one of them came into existence." This is most certainly grace—every human being was planned, loved and formed by God before anything came into existence. We have the ability to glimpse God, and comprehend his love, but to even begin to fathom the thoughts of God is impossible for us.

The human mind has the ability to comprehend astronomical ideas and numbers. We have the ability to view the depths of outer space and even glimpse at the idea of eternity and other dimensions. Yet, the psalmist is correct when he says "How difficult it is for me to fathom your thoughts about me, O God!" David describes God's thoughts as grains of sand—countless because even as we count them, the number constantly changes. Then David says that even if we had the ability to count every grain of sand in the world, when we finished, we would still have a God who is bigger and more complex than counting all of the grains of sand—He is that much greater than our comprehension. Why would such a supremely powerful God love and plan for such meek creatures on this earth? The answer is grace.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Grace and preparation

Then he[Gideon] said to him[the angel of the LORD], “If now I have found favor with you, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me.  Do not depart from here until I come to you, and bring out my present, and set it before you.” And he [the angel of the LORD] said, “I will stay until you return.” Judges 6: 17-18 NRSV (parenthetical addition is mine)

Israel left Egypt and entered the promised land, Canaan, and, under the leadership of Joshua, fought with its inhabitants to gain land of their own. Israel did not completely destroy the inhabitants of Canaan, and as the Israelites settled in the region, and began to raise crops and make homesteads and cities, and worship other gods, the native inhabitants of Canaan began to raid and invade the Israelites land and force them to pay tribute. God sent a prophet to the Israelites, and the prophet reminded the Israelites that they were disobedient because they were worshipping other Gods. 

In Judges 6, the Midianites were forcing Israel to pay tribute to them, and Gideon, an Israelite, was beating out wheat in a winepress to hide it from the Midianites. An angel came to Gideon as he was beating out the wheat and spoke God's word. The angel presented it very simply: God is with you! However, Gideon replied to the angel and said that he could not see any evidence that God was with Israel. They were being raided and heavily taxed—Gideon at that moment was hiding in a winepress as he beat out the wheat! The LORD spoke through the angel and told Gideon that He would empower him to lead Israel from the Midianite oppression. Although the scripture does not say this specifically, the implication is that the LORD is saying to Gideon, "I know what you are going through. That is why I am empowering you to fight for Israel and bring them back to Me!"   

The first thing that Gideon does is ask for God's grace, and to "show me a sign that it is you [the LORD] who speak with me." Obviously, Gideon was not accustomed to talking with God, and he was not sure that he recognized the LORD. God showed grace and patience with Gideon and waited while Gideon prepared a sacrifice.

God does the same thing for us today. We are typically not very good at waiting for the LORD, or seeing how the LORD is working in our lives, but He is very gracious to wait for us. God waits for us to learn about him and prepare ourselves for him so that He can empower us!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Grace and the kingdom of God

"But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the Lord our God, to leave us a remnant, and to give us a secure hold within his holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our bondage.  For we are bondmen; yet our God has not forsaken us in our bondage, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem."  Ezra 9: 8-9 RSV (emphasis mine) 

This passage in Ezra is  part of a prayer of repentance that recognizes the sin of the people, and the great grace of GodThe king of Persia has granted permission for the exiled Jews to return to Israel and rebuild the temple.  Although the Jews had been in exile in a foreign country for 70 years, and under the influence of other religions, there were still Jews who remained faithful to the LORD, and they had returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the templeHowever, Ezra received word that the faithful officials in Jerusalem were not following God's law, and they had intermarried with women from other faiths. These officials had allowed other forms of worship to creep into their lives. 

It was an amazing miracle from God that the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem, set up a government according to their own laws, and worship according to their own faithIn verse 8 of Ezra's prayer, he recognizes the importance of what has happenedGod's grace has granted the Jews an opportunity to grab a secure hold upon their faith, in spite of their exile, in spite of their bondage, and in spite of their sin Ezra's prayer was a weighty prayer on the behalf of the Jews who had returned to JerusalemHe recognized the great sin of the people who were supposed to be strengthening the faith, and the greater grace of God, who was able to strengthen the people in spite of their sin.   

This is an important concept for Christians today God's grace extends to us collectively.  Our society has a focus on the individual, but it is important that we keep a secure hold in our faith as citizens of the Kingdom of God.  

Monday, July 7, 2014

Wonderful Merciful Savior

Grace by which we live

Esther 4:10-11  Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.” 
Esther 4: 16  Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” 

Even though the story of Esther is quite ancient, it has many parallels with our modern Christian walk with GodThe story has different meanings for the Jewish faith than it does for the Christian faith, and for Christians, grace is a predominant theme.  Queen Esther replaced the disobedient Queen Vashti, and the undercurrent idea was that Esther's obedience won the favor of the King. Now, Mordecai is asking Esther to disobey a law, a very powerful law, in order to gain an audience with the King.  At first, Esther hesitates to do what Mordecai asks because, obviously, she has made it this far because of her obedience, and she does not want to risk her life to disobey.   

Esther's choice to go before the King has a great parallel to our modern Christian walkWe can be as obedient as possible to all of God's laws, but when we approach God, all of the obedience is wiped away in the light of the one fact, that "...all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;" Romans 3:23.  The punishment for sin is judgment and death because "All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law" Romans 2:12.  

However,  in the story of Esther, there is a provision that if the King grants grace to the supplicant, the person may live, and so it is in our Christian walk as wellIf God extends His grace to us, He will overlook our sins and hear our requestsRomans 6:23 sums up this wonderful favor, this marvelous grace:  For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  We can come before the throne of God because the cross of Christ is the golden scepter that grants grace to us.