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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Why Do We Celebrate Christmas?

Soon we will gather together as the Body of Christ on earth and begin to celebrate His birth. But, some may ask, "Why all this fuss over a baby in a hay stall nearly 2000 years ago? What does that really have to do with me?"  I'm so glad you asked. That's something we would like to explore for just a moment.

We must begin with the beginning. I mean, THE beginning. Scripture says that God created the heavens and the earth. Regardless what else you may believe about what happened afterwards, we must begin with the fact the where did all there is come from?

Popular belief that rejects God has no real answer. As someone once stated, it is like the formula:
                                   "nothing + no one = something."
One doesn't have to be an intellectual scholar to realize the faulty reasoning in that statement. The stars and all the universe could not have just appeared all by themselves. There had to be a Pre-existing One, a Creator, and that Pre-existing One is God. God, who is eternal and has always been spoke into existence all the universe with the power of His Word.

So if we accept the fact that pre-existing God created everything, we also accept the fact that He did it intentionally and with purpose. What was that purpose? Listen to what the Scripture says in Eph 1:3-6–
 “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the  creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.”

We were created to have fellowship with God. However, when the first man and woman had enjoyed a short time of walking with their Creator, they were tempted to reject what God said was good and chose instead to supplant that command with their own desires and opinions. They wanted the right to determine what was good and what was evil. The choice was fatal, and separated humankind from their Maker. Fellowship was broken. Atonement, or reconciliation had to be made to restore the relationship with God. We were unable to do anything to bring about the restoration necessary.

The result of this broken relationship was a vacuum in the lives of all men and women. Many, even today, try to lives their lives apart from the very One who could give them life, hope, fulfillment. The season of Christmas is just a hollow shadow, just a time to do something for others and bring on the party.

The sin in the garden wedged an eternal separation between God and His creation. The echos of the sin in the garden still are heard today in the refusal to seek God and His fellowship. Yet God provided a way for restoration, but it would be at great cost. God knew that the man and woman He had created would choose to follow their own path, so He provided a way to restore that
fellowship. That path, that way was the willing choice of the Son to become like one of His own creations to live a sinless life and become the willing sacrifice that would pay the price of our disobedience and through Him, restoring that relationship to becoming children of God.

Paul goes on in Eph. [1:7-10]
"In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ."

Somehow in the miraculous mind and plan of God, God becomes man through the birth of a virgin named Mary: [Luke 1:31-35]
"You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob's descendants forever; his kingdom will never end."
"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?" The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God."

Some might say, "You are being too exclusive. Believing in Christ as the only way to God eliminates all other possibilities. That's too narrow." However, just think for a moment, truth by its very nature is exclusive: 2 + 2 = 4. To say that something is true, we have also have to be able to say that there are some things that are not true. Jesus, Himself claimed the be the Son of God. He said in John14:6, "Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Here is the question we must answer: "Is what Jesus said  true?" For if it true then we must accept it, or reject it.{For more on this subject, let me encourage you to visit Ravi Zacharias' ministry website: http://rzim.org. I have found it to be a great source of help.}

One of God's gifts to man and woman at creation was the gift of free will; the ability to choose to follow Him or follow after their own desires. He wanted the fellowship with His creation to be one of free choice, not puppets on a string. When we choose to follow Him, we are  acknowledging that He is King of kings and Lord of lords!

What is our response to all that God has done? Scripture says in Romans 5:8: "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." And later, "If you declare with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved." We can respond to Him in faith, believing, accepting what He has done, receiving the eternal life that He alone can give. We can respond in worship!

All this came through a baby in a manger; that is why we celebrate this season. God became man and dwelt among us. God reached down to give us hope, to give us life, to restore the relationship that He has desired with His creation.

The only way we can truly celebrate Christmas is by the full recognition of Who Christ is. So much of this season has been pushed aside by making the center of the season what we want, and pleasing ourselves, yet we have seen the very heart of Christmas is the love of God and His provision to restore the relationship with men and women broken by sin, and restored by the sending of Jesus, His Son. Let's begin to shift that focus and put the spotlight where it really belongs, on Jesus Christ, the Living Son of God!

The question that remains is what we will do with these facts? What will be your response to all that God has done? The light that God has given is shining, literally thousands all over the world are seeking Him, seeking forgiveness, receiving eternal life. What about you?

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

What to Do When Criticized for Being “Too Young”

How do you respond when you are criticized for being too young? Many of those that lead worship are years or even decades younger that those for whom they lead.  Inexperience can lead to problems as David even described his son, Solomon, as young and inexperienced in 1 Chronicles 29.  How do you respond to such statements?  Fortunately for us, Paul must have had to deal the similar issues with criticism against his mentee, Timothy. The entire book is worthy of study, but for right now let's focus on just one verse:

Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. {1 Timothy 4:12}

Paul lines out 5 specific areas for Timothy to develop, and those same 5 are excellent things for our young worship leaders make a focus:
Speech: how you talk, what you say
Conduct: how you act, what you do, & live
Love: how you relate to others
Faith: the depth of your trust in God to act
Purity: holiness in your personal life

How do your respond when others think that you are too young? Paul's admonition is clear: be such an example that there is no room for criticism that can be substantiated.  Let's unpack these for a moment:

1. Speech: how you talk, what you say
Many times it is not just what we say, but the manner and tone in which it is said. Speaking before we really listen, or concentrating more on an answer while the other person is speaking, rather than making an earnest effort to hear their words and their intentions will only add to more confusion.

2. Conduct: how you act, what you do, & live 
Someone once said, "What you do is what you really believe, the rest is just hogwash..."  We will act out of our who we really are. Consistent conduct, not behavior that is is "on again and off again" leaves a testimony of perseverance, of being solid.

3. Love: how you relate to others
Love [here, "agape-" selfless love], is part of the fruit of being Spirit-filled [Gal. 5:22]. It is a reflection of the very nature and character of Christ, living through us. One only needs to refer back to Paul's description of love in 1 Cor. 13, [love is patient, love is kind, it is not jealous, etc...] to see the power that love has as we relate to others.

4. Faith: the depth of your trust in God to act
Another part of the fruit of the Spirit, faith is demonstrated when everything else may seem to the contrary. Hebrews 11:1, "Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see." It is one thing to say that we believe that God is in control of all things, and another to live that way when our circumstances seem to contradict that reality. We may be suffering under persecution, or other things, but the reality is that God is in control and as long as we are being obedient to His desires and ways, He will not allow anything that will not be for His ultimate glory and our good.

5. Purity: holiness in your personal life
"Integrity is what we are when no one is looking." I'm not sure who said it first, but its truth is undeniable. The greatest struggle will probably not be with those that oppose your opinion on music, styles, etc., but the most difficult area to master is living our that commitment to holiness in our lives. Purity implies “without spot or blemish,” which is difficult in a culture whose worldview demands tolerance of virtually everything devoid of moral virtual and intolerance for those with biblical standards.  This is a commitment we must make every day, 24/7.

You cannot control how old you are, but you can control how you talk, live, relate, trust and commit to a holy life.  Living a life dominated by these will silence the criticism, making them just hollow accusations.

One might be surprised that Paul waited to place love, until the third characteristic of how Timothy would avoid those around him from criticizing his age. Perhaps it is a reflection of a process.  Out of a commitment to a pure and holy life, comes the faith to believe that God is who He says He is and will do what He says He will do. Believing God will respond and live His life through us, empowers us to respond in love, which shapes our conduct and our speech.

So the next time that you are criticized for being "too young" for ministry, rather than try to argue or debate your way out of it, stop and refocus and compare yourself to what Paul gave Timothy.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Buried Treasure for Worship Leaders

There are passages of Scripture that are a must for any worship leader to study and know. Unfortunately, some of these great lessons are buried in the lists of strange names and place in the Old Testament. One of these passages in found in the book of 1 Chronicles. Chronicles is the retelling of Israel’s history after the exile. At least one of its functions beside helping the people remember their own history, was to remember how to properly do what God had called them to do. Failure to follow God’s laws had led them into exile. Now, back from exile, they needed to know more than ever how to worship God and follow His commandments.

Here some buried treasure passages with which worship leaders should be familiar:

1 Chronicles 25:
5 (All these were sons of Heman the king’s seer. They were given him through the promises of God to exalt him. God gave Heman fourteen sons and three daughters.) 6 All these men were under the supervision of their father for the music of the temple of the Lord, with cymbals, lyres and harps, for the ministry at the house of God. Asaph, Jeduthun and Heman were under the supervision of the king. 7 Along with their relatives—all of them trained and skilled in music for the Lord—they numbered 288. 8 Young and old alike, teacher as well as student, cast lots for their duties.

Notes:
1. Heman was the prophet Samuel’s grandson. Even though Heman’s father did not follow in the footsteps of Samuel, the example of the grandfather must have been worthy of emulation.
2. God gave the children for the purpose of exalting God.
3. Fathers taught their children.
4. The children were trained them to be skillful. Implied that the fathers had become skillful as well.
5. Their focus was on service in the Temple for worship.
6. Young and old served along side of each other.

1 Chronicles 26:
6 Obed-Edom’s son Shemaiah also had sons, who were leaders in their father’s family because they were very capable men. 7 The sons of Shemaiah: Othni, Rephael, Obed and Elzabad; his relatives Elihu and Semakiah were also able men. 8 All these were descendants of Obed-Edom; they and their sons and their relatives were capable men with the strength to do the work—descendants of Obed-Edom, 62 in all.
31 As for the Hebronites, Jeriah was their chief according to the genealogical records of their families. In the fortieth year of David’s reign a search was made in the records, and capable men among the Hebronites were found at Jazer in Gilead. 

Notes:
1. Leaders were leaders because they were “very capable men,” not just because they were related to Obed-Edom.
2. Leadership demands the skill to lead and the ability to do the job they were called to do.
3. David reigned for 40 years. The search for capable leaders was even more crucial, since it was probably obvious that the king would not live much longer.

1 Chronicles 27:
1 This is the list of the Israelites—heads of families, commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds, and their officers, who served the king in all that concerned the army divisions that were on duty month by month throughout the year. Each division consisted of 24,000 men.
32 Jonathan, David’s uncle, was a counselor, a man of insight and a scribe. Jehiel son of Hakmoni took care of the king’s sons. 33 Ahithophel was the king’s counselor.  Hushai the Arkite was the king’s confidant. 34 Ahithophel was succeeded by Jehoiada son of Benaiah and by Abiathar. Joab was the commander of the royal army.

Notes:
1. Each responsibility and duty related to Temple worship had been identified and assigned a specific group of individuals to take care that it was done properly.
2. Organization was for the effective functioning of worship, both when the ark was still in the tent in Jerusalem and when the Temple would be completed.
3. David surrounded himself with counselors, but one in particular was known as man of “insight and a scribe.”  This implied education, but probably close knowledge of the law of God as well.
4. David’s many wives bore him many sons, resulting that he could not carry out the responsibilities that a normal father would have done. This becomes tragically evident later in David’s life.
5. Everyone wants the ear of the king, so much so that friends who did not demand anything, but just wanted to be available for sharing were hard to find. David found such a friend and confidant in Hushai the Arkite. No doubt, he was someone with whom David could confide without risk of breaking confidential nature of the conversation.  David depends on Hushai to confuse the counsel of Ahithophel during Absalom’s rebellion.

1 Chronicles 28:
8 “So now I charge you in the sight of all Israel and of the assembly of the Lord, and in the hearing of our God: Be careful to follow all the commands of the Lord your God, that you may possess this good land and pass it on as an inheritance to your descendants forever. 9 “And you, my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches every heart and understands every desire and every thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will reject you forever. 10 Consider now, for the Lord has chosen you to build a house as the sanctuary. Be strong and do the work.” 11 Then David gave his son Solomon the plans for the portico of the temple, its buildings, its storerooms, its upper parts, its inner rooms and the place of atonement.

19 “All this,” David said, “I have in writing as a result of the Lord’s hand on me, and he enabled me to understand all the details of the plan.” 20 David also said to Solomon his son, “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for the service of the temple of the Lord is finished. 21 The divisions of the priests and Levites are ready for all the work on the temple of God, and every willing person skilled in any craft will help you in all the work. The officials and all the people will obey your every command.”

Notes:
1. Job one: Know the commandments of God and follow them. These words would have had more impact after the exile, because those returning would have lived to experience the pain of disobedience firsthand.
2. David had received from God the details for the Temple and how it was to be carried out.
3. David charges Solomon not to forget the law and to be “strong and courageous and do the work.” This echos Moses’ words to Joshua to be “strong and courageous.”
4. David had organized what had to be done, and who had to do it. His later life seemed to be focused on doing everything he could to make the dream of a Temple, a place for the worship of God a reality. The downside of this was that once Solomon had completed his father’s dream, he had no real dream of his own, and seemed to lean more on David’s relationship with God than his own.

1 Chronicles 29:
1 Then King David said to the whole assembly: “My son Solomon, the one whom God has chosen, is young and inexperienced. The task is great, because this palatial structure is not for man but for the Lord God. 

Notes:
1. Solomon would become the wisest man on earth, yet here he is described as “young and inexperienced.”  It is crucial that we don’t pass over that too quickly. Great ability and intelligence cannot bypass experience. Wise is the young worship leader who is willing to listen and not think that he or she knows it all, or fails to listen to suggestions or criticism.
2. The work we do is done primarily for the honor and glory of God.


All this can be quite overwhelming. Let’s summarize what we have seen:

1.  One of the most outstanding features of these chapters is the lists of leadership related to Temple worship. No one is left out; none seem more important than others. Their responsibilities vary from watching over those things used in worship, to being a guard or watchmen, to the actual leadership in adoration. Some of the guards were noted for being valiant warriors, or excellent counselors, while others were chosen for their musical ability.

2. They carried out their responsibility with excellence and with great skill, which at times included doing more than just what was required.

3. Organization was not just a way to reassign the Levites to new job positions, but providing that all could be done that needed to be done. Failure on anyone particular duties would affect everyone else’s ability to function as they should.

4. Fulfilling their responsibility with excellence was what distinguished them, not specific role they played.  Gatekeepers were not "less important" than some of the other responsibilities.

5. Everyone needs help from wise counselors; no one can know it all. These must be people with the wisdom and knowledge of God’s Word who have the freedom and responsibility to say that we may be making a wrong or poor decision.

6. These men left a heritage of God’s faithfulness for their families because their faithfulness was recorded.

7. Great talent and intelligence can not substitute for experience.

8. All must be done for the honor and glory of God.

Monday, May 12, 2014

What does it mean to be in the Presence of God?

God is omnipresent, that is, He is everywhere at all times. However, how we experience the Presence of God is through the reality of the Holy Spirit dwelling in our lives as believers. So, what does it mean to be in the Presence of God?  It will be helpful to trace some of the references related to God’s Presence to help us in understanding.

So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” [Gen. 4:16] If God is everywhere, then being driven out of the Lord’s presence must mean something else.  In the creation account, Adam and Eve had fellowship with God and walked with Him in the garden, but hid from Him after they had disobeyed God’s command.  This seems to be more than the omnipresence of God, but direct contact.

The tabernacle hosted the visible presence of God in the wilderness; God manifested Himself in a very specific way during those years, which included the cloud by day and column of fire by night. When God gave the “ten commandments” there was a cloud surrounding the top of the mountain. God even tells Moses that He will speak to him out the cloud so that the people will believe him. [Ex. 19:9]

Yet, after the incident with Aaron and the golden calf, Moses asks God who will go with them as they travel:
Moses said to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’  If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.”  The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”  Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.  How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” [Ex 33:12-17]

Notice that Moses is not about to make the journey if God will not go with them, not just him. God’s blessing without God’s leadership is not what Moses needed.  Moses wanted the Presence of God to go with them as a people. Moses was interceding for them, not just looking out for his own interests.

Being in the Presence of the Lord implied being where He was, more than in the general sense of His omnipresence.  Being in the Lord’s Presence required cleansing and forgiveness. [Lev. 22:3]
Offerings were to be presented “in the presence of the Lord” and those who offered them before the Lord had to be ceremonially clean.

Moses was not the only person who heard the voice of God.  After the Elijah killed the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, he runs from Jezebel and eventually is hiding in a cave:  “The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.” [1 Kings 19:11]

When the Northern tribes continued in their rebellion against the true worship of Jehovah, God allows the Assyrians to conquer them: “So the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them from his presence. Only the tribe of Judah was left,” [2 Kings 17:18] Even seeing this, Judah follows the northern tribes idolatries and separation from God’s Presence: “So the Lord said, “I will remove Judah also from my presence as I removed Israel, and I will reject Jerusalem, the city I chose, and this temple, about which I said, ‘My Name shall be there.’” [2 Kings 23:27] The punishment was banishment from God’s presence, the means was by the hand of the enemies of God.

The New Testament understanding of the Presence of God is expressed in the incarnation: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways,  but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.  The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” [Hebrews 1:1-3]

God no longer is a mysterious cloud or fire; God has come in human flesh and dwells with His creation. Being in the Presence of God takes on new meaning; though it is not until the resurrection that the disciples begin to understand what they had been experiencing.  The Apostle John put it this way:  “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. ... The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” [John 1:1, 14]

Before Jesus returns to the Father He commands His disciples to make disciples and gives the promise of His presence forever: “Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” [Matthew 28:18-20]

The Holy Spirit came in fulfillment of the promise that Jesus made: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—  the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.” [John 14:16, 17]

The very Presence of God is with His believers, always; not only that, His Holy Spirit lives within us as well. We are in the very Presence of God, right now. Stop and think about it, for that is an awesome thought: God is here, right now; I didn’t have to scream to get Him to come; He is with me, He sees me, knows me, and lives in me through His Holy Spirit.

In the book of Revelation, the glory of heaven will be the reality of being in the Presence of God in the way for which we were created to experience.  The shadow land of our experience now cannot conceive of the glory of what God has planned and will reveal.

The Presence of God in the Old and New Testaments does have a common thread: relationship. The Omnipresence of God is a reality, it is a description of one of His attributes.  The Presence of God is a reality and is expressed in relationship with His creation. Whether through the act of forgiveness and the obedience in offering a sacrifice, to the hearing the voice of the Lord, God is revealing Himself so that we might develop a more intimate relationship with Himself.  Sin can break the fellowship, but nothing can change the relationship. Once we are a child of God, we may become disobedient children, but we are remain His children.  Being in the Presence of God is joy; banishment from the Presence of God is punishment.

If God is always with us, why can we always “feel” His presence?  The answer lies in our belief in the trustworthiness of the One who made the promise. It is not a matter of me trying to drum up enough faith to believe that God is with me whether I sense His presence or not, but knowing His character and nature, that He cannot lie and that He has promised it, I know that His presence is a reality. What does change is my awareness of His presence. My own distractions, frustrations, preoccupations, and of course sin, can dampen my sensitivity to the reality of the Presence of God.  He has not moved.

In one sense it is like the story of the hunters that trap a monkey by putting a banana in a cage with a hole just large enough for the monkey’s hand, but not with his hand holding the banana. The hunters catch the primate because he firmly held on to the banana resulting in capture, rather than let go and be free.  Our distractions, worries, and sin become the bananas that we refuse to release, all the while God is waiting for us to show us His love and help.

Feelings may or may not as a result of such times, but we need to be careful not to measure the depth of our relationship or maturity to the depth of feelings we have, but on the promise of God.  Sometimes I have a strong sense of His presence and sometimes I do not; that doesn't change the constancy of His Spirit in me or His presence with me. I can remember very well one experience of listening to some worship music, singing along and having a time that I was "very moved and very emotional", only to look down and notice that I was speeding. I really don't believe that what I was doing was "worship," since I was breaking the law by the carelessness. The point is that we cannot be dependent just on our feelings as a gauge as our spiritual temperature.

What does it mean to sense the Presence of God? It means we respond in faith and obedience to His promise, not depending on our feelings, which may or may not occur. Feelings are not the basis for our belief, but the surety of God’s Word. Like the old illustration of the train: Fact as the engine, Faith as the fuel, and Feelings as the caboose.

Why not thank God for the fact that He is with you right now?