Monday, January 29, 2018

All Out Praising God! - Psalm 150

We’ve been talking about the Joy of the Lord.  Joy is a feeling of genuine happiness in God. We have discussed two things that bring about feelings of Godly joy. The first is trust that God is on our side and loves us personally and unconditionally.  Because He is absolutely trustworthy, we can know He will always be supportive and caring.

The second is heart obedience. This is not obedience, of action, but what occurs when when the Holy Spirit changes our hearts to make obedience possible. It is yielding to the work of the Holy Spirit that turns grudging submission to joyful service. The Holy Spirit makes it possible, not just to say we rejoice, but really feel happy; not just pretend to be calm, but to not be anxious, not just to act gentle, but to feel gentleness. The obedience that produces happiness, comes from a heart that has been changed by the Spirit. We can’t produce it on our own. It comes from the Spirit’s work in us.

First we must desire that the Spirit changes us. Then we pray for it. In time, the Spirit creates the change of feeling that produces joyful, willing obedience. 

But there is still one more necessary step if we want to walk in the Joy of the Lord. We must choose to live and act in joy. The joy God produces in our hearts must be lived out in our bodies. 
This is not as easy as it sounds. We must differentiate the feelings that come from the Spirit from the other feelings inside.

If all our feelings were from the Spirit, then obedience would be easy and we would be happy.  But our hearts are mixtures of feelings that come not only from God, but from our own sinful fallen nature. We are mixtures of joy and sorrow, optimism and anxiety, faith and fear. In church or in prayer, we may experience the joy of the Lord briefly, but then another part of our nature produces feelings of jealousy, anxiety, anger, shame, and insecurity even while we are rejoicing. Our two-sided and double-minded nature is very much who we are.

Paul says it well in Romans 7: 22-25.
For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”

He’s referring to this confusion of emotions inside us. There is the tug of our baser feelings—the “natural man” as he calls it in another place—that is present even in this apostle. He calls these negative feelings the “law of the flesh.” Our unsanctified parts have control over our bodies, so that they seem to us to have a mind of their own. Our bodies are like a car with two steering wheels. One wheel is in control of the “natural man” with all the fears, anxieties, anger, and jealousy. The other wheel is the “spiritual man” which is trying to get control.
Most of the time, it is this unsanctified man who is in control of our bodies and its parts. 

We want to sing praise to God, but our mouth won’t open. We are afraid of being too lout. 
We want to stand our ground, but our feet want to run. We want to look away from temptation, but our eyes can’t stop looking. We want to control our appetites and eat healthy, but where did that fistful of potato chips come from?  Our bodies seem to have minds of their own, because the “natural man” is really in control. We want to do good, but the “bad” parts of our nature seem to be in control.

In the battle between our two natures, rejoicing in the Lord has a crucial and decisive part in victory over the old sin nature.

If we dethrone the flesh’s power over us, then at some time, the Spirit must take control over the body. We must yield our bodies up to Spiritual control, even if it is only for a short time. Once the Spirit is in the driver’s seat, it becomes easier to maintain that control.

Now, when and where are we most likely to see the Spirit take control? Isn’t it when our hearts are moved to worship Him?  If we want to dethrone our flesh, let’s begin with the most positive times when we are actually seeking the Spirit’s control.  We must worship God, not just with our minds and hearts, but our bodies. If our faith is kept as purely an internal thing, we are by default allowing our bodies to remain in the control of the flesh. But when we express the Spirit in our bodies, then we are putting the best parts of our nature on the driver seat. Our wills and bodies are surrendered to praising Him. We must use our bodies to express our most positive feelings towards God.

This is a wisdom that the Church has always possessed. We use sacraments to involve our bodies in worship. We tell people to gather for worship, not just stay home and watch it on TV or the internet.  We don’t just listen to Christian music, we sing Christian songs. We kneel or life our hands in prayer and worship. The actual bodily expressions of praise do not matter nearly as much as the yielding of our members to the joy in our hearts. 

In other words, don’t to keep the joy of the Lord inside. Make a conscious choice to use our bodies to express our inner joy in the Lord. When we do this, we are surrendering our bodies not to the rule of the flesh, but to the joy of the Spirit. 
In much of our worship, we have allowed praise to become divorced from the body. Praise is encouraged, but any physical expression is not. 

Let’s see how this works. Our hearts are moved to praise the Lord. Our minds agree—He is worthy to be praised. So, we want to express it in the church somehow-to shout “amen” raise our hands, or sing loud. But there are other feelings inside us. We’re shy. We’re ashamed of our own voice. We worry that we might offend others, or what others might think of us. Legalistically, we say that this isn’t “proper” even though the Bible says it is. In short, we feel the presence of the Spirit, but instead of yielding our bodies to it, we allow our bodily behavior to be dictated by fear, anxiety, legalism and shame—the very things that Christ came to liberate us from!  We are yielding our bodies to the flesh, not the Spirit. Our hearts may rejoice in the Lord, but our bodies are given over to fear.

As a result, our joyful feelings don’t last long, and have little impact upon us. In fact, we might even feel shame for wanting to rejoice.

In our culture, there are very few times when we allow ourselves free expression of proper emotion--ball games, playing with children, weddings and funerals. But for many of us, we were taught feelings should be bottled up, for fear of looking weak. Anger, fear, shame and sorrow are about the only feelings we allow to take control. As a result the Joy of the Lord is stifled, while the flesh remains in control.

This wasn’t true of ancient Hebrews. Look at—psalm 150.

“Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens!
Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness!
Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord Praise the Lord!”

When the people of God gathered together, they were not supposed to sit quietly. They sang songs of praise. They danced and played musical instruments. They even danced!  When David’s wife Michal criticized him for dancing before the Lord, God struck her barren. God clearly approved of all this religious exuberance.

Psalm 150 is a command by God to praise him with our whole bodies. 

Where do we praise God? First of all in His sanctuary—in church. Express your joy. Don’t treat worship as a spectator sport or a music concert. Express it to the best of your heart.

Praise God outside of church, too, out in the open air. Don’t just keep it in the church building--take it to the street. 
How do we praise God? Talk about His mighty deeds! Tell what God has done in your life. If God has blessed you don’t keep it to yourself. If you can’t think of some mighty deed He’s done for you, then talk about who He is. He’s greater and mightier than anything else you can imagine. 

What means should we use to praise God? With all musical instruments. Musical instruments fall into four families—wind instruments, reeds, percussion, and strings. The psalmist mentions them all—the horn, the tambourine, the pipes, and the harp.  Whatever you have, use it.  The idea that only certain musical instruments or styles should be banned from worship is contrary to Scripture. God wants every kind of music, and every kind of human voice. He wants all to praise Him.

Praise him with the dance. Yes, it actually says that!  Use your bodies to worship Him.

Jack Hayford once told of an experience that he had while worshipping the Lord alone in his office.  He said that he heard God’s voice, telling him to dance. Jack is a scholar, not a dancer, and balked at this command. But since he was alone, he started to hop back and forth from one foot to another, like a child. Then he realized that this was what God was doing. He had to cast aside his fears and inhibitions, to express the joy inside.

Who is supposed to praise God? Everyone who breathes!  If you breathe, you’re part of the praise team of this church!
Let me summarize what we’ve learned about the joy of the Lord. The feeling of joy in the Lord does not come from what we do—we can’t fake joy. Joy comes from the knowledge that God loves us fully and unconditionally, without reservations. He expressed this in the sacrifice of Christ for our behalf, and in His giving of life. If we believe this, we must obey His command to praise Him. This praise cannot be kept inside, but must be expressed with our bodies. 

So, if you’re happy, and you know it clap your hands! Make the choice to find a means of expressing that joy in real, tangible ways of worship, expressed with our bodies and lead from our hearts.  

Monday, January 15, 2018

Trust and Obedience - Philippians 4:1-9

Do you remember the old hymn? “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”
Trust and obedience are interconnected. Trust in God leads to our obedience of God. Obedience to God builds trust of God. 

Suppose you had to choose between trust and obedience--which would you choose?  Would you rather have people trust you or obey you?  For me, I would rather be trusted than obeyed. If I obey, then I am more likely to learn obedience. If I obey without trust, I will most likely learn to resent it.

Many of us have learned to obey God, but we never really trust Him. We are afraid of his wrath so we do what He says. But it’s hard for us to imagine that God is really on our side. Go through the motions of obedience, but they don’t seem to lead us to trust. Our result is that we are anxious, fearful, and unhappy.

When we trust God we happily obey Him. We know that when we trust, he won’t let us down. It may be difficult to follow what He calls us to do, but we know that He will bring victory, even if we don’t see the way, because we know He’s trustworthy. 

In this passage, Paul tells us to both trust and obey, but he begins with giving us a reason to trust.
 That reason is simple, because He loves us!

“Therefore, my brothers whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.”

It isn’t just Paul calling us “beloved” it’s God! It isn’t just Paul calling us his brothers and saying he loves us and longs for us, his joy and crown—it’s God saying it through His Word!

So if God loves us that much, why don’t we trust Him? We can see why in verses 2 and 3.

“I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored   side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.”

This seems out of place. Suddenly, he’s talking about two women and encouraging them to get along. He doesn’t pick sides or reveal what the quarrel was---he just tells them to get over it. 

We all have a few Euodias or Syntyches in our lives—people who are close to us, with whom we don’t really get along. We may love them, but we don’t trust them. Our past experience with others taught us to distrust. These personal quarrels keep us from recognizing Christ’s love. 

The church is full of imperfect sinners, (including ourselves) who will let us down. The more we see ourselves as victims of others’ abuse, the harder it is for us to believe in a loving, caring God.

We learned distrust from our ancestors. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers it says something about Southerners that is probably obvious to anyone growing up in the South. We’ve been taught to distrust strangers. He traces this all the way back to our Scottish ancestors, who were cattle farmers and always on their guard against cattle rustlers.  Fear of cattle thieves taught them to be wary of strangers, which they taught to their children. The cattle rustlers are all gone but the distrust remains. 

We learn distrust from our parents. Parents are a child’s first model of God. If we don’t feel love from them, it is hard to trust throughout life. 

We learn distrust from those we live and work with. Bosses abuse us. Lovers desert us. Friends betray us and take advantage of us. So, naturally, we learn to protect ourselves by trusting no one, not even God.

Paul doesn’t doubt the Christianity of these two women, in fact he praises them for their work and devotion. But it’s hard for us to get over our petty differences and to trust each other. 

We can’t really trust God without trusting other people. When we distrust others, we distrust the God who uses them for His purposes. God allows all things to come into our lives, whether good or bad, and all the blessings we have come ultimately from Him, no matter who gives them. Even wicked people can be used for God’s good purposes by God. Even good people let us down. Our trust is never really in people, but God who holds everything in His hands.

Are you willing to trust God with your friends, family and fellow workers? Can you believe God will work in your life even through wickedness and injustice? If you have a difficult relationship, thank God for them. God is using them to make you more Christlike. If God directs the whole world, he directs those you distrust. His love is always with us.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that if everything isn’t perfect in your life that God has abandoned you. On the contrary, if your life is running smoothly, it may be a sign that you aren’t progressing in the Lord. Whatever friction we endure in life, God is still in it. 
 “Trust and obey”.  Paul next discusses obeying. 

God wants us to obey His commands. But what commands does He want us to obey. We think about winning the lost, feeding the poor, supporting foreign missionaries. But all these commands are nothing compared to the hourly, daily commands of God to become new people. Obedience to God is mainly about changing our lives and attitudes. 

Look at what Paul commands of us in 4-9.

4” Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”

The word for “rejoice” isn’t talking about the way you act, but the way you feel. God commands us to feel happy. Then he doubled down and says it again! It’s not about doing something, but feeling something. He isn’t talking about fake happiness either, but really being happy in every circumstance!

This was brought home to me recently when I took spiritual inventory that measured, not my actions, but my motivations. It revealed that although I have been doing the right things and saying the right thing, I often didn’t feel the right way about it. It’s one thing not to hit a person who insults me, but it’s quite another not to be upset with the insult. It is one thing to act calm, but it’s quite another to actually be calm. When Paul commands us to rejoice, he doesn’t mean just act happy—he means us to be joyful.

5 “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand;”

Be calm, and don’t fly off the handle when someone upsets you. Don’t allow your negative emotions to cause you to act impulsively, but exercise self-control. Gentle and calm isn’t something you do, but what you are.  

6 “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

I’ve got a list of things that are useless to tell another. One of them is “don’t be anxious.”  Yet here is Paul, speaking on God’s behalf, telling us not to be anxious, but to have peace and pray about every situation.

Surely God means, “don’t act anxious,” right?  No, Paul says what he means. Don’t be anxious.
8 “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Think on the right things, not the wrong things. 

You may have heard of the “seven deadly sins”---lust, greed, gluttony, pride, jealousy, wrath, and laziness. These are actually taken from a list of destructive thoughts from Fourth Century monk named Evagrius. He didn’t call them sins, but of “desolations”-- attitudes of the heart that lead us away from God. He included an eighth, that we don’t call a sin. It is despair. It’s the belief that things are bad and can’t get better. Despair is probably the surest sign of a lack of trust in God. If we always dwell on what is bad, then we need to focus on what is good and productive. 

“ What you have learned[e] and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”

If you want to have peace in your heart, learn to focus on the good.

These commands are not difficult—they are impossible!  We can’t change the way we feel, and if we try we just build hypocrisy and resistance. We can’t deny our real feelings.   

God isn’t interested in training us to be good actors, but in changing our hearts. The Holy Spirit has the power to give us real joy, remove our anxiety, and to produce good thoughts in us. But if we try to change our hearts by ourselves, we will only become frustrated.

We have to trust Him to make the changes in our hearts that will enable us to obey Him and rejoice, be calm and stay focused. Rejoicing in the Lord opens us up to receiving God’s Spirit, which changes our lives and hearts to match the plan God has for us. It cannot be done by human effort, but only by the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. 

We cannot make our feelings disappear, but we can learn to place our attention where it should be.  I can’t keep people from betraying me, but I can choose whether or not I focus on being betrayed. I can’t stop worries from coming to my door, but I can choose to ignore them and look at something else. I can’t stop dishonorable, unjust, ugly, and despicable things from happening, but I can choose to look instead at something better. 

I can do all this, because deep down I know that I can trust God. My life is not doomed. I can still choose instead to focus on the things that shine with God’s glory. I can trust Jesus to make internal changes in me that will help me rejoice, be calm, and be optimistic in the middle of pessimistic circumstances.

Trust Jesus. We can be happy in him, if we trust Him and obey Him. 

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Joy of the Lord is Your Strength - Nehemiah 8: 9-10

Last month has been among the hardest our family has ever had. We’ve made two trips to Michigan to deal with Joy’s mother, who died on December 28. Her brother and father have financial problems and my niece in Atlanta has had an emergency appendectomy.

It has been hard month for others, too.  Ray Benfield passed away. Robert has been in the hospital. Beth’s mom has gone on hospice.  One friend lost his wife to cancer. Another posted that she is dying and has been given last communion. One took a medical leave of absence to help her daughter who has renal failure.

Because of all these tragedies, I want to talk this month about the joy of the Lord. 

For most people, joy becomes because of good fortune. Our team wins the championship so we celebrate. Our mother comes home from the hospital and we throw a party. Joy is like a flag that we fly on our car when our team wins a victory. 

But in the Bible, joy is not a victory dance we do when things go well. Joy is a realization that our fortunes are not bad, nor is our situation hopeless. It is a recognition that God is still in control.

Let’s look at two Bible stories. The first is from Nehemiah 8: 9-10. It is a celebration held in Jerusalem around the Fifth century BC. In 587, the Jews were run out of Judah and Jerusalem and the temple was destroyed. Then seventy years later, brought them back under the leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra.

 At first, the place was a mess. They fought for even basic necessities, and were vulnerable to their enemies. But with God’s help they got a wall and they were relatively safe. Nehemiah and Ezra threw a party.

What were they celebrating?  It could have been their good fortune, but Nehemiah and Ezra said it wasn’t that. They celebrated because the Joy of the Lord is our strength.  They weren’t celebrating their accomplishments, but the Lord.  He accomplished all that was done.

It’s easy to say this, because we all know that it’s what we are supposed to say. “It wasn’t me, it was the Lord.”  But Nehemiah isn’t saying this superficially.  He doesn’t say “the Lord is your strength.”  But “the joy of the Lord is your strength.”  It’s not celebrating God in good times that’s our strength, but celebrating God in bad times that’s our strength. 

The joy of the Lord means more than just praising God. Praise is a recognition of worth. But joy is emotional, not intellectual. It is a feeling, not a fact.

We may praise God without rejoicing in God. I am thankful for indoor plumbing, but I don’t celebrate my bathroom. I celebrate things that give me strength, joy and encouragement.   A mere intellectual assent to necessities is not the same as joy.

Nehemiah is telling us something different. He says that in times of trouble, the celebration of God becomes a source of strength. Not just acknowledging his presence, but glorying in His love.

Think about this in relationship to the husband-wife relationship. If you’ve been married for many years, you are no doubt grateful to have a good spouse. You probably depend on each other a great deal, and have an effective partnership. But this recognition of mutual support is not going to add as much strength to your relationship as a date night and displays of affection. If you want to have a marriage that will give you strength in tough times, you must have more than mutual dependency and intellectual appreciation.

It is the same with God. Strength comes not just from the acknowledgement of God but the celebration of God. That is why people find more strength and encouragement from praise songs and hymns than they do in good preaching. Preaching appeals to the mind—music to the heart.
This was brought home to me recently when I took a spiritual inventory for the Spiritual direction program in which I am enrolled. It revealed that one of my deficiencies was celebration. I do what I believe to be right, but I do not take time to celebrate while I am doing it. I plug ahead stoically doing the right thing, but mostly out of duty, not out of joy.

Most of the Christians I know are much the same. We do the right thing, but do not enjoy it.  Our heads and actions are right, but our hearts don’t keep up with it. As a result, we are not as strong as we think we are. It is hard to keep the head and the hands working for Jesus if the heart isn’t enjoying Jesus. But when we can access the joy of the Lord in our everyday lives, then the burden on our head and our hands are not so great. Jesus said his yoke is easy and our burden light, but that is only true when the joy of the Lord is our strength.

This passage in Acts 16: 19-24 illustrates this point. Paul and Silas had healed a slave girl possessed with an evil spirit. But her owner couldn’t use her evil spirit to make money, so he complained to the authorities. They were beaten and thrown into jail without any medical care. How could they stand it? 

Here’s what they did in verse 25:”About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.” Instead of moaning in misery they celebrated God.
They accessed the joy of the Lord and that was their strength.

Now where does that joy come from? It comes from three realizations.

1.  That God loves us specifically, without conditions and limitations.
2.  That they obeyed God completely, no matter where they were.
3.  That we have a choice to mope in misery or rejoice in the Lord.

Over the next three weeks, we will look at all three of these concepts, but today, let’s look at the first of these three. The reason we can rejoice in the Lord is because the Lord rejoices in us.

Once upon a time there was a school of fish. They had been told that the purpose of fish was to swim in water, but they did not know what “water” was. They asked everyone they knew where they could find water or the ocean, but no one seemed to know the answer. So finally, they asked one wise old fish and he answered. “You are already there. This is the ocean. You’ve been swimming in it all your life, but you just never realized it.”

What was missing in these fish was not effort or direction, but awareness. They did not know that what they sought was already there.

When it comes to the love of God, we are the same. All our lives we seek for someone to approve us, someone to love us. We seek to please God who we think of as some kind of absent Father who expects us to measure up to His invisible standards. If we don’t, then God hates us. Who is going to rejoice in a Father who hates them? 

But the Bible reveals a different picture of God. God doesn’t hate you. He loves you. Christ died for your sins, because He loves you. 

God doesn’t just love us generally. He loves us specifically. Most people think God has a general love of mankind, but a specific displeasure with them. But He enjoys our company, and rejoices in being near us. He loves us specifically, completely and passionately. 

This realization of God’s continuing love for us makes rejoicing in hard times possible. It means that we can lean on that love whenever we need to.
Most people’s relationship to God is transactional, not relational. They know that God is sovereign, and that all things are under His control. So when something goes wrong, we say that God must have caused this or allowed this, and then we make the leap to assume that He must have caused it, because He is punishing us for some reason. This is not the way God generally works. God can bring punishment, but not every bad thing is a punishment from God.  Even punishment is in the context of overarching love. We can rejoice in that love no matter what.

The Joy of the Lord is our strength. When we celebrate the love of the Lord, this strengthens our faith, and give us hope to go on, because we are recognizing that God’s love is supreme. We swim in God’s presence all around us, even when we don’t see it.

Give praise to God this year, not because you think it is going to be a good year, but to make this year good in your eyes. No matter what happens this year, God’s love is the same for you. Be joyful in knowing that God still has you by the hand.