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KY deer

During my D. Min. residency in 2016, I went hiking one evening on the Kentucky River Palisades Trail.    I saw only two other hikers during the time I was on the trail, and by the latter half of it I was the only one in the woods.  Near the trail in the middle of the woods, I sat on a large flat stone and spent time reflecting on the discussions we had in our class relating to Henri Nouwen’s life and the love of God.  I was led to consider God’s love for me in particularly and reflected and prayed on the stone for about 30 minutes enjoying the company of the Lord.  God’s seemed to truly manifest his presence there with me in the cathedral of the trees.

When I arose to continue the hike, I looked behind me and saw the deer pictured above.  It stood about 15-20 yards from me watching me seeming unafraid but quite curious.  My immediate response was to thank God for blessing me with this surprise.  It was an amazing experience as the deer came several yards closer and then walked in a wider circle around me to the other side of the trail where it continued to watch me.  The encounter with the Lord and the deer was a highlight for me and not one I would soon forget.

When I arrived back at Asbury for the beginning of my second D. Min. residency, I was eager to return to this trail and keen to see more deer or perhaps the same deer.  I also hoped to have a similar time of communion with the Lord.  I visited the trail the first weekend.  I took the same route through the trees and rocks descending to the KY river and then back up the hill.  This time, however, it rained throughout the hike, and poured down on the latter half of the hike.  I had a rain jacket, but it was not the most pleasant of situations, even though, once again it was only me in the vast woods.  I saw a couple young deer run off away from me during the hike.  By then, I had picked up my step to make it back to the car.

With my head down, striding toward the end of the trail, I caught a glimpse of a small mound of rocks about five feet to the right of the trail.  It struck me as strange because it was in the middle of open dirt / mud without rocks or trees.  I wondered to myself why anyone would make a mound of rocks there.  When I considered the wider expanse of the area, it dawned on me that this was the spot I sat and prayed during my previous hike.  I saw the rock I sat on further off the trail and then looked and noticed the tree where the deer stood the year before.

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There are certainly other explanations for a mound of rocks in the woods, but I thought of the Ebenezer symbol from Scripture and wondered “could this be from the Lord for me to see?”  In the story of Israel, the prophet Samuel prayed for Israel’s victory against the Philistines and the Lord answered his prayer.  Following the battle in which the Lord fought for Israel, Samuel set up a monument:

“Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Till now the LORD has helped us.” 1 Samuel 7:12

The term Ebenezer means “stone of help.”  In the case of Israel, it served to remind them how the Lord helped them overcome their enemies in his mercy and grace despite their own unworthiness.  When I saw the stone and thought of the Ebenezer stone, I also remembered the twelve stones that were brought up by the twelve tribes of Israel from the Jordan River when they crossed following Joshua into the Promised Land.  After they crossed over Joshua had them piled into a memorial:

“The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they encamped at Gilgal on the east border of Jericho. And those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal. And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, that you may fear the LORD your God forever.” Joshua 4:19-24

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The stones in Scripture represent the mighty help of the Lord to his people.  I don’t know how these stones in the woods came to be right at the spot of the trail where I went off and experienced a mystical time with the Lord who blessed me with the interaction with the curious deer.  But what came to my mind was that the Lord caused them to be there and for me to see them and stop to remember how the Lord revealed himself to me and blessed me through his mercy and grace.

For me, it was the Lord who set these stones there as a remembrance not only for me but for himself.  The Lord revealed to me that our times of communion together are his delight and joy as well as mine.  The Lord looks forward to the times we spend together in tune with one another. He remembers with fondness the experiences he has with us when we give him our full attention and love him with our whole heart, soul and strength — whether they are times of intimacy in solitude or times of sacrificial service to others.  God sets his own remembrance to remind him and us that communion is the true source of satisfaction and fulfillment.

It is baffling to imagine God being like a child who says to his mom or dad, “Remember that time when we…”  However, to see the Lord’s longing for communion with people, we only have to read and reflect on the prayer of Jesus to his Father.  He are the closing verses:

“The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me.  I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” John 17:22-26

The prayer reveals Jesus’ longing for his followers to be one with him and the Father and the Holy Spirit.  To be one with the Lord is to be filled with the love that the Father has for his beloved Son.  The pile of rocks in the woods reminded me of God’s delight in me and love for me.  It revealed to me that God delights in his love for me and my reciprocation of love to him, and he remembers our time of communion.  What a grace to serve a loving God who speaks to his children and shows himself to them. (John 14:21)

By the way, in the pile of stones beside the trail, there were eleven stones.  I added a small one on the top to make it twelve.

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I participated in the 2nd residency for the D. Min program at Asbury in August.  I was again with about 55 other students from all around the world in this program designed to better equip us to engage in God’s mission in all sorts of cultural and geographic contexts.

This residency began with a reorientation by Dr. David Gyterson, the Dean of the Beeson Center which houses the D. Min.  He reminded us that our model for leadership does not come from the world but from Jesus.  David described Jesus’ leadership style as being “kenotic” leadership.  This term is based on the early Christian hymn found in Philippians 2:1-18.  This is the description of Jesus’ condescension from glory to obedient suffering and death on the cross.  Paul writes that Jesus emptied himself or made himself nothing.  The Greek verb is ekenosen from where the adjective “kenotic” generates.  In this sacred calling, leadership includes the following three commitments: “thinking deeply, loving fully and serving sacrificially.”

Reorientation was followed by an afternoon exercise in Spiritual Formation led by Dr. Marilyn Elliot, V.P. of Community Formation.  She led us in a time of devotional silence and prayerful meditations followed by teaching on “Seeing through Christ’s Eyes.”  This exercise was fruitful in helping us stop and take a few breaths to enter into God’s peace prior to beginning a busy two weeks of classes.  Marilyn has inspired and helped to cultivate a similarly peaceful spiritual ethos on the campus of Asbury.  I think most people can get a sense of a graceful atmosphere at the school that touches everyone involved.  I am blessed to have Marilyn as my dissertation coach, and I am thankful she has also brought a much-needed touch of peace to that endeavor for which we had trainings interspersed throughout the residency.

The first course for my cohort – Preaching and Leading – was “Discovering God’s Missional Heart.”  For my group, the first 2 ½ days were taught on the public expression of God’s missional heart by Dr. Gregg Okesson, Dean, E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism and Professor of Leadership and Development. He has spent a decade teaching at a Bible college in Kenya and was a church-planter amongst a Muslim people-group in north-central Tanzania. He and his family lived in East Africa for 13 years.  He also has served as a pastor.   His teaching emphasized the myriad cultures and contexts where God is working to save and transform people around the world.  He taught about how the essentials of the gospel reach across all borders to express the salvation of God.  He also discussed how sometimes culture can seep into and corrupt our faith.  As an example he showed the following video which definitely resonated with me as a soccer fanatic.  It illustrates the mix of faith and sports and stimulated quite a bit of class feedback.

The second half of this class was taught by Dr. Stephen Seamands, Professor of Christian Doctrine and former pastor.  He taught about the private, relational expression of God’s missional heart.  Stephen is the author of two books that were texts for the class: Ministry in the Image of God: The Trinitarian Shape of Christian Service and Wounds that Heal: Bringing our Hurts to the Cross.  I recommend both. Through the class, he emphasized the invitation we have to enter into the fellowship of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and how God heals and delivers people through his presence and his body.  This was a meaningful discussion of God’s transcendent glory and power and his imminent love and goodness.  We are invited to experience both, and we need to experience both in our daily relationship with God.  Dr. Seamands taught that “Christian ministry is not my asking Christ to join me in my ministry as I offer him to others, but rather it is my joining with Him in his ongoing ministry and mission as He offers himself to others through me.”

The second week’s class was “Leading Change” taught by Dr. Tom Tumblin,  Professor of Leadership and Associate Provost for Global Initiatives and Academic Affairs.  This class featured considerable class discussion and interaction that addressed leading ministries.  The basis for leadership was rooted in the kingdom of God and applied in our various arenas of ministry.  Dr. Tumblin is incredibly competent in not only organizational leadership but Biblical principles and models of leadership.  Leadership discussions also highlighted the value and urgency of sanctification for the leader who faces pressures and temptations of all sorts from all sides.  Below is a picture of me facilitating a class discussion on a case study.

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We were blessed to have two guest speakers during this week.  The first was Dr. John Oswalt, Distinguished Professor of the Old Testament and an incredible scholar and lover of the book of Isaiah.  He enthralled us with an hour lecture on the elements of kingship in the prophecy of Isaiah.  This compared the kingship and powers of the world with the kingdom of heaven and the power of God.  The second guest speaker was Alan Hirsch, a well-known speaker and author on the mission of the church.  He emphasized the urgent need for the church to reignite the offices of the apostle, evangelist and prophet in addition to the already emphasized offices of pastor and teacher.  He taught from Ephesians 4:1-16 with an emphasis on the following verses:

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,” (11-12)

Alan’s teaching was a welcome push back against the cessationist intrusion in the church against the gifts and purposes of the Holy Spirit working among believers.  Alan’s purpose is to activate missional communities that create a church on the move.  I think his new book 5Q is worth checking out.

Two additional highlights of the D. Min. residency are once again the incredible, over-the-top hospitality and welcome we experience at Asbury from the D. Min. leadership team and the Lasting Impressions Team.  They treated us to snacks and drinks at all of our class breaks.  To ease the Saturday dissertation trainings, we were blessed with Chic-Fil-A and Subway lunches.  We had BBQ one night and Burgers and Hot Dogs another night.  This treatment is indicative of the entire Asbury campus experience.  We closed out the week with a Eucharist celebration.

The other highlight is the fellowship with the fellow students who come from all over the United States and world.  It is encouraging and exciting to hear from international students how God is working in areas like southern Africa and Kenya, Ghana, Liberia, the Philippines, Costa Rica, Vietnam and elsewhere.  God is working through faithful ministers to multiply believers and churches all over.  He is healing, delivering and saving people.  In the United States, God is at work too in various cities and on college campuses in ways that we never hear about on the news.  In all of these contexts, the kingdom of God faces opposition but is overcoming.  The news is inspiring because God is working through ordinary people who are willing to become vessels for extraordinary works of God.

My dissertation project continues to move forward on the project of developing a training in spiritual formation for staff of pregnancy resource centers.  This project requires ongoing research, writing and planning.  I believe it is a ministry initiative that God has inspired me to develop, because this ministry is so close to his heart and has to overcome intense opposition from spiritual forces and worldly forces.  I encourage you to reach out to support your local pregnancy resource centers with prayer, financial support and volunteer efforts.

In the summer of 1989 following my sophomore year in college, I was faced with a seminal decision.  It was a simple decision but was not an easy one.  I had begun working my second term at a Christian sports camp near Branson, Missouri.  Prior to heading across country to work at the camp, I had attended a soccer tryout in Florida for the Olympic Festival Soccer Team.  I believed I had a poor tryout and had little chance of making the team, so I didn’t hesitate to commit to working the second term at camp. The Olympic Festival would be occurring in Oklahoma City near my hometown of Edmond, OK where the soccer matches would take place.  In the first week of the second term at camp, I received a call inviting me to take the place of an injured player on the Southeast Region’s Soccer Team.

The call brought up a mix of emotions.  This is a call I had dreamed and worked to receive.  It was a call to take one more step toward the US Men’s National Team and to play in the Olympic Festival soccer games that would take place five minutes from where I had grown up and went to high school.

However, I was committed to working at the camp.   After a conversation with the camp’s director of counselors, I felt compelled to honor my commitment to the camp: a simple decision that was not easy.  Based on my faith and desire to live with integrity, I had to call the Olympic Festival and decline the offer.

I think of this memory as I consider how I, as a Christian, would react to facing the decision to wear the US National Team’s jersey sporting rainbow-colored numbers in honor and promotion of Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Questioning (or Queer) Pride month. How much more difficult would such a decision be? Is it still simple?

It was with bewilderment and disappointment that I tuned into the men’s friendly game against Venezuela on June 3rd and saw the numbers and learned of their significance.  As a Christian, I fully believe that Scripture is inspired and reveals a defined acceptable sexual ethic.  To love others as God has loved us, a main imperative of Scripture, does not in any way demand acceptance of unbiblical behaviors like those that LGBTQ Pride promotes.  According to the Christian faith, these are not on equal moral and ethical footing as those of Christian teaching.  LGBTQ Pride does, in fact, demand that all the sexual behaviors included in its descriptors be accepted and treated as normal, healthy and equal to sexual expressions between a married man and woman. These behaviors are simply incompatible with the Biblical Christian faith.

When asked about marriage, Jesus responded by pointing to the beginning of creation:  “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife,  and the two shall become one flesh.'” (Mark 10:6-8)

The Apostle Paul speaks to the eternal mystery of marriage represented by a faithful husband and wife:  “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. ‘This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.  However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” (Ephesians 5:31-33)

These Scriptures are not imposed on others but are accepted by Christians as the counsel of God for them.  This is what we believe and promote.

Symbols are open to interpretation; however, the rainbow colors of LGBTQ on the soccer uniforms of our national soccer teams have been defined for us by the advocacy and public displays of its proponents.   There is little, if any, ambiguity left to the rainbow symbol of LGBTQ Pride.  I have no interest in debating regarding their sexuality or trying to stop them.  Likewise, I have no intention or interest in supporting it.  I also don’t imagine that by rejecting behavior, I am practicing intolerance or rejection of people.  All people are made in God’s image and are those for whom Jesus died.

Players wearing the rainbow symbols on their jerseys are promoting behavior that is apparent in its scope and spectrum.  A Christian player is faced with the decision of whether to succumb to the pressure to wear the jersey or to stand firm in their faith and give up their place on the team.  I don’t know of any of the men’s team players protesting the shirts.  I know that two of the players, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard, are professed Christians who have shared their testimonies in past issues of FCA’s magazine.  Both played against Venezuela and have not made statements regarding the jerseys.

As a fan, I have watched and cheered for US Soccer over the last 30 years; however, I cannot support a team that actively promotes a divisive cause that I earnestly and reasonably oppose.  I may not be in the majority with my opinion, but I know that I am not alone in my opposition to this cause and action of US Soccer.  The initiative has caused division in what has otherwise been a cohesive, enthusiastic fan base for US Soccer. It has produced tremendous hostility toward its dissenters.  That alone is reason enough to judge this initiative unwise.  It is dismissive to fans who value their beliefs and ethics that oppose the LGBTQ Pride advocacy.

On an individual level, I wonder how the Christians on the team came to the decision to play and wear the Pride jerseys.  At least one player on the woman’s team has pulled out of their upcoming matches for “personal reasons.”  This player Jaelene Hinkle is a committed Christian and plays professional soccer for the North Carolina Courage.  She has not made a statement regarding her reasons, but it seems that it might have to do with the conflict between her faith and the jersey.

May God help any player that voices disapproval of the LGBTQ Pride support.  Their reward is surely in heaven.  It is sad, disappointing and inconsiderate for US Soccer to put players and fans in this position.  As in so many other cases, the LGBTQ agenda has taken precedence over any other considerations for freedom or respect of faith and decorum.  In this case, such advocacy has taken precedence over the value of national unity and the thrill of simply playing for one’s entire country.

Joshua led the people of Israel to a great God-empowered victory against the city of Jericho.  God caused the walls to come down and gave the city into Israel’s hands.  All the people were killed except the household of Rahab the prostitute who helped the spies of Israel.  Prior to the invasion, Joshua told the Israelite soldiers to kill everyone and destroy everything except the articles of gold, silver, iron and bronze that were to be devoted to the Lord’s treasury.  Joshua warned, “Keep away from the devoted things, so that you will not bring about your own destruction by taking any of them. Otherwise you will make the camp of Israel liable to destruction and bring trouble on it.” (Joshua 6:18)

The next city in Israel’s siege of the Promised Land was Ai.  The spies of Israel assessed Ai as a vulnerable city that a portion of Israel’s army could conquer before lunch time.  A handful of the Israelite soldiers went up to attack Ai, and they were routed from Ai and 36 of the Israelite men were killed.  Joshua and Israel’s leaders were shocked and dismayed.  Where was God? Where was the commander of the army of the Lord?  Had God abandoned them and left them in limbo at the disposal of their enemies?

In assessing the Christian community today, it seems to resemble the state of Israel after the defeat at Ai.  Our Christian communities are besieged.  Sickness, addiction, broken relationships, corruption, sexual immorality, deception, disagreement and financial problems seem to be rampant among Christians.  And these are needs of those inside the church not only those of the lost.  Concern for the salvation of the lost often falls way down on our prayer lists.  It seems like Christians are being routed by the enemy and falling to the side.  Are we destined to be continual victims of the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or of our own “brokenness?” Are those who commit to ministry in the church and world going into battle only to be scattered by various “enemies?” I think that on the whole the church seems stuck between past victory and present defeat.

Our posture and bewilderment is not unlike the leaders of Israel after their defeat:

So about three thousand men went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai, who killed about thirty-six of them. They chased the Israelites from the city gate as far as the stone quarries and struck them down on the slopes. At this the hearts of the people melted and became like water.   Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the LORD, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads.  And Joshua said, “Ah, Sovereign LORD, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? If only we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan!  O Lord, what can I say, now that Israel has been routed by its enemies?  The Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about this and they will surround us and wipe out our name from the earth. What then will you do for your own great name?”  (Joshua 7:4-9)

In our churches today, this seems like our ongoing responses to life’s difficulties.  The hearts of Christians seem to melt like fear in the face of the onslaught of sickness, addiction, immorality, compromise and the call to discipleship.  We rarely stand in faith against pain and illness.  We rarely declare freedom in the face of addictions to drugs, alcohol, pornography, shopping, the internet, etc.  We think that we surely cannot stand in holiness against the lures of sexual immorality.  We excuse ourselves from the call to discipleship and holiness, because they are too demanding for us.  Too many of us have our religious ways and dare not venture from them despite the urging of the Holy Spirit to pursue the fullness of his presence for our lives.

We are content, like the crowds of Israel—the people of God who presume to expect the entitlements of God’s promises, to let a handful of spiritual soldiers go up against these enemies of our “promised land.”  Christians in general will let “those called” do the hard work of intercession, Bible study, discipleship, mentoring and evangelism.  As Israel acquiesced to their pride, self-righteousness, complacency and leisure, churches say “Let the few go up against the enemy.  I will stay in the camp in my tent indulging and fantasizing about the promises of God.”

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But the few cannot carry the burden.  The few devoted cannot overcome the enemy and deliver the many back at the camp so they can reap the rewards.  The few become wounded, burned out, targets for the enemy, taken out and then criticized by those back at the camp who point their fingers.

The leader Joshua and the elders, like the devoted among churches today, see the tragedy and mourn and pray and cry out to God on behalf of the people.  They come near to despair for the vision God has given to them and wonder what will happen now in the midst of defeat.

The Lord responds surprisingly harshly to his people’s leaders:

The LORD said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face?  Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions.   That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction. (Joshua 7:10-12)

I am really surprised by how the enemy of God’s people today seems able to undermine ministry endeavors so easily.  Sickness, pain, stress, conflict, sinful habits, career difficulties, deceptions, vacations, busyness, sports or whatever take people out of their ministry calling all of the time.  How are the forces of evil so successful? Is it just coincidence that so many afflictions befall those who have taken steps of faith in their intentions to do ministry or in their actions of ministry?  I don’t have the exact answer, but I see patterns, and I believe that God brought this event from Israel’s history to my mind to consider “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16)

God called out Israel’s sins.  He rebuked them and allowed them to face the consequences of sin.  36 innocent soldiers were killed due to the sinfulness of those back at the camp.  No matter how skilled they were or how hard they fought, they were doomed from the time they set forth to battle Ai, because of the compromise of the people of God to rebellion and sin.  This is why the people of God cannot stand against their enemies.  Could this be why so many Christians are victims to our spiritual enemies and their manifestations today?  How do we know and what do we do?

God tells his people:

 “Go, consecrate the people. Tell them, ‘Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow; for this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: That which is devoted is among you, O Israel. You cannot stand against your enemies until you remove it.   “‘In the morning, present yourselves tribe by tribe. The tribe that the LORD takes shall come forward clan by clan; the clan that the LORD takes shall come forward family by family; and the family that the LORD takes shall come forward man by man.  He who is caught with the devoted things shall be destroyed by fire, along with all that belongs to him. He has violated the covenant of the LORD and has done a disgraceful thing in Israel!'”  (Joshua 7:13-15)

I believe this is a message for the church to consider today.  “Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow.”  You, Christian, consecrate yourself!  What are your dreams for tomorrow?  Are they worth consecrating yourself fully to God to see them fulfilled? What is your calling, your vision?  What is your desire for your loved ones? What affliction or trial are you facing?  Examine yourself, confess, repent, receive and go forward toward holiness.  This is the way of discipleship—the way of the cross and resurrection.  It is the ancient way of the faithful.  And it is not for a select few who are called or professional religious people or those who happen to be into that sort of thing.  You, average Christian and your church, cannot stand against your enemies because of hidden sinfulness and compromise that includes apathy, worldliness and religious legalism. The sacrifice of Christ, his resurrection, his ascension and the power of Pentecost give you power and grace and all you need to consecrate yourself through Christ.

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In the story of Israel, God leads the inquiry for sin to a man named Achan who had taken gold, silver and clothing from Jericho and hidden it in his tent.  Achan bore the punishment for his sin, and Israel was consecrated and able to go forth and conquer Ai at the direction of the Lord.   How would this be instructive for our lives and our churches?  I think the Lord is waiting for our churches and individual Christians to “stand up,” consecrate ourselves and destroy from among us that which is devoted to sinfulness, apathy or compromise.  Otherwise, the warning of the Lord is apropos: “I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.” (Joshua 7:12)

So, let us examine ourselves, our lives, our devotion, our allegiances and our habits and attitudes.  The Lord may reveal that we are holding onto destructive things and practices and that we have been slack in our devotion to prayer, Scripture, our sanctification and to the ministry for which God has called us.  He may show us that we are undermining the advancement of God’s kingdom.

After Israel deals with its sin and rebellion, God doesn’t send only a handful of soldiers out to conquer Ai.  He sends out the full army and instructions for victory.  I believe that until the majority of Christians in our churches become consistently active in prayer, worship and ministry, we will not see the victory that the Lord desires for us over things like sickness, pain, addictions, divorce, immorality, unbelief, rebellion, etc.  We each have to decide whether it is worth it to give up what is undermining the advancement of God’s kingdom and its fullness in our lives.  The Lord is waiting for us to grow up in our faith and deeds.

The upcoming season of Lent prescribes a step of faith and devotion that is not ordinary and not necessarily comfortable.  It is the season of self-examination and going forward in the mission of God.

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To become a Christian is really one of the easiest things in the world to do for anyone.  We receive Jesus Christ as our Savior who forgives our sins, and we declare in faith that he is Lord.  We ask him to give us new birth, to give us the Holy Spirit and to give us eternal life with him.  Jesus has done all of the work.  We reap the benefits by believing in him and calling upon him.  Salvation is a gift of grace—unmerited and undeserved.  We can’t even contribute to it.  We receive.  If we believe in Jesus enough to ask him to come and forgive our sins and give us the Holy Spirit, he will come.

To progress in the Christian life beyond receiving the gift of salvation requires determination, patient endurance, steadfastness, wisdom, commitment, self-denial, discipline, maybe suffering, and faith, love and hope.  Christian character is battle-tested and proven.  The mature Christian disciple seeks Jesus, his kingdom and his righteousness. The Christian walk of discipleship occurs by grace and by our striving to follow Jesus in our lives in the world.

Engaging intentionally in discipleship and ministry comes down to the difference between going to church and being the church.  It is the difference between being a consumer of church and being an ambassador and minister of Christ in, to and through the church.   The New Testament gives no indication at all that living as a Christian in the world is easy or safe.  There is nothing worldly appealing about being the church according to the New Testament.  This is a reason why people are prone to innovate ways of trying to be Christians apart from and in contrast to the New Testament.

We are saved through acceptance of Jesus, but we do not become perfect in our actions and lives immediately and not until we die and are with Jesus.   For the Christian, all things are made new – new creation.  We don’t know how to live according to the new creation.  We can’t learn it instantly.  It takes the rest of our lives to learn how to live according to what we have become in an instant – saved and God’s child through Jesus.

If we choose to pursue this goal of discipleship and Christian living, the rest of our lives will be spent taking two steps forward and one step backwards in pursuit of holiness.  A church consists of people intending to move toward holiness and living in the kingdom of God but often going in all directions and nowhere.  It cannot help but at times to be uncomfortable, painful, frustrating and offensive.  However, the body of Christ at a church also serves as the place where God works in us and develops us as his children, disciples and ministers.

I believe that God has called each person in Christ to become and remain an active member of a church.  Not only that, he has called us to get into the thick of it.  He has called us to rub shoulders, open our hearts, be confrontational, be constructive, be repentant, be submissive, be authoritative and become like Christ through a commitment to a church where we are planted, rooted, growing and producing fruit.  He calls us to give a significant portion of our money, our time and talents.   God has called us to take steps of faith and to do what may be difficult and not give up, grow weary or run away and hide.  He promises rewards to those who overcome.  One of those rewards turns out to be that we find ourselves a part of a local family of faith where we are loved, accepted and encouraged.  Our church becomes for us a people and place where we encounter God.

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Romans 12

The Apostle Paul’s letters encourage, exhort and instruct Christians in the life of discipleship.  The text of Romans 12 seems focused on the life of the Christian in a church.  Paul, as well as anyone, knows the hardships of church life and of being a committed partner to other Christians.  He knows the frustrations and pains involved in living life with a group of other Christians.  On the other hand, he has also experienced the glory and wonder of being a minister of the gospel of Christ in and among the body of Christ—just read Romans 15 and 16.

In Romans 12, Paul urges Christians to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God as our reasonable, appropriate response to him.  Our worship of God is to lay down our lives to him and to submit to his will for our lives.  The Christian life involves a rejection of our selfish will and the ways of this world.  Paul calls for our spiritual transformation and the renewal our minds according to the kingdom of God in Christ.  As this occurs, we learn to walk with Jesus in faith and to test and approve the perfect will of God for our lives rather than rely on the basic principles of the world.  The church exists to facilitate this transformation and renewal by offering the context for discipleship and faithfulness for believers and by inspiring worship in Spirit and truth.

Immediately in Romans 12, Paul counters objections with a call to humility and by pointing to God’s gift of faith and to the body of Christ to which we all belong—if we are in Christ.  If we are saved, then we belong to Christ who is our Lord and God.  We are not in charge.  We are members of his body of which Jesus is the head who alone is above all.  What we have to offer others and to recommend ourselves to others is only what has been given to us by God through Jesus.  In emphasizing the gracious gift that we have through Christ, Paul does not minimize the gifts we are given or our role in their development and use.  He magnifies them in light of the giver and in light of the high calling to use the gifts given to each of us for the sake of Christ’s body the church.  None of us is given the Holy Spirit and his gifts to merely attend and watch or be an ongoing consumer of church rather than becoming an active participant and contributor in the life of the family of faith.  Although everyone is welcome to come, we want everyone to also grow in their faith.

It is good to discern and listen for God’s will and calling for our lives and ministry.  We should know whether a particular church is where God wants us to come and grow and from where to go and tell others.  That church where God calls us to worship and serve still will not suit all of each of our desires, preferences, personalities, needs and schedules.  For people in the church to grow as disciples and ministers, and for a church to grow in breadth and depth, we must give as we have received in the form of mercy, grace, forgiveness, patience, time, resources, help and relationships.  The problems we identify with people in the church or with the deficiencies of the church are the same or similar to our own problems and deficiencies but multiplied by the number of people in the church.

(Paul envisions a church following the apostolic teachings he has passed forward.  The New Testament reserves its harshest language for those distorting the gospel of grace or behaving unethically, oppressively or immorally.  We are called to a church of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Other sorts of churches we might be led to avoid.)

Paul recognizes that we each need the help and benefits of each other’s presence and gifts. The gifts in Romans 12 include prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, contributing, leading, governing, and showing mercy.  This litany of gifts serves to show that God’s gracious empowering of his people is all-inclusive.  All of us are called into Christ and his body to be ministers by the power of the Holy Spirit given to us.  We are the church, and through our participation, we contribute to its edification and growth in depth and breadth.

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The functionality of these gifts occurs through sincere, brotherly (and sisterly) love expressed in devotion, honor and service.  Paul encourages us to be zealous in our service and worship of the Lord.  We are to be joyfully devoted to prayer and generosity.  Our church, this portion of Christ’s body, is to be open and welcoming to all who come as an expression of the Father’s hospitality in Christ.

The members of Christ’s body, imperfect and dysfunctional though they are, extend the promise of salvation to all people through a hearty invitation to join this journey toward holiness in the power and fruit of the Holy Spirit.  We share with those in need, because we are all in need and Christ is the gracious giver to all who receive.  Paul emphasizes the command to be humble.  He says do not be proud and do not be conceited, because there is nothing more foolish than a helpless sinner acting proud and conceited.

Conversely, we also need to reject the false modesty by which we would exclude ourselves from participation in serving and ministering in the church due to our perceived inadequacy.  We are saved by grace and empowered by grace to serve and minister, so by God’s Spirit we come to serve.  By his grace, we speak, we pray, we give, we encourage, we heal, we teach, we bless and we live in harmony with one another—not apart from others.

We overcome evil by good.  We are all members of the Lord’s body.  It is his work among us to build us into his image individually and collectively.

Paul assumes a commitment to each other among the body of Christ.  Is this your church? Is this the part of the body of Christ to which you are called, planted and rooted?  Then stay and grow and use the gifts God has given you to contribute to the harvest of righteousness that the church exists to produce.  Pursue the counsel of others and take initiative to develop your gifts and to express the power and love of Christ in, for and through the church.  You won’t do it perfectly.  The church won’t respond perfectly.  But let’s aim for it.

If you have not already, I encourage you to become a member at the local church where God calls you.  If you are currently a member and maybe even a founding member, I encourage you to recommit yourself to pursuing the development of the spiritual gifts that God has given you and pray about your participation in the ministry.  I believe God desires us all to grow as his disciples and ministers.

If you are not currently in a discipleship group (Bible study, home group, Morning Prayer, prayer group, etc.), join one or start a new one.  You only need one other person and a Bible and a set time and place.

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How do we prepare to exercise faith during trials and spiritual battles? 

I once attended a men’s ministry weekend with the Church of God in South Carolina.  A seasoned minister who had pastored for a few dozen years gave a rousing teaching—as only an old-school Pentecostal preacher can.  His mantra throughout the teaching to men was, “In the time of peace prepare for war.”

His Scripture text was the Biblical witness of King Asa.  The account of King Asa’s reign over the nation of Judah is summarized in 1 Kings 15, “And Asa did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, as David his father had done…the heart of Asa was wholly true to the Lord all his days.” (1 Kings 15.11,14)  Of his reign, the author writes, “And there was war between Asa and Baasha king of Israel all their days.”  1 Kings offers a few more details about his reign and actions, but if we look to 2 Chronicles we learn even more about the king.

We can learn at least two essential elements of the Christian faith from the chronicler.  We learn, as the preacher said, to take advantage of times of peace to prepare for war.  We can also learn that we must always seek the Lord first and develop our devotion and dependence on him.

When Asa became king, he had peace and the land had rest for ten years.  During these ten years of no war, King Asa was active on two fronts.  Firstly, he cleansed the land of idols and inspired a revival to the Lord.  As an example of his spiritual fervor, “He took away the foreign altars and high places and broke down the pillars and cut down the Asherim and commanded Judah to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, and to keep the law and the commandment.” (1 Kings 14.3-4)

King Asa’s second project was to fortify the nation of Judah—during a decade of peace and rest.  The chronicler emphasizes this point in the following verses,

“He built fortified cities in Judah, for the land had rest. He had no war in those years, for the LORD gave him peace.  And he said to Judah, “Let us build these cities and surround them with walls and towers, gates and bars. The land is still ours, because we have sought the LORD our God. We have sought him, and he has given us peace on every side.” So they built and prospered.  And Asa had an army of 300,000 from Judah, armed with large shields and spears, and 280,000 men from Benjamin that carried shields and drew bows. All these were mighty men of valor.”  (2 Chronicles 14:6-8)

During the decade of peace, Asa was preparing for wars.  Wars came for King Asa and Judah.  We read that a million-man Ethiopian army comes out against Judah.  King Asa, even with his robust army, called upon the Lord for victory.  The Ethiopian army was “broken before the Lord and his army.” (1 Chron 14.13)  The king had prepared for battle by building up his military and his devotion to the Lord.  Both were essential and led to victory for Judah.

This Biblical witness instructs Christians today; it emphasizes an ongoing, mature obedience to James’ command and encouragement,

“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.  Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”  (James 4:7-10)

King Asa submitted himself and his nation to God, and they prepared for resistance against their enemies.  Asa demonstrated a prescience that an enemy existed and would come against them from one place or another.  He knew they had to be humble, holy and fortified.  The same is true for us.  We will face a trial from some place or something.  Within our trials, the enemy, the devil and his demons, always come to tempt, deceive, accuse and oppress.  We must know how to submit to God and resist the enemy.  This includes holiness and godliness lived out individually and corporately.

Sometimes we will be alone—just us in the silence facing our trials and enemies.  At that time, we have to be able to endure and overcome.  Other times, we need to call on praying brothers and sisters with whom we have developed interdependent ministry relationship—this is why we need to go to prayer meetings even when we don’t think we need prayer or simply don’t want to go.  As King Asa developed a standing army of armed warriors, our churches need a standing army of prayer warriors who know how to engage the spiritual forces of evil and to intercede for others.

If we have not developed the skills and disciplines during peaceful times, we may not be able to stand during trials.  I recently watched an episode on the Military Channel that documented a hostage rescue performed by a British SAS unit.  Before going into the enemy camp and rescuing their mates from a hostile force, they practiced every maneuver and step they would make in the battle.  That precise training came on top of years of grueling discipline and training in preparation for a real conflict.  These soldiers knew what to do.  Christians need to take note and similarly train for spiritual battles.

Following King Asa’s and his army’s victory over the Ethiopians, they gathered the bounty of victory and then “they returned to Jerusalem.” (2 Chron 14.15)  This significant verse illustrates that for God’s people victory comes from the Lord, and he gives us blessings that are merited on his work.  He is gracious, kind and generous to his followers.  His generosity and goodness is based on the righteous sacrifice of Jesus and not our own merits, even if we have been obedient and have done good works.  The reward belongs to the Lord who blesses his followers graciously.

So after we have been blessed victoriously through a trial, we must not boast in or applaud ourselves or our churches.  It is so easy for Christians and churches to look at visible blessings and accomplishments and applaud themselves.  Even when we are faithful and obedient and receive God’s abundant blessings, Jesus shows us that our proper posture ought to be like the obedient servant, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'” (Luke 17.10)

The Lord puts it another way through his word to Isaiah, “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” (Isaiah 66.2)  Now I am aware of and firmly embrace the many Scriptures that confirm our sonship (or daughters who have the same status as firstborn sons), our belovedness, our exalted position in Christ, our righteousness in Christ, etc. The key here is that our good positions are “in Christ” rather than in ourselves.  We cannot boast of anything but Christ.

When we experience a victory from the Lord, especially some blessing in the world or glorious ministry, may we urgently resolve to know nothing except “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2.2) Paul writes, “I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” (2 Corinthians 11:30) Humility and wisdom teach us to boast of Christ and our dependence on him who works through and for us.

After his battle, King Asa returned to Jerusalem, the seat of the Lord and his king.   We, too, must return to the Lord and to the “place” where God speaks to us and reveals himself to us.  As King Asa approached Jerusalem, the Bible tells us that a prophet of the Lord, Azariah, received a word from the Spirit of the Lord for the king and the nation of God’s people.

“Hear me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin: The LORD is with you while you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you.  For a long time Israel was without the true God, and without a teaching priest and without law, but when in their distress they turned to the LORD, the God of Israel, and sought him, he was found by them.   In those times there was no peace to him who went out or to him who came in, for great disturbances afflicted all the inhabitants of the lands. They were broken in pieces. Nation was crushed by nation and city by city, for God troubled them with every sort of distress. But you, take courage! Do not let your hands be weak, for your work shall be rewarded.” (2 Chronicles 15:2-7)

To me, this word from the Lord is remarkable for a few reasons.  First, it demonstrates the Lord’s posture to people.  He stands toward us with arms opened wide to embrace; yet, people turn from him, and he will not gather us to himself against our will. It is always his prerogative to chase us down and confront us with his glory, as he did to Saul of Tarsus.  We can be sure that he is present to us and longs to be found by us and desired by us.

Secondly, without a commitment to the Lord and his presence in our lives—as Lord, we have no peace; in fact, without his centering hold on us, we are broken in pieces by the pressures of the world.  Distress, disturbance, dissipation and despair are the lot for those not devotionally committed to the Lord. When we recognize such distress and turn to the Lord, he will come to us and help us.  We cannot let this truth allow us to slip into complacency, though.  I don’t subscribe to the axiom that it is never too late to turn to the Lord.  I believe that the Scriptures indicate clearly that at some point it will be too late!

Thirdly, King Asa and his army have returned from a bold victory against their enemy, and God tells them now to “take courage” and not to “let your hands be weak.”  Courage now? They just conquered and showed their strength.  In the lives of Christians, the Lord never shrinks back from going forward and conquering more evil in and through them.  The Lord will not become complacent with the state of our lives or the world.  Therefore, he “does not faint or grow weary.” (Isaiah 40.28) We must continually take courage and not become lazy, slack or complacent which is what letting “your hands be weak” indicates.  I believe Emerson was correct when he wrote, “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.”

Finally, our work will be rewarded.  On one hand, we cannot boast in our works, and on the other hand, our work will be rewarded.  It is not our passiveness, our leisure, our niceness, our success, our personality, etc.; it is our obedient, faithful work in and through the Lord that will be rewarded by him.

King Asa and the people respond obediently to the Lord.  The Scripture says, “They entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, with all their heart and with all their soul.” (2 Chron 15:12) The Lord rewarded their obedience to him with rest from their enemies all around them until the thirty-fifth year of King Asa’s reign.

The Self-Destruction of Self-Dependence

Sadly, in addition to the above, King Asa’s life holds another lesson equally important.  In the thirty-sixth year of King Asa’s reign, King Baasha of the northern nation of Israel led his army against the nation of Judah.  Rather than turn to the Lord for help, as he had done in previous battles, King Asa turned to another king.  Listen to what the godly King Asa does,

“Then Asa took silver and gold from the treasures of the house of the LORD and the king’s house and sent them to Ben-hadad king of Syria, who lived in Damascus, saying,  ‘There is a covenant between me and you, as there was between my father and your father. Behold, I am sending to you silver and gold. Go, break your covenant with Baasha king of Israel, that he may withdraw from me.’” (2 Chronicles 16:2-3)

King Asa’s strategy works.  King Baasha withdraws to defend himself against the betraying, bribe-induced King Ben-hadad.  King Asa and his army are able to go out and pillage the supplies of Israel’s army that have been left behind.  Seems like a win-win for King Asa.  Students of Scripture know otherwise and mourn at King Asa’s failure to turn to the Lord.  King Asa has followed the way of the world and trusted in bribes, horses and chariots rather than in the Name of the Lord.

The Lord rebukes King Asa through a word that comes from a prophet named Hanani,

“”Because you relied on the king of Syria, and did not rely on the LORD your God, the army of the king of Syria has escaped you.  Were not the Ethiopians and the Libyans a huge army with very many chariots and horsemen? Yet because you relied on the LORD, he gave them into your hand.  For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him. You have done foolishly in this, for from now on you will have wars.”” (2 Chronicles 16:7-9)

What a turn of events.  It gets worse.  Upon hearing this rebuke, King Asa hardens his heart against the Lord.  Instead of repenting and humbling himself, he cruelly attacked the prophet and others with him.

The blessings we receive from the Lord can propel us to a new level of stability in life.  In that stability, peace and rest, we will be tempted to relax and become complacent and secure.  We need to often take the warning of the prophet Amos to heart, “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria.” (Amos 6.1)  Whether you are at ease among God’s people or feeling safe in the world, you are in danger of falling.  The Apostle Paul writes, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” (1 Corinthians 10:12)

In the silence of God’s presence, he reminds us to maintain spiritual fervor and courage.  King Asa lost his nerve and his verve.  In his “competency” as king, he literally stole from the Lord and relied on an alliance with a peer.  The treasures of the Lord he gave to the King of Syria are also figurative for the faith and trust he took from the Lord and gave to a man and worldly power.  The Lord called him on it.  Jesus called his followers on it, too, when he said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21)  Jesus’ statement caused his listeners to marvel.  God will speak to us in the silence and through Scripture and cause us to marvel at his presence and revelation.

Three years after his rebuke from God, King Asa developed a disease that became severe.  He looked for help from everyone but God and died a few years later apparently still bitter against the Lord.

In the time of peace, we must prepare for the next worldly trial and spiritual battle.  We must continually submit to the Lord and resist the devil.  I take a lesson from a movie quote that seemed to scream at me at the close of the movie To End All Wars.  The movie follows Allied prisoners of war in a Japanese prison camp during WWII.  When they are liberated, one of the freed prisoners asks a seasoned colonel, “What are you going to do after the war?”  The colonel responds gruffly, “Start preparing for the next war.”

This may seem pessimistic.  It may seem despairing.  Does it lack faith or hope in Jesus’ blessings to us? Does it conform to the Biblical witness? In light of the book of Revelation, is this a good spiritual discipline? We face wars and rumors of war, as the spiritual battles rage, until Jesus returns.

This is reality in this world for Christians.  We are not at home; we are at war.  If we are feeling comfortable, content and complacent, it might be time for us to go on the attack and win a victory of the Lord.  I appreciate the initiative and faith of Jonathan, son of Saul.  While his father and other Israelites were hiding in caves from the Philistines, Jonathan snuck off with his armor bearer to attack the enemy, as the Lord would lead him.  He said to his armor bearer, “Come, let us go over to the Philistine garrison on the other side.”  And again, as they approached the enemy, he said, “Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised.  It may be that the Lord will work for us, for nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few.” (1 Samuel 14:1, 6)

The Philistines mocked Jonathan and cajoled him to come and learn his lesson, but when Jonathan and his armor bearer began to fight they struck down dozens of the enemy warriors: “And there was a panic in the camp, in the field, and among all the people.  The garrison and even the raiders trembled, the earth quaked, and it became a very great panic.”  (1 Samuel 14:14-15)  This initiative led to a rout of the Philistines by Israel’s army.

We have the power to overcome the spiritual enemies of God’s kingdom and people.  We may need to take initiative to take the fight to the enemy.  What camp of the enemy is God leading you to attack in prayer?

Jeremiah 29:1-14

This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.  2 (This was after King Jehoiachin and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem.)  3 He entrusted the letter to Elasah son of Shaphan and to Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. It said:  4 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.  7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”  8 Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have.  9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD. 

10 This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.  11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.  13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.  14 I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

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Perhaps one of the top five of often quoted Scriptures, Jeremiah 29:11 rarely is mentioned in accordance with the context in which it was written and directly applies.  It has even become known by its simple summary of “God has a plan.”  I don’t want to drain the verse of its encouragement to individuals that God means good for them and wishes for them to flourish.  I do want to set this promise of God in its context, because it is only when the promise is interpreted based on its context that it becomes sure footing for believers to abound in hope of God’s goodness and grace for them.  Otherwise it wrongly becomes associated with the context of the latest meme or picture that could mean anything — right, wrong or delusional.

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Jeremiah 29:11 occurs in the text of a letter sent by the prophet Jeremiah from Jerusalem to the exiles from the nation of Judah who had been carried into Babylon around 586 BC.  It is a letter of instruction, encouragement, promise and warning.  The letter conveys the word of the Lord that contrasts the words of the false prophets and the immediate hopes of the exiles for the destruction of the Babylonians and their return to Israel.  God’s word says otherwise.  The prosperity, hope and future God promises differs from what the people of God in exile imagined and intuited on their own.

The people of God have been “carried” into exile by God as a consequence for their rebellion in sin.  He is now speaking to them regarding how to live as God’s people in Babylon.   They are going to be there for seventy years – a generation.  They are not to live in a cloistered community or to live in conformity with the pagans.  Rather, they are to live as God’s people being witnesses among the fallen, lost people of Babylon.

If we put ourselves in the context of God’s people living in a “fallen Babylon world,” (this is a phrase used by Dr. Robert Mulholland) we find a timely and apropos word from the Lord for us today.  God’s word to the exiles contributes to us finding an answer to the question: “How shall we live as Christians in the world?”  Like the exiles of Israel, we are outside the physical promised land of God due to our sin; however, we are not outside of God’s presence and kingdom.

Another letter written to God’s people living in a “fallen Babylon world” is the book of Revelation.  Revelation offers to the New Testament people of God the promise of a hope and a future of prosperity in God’s everlasting kingdom.

I believe that Revelation shines a light on Jeremiah 29 to show us how to live in a world under the rule of the evil one and full of people for whom Jesus died.  I am going to use Revelation chapter 8 in particular to frame applications from Jeremiah 29 for the church today.

How do we apply Jeremiah 29:1-14 today?

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  1. Pray – pray for the prosperity and flourishing of the city, its peace and welfare.

God encourages the exiles to pray for the welfare of the people of Babylon.  For them, as for us, this is the role of God’s people as a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6) God promises that as we bless the community, city, nation and world where we live, we will find our welfare.

Revelation 8:1-5 illustrates the prayers of the saints arising to the throne of God.  The rabbi’s taught that this silence in heaven indicates a time of burden for the saints of God to pray and for heaven to listen.  We are to be people of prayer who make intercessions to God.  Our prayers and devotion ought to be earnest to maintain open communication with an open heaven.  He hears our prayers and responds to them.

We ask God:

Psalm 43:3-5   3 Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling!  4 Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God.  5 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.

             Paul encourages this ministry of intercession for all people, because Jesus died for all people, even the worst of us.  Who knows if God doesn’t allow people to really perturb us so that we might be moved to pray for them?

1 Timothy 2:1-6  First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people,  2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.  3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior,  4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  

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  1. Pray for Salvation of the lost who are now objects of God’s wrath and in danger of hell. Apart from God’s intervention, the people of world will die in their sins and remain apart from God.  We are to help facilitate their “shalom” with God.

Revelation 8:7 shows the wrath of God in fire and blood upon the people of the fallen Babylon world.  The people of historic Babylon, like the people outside of Christ today, are subject to God’s wrath.  God asked the exiles to adopt his heart and compassion for those on the road to hell.  The instinct is for our hearts to become angry, resentful and hateful toward those we perceive to wrong us or mistreat us.  God asks us to have the heart of Jesus and to pray for them, bless them and do good to them; in other words, we are to live our lives in community with them. (Luke 6:27-29)  God knows that some people are our enemies.  Jesus is more realistic that we are.  He says to bless them anyway, so that they won’t become exiles from him forever.  As it is written:

Revelation 20:15   And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

In our ministry of priests unto God (Revelation 1:6), we serve as ministers of reconciliation and evangelists of forgiveness and salvation through Jesus.  Paul writes:

2 Corinthians 5:17-21  17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.  18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation;  19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.  20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 

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  1. Pray for his kingdom to come and his will to be done. His kingdom is the rule of Jesus Christ. We pray for the “ruler of this world to be cast out” and for all nations and people to come under the authority of Jesus.

 So much of God’s plan can be seen in the Lord ’s Prayer.  God’s plan is for his kingdom to come to earth and his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.  His plan is much bigger than we imagine, and he is involved in the details of our life. God’s instructions for the exiles in Babylon involved their individual lives and decisions regarding houses, finances, marriage and children.  It also involved the community as a whole living as a godly witness together following the commands of God.  The same is true for us today.  God’s plan, purpose, hope and future involves our particular callings and vocations, the decisions we make day-in and day-out.  It also involves the people of the world, our churches and his mission in the world to bring all nations under the authority of Jesus.

Jesus confirms his calling for our initiative to involve God’s kingdom and not only our own lives:

Matthew 6:33-34  But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Revelation 8:8, I believe, shows God’s judgment on the fallen Babylon world and much collateral damage and destruction that goes with it.  As we seek God’s kingdom in this world, we are seeking the diminishing of the rule of the evil one and the freedom of those under his deception and oppression.  When God’s kingdom comes, so do many of the good and wonderful elements of it for people yet in this world.  His kingdom in experienced in the fruit and power of the Holy Spirit who is poured out on all flesh.

The prophet Daniel demonstrates faithfulness to God’s rule even while serving Babylon.  The story of Daniel is the story of the fulfillment of God’s promise in Jeremiah 29.  Daniel obeys God and experiences God’s presence and manifestations in his life.  Daniel and his three friends are examples for us in living in faithfulness to God for the welfare of our communities.  Whether in Babylon in exile or in our cities we await the coming of the King.

  1. Be sanctified in truth by his Spirit and word. This is God’s plan and purpose for us…to be conformed to the image of Christ. 

Revelation 8:10-11 shows a star falling from the sky turning the waters bitter.  The star’s name was Wormwood.  This fallen star may indicate the fallen angels that seek to deceive all people and lead them astray by their lies and temptations.  Scriptures show us that these demons face judgement by God and will eventually all be cast into the lake of burning fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25:41)

The exiles in Babylon were being led astray by the lies of the false prophets telling them the same old lies that everything was going to be fine.  As Jeremiah says elsewhere, “’Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14) The Lord reserves hard criticism and dire warnings for these false prophets.  The warnings are no different or less severe for false teachers in the New Testament.

The imperative for God’s people in exile in fallen Babylon is to adhere to God’s word and live according to the truth.  Jesus tells us that Satan is a liar and the father of lies.  We constantly face the draw of his lies and must with earnestness be sanctified by God’s word of truth.  This is Jesus’ prayer for us:

John 17:14-19  I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.  15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.  16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.  17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.  18 As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.  19 And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.

Peter warns us from getting deceived by false teachings and temptations of sin:

2 Peter 3:17-18  You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.  18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The lawless living that Peter abhors is indicative of people who have become disconnected to God in the world.  They are living in divorce from the Lord’s Spirit and eternal covenant of marriage to his people.  Christians who live this way are in danger of being carried away with the unbelievers.  Jesus’ warnings in Revelation to the churches of Pergamum, Thyatira and Laodicea address people in the church in danger of God’s wrath.

God’s people will not live as God’s people spontaneously or naturally.  The holy life requires earnest initiative and discipline that is practiced by God’s power and grace with our intention and striving.

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  1. Be the light of the world letting Christ’s light shine through you. This is living in the fulfillment of our hope and future that is Jesus Christ.

 The devil and his horde work to keep the world in darkness.  God’s people serve as a light shining God’s goodness into the world.  When God sent his people into exile in Babylon, he knew where they were going.  He knew the nastiness of the Babylonians, yet he commands his people to live among them and seek their welfare.  What could be more beneficial than shining God’s light into the darkness of oppression and sinfulness.  It would be futile and suicidal except for the reality that the light of God overcomes the darkness. (John 1:5)

In Revelation 8:12, darkness comes upon much of the world.  However, God’s people are in the world to be the light of the world. We have the privilege of working with God to rescue people, even the worst, from the kingdom of darkness into the Lord’s marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)

Paul explains that this requires effort and mindfulness informed by God’s goodness and grace.  He writes:

Philippians 2:14-16   Do everything without complaining or arguing,  15 so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe  16 as you hold out the word of life

We are called to shine like stars in the heavens and display God’s splendor over and against the deceitful agents of Satan who masquerade as angels of light but are demons of darkness.  We have a holy purpose and calling to fulfill, even as it is God who fulfills this great purpose through us. (Psalm 138:8)

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  1. Jesus Christ the Prosperity, Hope and Future of God for All Who Believe

In our sins, we are promised “woe, woe, woe;” however, through Jesus Christ, we are promised eternal life.  Revelation 8:13 reveals the plans of God for those outside of Christ.  Revelation 21-22 reveal his plans for those in Christ.

In Jeremiah 29:11, God says that he knows the plans he has for us.  His plan is for our goodness and not harm.  He plans to prosper us and give us a hope and a future.  As this promise was made to his people in exile, it is made to us in a fallen world.  The fulfillment of this promise for every person who accepts it is Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ fulfills the Law and the Prophets.  The promise of God is not fulfilled by anything this world has to offer.  The promise comes from heaven.  The promise is experienced in his kingdom, even while in exile.  God’s kingdom is present in the Spirit of Jesus Christ within us and among us.

There is no fulfillment of Jeremiah 29:11 apart from new life in Christ.  He alone brings us home from exile into God’s family and kingdom.  For the exiles in Babylon, God promised them return to their homeland in seventy years.  For believers today, we are given the Holy Spirit as an assurance of God’s kingdom within us and that is coming with Jesus’ return to us.  We are called to “hold fast” and to keep the faith in the meantime as we live in this fallen world that calls for “patient endurance.”  Our hope and future is with us always: Jesus Christ.

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This is the ultimate fulfillment of Jeremiah 29:11