Saturday, April 30, 2016

What's Your Obituary?*

           Approaching ninety, my grandmother habitually reads the newspaper obituaries, scanning for familiar people from the past who have left this earth.  When she told me about her regular practice once, I was startled.  But I’ve been reading obituaries lately.  In the pages of Scripture.  Recently I read from Judges 12 about Jephthah.     

            Jephthah’s history starts back in the previous chapter, where we learn he was a harlot’s son who had been dispelled from his dad’s home because of his birth.  We also find that Jephthah was a natural leader—“vain men gathered themselves unto Jephthah”—Judges 11:3 reads. Likewise, Jephthah is a thinker with good reasoning abilities.  He wonders why, when Ammon comes to fight against Gilead, his home area, the men of Gilead come back for him when they were the ones who had thrust him out in the first place.  (Jephthah’s leadership ability is apparently so well known that these men want him as their leader and tell him so.) However, Jephthah isn’t bought easily.  He makes the men of Gilead promise that he, Jephthah, will be their leader if they win the battle.  It seems he’s a man of prayer too, for God’s Word explains, “and Jephthah uttered all his words before the LORD in Mizpeh” (Judges 11:11).
            Another thing about this man—he knew history.  Ammon’s king had only a revised version of it, but Jephthah takes thirteen verses to explain the actual account of Ammon’s encounter with Israel years before.  Jephthah also firmly stands with the Lord God of Israel.  Boldly, he concludes before the king of the Amorites: “So now the LORD God of Israel hath dispossessed the Amorites from before his people Israel, and shouldest thou possess it?”  Then he ventures to attack the very source of the Amorites’ trust, their god Chemosh:  “Wilt not thou possess that which Chemosh thy god giveth thee to possess?”  And he reasons, “So whomsoever the LORD our God shall drive out from before us, them will we possess” (11:23-24).
            When the Amorites fail to listen to Jephthah’s plea for peace, Jephthah gets desperate with God.  He promises, “If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.”
      It was probably a rash vow, but Jepthhah gave his word, and that meant much to him, so when his daughter, his only daughter, greeted him at his house with timbrels and dances, Jephthah wept.  I wonder, was he intending a pet lamb to greet him?  What had he envisioned in his mind’s eye the day he gave that vow?  Whatever the case, Jephthah’s daughter remained unmarried till the day she died.**
            I believe Jephthah had trained his children in the admonition of the Lord, because after learning of her father’s promise to God, Jephthah’s daughter responds, “My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the LORD, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the LORD hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of Ammon.”  Jephthah’s daughter requests only that she be allowed to go for two months with her friends and bewail her virginity.  Her dreams of motherhood are crushed in an instant; her hopes of a beautiful future with a man of God dash to the ground as she hears her father’s words.  But with her future now handed to her as a result of her father’s vow, perhaps a rash one, she does not utter a syllable of complaint.  Instead, she encourages her father to keep his vow.  She rejoices with him that God has graciously allowed him to be victor that day. 
            In faith, Jephthah’s daughter embraces her father’s decision and makes it her own.  This young woman is an amazing testimony of submission and obedience.  In learning of her father’s request, she does not ask him if he can break his vow.  She requests only that she have two months to bewail her virginity; then she goes on with her life and is never heard from again…only that the daughters of Israel weep for her four days a year for her.  What a testimony she has in Scripture’s pages—a legacy of submission and integrity! 
            Later, a civil war breaks out between Gilead, Ephraim, and Manasseh over something petty.  I believe we see an example of Jephthah’s rashness once again, for 42,000 Ephraimites—fellow Israelites—were killed in this conflict.  James tells us, “From whence come wars and fightings among you?  Come they not hence, even of your lusts which war in your members?”  In just war, killing another human is justifiable.  But in unjust war, murder is on one’s hands.  It seems to me that, even though the men of Ephraim had threatened to burn down Jephthah’s house, this still did not give him reason to fight and kill.  These were brethren.  Jephthah had been wronged and hurt (the Ephraimites didn’t help Jephthah fight against Ammon when he requested it) and cast out in the past, but should he have stirred up the conflict or truly sought to make peace?  Jephthah rebukes the men, reminding them it was not he who had won the victory but that the Lord had delivered the Amorites into his hand.  Clearly Jephthah placed the honor where it was due, and God used Jephthah to punish even fellow Israelites for their idolatry.
               It was only six years that Jephthah reigned, but he was a mighty man of valor, and his is a powerful obituary.  He did something in his six years.  He let God use him.  He used his knowledge of history to confront a heathen king.  He glorified and uplifted God’s name.  He followed through on a decision he had made in desperation.  He trained his only child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, so that she too responded in faith to her father’s direction for her future.
            Oh, Jephthath’s name is mentioned somewhere else.  In the faith chapter of Hebrews 11—we are told, “Time would fail me to tell of . . . Jephthae . . . who through faith . . . subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises . . . waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.”
            Jephthah—a short-lived ruler.  But a long-lived legacy—in the pages of Scripture.
            Heaven has an immense library.  I wonder, what are the pages of God’s book of life recording of our lives today?  It is that history, that obituary, that really matters.   
*I am taking a slight detour from our "Meekness" series, as I have been pondering eternity and the legacies of individuals lately.  I will plan to share some lessons from people who have gone to glory and then return to the current series on Meekness.

**There is disagreement concerning what actually happened with Jephthah’s daughter.  I personally believe she remained a virgin the rest of her life, not that she was actually offered as a burnt offering.  I think rather that her life symbolized a living sacrifice or burnt offering, as in Romans 12:1-2, where Christians are asked to offer their lives as living sacrifices to God. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Beauty of Meekness (Meekness, Part 3)

The bell had rung, but my eighth grade mind was still focused on the pages of the science text I had just read.  Describing a realm outside of time as we know it.  Far into space.  Where time doesn't exist. 
Astronomy has always fascinated me.  Just last week, my husband and I attended a planetarium show where I was again awestruck at the enormity of our universe and the amazing truth that God, who formed the world, “made the stars also” (Gen. 1:16).  Incredibly, this God who spoke the cosmos into existence and “hangeth the earth upon nothing” (Job 26:7) cares for me! 
His care reaches down and touches individuals.  People.  Formed in His image.  Placed on a specially designed planet that sustains life but was marred by humans, who brought sin into the world.  And yet this God sent a Redeemer, His Son.  And all who receive Him enter into a special relationship with this amazing Creator.  I was just a young girl of about four years old when I became God's child, when God gave me the gift of His Holy Spirit.  Psalm 149:4 states, “[The LORD] will beautify the meek with salvation.”  Specks of dust on a sin-cursed planet, slaves shackled in a miserable prison of transgression—as such, God offers us the gift of salvation!
The word salvation, said here to beautify the meek, often refers to God’s help.  As a believer today, I can rejoice that every part of my life can spell victory...for the meekness God gave me at salvation is very real for every spiritual conflict I will encounter today.  Exodus 15:2 declares:  "The LORD is my . . . salvation."  This meekness from God is a special gift.  I received the Holy Spirit at salvation, and one of His fruits in my life is meekness (Gal. 5:22).  Today.  Tomorrow.  And into the future.  Charles Spurgeon says it this way:  “[God] makes his people meek, and then makes the meek beautiful” (Treasury of David on Psalm 149:4).  Completely undeserved and entirely unnatural, this meekness is available to me.  And I enter its realm as I yield to God's Spirit in my daily life.  An interrupted schedule.  An unexpected difficulty.  A relationship that needs divine enablement.  For every part of my life, I can experience meekness from my God.  
Meekness is that heart attitude which meets the gracious drawing of our God.  It says "yes" when His Spirit convicts.  It responds to God's Word.  It obeys what it knows to do.  While pride resists Him, meekness responds to His call.  In those weeks prior to my conversion as a young child, God’s grace had reached out to prick my will by His Word.  I would lie in bed at night on those cold November evenings, pondering the meaning of salvation.  To get my questions answered, I would descend the stairs in our old farm house to visit my dad in his office.  God continued drawing me to Himself, and His Spirit illuminated my heart through His Word.  I was a sinner, destined for Hell, I learned.  I needed God's deliverance from my sin.  God would save me if I, in faith, responded to His call. 
Meekness is an absolute necessity for a heart responding to God.  And yet to in any way attribute this meek response as goodness originating in us would be flawed thinking, for this meekness springs from God alone.  In our flesh dwells no good thing.  Only through God’s grace do we respond to His truth.  I praise God for parents who both sought to raise their children in the fear of God, but I needed to reach out with the hand of faith (which comes by the Word of God) to take God’s gift of salvation.  That meek response, completely a manifestation of the grace of God in my life, beautified me with deliverance from sin—eternal salvation.
Bowing or crouching down—these visual images depict meekness and are linked etymologically to the word.  At salvation, I received a new heart.  I received the meekness of God's Spirit.  And yet, Galatians 5:17 reminds that "the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh:  and these are contrary the one to the other:  so that ye cannot do the things that ye would."  Only God can make my spirit, which is bent on asserting or exalting itself, which is too often proud and selfish, become a spirit that bows or crouches down, diminishing itself and exalting God instead.
Notice the first six verses of Psalm 149:  
“Praise ye the LORD. Sing unto the LORD a new song, and his praise in the congregation of saints. Let Israel rejoice in him that made him: let the children of Zion be joyful in their King. Let them praise his name in the dance: let them sing praises unto him with the timbrel and harp. For the LORD taketh pleasure in his people: he will beautify the meek with salvation. Let the saints be joyful in glory:  let them sing aloud upon their beds. Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a twoedged sword in their hand.”
Sing!  Rejoice!  Be joyful in God!  Praise God!  This text is marked by such commands, and at salvation, new believers characteristically respond with praise.  Why praise God?  Verse four provides two reasons:  1) the Almighty takes pleasure in His people and 2) He will beautify the meek with salvation.  Is it not amazing that the God of the universe, who created all things, should take pleasure in me?  How could I gain such entrance into His presence?  How is it possible that I should be something in which He delights?
God takes pleasure in me—not because of who I am but in spite of who I am.  Not because of what I do but because of what His Son has done.  That God should delight in me, that I am one in whom He, the magnificent Creator, should delight, is truly astonishing! 
Would I ever fail to spend time with my Lord if I focused upon this truth—that He takes pleasure in me?  That no failure of mine can separate me from His delight?  Would I ever hide from His presence when tired or weak if I embraced this reality—that He is delighted with me?  Not only does He delight in me, but He longs to make me beautiful.  
What astounding truths about our God!  No wonder David is exclaiming—rejoice!  Praise!  Sing!  God both delights in me and clothes me with His beautiful spirit of meekness.  I don't need to respond to anyone with a “like-treats-like” mentality.  I can rejoice in God continually.  I can meditate on His truth frequently.  I can live obediently.
My mouth becomes a fountainhead of God’s praise when I consider that my Lord finds me!  My actions reflect God's Word as I view this sharp, two-edged sword as my clear offensive weapon against the prowling enemy threatening to reek havoc upon my soul. With God’s praise on my lips and God’s sword in my hand, I find two clear offensive strategies against the enemy.  These spell victory.  Defeat vanquished.  Christ exalted.  Continually I can enter the realm of deliverance [salvation] from every enemy of my faith, for “the LORD lifteth up the meek: he casteth the wicked down to the ground” (Psalm 147:6).  Fighting for me in this battle is my God. 
This beauty of meekness, given me entirely by the Almighty God, entered into at the moment of salvation, is made real by responding daily to God’s Word in meekness, which is only possible as I yield to the promptings of God's Spirit each day, each moment, in every situation. 
Proactively, then, praise God.  Joyfully, exalt Him.  God beautifies the meek with His divine help.  Resisting the proud, He gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).  He delivers. He sends new meekness as we depend upon Him.  While we can do nothing without Him (John 15:5), we can do all things through Christ Who strengthens [us] (Phil. 4:13). 
Meekness is that sense of helplessness which realizes that without Christ, we stand completely deficient.  This fruit of the Spirit is a gift from the God Who delights in meeting our needs, in beautifying us with His deliverance!  Oh, let us live in the presence of this beautifying Savior and receive of His meekness today! 

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Joy of the Meek ("Meekness," part 2)

To be meek is to be humble.  To bow before God in spirit.  To surrender one's will to Him.  Responses like these carry with them one undeniable blessing--the joy of the Lord!
Did you know that meekness brings abundant joy?  Isaiah 29:19 explains:  “The meek also shall increase their joy in the LORD, and the poor among men shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.” Meek ones literally have continuous joy.  The idea in this verse is that they possess a joy that doesn't stop, that grows abundantly!  Joy.  It’s a fruit of the spirit, an evidence of abiding life in Christ.  But how many of us continually live in the presence of God (Psalm 16:11), experiencing His joy? 
Joy can become our thermometer--the gauge of just how much we are yielding to God's Spirit, to God's Word, to God's will in our lives.  If it's lacking, then our spiritual temperature is usually cold; our hearts, calloused; and our minds, distracted.  Such conditions demonstrate not meekness in our lives but meekness' opposite--selfishness.  Selfishness can even take the form of spiritual concern.  Before we know it, we have a case of spiritual myopia--a focus on some spiritual problem without the singular perspective required--"looking unto Jesus" (Hebrews 12:1) and the singular action necessary-- "casting all [our cares]" upon Him (I Peter 5:7).  
           One particular school year, I felt incredibly alone—as if I were the only one on the planet who understood a particular difficulty.   Never before had I experienced the kind of fighting of my authority that I was encountering in the classroom.  It seemed my soul was in continual struggle.  Daily I sought help from the Lord, begging Him for His divine love.  God gave it to me, but that didn’t change the continual spiritual battle in which I was engaged. 
Typically every September is full of excitement, goals, vision, and future focus; and that year was no exception.  But when I met with obstinate resistance, my energy began to fade, ever so slowly.  Little by little, my zeal began to dissipate.  When I returned from Christmas break with a similar focus, certain comments that lacked faith tore down the spirit I was seeking to instill.  Day passed day, and unfortunately, my own enthusiasm for focused leadership and purpose gradually diminished as this resistance continued. 

                 That year my enthusiasm and joy straggled immensely. By year’s end, instead of joyfully responding to trials as David did in Psalm 5:11—“But let all those that put their trust in thee rejoice: let them ever shout for joy, because thou defendest them: let them also that love thy name be joyful in thee”— I was instead imagining I had been all alone in my particular situation.  How wrong I was!  Though I had reflected upon the omnipresent nature of God and had discussed this very trait with my class on several occasions, I had failed to recognize that God had been with me every day.  He had been there, ready to defend me, standing about me with a hedge of protection.
It seems that so often in the practical outworking of life, those singular truths which we have embraced as doctrinally correct become lost in a muddled world of reactions based upon the natural and not governed by the supernatural reality of the Eternal God or guided by His enduring Book.  And yet God's omnipresence is true, regardless of any flaming dart that may be hurled our direction.  Often in Scripture, we're confronted by prayers that we as believers might see this good God and behold His perfect reality.  We desperately need the glasses of faith to behold God's goodness when life appears to be a wilderness.
The context of Psalm 5 is one of frustration for David.  An enemy has hurt God’s name, has torn down God’s cause.  This ungodly individual or these wicked people had resisted God’s authority.  Possibly Doeg and Ahithophel or possibly Sheba—whoever the exact cause was, we are unaware—but this Psalm gives account of David’s response when he felt as if he were alone in his authority and leadership. 
One of my younger brothers and I once stopped at his favorite custard shop.  (Wisconsin custard is a special dessert.  Better than ice cream and richer, too, it’s served frozen at custard stands in nearly every Wisconsin town.)  As I pulled through the drive thru and handed him his cone, my little brother, only a young elementary school boy at the time, began to worry, for from his frozen custard cone came an ever-quickening trickle of custard. 
“Here’s a napkin,” I suggested. 
But try as he might, my brother could not stop that ever-flowing stream of melting custard.  It trickled down his cone, onto his shirt, and onto his work jeans.  Needless to say, many tears were shed before arriving home.

          Similarly, the heat of testing had melted my joy that school year.  But God used the command from Psalm 100:1 (“Serve the LORD with gladness") to cleanse my heart as I realized that the meek's response is one of joying in God--regardless of others' reactions.  Meekness obeys God because He is God.  In that moment of obedience, the meek one enters the realm of faith.  Living in that reality, he finds God's grace available in abundance.  In fact, abundant joy can be had every moment of every day, regardless of any obstacle. 
          When David felt such antagonism toward him, he contrasted the wrong behavior of others to the almighty power of God.  He said, “But let all those that put their trust in thee rejoice: let them ever shout for joy, because thou defendest them: let them also that love thy name be joyful in thee.  For thou, LORD, wilt bless the righteous; with favour wilt thou compass him as with a shield.”
David’s clear admonition to all who struggle with opposition is—rejoice, because you are trusting in the Lord.  Every day shout aloud for joy, because God is your Defender.  On a continual basis, be joyful in this amazing God.  God will bless the righteous.  Around you, this little ant-like unprofitable servant, stands an amazing God who surrounds your pathway like a shield.  You are not alone.  God is your Defender!  
Meekness is reflected in your heart's response to trials in life.  Looking to God, you can choose this joy today and watch as He brings you continued joy in abundance!