Words; May 17, 2022

Acts 2:14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say.”

This was as much a work of the Holy Spirit as what had just gone before, and in some ways was just as astonishing. Peter, an ignorant fisherman with a track record of sticking his foot in his mouth and making a mess of things, here delivers a clear, even scholarly explanation to the crowd not only of what they had just witnessed, but of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Scriptures he quoted were spot on, and the effect on his hearers was dramatic. In the days, weeks, and years following he went on to earn a reputation as someone who indeed spoke the words of God. We can be pretty confident that here he was speaking Aramaic, because 2nd Peter shows that his Greek skills never rose very high, but that’s part of the miracle: God took him as he was and used him powerfully as a vital part of the establishment of the Church, not because of him but in spite of him and all his faults. We have no idea how much his grammar was cleaned up in this transcription, particularly because the record we have is in Greek rather than in Aramaic, but we do know what God did through His words which He spoke through Peter. I personally think that the experience of denying three times that he even knew Jesus, and then being forgiven after the resurrection, was an essential part of preparing Peter for this moment. He had zero confidence in himself, which enabled him to be totally yielded and available to the Lord. To whatever degree we draw back from letting God use us, we are looking at ourselves and our circumstances instead of at Christ. (Hebrews 12:2)

In some ways I have had the opposite problem. As many have recognized from my youth, God gifted me in terms of words and language. However, that was no guarantee that my output had any value! I have used words to amuse and entertain, which is fine but not vital. I have used words to lash out and hurt, which is certainly reprehensible. I have used words to confuse deliberately, which is the opposite of their purpose. I have gloried in the power of words, instead of in the One who enabled me to produce them. Occasionally I have used words as God has indeed intended them, lifting people up, healing them, and drawing them closer to their Creator. As good as that feels, you’d think I’d try to do it more consistently! I do seek to do that, but I’m acutely aware that I have a lot of room to grow in my availability to God. I want my words to echo His, working His will in my hearers, both those I can see and those I can’t. I’m to speak His words to principalities and powers, as well as to the physical people around me. (Ephesians 6:12) The moment I try to do that in my own strength and wisdom it becomes ineffective, but God is big enough and powerful enough to use even me, if I will allow Him to do so.

Father, thank You for this reminder. It’s sobering! Between school teaching and church preaching, it could be said that I make my living with words. May they be living words indeed, Your Words, bringing light and life to those who hear, for their salvation and Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Pentecost; May 16, 2022

Acts 2:6, 11 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”

The miracle of Pentecost was two-sided. Not only were the believers given words they had not learned, the crowd was given the ability to hear what they were saying and understand it. When you consider that there were around 120 people all talking at once, as well as the number of different localities mentioned from verse nine on, the hearing was also a miracle! What is not clear is whether each hearer heard all of them speaking his language, or whether they were able to pick out one or two people who were doing so. Anyone who has been in a polyglot situation has experienced recognizing when someone was speaking a particular language they knew, even if they couldn’t distinguish exactly what was being said. That seems likely here. I speak English and Japanese and have studied German so I can pick up those languages in a crowd, and I have a fair guess at some others, so I have no problems with that idea. It seems important to remember that what was being said was praise to God for what He had done. God’s miracles aren’t just for the sake of being miraculous, they are to point and draw people to Him in faith. It would have been meaningless if the believers had been talking about the weather or the stock market. They were experiencing the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to them: “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49) When we operate in God’s power, we will do His will for His glory.

Naturally, this applies to me. I first encountered the idea of Pentecost being a “miracle of hearing” during the brief time I had with my father after bringing my wife and children to Japan for the first time, before my parents left for the furlough from which my father returned as cremated ashes. I had been exposed to teaching about the Charismatic Movement but hadn’t yet personally experienced it, and I think I was discussing it with my father. He pointed out something his father (also a pastor) had written in the margin of a commentary on Acts, to the effect that “wouldn’t this be a miracle of hearing?” My father also wondered if his own remarkable ability in Japanese wasn’t a variation on the Gift of Tongues, since it came to him after a powerful encounter with the Holy Spirit. I can’t deny that it might have been! I have also heard someone who certainly didn’t speak Japanese using that language in ministry – in America! My wife also has experienced praying in Tagalog with a group of Filipinas, when she certainly doesn’t speak that language. I have learned that it’s very foolish to try to put God’s gifts into any sort of box. I have also learned that they are to be used, at His direction of course, and not hidden away like the servant who only received one talent. (Matthew 25)

Father, like so many other things, I realize I only have partial knowledge and understanding here. Help me keep growing, keep learning, so that I may be increasingly useful to You. May I be a good steward of all that You have placed in me and at my disposal, so that Your purposes for every bit of it may be fulfilled, on Your schedule and for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Imitating Jesus; May 15, 2022

John 5:30 “By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.”

This is a very powerful statement. When the Son of God Himself did nothing on His own, why would we think that we could accomplish anything on our own? I think Jesus’ use of “judge” and “judgment” here is not as in the sense of a courtroom, but as in the sense of evaluating things. We are all too prone to evaluate things – and people – on false criteria, when Jesus always listened to what the Creator had to say about anything. That often gives a very different result! Many things the world applauds are worthless or worse in God’s sight, and many things we might overlook are precious to Him. Jesus lived the most fulfilled life of any human being, and it goes without saying that the more we are like Him, the more fulfilled we too will be. Several years ago there was another run on the saying, “What Would Jesus Do?” WWJD was plastered on bracelets and bookmarks and t-shirts and hats. That wasn’t bad, but to the extent that it was a fad, it had little impact. Actually, we know what Jesus would do in every situation, which is to seek the Father and be obedient to Him. That’s not a slogan, it’s a mindset. We too need to evaluate everything on the basis of God’s will, knowing that He is our Father just as He was Jesus’ Father, even though the mechanism of our sonship is a bit different. (John 20:17) Because of our faith in Jesus, we have as much right to seek the Father’s will as He does, and that’s saying a great deal. However, in seeking, we need to be committed to following, or it is all hollow.

I’m certainly preaching to myself here! I too am quick to evaluate things on my own criteria, instead of seeking God’s evaluation. The foolishness of that is pointed out by the fact that if I had been evaluating myself, I would have rejected myself a long time ago! I am reminded of the fact that the first time my wife laid eyes on me her reaction was, “Yuck.” I’m very thankful God changed her mind! Just last night I was asked about some major life decisions by someone. As I told them, God is more than faithful to guide us if we will let go of our preconceptions and let Him show us what is good. I’m pretty consistent in giving that sort of good advice, but how consistent am I in following it myself? I need to be proactive in seeking God’s will, and not just go with the flow of whatever happens. As I will be saying in the message this morning, God has some awesome plans for us, and I need to seek them with joy and anticipation.

Father, thank You for this reminder. Thank You for the recent reminders of my own foolishness and frailty. As You told me years ago, may I indeed rest, relax, and rejoice in You, so that I may do Your will on Your schedule for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Expectations; May 14, 2022

Luke 24:20-21 “The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”

We can be blinded by all sorts of things, and strong desires and hopes certainly fall into that category. We create scenarios in our minds, and when events don’t fit those scenarios we fail to recognize what’s actually happening. These disciples had accurately identified Jesus as “the one who would redeem Israel,” but they had their idea of what “redemption” would look like, and when Jesus gave His body and blood to redeem not only Israel but all mankind, they couldn’t recognize it at all. We do the same sort of thing all too frequently. Dennis Prager says that he tries to have no expectations about anything, so that he’s often pleasantly surprised but hardly ever disappointed. I’m not sure that’s practical for most people, but I do understand the principle. However, it’s entirely possible to be consumed by a particular hope or desire, and completely devastated when that is dashed. These disciples were in that boat, I think. Their depression was so severe they didn’t even recognize Jesus when He was walking and talking with them! We need to release both our hopes and our situations to God to let Him do with them, and us, what He has planned, showing us what that is in His time. That’s easier said than done, but by God’s grace it’s possible.

I’ve experienced this myself on many occasions. There was a young woman I was convinced was to be my life partner, and things had certainly gone so as to encourage me in that expectation. However, circumstances changed, and she declined to renew and continue our relationship. To say I was disappointed would be a huge understatement! However, God knew that He hadn’t called her to be a missionary, and He had someone prepared for me whom He had so called, and this month will mark the 53rd anniversary of our wedding. That of course was huge, but I’ve had many smaller experiences of God having planned something better for me than I had in mind. If I don’t let go of my plans, I can’t receive His! Anticipation of blessing can be a blessing in itself, but I must not let that blind me to even greater blessings that God might have in mind.

Father, thank You for this reminder. You’d think I’d have learned this thoroughly by now! Help me keep growing in hearing and obeying You, so that all of Your plans for me, which I know are the very best, will be fulfilled on Your schedule for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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The Kingdom of God; May 13, 2022

Matthew 12:28 “But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”

This is a good example of the meaning of the term, the kingdom of God. We are prone to think of it in geographical terms, just as Putin has been trying to extend Russia into Ukraine, reestablishing the Russian Empire. However, a careful reading of the Bible, and especially the New Testament, gives a very different picture. Geographically God is everywhere, since He is infinite, so our human categories just don’t fit. His “kingdom” is where His rule and reign are acknowledged and established. The whole concept is integral to the confession, Jesus is Lord. The Roman emperors claimed that title for themselves, and declaring someone else to be Lord was saying you were under a different authority than Rome, and they couldn’t abide that. That was the whole justification for the murderous persecution they conducted against believers, and it’s the reason for the persecution Chinese believers, for example, undergo today. Totalitarian regimes can’t stand rivals! Here Jesus was pointing out, very logically, that His delivering people from demons by God’s Spirit meant that God’s authority was being manifested, whether the Pharisees liked it or not. We would see more manifestations of God’s authority, His kingdom, if we ourselves were more fully submitted to that authority. We take “Jesus is Lord” far too lightly!

I’m preaching to myself here. I know this truth in my head, but it is still being worked out in my heart. I need to be submitted to the Lordship of Christ each moment of each day, taking my orders from Him and not submitting to the world or the devil. I have earnestly desired that God pour His Spirit out on this nation, just as I will be speaking about Sunday, but I’ve got to be fully submitted to that Spirit myself, on every level. My flesh can be remarkably stubborn! This isn’t at all a matter of being “so heavenly minded I’m no earthly good,” as someone once put it, but of living through the nitty gritty of life as Jesus did, not yielding to temptations but accurately representing His heart, His character, in every interaction. When I pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done,” I’ve got to put feet on that and practice it myself.

Father, thank You for this reminder. Today is unstructured for me, as far as my schedule goes. Help me actively seek Your plans for each moment, whether the activity seems “spiritual” or not, so that indeed Your will may be done on Your schedule for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Restoration; May 12, 2022

Zechariah 9:12 Return to your fortress, O prisoners of hope;
even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.

This verse has been loved as a promise of restoration ever since it was recorded, but it has been misunderstood at least as much as it has been received as God intended it. It is clearly in the context of the coming Messiah, since verse nine was explicitly fulfilled by Jesus on Palm Sunday, but the mention of “a warrior’s sword” in verse 13 led the Jews of Jesus’ day, at least, to expect this to be fulfilled in a strictly materialistic, military way. The fact that Jesus refused to lead a military rebellion was a major cause of many Jews rejecting Him. However, as Jesus told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36) It’s not that the material is unimportant, but that it is entirely secondary. As Jesus so famously said, God will supply all our needs, but only if our focus is on Him and His righteousness. (Matthew 6:33) Coming back to this verse in Zechariah’s prophecy, we need to understand what has been taken from us in order to understand what will be restored to us. The simplest way to understand it is to consider the fruit of the Spirit. Paul listed that as, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23) Those are precisely the things the devil tries to take from us, and they are certainly the ingredients of a truly blessed life. God will indeed restore them to us in double measure if we are submitted and obedient to Him.

I’ve heard this verse quoted most often in terms of spiritual revival, such as the Great Awakening that happened just before America’s Revolutionary War, or the Shantung Revival that happened in China just before WWII, and that’s certainly appropriate, but I have also heard it quoted in terms of material goods. Jesus did mention that in talking to His disciples, (Matthew 19:29) but even then he capped it off with “eternal life,” which is a spiritual value. I would dearly love to see a spiritual revival in Japan that would dwarf all others in history, but I obviously can’t make it happen. I follow my parents in that desire, and they didn’t see it happen with their physical eyes. However, none of that precludes God bringing it about in His strength on His schedule. I am to maintain hope, however much of a prisoner of my flesh and my circumstances I might feel, and trust God to bring it about on His schedule for His glory.

Father, thank You for this reminder. I pray that I would be fully available to You for whatever You want to do through me, but not get in Your way when I’m not on the agenda. May I always have hope and strive for Your kingdom and Your righteousness, leaving everything in Your hands, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Peace in Turmoil; May 11, 2022

Micah 7:7 But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord,
I wait for God my Savior;
my God will hear me.

What a magnificent statement of faith! Micah has just described complete societal breakdown, but he still declares his faith and trust in the Lord. I certainly see many parallels to American society today. The particular mechanisms might be different, but rampant defiance against God and His rules is certainly in evidence. There is plenty of room for Micah’s kind of faith! Like him, we find ourselves hesitant to trust the people around us, not knowing how they would respond to what we might say. However, we serve a God who is totally trustworthy, and this is more opportunity to learn to trust Him. It is when we rest in Him that we can have peace regardless of what is going on around us. That’s why Jesus said so clearly, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) At times the world seems to come loose from its moorings. I’m sure the people of Ukraine feel that way right now. Regardless of the turmoil, the anarchy around us, those who know Christ have a foundation that can never be shaken. There are many, many hymns that rightly celebrate that glorious reality. It would be nice not to need turbulent times to grasp it fully!

Of course I’m no exception to this. I have discovered that I have friends with whom I have been close that I have to guard carefully what I say to them, and relatives likewise. The forces of division are indeed running wild. I am always to speak the truth in love, regardless of the consequences, but I need God’s wisdom as to when to speak (or write) and when to be silent. I am not to let their response be the determining factor, however. My words might be what God wants to use to introduce the truth that will set them free. I am to pray for every person and every situation, that God’s name would be acknowledged as holy and His rule and reign established as His will is done, by me first of all, since I can’t control anyone else. I have no room to criticize others if I’m not humbly submitted to God myself, and even then I must remember that “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” I’ve got to remember that great turmoil can bring great blessing, and keep my focus on my Lord.

Father, thank You for this reminder. In this Information Age I’m aware that my situation is almost infinitely better than that of so many people around the world. Help me not fail to pray for them, lifting them up and praying in Your kingdom on every level, for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Acknowledging God; May 10, 2022

Hosea 2:15 “There I will give her back her vineyards,
and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she will sing as in the days of her youth,
as in the day she came up out of Egypt.

This chapter, indeed this whole book, is a remarkable and in some ways heartbreaking story of a marriage that was a fitting parable for the relationship of Israel to Yahweh. I’m very thankful God didn’t call me to serve Him in the way He called Hosea! That said, there are a number of things in the story that are very pertinent to all who seek God. What stands out to me in this verse is the Valley of Trouble (which is what Achor means) becoming a door of hope. I’m reminded of Andrae Crouch’s song, Through It All. Often we don’t recognize God and all that He has for us until we get into a really hard place, generally through our own stupidity and rebellion. However, when we do repent and turn to God we find that He is incredibly gracious and loving, and we can be as responsive to Him as a young bride is to her husband. (Rather than “sing,” the Japanese goes with “respond,” which the NIV gives as a footnote.) The issue with Israel was that they attributed God’s blessings to idols, and so chased after the idols. We actually do the same, though it’s not generally in terms of statues and the like. We attribute modern affluence and luxury to science or technology, not acknowledging that it is God who makes those things possible. We claim “the God of Spinoza,” a Creator who isn’t interested in the activities of His creatures, as a way to avoid (we think) accountability to Him, when the Bible is clear that He is our heavenly Father who cares enough about us to send His Son to die in our place. We need to acknowledge Him in order to get the full benefit of all that He provides, and not have to go through the Valley of Trouble in the process.

Of course this applies to me as much as it does to anyone. I’ve always had problems with intellectual pride, and that’s what tricks people into trying to relegate God to an indifferent Creator. I need to remember constantly that I am accountable to Him, and so live my life for His glory by the guidance and power of His Spirit. He is indeed incredibly gracious, and He hasn’t given up on me in spite of my many failures. I am to respond eagerly to Him, delighting in His presence, so that His presence may radiate through me to draw others to Him as well, for their salvation and His glory.

Father, thank You for this reminder. Help me live it out consistently, whatever is going on around me, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Miracles; May 9, 2022

Ezekiel 37:3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

It’s hard to pick just one verse to write about from this story, because it’s so famous, dramatic, and meaningful. However, with this verse we see that Ezekiel got off on the right foot to begin with. If God ever asks us about something, we can be sure He already knows the answer! Humanly speaking, the answer to God’s question here would be a resounding NO. I’m reminded of a story I read just yesterday about how police were called when about 150 human skulls were found in a cave in southern Mexico. Those who found them, and even the police, thought they were the result of drug gang activity, but further investigation found that they were at least 500 years old, and were from people who had been ritually sacrificed. That was not the situation here, but to Ezekiel’s eyes it probably looked equally hopeless. However, as the Bible says repeatedly, nothing is impossible for God. One linguistic factor it is helpful to remember in reading this story is that in Hebrew the same word, ruach, can mean wind, breath, or spirit, depending on context. It obviously appears with all three meanings in this story. There is a very good Japanese worship song that says, “The Holy Spirit is going to blow from the four directions and bring life to this nation,” referencing this story, of course. We are very prone to look at situations and say, “It’s impossible,” forgetting to add, “but God…” Another thing to notice about this story is that things needed to happen in sequence. First the bones came together, then they were knit with tendons, ligaments, and muscles, then skin covered them, and then breath/wind/spirit came into them. We often fail to recognize what God is doing when it’s still in process. America is a mess right now, but with eyes of faith we can see that God is indeed moving, and what happens in America impacts the whole world, whether we like that fact or not. God has not yet completed His plan, and nothing can stop Him from doing that. 

This is very pertinent to me, because Japan has certainly been a “dry bones” nation. I’m very grateful that a Japanese song has been created from this story, because all of God’s children in this nation need to have the faith to catch the vision of God’s Spirit being poured out here. That is neither passive nor pie-in-the-sky; we need to be active in offering ourselves to God for Him to use in accomplishing His miracles. I’m reminded of a friend who wanted me to pray for him to receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit with the gift of tongues. I prayed for him and then told him to start praising God and let God give him the words to say in whatever language, but he wouldn’t do it. He wanted God to move his mouth! That’s a sad misunderstanding of our part in God’s plans. I need to be active in my obedience to God, eagerly seeking to do whatever He wants me to do and not just sitting like a bump on a log until He knocks me off the log! Even if the situation looks as impossible as a valley of dry bones, I’m to keep moving in whatever the Lord has shown me is the task at hand, talking to the bones as directed.

Father, thank You for this reminder. Thank You indeed for what You are doing in this church. Thank You for enabling me to get the flier for the barbecue made and taken around to the neighbors, and that the response seemed to be much better than last year, when nobody actually came. Thank You especially for the response yesterday when I insisted that we needed to plan the program to do before the barbecue, and believers took the ball and ran with it. I was so out of my comfort zone, but one man said to me, “And you’re not to do anything.” I was floored, but totally relieved. May this indeed be a time of Your breath, Your Spirit, blowing through this church and this neighborhood, bringing Your life for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Waiting on God; May 8, 2022

Lamentations 3:25-26 The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.

I was struck with how many times the word hope came up in today’s reading. If there was ever a hopeless situation, Jeremiah was in it! Most people have trouble even imagining the devastation of Judah and Jerusalem at that point. I’m reminded of the pictures of Northeastern Japan after the tsunami in 2011. The book of Lamentations was written as Jeremiah’s response to his situation, and some of it is bitter indeed. However, in the middle of it is this magnificent, even amazing, expression of faith and hope. This is essentially the middle of the book, since it has five chapters, and by the end of it he is quite depressed again, so we must not think that Jeremiah was an unshakable tower of faith; he was as human as we are. That should actually be very encouraging to us, because God revealed His truth to this very human man, and the whole world has been blessed as a result. This specific passage deals with our human tendency to get frantic. We aren’t to be fatalistic, but we need to remember that when things are totally out of our control, they still aren’t out of God’s control. Waiting quietly for the Lord’s salvation can be the hardest thing at times, but you could call it an essential survival technique. Thinking “I’ve got to fix everything” will destroy us.

I have an odd personal connection with Lamentations. My family was in the US when I was in the 5th grade, and my Sunday School teacher was a friend of my older brother. We had a lesson on Lamentations, and the teacher asked if anyone knew what the word meant. I blew him out of the water by replying, “To lament is to be very, very sad.” That was a better answer than he could have given, and for a while he called me “Lammy-pie!” However, understanding vocabulary isn’t nearly as important as understanding God’s truth, and that has come more slowly. Men in general tend to have a “Mister Fix-it” mentality (which can lead to a lot of marital conflict), and I’m no exception. I certainly get satisfaction in fixing all sorts of things, both physical and otherwise, but that’s not always the best approach. I too have to work on waiting quietly for God’s answers! That’s not to say that I’m to be passive; waiting can be very active! However, it is to say that I’m never to think that it’s got to be my strength, my wisdom that brings the solution to whatever the issue is. God is more than able to handle it, and He will. He might even use me in the process!

Father, thank You for this reminder. I do ask for Your perfect will to be done, not just for this morning but for the barbecue on the 22nd as well. Help me not run from my responsibilities in that, but rather recognize Your solutions to whatever degree they involve me or not. May Your will be done, for the salvation of this neighborhood, this city, this nation, for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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