Seeking God; December 9, 2019

Amos 5:4, 14 This is what the Lord says to Israel:
“Seek me and live”
Seek good, not evil,
that you may live.
Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you,
just as you say he is.

The Lord said something directly to Israel, and then Amos amplified and explained it, with great accuracy. Seeking God, the Creator and source of all life, is without question the most logical thing to do if you want to live. In verse 5 the Lord specifically contrasts seeking Him with seeking specific places of worship. Every time revival breaks out somewhere, people travel great distances to go there. If they are genuinely seeking God, that can be a very beneficial thing, but we are very quick to confuse the location with the blessing, and think, “If I can only get to that place.” God says not to do that! Amos gives us practical advice on how to seek God: seek good. Since God is invisible and not tied to a specific place of worship, we need to seek Him in other ways. Each of us has a conscience, and we can think of that as a “GPS” to lead us to God. We don’t want to damage that GPS! Paul speaks of “hypocritical liars, whose consciences have be seared as with a hot iron.” (1 Timothy 4:2) When you get yourself into that category, you certainly aren’t going to be seeking God, however much you might claim that He is with you. Sadly, we have seen that in some Church leaders down through the centuries, and the results have been tragic. We need to be honest and humble in seeking God, asking Him to sharpen our consciences so that we will seek good, and thus seek God, more accurately. It is only through Him that we have life, and through His Son that we have eternal life. (John 3:16)

One of the many blessings of being raised in a strongly Christian home was the early establishment of a pretty strong conscience. That’s not to say I haven’t ignored my conscience more times than I like to remember, but it was there even when it wasn’t being used. As a pastor I constantly run into people who have a very confused conscience, and it can be very sad indeed. It reminds me of the GPS in my car, that is about four years old. Most of the time it can be very helpful, but it doesn’t know about recent road changes. When we take the new exit off the expressway closest to our house, for example, it goes crazy! Most of us need corrections, at least, to the data in our “GPS.” Sometimes we need an almost completely new data set! If someone doesn’t know about Jesus, they are missing the data for the only “off ramp” to eternal life. In that analogy, my task is to supply the updated data set to all who will accept it. To do that, I’ve got to be careful that my own GPS is set accurately, so that I won’t be leading others astray.

Father, thank You for this very clear, modern analogy. It’s not one that Paul would have known about! Help me continue to seek You with my whole heart, rejoicing in how You have revealed Yourself to me and always seeking more, because You always have more to give. Thank You. Praise God!

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Repentance; December 8, 2019

Joel 2:13 Rend your heart
and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and he relents from sending calamity.

This is a good counterpoint to yesterday’s verse. What we do and say is certainly not unimportant, but what happens on the inside is even more important. We don’t have the custom of tearing our clothes as a sign of contrition or mourning, the way they did in that culture, but the picture is still clear for us today. Going through the motions, acting pious, isn’t what God is after. We can become very skillful at deceiving those around us, and even deceiving ourselves, but we can never deceive God. One thing that can hold us back from genuine repentance and submission to God is the lie that He is not as He is described here. As it says in Hebrews, “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) If you don’t believe God is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love,” why would you seek Him and try to please Him? That’s why the devil tries so hard to convince us that God is mean, capricious, and vindictive, when He is none of those things. When we have it straight who and what God is, and then who and what we are, it becomes a simple choice to commit ourselves totally to Him. Today I’m speaking on Commitment, from Mary’s response to Gabriel when she was told she would bear the Messiah. (Luke 1:35-38) She was able to do that because she had an accurate understanding of God’s character, and she knew He was to be trusted absolutely. If we have her faith, we will still sin because of our human weaknesses, but repentance will be immediate and complete, and that is what God desires.

As I keep being reminded, because I know “the motions” so well, I always have the risk of “going through the motions” without having a real change of heart. I’ve got to stay in focus, asking and allowing the Holy Spirit to shine His light into every dark corner of my soul, so that I won’t trip up over some hidden sin. I’ve got to be totally honest with Him and with myself, repenting immediately and fully of each thing He shows me that is not pleasing to Him. I am indeed to do what He tells me, as a good servant, but even more importantly, I am to be what He wants me to be, as a good child. I won’t follow through with either of those things if I allow my understanding of Him to be distorted. He is my perfect heavenly Father, and I am to be at total peace with that, trusting Him regardless of what my senses or my intellect might say to the contrary.

Father, thank You for this strong reminder. That was a very disturbing dream I had last night. Help me trust You fully and not hang onto anything besides You, so that all of Your purposes for me may be fulfilled on Your schedule for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Words; December 7, 2019

Hosea 14:2 Take words with you
and return to the Lord.
Say to him:
“Forgive all our sins
and receive us graciously,
that we may offer the fruit of our lips.”

The Bible talks many times about how words alone are not enough, but at some times, some words are absolutely vital. Paul indicates that the moment of salvation is one of those times. “If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.” (Romans 10:9-10) Verbal confession of Jesus as Lord is vital, and verbal confession of sin to God is likewise vital. Everything material that we have comes from God in the first place, so giving it back to God, while important, affects us more than it does Him. Words, however, if they come from our heart, are genuinely something we can give to Him. The expression, “the fruit of our lips,” immediately calls to mind a verse I have known and loved for a long time: “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise–the fruit of lips that confess his name.” (Hebrews 13:15) For our words to be acceptable sacrifices, they must absolutely be sincere. This goes back to what I said first about words alone not being enough. As John the Baptist said, we need to “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” (Matthew 3:8) Words are essential, but we need to act in keeping with those words for them to be true.

This is a continuing major issue for me. I have had a gift for words most of my life, and growing up in the Church, I know all the “right words” to say. Accordingly, I know from painful experience that words alone aren’t enough. However, I must not let that distract me from the importance of words. After all, Jesus said, “I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.” (Matthew 12:36) That really bites! Particularly when I have a gift for words, I need to be very careful that my every word is a gift back to God, holy and acceptable in His sight, to whomever it is spoken or written. That’s not at all to say that I am to be stiff and formal all the time. I’m convinced God has a sense of humor, because of how He made us! Several of the prophets, and even Jesus Himself, used puns to get their point across, and clean laughter is indeed very healing. As Paul said, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:6) I am to glorify God by blessing Him and those around me with my words, not letting any of them be empty or careless.

Father, thank You for this powerful Word. It really brings me back to basics. May my words indeed bring You praise, whether they are addressed to You or not. In other words, may my words cause those who receive them to praise You, for You alone are worthy of all praise. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Waiting in Hope; December 6, 2019

Hosea 12:6 But you must return to your God;
maintain love and justice,
and wait for your God always.

This is yet another of the many passages that seem they would be better translated as “wait in hope,” or “wait expectantly.” That is a standard expression in Japanese, and it would seem to be so in Hebrew as well, but it doesn’t seem to be in the vocabulary of translators into English. Just waiting is passive, which is one reason it’s so hard to do. Waiting in hope is far better! Hope is very closely related to faith, whereas waiting by itself can be resigned or even despairing. When we are being called to return to God and maintain love and justice, faith would certainly seem to be essential. “Maintaining love and justice” is emblematic of the things we should be doing as we wait, and to be done right, they require faith in the God who is perfect love and justice. Those who insist that there is no God discover that there is no basis, no fundamental reason or even framework, for either love or justice without Him. That is the fundamental paradox of atheism. Recently a rather prominent atheist conceded that the world would be a much nicer place with more Christians in it! When we return to God in faith, we receive His strength to become more like Him, and that is good for everyone and everything.

This phrase by itself makes it a good thing to be bilingual! Every language has things that are easier to say in it than they are in other languages, and often, things that are essentially impossible to say in other languages. Yesterday I watched a video of a beautiful praise song being sung in more languages than I could keep track of, alternating lines and sometimes even simultaneously. (It was particularly interesting to hear one section being sung in Mandarin and Cantonese at the same time. They use the same written system, but they are distinctly different languages.) The whole point was taken from Revelation 7:9, where it talks about the “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language” standing before God’s throne and singing His praises. That’s another thing to look forward to in heaven: knowing and understanding every language ever given to mankind! That simply adds to the hope that I have, which makes it far easier to wait for my God. The more assurance I have that He is omnipotent and He loves me, the easier it is to wait for His timing. That’s not at all to say I don’t get anxious at times, because I do, but at least I realize how silly such anxiety is. I see examples all the time of God’s perfect timing, even when I do so by realizing I have missed it! Yesterday a couple was quite late for marriage counseling. I got rather irritated with them, when actually God was making time for me to make a phone call I needed to make. However, I didn’t remember that phone call until I was in the shower last night! Waiting isn’t to be passive, it is to be done in obedience to God. Often enough His plan for that time is prayer, or meditation on Scripture, but He always has a plan, and I need to seek it consistently.

Father, thank You for this reminder. Help me make that phone call at Your right time, and not be anxious about it. Help me indeed rest, relax, and rejoice in You, just as You have told me to do, so that all of Your purposes for me may be fulfilled on Your schedule for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Fathering; December 5, 2019

Hosea 11:3 “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize
it was I who healed them.”

Hosea really shows us the heart of God, and that heart hasn’t changed. This is a beautiful picture of our loving heavenly Father, and as a father myself I can really relate. I didn’t get angry when my daughters fell down and skinned their knees, I cleaned them up and disinfected their scrapes and comforted them. God does exactly that sort of thing with us, but the problem comes when we fail to recognize what He is doing. We cry when the washing hurts and the disinfectant stings, and sometimes even think God is being mean to us. How foolish! We are certainly no less dependent on God than a toddler is on their parents. We need to realize that, accept it, and give Him the gratitude, praise, and obedience that He is due.

Just writing this brings back many memories of my own children, along with the awareness that they aren’t perfect yet, any more than I am. There are times when I want to hug them and make everything right, but geographic and emotional separation makes that difficult. I have to release them to our mutual heavenly Father, while praying for them and staying available for whatever contact they desire. After all, they haven’t treated me as badly as Israel did Yahweh! Physically much closer to home, I have numbers of spiritual children, and the situation is actually much the same. As long as they are willing, I am to take them by the hand (metaphorically speaking) and help them learn to walk well on the often rocky road in front of them. I am to be God’s agent in washing and disinfecting their cuts and skins and scrapes, even when I have been the one who inadvertently hurt them. That can be difficult! I am to be a channel of God’s love surrounding them, so that they may be healed from the inside out. I certainly can’t do that on my own, but if I am available, God can and will use me to do that for them, and for His glory.

Father, I feel like my spiritual parenting has left a lot to be desired over the years. Thank You for Your patience with me. Looking back I can see many failures, both with my physical children and my spiritual children. Help me not keep accusing myself over those failures – or accept the devil’s accusations. Help me keep growing as the father You want me to be, so that my children of all sorts may be as You want them to be, for their blessing and Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Sowing and Reaping; December 4, 2019

Hosea 10:12 Sow for yourselves righteousness,
reap the fruit of unfailing love,
and break up your unplowed ground;
for it is time to seek the Lord,
until he comes
and showers righteousness on you.

Here’s another verse that has been delightfully set to music in Japanese, though not totally verbatim in this case. (It may have been done from a different translation than the one I use.) Setting Scripture to music makes it very easy to remember, as opposed to rote memorization, and is a very good way to “hide it in our heart.” (Psalm 119:11) The message of this verse is that there is stuff we are to be doing as we seek God and wait for Him. The image presented will really click for anyone who’s been involved in agriculture, but that’s an increasingly small percentage of the population, at least in countries like the US and Japan. Ground that hasn’t been plowed can often get a hard crust on it, and seeds sown on it directly just lie there for the birds to eat. Seeds the birds aren’t interested in, like weeds, sometimes do very well! For the ground to welcome desirable seeds, it has to be broken up, or plowed. That can be hard work! These days we use machinery to do it, for the most part, but that has been a very recent development. There are places in the world today that literally use pointed sticks to poke holes in the ground for planting seeds, and hand labor has been the rule for most of history. The important thing then becomes, what seed to plant. Since this is obviously an allegory for the human soul, we need to do all we can to avoid planting envy, anger, pride, and a host of other undesirables. Rather, we are told to plant righteousness. That is defined most simply as doing the right thing. It’s amazing how often we violate our own conscience! If we pursue the idea of “the right thing,” we quickly come to the idea of doing whatever God has told us. Some people claim they’ve never heard God, but the Bible is widely available and we have a very high level of literacy. Ignorance is no excuse! The good news is that if we sow righteousness, we get to reap unfailing love, and who doesn’t want that? It’s interesting to realize that whereas the implication is that we reap God’s unfailing love, it is also true that the more we walk in what God has said to us, the more we are able to love others unconditionally ourselves. We become channels of unfailing love! The thing is, on our own we have great difficulty doing the right thing with any consistency, so that’s why we need to seek the Lord, to receive His righteousness. Thankfully, we have a marvelous promise that has been proved true countless times: “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:12-13) When we come to Him in humility and truth, He indeed showers righteousness on us.

This year we had a real garden for the first time since settling in Omura, and it’s been very educational. We were eating eggplant from it right up to the end of November, and we still have some late-sprouting beets that look promising. That said, we still have a lot of gravel to get out of the soil, and it will need to be well plowed again before spring planting season. This year has certainly taught me about weeds! As a pastor, I see spiritual weeds in the lives of essentially everyone. Those are all the things that distract us from the righteousness that God intends and provides for us. I’ve learned that the longer you wait to deal with a weed, the harder it is to get out, and that applies both in horticulture and spiritually. I need to ask the Holy Spirit to help me recognize weeds in my own heart and get rid of them promptly, so that I may bear the abundant fruit that God intends for His glory. (John 15:5, 8)

Father, thank You for this reminder. Thank You for the joy of eating produce from our own garden. May I indeed bear abundantly for You, for Your pleasure and glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Leaving Hypocrisy; December 3, 2019

Hosea 6:3 “Let us acknowledge the Lord;
let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
like the spring rains that water the earth.”

I have loved this verse ever since encountering the Japanese translation I use set to music verbatim. I promptly translated that into English (since no English translation of the Bible fits the meter of the song) and we’ve been singing it in this church ever since. However, there’s a real irony to that, because this verse expresses what the people were saying without getting their hearts right with God. The words themselves are all right and pious, but a close examination reveals that in this case, they were a “give to get” sort of thing. To use a Latin expression that has been in the news a lot recently, they were intended as a quid pro quo. God wanted more than words, He wanted follow-through. The dangerous thing is that sometimes we even fool ourselves, saying all the right things without actually doing them, as James pointed out. (James 1:22) When God expresses to the people what He really wants, He uses the same terminology they did, of acknowledging Him. (verse 6) We can say it without doing it! The Bible has countless expressions of the truth that God wants our hearts first. If He has those, our actions will follow. We get that backwards and try to “earn points” with God by our actions, without really giving Him our hearts. What a tragedy! We try to reform people, and even ourselves, from the outside in, but God knows it has to be the other way around. It’s not at all that our actions don’t matter. Jesus was very clear on that, asking, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46) He hit the nail on the head when He said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” (John 14:15) James also talked about faith expressing itself in actions. (James 2:14-26) What further complicates things is that occasionally, repeated actions can lead to faith. However, that is certainly the exception. God wants us to start by repenting of our rebellion and giving Him our heart. Then and only then will we express our love for Him by the obedience that He seeks.

When we talk about acknowledging God, Proverbs 3:5-6 immediately comes to mind: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” I have loved that passage for a long time, precisely because I have a strong tendency to “lean on my own understanding.” I have come to the conclusion that we are all hypocrites to some degree, and spiritual growth is the process of being liberated from that. It is not at all wrong for me to sing today’s verse, but I must be careful that I am indeed pressing in to acknowledge my Lord, and not just saying the words and going my own way. Since I’ve been in church literally since before I was born, I know all the right words to say. I must not be deceived by that, but seek to worship God always in spirit and in truth. (John 4:24)

Father, thank You for this powerful reminder. Thank You that I do know what is right, even though that leaves me with no excuse when I fail to follow through. Help me say the right things and do the right things because I am indeed fundamentally right with You, for the blessing of those around me and for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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