Do I Boast in the Lord or in Myself? The Second Part of Gideon’s Story (Judges 7)

This story is all about boasting, a special kind of boasting, boasting not in our own ability, but in God’s ability to save. That’s important because as long as we are boasting in our own accomplishments we will never have time to trust God to save us.

 Have you ever heard the story of the Emperor’s new clothes? It goes a little something like this: The emperor hires two new tailors to make a suit for him. He pays a nice sum of money, they take measurements, and he expects them to return with a brilliant suit. The tailors are tricky folks and they play on the emperor’s gullibility and desire to be loved by others. They tell him that they have made a one of a kind unique suit, in fact it is so special that only those who are pure of heart can see how splendid it really is.

So it comes time to try one the suit and they show up with a box of nothing. They go through the motions just like they were laying out a real suit, but there is nothing there. They ask the emperor to disrobe so he can wear the special new suit. The emperor doesn’t see a suit, but not wanting to feel stupid, pretends he does. They pretend to help him fit in the suit. They ask him if it’s too snug, or if it fits just right and then they go on praising him, telling him how fine he looks in his new suit.

Then they start to call the castle staff in starting with the butlers and maids. They describe to these kind gentle folks that only those pure of heart and fit for service in the palace can see how splendid the fabric really is. Each person who comes in is afraid to admit that if they say the emperor is naked that it will reveal that they are not pure of heart and were never meant for palace work anyway. Finally there whole palace is in an uproar about how brilliant the emperor’s suit is. No one dare says that they can’t see it and they all go on pretending in order to cover their shame.

The next thing you know someone yells out, “Let’s have a parade and show everyone how brilliant your new suit is!” and of course that’s a good idea because everyone in the palace is pretending to be able to see this imaginary suit.  The situation escalates quickly and the emperor is now marching out in front of his whole castle staff down the road through the village. People are running ahead announcing the reason for the visit from the emperor and that only those, “pure of heart, fit for a kingdom like ours can see how brilliant the suit really is.” The band assembles. The people, not wanting to betray their inability to see the suit all play along.

Then the procession rounds a corner and a little child who didn’t hear the announcement looks up and sees the king marching naked through the street with all his staff behind him, with the band playing, with all the people telling him how wonderful he looks in his new suit and says, “you’re naked!”

The charade is up! Everyone’s worst suspicions were realized. There never was a suit, it was all made up by some lazy tailors who wanted the kings money.

In a way we are like the king and all the towns folk when we boast about ourselves and what we have done. Boasting is like the emperor’s new clothes because we all stand in need, but boasting ignores that real need and shifts focus onto a lie that says, “I have enough.” People who have a problem boasting about themselves are trying to cover over a real need. To put it in perspective it’s like saying, “I know I am a sinner, but I’m really good at basketball,” or “I know that I can’t forgive that person for what they’ve done to me, but I’m really beautiful.” Or “I know that I’m going to spend eternity away from God in a place called hell, but man can I sing.” Boasting in ourselves is like the king who boasted in his new outfit. He was actually boasting in his ignorance.

The nation of Israel was overrun by Midianites. God had sent word that he would deliver them through the hand of Gideon, but He was going to do it in a way that it was obviously God who won the victory. The Israelites needed to know that even in their weakness that God was strong. They needed to boast not in themselves, in their nakedness, but in the God who covers over sin and provides for deliverance.

  1. When we are WEAK, we see God’s STRENGTH

Then Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) and all the people who were with him rose early and encamped beside the spring of Harod. And the camp of Midian was north of them, by the hill of Moreh, in the valley. The LORD said to Gideon, “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’ Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home and hurry away from Mount Gilead.'” Then 22,000 of the people returned, and 10,000 remained. And the LORD said to Gideon, “The people are still too many. Take them down to the water, and I will test them for you there, and anyone of whom I say to you, ‘This one shall go with you,’ shall go with you, and anyone of whom I say to you, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ shall not go.” So he brought the people down to the water. And the LORD said to Gideon, “Every one who laps the water with his tongue, as a dog laps, you shall set by himself. Likewise, every one who kneels down to drink.” And the number of those who lapped, putting their hands to their mouths, was 300 men, but all the rest of the people knelt down to drink water. And the LORD said to Gideon, “With the 300 men who lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hand, and let all the others go every man to his home.” (Judges 7:1-7 ESV)

Did you catch that? God reduced the size of Gideon’s army by over 99%! First, let’s get one thing straight the 32,000 people he gathered together weren’t enough to take on the enemy! We are told that the soldiers of Midian numbered around 135,000!

So let’s do a little battle math. Let’s assume that all things are equal and so every guy can kill one guy. You’d need 135,000 guys to fight for you, not 32,000. Let’s say that you’re guys are really awesome and they do have the home court advantage so they are good for at least 2 of the other guys. You still need about 68,000.

Put it in money terms. Let’s say you’re trying to get enough money together to buy a really nice car. Something like a Lambrogini. You find one decked out, on sale for $135,000.  You don’t have $135,000 so you raise money, you promise rides out to your friends if they invest, you pick up odd jobs, you wash dogs, you sell your parents stuff at yard sales and you work really hard and you come up with $32,000. It’s impressive right? But it’s not enough to buy the car, but given your skills in raising the money you may feel like it’s enough to enter a negotiation. Now imagine that $20,000 walks off and you are left with $12,000 to negotiate with for a $135,000 car. Now imagine that it’s down to $300… Do you know what kind of car you buy for $300? At that point you are just buying it for the parts.

How ridiculous to walk into a car negotiation for a $135,000 car with only $300 in your pocket! You wouldn’t even call the guy. It’s not enough!

That is how it looks for Israel when it comes to defeating Midian. It’s impossible! No one in their right mind is looking around at any point in this whole thing thinking, “I think we have enough guys, send some home.” In fact, if you’re just one of the guys waiting to go to war and you see everyone else walking off because of this or that, you get worried. Look at verse 2 though, it’s important for the LORD to illustrate a point to Gideon and all of Israel. He is the one who delivers.

In our society we look at weakness as a flaw. We don’t like weak characters in our movies. We love it when one guy comes in and is able to do what a whole team of folks would do in real life. We like the strong. We like the strong so much that sometimes we fake it. We put masks on to cover over our weakness. We boast in our accomplishments so you won’t see our failures and we talk about the failures of others so that you are too busy looking somewhere else to see us for who we really are. The paradox of the gospel enters at this point because no strong men can be saved; no pretender will be either. Only those who come to a point of honesty about their weakness will truly ever be made strong.

The Apostle Paul, perhaps the most preeminate Apostle from history said this:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:9-10, ESV

Paul knew that acknowledging weakness isn’t a curse, it’s a blessing. Being weak and realizing that there is no way that you can get out of a situation puts you in a position to give all the praise and glory to God. Paul looked at his own circumstance and knows that it is God who provides for him. The LORD is his strength and you are never stronger than when you have the LORD on your side.

Here is how you worship. When you know exactly how much God has done for you because you were unable to do it yourself you celebrate. You want to see a worship service? Go hang out with people who used to be drug dealers and prostitutes but have been saved by the grace of God. You want to hear people sing God’s praise with passion, go hang out with inmates who met Jesus while in prison. Why? Because these people have a better picture of what it’s like to receive God’s forgiveness and strength over sin.

If you drop your wallet and I find it and hand it back to you, you might be grateful because there might have been $20 in there. How much more grateful would you be if I found it and it had $200, or even if it had $2000. Our gratitude grows with the money we feel like we’ve lost.

How much more grateful will we be when we know that God has forgiven our sins against him! Most of us don’t even realize just how much that is. We are uncelebratory in worship because we are used to faking strength and boasting in our own accomplishments that we don’t realize how much he has done for us! Just like we need to know and celebrate what God has done in delivering us from our sins, Israel needs to know God is their deliver in this moment. So it’s down to 300.

  • God is patient with us in our WEAKNESS

That same night the LORD said to him, “Arise, go down against the camp, for I have given it into your hand. But if you are afraid to go down, go down to the camp with Purah your servant. And you shall hear what they say, and afterward your hands shall be strengthened to go down against the camp.” Then he went down with Purah his servant to the outposts of the armed men who were in the camp. And the Midianites and the Amalekites and all the people of the East lay along the valley like locusts in abundance, and their camels were without number, as the sand that is on the seashore in abundance. When Gideon came, behold, a man was telling a dream to his comrade. And he said, “Behold, I dreamed a dream, and behold, a cake of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian and came to the tent and struck it so that it fell and turned it upside down, so that the tent lay flat.” And his comrade answered, “This is no other than the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel; God has given into his hand Midian and all the camp.” As soon as Gideon heard the telling of the dream and its interpretation, he worshiped. And he returned to the camp of Israel and said, “Arise, for the LORD has given the host of Midian into your hand.” (Judges 7:9-15 ESV)

So this is what we know about Gideon. He’s always asking second guessing the LORD’s plan. First when God appears to He asks for a sign and so the LORD burns up a meal that Gideon brought out. Then we didn’t talk about this but Gideon puts out a fleece and asks God that everything but the fleece would be wet in the morning, then he puts out on the next day and asks that only the fleece would be wet and everything else would be dry. Now God says, “If you are still scared to go into battle just sneak down there and listen to what they are saying.” God gives him a third sign that He will be with Gideon.

We might be prone to giving Gideon a hard time, but how many times do we play these same sorts of head games with ourselves. God might be leading you to share the gospel with a classmate and so you do things like. “OK God if you are really telling me to share with them, then they will be the first one in class today” or “They will be sitting up front by the teacher.” And all sorts of stuff like that. Just so you know, it’s not the devil telling you to share the gospel with someone and it wasn’t the devil wanting to free Israel. We just need some help and encouragement knowing that God is going to go with us.

Sometimes God does come down to our terms like he did with Gideon and the fleece. Most often he delivers on his terms, like with this dream that Gideon overhears the man talking about. Gideon is so pumped about this that he runs back and rallies the troops… all 300 of them and hatches a plan.

  • Often it isn’t a matter of supernatural ability, but natural ability used in a supernatural way. (Gideon is more like batman than superman)

And he divided the 300 men into three companies and put trumpets into the hands of all of them and empty jars, with torches inside the jars. And he said to them, “Look at me, and do likewise. When I come to the outskirts of the camp, do as I do. When I blow the trumpet, I and all who are with me, then blow the trumpets also on every side of all the camp and shout, ‘For the LORD and for Gideon.'” So Gideon and the hundred men who were with him came to the outskirts of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, when they had just set the watch. And they blew the trumpets and smashed the jars that were in their hands. Then the three companies blew the trumpets and broke the jars. They held in their left hands the torches, and in their right hands the trumpets to blow. And they cried out, “A sword for the LORD and for Gideon!” Every man stood in his place around the camp, and all the army ran. They cried out and fled. When they blew the 300 trumpets, the LORD set every man’s sword against his comrade and against all the army. And the army fled as far as Beth-shittah toward Zererah, as far as the border of Abel-meholah, by Tabbath. And the men of Israel were called out from Naphtali and from Asher and from all Manasseh, and they pursued after Midian. Gideon sent messengers throughout all the hill country of Ephraim, saying, “Come down against the Midianites and capture the waters against them, as far as Beth-barah, and also the Jordan.” So all the men of Ephraim were called out, and they captured the waters as far as Beth-barah, and also the Jordan. And they captured the two princes of Midian, Oreb and Zeeb. They killed Oreb at the rock of Oreb, and Zeeb they killed at the winepress of Zeeb. Then they pursued Midian, and they brought the heads of Oreb and Zeeb to Gideon across the Jordan. (Judges 7:16-25 ESV)

This plan is ingenious! Gideon’s men surround the camp. They wait for a shift change. This is important because here is what would have happened at a shift change. 1/3 of the army would have been asleep. 1/3 of the army would have just woken up and taken their spot to guard the perimeter of the camp. And 1/3 of the army would be walking back to their tents with their weapons having just come off guard duty. So the 1/3 of the guys who were asleep get woken up in the middle of the night. They hear the enemy trumpets. They grab their weapons and behold there are already armed men in the camp. They go straight to battle not knowing that they are fighting their own guys. The guys on guard duty turn around and see people fighting and think the enemy has already advanced through the camp and so they join the fray and a massive army destroys itself in one night.

The cool thing is that this little plan seems to be Gideon’s plan. God used Gideon in his weakness to hatch a really cool plan that would deliver the whole army into their hand without much fighting. Gideon’s God given military brilliance would have never come to light had he not been pushed into leading the nation of Israel.

They chase down the Midian leaders. The whole thing comes full circle as the leaders go into hiding and are eventually caught. Where are they caught? One is caught and beheaded at a winepress, like where Gideon was threshing wheat when the LORD appeared to him and the other was caught and beheaded at a rock, like the one the LORD showed Gideon that he would be with him by burning up a meal.

You might find yourself like a Gideon, hiding, thinking there is no way that God can use you. Can I tell you, He can and he will. You may have a calling to go across the room to share Jesus with a friend, coworker, family member, or even a stranger and you are wondering, “Will God go with me?” I can promise you, he does! It may not work out as you intend, but when you trust him he is with you. You may be scared because God has given you a vision much larger than you are and you wonder why or how it could ever be accomplished. Know this, when you are little, God is big. When you fear God, you don’t fear people.  

Why Dealing with your Sin is more important than your Desperate Wishes (Mark 2:1-12)

Mark 2:1-12 ESV  And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home.  (2)  And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them.  (3)  And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men.  (4)  And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay.  (5)  And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  (6)  Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts,  (7)  “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”  (8)  And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts?  (9)  Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’?  (10)  But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”–he said to the paralytic–  (11)  “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.”  (12)  And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”

The Desperate Wish (1-4)

The first thing we notice in this story is that there is a man here with a desperate wish. He wants to be healed! It’s unspoken, but seemingly obvious. He is paralyzed. He can’t much move on his own…not in the same way that everyone around him can. He has to dependent on four of his friends to carry him to Jesus.

Just for a moment, I want you to visualize what it would be like to be paralyzed in Palestine during this time. There are no wheelchairs, no ramps, no building codes, no privacy stalls in the restroom. You can’t work. You either depend on the charity of your family or the generosity of strangers as you lay out by the street.

You don’t get to look people in the eye, that’s a luxury not afforded to those who can’t stand on their own. Everyone looks down on you whether they mean to or not. And you lay there on the dirty floor. You recognize people not by their faces but by their feet. All day long you see them. You see other people using their legs, their feet, their toes. You look at your own and wonder, why don’t they work? 

There is no doctor to tell you it’s an issue with your spine, your muscles or a birth defect… it is a mystery. There is no surgery or hope of a surgery that can give you back some of your mobility. There is no physical therapist who will painfully manipulate your legs and offer you a hope, painful hope, but hope that maybe you can walk again, or shuffle yourself from one bed to the next, or not have to depend one someone to take you to the restroom. No one in your life can offer you any real sense of hope that you will regain or obtain your mobility.

Then one day you hear the news. Jesus is in town. He has healed people. He cured leprosy (the cancer of the day). He had healed the blind. Maybe he can work on motionless limbs too? All of the sudden, there is hope. So you get a plan. You have to go see Jesus. You have four friends or cousins or friends of friends who also see the hope and they are willing to carry you to see this Jesus. This healer.

You try and hold your emotions in check. Something in you knows that this man can heal you, at the same time you don’t want to get your hopes up. Street magicians have come through town before. Charlatans, fakes, frauds who gather the ill around them, perform miracles and yet somehow the same numbers of people leave on their beds as were carried in. But this Jesus seems different.

You are discouraged when you get there. You see the crowd packed around the house. There is no way that you can even get in, but that doesn’t stop your friends. They run around back of the house where there is an external staircase and they carry you up. One of them listens intently to find out Jesus is in the house and then he starts to claw and pry at the dirt, sticks, and straw that makes up the roof. Then they begin to lower you… and for perhaps the first time ever you are looking down on people, not in a mean way, but for a moment you see them as they have seen you your whole life. You strain your eyeballs to see their expressions.

Then you see Him. You see Jesus. You don’t know what he looks like, but this must be him. He is sitting there in the teacher’s position. Your eyes meet. You don’t say a word, but look with earnest expectation. Finally as your body hits the dirt floor and you find yourself in front of a large crowd staring out at their feet again you wonder what it will be like when you are healed…will it be sudden or will it be slow. So you look up with longing and expectation. Now trapped on the floor, your friends who brought you here didn’t travel with you on this journey. They only came to the roof. You alone descended into now silent shadows of the house. You alone lay helpless before the crowd. You lay helpless before Jesus… Silent and expecting.

And you can see that he is moved by what you and your friends have done. He is smiling. He recognizes your faith in Him. You can see it in his eyes. And as he speaks the first word is so tender, He call’s you “son”. A tear is forming in the corner of your eye, partly out of expectation of what Jesus is about to do and partly because you are so vulnerable. Your weakness is on display for everyone. You can’t crawl away from this. Your deepest wish is either about to be granted or you are to be rejected.

Let’s pull out of the story for a moment because some of you have been here. You have been to this point with Jesus. You have a strong felt need or desire in your life. You are running on empty. You are longing for something to fill you. You know that if you just had that one thing you would be happy. Some days it’s just having a car that would run without breaking down. Some of you seek it in relationships. You bounce from one to another hoping to be filled. Some of you it’s landing the dream job, graduating school, it’s finding reconciliation with a loved one, it’s getting that house. You know that if you just had that one thing that life would be better. It has been the subject of your prayers for nights on end….

so because this man’s one thing is so obvious and you share a desire for God to grant you your One thing, that Jesus says next confuses you…

Jesus says to this man…, “Your sins are forgiven.”… Not “your body is healed” and it looks like Jesus missed the obvious

 

 

The Deeper Issue (5)

Jesus saw what this man didn’t see. He saw the deeper issue of sin. He could heal this man, but he would really just be empty again. It would be just a few short months and he would find something else in his life that would cause him to feel empty. The matter of needing to be healed was a surface issue. It was apparent to everyone that the man came there that day hoping to walk, skip, or at least limp out of there. But Jesus wasn’t as interested in the surface issue as he was the deeper issue.

You see God does have the power to grant all of those requests we see as pressing issues. God has the power to grant us our desperate wishes. But sometimes they would be no favor to us at all.  Jesus is looking at this man and saying I see the deeper issue here and I am going to reward your faith in me by going deeper than you thought I could go. I’m going to the very heart level and I’m going to forgive your sin. I’m going to get to the root of the issue here.

So Jesus doesn’t say, “Be Healed.” He says, “Your sins are forgiven.” And the crowd around him begins to react. There are two issues at stake here that we might miss if we are unaware of the historical context.

One: The people of that day commonly thought that sin and hardship went together. If your car just slung a piston rod, well it’s because you are sinful. If your child is born blind, well, it’s because you did something very bad. So when Jesus here addresses sin, they don’t necessarily see it as an unrelated issue in the minds of the people. And the truth be told, sometimes bad things do happen because of sin but alot of bad things happen because of other peoples sin or they just happen.

Sometimes bad things happen because of our sin and our deepest wish is to undo the hurt we have done to ourselves. Sometimes bad things happen because of other people’s sin, and our deepest wish is to remove the hurt from their actions in our life. And sometimes bad things just happen and our deepest desire is that we wouldn’t have to face this kind faultless adversity.

The second thing we don’t need to miss is that the people in Jesus’ day knew that only God could ultimately forgive sin. Up until this time Jesus was loved by most everyone. He’s a likable guy. People are coming out to see Him perform miracles. They want to be there when a blind guy gets healed. They want to tell everyone what they saw. They listen to his teaching and marvel because it’s unlike anything they have heard before.

But now he just forgave a man’s sin and that is something only God can do. The religious leaders on the edge of the crowd are processing what he just said. They are contemplating that perhaps Jesus just committed blaspheme.  They were mulling over the difference in claiming to be God and claiming to do what only God can do in their minds. They were ready to see the healing, but reluctant to accept that He could forgive sin.  

This leads Jesus to ask a Difficult Question…

 

The Difficult Question (6-12)

Which is easier, to say your sins are forgiven or to tell the man to walk? Think about that question for just a moment. What does this paralyzed man want to hear? What is the desire of his heart? What has he come all the way here carried by four friends, and lowered through a roof for? He has come for healing and so if Jesus just merely wants to please this man all he has to do is tell Him to get up and he’s got a fan.  I bet if Jesus went around answering your desperate wishes that you would be his fan too!

But Jesus isn’t looking for a fan, he is looking to bring real healing into this man’s life a healing that is deeper than this man even knows to look. He has come to heal the rift in his soul. He has come to forgive his sins and reconcile him to God!

Look again for a moment. What does it cost to heal this man? Seemingly it’s just a few words upon the divine lips and this man is restored to health? What does it take to forgive this man of his sin? The story of the gospel of Mark is not over. This pronouncement sets Jesus on a course for the cross. To forgive this man’s sin, he must be obedient where we weren’t. He will be pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. No my friends. To purchase the forgiveness of sins was not an easy thing to do, but it was a necessary thing to reconcile us to God!

 But what is Jesus doing here by answering the crowd? They haven’t asked a question? They are just thinking in their hearts… you see. Jesus knows our hearts. He didn’t just come to grant our desperate wishes. While He has no problem healing broken bodies, it isn’t just the sick and the lame that need to come to Jesus. It’s everyone who has sinned against a holy and righteous God… and that is all of us! For this moment, Jesus looks over this broken man and in the silence is asking, why aren’t you coming too?

You will rip open roof’s and labor to carry your friend to the feet of Jesus in hopes that his desperate wish will be fulfilled, but will you do that for the sake of your own soul? Will you do that for the sake of your friends and neighbors or even for those on the other side of the world?

Think about your neighbors and coworkers for a moment. The people you see every day. Think of the folks who don’t know the Lord. They may be healthy. They probably smile and wave in the drive way. They probably seem like they have everything together. What if I were to place a picture of them up here and then were to place a picture of a poverty stricken  Hindu mother half a world away and say to you, “Which one has the greatest need?

You know the answer. They both need the forgiveness of their sins. The Hindu mother has physical need that you might be able to take care of, but both have a need to be forgiven and that only comes from Jesus.

 

 

Observations:

 

Some people seek Jesus for desperate wishes and end up receiving far more than they had ever imagined in a relationship with Him.

Some people are brought to Jesus because they can’t get there on their own.

The only real power to overcome sin in my life,is not found in what I can do, but in what Jesus Christ has already done for me.

Citizenship in the Royal city (Nehemiah 7:4-6)

Citizenship in the Royal city (Nehemiah 7:4-6)

One of my favorite books is Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. One of my favorite scenes is when Christian sees the Celestial City from a distance. He is excited and ready with anticipation to enter the city and see his King, yet on this last leg of the journey he meets an old friend who came in by a different way and as they approach the gate he sees that his friend doesn’t get to enter the city because he didn’t come through the wicket gate like Christian did. This last bit is sobering and it reminds me that many can put on a good front, but only those who are qualified in Christ get to enter into Heaven and those who reject him have rejected his Kingdom as well.

Today in Nehemiah we see something similar as Nehemiah seeks out qualified people to fill the city of Jerusalem. The key word there is qualified. You had to be from the city and from the people of Judah to live in the city. It was a big deal. The right credentials got you a city address. The wrong credentials got you kicked out of the city… it mattered.

Cover

The city was wide and large, but the people within it were few, and no houses had been rebuilt. Then my God put it into my heart to assemble the nobles and the officials and the people to be enrolled by genealogy. And I found the book of the genealogy of those who came up at the first, and I found written in it: These were the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of those exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried into exile. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his town. (Nehemiah 7:4-6 ESV)

The following were those who came up from Tel-melah, Tel-harsha, Cherub, Addon, and Immer, but they could not prove their fathers’ houses nor their descent, whether they belonged to Israel: the sons of Delaiah, the sons of Tobiah, the sons of Nekoda, 642. Also, of the priests: the sons of Hobaiah, the sons of Hakkoz, the sons of Barzillai (who had taken a wife of the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite and was called by their name). These sought their registration among those enrolled in the genealogies, but it was not found there, so they were excluded from the priesthood as unclean. (Nehemiah 7:61-64 ESV)

We don’t place much emphasis on land these days but generations ago people were tied to geography. It mattered where you came from, even if you weren’t born there, it was “home.” Such was the case for Jerusalem. Many of the people who had come back weren’t born in Jerusalem. They didn’t have memories of growing up in Jerusalem. At best they may have had some old stories shared by their parents or grandparents about what life was like in Jerusalem before an invading army had come in and carried the people off into captivity. They were told to pray for the peace of the city where they found themselves (Jeremiah 29:7), but they never forgot that they really belonged back in Jerusalem. So when the time came and they were free to go back, many did!

I think the image of having a home that you have never seen is a beautiful image of what heaven is like for the Christian. We know that we live this life as aliens and exiles (Philippians 3:20, Hebrews 11:13-16) from the one true city that we have yet to see. We are citizens of the kingdom of Heaven. We haven’t seen it yet, but we have heard about it and we can’t wait to get there. Unlike Jerusalem, the New Jerusalem will already have walls and gates (Revelation 21:12), but just like in the day of Nehemiah this New Jerusalem is incomplete without its people.

Just like in Nehemiah’s day, you had to belong to the city before you could become a resident. There will be many who think they belong in Heaven but find out at the last moment that they were never citizens to begin with (Matthew 7:19-21). Jesus told us that the only way to get to God the Father and by consequence the Celestial City in which he reigns was to come through Him (John 14:6).

Appointing Faithful Leaders (Nehemiah 7:1-2)

Appointing Faithful Leaders (Nehemiah 7:1-2)

We all have mountaintop and valley experiences in life. When it comes to spiritual matters I’ve learned that shortly after the mountaintop moment there will be a time of temptation. I have to be more aware than ever after camps, conferences, or even weekly preaching where I have been sharing or learning life transforming truth from God’s Word. It will be those moments in which I think something great has been accomplished that I will find myself challenged.  It usually begins with the temptation to coast. We usually justify coasting because of everything we have been through or our tiredness after an event. I’ve learned though that this is the exact time I don’t need to coast and no matter how tired I am, I need to keep the routine that has drawn me near to God.

It is normal to experience a mountaintop moment like camp and think your world has changed and maybe your world has changed, but it won’t be different for long without some intentionality to help you get through the valley that follows the mountaintop.

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Now when the wall had been built and I had set up the doors, and the gatekeepers, the singers, and the Levites had been appointed, I gave my brother Hanani and Hananiah the governor of the castle charge over Jerusalem, for he was a more faithful and God-fearing man than many.(Nehemiah 7:1-2 ESV)

Nehemiah understood that once the wall was built, the work wasn’t over.  There was still more to do. Leaders needed to be appointed. The people were feeling good about themselves and the work that God had accomplished through them. However, Nehemiah realized that without Godly leadership in place, even a city with walls could fall prey to its surrounding enemies.

He makes appointments to watch and guard strategic places along the wall and in the city. Most importantly he places his brother, as someone he can trust, in charge of the city. This is both someone who will be a Godly leader and someone who won’t give in to the pressures of people like Sanballat and Tobiah.  Nehemiah knows that he has to leave and go back to the king. He had already made that promise.

How Do You Handle Righteous Anger? (Nehemiah 5:6-13)

How Do You Handle Righteous Anger? (Nehemiah 5:6-13)

When I was sixteen years old I was bending down at my locker to get some books out of the bottom and another big guy bumped into me causing me to bump my head on the locker. I was angry. My friend pointed to the guy who did it and said, “He did it on purpose, are you going to let him get away with that?” And before I knew it, in my anger I pulled on his shoulder and said, “Hey, why did you bump me into my locker?” At that moment, it seemed like the whole school had organized to form a ring around us and everyone began to chant, “Fight, fight, fight.” It didn’t matter what he would have said next, my anger had lead me into a situation where I felt like I couldn’t back down and so I threw the first punch I had ever thrown in my life. It landed squarely in his mouth and cut a huge gash in my knuckle and left a scar that I carry to this day. The scar is a good reminder of how stupid I can get when I am angry.  

Don’t get me wrong. Anger can be a good emotion. We should be angry about some of the things that go on in the world. I’m angry whenever I hear about someone abusing or neglecting children. Anger in that context is an appropriate emotional response to an unjust situation. The trouble can come though when I act in anger. You see just anger can and should be used to move us into just action, but if we are not careful our anger will move us to action without concern for justice at all.

In my first fist fight I was angry and I was moved to action, but it wasn’t just. I didn’t take the time to evaluate, much less discuss what had happened. My anger blinded me and in a series of poor choices my anger helped me do more harm than good. You see that’s what action without reflection does, it sabotages our best efforts and turns them into destructive decisions.

Nehemiah was human. He heard some news and it made him angry, but look at his reaction. He was able to process his anger into something productive. I wish I had thought like Nehemiah when I was sixteen years old.

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I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, “You are exacting interest, each from his brother.” And I held a great assembly against them and said to them, “We, as far as we are able, have bought back our Jewish brothers who have been sold to the nations, but you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us!” They were silent and could not find a word to say. So I said, “The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies? Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us abandon this exacting of interest. Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.” Then they said, “We will restore these and require nothing from them. We will do as you say.” And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised. I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, “So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied.” And all the assembly said “Amen” and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised. (Nehemiah 5:6-13 ESV)

The first thing Nehemiah does is to “take counsel with himself.” In other words he mastered his feelings and brought his anger under control. He realized that while emotions are a good indication of how he feels, they do not get to decide how he acts. Rather than letting the anger control him; he controls the anger.

Anger is like a high powered water hose used by firefighters to put out a blaze. When pointed in the right direction it can actually help put out the fires of injustice that blaze around our world. However, the same hose when not controlled can whip around wildly and cause more destruction than the fire it was designed to put out.

Nehemiah 4: 15-20

Nehemiah 4: 15-20

Offense and defense are the two major aspects of any great sport. On offense you want to score a goal or earn points for your team on defense you want the stop the other team from scoring on you or marking points against you. What is especially interesting are the sports where you have to play keen offense and defense at nearly the same time. In basketball the ball can be stolen or in football it can be intercepted and everyone who was on the field to play offense is all of the sudden playing defense.  Players who may not be defensive players are still trained in how to tackle others so that when the momentum shifts, they are ready to stand up for their team.

In Jerusalem they had reached a point where it was necessary to go on the offensive of building the wall while at the same time being ready to defend their position. They had to be ready with a sword in one hand while having a trowel in the other. Everyone had to be a dual position player. They had to take their turn at watching the wall and building the wall.

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When our enemies heard that it was known to us and that God had frustrated their plan, we all returned to the wall, each to his work. From that day on, half of my servants worked on construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail. And the leaders stood behind the whole house of Judah, who were building on the wall. Those who carried burdens were loaded in such a way that each labored on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other. And each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built. The man who sounded the trumpet was beside me. And I said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, “The work is great and widely spread, and we are separated on the wall, far from one another. In the place where you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us.” (Nehemiah 4:15-20 ESV)

There is wisdom with being prepared and moving ahead on two fronts like Nehemiah did. In the Christian life we will always be called to reach out to others, witness, and disciple folks in the name of Jesus, but we will also need to stand guard against temptation. We are all prone to give in at various times to various sinful desires that if we are not careful we will let the wall down.

What was really encouraging for the folks in Jerusalem and what I think can be encouraging for us as well is in verse 20 where Nehemiah says, “Our God will fight for us!”  This is true. In our stand against temptation and sin it is our God who has fought for us. It is He who went to the cross and died for our sins and freed us from the power of sin and darkness. It is our God who lives in side of us as the Holy Spirit choosing our bodies as His temple. Placing his seal over us.

You may feel discouraged in the fight today and maybe you feel week when it comes to standing against temptation, but remember this; Our God will fight for us! So stand strong on the wall with your sword in one hand ready to resist the attacks of the enemy and with your trowel in the other hand building up the wall that God has called you too.

Nehemiah 4:9

Nehemiah 4:9

I love what the book of Nehemiah teaches us about prayer. Some folks believe that when we pray and ask God for something that it ends there. So they will pray and ask God for a job, but they won’t put a resume out, attend a job fair, or even tell their friends they are looking. They expect the job to fall out of the sky. Granted sometimes God does work in incredibly miraculous ways, but most often prayer is a partnership. We pray and ask in faith and then we act in faith that God will do what He said He would do. So for the guy looking for the job, he prays and asks God for a job. Then acting in faith that God will provide, he goes and looks for the job that God is going to provide! Or the girl who prays for rain; She asks God for rain and then takes an umbrella with her. Both of these requests were in faith that God would answer, and both had a faith step to take.

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But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward and that the breaches were beginning to be closed, they were very angry. And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it. And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night. (Nehemiah 4:7-9 ESV)

When things get turned up around Jerusalem and the idle trash talk all the sudden turns into a serious threat Nehemiah and his people are prepared. The very first thing they do is pray. The next thing they do is set up a guard. This is where faith and action meet. They ask for God’s protection and then they diligently set up an alert system should they need to defend themselves. This is like bringing out the umbrella after asking for rain or putting in a job application after asking God for a job. This is faith that God will act.

When Insults become cause for Intercession Nehemiah 4:4-5

Nehemiah 4:4-5

Words sting. We like to pretend they don’t, but they do. They produce pain and they cause us to retaliate. This is how arguments are started. We feel slighted or disrespected and we launch an attack on the other person. We level our own arguments for their inferiority or impossible reasoning. We return fire. We even feel justified, after all, we didn’t fire the first shot… they did. We were only responding in kind.

But what if instead of fighting back and lashing out we simply looked up? What if we took all of our hurts, our stings, our brokenness from whatever someone had said and we put it in the Lord’s hands? How would our lives be different if we took insults and turned them into intercession? That is what Nehemiah does. He doesn’t answer these men for all the insults they have hurled at him or his people. Instead he takes it to God in prayer.

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Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives. Do not cover their guilt, and let not their sin be blotted out from your sight, for they have provoked you to anger in the presence of the builders. (Nehemiah 4:4-5 ESV)

There is comfort in taking your wounds to God. You are asking Him to plead your case. You know that He sees things more clearly than you do and He will meter out justice. Sometimes we forget that when we are on mission with God that we are not the ones who will answer enemy insults, but that our enemies will answer to God for their insults. They have not only attempted to discredit the workers, but they have attempted to discredit the work of God and God is more than capable of taking up for Himself.

Here Nehemiah prays an “imprecatory” prayer. This is the kind of prayer that sounds like you really have it in for your enemies. But a couple of things should be noted. Who can judge Nehemiah’s enemies more justly than God? If Nehemiah’s enemies are in the wrong, should they not be punished? Nehemiah is asking for justice, not revenge.

These men don’t just insult Nehemiah, but by implication by insulting his people, they are insulting God and standing against His plans. He is bringing back and restoring His people from captivity, a resurrection of sorts. A restored wall is a sign of a God who can bring his people back from the edge of destruction. Sanballat and Tobiah stance places them squarely at odds with God because they are at odds with his people. Nehemiah simply asks God to turn their desires for his people back on their own heads.

7 Reasons I Ask Students to Evaluate My Messages

I meet with a group of young men and women on Friday’s to evaluate the previous weeks message and to help prepare the message for the coming week. It’s a tedious process in that it takes more time preparing an element of the message with this group than it would in isolation. But I’m convinced that this practice is good for the students on the team as well as for me.

seven reasons

I’ve run into a little bit of push-back on the first element of what we do, which is evaluate the previous week. Some folks in ministry are of the mindset that sermons are not to be evaluated. I disagree, but I understand the sentiment. To be clear, I do not ask the students to judge the content of the scripture, but the content of the entire message and how effective the message was at explaining the scripture. I don’t ask them to judge the movement of the Holy Spirit, but I do ask them to judge me. I ask them things like, “Was I knowledgeable about what was being presented?” “Was the message biblical?” “What was the main point of the message?” etc. This evaluation is really helpful. Here are seven reasons why.

It demonstrates to the students what to look for in a well presented biblical message. Most of the students who gather with me are there to learn how to prepare messages. By evaluating me, through a template of questions they learn what area’s of preparation are important and where they are exhibited in the delivery of a message. These questions then become a preparation guide for when they are ready to deliver their own biblical message.

It prepares the students to be evaluated. The students that evaluate me will also be sharing biblical messages at some point and will themselves be evaluated. By having a standard evaluation process in place they are prepared to be graded on the human aspect of delivery in the same way that I expect to be graded. I can truly evaluate them without having to maneuver on a scale of positives and negatives. They will stand or fall in each category according to their presentation, not my over-sensitivity to their feelings.

It keeps me accountable. I picked or allowed the questions on the weekly evaluation based on aspects of human delivery that every speaker needs to be accountable for. Who tells the pastor that his message wasn’t biblical, or that he filled 3/4 of his time with personal stories, or that he skipped application, or that he missed the gospel? If he doesn’t train his people to expect the right things and gives them a structure and freedom to approach him it will never happen. In the last few weeks I’ve heard sermons/ podcasts where the pastor labored over “extra-biblical” points and preached from word’s not really present in the passage. Those pastors would have benefited from genuine feedback earlier in their ministry to keep them on point, as it was they seemed smooth enough in their delivery that most folks didn’t notice that what they heard was just an opinion passed off as biblical knowledge.

It helps me see how my student leaders think. On the evaluations they share tons of relevant information. I find out which illustrations were clarifying and which ones were confusing. I learned through this process that my students really benefited from hearing my personal stories of struggle and victory in Jesus as I had been applying these truths to my life. Putting a greater value on these illustrations where applicable has made me a better communicator and more approachable by the entire group. I noticed after a shift in my teaching style that students began approaching me anonymously after each message about issues in their life. My ability to pastor students through the struggles they were facing dramatically increased because they saw me as someone who had flaws, but found the solution.

It Creates Better Message Hearers. When students on my team evaluate a message they begin to re-process the message over again. They think through the entirety of the message a few days after the fact and review the specific applications, challenges, etc. By this time they have had an opportunity to react to the message. This raises the bar of expectation. If the message was clear and there was a response needed, how have they responded? This creates an accountability loop for them. They now have to think about the message longer than the original 30 minutes in which they heard it and the Holy Spirit often takes what was said on a Wednesday and replays it in their hearts on a Friday so that the effect of dwelling on the message is greater than if they had not given it a thought beyond Wednesday.

It Demonstrates That I Have Room to Improve. I think it is fair to say that I want to offer God my best. If he has called me to be a communicator then I want to be the best communicator that I can possibly be. I want people to understand His Word. So I diligently study the scriptures, I diligently study those I present to, and I diligently study the effect of God’s word on their life through my preaching. The Holy Spirit can always take the worst sermon and make something great out of it, I would also like to think that He will work on me too through His word and His people.

It Teaches Students to Work. Far too many ministers rely on the Holy Spirit to bail them out of a lack of preparation. This overly mystical view of God misses the point that He calls and equips people for the work of ministry. That ministry, especially in the case of teaching and preaching requires prayer and preparation. Again, I’m not asking students to evaluate God’s Word, or the Work of the Holy Spirit, I’m asking them to evaluate my preparation and presentation. I’m modeling part of the work of ministry.

In our model students evaluate messages I teach. We work together on messages that I will teach. We work together on messages the student will teach. The students teach messages and are evaluated by the group. They get more practical hands on training on how to present a message than I ever got in any of my seminary classes on sermon preparation.

Intentional Living by John Maxwell (A REVIEW)

Intentional LivingI’ve not always been a John Maxwell fan, but his more recent books are really good. This book, Intentional Living, is by far one of his best. Maxwell is older than I am and typically is read better in my parents generation. With this book though, his focus has changed and he comes across as more approachable. He shares stories and details of his life creating a brilliant synthesis of autobiography and life principles.

Maxwell also offers a seven day online video encouragement course (for Free) that pairs quite nicely with this book. He shares a brief (usually 5 min or less) message and then issues a challenge (that usually takes less than 10 minutes to complete). It’s a great course that complements and extends the value of the book. To be sure though it also leads into a 30 day course that costs to participate. Nothing wrong with the cost of the 30 day course, my guess is that you are more likely to complete it if you paid something for it.

Over all I thought that, Intentional Living, was a great read and well worth the time it takes to read it. If you had to pick one John Maxwell book to read, I’d say pick this one. In the mean time check out some of my other reviews of John Maxwell’s books.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”