‘Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.’ Nehemiah 8.5-6
The book that Ezra was reading to the people was their equivalent of our Bible, and the people approached the occasion with such enthusiasm and expectation that it is little wonder they got so much out of it. You may well be thinking that the description of what happened as Ezra began to read out loud is somewhat more joyful that the atmosphere greeting the person reading the lesson in your church on a Sunday morning!
However, this attitude is not just about the way we approach reading the Bible, but about the way we approach most things to do with our faith – even the fast approaching season of Christmas. If we face it with a sense of foreboding and inevitability, perhaps the best we can hope for is that it won’t be as bad as we feared! Whereas if we approach it with an attitude of wondering what new thing we can learn about Jesus, and what new opportunity we can find to show love to others, then perhaps we will discover new joys and delights over this time.
Whatever aspect of your Christian life you are pondering – whether it be going to church, reading the Bible, praying, or even approaching Christmas – the one thing that will have a huge influence on everything is something you can really control – your attitude.
‘…if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.’ 2 Timothy 2.13
Many people wonder whether God really uses them. Afterall, if you are honest, you can probably think of many reasons why God would not use you; you don’t pray very well, are not holy enough or you don’t live an exemplary life like other people seem to do. Of course it is important to pray, and a good idea not to sin, but how God treats you does not depend on these things. Paul explains in today’s verse that it is all about God’s faithfulness and not about your faithlessness.
God has a vision to see his world transformed by people like us. In fact, he only has ‘people like us’ to bring about his transformation. He is utterly committed to this, and will remain faithful to his vision no matter what. God will use you because he is committed to using you, no matter how bad you think you are.
Rather than focus on what you think separates you from God, spend some time giving thanks to him for his vision for the people you will come across today, and offer yourself afresh to be used by him for their benefit.
‘…I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained.’ 2 Timothy 2.9
Paul’s declaration was more than just fine words. Looking at the chains that bound him and restricted his movement and mobility, he could still declare that though he might be bound, the word of God was not.
You are probably not facing the persecution that Paul faced, but it is probably true that all of us face limitations: perhaps past events have had a negative impact upon you, or you carry emotional wounds and find yourself unduly timid in certain situations. Yet however bound or limited you may feel, be encouraged that God can still work wonderfully through you.
When you act in accordance with the word of God, whether it be obeying his command to love or speaking up when you really don’t feel like it, then your words and actions carry a power that is beyond your feelings. You might indeed be chained and hampered, but the word of God that prompts you is not.
You carry within you the very presence of God, which includes his grace to call upon whenever you need it, and his word to guide and encourage you. Whatever limitations might weigh you down, the presence of God has a power of its own that is beyond anything you can even imagine.
‘The Lord detests dishonest scales, but accurate weights find favour with him.’ Proverbs 11.1
There is something very beautiful about this verse, in that it seems so ordinary yet speaks about something very powerful. One translation (ESV) puts the second part of this verse like this: ‘a just weight in his delight’. God loves it when we approach everything with integrity and honesty. It is a simple call to be honest in all our dealings with people and not to cheat them in any way.
Of course, we hope that we never would but it is interesting how much a certain dishonesty can creep in. If we want someone to do something for us, it can be quite easy to try to manipulate them; and there may be occasions when we are tempted to be less than honest in small ways, thinking that it won’t matter.
It isn’t that God is storing up every minor misdemeanour in his ‘big black book’, but rather that it brings real delight to him when he sees us seeking to act with honesty and integrity, even in small matters. How amazing that we can bring delight to God! As you live this day, seek honesty in even the small things in life and catch his delight.
‘So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner.’ 2 Timothy 1.8
In this verse, Paul is encouraging Timothy not to be ashamed about testifying about the Lord. You might think this is not something you would ever do – how could you be ashamed of God? Yet it might happen more than you like to think.
Living out each day, there are probably many times when the relevance of your faith strikes you, but you choose to put it to one side. You may be touched by someone’s plight and wonder if you should say something about how Jesus could help them; yet you hold back from saying anything in case it sounds odd. Perhaps you are facing something uncertain and a feeling comes over you about what God is wanting to say, but again you ignore it either because you simply don’t want to hear it or actually because you are enjoying a good wallow.
At times like this you are choosing to turn away from the path God is laying out before you. Yet the really good news is this, if you recognise anything of yourself in these examples, then you also have to recognise that God is seeking to communicate with you; you are in a relationship with him and he is seeking to use you. Of course there are times when you might get it wrong, but that certainly doesn’t mean that God abandons you! Rather he wants you to see where you went wrong so that you can get it right in the future!
The next time you sense a prompting to bring God into a conversation, or a nudge to point you in a different direction, respond to it. The Lord God of heaven is communicating with you.
“Suppose one of you has a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ ” Luke 17.7-10
We all like to be thanked! When we have gone out of our way to help someone, or when we have given something that has cost us, a sincere ‘thank you’ makes everything worthwhile. So given this, these words from Jesus can seem a bit like a slap in the face! He seems to be saying – you’ve only done your duty so why do you expect to be thanked?
As with every recorded word of Jesus, we have his words but not the expression or the look on his face as he spoke them. Did he say the words in today’s passage sternly, or was he acting out the story with a smile on his face trying to make a point?
Just before today’s verses, the topic is to do with forgiveness and faith; the importance of putting our faith into practice. I wonder if what Jesus is trying to get across is this: forgiving others and demonstrating faith are not things that we should think of as a big deal, and for which we should expect God’s profuse thanks. Instead, they should be sewn into our normal life-style and flow naturally from us.
The question is whether forgiving others and demonstrating faith do flow naturally? Someone once said that forgiveness should be as natural as breathing and practised with as much frequency. Others have suggested that our lives should be ‘naturally supernatural’. It’s not as if we are doing God a favour, but rather we are simply living the life to which he has called us.
‘Making Every Day Count’
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‘Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked.’ Nehemiah 4.17-18
In this chapter, Nehemiah speaks about the people being wary and on their guard because of the possibility of a sudden attack. They were constantly aware of the threat and acted accordingly.
In your own life you may well be aware of the way that you can feel quite close to God one minute, and then do something quite daft the next. Our awareness of God’s presence can vary and fluctuate in such a short space of time. Like the men who were building the walls of Jerusalem, we too must learn to carry our weapons with us at all times.
It is tempting to think that our best defence is the armour of God, but actually, in the first chapter of the letter to the Ephesians, our weapons are clearly laid out. Paul writes about the foundations upon which we are meant to live our lives; namely as those who are chosen and adopted by the Father.
These are the basic weapons that we are meant to carry with us – the knowledge that at all times, whatever our feelings, the living God has chosen us as his very own children upon whom he desires to pour out his love. Whatever attacks befall us and however our feelings fluctuate, this is what we need to come back to. We belong to God and his loving heart is turned towards us. Nothing can change this.