Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The Book of Remembrance

Journaling is a long established tradition that has a new following today. We are encouraged to write our thoughts and impressions about what has impacted us for that day and then reflect on them at a later time. It is a good discipline pursued by many. Well God is into journaling too. The only difference is that His journal is a record of overheard conversations that people have about Him. It's called the Book of Remembrance. Take a look at Malachi 3.16.

Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another,
And the Lord listened and heard them;
So a book of remembrance was written before Him
For those who fear the Lord
And who meditate on His name.

This little verse captures my imagination. The Hebrew word for listened implies that what was said caught God's attention. Sometimes I find myself in the Hub coffee shop. It's packed with people eating, drinking and talking. Conversations and exchanges going on all around me as I try to focus on writing. But then I hear something that peaks my interest. Someone starts to comment about the atmosphere of our church coffee shop, the friendly staff, the brilliant Fun Tots program for mothers with children under five.

As casually as possible I listen in. You see they are speaking about something I am personally interested in and committed to. The subject matter gets my attention. This is similar to what is happening in Malachi. There are some kinds of conversations that grab God's attention and He listens in. Now I understand about God's omnipresence and that at one level He hears all things that men say. But here we are talking about something different. Not only does He hear in the sense that He knows, He hears in the sense that He responds.

The text goes even further. The Hebrew behind the word 'heard' is 'Shama'. It is used often in the book of Deuteronomy and is well known by all Jews as a title for Deut 6.4; "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One". In many of the instances it is used in Deuteronomy there is an implicit expectation that the people will hear and respond or act in obedience to what God is asking of them. To 'shama' the Lord is to respond and obey Him.

It is this word that is used to describe God hearing the conversations of those who honour Him. In other words He hears and acts on what is said by them and it is all recorded in a scroll or book. He makes a permanent record. Interestingly this book is 'written before Him'. It is literally written in His presence. God doesn't send one of His servants away to make the record, He commands the book to be written before Him, in front of Him, right where He is! That's impressive.

So what is it that is said that captures the Lord's attention? Whilst we are not told the content of what is said we do know a number of things about the people speaking.

1. Twice in the text we are told that the people who spoke 'feared the Lord'. This is a common way of referring to the honour that believers had towards God. They held Him in great honour. Now in the days of Malachi this was a big issue. One of God's complaints against the people in this book was the way that they dishonoured Him, especially when it came to sacrifices and offerings. God was a great King and deserved the best. Those who brought an offering were meant to bring from the best of their flocks and herds.

But the people of Malachi's day on the whole didn't do that. They came to worship but they brought an inferior offering; animals that were lame, blind, stolen or disfigured in some way. Their actions revealed an attitude of heart. They did not truly value and honour the Lord, Mal 1.6-8, 13-14. They went through the motions but it lacked truth and sincerity of heart. And God saw it. Further they were marrying foreign women and taking on their religious practices while others were disloyal to their marriage partners, Mal 2.10-14. Finally they kept back their tithes and offerings from God, Mal 3.8-9.

Their lives and their worship were a sham. But in the midst of all this hypocrisy there were a group of people who loved and honoured the Lord. These people worshipped God in spirit and in truth. They were genuine. Our text goes on to say they 'meditated' on His name. The Hebrew word includes these meanings, to esteem, to regard, to reckon upon, to think about and to value. It shows their attitude of heart. This ability to put God first gave them great boldness to speak about Him, in a context were most people didn't want to listen.

2. The text tells us they spoke to one another. But the word translated 'another' is translated as 'neighbour' 102 times; 'friend' 42 times and 'another' 23 times. This implies that there was a missional dimension to their speaking as a well as a fellowship dimension. With believers they were edifying one another; with those who were not truly walking with God they were witnessing.

Consider the apostles in Acts 4.15-20. They were strictly warned not to speak about Jesus after they healed a lame man. But Peter's response is telling. He is full of boldness and declares; "We cannot but speak the things we have seen and heard". Notice that his testimony came out of his personal experience of what he had 'seen and heard'. It was first hand. It was genuine. It was real and he couldn't stop talking about it.

Christian's don't need to be compelled to do evangelism. They need an encounter with God that leaves them changed. That's what Peter had. That's what the woman at the well had. That's what the man born blind had. They could not help but speak about an event that was so life changing for each of them. It flowed out of them. This is why the enemy tries to intimidate believers. Anything so that they don't tell their story. But our stories are one of our most powerful weapons. It is the word of our testimony that helps to overcome the dragon, satan, Rev 12.11.

The Holy Spirit has been given to us that we might speak about Jesus, boldly, fearlessly, proudly. In Acts 5.17-32 we have another account of the apostles. This time they were arrested and thrown in prison. But an Angel of the Lord released them with this command, "Go stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life", Acts 5.20. Amazing. Released in order to speak about this life, about Jesus, the way the truth and the life, John 14.6.

Notice Acts 2.40; "And with many other words he testified and exhorted them....." Peter is speaking to neighbours and friends and other believers about Jesus. It had an impact. The church grew. Lives were changed. God was honoured. It is this kind of speaking that gets God's attention. This is what He has recorded in a Book of Remembrance.

3. Finally these people met together. It was intentional. They were intentional about meeting their neighbours. They were intentional about meeting their friends. They were intentional about meeting one another. Acts 2.42-47 shows that the early disciples met together daily, in public places where they could witness and house to house where they could share food, prayer and fellowship. The temptation when we come under pressure is to cut out things from our schedule. But many times these choices are driven by expediency rather than destiny or purpose. And so we often cut out the wrong things.

Heb 10.24-25 says; "And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another and so much more as you see the Day approaching".

To forsake something is to leave it behind. Intentionally meeting together with others who provoke you to be better and do better is never a bad thing. Just as gifts must be stirred up so must love and good works and that happens through relationships. More specifically through relationships where we speak words of encouragement. And when we do God leans in, listens and acts on our behalf recording all the details in His book.

The 'Day' spoken of here in Hebrews is the 'Day of the Lord', the return of Jesus. Each day we draw closer to that event. The writer to Hebrews tell us to meet and talk more as we see that 'Day' approaching. When I was at school we often played 'I dare you'. The idea was to think of something that required some act of courage and then dare a friend to do it. Of course as teenagers we often did stupid things. But as believers we too can dare each other to do more and go further for God. Barnabas encouraged Paul, Paul encouraged Timothy, Moses encouraged Joshua and Jesus encouraged the twelve.

Who are you speaking to about what God has done in your life? Who are you doing life with and daring them to do more for God? Who in your life provokes you to want to live more radically for Jesus? Do your conversations reflect the reality of Jesus in your life?

Two years ago I was in Calcutta looking into the room where Mother Teresa slept for many years and visiting the orphanage she began. The room contained nothing but a bed a table and a small shelf. I spent an hour playing with many of the abandoned children at the orphanage. I was provoked, stirred, challenged. Like other occasions I've had, it made me want to make my life count. Though dead, her life was speaking to me that day. She penned these words in her personal diary, "I want nothing for myself, I want everything for Jesus". I was touched. I wept.

Let me encourage you to speak words to others and live life in a way that will take people closer to Jesus. God will take note and make a record of it in His Book of Remembrance. I suspect that one day the Lord will read out all the things you said that impressed Him, Rev 20.12. And on that day, all of heaven will know the impact your life has made on others. What a wonderful thought. Be purposeful with your words. Let them flow out of your devotional life and encounters with God. And in your heart remember that God is there too, recording what you say so that He can reward you.

Monday, 22 November 2010

The Power of Remembrance

Memory is a powerful thing. It connects us to our past and so helps us form a sense of our identity. Without that connection we would loose that sense of who we are. Our lives are a unique history of choices, some good, some bad. Memory gives us a sense of continuity. Through memories we are connected to our past and these help to shape our future.

God often reminded the children of Israel to look back and remember where they had come from; Isaiah 51.1; "Look to the rock from which you where hewn and to the hole of the pit from which you were dug". When the children of Israel crossed over the Jordan river they established a memorial (or remembrance); on the West side of the Jordan with stones taken from the river bed, Joshua 4.1-9. These stood as a memorial to the faithfulness of God who brought them over on dry ground and would give them victory over their enemies.

And throughout Israel's history they established landmarks that were reminders of God's gracious deliverance. Even the Ark of the Covenant was a 'memorial' to remind the people that they were in a covenant relationship with God. It contained the tablets of stone given to Moses, Aaron's rod that budded and a pot of the Manna from the wilderness. These were all testimonies to God's greatness, faithfulness and power to save. They stood as a reminder to the people, what God had done in the past He could do again, for those who walked with Him.

Even the land of Canaan was divided by using landmarks that were never to be removed; Prov 22.28. They identified where one tribal possession ended and another began. These landmarks were often large, like a mountain or coastline. You couldn't miss them. Other times they were man made, like when Samuel set up a rock called Ebenezer, (literally Stone of Help), after the Lord defeated the Philistines; 1Sam 7.12-14. When everyone saw this rock they were reminded of God's victory on their behalf.

Experience has taught me that it is impossible to live the Christian life without establishing some landmarks or memorials - places that we can look back to and remember the goodness and greatness of God. I believe this is why the first command for a new believer is to be baptised. By doing so they are in fact establishing that first landmark.

In the NT this was done hard on the heels of any profession of faith; often on the same day. Consider the Ethiopian Eunuch who asked Philip a simple question; "What hinders me from being Baptised?" All that Philip required was a confession of faith. This is a far cry from some of the spiritual hoops we make people jump through before we allow them to be baptized.

Consider too communion. This too is a memorial; a remembrance of Jesus, to use His words, 1Cor 11.24. It constantly pulls us back to the foundation of our faith and what God has done in Christ, paying for our sin and setting us free to live for Him. This simple act of remembrance has great power to encourage our faith. But it doesn't end there. We are called to walk by faith and any walk of faith is bound to establish a personal history with God - landmarks that give us confidence. More of that later.

As I read Paul's final letter to Timothy I am struck by how often he uses the power of memory to help this struggling pastor. At that time Timothy was back in Ephesus. False teachers had risen up, as Paul had predicted in Acts 20.29-30. He had personally disciplined three of them, Hymenaeus, Alexander and Philetus, 1Tim 1.20; 2Tim 2.17. Timothy now had the difficult job of appointing new leaders and dealing with the fallout from the false teaching that had gripped much of the church. It wasn't easy.

In second Timothy we see Paul appeal the three things in his opening verses that will encourage Timothy. Look at the text 2Tim 1.3-6 NIV:

"I thank God, whom I serve, as my ancestors did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline".

The first is wonderful. Paul remembered Timothy in his prayers - night and day. It wasn't like Paul carried a list with him. Rather he carried Timothy in his heart; like a son. He couldn't help but pray for him. He valued him. He cared. He remembered his tears, the pressures he felt of ministry and Paul wanted Timothy to know above all things that he was covered in prayer. Someone was watching his back, Paul the apostle no less.

Scripture tells us that Jesus ever lives to make intercession for us. He prayed for Peter, He prays for us too. But we can at times feel this truth is too disconnected from our reality. Again experience has shown me that Jesus invites others to share His ministry of intercession. He does this by placing a burden on a fellow saint to pray for the needs of others. This is essentially the ministry of intercession. It is Spirit inspired prayers on behalf of others.

I have always believed on the power of prayer that covers and supports ministry. During the late eighties I had two very special women, both over retirement age, who believed that the Lord had given them a burden to pray for me and my ministry. I felt the difference. Outwardly they looked very helpless and frail. One was a widow. But their prayer life was powerful, full of discernment and faith. I valued what they did. You see gifting is not enough. We need unction. The Spirit's touch on our words and ministry that makes it powerful and effective. Pray brings this unction.

Paul reminded Timothy that he had a seasoned warrior backing him up. Learn to welcome the prayer of others over your life and ministry. In turn be faithful to pray for those God puts on your heart. When you do so you are participating in the ministry of Jesus - now! Most often this will reflect the people you feel most connected to. Those you have come to love and appreciate. Every remembrance of them becomes an opportunity to support them in prayer. As we remember those we are connected to, our prayers are fuelled with love and passion for their success and protection. They have an impact.

Paul doesn't stop there. He goes on to remind Timothy of his spiritual heritage; the faith that dwelt in his mother and grand mother and was now in him. Generational faith. Notice that this was passed on to him from his mother and grand mother, not the men in the family. Paul seems to have stepped in as the spiritual father who helped to develop Timothy's faith and ministry. But the seeds of it were sown through the women who nurtured him as a youth. This is a wonderful testament to these godly women, something Timothy should be reminded about.

Each one of us has a spiritual heritage. Neither of my parents walked with God while I was growing up. But others in the church became spiritual parents to my brother and me. They had a profound impact on us. We looked to them for spiritual guidance and it made a difference. Others I know are second, third and forth generation believers. What a blessing. Embrace it. Thank God for it. Value it. And remind yourself that others have gone before you fighting the good fight of faith. Paul was in effect saying this. "The faith that was in your mother and grandmother I see in you. Now get your head down and get on with the job, not giving in to fear".

Finally Paul reminds Timothy to stir up of the gift of God that is in him, "Through the laying on of my hands", 2Tim 1.6. Notice the reminder of how he got the gift. Paul was there, part of the team laying hands on Timothy and imparting spiritual gifts to him, 1Tim 4.14; Rom 1.11. It was a great day and Paul draws Timothy back to that momentous occasion. Not only does Timothy have a spiritual covering in prayer but he has a spiritual heritage and a spiritual gift. But something is required of him!

Stir up the gift is best understood as fan into flame. If you know anything about open log fires you will understand this text. Fires can begin to die out unless they are fanned with a set of billows. In effect more oxygen is being added and this causes the fire to re-ignite and burn brighter and better. Spiritual gifts need to be used if they are to be effective. How could Timothy do this? What was involved? What did he need to do, practically?

Here is how it has worked in my life. First I remind myself of all the times in my life where the gift of God has operated to great effect. I am building faith by doing so by reminding myself of the faithfulness of God. This is what David did when he wanted to go and face Goliath. He had a secret history with God and he began to declare it to King Saul. "Your servant has killed both lion and bear...." 1Sam 17.36. The same gift would operate as he faced Goliath. Notice that David resisted using Saul's armour. It was untested - by him. He relied on what he knew worked.

Secondly I begin to praise God, with thanksgiving. This helps me get the right perspective about the challenges I am facing. It helps me focus on God and His greatness rather my problems and the people causing them. Praise in effect says, 'God is bigger'; bigger than me and bigger than my problems.

Finally I put myself in a position where I need to operate in my gift. David stood in front of Goliath. He pushed himself forward rather than backing away in fear. That's the essence of Paul's encouragement to Timothy. Despite how he felt, despite his tears, despite his fears, Paul saw the spiritual heritage and gifting of this young servant of God and was convinced he was more than able to deal with the problems in Ephesus. And he was right.

People who work out at the gym have a phrase, 'Use it or loose it'. Muscle that is developed has to be used or it atrophies, becomes weak and wastes away. Spiritual gifts are a bit like this. They are best developed by using them. And as we do, we can become sharper in how we use them.

Try to be someone who reminds others of what God has already invested in them. Dare to provoke them to embrace the challenges of life and ministry so that, like Timothy, they can fulfill their calling and destiny. And if God has used you in the past but you feel a little sidelined at the moment, that start to fan into flame the gift of God in your life. Put yourself in a place where you can defeat a lion or a bear so that you will be ready to face a Goliath when that day comes. And when it does, don't shrink back through fear. Just make the flame of your gift hotter and be astonished what God can do, through you.