Of Fasting and Feasting

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“Say to all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted?’” Zechariah 7:5

So here is this specific day in verifiable history that some representatives of Israel from Bethel come to ask the priests a question as the temple is being rebuilt.  They want to know, “Should I weep and abstain in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?”  They are asking if they should continue to fast religiously as they have been.  When someone says, “Do I have to keep doing that?” it tells something about their heart on the matter, doesn’t it?

And the word of the Lord of hosts came to Zechariah, this man who has already been given 8 visions by God in one day.  Listen to God’s reply.  “Say to all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for Me you fasted?” Our motive matters.  You know our motives behind why we do what we do.  You knew exactly what was going on in their hearts just as You know what is going on in mine.

Your heart, Lord, is filled with zeal and burning desire for Your purpose and Your people who are a part of that purpose.  You have continually chosen to reveal Your heart to Your people and here again, through Zechariah, You were choosing to reveal Yourself.  From creation, You have responded with zeal for us and You are waiting for us to respond with that same zeal and love back to You where we love You with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength.  You woo us with Your promises and blessings and presence.  You desire to woo us into wholeheartedness because You are wholehearted.  When do You step up to us and say, “Do I have to love you?  Do I have to lavish Myself on you?”  I  suppose there was one day in history when You let that thought come into Your mind.  “ Lord, take this cup from Me.”  But You didn’t continue to entertain that thought.  Your answer wasn’t, “Yes, I have to die for you.”  Your answer was, “Yes, I want to die for you because this is the purpose and glory of God in Me, to love this much.”  God is love, really.

The temple was supposed to be a house of prayer, a place for meeting with God and encountering You.  This temple that was being rebuilt had come with its share of discouragement during its rebuilding.  Why?  Because humans get discouraged.  Humans take their eyes off of their greatest Encourager.  So You had raised up two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah to inspire them again.  But even after that encouragement, they needed to be reminded and repent. 

Now most of these fasts had been initiated in response to tragedies that had occurred during the Babylonian captivity.  They weren’t God ordained fasts in Scripture.  Since a new era was dawning, should they continue those fasts?  It’s not a bad question, except that they had been observing the fasts based on ceremonial commitment, and that is never the idea of a fast before the Lord.  You, Lord, are looking for hearts that are coming to You in repentance and soul searching.  You are looking for souls that aren’t coming to You because they have to, but because they want to be right with You and right with others.  You want those to come who are truly weeping because they want a deeper relationship with You and feel they are missing something.  You want those to come who are showing how dependent they are on You.  If I have to come to You and ask You, “Do I have to fast?”  then I am already revealing my heart and my lack of zeal for You.

Fasting is not about duty.  Fasting is about relationship.  Fasting is not about having my prayers answered until after I’ve sought for my heart to be right.  Fasting is about lining up with You and seeking Your will.  Fasting is all about You and all about me becoming all about You.  Fasting is all about me lining my zeal up with Yours. 

The main part of fasting is to be sorry for my sins and to seek Your glory to be released in greater measure.  Fasting has to be accompanied by  “a genuine desire to know, love, and obey the Lord.”  It takes radical dedication to the Lord.  It takes Your grace to fast and pray wholeheartedly. 

It’s easy to avoid fasting.  It’s easy to avoid setting our hearts straight with You.  It’s easy to keep on keeping on the way we are.  It’s tough stuff that takes commitment to come before You and say, “Lord, what is wrong with me?  Show me what is not right in my heart and life and change me.  These things are so wrong in my life.  I need You so desperately.”  It’s easier to feed my own desires.  It’s just easier to eat and be happy and go along my “merry” way.  But it’s not better.

I’m so glad You didn’t love us the easy way.  You sought to love us with all Your strength, all that You are, all that You have.  It’s not too little for me to think that, wow, I want to love You back like that!  It’s not that I ought to, even though I ought to.  A love like that inspires me to love like that.  A love like that swells up inside of me not because it’s forced to but because it is realized.  It empowers me in Itself. 

But the problem wasn’t just with fasting.  Even when they feasted, when they ate and drank, it was all for themselves.  The whole focus wasn’t on their relationship with the Lord or His purposes and I can fall into that same danger.  Fasting is for remembering God and lining myself up with Him.  Feasting is for remembering God and being grateful and rejoicing in Him because we’ve lined up with Him.  Both are because of a desire and acting upon a deeper relationship with You.    We demonstrate that relationship through our obedience, not because of “have to’s” but because of an outpouring of love from our own hearts and lives back to You.

Spending time with You in fasting and seeking Your face leads to a right relationship with You.  That right relationship with You leads to seeking justice, mercy and compassion for the lives around us.  It leads to loving You, God, and loving people.  It leads to obedience because we get it, not because we have to.  It leads to despising evil.  It leads to caring for and doing something about the widow, the fatherless, the strangers.  How can You bless me if I won’t even listen to You and walk in Your ways?  Why would I even expect You to?  If I want You to bless me, then my only choice is to have a right relationship with You, and to line my thoughts and actions up with You, because You are the blessing and every blessing comes from You and is in You. 

Jesus, You set the example of fasting and prayer for us.  I mean, You were God so You didn’t have to fast and pray, but You wanted to because it was all about relationship with God.  It was all about honesty of Your whole life and person.  You did it to show us how we could have a deep relationship with You.  Just like with Zechariah, You were showing us the zeal of God for us and how we should be as zealous for Him.  In Your heart was a burning desire for Your people and Your purpose.  We see that in You. 

I need to ask myself if I am like these men of Bethel or the church of Laodicea.  Am I hot or cold or just lukewarm as I come to You when I fast and when I pray or in my obedience in life?  Do I think I’m rich, and prosperous, and not in need, when really I am wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked?  This is what fasting gives me an opportunity to find out, as I take the time and effort to actually fall before You and draw near to You.  Is my heart looking to find out these things?  Or am I just going through the motions.  I’m so glad You love me enough to reprove me and discipline me, so teach me to be zealous and repent.  I want to hear Your voice.  I want to open the door and let You in where ever I need to in order to set things right in my heart, my mind, and my life.  I want to have an intimate relationship with You where we sit at the table together.  I have ears, so let me use them to hear, to listen, to be changed, and to obey.  You know, I can’t eat at the table with You if I don’t sit down at the table with You first. 

This is a bigger thing than ceremonial worship and obedience.  This is true worship.  It has nothing to do with an outward show unless that comes from a changed heart leading to a changed life.  It has everything to do with sincerity and seeking.  The poor and contrite tremble at Your words and I want to also.  I want to be changed by Your words.  I want to be filled with chased and racham, mercy and compassion.  I want to show goodness, kindness, and faithfulness after that of Your own heart to others.  I want to show the kind of love or pity that a woman does for the child in her womb, just like You do for me.  I want to reflect You before others.  I want to bear Your image.  I want to reflect Your heart to the world.  I want to show them how much better the culture of God is then the world’s culture.

Lord, I want to come to You with a repentant heart.  I want to learn to seek You like that and Your will in my life.  I don’t want You to turn me over to myself.  I don’t want to reject Your words.  I want to respond to You and experience Your responding to me.  So Lord, teach me how to pray and fast and live wholeheartedly.  I’m not good at it, but You are, and You are the best Teacher ever.

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True Compassion

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“And there shall cleave nothing of the cursed thing to your hand: that the LORD may turn from the fierceness of His anger, and show you mercy, and have compassion upon you, and multiply you, as He has sworn unto your fathers; when you shall hearken to the voice of the LORD your God to keep all His commandments which I command you this day, to do that which is right in the eyes of the LORD your God.”  Deuteronomy 13:17,18

What is true compassion?  I ask that because I can’t stop thinking about the love of God and how it is demonstrated through Him and how He demonstrates it through us as believers.  I think it’s important to understand what real compassion is according to Your standard, Lord, because sometimes we aren’t trying to live by Your standard, but by our own standard.  And that always falls short.  So today I am digging into this treasure of compassion in Your Word and by the power of Your Holy Spirit to teach and give understanding.

It’s interesting.  Because the first reference I came to was a word for compassion.   I see the daughter of Pharaoh coming to the river to wash herself.  She sees a basket floating among the river grass and sends her maidens to fetch it to her.  Exodus 2:6 tells us, “…when she had opened it, she saw the child: and, behold, the babe wept.  And she had compassion on him, and said, ‘This is one of the Hebrews’ children.'”  And it’s wonderful that she had compassion on him, on baby Moses, because it compelled her to rescue him and raise him.  But that is not the depths of God’s compassion and the compassion You, Lord, desire from us, the compassion that You, Lord, place in us.  That’s maybe a beginning, maybe what naturally flows from man when we let it, but that’s not the depth of the compassion that flows from Your heart.

I’m wondering if that’s the compassion that says, “I wish I had a child.  Here is one who needs a mother.  I can be his mother.  I will raise him as my own.  Here is a child who will love me as I love him.  I will care for him so that he can be mine.  I will do the things that are good for him because he is mine.”  That is a compassion that does good for another, but God’s compassion is deeper and stronger and more complete and has nothing to do with selfish desires.  The compassion of Pharaoh’s daughter is the compassion I would normally exhibit.  But it’s not the compassion of the God who loves me, who loves you.  What does His compassion look like?

There is another Hebrew word used for compassion.  This is the compassion that God shows to His children.  It’s the word racham.  In Deuteronomy 13:17,18 we see it surrounded by strong words.  “And there shall CLEAVE NOT ONE THING of the cursed thing to your hand: that the LORD may turn from THE FIERCENESS OF HIS ANGER, and show you MERCY, and have COMPASSION upon you, and MULTIPLY you, AS HE HAS SWORN unto your fathers:  when you shall HEARKEN to the VOICE OF THE LORD your God, to keep ALL His commandments which I command you this day, to DO THAT WHICH IS RIGHT IN THE EYES OF THE LORD YOUR GOD.”    What looks right to me doesn’t matter unless it looks right in the eyes of You, Lord.

I think of those words and I think of how strongly You cleave to us.  You could have let Adam and Eve and all of sinful mankind go.  You could have let us fall from Your hands.  You could have cast every one of us away.  You have the right.  But You didn’t.  You chose to cling to us and to make a way for us to become Your own through Christ.  And then You clove to us so strongly that nothing can snatch us from Your hand.  You don’t just hold us in Your palm.  You engraved us within Your hands deep within the nail piercings.  That’s true compassion.  That is so much more than Pharaoh’s daughter did.

You could have been fiercely angry with us.  That’s not just slightly angry.  We deserve death and eternal punishment.  We deliberately defied and defy our very own creator whom we owe our whole existence to. We’re not just talking about being mad here.  This is “charon,” burning anger, sore displeasure, fierce wrath and fury.  This is what You can rightfully feel for me and each of us.  This is what I deserve.  Jonathan Edwards wasn’t wrong when he said that it was a disaster “to fall into the hands of an angry God.”  I must always remember that sin brings wrath.  Wrath brings destruction.  Without judgment, wrath is coming.  But even in judgment, there is no way for me to be declared innocent on my own!  God did not leave His character behind when New Testament times approached.  He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  So I ought to cry out, “Woe is me!  I am undone!  Where is my hope?”

My hope is in God, who made me and the way for me to be returned to Him and His ways.  There is another side of wrath.  On the other side of this deep and fierce wrath is where we find just as deep and fierce a love.  This love is evidenced in the measure of Your compassion and mercy, Lord.  It’s the only thing that prevents our destruction and witholds Your wrath.  This is that kind of compassion, that kind of mercy, that kind of love.  And it’s not because I deserve it or because it will make You more complete to accept me or because I fulfill some longing in You.  You are complete and whole and satisfied completely without me.    It’s unexplainable in human terms or thinking.  It’s solely because of Your character, of who You really are and Your absolute authority.  You rule.  That’s it.  You rule.

I can argue and fuss and fight all I want, but You rule.  You rule either with wrath or with compassion and mercy.   And if I’m wise, I’ll see You like Jeremiah did.  I’ll desire You to correct me with Your judgment based on Your mercy and compassion and not with your judgment based on wrath.

And when I learn to basque in Your compassion and mercy, I am guaranteed by the depth of Your promises that You will multiply me.  That means that You will strengthen, encourage, duplicate Yourself in me, lift me up, do everything that Your character needs to in me to make me Your own and contiually fill me with Your endless compassion so that I become a vessel of the same.  The unloveable becomes the most beloved simply by the nature of the One who loves!  And I am taught to love others like that.  This is unnatural.  This is gloriously supernatural!

What You have sworn to do is eternally binding.  Man’s promises may break, but never will Your promises be broken.  If ever there was a true guarantee, You are it.  Your Word and Your ways are always true and dependable.  There is nothing stronger.  Your love never ceases.  It never fails.  It never falls off.  It’s not just You doing a good thing.  You suffer for us though You don’t have to, nor do You deserve to.  You are kind though we don’t deserve it.  Though You are a jealous God and have a right to be utterly jealous and angry over us, You respond without jealousy.  You have every right to be too proud to rescue us but You humbled Yourself and became as one of us in Christ and humbled Yourself unto death.  You could have inflated Yourself over us but instead You esteemed us as more valuable than Your own Son. You have never behaved Yourself outside of Your character no matter how angry we made You.

Here’s a difficult one.  You didn’t seek Your own.  Though You are worthy of all our worship and deserve all our worship, somehow, beyond explanation, it remained an act of worship to redeem a broken and fallen people.  And though it is all about You, by the focus being on Your love and compassion for us, on the safety from Your wrath, You retain the absolute right to be worshipped while focussing on the care of those You created.  I’m not sure if I can explain that but the One Who is to be worshipped and retains that worship, has a focus to delight in and care for those who worship Him.  And while it always remains in Your will, yet it remains from Your doing to be for the benefit of those You rescue by Your compassion and truly for their good.

And if anyone has ever been provoked time and time again, surely it’s You.  Yet You are not affected by our provoking.  Your ways are above our provocation.  You are the truth and Your focus remains in You despite every lie that abounds.  You continually bear so much for us and because of us.  But Your expectations for us never cease.  And nothing, absolutely nothing can stop Your love.  Why?  Because You are God and it is who You are.

Well, this is the kind of love and compassion that You have shown me.  This is the kind of love and compassion that I want to bestow on others by Your grace and mercy and power in me.  I don’t want to love others because of their benefit to me.  I want to love and be compassionate like You, for their benefit because it’s who I am in You.  I want to love like that because it’s the love and compassion I have experienced from You.  And I want them to experience that.   But unless I’ve experience that love and compassion first hand myself, I can’t share it.  Lord,  I just want to be so filled with Your love and compassion that it overflows no matter the difficulty of the situation I’m in, no matter my own feelings.  I want to be constantly reminded of how Your compassion continually flows out and into me though I am so flawed.  Never let me forget.  And let me always be utterly dependent upon Your compassion and utterly enthralled by it’s grasp as I ever cleave more tightly to Your love and follow Your ways among the people around me.

Isn’t That the Heart of Christmas?

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Photo credit to Abigail Vencil Photography

“Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the Dayspring from on high has visited us…”  Luke 1:78

Well, I haven’t gotten very far again, Lord.  Here I am, up early.  I can’t sleep.  I’m wide awake and I have You on my mind.  And I’m just wanting to know what You want me to be thinking about.  So I open up Your Word.  And these words stare back at me.  These words that I read and thought about some yesterday.  But today, this morning, all I can see are two words, tender mercy.  And I think, what does the tender mercy of God look like?  Shouldn’t I really know?  Because shouldn’t I be able to exhibit that kind of mercy in my life?  But don’t I have to know and experience it first before I can actually demonstrate it myself?  So, do I?

I don’t think Luke is just having us think about You, Jesus, at Your birth.  Yes, he is proving the veracity of Who You are by God’s Word.  The Israelites would know that You were using this prophetic statement to point to Christ, but what if You were using Luke to show us even more, to take me ever deeper into You.  I mean, here You are, Lord, using this Mesopotamian prophet to prophesy against his will about You.  “I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; a Star shall come forth from Jacob, a Scepter shall rise from Israel…”  (Numbers 24:17)  That is awesome in itself!  But You didn’t stop there.  Actually, You prefaced it by saying that this Dayspring that is visiting us is according to Your tender mercy.

I can’t help but think of Balaam’s words, “I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near…”  Now I know that was because he was talking of a future event.  But it’s so much a truth about where we stand with You in our hearts, Lord.  There was a time when I saw You, but You weren’t really there in my life.  There was a time when I saw You, but You seemed far away.  I dreamed of walking with You but how could I walk with a God who lived in heaven until I was in heaven?

And here is part of that mercy that You show us.  You are Emmanuel, God with us.  You do more than draw near; You dwell inside.  And what do You ask of me?  “Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you…”  (James 4:8)  Only the Dayspring makes this possible.

But why did You do this?  Was it out of duty?  Or what?  Lamentations 3:22 tells me, “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not.”  Another version says, “It is by the kindness of Jehovah that we are not destroyed for His mercies never fail.”  Here, “mercies” is the Hebrew word “chesed” and “compassions” is the Hebrew word “racham.”  I think I need to look at them together because I’m not so sure that they don’t go hand in hand in You, Lord.  “Chesed” can be summed up as Your “lovingkindnesses.”  But this compassion, what we call mercy, it’s as deep as the womb.  It is like the way a mother cherishes her fetus within her.  This is an intense word, and intense feeling, and intense cherishing.  This is what does not fail in You.  This is how You feel about Your children, those who draw near to You and allow You to draw near to them.  This is the intensity of Your desire for nearness, that we would be a part of You, that You would cherish us within You, that You would love and protect and nourish us like a mother does her unborn babe.

It’s not just a feeling You have either.  This is a position we acquire in You!  You place us here.  You conceive me within You.  Your cherishing never stops; it never ends.  I am forever surrounded by Your tender love,  Your tender nurturing, Your tender protection, Your tender presence, Your tender mercy, Your tender compassion, Your tender power.  In my new birth, when I place my trust in You, Jesus, You place me inside of You.  I am secure, and safe, and loved, and cared for, and protected forever.

The beauty of Your mercy doesn’t stop there.  Isaiah 30:18 takes it deeper.  “And therefore will the Lord wait, that He may be gracious unto you, and therefore will He be exalted, that He may have mercy upon you:  for the Lord is a God of judment:  blessed are all they that wait for Him.”  Here’s that compassion again, that mercy, that “racham”.  It’s related to that first racham.  But now look at how we get there.  When Isaiah says that the Lord will wait, that word “chakah” comes from the idea of piercing, and implies “to adhere.”  Now, I can’t help but think of You, Jesus, and how You were pierced through for me, for each of us.  Why?  Why the cross and the shame and the pain?  Why the piercing?

Was it so that You could adhere Yourself to me, to those who would draw near to You in trusting faith?  Because how does this verse in Isaiah end?  “Blessed are all they that wait for Him.”  I am blessed when I adhere myself to You, when I am pierced through by You, in You.  Now how is that for the depth of the mercy of God?  How more greatly could I be adhered to You than to be in Your very own womb?  I mean really, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  Now, it’s one thing to give Your life for me one time.  But what about to do that and give Your life for me every day?  I mean, I’ve got this picture of a mother carrying her child within her womb.  How many mothers have I heard of that chose to save their own child within, even if it cost their own death?  Isn’t that what You did?  Isn’t that how You feel for us, for me?

What is the most important commandment?  Love God.  And what is second?  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  That word for neighbor in Greek is “plesion” and it comes from the root “pelas” which means near.  It talks about closeness.  And I’m just wondering how much closer, now much nearer one can get than being inside someone’s womb.  And isn’t that the extent of Your love?  Aren’t You telling us, telling me that You love me as a part of Yourself?

Do I see the implications of this kind of mercy being demonstrated toward me?  Because if this kind of love, this kind of mercy, this kind of compassion, this deep for me, is being bestowed upon me, then what am I bestowing upon others?  What if I don’t feel this compassion?  What if I don’t know how to experience it?  What if I have never drawn near enough to know?  How can I ever express this to others?

But what if I have drawn near?  What if I have allowed You to place me in Your womb?  What if I have allowed You, even cried out for You, to embrace me in Your love and mercy like that?  What if I am experiencing exactly that?  What if I know what it is to be inside the womb of all wombs.  What if I know not just what it is like to be loved by my Heavenly Father, but I know what it is like to be loved within Him by the love of a Mother?  “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him: male and female created He them.”

I wonder how much bearing this has on us?  I mean, what if we valued Your whole image  as You intend?  Would we know more thouroughly what Your grace and mercy actually look like and feel like?  Are we sometimes guilty of ignoring part of Your image?  Do we not value even each other in Christ as is necessary to see that full image?  Male and female were created in the image of God.  I’ve heard the saying, “It takes two to tango”.  Well, maybe understanding the value of both sides of Your created image, will draw us into a deeper knowledge of the original One we were created after.  Maybe mercy isn’t complete in us until we look at the whole You and acknowledge the whole You exhibited amongst us and in us.

Paul said, “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”  Yes, because of the compassion and mercy of God, we are heirs.  Male or female, I am His offspring, buried in the bowels, in the womb of Christ, in God.  What really matters?  That I am one with Him.  That You are one with Him.  And what does that make us?  One with Him.  Yeah.  I’m not male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free.  I’m His child and so are you, if you are in Him.

So how ought that to change my life?  I ought to respond like You, Lord, to my brothers and sisters in You.  I ought to respond like You to the lost sheep around me.  It’s like Joseph, when he saw his brother Benjamin after all those years and after all that pain.  That compassion welled up in him as deep as the compassion of a mother for the child in her womb.  He yearned for his brother.  There was deep passion, a desire to be “intertwined.”  He yearned to make himself known, to have that relationship, to know and be known.  He yearned for what was lost.  Isn’t that how You feel for us?  Isn’t that how we ought to feel toward others.  Isn’t that the heart of Christmas?  Isn’t it all about Your yearning for us, to know us and be know by us?  Yes.  That’s the kind of love I want to show back.  That’s the kind of love I want to learn to give.  Lord, make me able to love that deeply in You.