The City and God

Hebrews 11:16 (NIV). Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

What emotions does the word “city” evoke in you? Are they feelings of hope, energy and excitement; or fear, despair and loneliness? Some people are energized by the city. It provides space to nurture and fulfill their dreams. Others find it as a necessary evil. It is a place where they need to be in order to survive. Still others view the city with suspicion. They consider it to be to be disruptive to what could otherwise be a normal life—whatever that life is.

I recently participated in a research on faith and the city, exploring the areas of collaboration between Christian organizations and urban authorities in my city. One of the questions we asked the research participants was rather philosophical: “Is the city home?” We were surprised by some of the responses. Many people in my city do not consider it to be “home.” Although many of these people have been in the city for all their adult life, they still have strong attachments with their ancestral homes—villages where they will be buried when they die!

But what has the city got to do with faith? The notion of cities is pervasive in the Bible—for good and not-so-good reasons. The word “city” appears over 600 times in the English Bible. If we consider that a city is a place where everything is amplified—whether it is production, consumption, population, wealth, poverty, power or vulnerability—then we have to take cities seriously. God does take cities seriously.

How then should Christians engage with their cities? I think one of the helpful motifs when it comes to engaging our cities is the “city of God” which He has prepared for His people (Heb. 11:16). This should motivate us to love our cities. God has a special purpose for your city. You should therefore, pray for your city. Get involved in initiatives to transform your city, one small step at a time. Also, let your city motivate you to long for the perfect city in heaven.

God has a special purpose for your cityPrayer

Lord, I thank you for my city! I pray that you help me to see my city through Your eyes. Help me to love and seek for the flourishing of my city. In Jesus’ name I pray, amen.

The Risk of Following Jesus

It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid.

Before I became a Christian, everything I heard about following Jesus Christ was good and attractive—and I think this experience is shared by many other believers. But as I started reading the Bible, I realized that Jesus does not promise that the journey will be easy for those who would want to follow Him. One has to take serious considerations about the implications of being His disciple. He, in fact likens following Him to carrying the cross on a daily basis. Our concept of the cross has been distorted due to the time and culture gap between us and the time of Jesus. For us it is a harmless or even beautiful artifact or piece of jewelry.  But during the era of the Roman Empire, only those who were about to be executed carried their crosses to the place of crucifixion. So, carrying the cross is akin to dying—and on a daily basis.

Those who take a stand for what Jesus stands for risk being hated, called names, ostracized, treated unjustly, imprisoned or even killed. The story of Joseph of Arimathea illustrates the kind of boldness every believer needs in order to identify with Jesus. Although, he was among the most respected people in the Jewish religious establishment, Joseph risked his reputation and perhaps his carrier to identify with Jesus. Hitherto he had been a secret disciple of Jesus. But Joseph was not alone. There were two other women following. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph had been with Jesus right for most of His public ministry. They followed their Master to the end.

Why would anyone risk being shunned by family and close friends, arrested or killed for the sake of Jesus? It is not because of what the world could offer us in this life but rather of what Jesus promises us both in this life and the life to come. Although we might lose everything—including our own lives, when we have Jesus we have everything.

Have you ever had to make hard choices for the sake of following Jesus? How are you going to live for Him today; this week?

when we have Jesus we have everything

Contending with Evil Altars

2 Chronicles 15:16-18 (NIV)16 King Asa also deposed his grandmother Maakah from her position as queen mother, because she had made a repulsive image for the worship of Asherah. Asa cut it down, broke it up and burned it in the Kidron Valley. 17 Although he did not remove the high places from Israel, Asa’s heart was fully committed to the Lord all his life. 18 He brought into the temple of God the silver and gold and the articles that he and his father had dedicated.

An altar is a place where people make sacrifices to a deity. The first mention of the altar in the Bible is when Noah builds one after the flood in order to offer sacrifices to God (Gen. 8:20). God instructed Moses to build an altar, as part of the tabernacle, to burn incense for the Lord (Exod.  30:1). The priests were tasked to burn incense on the altar every morning. In the New Testament believers are exhorted to offer their bodies as living sacrifices to God.  Therefore, for Christian believers, altars may be the spaces where we live out and the activities we do in the name of Christ to honor God. This may include prayer and worship gatherings or even our day-to-day work as long as it is done to honor Christ. Altars concretize and energize our worship of God.

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However, even in the biblical times, altars were not the preserve for the worshipers of the One true God. Other nations also erected altars to sacrifice to their gods. Sadly, time and again the people of Israel were lured to worship the foreign gods on the pagan altars. This of course displeased God and He likens it to spiritual prostitution.

Evil altars, then, are spaces and activities where the name of the Lord is dishonored and evil is glorified. As believers, we are called to contend with evil altars. But we also need to realize that we contend with evil forces and not human beings. We don’t kill “non-believers” or disown our children when they refuse to follow Christ. We content against spiritual altars by speaking and living by the truth of God’s Word and praying against them in the name of Jesus Christ.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

What radical steps of obedience do you fell led to take as a follower of Jesus Christ?

Conditions for True Success

2 Chronicles 15:1-2  The Spirit of God came upon Azariah son of Oded.  2 He went out to meet Asa and said to him, “Listen to me, Asa and all Judah and Benjamin. The LORD is with you when you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you.

Whereas the world understands success in terms of material possessions, true success comes from God. We learn from King Asa’s story that true success comes when we have a right relationship with God and we are committed to doing what honors Him.  The king was exhorted to seek the Lord so that he and his kingdom can be successful. His primary call was to seek God and serve Him. As long as he was singularly committed to honoring the Lord, he would be successful. There are at least three attitudes that Asa demonstrated that are also applicable to us if we want to experience God’s blessings.

Fear the Lord. To fear the Lord is to have reverence for Him that culminates into worship. When we fear the Lord we exalt Him above everything else. We honor Him in every way. We shun evil and strive to do what pleases Him. The Word of God repeatedly exhorts believers to fear the Lord because that is the source of wisdom.

Seek the Lord. It is easy for people in places of responsibility to miss their primary calling, which is to seek the Lord, and focus on pursuing their selfish ambition. That’s why every leader, and indeed every believer, needs someone to speak the truth of God’s Word to them. Asa was blessed to have Azariah speak into his life. Make an effort to stay in God’s presence through prayer, the Word, fellowship with other believers and practicing other spiritual disciplines. Seeking the Lord also involves turning away from other idols of the heart such us self, earthly treasures, and other lusts. God has promised that all those that humbly seek Him, will find Him.

Obey the Lord. This is closely related to the two attitudes we already mentioned. We seek the Lord because we fear Him and when we seek Him, he reveals His will to us so that we can obey Him.  Our obedience should be prompt, wholehearted and unreserved. Whenever there are aspects of our lives where we hesitate to completely surrender to the Lord, they can easily become snares to lure us away from Him.

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Finishing Well

2 Chronicles 14:2-6 (NIV) Asa did what was good and right in the eyes of the Lord his God. 3 He removed the foreign altars and the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles.  4 He commanded Judah to seek the Lord, the God of their ancestors, and to obey his laws and commands. 5 He removed the high places and incense altars in every town in Judah, and the kingdom was at peace under him. 6 He built up the fortified cities of Judah, since the land was at peace. No one was at war with him during those years, for the Lord gave him rest.

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One of the commonest analogies to the Christian faith is a race. It is easy for many people to sign up, turn up and actually begin the race but not all who start the race finish. The same thing happens in Christian ministry. There are many people who start well but end up miserably. It is important that we do not only start well but also finish well. So, how can we finish well?

Keep the Perspective. One of the pitfalls of Christian ministry is losing the big picture. It is easy to be preoccupied with dealing with the crises and the urgent but miss the whole point of the purpose of our calling. We are really here to please our Master, Jesus Christ. If whatever we do does not honor Christ, then we have missed the point.
Keep the Faith. It is easy to depend on God when you are poor, struggling, or not famous. But when God blesses us and we become successful, the temptation to become proud becomes great. We can easily attribute our success to our wisdom and hard work rather than God’s help. Never stop trusting the Lord.

Keep the Fire burning. Do not lose the passion. Do not become complacent. When we become complacent, we get content with our accomplishments and stop believing God for the best. It is easy to think that we have arrived and simply enjoy the status quo. Always find avenues to keep aflame your passion for the Lord and His work.

Quote: “We never outgrow your desperate need for Christ.” Jerry Bridges

Reflections on Human Mortality

Read Psalm 91

You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.” (Verse 3)

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom (verse 3).

When I was growing up, I didn’t really like Psalm 90. When someone in the community died, we would tag along our parents to bid the deceased “farewell.” On these occasions, Psalm 90 was read out as part of the liturgy. So I associated the psalm with death—which in itself is not far-fetched. I, like many other people, don’t want to die but the fact is we will all die. Irrespective of how long we live on this earth, our time is limited. Our lives here on earth are transient.

We, therefore, need not only to reflect on life but also on death. Or better still, we need to reflect on our lives in light of our mortality. I believe that it is only when we start taking our mortality seriously that we can start living meaningfully. Jon Bloom once said, “If God is eternal and our earthly lives are transient, then there is only one place the wise will choose to live: in God, our forever dwelling place.” For us who believe in Jesus Christ, we know that our life here on earth is not all there is to life. We have an eternal home. Our present life is like a dress rehearsal for the real thing. When we die, the curtains in heaven open for the real performance.

Every single person has a choice on how they should live their lives in preparation for eternity. We can choose to squander our time, strength and opportunities or to invest our lives in ways that honor God and advance His kingdom. We need to use our time on earth wisely, for the glory of God.

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Food for Thought:

Since your life on earth is transient, how will you invest it in serving God’s purposes? Think of the gifts, talents and opportunities God has given you as your spiritual capital.

The Presence of God

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Exodus 33:14-15 (NIV) The LORD replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”  Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.

The motif of the presence of God is pervasive in the scriptures. Although God is everywhere, He chooses to localize his manifest presence among His people. Before the Fall, God dealt directly with His people. There were no intermediaries such as priests, altars, sacrifices or a temple. In the Garden of Eden, God came to Adam and Eve in the “cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8).

During the time of the exodus, God instructed Moses to make the Ark of the Covenant—a gold-coated wooden box where the two tablets of the Ten Commandments were kept (Exodus 25:10ff). The covenant Box was always kept in the holiest section of the sanctuary and its access was limited to a few prescribed priests.  It signified the presence of God in the midst of His people.

In the New Covenant, Jesus is the Immanuel—God in our midst. Even when Jesus returned to heaven, He sent us the Holy Spirit who dwells in the life of every believer. Again, although God is omnipresent, He manifests His presence among His people.

When Christ returns, we the believers shall be with Him in the New City. Apostle John saw a vision of the New Jerusalem. What is remarkable in John’s vision is that there is no “temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev. 21:22). Indeed as someone has put it, “all of life—and, principally, the gospel life—is about being in God’s relational presence.”  We all should long to be in God’s presence both now and in the life to come.