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  • Behind the Scenes Esther 3:1–7:10; 3 John 1:1–4; Psalm 117:1–118:16 Sometimes life can look so bleak that it seems as if all hope is gone. This was the situation for Esther and Mordecai: “Letters were sent by couriers to all the provinces of the king to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all the Jews, both young and old, women and children” (Esth 3:13). Genocide was upon Esther, Mordecai, and their people, and it seemed that little could be done. Yet God unexpectedly used Esther to do His work and made Mordecai a hero for thwarting the enemies’ plan to destroy God’s people (Esth 5–7). As a result, the people who wanted to kill Mordecai ended up dead (Esth 7:7–10). But these events depicted more than poetic justice; they provide an example of hope in the midst of adversity. This story shows that God is at work even when we don’t realize He is there—when even prayer feels like a waste of energy. While God is not a “character” in the book of Esther, His presence is implicit in every scene of goodness coming out of chaos. We may not see Him talking in a burning bush, but we feel His concern in the tension; we note His love and compassion through His orchestration of events. These actions aren’t credited to God directly, but that, too, shows something about His character. He doesn’t need the praise that we so often do, so we need to acknowledge how praiseworthy He really is. Even when we don’t know how to pray, or don’t pray at all, God can still answer. And that’s goodness, above all else. How is God at work in your life in ways you may not realize—even at this very moment?
    1. Meet and Greet Esther 1:1–2:23; 2 John 7–13; Psalm 116:1–19 “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house and do not speak a greeting to him, because the one who speaks a greeting to him shares in his evil deeds” (2 John 9–11). This passage is sometimes used as support for forming exclusive communities—ones that don’t interact with people who don’t believe in the gospel or who have a different faith. Based on this passage, some believe that we as Christians are not permitted to interact with nonbelievers. Is that what John is really teaching? John issued this warning during a time when false teachers were spreading confusing doctrines about Christ. He exhorted believers to “test the spirits” to see if these teachers were actually from God (1 John 4:1). They would know if these teachers were from God if they confessed the true message of Jesus Christ—specifically that He had come in the flesh and was from God (1 John 2:1). John wanted the community to be aware of false teachings so they wouldn’t become confused or weakened in their faith. We, too, need to be intentional about the teaching we adhere to. If we are weak and troubled in our faith, we should seek out mature believers who can teach and minister to us. However, if we are confident in our faith, we should be ready and willing to share the message of salvation with those who need to hear it—both inside and outside our communities. How are you sharing the gospel with those who need to receive it?
      1. The Truth about Truth Nehemiah 12:1–13:31; 2 John 1–6; Psalm 115:1–18 John the Evangelist’s letter to the “elect lady” presents a picture of joy and hope, as he “rejoiced greatly to find some of [her] children walking in truth, just as we were commanded by the father” (2 John 4). One word keeps reappearing in John’s letter, focusing his message: truth. John says that he loves the elect lady and her children “in truth” (2 John 1). He says that all who know the truth also love them. His reason is simple: “the truth … resides in us and will be with us forever” (2 John 2). When John speaks of truth, he’s referring to Jesus (John 14:6). After his initial greeting, John goes on to express his wishes: May “Grace, mercy, [and] peace … be with us from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Son of the Father in truth and love” (2 John 3). In acknowledging the source of truth, John acknowledges his connection to it. All believers live in truth because they are linked to God, who is the Truth. He is the source for all they do (that is godly), all they are (that is holy), and all that they will become (that is virtuous). In a few brief statements, John teaches us an important lesson: God is the source of all the goodness in the world. Even in acknowledging others, we must acknowledge Him. If we’re to discuss truth, then we must talk about Him. The elect lady that John addresses is not only truthful—she also leads others to the truth. When we act to encourage someone to work toward who they’re meant to be, we need to follow her example. We need to first lead them to truth: God. What is God teaching you about truth? How can you live it?
        1. A Famous God Nehemiah 10:28–11:36; 1 John 5:17–21; Psalm 113:1–114:8 Fame can have startling effects on people. Those who attain power and influence suddenly become less available: They’re selective with the phone calls they take, the emails they answer, and the people they associate with. Those who receive their attention tend to feel special. When we call on God, we expect Him to answer us and help us. Sometimes, we are so confident that He will or should help us that we forget how amazing it is that He interacts with us in the first place. Psalm 113 reminds us that God is beyond our comprehension. The psalm praises the power and glory of God, who is “high above all nations.” God isn’t just ruling over the earth, though. His realm of power extends even “above the heavens” (Psa 113:4). Both earthly and heavenly powers are subject to Him. His power is astounding, but what is most confounding is His nature and character. Psalm 113 points out that even in His power, God is still concerned with the plights of those far below: “Who is like Yahweh our God, who is enthroned on high, who condescends to look at what is in the heavens and in the earth?” (Psa 113:5–6). And He isn’t just concerned with the powerful and mighty; He is concerned about the helpless and the needy. “He raises the helpless from the dust, he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to seat them with princes, with the princes of his people” (Psa 113:7–8). God is more majestic and powerful than we can comprehend. His fame exceeds that of any celebrity. Yet He still desires to help us—to lift us “up from the ash heap.” This alone should astound us, but there’s more: He cares for us so much that He was willing to sacrifice His only Son to restore our relationship with Him. How are you astounded by God’s nature and His care for you?
          1. From Concern to Action Nehemiah 9:1–10:27; 1 John 5:13–16; Psalm 111:1–112:10 When I approach God, I often try to persuade Him that I am worthy of something or that He should act on my behalf. But there is no reason God should act on our behalf—none is worthy of His intercession. When we pray, we often need a change in focus. Ultimately, it’s not about our rightness or goodness; it’s about His. It’s about what He can do, who He is, and why we know He can do something about the situation we’re in. We should still be honest and open with God, telling Him how we really feel (even though He already knows), but instead of focusing on our own righteousness, we should focus on God and what He’s already done for us. When I shift my attention to God and His goodness, many of my previous concerns fade. Before I even begin to pray, gratitude reminds me of God’s care and provision for me, allowing me to move from what I think matters to what matters to God. Throughout the Bible, we see models of thankful prayers that emphasize God’s character. In the book of Nehemiah, the priestly group descended from Pethahiah (1 Chr 24:16) proclaims: “Stand up, bless Yahweh your God from everlasting until everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name that is being exalted above all blessing and praise! ‘You alone are Yahweh. You alone have made the heavens, the heavens of the heavens, and all of their army, the earth and all that is in it, the waters and all that is in them. You give life to all of them, and the army of the heavens worship you’ ” (Neh 9:5–6). The people go on to recite God’s history of caring for them, focusing on His goodness and reminding themselves of His faithfulness when they (as a whole) had failed Him (Neh 9:7–37; compare Psa 111). They end their sermon with an agreement to honor God. They move from thankfulness, to God’s story, to agreeing to be part of His work. By focusing on God, their attention shifts from ordinary concerns (Neh 7–8) to how they will respond to God. It’s this shift in focus that ultimately leads to righteousness. We also see this progression in Psa 112: the path of the righteous is marked by blessing God and acknowledging His work (Psa 112:1–2). After all, recognizing God is the solution to most of our problems. How can you incorporate thankfulness into your prayer life? How can you do a better job of progressing from concerns to being part of God’s work?
            1. It’s Simple Nehemiah 7:66–8:18; 1 John 5:6–12; Psalm 110:1–7 I tend to complicate matters. Determined to understand the nuances of a problem, I spend more time constructing a solution than I need to. Often, delaying a simple solution is my way of avoiding action that requires me to be courageous, intentional, or perhaps admit I’m wrong. John’s first letter addresses a complication of the gospel message. False teachers were causing division in the community by spreading incorrect doctrines about Christ’s humanity and divinity. Without understanding that Christ is both man and God, some people in the community were in danger of diminishing Christ’s saving work and confusing the gospel. John spends the greater portion of the letter guiding his readers through the murky doctrines the false teachers had introduced. However, John’s climactic point at the close of his letter is far from complex. First John 5:11–12 contains a statement about belief that is both simple and decisive: “And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. The one who has the Son has the life; the one who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.” As John leads the doubting recipients of his letter back to the truth, he shows them the simplicity of the solution: Through the Son, God has provided a way out of sin. This simple truth requires a simple response: belief in the Son. Where in your life do you complicate an obedient response to God?
              1. Discernment and Prayer Nehemiah 6:1–7:65; 1 John 5:1–5; Psalm 109:16–31 “For all of them sought to frighten us.… And now, God, strengthen my hands” (Neh 6:9). While God calls us to “love [our] enemies and pray for those who persecute [us]” (Matt 5:44), he also calls us to act with discernment and prayer. Loving others doesn’t mean we should be weak or passive. Part of loving others means discerning their hearts and motives. “Blessed are the meek, because they will inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5). When Jesus spoke about being meek, He wasn’t referring to weakness. Instead, He was teaching us to focus on others rather than ourselves. That doesn’t mean we should be passive toward those who wish to harm us. Part of practicing meekness is being aware of our enemies and dealing with them cautiously. Doing so successfully takes strength and discernment—necessary components of any godly work. Nehemiah demonstrates these traits in his interactions with his enemies. When his opponents ask him to meet with them, Nehemiah discovers that they actually wish to hurt him. He resists their attack—even calling them on their deceit (Neh 6:8). Too often we allow ourselves to live passively. We enter into situations without thinking things through or recognizing that we’re about to be hurt by others. Yet we as Christians are at war against the evil in the world—not just against people, but also the unseen forces of evil (Eph 6:12). When we feel oppression, we must resist the urge to be reactive. Instead, we must appeal to Christ, who can overcome it all. We must refuse to engage unless it’s on our terms, by the power of the Spirit and completely in His will. What battles are you engaging with that you should disengage from? Which situations in your life need discernment?
                1. Love and Peace Nehemiah 4:1–5:19; 1 John 4:16–21; Psalm 109:1–15 “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds rest in you.” Augustine’s prayer, spoken so many years ago, is still poignant for us today. It appeals to our created purpose: bringing glory to God. When we’re living outside of that purpose, we try to fill that void through other means. In his first letter, John shows how the love of God and communion with Him ultimately brings a sense of peace and confidence: “We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love and the one who abides in love abides in God and God abides in him. By this love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment, because just as that one is, so also are we in the world” (1 John 4:16–17). God Himself has addressed the great rift we created between ourselves and Him. Through the sacrifice of His Son, He has made it possible for us to abide with Him and find peace in Him (1 John 4:15). Those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God experience this love that brings peace and confidence. But this love isn’t merely an emotion or a feeling of fulfillment; it’s a growing desire to be like Christ. Because God dwells in us, we will become more like Him in love. We can be confident of His work in us when we display self-sacrificial love for our neighbor. How are you resting in God’s love? How are you loving others?
                  1. Position, Prayer, and Strategy Nehemiah 1:1–3:32; 1 John 4:13–15; Psalm 108:1–13 Trying to make a difference in the world can be disheartening; it’s easy to feel like merely a drop in the bucket. When Nehemiah first heard about the suffering of His people, he could have been discouraged. When he learned that the returned exiles were “in great trouble and shame,” living in a city with no walls (Neh 1:3), he could have said, “I’d love to help, but what can I do from this far away?” Instead, he decided to take action (Neh 1:3), and he did so thoughtfully. Rather than making a rash decision, he prayed (Neh 1:4–8). He then volunteered to be the one to help God’s people (Neh 1:9–11), even though doing so meant risking his life. As the cupbearer to the king, Nehemiah recognized his unique place of influence and acted upon it (Neh 2:1–3). He chose to appear saddened before the most powerful man in the world by hanging his head. His actions could have been perceived as a sign of disrespect, which was punishable by severe beatings and even death. But God protected Nehemiah, and the king honored his request (Neh 2:4–6). Nehemiah’s initial actions show his character, but his later actions show his leadership. He moved from being a man of influence to a man of strategy. Immediately upon arriving in the city, Nehemiah inspected the city walls, found the craftsman, and began his work (Neh 2:11–3:32). He realized the urgency of his task; his people needed this wall to survive against the surrounding nations. Nehemiah’s story offers an example of identifying providence, responding to the pain of others through prayer, and acting strategically. It’s a lesson in what it means to be a leader who follows God’s leadership. Nehemiah stands as an example of one who takes action that is well-researched, strategic, and prayerful. What are some ways you are providentially positioned to do God’s work? How have you led while following His leadership?