Confident Christianity: Avoiding the Traps – 1 Corinthians 10:1-15

trap1In my younger years, I got the opportunity to learn about shepherding by following a shepherd through the Judean Wilderness for a short time. That was many years ago, but one striking image remains fixed in my mind – the sheep “pile up”. Sheep are followers, and when one falls in a crevice trying to reach was appears to be very nice grass to feed upon, other sheep follow the first into the tight crevice, eventually causing a “pile up” of sheep – nose to rear end – badly stuck and in need of immediate help from the shepherd to be set free. When I read in the Word that we are like sheep, that image sticks in my mind. We are followers, that is the single best reason both polls and marketing work in American culture.

In more recent years, one of the things I have learned to take joy in that I did not when I was younger is watching little children. I have developed a huge soft spot for babies and little ones since I became a grandparent. Watching them discover things, process them and learn how to do things is nothing short of a total joy! What I have noticed is in many ways they are very much like those sheep I saw long ago – they follow. They learn by watching those who are going before them. It is obvious that most people grow up watching other people, and take their cues from others who appear to be older and perhaps wiser. That is how we learn to speak, walk, ride a bicycle and act in social situations.

My work now includes being both a Pastor and discipleship “pattern builder”, and something has become very clear to me from the study of a few words that came from Paul’s quill and were recorded in 1 Corinthians 10. I openly confess this particular truth has bothered me ever since I discovered it in the Scripture. Even more, I have found that most believers don’t seem to recognize that it is a Biblical truth. The lesson that comes from the first half of the chapter may surprise you as well, because it reveals three ideas.

• First, Paul made clear that most BELIEVERS aren’t actually following the right path, even though they began a walk with Jesus. That makes it hard for those who are learning to follow by watching those who are already supposed to be followers.

• Second, the same text revealed that most believers fall into the same four traps believers have fallen into for centuries. The four traps are idolatry, immorality, deliberate defiance and negativity – none of which are the call of God in following the Savior.

• Third, God clearly indicated that no follower of Jesus MUST fall into the four traps – there is always an alternative way to navigate.

Let’s summarize the key to our lesson from 1 Corinthians 10 in this way:

Key Principle: The path to overcome temptation is the uncommon one – not the path of most Christ followers. It can be found in God’s Word by following the escape provided by His Spirit.

Paul argued that believers must do three things to navigate our walk successfully: Understand the powerful help God provides us, take special note of the danger zones that trap most people, and finally utilize three tools to bypass the traps (or get out of them if we have been caught in the past).

Before we go any further, here is the sobering truth: We won’t please God following everyone else, and that seems counter-intuitive because that is how we learned most everything else.

We must recognize that we are directly responsible for our own intentional spiritual growth, not those around us. Even in discipleship and equipping environments, we must understand that most are following the common paths that do not ultimately honor God (10:1-5). These probably seem like hard words, but let’s start by celebrating some things God provided to help you successfully follow Jesus…It all began with God’s help.

Understanding the Powerful Helps from God

Paul opened with a reminder of God’s provision for a follower’s success…

1 Corinthians 10:1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; 3 and all ate the same spiritual food; 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.

Look at four advantages believers have been provided to follow Jesus, based on what God provided His people in the past. (10:1-6a):

God’s provision began with the direction of God: God gave His people direction as He led them: With the cloud, God directed His people, guiding them through unknown territory. (10:1). Out in the unfamiliar surroundings and far away from familiar comforts that came with the predictability of a slave life, God’s careful direction was a welcome and needed extension of His care. Read about the trip through the desert and one thing stands out about ancient Israel: people who are removed from their comfort zone tend to whine incessantly. Ultimately, whining comes from belief that God has brought us in a direction that is uncomfortable and unclear!

Our lives have been made better by warning lights and caution signals. Pastor Daniel Shroeder wrote:

My car has a yellow light that turns on when the gas in my gas tank level gets down low. With another car that we had, that meant that you had plenty of time to finish what you were doing and then fill up with gas some time later. The car I drive now doesn’t work that way. I know this from experience. When the yellow light turns on, I had better fill up with gas soon or it may not start again. It took getting stranded twice in order for me to learn that lesson. Do you think I’ll repeat that mistake again? Not if I learned my lesson I won’t. (via sermoncentral.com).

When we build directions, indicators and warning signals into our life, they help direct us and keep us from harm For ancient Israel, God pulled them from one place to another by means of a cloud. It offered direction, just as God offers direction to people today. You may think the cloud was more overt than the Word of God, but that isn’t really the case. With 1189 written, tried and tested chapters of God’s warning indicators, direction signals and beckoning lights (not to mention the Spirit within that makes things clearer than we would have without Him) – there is plenty of direction we have for which ancient followers of God would have longed.

Second, there is the rescue of God: God gave His people rescue when He intervened in their capture and destruction (10:1b). Imagine passing through the Sea of Reeds with the wind whipping and the water piled high beside you! There was simply no way to outrun Pharaoh’s chariots, so God stopped them. There was no way to get the children of Israel, together with carts, animals and house wares across the water, so God blew the water back. Though we may not believe it, God provides more protections than what we can see and calculate. You and I see the accident, not the many times God stepped in and saved us from one! God is there before us and knows where the traps and mine fields are before we arrive. When He has a task for you – He knows how to open the waters. You and I are indestructible until we are finished what God has intended our lives to accomplish. There is no force that is our God’s equal. Nature does not confound her Creator. God CAN make a way.

Third there are the voices God provides a follower: God provided leadership all along the way for followers to publicly choose to follow as the leaders followed God. The people followed Moses in the desert, and were publicly known to have done so. Though Moses was filled with inadequacies and personal flaws (which were made clear from his own mouth at the first meeting with God in front of a burning bush), he was part of God’s provision. We must remember that although no leader is flawless, it doesn’t mean none are worth following (10:2). God provides leaders and if they follow His Word, they are worth following. The people were “baptized into Moses” in the text. That wasn’t a reference to a religious ceremony, but rather a reference to “public identification” with Moses. The word “baptizo” was used as a figurative way of showing identification, as we baptize to identify ourselves as followers of Jesus today. Here it was used as a play on words to show they were the “people of Moses” in one sense.

Fourth, there are God’s periodic intervening miracles: God has always provided by in miraculous and unforeseen ways (10:3-4)! Water doesn’t normally come from the rocks and the materials to bake bread don’t normally blow in with the wind – but the people in the wilderness can testify they did just that! God provided water and manna by His own hand, because He cared for the people when they could not care for themselves! He did it because He is good, and because He loves His people. He did it because He wanted them to know Him better.

Keep this in mind: the destination for a follower of God isn’t a mystical promised land, but an intimate walk with the God of the journey of life. This is the tragedy of immoral thinking – it is small thinking because it makes this life and its comforts the most important thing, the gauge of all other things. It places our immediate satisfaction the ultimate key to our happiness. That isn’t the truth – because our ultimate happiness is in His arms!

Let’s remember this: The more immoral a society becomes, the more it will frame immediate and continual comfort and happiness as the most important things, the very goals of life. That kind of thinking values the life of a mother, but cares little about the extermination of the unborn when conceived in an unplanned way. That kind of thinking emphasizes the immediate happiness and ‘freedom’ of two adults over the value of caring for the children in their household in a stable home. Immoral societies look at their world as consumers, not as builders. The more immoral, the more short-lived and small thinking one becomes. Dear ones, there are many believers today who live a life of immoral pleasure and think too little of it. We were born of the Spirit in new life to think of each moment as an opportunity to show Who God is, not to simply serve ourselves and feed our desires. We must not live like one who has no Lord and no eternal purpose.

Perhaps for that reason, Paul introduced a shocking truth: Though God has provided for followers to be successful, but it is equally true that most don’t really follow Him very far into the wilderness of life!

When Paul made the point that there were leaders provided by God that believers could and should follow in verse two, I was perfectly comfortable – because it fit the equipper model. When I read verse five, however, I am much less comfortable, because it makes clear that each believer is forced to learn to follow the right voices, and they won’t be the most popular or widely acknowledged ones. He wrote:

1 Corinthians 10:5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness.

Doesn’t that shock you? With MOST believers of the past wilderness experience, God was not pleased. They started with God, following His direction, experiencing His rescue, knowing His powerful provision and being led by His appointed leader – but those things weren’t enough for them to finish well.

I am still stunned by this truth from the Word. The plain fact is MOST BELIEVERS DON’T REALLY FOLLOW GOD.

Walk in any church – even the best of them – and you will find many who began a journey with God, but they are now walking in disobedience to Him. In some churches they aren’t even embarrassed about it, because embarrassment sounds so “judgy”. When did it become a GOOD THING to openly defy God and feel fine about it? Even worse is the truth that they both KNOW it and they choose not to CHANGE it. This is what makes learning to be a disciple by watching other disciples such a problem in the church.

The record of their walk was not merely to journal their failure, but to warn us the same failures would be common among us if we didn’t change from the way they walked. Paul made that clear in verse six:

1 Corinthians 10:6 Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved.

In a way, the Word of God’s record of their journey provided us two additional resources that can help us as we follow Jesus.

First, we got an opportunity to learn by Biblical EXAMPLE instead of the much more painful EXPERIENCE (10:6a).

Second, we saw their end, and it can become a DETERRENCE or a “wake up call” that allows us to avoid their end (10:5b). We can have the blessing intended in a walk with God – but we must intentionally change course.

It was 1804. Napoleon Bonaparte stared with frustration across the English Channel toward his nemesis. Behind him was the invincible Grande Armee, nearly 200,000 crack veterans, all straining at the leash to crush the hated English. Everything was ready for the invasion: the transport barges, the escort fleet, ammunition, cavalry, artillery, ambulance wagons, even field bakeries. Every last detail had been meticulously planned. It was merely a matter or crossing the 28 miles of water in a single night’s journey. Yet for month after month Napoleon paced the beach at Boulogne, hesitating to act. Finally, after over a year of waiting, he suddenly turned his huge army around and marched it into the heart of Europe. The plan to invade England was laid aside forever. The thing that had stopped the great conqueror at the height of his career was the Royal Navy, Britain’s “wall of oak.” Out of sight, just over the horizon, it was nevertheless always foremost in Napoleon’s doubts. And though the future Emperor’s own fleet outnumbered the British, he dared not test it. That is the power of deterrence. The true effectiveness of a strategic system is in the mind of the enemy. Source Unknown.

Now that we have briefly looked at the provisions from God, and clear recorded examples of those who went before us, we may rightly ask: “Why do so many fail to continue to follow God in a way pleasing to Him?” Paul explained that many haven’t identified the TRAPS a follower of Jesus must face…

Identifying the danger zones that ensnare

Paul made clear the common snares believers who live displeasing to God fall into. They include idolatry, immorality, stubborn defiance, and negative whining (10:6-10). Each are dangerous traps. The first one is found in verse seven:

1 Corinthians 10:7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to play.”

Idolatry is placing something before God as our chief source of joy, happiness and contentment. The people were brought to Sinai by God, but decided to craft their own religious symbols and worship in a way that was pleasure-filled and comfortable – rather than wait to hear from God and follow Him. The truth is that with all the provided advantages from God, we can still easily ignore the symptoms of slipping into the hole.

It begins insidiously when we hunger for things that will satisfy us now, but dishonor our Master and leave us in guilt (10:6b-7a). Idolatry isn’t about a carving or bowing before a statue; it is about making something our chief joy that isn’t our Creator. It is about indulging in things and then chasing the feeling we got from indulgence. Often, as our wilderness companions of old, we indulge in things that start honestly, but lead to blatant sin (10:7b). When faced with the truth, we cling to the indulgence instead of clinging to God.

Immorality is when we use that which God made for one purpose for a wholly selfish one – strictly indulging our own pleasures. Paul wrote:

1 Corinthians 10:8 Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day.

When we live outside of God’s protective fences, we begin performing acts that violate what He told us to do, and we begin risking our lives and testimonies in the process (10:8). We don’t think about the long term consequences and we move blindly ahead. I am thinking of a story I read long ago that expressed this idea well:

In November, 1975, 75 convicts started digging a secret tunnel designed to bring them up at the other side of the wall of Saltillo Prison in northern Mexico. On April 18, 1976, guided by pure genius, they tunneled up into the nearby courtroom in which many of them had been sentenced. The surprised judges returned all 75 to jail.” From Campus Life, September, 1980.

Stubborn Defiance is when we know exactly what God wants us to do in some area of life, and we deliberately defy Him. Paul wrote about it:

1 Corinthians 10:9 Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents.

Can you see how defiance worked in the children of Israel? They played games with God, thinking they could trick Him into believing that we are being faithful when we aren’t (10:9). God isn’t dumb, though many a believer has played the games thinking He is. Testing God isn’t wise, but it is frequent among His people!

Are you being defiant in an area of your life where God has made it completely clear what you SHOULD be doing, or what you should be refraining from? The honest truth is that many of us have faced this before, and we know the hooks of sin are harder to break free from than the uninitiated may believe. Serpents hurt, main and destroy, but we invite them into our lives when we play with God’s right to be first in our lives.

Negative Whining is when we act as though God is either not paying enough close attention to us, or He isn’t acting justly toward us. Paul recalled the Israelites:

1 Corinthians 10:10 Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer.

Many of us have followed Jesus with an angry and complaining heart, acting as though others have it better because they serve a better and more accommodating master (10:10).

Imagine that you’re a child in Chicago and there is a widow who lives across the street, who can’t do a lot of heavy lifting. When winter snows come down, your parents tell you to shovel her driveway. Even if you don’t want to do it, because you are a child, and you must obey your parents, you really have no choice. You have to shovel the snow whether you like it or not. The whole time you shovel, you grumble and fuss because you don’t want to do what you should do – obey and serve. Can you go to the Lord that night and claim that as an act of obedience… Not hardly!

There they are… the traps that can ensnare us. We can put something before God, and that becomes idolatry. We can place feelings and pleasures before God and that becomes immorality. We can kick against God’s conviction and that becomes defiance. We can follow Him with a sour heart and complaint-stained soul, and that is negativity. These traps have long existed. We are all familiar with the feel of them closing on our legs and ensnaring us. What now? The text continued…

Three Ways to Avoid Traps

Cautiously heeding the Scriptural examples of the past, and honestly embracing our own weakness in the present can help us look sensibly for God’s provision of small escape hatches to abandon the common way of living (10:11-14).

First, we must note the examples God gave us, and recognize they are intentional lessons for our benefit, not just stories of antiquity. That is why 1 Corinthians 10:11 explained: “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.

Second we must be realistic about ourselves, and be careful to TAKE WARNING from the stories and be careful to measure what we learn from them. For this reason, Paul continued with these words:

1 Corinthians 10:12 Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.

Failure to embrace our own weakness will lead to arrogance, and that is the edge of the hole. God told us all of the stories of Scripture to offer us ways to avoid falling! (10:11). How can I effectively use these lessons?

We cannot arrogantly believe we can do the same things they did and not get the same result! “Take heed” means we need to watch the guys that fell in before us. If I want to navigate the danger it will begin with telling myself the truth – I am in danger. To avoid the fate of those who fell, I will need to use different tools, different methods, and have a different approach! (10:12).

Not everyone is open to change, even when the outcome is obvious: “You,” said the doctor to the patient, “are in terrible shape. You’ve got to do something about it. First, tell your wife to cook more nutritious meals. Stop working like a dog. Also, inform your wife you’re going to make a budget, and she has to stick to it. And have her keep the kids off your back so you can relax. Unless there are some changes like that in your life, you’ll probably be dead in a month.” “Doc,” the patient said, “this would sound more official coming from you. Could you please call my wife and give her those instructions?” When the fellow got home, his wife rushed to him. “I talked to your doctor,” she wailed. “Poor man, you’ve only got thirty days to live.” Source Unknown.

Third, we must not become unduly self-focused and feel we are somehow in a worse situation than many who went before us. It isn’t true. Paul reminded:

1 Corinthians 10:13 No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man…

Our temptations and problems are the same as everyone else has faced. Maybe the specifics are different, but the feelings are not. I need to stop babying myself as if I have it worse than everyone else! My problem is a “common” one with others – we are all sinners and want to be selfish, period.

What is temptation? Seduction to evil; solicitation to wrong. It stands distinguished from trial thus: trial tests, seeks to discover the man’s moral qualities or character; but temptation persuades to evil, deludes, that it may ruin. The one means to undeceive, the other to deceive. The one aims at the man’s good, making him conscious of his true moral self; but the other at his evil, leading him more or less unconsciously into sin. God tries; Satan tempts. Fairbain, quoted in The Words and Works of Jesus Christ, J.D. Pentecost, p. 99.

Fourth, we must grasp the truth that God is FOR us, and He does make a way of escape from the power of your temptations. Scripture concludes:

1 Corinthians 10:13b “…and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it. 14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.

Think of it like getting on a plane. We must LEARN to identify the emergency exits before the trouble starts (10:13b-14). We must learn, practice, identify and discuss using the escape ropes God provides. Don’t try to invent a new way, look for the ways God has already invented to free you from being trapped. These include timing, accountability, creative avoidance, etc.

Historian Shelby Foote tells of a soldier who was wounded at the battle of Shiloh during the American Civil War and was ordered to go to the rear. The fighting was fierce and within minutes he returned to his commanding officer. “Captain, give me a gun!” he shouted. “This fight ain’t got any rear!” Daily Walk, July 10, 1993.

He was right to lend a hand because the fight was enjoined on all sides – just like our fight to follow God and not be ensnared. We need each other, and we need to prepare constantly for the next wave of temptation to think like the world, compromise with the world and satisfy ourselves in the world. In the end, either the world will be your guide, or the Word will. Only one map will get you to your desired destination of satisfaction in Him.

Finally, think about all that you have heard. Consider your other options. If you are open to grabbing the examples of Scripture, and you will avoid giving yourself some “special break” because you feel your situation is somehow unique in temptation… if you will believe that God has provided an escape and look for it… perhaps you will see the wisdom in what God’s Word says. Paul finished the subject with these words:

1 Corinthians 10:15 I speak as to wise men; you judge what I say.

We must JUDGE God’s Word to be the TRUTH and to be WISE, or we will walk past its warnings (10:15). Paul offered words of the Spirit to them, but they could easily ignore God’s words and bury His truths in “advice” from many others. That is what SO MANY believers do!

We must let His Word rise to the TOP before we sink to the BOTTOM! Years ago, Chuck Colson warned:

According to sociologist Robert Bellah, 81 percent of the American people also say they agree that “an individual should arrive at his or her own religious belief independent of any church or synagogue.” Thus the key to the paradox is the fact that those who claim to be Christians are arriving at faith on their own terms – [often] terms that make no demands on behavior. A woman named Sheila, interviewed for Bellah’s Habits of the Heart, embodies this attitude. “I believe in God,” she said. “I can’t remember the last time I went to church. But my faith has carried me a long way. It’s ‘Sheila-ism.’ Just my own little voice.” Charles Colson, Against the Night, p. 98.

I must deliberately call you to be different than even the “Christendom” of our day…

The path to overcome temptation is the uncommon one – not the path of most Christ followers. It can be found in God’s Word by following the escape provided by His Spirit.

Our Savior Is Born: Waiting for God – Luke 2:21-38

mad on phoneWhen you are in a rush, one of the hardest positions to find yourself in is “on hold.” How frustrating it is to listen to some smooth sounding “elevator music” while waiting for someone to finally get to the phone and help you with your problem, especially when you are trying to get things checked off you “to do” list! Let me ask you something: “Did you ever go through a time when you felt you were calling Heaven, but we being put on hold?” Have you heard the “elevator music” of the Heavens? If you have walked with God for a long time, you probably know a time in which you appeared to be “waiting for God”.

Let’s face it, God isn’t in a rush to get things done, and sometimes that can seem annoying! Think of it! He announced Messiah some seven hundred years before His arrival, and has announced His return at least two thousand years ago! Here is a truth the Word teaches that we need to rehearse when we think God isn’t moving fast enough to supply us help…

Key Principle: God isn’t in a hurry. We need to learn to wait and trust His plan.

There is help from God’s Word on “waiting for God” and today’s lesson illustrates both how God brings the wait to an end, and even more, how we can navigate the uncertainty of the waiting time.

In this Bible lesson, I want to tell the story of two old people who probably passed by each other in a public place for years, but one day their paths intersected – and secret promises of God to both of them became a time of public celebration. We’ll say more about these two people in a few moments…

The Setting of the Story

Before we tell the story, we need to set the story, and as we do we will need to recall a common mistake students of God’s Word can easily make about the season of the year we call “Christmas”. The mistake is this: Often, we recall all the events of Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 “pushed together”, but they are actually spread over several years.

• The birth and the visit of the shepherds happened on the night of Jesus’ arrival in Bethlehem.

• The circumcision and naming happened eight days later in Bethlehem.

• The trip to the Temple came about a month later (33 days from the birth).

• The Magi probably didn’t arrive until Jesus was already a toddler some time later, with the flight to Egypt and Herod’s killing of Bethlehem babies well outside the timing of the Christmas story.

It does little harm to recall all of these in a single time of the year as long as students of the Bible keep them separated for the sake of an accurate story line of our Savior’s earth walk.

Our story is set half way through Luke chapter two, where we find ourselves observing Bethlehem. God had entrusted in the early part of the chapter the “watch care” of Jesus to a couple that appeared somewhat stuck in a shameful situation – that it, the scandalous news of a conception outside of a proper marriage. In that time and place, such an event was the stuff of snickering at the local well. Yet, the couple continued to serve God faithfully. These early days were, no doubt, hard. Regardless of the talk around them, when the time came, they carefully obeyed God’s Words to the letter. By their compliance to each Word of the Lord, they both painted a clear picture of Jesus’ mission and inaugurated God’s powerful work (which is something that often happens through obedience).

As the story of the birth and visit of the shepherds ended, the scene for our account was prepared. We pick up the account in Luke 2:21. As the curtain rises on the scene, by the Torah’s standards Mary was still defiled because of the birth process and needed to finish purification and restoration to God’s service. Jesus was, as yet, un-redeemed as first born of his mother. He was also, as yet, still unnamed, and still uncircumcised. The Temple visit with the baby was the setting for the last part of this story concerning “waiting on God” … but let’s follow the story in order…

The Naming and Circumcision (Eighth day)

In Luke 2:21 and following, two events appear condensed into one scene in the passage, but the reader is expected to know they are not based on a greater knowledge of God’s Law as Moses recorded it.

The first event explained was the naming of the child on the eighth day, along with his circumcision, probably done in Bethlehem. Luke recorded:

Luke 2:21 And when eight days had passed, before His circumcision, His name was then called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.

On the eighth day, they named to the Child “Yeshua”. His name was from two Hebrew words that combined as “God (Yahweh) saves.”

Normally a father chose the name of the son, often based on a family name that was passed from generation to generation. In Joseph’s family, the range of names seemed common from the period, as Mark 3 reminded us of the brothers of Jesus and their names (as well as unnamed sisters):

Mark 6:3 “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?” And they took offense at Him.”

It seems clear in the passage that Joseph had experience in naming children during his life, if those were his own sons. Yet, in the case of Jesus, Joseph followed both the instruction of God in the words of Gabriel to Mary (Luke 1:31) and in the words of an angel in a dream to him (Matthew 1:21). Already in the first chapter of Luke, the record of the circumcision of Jesus’ cousin John demonstrated that it was customary at the time to name male babies at their circumcision (Luke 1:59-60).

Also on the eighth day, they circumcised (b’rit milah: cut or covenant of the circumcision) the boy.

Since the timing of circumcision was specified by Scripture as the eighth day for all Israelite males (Leviticus 12), we can easily conclude the naming ceremony of Jesus occurred with the circumcision (as recorded in Luke 2:21). Bible students recall that God commanded Abraham in Genesis 17:12 to circumcise his newborn male offspring on the eighth day, and this was later applied to all Israel in Leviticus 12:3 as follows: “On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”

Some have questioned over time: “Why the eighth day?” In 1935, Professor H. Dam proposed the name “Vitamin K” for the factor in foods that helped prevent hemorrhaging in baby chicks. This vitamin is responsible for the production (by the liver) of the element known as pro-thrombin. Production of sufficient quantity begins only on the fifth through the seventh days of the newborn male’s life of vitamin K (produced by bacteria in the intestinal tract). The Vitamin K, coupled with prothrombin, causes blood coagulation, which is important in any surgical procedure. On the eighth day, the amount of prothrombin present is elevated above one-hundred percent of normal—and is the only day in the male’s life in which this will be the case under normal conditions. If surgery is to be performed, day eight is the perfect day to do it. (Holt, L.E. and R. McIntosh (1953), Holt Pediatrics (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts), twelfth edition; and McMillen, S.I. (1984), None of These Diseases (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell).

It is worth noting that no one disputes the doctor’s findings today, but the internet is filled with words about how cruel and heartless it is to circumcise a child, and how barbaric and primitive the command certainly must have been. Let’s remember something: Either God determines what He wants for His people, or men do. For the children of Israel, God commanded something because He knew what was best for them on every level (physical, emotional and spiritual). Consider this: God knew the lesson His people needed. Doing something that would cause pain to your child at the beginning was counter-intuitive to the instincts of the parents, but it established a very important principle: Our children are God’s – not ours. Children are to be cared for according to the “specs of the manufacturer”, not according to our misshapen ideas about what the Creator SHOULD have said. Be very clear: Either right and wrong in life will come from God’s Word, or you will cobble together your own ideas and then blame God when they don’t work. That is what makes knowing His Word incredibly helpful and absolutely critical.

Something else may interest Bible students. It is clear that Matthew and Luke were clear about inter-relating the stories of John the Baptizer and Jesus, but it may be less clear to some WHY that was the case. There is a treasured Jewish legend based on the Biblical understanding that Elijah the prophet is “spiritually present” at every b’rit milah (circumcision rite). Elijah was cited to be the forerunner of the Messiah, and has long been considered by Jews as the “angel of the covenant” (based on the idea of Malachi 3:1), or a “guardian angel” until the naming of the child. It is for this reason that Jews set aside a special chair for Elijah at the circumcision with the baby placed on the chair prior to the circumcision and official naming. Because the yet unborn baby John acknowledged Jesus at the visit of Mary to Elizabeth, some believe this tradition was already a part of Jewish life – and that explains the story’s careful inclusion into the Gospel account. Perhaps for early Jews, the story of John’s “meeting” with Jesus before his birth was much more important than it has become for many of us in modernity.

Eight days after the birth, a naming and circumcision would normally be well-attended by close friends and family. In the situation of Mary’s conception, it was likely a very small affair. Far from her childhood home and surrounded by suspicion, this was likely a very hard time – but she had a secret set of promises of God to ponder quietly. They probably quieted her heart and kept her sane in the face of undue contempt of other women – some who may have even been from Joseph’s family!

The Redemption of the Son and Purification of the Mother (Thirty-three days after birth)

As the story moved forward, some twenty-five days after the circumcision (though some scholars say 41 days) Mary needed to complete her purification from defilement and Jesus needed to be redeemed as a firstborn son – bought back from God’s special ownership. The mother and child were taken to the Temple for the redemption ceremony (“Pidyon Haben”) and for the rites to Mary’s post-natal purification (“Tahorah”), in order to keep the Laws of God for Jewish people. Luke explained:

Luke 2:22 “And when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

The “Pidyon Haben” of Jesus

As you look at the account, note first, they brought the sacrifice redeeming the Child: Jesus is the Eternal Son of God, but He was an Israelite by birth. As part of Israel’s Laws, they brought the child (firstborn male of his mother) to the Temple to be redeemed on the eighth day as commanded.

This “Pidyon haben” (Hebrew: פדיון הבן‎) or “redemption of the first-born son” was a remembrance whereby a Jewish firstborn son was “purchased back” from God’s hand – because the opening of the womb for the first time was always considered a unique gift of God. To us that may sound strange. In a society that undervalues the life of a child and expects every blessing at will, it is hard to understand the joy over what was once a very risky and fearful time of bringing a child into the world. It was not always certain that a birthing suite would yield either a live baby or even a living mother. Mortality rates made birthing a time of great tension for families.

If you are less familiar with the idea of the redemption of the first born, consider Exodus 13 and the command of the “Pidyon Haben” with these words:

Exodus 13:1 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Sanctify to Me every firstborn, the first offspring of every womb among the sons of Israel, both of man and beast; it belongs to Me.” 3 Moses said to the people, “Remember this day in which you went out from Egypt, from the house of slavery; for by a powerful hand the Lord brought you out from this place. …11 “Now when the Lord brings you to the land of the Canaanite, as He swore to you and to your fathers, and gives it to you, 12 you shall devote to the Lord the first offspring of every womb, and the first offspring of every beast that you own; the males belong to the Lord. … 14 And it shall be when your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What is this?’ then you shall say to him, ‘With a powerful hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 15 It came about, when Pharaoh was stubborn about letting us go, that the Lord killed every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of beast. Therefore, I sacrifice to the Lord the males, the first offspring of every womb, but every firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ …20 Then they set out from Succoth and camped in Etham on the edge of the wilderness. 21 The Lord was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way..”.

By obedience to the “Pidyon Haben” redemption, Jesus’ parents tied His life to the redemption story of Israel! Though the act was not unique to Jesus, this was the first act of his parents in response to the promise “He shall save His people from their sins”. I imagine it was no small affair in the heart and mind of Joseph and Mary. Consider how Moses tied the “Pidyon Haben” to the great story of God’s intervention and salvation of the Jewish people.

It’s also worth mentioning that this act reminded careful observers of God’s plan for a substitute to deal with sin. The “Pidyon Haben” (redemption of the first born) was originally God’s way of supplying PRIESTS to His people. God initially expressed the firstborn of wombs would serve as His priests for Israel; however, after the corruption of the Golden Calf, in which the tribe of Levi did not participate, God substituted the tribe of Levi over the firstborn for this sacred role, as explained in Numbers 8:14-18.

Numbers 8:17 For every firstborn among the sons of Israel is Mine, among the men and among the animals; on the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I sanctified them for Myself. 18 But I have taken the Levites instead of every firstborn among the sons of Israel. 19 I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and to his sons from among the sons of Israel, to perform the service of the sons of Israel at the tent of meeting and to make atonement on behalf of the sons of Israel, so that there will be no plague among the sons of Israel by their coming near to the sanctuary.”

The intended place of the firstborn was to uniquely serve God, but their disobedience opened the door for a substitute. The Pidyon Haben reminded people, while standing in front of a Levitical Priest, that a substitution took place, and substitution is at the heart of the Gospel message.

The “Tahorah” of Mary

Along with the visit for Jesus’ redemption, Mary took the necessary purification time and ritual. She went through all the normal steps of purification the occasion demanded according to the Law. Immediately after birth, a woman is considered “niddah” (separated as a result of defilement) as God commanded through Moses:

12:1 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying: ‘When a woman gives birth and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean for seven days, as in the days of her menstruation she shall be unclean. 3 On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. 4 Then she shall remain in the blood of her purification for thirty-three days; she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until the days of her purification are completed. 5 But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean for two weeks, as in her menstruation; and she shall remain in the blood of her purification for sixty-six days.

In order to be purified and restored from defilement, Mary brought two offerings: a sin sacrifice and a dedication offering as commanded.

This was not a “Shelmim” (Peace or Thanksgiving offering as in Leviticus 3:1-17 and 7:11-38) of the joy of the couple, but rather both a “Chata’ah (Sin Offering as in Leviticus 4:1-5:13) of purification to restore Mary from defilement and an Oleh Offering (a dedicatory Burnt Offering as in Leviticus 1:1-17) as the Lord expected (as we noted above in Leviticus 12). We know it was not a shelmim based on the fact that a shelmim could never be fowl.

It is also easy in the account to conclude Joe and Mary had little materially, because of their offering. They gave what they could afford. They could not offer a lamb, but they could bring pigeons:

Leviticus 5:7 ‘But if he cannot afford a lamb, then he shall bring to the Lord his guilt offering for that in which he has sinned, two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. 8 He shall bring them to the priest, who shall offer first that which is for the sin offering and … 10 The second he shall then prepare as a burnt offering according to the ordinance…

Mary and Joseph brought both bird, and both offerings were made. Her defilement (suspension of eligibility) was completed at the sacrifice, and she fulfilled the first part of her vow to raise the child as unto the Lord.

Amid Joseph and Mary’s moment of obedience a month after Jesus’ birth, the end of a long wait came to two old people in Jerusalem’s Temple. An elderly man named Simeon (or Shim’on) and an old woman named Anna finally came to the day of God’s fulfillment to them. Take a few moments and go back to the end of the hold music, when God answered the prayers of each…

Simeon’s Story

Luke draws our view to an old man standing on the Temple platform, with its large smooth stone pavement. He wrote:

Luke 2:25 And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to carry out for Him the custom of the Law…

Four important words or phrases of the text describe Simeon and his activities:

• First, he was a righteous man. The term “díkaios” meant he was “approved by God”. He was God’s man, stationed to do God’s bidding by God’s hand. He was selected by God.

• Second, he actively lived his God-given role. The term “eulabēs” is translated “devout” and in other translations it is “God-fearing.” He lived out a practical, daily, “godly respect” for holy things. He walked in practical ways with God.

• Third, he acted with anticipation. Coming to the Temple wasn’t a heavy drudgery, but one filled with expectation. The text says he was “looking for the consolation” but the term “prosdéxomai” literally means he was “ready and willing” to receive what God promised. He walked with excited readiness and expectation.

• Fourth, he carried in his heart a revelation – a promise from God that he could not know if God hadn’t told him. The term “xrēmatízō” is the word “revealed” in the verse, but in the language it was a business term “to admonish on the basis of a valid standard” and was used of warnings. He knew God promised something, and he took it seriously and literally.

The man waited for God to openly reveal the Promised One. He knew the child was coming, and he looked, day after day, among the line of people coming to offer their children for the “Pidyon Haben”, the redemption of the firstborn sons to the Lord. The day of the waiting was over! Luke wrote:

Luke 2:28 “… then he took Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said, 29 “Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, According to Your word; 30 For my eyes have seen Your salvation, 31 Which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 A Light of revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of Your people Israel.” 33 And His father and mother were amazed at the things which were being said about Him. 34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed— 35 and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

Can you hear the PURE SATISFACTION in the words of Simeon? He used words like “released” and called his eyes “prepared” for the child. At the same time, He fulfilled his God-given task and offered hard words of warning to Mary and Joseph, because that was part of the message God revealed to him. What did he promise?

• He promised the baby was SALVATION (2:30).
• He made clear the baby would have a WORLDWIDE IMPACT among both Gentiles and “His people Israel” (2:31-32).
• He promised the child would bring about the rise and fall of many in Israel (2:34).
• He made clear pain would come into Mary’s heart because of the child (2:35).
• He flatly promised the child would expose the hearts of many people (2:35).

Simeon walked with God, waited for a LONG TIME and lived His Word in daily life. It was his reason for springing out of bed, morning after morning, and standing in the Temple lines. He watched. He waited. He trusted God’s promises – even the ones that meant tribulation and trouble. His trust was in God’s character, not earth’s comfort. He waited, but he knew if God promised it, God would deliver it. He wasn’t the only one waiting at the Temple.

There was another person who went through YEARS of waiting and pain…

Anna’s Story

When we read the last few verses of the lesson (Luke 2:36-38), we see an elderly woman who lived through tough times on her way to finding God’s peace. If anything, the record of her life reminds every Bible student that God may call upon you to reset your personal expectations in a “Plan B” life. Look for a moment at the snapshot of this woman as Luke reminds:

Luke 2:36 “And there was a prophetess, Anna (shortened form of: Channah, or “Grace”) the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years and had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. 38 At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

This is the story of a life dedicated to God that was forged through real PAIN and LOSS, not through easy blessing and simple living…

One needs to look only briefly to recognize that Anna learned to live with CURBED EXPECTATIONS! The woman is described as “advanced in years” and widowed long ago. Her marriage that lasted only a brief seven years and she lost her husband. Now eighty-four years old, Anna learned patience and dependence upon God. She fasted and prayed day and night, never leaving the Temple.

She was not like most women of her time. God chose for he a different path. Instead of finding her identity in a second marriage and raising children – she heard God’s direction and went a different way than people around her surely expected. She chose to serve the Lord night and day, fasting, praying and waiting. She learned to move through the terrible pain of losing her husband, and kept growing in trust. She learned to rely on God to financially and emotionally meet the needs of her life. Did you notice the words (?): “She never left the temple, serving night and day with fasting and prayers.”

I keep thinking about the words “night and day”. She just kept going and kept waiting on God to finish what He was doing in her. Hers was not a life tuned to accomplishing things – it was a life tuned to waiting on God. I must admit to you that the people who have encouraged me the most were the people who over the long haul of life have learned to drink from the well of satisfaction from the Lord even when their life circumstances were not ideal. Sixty-five years or so of waiting is incredible patience to wait for anything – much less a baby to mark the redemption.

We must remember that God is in no hurry! We will not experience instant depth, instant passion, instant deep praise. Genuine change of heart takes time. Genuine weaning of self-satisfaction to God’s purposes requires time and a painful transition as I leave the throne of my heart and He takes it. When she curbed her expectations – she sought the Lord and did what He instructed!

What if Anna decided not to come in on Tuesdays because she was feeling let down? What if she accommodated her feelings of disobedience and thought: I don’t feel like looking for the Messiah this morning – Can’t I go later? The blessings of being obedient far outweigh the temporary satisfaction of placating my wants and desires.

Others are defined by their roles – Anna’s role was stripped from her and THEN God defined her real purpose. God used her in spite of being the definition of poor and hopeless. She was not forsaken; she was being set up to accomplish her life’s purpose!

Perhaps she trusted the words of the Psalmist long before: “My steps have held to your paths; my feet have not slipped. I call on you, O God, for you will answer me; give ear to me and hear my prayer.” – Psalm 17:5-6

She waited, while her life seemed like a footnote compared to the BIG NAMES that strolled through the gates of the Temple. She waited as a seeming like a NOBODY… but you can never tell about “a nobody” in God’s economy! God announced and fulfilled the plan for two old people handing out at the Temple in anticipation as they ‘WAITED ON GOD’.

For each, He called them long before they understood why. He didn’t rush the information, but called on them to simply trust Him!

God isn’t in a hurry. We need to learn to wait and trust His plan.

Have you ever been trusting in God patiently waiting for Him to work, and it seems like nothing happens. Then… nothing happens. Then more waiting and suddenly… nothing happens.

Catchy words and platitudes won’t help much in times like those. The battle isn’t just keeping words, it is about keeping hope. Urgency floods in… and time seems like it is running out. Waves of panic strike.

Stop! Have I forgotten that God is the Master of time?

I open my Bible and scan its pages. I see things I must remember when I am incline to forget…

First, my Father wants to bless me – the delay isn’t about that.

Second, I don’t get His blessing because I am more deserving of it. The essence of grace is this: God is good even when I am not. I didn’t earn Jesus or His love – they are both undeserved gifts of God.

Could it be that I have overlooked that God sometimes showers on us good things that are not what we were expecting or what we asked for?

When urgency pushes, it helps to look back on God’s past faithfulness. It will help us move ahead in trust. It will underscore that God’s purposes are often seen more clearly in hindsight. It will open us to the idea that we might not really see the greater purposes God had in mind for us!

When I feel defeated, I feel unlovable. That is the moment I need to remember that God always hears me, and that He likes the sound of my voice (Even when I don’t)!

That is the moment I can stop and recognize that waiting is something we can do to bring God glory. Search the Scriptures. Often, in the Bible people had to wait on God to see God’s power magnificently displayed. Often, the most dramatic display of God takes place in the lives of people when they seasoned by God in a stew of “waiting for it”. God enables us to see Him most clearly when our view of ourselves isn’t blocking His light.

Our Savior Is Born: “When God Replaces Our Dream” – Luke 1:26-40

ladder of successLong ago someone made the astute observation that “Climbing the ladder of success only works if your ladder is leaning on the right wall.” That’s true How many people have lived out the wrong goals and have given themselves to a struggle that won’t help them get, in the end, what they most wanted from life? Far too many, I suppose. Charles Dickens saw it.

In fact, every Christmas I am able, I make it a point to watch Ebenezer Scrooge learn that lesson again. Dear old “Jacob Marley” Jacobmarleywarned him that misery comes to one who lives for the wrong dream. Let me ask a question then: “What is the RIGHT DREAM?” What purpose of life is truly worth pursuing?

Strange as it seems, the Bible’s answer can be clearly seen in the story of a young woman, set in the first Christmas season. She learned a lesson so profound and so important – it is well worth rehearsing every year at this time. Mary, the mother of Jesus, learned this truth according to the Gospels…

Key Principle: Life isn’t about God fulfilling our dreams; it is about discovering and fulfilling God’s purpose for us.

If you don’t know the God of the Bible, that is a hard truth to hear. If you do, it is a thrilling prospect. I was created for something great, something beyond my own dreams and ideas. I was created for His story! That is at the heart of the story of Jesus’ coming to earth. He came to pluck us from the evil one in a hostile takeover, soul by soul, back to our Creator’s story.

Christmas, of course, is a story about a birth, but it is also a story about a “God interruption” of a cast of characters caught in an invasion from the Heavens; and a story of interrupting one young girl’s life in particular. Though the tale is set in a place on the other side of the globe and in a time long past, Christmas isn’t simply a story of “a long ago and faraway land filled with mythical characters”. This is a sober story about the struggles of real people, each facing a turn in the road they didn’t expect. Every one of the key characters met God by surprise, and Mary was no exception..

The talented singer Nicole Nordeman made that point as she stared at a Nativity scene of small figures and sang words to remind us of Mary’s interruption in her song entitled “Real”:

Frozen statues in the cold, washed in moonlight, blue and gold. Mary’s babe in plastic hay, quiet wonder on her face… Mary you look so serene, far too pretty; much too clean! We might think we know you well, but what stories would you tell… Of all the dirt and dust and shame, with your body, burning labor pain? And as I turn to walk away, I hear you say: “I am real! Don’t turn me into memory or myth. Let me be real, real…And I’ll show you what it means to love like this, to be real.”

The artist wanted to draw us back to the story of REAL people. Let’s do that! Let’s see the story again – sitting in the little village long ago, and following Mary from an angelic announcement to her baby’s delivery in her ancestral home of Bethlehem a distance away…

Let’s begin our journey in our mind’s eye back some two thousand years, to the un-walled and unevenly sloped village of Nazareth in the Galilee. From archaeology, we know the lower homes of the town included a number of tiny “cave style” homes that were built against the slope covering natural grottos and caves. Each tiny hovel closed over the cave and had a small rock half-wall projecting from the home’s entrance which acted as an outdoor pen for a few goats or sheep. The small area was closed in, and in a few there were a few plants of spices and herbs in small pots that could provide additional flavor to the family’s meals.

If you sat outside the houses, some gnarled olive trees grew out of the chalky soil and offered a bit of shade near the houses, but not much. Beside the terraces of the main village, a flowing spring ran southward into a valley a few hundred feet north of the village’s edge. Some water was collected in settling pools that sat beside the few terraces that shared space between fig and olive trees, a pathway for shepherds and some meager barley fields.

This was likely a town of the Galilee region with mostly poor folks. They may not have had the resources to build aqueducts to bring water close (as their city neighbors in nearby Sepphorus had done). There appear to have been a few of the families on the crest of a hill that were people of means, but on the whole, this town required its women to get water each morning, with a jug perched upon the head of each of the women of the village. As best we know, Nazareth was not more than a few dozen families, but was large enough to have the requisite ten “heads of households” (a minyan) to have local synagogue prayers. At least one chalky road wound into town from Nazareththe large valley of Jezreel to the south and continued north of the village to connect Nazareth to the villages of Cana and Capernaum further north and east, as well as the larger Galilean cities of Sepphorus (to the northwest that was still under reconstruction) and Ptolemais by the coast.

We do not know what time of the year it was, but the Bible says that an angel appeared to a young unmarried virgin girl in that village, named Miriam. She was quite young, no doubt, but old enough to have gained a reputation of integrity and tender mercy that reached past the doorstep of the Heavenly palace. She was no one of consequence in her world – that is, until God came knocking and gave her a call that would change all of us!

Consider the way Dr. Luke shared her story:

Luke 1:26 Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; 33 and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God. 36 And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

Sketch it out in brief. A young woman was busy living a life of integrity, and God interrupted her to show her something HE wanted to accomplish through her. Can you see it? For a follower of God, this is thrilling. For a stranger to God, this is terrifying. Let’s look at how the story reflects a woman who understood the truth about a life worth living…

A God of Invitation

Go back to the beginning. Mary had a dream about her life, as most young women do. She thought she knew what she wanted, and she thought she was on the way to getting it. God’s angel interrupted her regularly scheduled programming with a message from on high.

Luke 1:26 Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth.

Mary’s Sovereign God sent a message. It is worth recalling that though we live as though we own our lives, we really don’t. We live as if all of what we will be is in our hands, but it really isn’t. Consider this: you already had nothing to say about the time of your birth, the home you were placed into, the gender God provided you, your race, the wealth of your family – none of that was YOUR CHOICE. From the beginning, if we really looked at our lives we would see fingerprints of the Divine on us; for God has been executing a sovereign power over a carefully timed plan.

Note the text records that “Gabriel was sent”. This angel was mentioned by name only four times in Scripture, each time to designate something about God’s future plans for His people, Israel:

• In Daniel 8:16, Gabriel interpreted a vision of earthly kingdoms for the prophet;

• In Daniel 9:21, Gabriel explained the timing of Messiah’s coming to Daniel at the direction of God;

• In Luke 1:19, Gabriel announced the coming of John the Baptizer to an unbelieving priest named Zacharias;

• Finally, here in Luke 1:26 Gabriel announced to Mary the child she would carry would come to set people free from sin and darkness.

Gabriel didn’t think up the plan; he was sent. This was God’s plan. We are used to seeing angels as beings that serve God, but less familiar with looking at men and women of earth that way. Jesus’ prayer “as in Heaven, so on earth” hasn’t quite made a personal dent in many who recite the prayer the Savior taught. They miss the point. In Heaven, all who dwell before God know they are made by Him to serve His story. On earth we must begin to learn this lesson as well.

God sent Gabriel, and then God sent Jesus – because God is BOTH Sovereign and Personal! He is not removed and aloof, but desires a close and personal relationship with you and I. I remember a picture that helped me understand the extension of power into personal relationship:

When John F. Kennedy was President of the United States, Life magazine published photos of his children, John Jr. and Caroline, playing with their toys on the floor of the Oval Office. Those images captured the hearts of the American people like nothing before or since. Why? I think it’s because it bridged a gap between two thoughts: Kennedy was the President of the United States, but he was also a father. He held ultimate political power in the Free World, but playing at his feet were two little kids who called him Daddy. I don’t think your kids would have been allowed to do that. Nor mine. But his kids were. Why? He was their father. He was not only President of the United States; he was also their dad. In the same way, God is both our Father and the Lord of glory. We can approach Him confidently in prayer because we are His dearly beloved children, but we must never forget that He is also the Sovereign of the universe.” David Jeremiah, Prayer, the Great Adventure, pp. 89-90.

In times past, Christians were encouraged to understand and recognize the sovereignty (the absolute righteous rule) of the Lord. We must remember that Jesus didn’t come just to be King of Kings, but King of me. The first fact is easier to swallow because it is theory to me. The second requires submission, and that never comes easy.

When Martin Luther stood before one of the Papal Delegations who came to him they asked “Where will you be when all of your supporters desert you?” His reply, “Where I’ve always been, in the hands of the sovereign God.” Believers that recognize God’s Sovereignty, don’t feel beat up by life’s apparent uncertainty.

A Young Woman of Character

Every time I read of Gabriel’s visit to Mary, I am reminded anew that God does not choose as men choose (based on influence). He isn’t impressed by popular, wealth or station, but He does notice PURITY. God notices people who quietly make the tough choices of honoring HIM in their life. Note the way she is introduced by Luke:

Luke 1:27 “to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.”

First, note that God chose a woman of character, not of position.

Her tenuous position (an unmarried woman who was engaged) was the first thing noted about her. The term “engaged” is also translated elsewhere “..to an espoused virgin” because the term “parthenos” is a combined word based on “para” – from, of, at, by, besides, near and the word “theion” which is related to cultic incense. In the Greek world (from which the language of the text was derived) the ancients believed that burning brimstone was regarded as having power to purify, and to ward off disease. Here is the point: Though she was considered of great value to her loved ones, but of little influence in society. No matter, God has a different measure than our society.

The call was not as shiny bright and obvious as the plays of Christmas seem to record. It was not bound up in a snowy white angel or the rumbling of an earthquake. It was a visitor that brought her the declaration of God’s call. Though in hindsight she knew it was an angel, at the time the visit likely fell somewhere in the range between “I must be dreaming” and “Who is this that drops in on my life to share these words?” We know she took some time to believe the words, for the Bible records that the original greeting, “You are highly favored of God” caused her to be agitated and hesitant (Greek: “tarasso” means to be stirred and agitated as a pot of water, v. 29).

Over the years of teaching, I have told this story twice, but I will never let it go. I love it for its simplicity and power. I love it because I have seen it captured in my autistic brother Devon. It illustrates well the notion that sometimes we have to become simple in faith to grasp God as He truly is – all through the eyes of a young challenged man named Kevin. The writer shared:

I envy Kevin. He thinks God lives under his bed. One night he was praying out loud in his bedroom, and I stopped to listen, “Are you there, God?” he said. “Where are you? Oh, Under the bed…” I laughed & tiptoed to my room. My brother Kevin’s unique perspectives are often a source of amusement. But that night something lingered long after the humor. I realized for the first time the very different world in which Kevin lives. He was born 30 years ago, mentally disabled due to problem in labor. Apart from his size (he’s 6-foot-2) there are few ways in which he’s an adult. He reasons and communicates with the capabilities of a 7-year-old, and always will. He’ll probably always believe God lives under his bed, Santa Claus fills the space under the Christmas tree and that airplanes stay up in the sky because angels carry them. I remember wondering if Kevin realizes he is different. Is he ever dissatisfied with his monotonous life? Up before dawn each day, off to the workshop for the disabled, home to walk the dog & eat his favorite macaroni/cheese dinner, and later to bed. The only variation in the routine is laundry, when he hovers excitedly over the washer like a mother with her newborn child. He does not seem dissatisfied. He lopes out to the bus every morning at 7:05, eager for a day of simple work. He wrings his hands excitedly while the water boils on the stove before dinner. He stays up late twice a week to gather our dirty laundry for his next day’s laundry chores. And oh, the bliss of Saturdays! That day my Dad takes Kevin to the airport to have a soft drink, watch the planes land, and speculate loudly on the destination of the passengers. “That one’s goin’ to Chi-car-go!” Kevin shouts as he claps his hands. His anticipation is so great he can hardly sleep on Friday nights. And so goes his world of daily rituals and weekend field trips. He doesn’t know what it means to be discontent. His life is simple. He will never know the entanglements of wealth of power. He doesn’t care what brand of clothing he wears or what kind of food he eats. His needs have always been met, and he never worries that one day they may not be. His hands are diligent. Kevin is never so happy as when he’s working. When he unloads the dishwasher or vacuums the carpet, his heart is completely in it. He does not shrink from a job when it is begun, and he does not leave a job until it is finished. But when his tasks are done, Kevin knows how to relax. He’s not obsessed with his work or the work of others. His heart is pure. He still believes everyone tells the truth, promises must be kept, and when you are wrong, you apologize instead of argue. Free from pride, unconcerned with appearances, Kevin’s not afraid to cry when he’s hurt, angry or sorry. He’s always transparent, always sincere. He trusts God. Not confined by intellectual reasoning, when he comes to Christ he comes as a child. Kevin seems to know God – to really be friends with Him in a way that is difficult for an “educated” person to grasp. God seems like his closest companion. In my moments of doubt and frustrations with my Christianity I envy the security Kevin has in his simple faith. It is then that I am most willing to admit that he has some divine knowledge that rises above my mortal questions. It is then I realize that perhaps he is not the one with the handicap, I am. My obligations, my fear, my pride, my circumstances – they all become disabilities…when I do not trust them to God’s care. Who knows if Kevin comprehends things I can never learn? After all, he’s spent his whole life in that kind of innocence, praying after dark and soaking up the goodness and love of God. And one day, when the mysteries of heaven are opened, and we are all amazed at how close God really is to our hearts, I’ll realize that God heard the simple prayers of a boy who believed that God lived under his bed. And Kevin won’t be surprised at all!

My point isn’t that Mary was somehow simple-minded, but that her TRUST in God was a grand attraction point for her USEFULNESS by God. Is that really hard to understand? God uses most completely those who trust Him most fully. He can use anyone – but not everyone delights in the idea. Those who trust Him more fully do.

Next, note she was seeking God’s favor but not men’s flattery.

Mary wasn’t immediately comfortable with the words of the angel for a good reason – she didn’t feed on the attention of others. Luke recorded:

Lk. 1:28: And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was.

Look at her reaction recorded in verse 29, and you will note a skeptical and cautious Mary. She was not simply flattered into a new venture, she was careful to measure the words of this visitor. She felt a churning in her heart, an agitation. There is always a temptation to buy into flattery. At the same time, there is an even greater problem for the less mature among us. We need to learn not to form our self-image based on the affirmation of others alone. Our hunger to be affirmed can drive us, or we can settle ourselves in God’s affirmations.

Again, don’t hear the extreme in theory and cut off the practical application. We all love to be complimented – but we dare not live for the responses of others. My two girls both can pre-wired to “put on shows” and perform for people as children. I remember them standing of the coffee table as children and putting on shows and dances for us. They waited to see us smile, laugh, and of course, to clap for their marvelous dance. They wanted us to enjoy them, and they wanted to be the center of attention. As we grow, each of us needs to put off that need and look more intently to God for His approval. If we don’t, we will find ourselves seeking more and more attention of others. It is no secret that Mary, at the age we meet her in the story, could have been that kind of girl. The fact is she wasn’t, and it showed in her healthy distance from fast flattery.

Third, notice that God knew what He was getting with Mary.

Look back to verse 28, and consider that God was knocking on her door to do something marvelous. She wasn’t going to be the first “miracle mom” – even though her miracle was substantially different than that of Sarah or Hannah. She was going to be the first caretaker to the Savior. Could she do it? Gabriel exuded confidence in his words. We must remember that God will never call you to do what He cannot accomplish through you as you yield to Him. When the angel greeted Mary, he shared that God knew her character.

It is worth remembering at this moment that we are not unknown to our Heavenly Father. God knows our failings, our victories, our hopes and dreams, our very personality is fully grasped by God long before He calls us to do something in His name. He is aware of every shortcoming, but He knows every potential much better than we. Moses need not have told God of his speech problems, God already knew. Elijah need not have moaned about the lack of others to share the ministry load, God already had a full head count of the faithful. It is important that we remember that God wants us to be productive, useful to Him, and fulfilled in so doing. At the same time, it is important to remember that God knows what He bargained for when He bought us with His Son’s blood. He knows us well. Where God guides, God provides. If we are part of His provision for a situation, He will supply to us and through us what is needed.

A Task of Incredible Magnitude

Continue reading the words of the angel and imagine for a moment that God called and commissioned her with an immense work.

Luke 1:30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; 33 and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.”

Perhaps this is the point in which you will say: “Here is where you lost me. God wouldn’t ask me to do anything nearly so grand as this story!” Stop and think about Mary the DAY BEFORE Gabriel’s visit. Ask her at the well about herself. She would likely say: “My life is exciting! I am going to be married to a wonderful man, and begin my life with him soon.” I doubt she would have even dreamed of the size of ministry God had planned for her. I doubt you can either.

No matter what it looked like, God’s call is always for us to fulfill specific and measurable tasks that have an eternal impact when we yield to Him. For some, that call is more public, lauded and notable. For others, it is the quiet work of raising two godly children on modest means, or being a testimony of Jesus in a godless fabrication shop.

You are wrong if you believe God has a lesser plan for you than He had for Mary. In the tapestry of His story, every thread is essential. God has a plan, and every spoke holds the wheel in place. Perhaps your call to parent your children does not seem dramatic, and I am equally sure the call to mother Billy Graham was not to his mother and father either. You have no idea what God is going to do with your faithful following of Him! Greatness is revealed in our daily positive attitude about our walk with our God – NOT great actions taken for God (as measured by men)! The acid test of one’s character is the uninspired momentary tasks of life!

Note that when God calls, He has the details worked out.

Facing a commission with realistic problems and questions allow us to regulate our emotions. Mary expressed the problem of not “knowing a man” (1:34). Since every child ever conceived in history required both a man and a woman, it really wasn’t hard to understand why she found it hard to understand!

Luke 1:34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

There was no precedent for what the Holy Spirit was about to do. She rightly pointed out that apart from a Divine move of God this was not going to happen. She wasn’t rejecting the promise, but simply pointing out the practical side of the problem and making clear that she did not intend to involve herself in something untoward. It is not resistance we observe un her words, but common sense.

Note also that because God has the details worked out, it doesn’t mean we can easily see the whole plan.

Here is the truth: God understood her question, and God knew her heart. If the call is from Him, the supply of your needs to fulfill it will be fully met by God (1:35)! Keep reading:

Luke 1:35 The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.

This was the mechanical explanation for the miraculous work. God is the ultimate Quartermaster, a supply sergeant that is intimately involved in caring for every need to get the task completed. He may offer us the answers of supply by providing a job that pays the bills. He may simply nudge someone else to aid us in the work. He may miraculously care for what we cannot do through the power of His Spirit (as with Mary’s need). In any case, He will not call us and not supply us. He calls and He equips, for it is His work.

One of the great ways to learn to trust God is to look carefully at the way He has touched others (1:36). Mary went off to see God’s handiwork and verify the words of Gabriel. Luke recorded:

Luke 1:36 And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month.

To Mary, the news that her once barren cousin was now with child was another confirmation of the way God was at work. For the believer today, we have lives filled with incredible examples of God’s great power. Search the Scriptures for those men and women of God that have a great track record of seeing God at work! Look into our own fellowship for stories of believers that stir us right where we live. The Spirit of God has not left the scene, and God is on the move in the lives of those who yield to Him. Getting around people in whom God is powerfully at work provides us new energy! That is why Mary made her way, at her first chance, to be with Elizabeth! (1:39-40).

The key to success in the enormous task God called Mary to live out can best be expressed in Luke 1:37. God never sends us on a mission without His thorough knowledge of the outcome (1:37). To God, the word “surprise” has no personal meaning. Luke made it clear through the voice of Gabriel…

Luke 1:37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”

He is not limited in His abilities to use you, even though you feel limited in your abilities! He can, and will get His work done. You have the opportunity to experience the awesome power of God, if you will let His strength be made complete in your weakness.” That isn’t all. Don’t forget that when the mission is clear, and the call has been made – it is time for us to trust and obey. That’s what Mary did! Luke made her words clear:

Luke 1:38 And Mary said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

We need not meet every need, God has promised to supply. We need not figure out the end plan; God is already there on the last page of the book. We need to commit to be what He wants us to BE, and He will determine what we can DO. Consider this:

One day a farmer’s donkey fell down into a well. The animal cried piteously for hours as the farmer tried to figure out what to do. Finally he decided the animal was old and the well needed to be covered up anyway, so it just wasn’t worth the effort to retrieve the donkey. He called for his neighbors to come over and help him. They all grabbed a shovel and began to shovel dirt into the well. At first, the donkey seemed to realize what was happening and cried horribly. Then, after a short time, to everyone’s amazement, he quieted down. A few shovel loads later the farmer finally looked down the well and was astonished at what he saw. With every shovel of dirt that hit his back, the donkey was doing something amazing! He would shake it off and take a step up. As the farmer’s neighbors continued to shovel dirt on top of the animal, he would shake it off and take a step up. Pretty soon, everyone was amazed as the donkey stepped up over the edge of the well and trotted off….

As you face this Christmas season, I don’t know if you feel like dirt is raining down upon you or not – but I can say this: “It could be the weight that is coming down upon you will take you to higher places, and even set you free.” God knows what He is doing, and He knows who you are. It is God that holds your future. Perhaps He is knocking right now on your heart. Can you hear Him? He is waiting for your response. He has something He wants you to do… But remember…

Life isn’t about God fulfilling our dreams; it is about discovering and fulfilling God’s purpose for us.

Our Savior is Born: “When God Replaces Our Plan” – Matthew 1:18-25

PlansOne of the frustrating truths we must face in our faith is that God has made plain to us in His Word that we have a different mission than the one most of us thought we had from the “default setting” of our heart. What do I mean? Most of us grew up learning lessons about life by “figuring things out”…

If you watch a small child grow, you will observe how they test different sounds with their mouth as they eventually figure out how to speak a set of understandable syllables, and eventually even words. infant learningThey get toys and try to work out how to get them to make the sounds they want, or to open up the way they want them to. In short, children figure out life by a long series of frustrating trial and error experiments as they grow. That basic method carried all of us from our infancy into our kindergarten class. In school we learn through a series of guesses that show up on homework, on quiz grades, and eventually even guide us in our High School dating experiences. We guess, we try, we fail and we keep trying until grades improve and eventually we end up with a date to the party. Life is learned by trial and error – and if you are a guy like me, it was (by far) mostly error – with a few hospital stops along the way for good measure. The biggest problem is this: When we meet God, we think this is the way we are to learn to walk with Him. Our “trial and error” grow by experience mentality places us on the wrong path for the journey of spiritual growth – because we think we have to figure out how God works and plot a course in life for where He wants us to go. The problem is: We weren’t told to do either.

Here is the truth: You and I aren’t called to figure out God, we are called to walk with Him. The journey isn’t nearly as much about understanding each turn in the road along the route, or even really grasping the destination as it is about one thing – learning to walk with our traveling companion… He can lead us where He wills, and our job is to learn to trust Him in spite of the terrain.

That isn’t easy, but it is true. Let me be honest: I am a planner by nature. I don’t go on journeys without checking out the route and knowing the roads. If I am going to a place with which I am wholly unfamiliar, I pull up the map on the computer and check out distances and traffic patterns. I look for places of interest, potential food stops and gasoline stations, and even places to pull off and rest if the trip is going to be long and potentially tiring. Having made so many trips over the years, I have found it prudent to check this all out before I leave for the journey. These habits have served me well in both business and vacation travel. What they DON’T do well, is teach me about how life works. We don’t often get to see the journey of life very well until we are on the road. Often we don’t know how breathtakingly beautiful a moment is going to be until it is in front of us.

Maybe I was supposed to know them, but some of the most profound moments of beauty and wonder embedded in my heart, came when I wasn’t truly prepared for what I would see until I was standing in position for that incredible blessing. I remember standing next to my Pastor at the front of the main aisle of Immanuel Baptist Church in Maple Shade, New Jersey, the day when my beautiful bride stepped into the room, surrounded by our friends and family, and looked right into my eyes as she came down the aisle in her gorgeous wedding gown. I remember, it is frozen in my mind, the very moment each of our three children came into this world! I stood by their momma’s side as she worked so hard to get through the process. I remember these moments, and a number of others, each which captured my heart and even, if the truth were told, overwhelmed me in ways I didn’t expect.

I remember the day I trusted Jesus to be my Savior. I was very young, and I had as little understanding of what I was doing as I did when I got married or became a father. The amount I DIDN’T know was much more vast than the little I did know – but it was a great day of wonder that is still embedded in my heart…

For a few moments as we move toward the Christmas celebrations, I want to think about the step-father of Jesus, and remind us from the Scriptures of Joseph’s tale of what happened that first Christmas season. His recollections as they have been handed to us include much less certainty and direction than we may realize. He learned a truth worth recalling as we think about the coming of the Savior…

Key Principle: Life isn’t about predicting our path and controlling our outcome; it is about holding tightly to God’s hand and following His lead.

If I took a moment, and began to survey believers about the last year and its many experiences, I am certain I would find that all of us were surprised at some of the path we experienced this year.

Some of us faced a loss this year we didn’t expect. We know we will lose friends and family over the journey through life, but each time we gather at a funeral it reminds us how fragile life truly is, and how little we are prepared to lose the ones we love.

Some of us experienced the joy of a new life entering the world this year. I have been surrounded by a “baby boom” in our little place of ministry – and there is little that can compare with such joy. Every baby truly is God’s vote that life will continue. Looking at the tiny fingers move and the little facial expressions is of the most fascinating views on the planet.

Go back with me to an earlier time and re-read with me a familiar story. It will be worth your time. If you watch, you will see anew that God is not always obvious in His direction. If Joseph could tell HIS VERSION of the first Christmas season, the tale might not sound anything like the inside of a Hallmark card. Matthew introduced him this way:

Matthew 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.

Joe had a plan, but it looked NOTHING like the one that developed at God’s hand. The text was clear: Joe anticipated marrying the young woman and perhaps, if God allowed, he would build a family with her. A careful look at 1:18 reveals several truths:

First, Joseph was betrothed, and held up his end of the sexual purity bargain with her. Joe was without any blame in his conduct with Mary. Joe was CLEAN before God in regard to purity. Look at the phrase “was found to be with child” and read this: Joe’s plan was derailed and he was blind-sided by what appeared to be Mary’s misbehavior. He wasn’t trying to do something unusual – he was just attempting to build a family like countless other men had done before him.

Second, if you continue reading statement in Matthew 1:18b, you will note the immediate claim that the baby was “by the Holy Spirit”. Joe’s responses aren’t fully explored in the text, because they wouldn’t bring any better understanding to the story, and because all of us can easily imagine the range of emotions introduced to Joe’s life by the Spirit’s actions. It is entirely safe, I think, to say that Joe was SHOCKED and (based on his initial planned response to the news) Joe was SKEPTICAL.

If you will allow me a moment of conjecture, based on what I know about life as a man, and based on the predictable response of virtually every man I have ever known in life; let me say this. Joe had to have been deeply FRUSTRATED. I would even say he was HURT by the situation.

I think we can all agree that frustrations rise when deep hurt seems left unattended – especially when we cry out to God about our deepest needs. One thing particularly encourages me about this story of deep frustration – this record came after the fact. That should help us understand the advantage of waiting to judge experiences in life until after they have run their course. If you look back on your own life, you can usually see God’s hand better at a distance. If you are moving through a time of uncertainty and don’t really understand what God is doing, let me encourage you to wait until you can look back. Distance may clarify the picture of what God did for you during a stressful time just as it did for Joe long ago. His response as the text related it showed the fact that he didn’t really understand what God wanted when the news of the pregnancy broke in his ears the first time. Keep reading…

Matthew 1:19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly.

Another idea about Joe is made clear when you observe closely Matthew 1:19. Joe was a responsible and careful man. He recognized his reputation was important, and he kept that in balance with his caring and sensitive spirit toward Mary. He did what responsible adults do when faced with difficulty; he made a plan. He wanted to be proactive to protect both his and Mary’s reputations and get her to a confidential place to have the child. Joe was a PLANNER and a KIND MAN. He didn’t rail against her infidelity, nor figure out a way to publicly shame her so he could be exonerated before all. He didn’t want to be a VICTIM; he wanted to avoid public shame.

It seems that spirit is lost in many today. We have raised many in our time who choose to be victims, accept labels as the walking wounded, and never take responsibility for self-change. I love the fact that Joe shifted quickly away from a vindictive spirit – even when he was deeply hurt. I am sure he faced confusion, and even hurt – but that doesn’t necessitate a burning anger and vindictive approach to the world. The idea of “not wanting to disgrace her” was a deep sentiment for a man wounded.

Joe lived within the law, and understood authority and purity, but still wanted to show mercy. Who can’t admire that in our polarized era with the posturing of so many about the need to defend ourselves from others. He wanted to be merciful if there was any way he could do that without endangering his family, his reputation and his soon to be “ex-fiancé”.

Before we go on, don’t lose the lesson of Joe’s experience, because many believers seem to grow deaf at this particular feature of the very familiar story of Christmas… Joe walked with God. Joe wanted to be kind and honorable. He did NOTHING wrong. Yet, in all this, His walk did NOT protect him from misunderstanding God’s plan for his life. He responded to what God had revealed to him, and needed more revelation to alter course.

That is the difference between two people who open the Word of God today as well. Some come hungry because they feel they don’t understand what God is doing – so they listen intently for the next truth from the Word. Others come with little hunger, either because they are living in a period of peace in their life, or because they have settled their souls amid the current disruptions. Let’s say it clearly: God has the right to take us through a wilderness of confusion to deepen our walk and understanding of Him. Further, a true walk with God opens us not simply to unending peace and prosperity, but to becoming mature by being forced to grow in trust.

The kind but confused Joe got a word from His Creator that helped him take the next step. In fact, the mercy of God flowed through the voice of an angel, because MORE than the immediate plan was unfolded. Matthew recorded:

Matthew 1:20 But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” 22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD AND SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL,” which translated means, “GOD WITH US.”

I took special note from the words of the angel in Joseph’s dream that Joe was “afraid” to marry the now pregnant Mary. From the stories unfolded from Genesis to Revelation, you will notice something important: fear is a terrible motivator to drive good decision making. Fear leads to over-reaction to the problem. Fear often leads to pre-empting God’s direction and closing our ears to God’s gentle voice. Fear isn’t God’s way – but the enemy thrives in the shadows of the scary things that don’t make sense, beckoning us to abandon trust in God’s goodness and draw our strength from our pain instead.

Part of listening to God is seeking and then hearing His voice OVER the fear that would otherwise distract us. Fortunately for Joe, God stepped in God answered through the angel’s assurance. Joe was not only a GOOD LISTENER; he was a GOD LISTENER. He didn’t simply accept the word of the angel – because the apparent source wasn’t enough to conclude the message was TRUE. What he did, and what we must do when we hear new information is this: Joe compared the new information of the angel with the Holy Scriptures already revealed by God. Don’t overlook the fact that this prophecy of the child was wrapped in an Isaiah quoting package of promises.

Also note the veracity of the angel’s words that declared “you will have a son” coupled specific evidence with a command: “you will call Him Yeshua”. Underscored by Biblical promises already unfolded and paired with measurable events that Joe could see, he believed the words of the angel and got ready. Joe apparently served in the Galilee scouting program and believed the motto: “Be PREPARED”.

It occurs to me that Joe’s qualification to be used by God in this special way was at least partially rooted in the fact that Joe was a Biblically sound man. His knowledge of the Word settled him. That helps me recall an important truth as well: Joe began his preparation to be used by God listening to and learning about the scrolls of God’s Word. Because he spent time growing in truth, he was ready for God’s use. Isn’t that worth noting? Have you ever spent time in study of the Word and not been able to connect the truth under examination with where you were at that moment? Does that make the study worthless? Not at all! I wonder if Joe knew when he studied Isaiah in synagogue, years before as a child, that each promise of Messiah would one day become critical to his life choices. I doubt it.

Joseph grew up in an ancient Hebrew atmosphere of Biblical examination and God expectation. People who don’t search out God’s promises don’t expect much from God, and they aren’t prepared for an encounter with Him. Joe knew Isaiah’s promises, and the angel used them to direct his next steps. I doubt Joe thought one Bible study was a waste after God’s purposes were made clear. If he hadn’t studied, by then it would have been too late.

Many people want God to use them, but they won’t do what it takes to get ready for God’s encounter in their lives. Joe was ready. Matthew recorded:

Matthew 1:24 And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, 25 but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.

Hearing God is important, but following Him is even more important. Joe awoke with a commitment in his heart to do as the Lord revealed. He would call the baby Jesus, Yeshua or Savior… He would maintain the purity of the marriage. He would not endanger the reputation of the baby as Abraham was willing to do with Sarah before Isaac’s birth. Joe was OBEDIENT, and obedience to God opens the door to use by God.

Joe lived inside the boundaries of sexual purity and obedience. He learned the Scriptures and led a community with a circumspect life. But here is the really important thing so many overlook… none of that INSULATED HIM FROM LIFE’S PAIN OR THE NEED FOR CONSTANT DIRECTION from God!

Three times in the Gospel accounts God re-directed Joe by breaking into his life and revealing truth to him that he did not already know. Each one was an essential direction, and looking back – the reasoning for each one is clearer to US – than it was when Joe received it. His life reads like a textbook on “lessons in resting during God’s destruction of your life plan.”

Joe’s life map got derailed by a surprise baby announcement.

He acted within what he knew, and then needed God to direct him in what he did not know. The first dream came in the backdrop of a deep interpersonal confusion. Joseph committed to marry Mary, but she appeared to be unfaithful. Look at some spiritually encouraging lessons that emerge:

Lesson #1: Make a plan following what God has said – but remember things don’t always work out the way you planned even when you follow God.

The reason is simple: the point of life isn’t your plan, or your destination – it is your companion. When God desires to grow your life deeper, He will often chip away at your plan and open you to something you never would have otherwise considered. He does it in health issues. He does it in relationship issues. He does it with employment issues. He does it to get you to know Him better. If the prize is eternity with Him, the idea of Him deepening our resolve to walk with Him makes perfect sense.

Joseph made a promise to Mary and she appeared to have broken the promise, though she didn’t (1:18). He was thrust into God’s plan in an awkward way – at least that is how it looked to him. God’s disruption of your plan always feels a little like that – and sometimes feels STRONGLY like that!

I must understand that God can and will move in my life in a way that makes no sense to me at the time of His Divine incursion. God reserves the right to cut into the lane of my life and slow me down, even when I am sure I am really “getting somewhere” and “making great time” for Him. This is part of His Divine Prerogative. He is entitled as my Creator and my Master to do this, and we must not be surprised by this work. After all, isn’t the Bible filled with stories that make this truth obvious?

• What sense did boat construction make to Noah before the first rain drop fell?

• Did old Abraham really understand he was to make a crib for his geriatric life companion’s offspring after years of waiting?

• Didn’t God’s call to the ex-con named Moses, seem like a mistimed and a wrongly cast role when the bush lit up?

• Wouldn’t you think God wasn’t paying close enough attention when a bear and a lion attacked your sheep if you were the little boy David was in the wilderness? How could he know he was in combat training for giant slaying?

We must affirm in our minds, over and over, that God’s call in our lives is to follow Him, not to figure Him out. God is not a man that we should demand to fully understand! (1:19; cp. Job 38).

Remember, it was pointless for Joe to get mad at Mary – for she was not driving the situation. God was working a plan in her and Joe was going to be HURT in order for God’s will to be done. We must understand that or we won’t mature in our understanding of God at all. We will be locked into an infantile self-benefit relationship with God. Why are we so certain that God will only work in our life when we choose for Him to do so, and in a way I that make us immediately pleased with that work? From what Bible did we derive that mistaken idea?

Let me clearly say it: God can deliberately bring me into a path that includes pain to serve His purpose. He doesn’t do it cruelly, He does it lovingly… but He still does it. Yet, in the grip of pain, He offers me a place to cry when I cannot stand alone. God hears our cries! One writer said it this way:

Lesson #2: Take time to discern God’s next step when the plan has been disrupted. Quick reactions often confuse and thwart God’s direction.

How we respond when we have been disappointed by another’s behavior, or even when we think we have been wronged can be the water mark of our real maturity.

When Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant (likely she told him after the visit of Gabriel recorded in Luke 1:26-38), any one of us would likely have backed Joe up if he stormed out angrily and slammed the door – and we would have been wrong. Who couldn’t understand that reaction? What friend, hurt for Joe, wouldn’t have consoled him that such an outburst was both normal and justified. The only problem is that our understanding would have blocked God’s lesson in Joe’s life. God didn’t pick a short-fused man – He seldom does for the delicate task. A godly person is patient, circumspect and gentle – they are not vindictive when wounded – no matter how deeply.

Joseph was a leader in the synagogue, and as such he wanted to dispose of the contract without public scandal to himself or the girl (Matthew 1:19). He was willing to draw up the papers and seek a quiet legal finding of the rabbis on Deuteronomy 22:24-26 while she was away from the village.

Every time I read the story, I am stuck on verse 19…

Joe’s response to what looked like betrayal was the key to all that God would do through him.

If he publicly shamed her, the whole story would have changed. If he grabbed her and shoved her before the elders of the village – there would be no dream, no direction, and no “dad” role appointed by God to protect His Son. We could understand his reaction and some of us would even have encouraged it.

Let me be direct with the point: God cannot entrust some work to us because He knows we will all too quickly whip out our “righteous indignation sword” and slash at His plan. Sometimes when people sin against us, what we need to do is patiently love them back into obedience. Tough talk and a whip aren’t the only tools for the job.

As long as we think we have the right not be wounded by God as we follow Him, we will live in confusion about what God is doing in our life.

God is busy, right now, telling His story. He wanted to tell it through Joseph’s life, but that included wounding him, bringing him through a misunderstanding – and then making him a key part of the story. No man or woman of God should think God will do otherwise. If we would be used of Him mightily, we must place ourselves in His hand willingly – and be slow to react to the pains of His direction.

Lesson #3: Remember God loves you, and He won’t leave you struggling in the dark forever.

John’s Gospel opens with the presentation of Jesus as both the Word and the Light. He makes a simple statement: “The light came, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” The bright light often brings pain to the eyes of people who have been dwelling in confusion – but the pain will pass. Sight will come. God will speak again.

We are all glad that God stopped Joseph from executing a plan to put her away by revealing truth in a dream (Mt. 1:20-23). It is worth recalling that God will “turn the light on” for those who are truly seeking and trusting Him in the dark (1:20a). When troubles come, we can seek Him about them. The Apostle James told early church believers that when they were under the grip of troubles they could ask God about them – and God would, in time, reveal the secrets: James 1:2 “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials …5 But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.”

God knows WHO we are, WHERE we are, and WHAT we are facing (Matthew 1:20b). He can speak clearly and concisely – but He does so normally ONLY to the open heart of the hurt one. Our problem is usually not so much ignorance – as it is WILL to obey. The issue is always the same – will I trust His Word? If I do, I will gain the inner qualities that offer fulfillment and sufficiency! (1:20).

Don’t ever forget: God does not leave His children in a night without end.

What has happened to our Christian message when we have come to believe that “He is Lord” only when my plumbing is fixed, my bank account is full and I feel good about His path? Ask a martyred missionary like Jim Elliot if God’s plan is always found in the comfortable.

When a believer matures, they face the fact that God’s direction isn’t as confusing as it is demanding.

What settled Joe? It was nothing more or less than the very verified in the Word of God. Let me say it plainly: Know His Word to know His peace and to discern His direction.

Don’t choose a local church for any other reason above this one: Will it help me know the Word and follow God’s voice? Great music and fun fellowship won’t help you get through a time of crisis like the Word will. Friends are important. Worship is important. Knowing God’s Word is the difference between following truth and falling into error.

Follow the voices that are truly both teaching and living His Word. Check what you hear against His Word. Trust His Word – not the messenger, but the message.

Lesson #4: Never forget that God’s role for you is incredible. When you see Him, it be worth any cost!

This lesson has shared much about the COST of following God. It may be interesting to you that Jesus spoke much of this same subject. At the same time, even though our primary focus shouldn’t be on “what we get” – God is careful to include in the story the way Joe was compensated for listening to God’s direction. Matthew reminds us of the end:

Matthew 1:25 “… and he called His name Jesus.”

Joe got a privilege few of us can ever hope to have. He held in his arms the Savior, and was the first to pronounce His name and official purpose: “He is Yeshua – He is the Savior of man.

Joe obeyed. Imagine the cost of that decision. Joe would probably have many snicker beside the village well at the tale of his angelic dream. Some would call him a fool or a romantic dreamer. Their words would sting at the scar of disappointment and hurt if Joe did not allow God’s healing balm to cover him.

How many times have believers felt it…God sometimes asks the hard thing – but it is always a simple call to trust and obey. It is a simple call to exchange our experience and expertise, our accomplishment and developed insight – and humbly surrender to the demands of God’s Holy Word. The world may laugh at us, and our family may not really understand. Our dearest friends may call our trust in God a delusion – but ours is a call to fully surrender to the “KNOWER OF THE UNKNOWN”.

Now imagine holding in your hands the Creator of the Universe in the tender package of a helpless baby. Feel the thrill, and grab the weight of the responsibility of being his “fill in” dad. Do you think he will say in Heaven, “It was worth it! I obeyed the Lord and it was truly worth it!” I bet when we gather in the great throne room of Heaven, and the King of Kings steps forward to the thunderous sound of the song, “Worthy is the Lamb! Worthy is the Lamb!” Joe will be upfront with the “proud pappa” smile. You will recognize him… He will have the tears running down his face and a deep thankfulness in his heart for the whole experience. He will be grateful to have been included in the plan… and so will you.

Life isn’t about predicting our path and controlling our outcome; it is about holding tightly to God’s hand and following His lead.

Our Savior Is Born: “When God Doesn’t Listen” – Luke 1

earOne of the foundational truths of Christian teaching is this: the Bible says that God hears our prayers. Jesus was soon to be nailed to the Cross, and on the night in which He was betrayed, He had a solemn talk with His disciples. John 16 recorded the words, and they were heavy. His heart was heavy. The air seemed thick, and the hour was late. Listen to what Jesus said before He left them:

John 16:23 “In that day you will not question Me about anything. Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask the Father for anything in My name, He will give it to you.”

Jesus was promising that He was about to be far away, and they would need to ask His Father in Heaven, for He would not be with them any longer. He continued:

John 16:24 “Until now you have asked for nothing in My name; ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be made full.”

The Savior commanded the men to begin to ask in His name for the things they seek from Heaven. They hadn’t been doing that, because they could ask Him face to face and He could seek the Father on their behalf. Like Israel requested Moses to intercede, so the disciples often didn’t face God directly while Jesus was with them, but let the Son speak to the Father on their behalf. Jesus continued again:

John 16:25 “These things I have spoken to you in figurative language; an hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figurative language, but will tell you plainly of the Father. 26 In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I will request of the Father on your behalf; 27 for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came forth from the Father. 28 I came forth from the Father and have come into the world; I am leaving the world again and going to the Father.”

Jesus told the men that parable teaching was giving way to straight talk about the days ahead, because the time had come. After Jesus was gone from them, He foretold that they would ask God for things in Jesus’ name, but the Father would hear them directly, because the Father loved the Son’s disciples deeply. Isn’t that a comfort? God hears the followers of Jesus when they cry out to Him! Now let me ask you a very personal question, if I may. Did you ever feel like your prayers were bouncing back from the ceiling and hitting you on the head?

Honestly, can you remember a time when God seemed distant? You kept going, but you may have secretly stopped believing He was truly on your side. For some, they describe it as a time when it seemed like God put them and their life on hold. If you are in that time right now – I have an encouraging story for you in this study from the Gospel according to Luke. Long ago there was a couple that seemed to have the problem of a silent God, and they needed Him to listen. The problem wasn’t God, however. The problem was their ability to rest in Him long enough to hear His response to the longings of their hearts. I am referring to the parents of John the Baptizer, to an elderly couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth. Here was their lesson…

Key Principle: God answers prayer, but gaining “ears to hear” Him requires maturity.

As we look at their learning process to help inform our own walk with God, we should start by acknowledging something:

Zech and Liz were beloved of God, and had special advantages God placed into their lives.

First, they were born into a Godly heritage (1:5).

Luke 1:5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife [i]from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.

God specified the family of Aaron and the 24 “Mishmarot” or family divisions that would serve in the Tabernacle and later the Temple (1 Chronicles 24:1-19). Zechariah was a designated servant of God from before his birth; given a unique privilege of a family dedicated to the Lord and His service.

This wasn’t their choice, but it was their blessing. Never discount the power of a godly family in the lives of the generations that follow them. Godly parents raised these two, and chose these two children to be married and form another home that would follow after God. The truth was even invested in them IN HIS NAME:

Zechariah’s name means “Yahweh remembers.”

It may seem ironic in light of his story, but the truth is God always remembers. For years he cried out to God and didn’t get his answer… Yet, every prayer he ever uttered that went seemingly unanswered, God remembered. Every moment he felt like the heavens were strangely silent, God remembered. That’s the testimony of Zechariah today: Don’t give up on your prayer—God has not forgotten you.

Second, their hearts were clean before God (1:6a).

Luke 1:6 They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.

Look at the first half of the sentence. Can you see they had an INNER FAITH. It wasn’t just religion with them, it was REAL faith. They had in their hearts a deep and intimate walk with the Lord God of Israel. The word “righteous” (dika-o) meant virtuous, but also has a deeper meaning. It meant “rendering to each his due in the judicial sense”. They knew God was God, and in their hearts they gave Him their lives. That didn’t mean they understood what He withheld from them. It meant they were walking without denial that He had the right to do as He desired with them – for He was their Creator.

Everything else that happened in the story hinged on the truth of their yielded heart. Like the fictitious but famous story of the “Little Drummer Boy”, they had only one thing they could give the Lord; that was their heart. Just because they were surrendered, though, does not mean they had a “hot line” to the checkbook of God to get what they wanted when they wanted it. That isn’t a mature view of God at all – and they had a mature view. Here is the question: How do I get to know God in that way?

First, I can’t meet someone I have never even acknowledged. We may both be at the party, but it isn’t until I begin talking with them that I have any hope to get to really know them. I may know their reputation, but that isn’t really reliable. When I meet them, I “size up” the situation better by myself. In the end, it begins with a meeting. In important relationships, like the meeting of a dignitary or ruler, I will remember the meeting.

• Next, I must acknowledge the importance of the ruler that I have just met. It is required that I stand in the presence of the President. I can do no less when I meet God. What does that mean? I haven’t truly met Him if I don’t understand his position, and in God’s case, His greatness.

• Finally, I must recognize His right as Creator to direct us and know more than I know. We can’t expect the God of the universe to become a genie in a lamp for us. God does not play fetch. He has standards and as Creator, He has disclosed what is best for us. When I render Him that which is due Him, I respect Him supremely. I come to God on the terms that are acceptable to HIM.

So they had a godly heritage and clean hearts… but also…

Third, they lived according to the standards God set over them (1:6b).

Luke 1:6 They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.

They are described as blameless (a-memptos: an artisan’s term for ready for sale, without flaw or defect; a “premier product” and not a “second”). The text said they were without flaw under the quality control standard of the Torah of God. (Someone said one time: “They were 613 for 613 in the commandment department!”). Wow! They had faith, but they had the walk to back it up. Having real faith requires that we LIVE the truth according to the set standard of God’s Holy Word.

Let’s not water things down here, the standard is what God has said, and we must understand that He is serious. How do I do that?

• First I must understand the judge’ legal right to judge my life. If He isn’t the standard, someone or something else is. He SHOULD be, because He has the RIGHT to be.

• Second I must read and know the content of the standard of the judgment. When the Creator outlines what He wants, it isn’t like anyone else. It requires my attention. People that ignore God’s Word don’t really believe that is what it is – God’s Word. No matter what they say, their actions show they don’t really believe it came from God and He is active in their lives.

• Third, I must conform my life to living within the legally declared judgment on each issue, according to what the judge says is right. Honestly, how I feel about things is not the point. What He says is always the point. I know when I say that I sound like a legalist, so let me address that side of the equation.

There are incredible benefits to walking within the rules. When a sports player enhances their performance with steroids that have been deemed illegal and illegitimate, they demean themselves. Even if they aren’t caught, the victory isn’t as sweet because they don’t know if they ever could have achieved the goals without the “help” of a drug. It isn’t just getting caught that sours the victory; it is acting outside the rules. So it is in our lives. There is a peace and sweetness to walking within God’s standards. It isn’t counterproductive. It doesn’t somehow mean that we need less grace or are “working our way to Heaven.” That is nonsense. Why would we inadvertently elevate disobedience? The world is SCREAMING that unfaithfulness and carousing will make you happy, they use up their lives without purpose and are not fulfilled! It isn’t true. God gave His Word because He wants us to know it and follow it.

Here is the problem. These benefits don’t tell the whole story. With them, came three flaws that could have been their undoing for years of their walk with God. The Holy One placed them in the Word for us, so we must take a close look.

Zech and Liz had a secret that kept their walk with God under a quiet cloud:

Honestly, they were secretly disappointed with their lives, and felt shamed in their circumstances.

Luke 1:7 recorded: “But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years.” To be sure this was not well with them, we should also read the later words of Liz, after Gabriel made Zech aware of her future, and she began to show a baby within… Luke 1: 25 “This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace among men.

Elizabeth, in particular, must have felt the shame intensely. How many prayers of Liz were represented in the word “disgrace”? How deep was her pain? We don’t know, but we can imagine it was a daily pain.

I think it is important that Scripture makes not their hope was slipping away that things could ever change when it shared “they were both advanced in years” (1:7b). They were getting past the time that it would be normally possible to have children. They had to “settle” for second best, and muddle through.

What is incredible is they didn’t give up working for God (1:8), but it appears they lost the wonder that God could do anything (1:18).

Luke 1:8 made the point they kept working…”Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division…” Gabriel showed up. The message was clear. A baby would be granted. Yet, Luke 1:18 made another thing clear – Zech couldn’t and wouldn’t accept that word on its face.

Luke 1:18 Zacharias said to the angel, “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” Why NOW? Zech must have thought.

We need to make the point that God considered Zechariah a useful tool in the priesthood. Inside hurts did not stop him from faithfulness, but his inside was somewhere between hurt and cynical.

His knowledge of the Scriptures should have helped him at this point. After all, this was not the first time in history God chose to use a barren or older couple to bring forth a special child. Had he missed the instruction on Abraham and Sarah? Had he forgotten Elkanah and Hannah, who brought forth Samuel! No, these weren’t forgotten – they just weren’t HIS LIFE. Zechariah asked too many times and got no answer… He wasn’t going to let himself be suckered into some quick and easy belief.

Why wouldn’t he believe an angel of God? In part, because he was focused on his own abilities and limitations rather than focused on God’s unlimited ability to bring forth His will. That’s always a part of it – but that isn’t all. Zech wasn’t sure of God’s love for HIM, God’s place for HIM in the story of history.

Most believers know God CAN do extraordinary things – they just aren’t nearly as sure that He WANTS to do those things in THEIR LIFE. That is at the heart of deep disconnection. Zech and Liz worked for years to face pain, and find a way to be faithful in spite of that pain. They deserve to have their lives viewed. God put them in the book. Take a few moments and let’s pick out some vital lessons from the example of these two:

Lesson One: God never stops working, even when we don’t see it. (1:9)

For these two in that time and place, the absence of children was often seen as a reproach—evidence of God’s judgment on a person’s sin. It was at least a lack of reward, and at most an overt judgment that warned others to keep these from offering great counsel. How hard it must have been for Zechariah, a spiritual leader in Israel, and Elizabeth, to keep on obeying God, keep on remaining consistent in their faith, and still bear the sentence of a life seemingly unaccepted by God. When you are doing all that God has asked you to do, and He still doesn’t respond to your prayers, that’s incredibly hard. Yet they pressed on.

Luke recorded the story about the day came when Zechariah was chosen to burn incense in the temple.

Luke 1:9 “…according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering.”

Scholars generally estimate there were likely just over 100,000 members of priestly families in the C1 CE in the land. About 7,200 were eligible for service in the functioning priestly role. These were divided into the 24 courses called “Mishmarot”. Each mishmar had about 300 servers for their week at the Temple. They served in rotation and all 7200 at national feasts declared by God in Dt. 16:16.

Of the 300 of the week, 50 served per day with all 300 serving on Shabbat (the Sabbath). Only one of the 50 would be selected to mix and offer the prayer incense inside the Holiest Place.

This isn’t a busy work mathematics exercise – there is a point to it! God selected from the tribes of Israel only one tribe to serve in the Temple. He selected from the twenty-four courses of that tribe to serve that day. He selected from the three hundred eligible in that “course” of Aviyah only that fifty. He selected only ONE of the group to mix the incense and offer the prayers of Israel. That ONE was Zech.

As a priest, he may have only gotten this opportunity once in his life, and God chose the day. The lot “fell” by Divine appointment. Zechariah didn’t know it, but God had been planning this day from the very beginning. Zechariah and his family were going to be a part of God’s plan to offer salvation to the world. He was worried about having a child for his wife and his name, but God inscribed in history a different role – a child who would make his a household name among believers for centuries. What seemed like unexplained silence was really God preparing Zechariah and Elizabeth for an incredible day.

When God seemed silent, He was at work on a bigger plan. When Zech and Liz’s prayers seemed to go unanswered, God was not asleep on the job.

Often, before God works on our problems, He wants to work on us.

One Bible story after another makes that point:

• A careful study of Genesis indicates that Noah worked on the ark for between 55 and 75 years before it ever started raining.

• God first revealed to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations when he was 75 years old. When Abraham was 90, God renewed that promise. At age 100, Abraham and Sarah finally had their son, a full twenty-five years after the first promise.

• Moses herded sheep and goats in the wilderness for forty years before God spoke to him at the burning bush.

The list goes on and on in the pages of God’s Word. In each situation, we may be inclined to ask, “Did God just forget what He was doing? Did He get distracted?” The answer would always warrant a “No”. God was working, preparing each person for what He had planned. While you’re waiting on God’s answer, God is working on you and those around you.

Lesson Two: God chooses when and how He will speak into your life.

First, go back and scan the text of this story, and consider a few details.

It is interesting that God didn’t wait until Zechariah believed, but He did respond to the man’s faithfulness and moved circumstances they didn’t control (i.e. God led them with the “falling of the lot” to a message of blessing in Luke 1:9).

God sent a messenger to deliberately reveal they were to be blessed. When they encountered God, He already knew their longing. This wasn’t a genie popping up and asking what they desired – God already knew when Gabriel spoke to them (1:13).

God didn’t share their concerns, for He had even bigger ones! I am thinking of the expression in Luke 1:16: “And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God...”

We don’t see things the way God does. His view is the end from the beginning, the meaning from the detail, the answer before the question.

Zech probably felt a bit like an idiot when the lot fell on him. His most deeply sought prayers never got answered, and now he was going to stand for the prayers of all Israel? A myriad of emotions needed to be quelled. This was an incredible honor. On the other hand, there was probably a holy fear of what it meant to minister in God’s presence.

He probably rehearsed his actions over and over in his mind with the prayer that he would emerge from the Holy Place alive. The altar in the Holy Place was just in front of a tall curtain (porekheth) behind which was the place of the Holy Ark of God. This is as close as Zechariah would ever get to that place. He mixed the spices and prepared them carefully. I wonder if his hands trembled?

This mixture of spices produced a heavy smoke that symbolized the prayers of God’s people, rising up to heaven. It would be seen outside as it filled up the room and billowed out from the openings around the tops of the walls. Like the song in Psalm 141:2 “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” (NIV) – this was the moment Israel awaited the prayers to waft into the nostrils of the Almighty. Revelation 5:8, reminds the reader that prayers were bound up in incense, as does Revelation 8:3,4.

As Zech performed his duty, a messenger from God appeared at the right side of the altar—considered the side of favor. Now keep in mind that Zechariah stepped into the area, though in front of the screen, still considered part of the Most Holy Place (Hebrews 9:1-4). The other priests working inside the room stayed back from this area and left before the lighting of the incense. Others were in the courtyard outside the temple praying and watching for the incense smoke.

Some were probably praying for the repentance of God’s hardened people. Some were probably praying for the Messiah’s coming. Some were probably praying for another prophet from God. After 400 years of no singular prophetic voice in Israel top which all could agree, the seeming “silence” was unsettling.

Inside, God was answering all of those prayers, as He was speaking through Gabriel. The answer to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s prayers, and the answer to Israel’s prayers were connected in a supernatural way. What God was doing was answering the bigger questions that cared for their individual needs, in His own good time.

Note that God spoke in the context of worship. God spoke in the context of the knowledge of His holiness. God spoke to one who recognized His authority and faithfully continued when it didn’t seem like God really cared much about what he cared about most. God didn’t speak with great fanfare, but He spoke with clarity. Angels know their job, and they do it well. Don’t forget this, however – God chose when and where to speak. If God spoke to us only when we demanded answers, all the focus would be on us. The truth is, that isn’t what life is all about us. It’s all about Him – His plan, His desires.

Lesson Three: God evaluates our life and use differently than we do.

Listen to the words of Gabriel in Luke 1:13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15 For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. 17 It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Gabriel described to Zechariah the answer to their prayer for a child in great detail. He described how Zech’s coming son would be seen as great by God Himself. That’s enough to cause us to pause and clarify how God defines greatness. What is it about John’s life that would make Him label it as great? John would have the Holy Spirit’s power, and it would show up as it did in Elijah of old. He would have a voice that would turn back the disobedient, and a clarion call for all to prepare for the coming of the Lord to Israel. His message would be life-changing. His preaching would call for change. He would point out sin and plead for a return to God. Zech didn’t accomplish that. Under his tenure as a priest, people kept their coldness and weren’t prepared for the Lord’s arrival.

God defined John’s life, work and message as great – and God is the only One who makes a TRUE EVALUATION.

Doesn’t it make you pause and ask, “What does God see when He looks at me? Does my life call people to follow Him? Do I show evidence of the Holy Spirit’s power in what I do? That’s how God defines greatness. While you’re waiting on your answer to prayer, take some time to clarify how God is evaluating your life.

Lesson Four: God’s may have a different plan for my life than I do – but His is the RIGHT PLAN.

It is obvious from the text of Luke 1:18 that Zech failed the test when confronted the truth – but don’t be too hard on him. After years of waiting, anticipation gets covered by the dust of mistrust. His doubts were wrong, but not completely beyond explanation. By the way, Zech did know some things in his old age.

I note that in Luke 1:18 he said: “…“How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.”

He may have failed the faith quiz, but he had learned something about women. Did you see it? He used two different words here age. One describes himself (“old”), and the other describes Elizabeth (“advanced in years”). (SMILE!) Zech knew not to call his wife an “old lady!”

Zechariah had to be thinking, “Why now?” God could have answered this prayer in our prime, but how can we have the health, the energy, the stamina, to raise a child at our age? I love Gabriel’s response. He said, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God.” I truly believe Gabe was mystified! He said:

This is GOD’S plan devised by the MOST HOLY since before time. Don’t you think He knows how to carry it out? Let’s learn it clearly: God’s timing and the way that God implements His plans rarely fits our way of thinking. Don’t forget what Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote year ago: “Doubt causes us to Focus on what we can’t do, Rather than what God can do.”

Lesson Five: Learning to wait on God’s timing is a necessary discipline.

Zech wanted proof, and for his disbelief he lost his voice for a time. Luke recorded: Luke 1: 20 And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.

Every believer needs to be warned: Cynicism can cause us to forfeit the blessings of God! Look at the blessings that Zachariah forfeited because of doubt

• He could have had the blessing of going to those outside the temple and telling them about his angelic visitation.

• He could have had the blessing of telling people that, even in his old age, God was going to give him a son.

• He could have had the blessing of going home to his beautiful wife who was barren and feeling disgraced because of her inability to have a child and telling her “you are going to have a baby”.

I’ve heard someone say that he wasn’t sure what the bigger miracle was—Elizabeth having a baby or a preacher keeping silent for nine months! I’ve often thought about how this sign affected Zechariah over the next few months. Each day, as his wife progressed in her pregnancy, he was reminded of how unbelieving he had been, and how loving and faithful God had been. That the sign accomplished its purpose in his life – he needed to take God’s Word very seriously even when he didn’t understand what God was doing.

In the beginning, when my wife and I were married, we made a commitment to one another that was sealed by a legal contract—we call it a marriage license. But as the years go by, we don’t maintain that commitment to one another because of a contract. We remain committed because of the love that has grown out of our commitment. That license now is a keepsake instead of a contract.

If you and I view our salvation as a contract —something that forces us to wait patiently while God does His thing so we get heaven at the end—we may grow impatient and be tempted to give up and walk away when we don’t understand His direction. But if you view God’s salvation as the beginning of a daily relationship – the Cross becomes a keepsake, a loving reminder of His commitment to us and His faithfulness to do what is needed, we will want to wait in faith and remain confident that God’s answer for our next issue is coming.

God answers prayer, but gaining “ears to hear” Him requires maturity.