God of Silence: "When God doesn't seem to care" – Luke 1 (selected)

When God sent His Son to put on human skin, the world was rather unexpectedly interrupted by a quiet and sleepy invasion from the Heavens. God has promised the coming to be sure, and the prophets often unfolded secrets of the story – but only in small bits at a time. For instance:

• At the Fall of Man in the Garden, God declared that One was set to come as a physical man to deal with Satan’s enlistment of man to enmity with God. In Genesis 3:15 The “seed of a woman” would be wounded by the enemy, but crush his head. The war of the Heavens would be decisively changed by a man on the earth.

• The prophets disclose the tiny village that would yield the Messiah: Micah 5:2 said “Bethlehem of Judah” would be the place of the Savior!

• God specified the lineage from which Messiah would come: Abraham’s seed through Isaac and Jacob would bring the Rescuer of mankind. (Gen. 22:18 “In your seed will all the nations…”)

• God set in motion the arrival of Messiah for a pre-specified time: At a time before the tribes were confused: Genesis 49:10, as well as 173,880 days after Jerusalem was to be rebuilt and before the fall of Jerusalem: Daniel 9:24-27.

• God related that Messiah would have a specific kind of mother – one who was a virgin at the time of the conception: Isaiah 7:14 “He would be born of a virgin.”

• God stated that Messiah would work in a specific geographic area: Isaiah 9:6ff He would live and work in Galilee.

• God related the details of Messiah’s death: Isaiah 53:1ff He would be brutally murdered by men.

There are literally dozens more of clear statements like this one. Messiah was well promised before His arrival – but not all in one passage at one time. God expected that His people would learn His Word, and take it seriously – and He made no attempt to simplify it to bullet points. The point is this: If we want to follow God – we must take His Word seriously, and carefully put the whole of it together — or we will miss the most important parts of the story. Lazy believers miss out. The story must be COMBINED and CONSUMED. We need to spend TIME on the whole of what God said to get a clear picture.

As Christmas comes closer, we again begin thinking of the opening two chapters of the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke – each which contain different characters within the larger story. Every character comes to the story with their own set of problems and challenges – and the narrative helps unbind many different kinds of people. While Zacharias learned to take God at His Word, the Prophetess Anna learned to find her identity in God’s call, instead of through a husband and children. She learned to move through the terrible pain of losing her husband, relying on God to financially and emotionally meet the needs of her life – and found the ultimate blessing wrapped in a bundle of the porch of the Temple. Wise Men learned to follow God’s direction – and not trust appearances of men over words of God. Shepherds learned that even those who were on the fringe of society could become powerful spokesmen of God!

In this lesson, we want to focus on one character – one elderly married woman. She lived a long life with a good man. She had a home – but she lacked children. In fact, she was ashamed that God had never given her a single child. Her womb had left her wounded and wanting. Her name was Elizabeth. Her lesson was one that is still necessary for believers to regularly revisit each year…

Key Principle: God has a reason for every answer to prayer – even if it isn’t the one we want. He knows what He is doing to tell His story the best way.

Luke 1 tells of the background of the Christmas story with a prologue and five scenes:

Prologue: Luke 1:1-4 explained how Luke set out on the quest to write this volume, lining up both his purpose and the procedures he used.

1. Luke 1:5-7 introduce the parents of John the Baptizer with their background information.

2. Luke 1:8-25 explained the prophetic announcement of John by Gabriel, and Zacharias’ silent months.

3. Luke 1:26-38 replayed the story of Gabriel and Mary – with the prophetic announcement of Messiah’s conception.

4. Luke 1:39-56 offered the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, together with the exclamations of “The Magnificat”.

5. Luke 1:57-80 closes the chapter with the story of John the Baptizer’s birth and Zacharias’ mouth opened in praise.

The scenes that regard Elizabeth are the ones we are looking at in this study. Let’s take a moment and look at them:

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 from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years…8 Now it happened that while [Zacharias] was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, 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. 11 And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. 12 Zacharias was troubled when he saw the angel, and fear gripped him. 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.” 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.” 19 The angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 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.” 21 The people were waiting for Zacharias, and were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them; and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple; and he kept making signs to them, and remained mute. 23 When the days of his priestly service were ended, he went back home. 24 After these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant, and she kept herself in seclusion for five months, saying, 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.”… 1:41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 “And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? 44 “For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. 45 “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.”… 1:57 Now the time had come for Elizabeth to give birth, and she gave birth to a son. 58 Her neighbors and her relatives heard that the Lord had displayed His great mercy toward her; and they were rejoicing with her. 59 And it happened that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to call him Zacharias, after his father. 60 But his mother answered and said, “No indeed; but he shall be called John.” 61 And they said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by that name.” 62 And they made signs to his father, as to what he wanted him called. 63 And he asked for a tablet and wrote as follows, “His name is John.” And they were all astonished. 64 And at once his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he began to speak in praise of God.

First, it is probably appropriate for us to recall the positive aspects of Elizabeth’s life.

She had several things working in her favor

When you zoom in and look at Luke 1:5-7, you can see them.

1. She came from a godly heritage and lived in a good home (1:5).

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. Note that the truth was invested in them IN HIS NAME:

2. She and her husband had hearts were judicially clean before God (1:6a).

The word “righteous” (dika-o) meant virtuous, but also has a deeper meaning. It meant “rendering to each his due in the judicial sense”.

3. She lived and walked according to the high standard of obedience to the Word (1:6b).

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. They were 613 for 613 in the commandment department! 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. Even though the world is SCREAMING that unfaithfulness and carousing will make you happy, they use up their lives without purpose and are not fulfilled!

With these three benefits came three profound flaws that could have been their undoing.

1. She pined with an empty nest.

Luke notes they “had no children”. In her time, identity was wrapped up in motherhood – but she had to see herself in a different way.

2. She was secretly disappointed with her life.

She felt shamed in her barrenness (1:7,25 note “disgrace). Luke makes the point that SHE was barren (1:7a).

3. Her hope was slipping away that things could ever change (1:7b).

She was “advanced in age”. They were getting past the time that it would be normally possible to have children. She had to “settle” for second best, and muddle through – embarrassed that God didn’t see her as quite good enough.

Like Elizabeth, I have to admit that my expectations can set up my disappointment and impatience with God’s Will. It is hard to remember, but we must be willing to let God hold back saying YES to our requests – to grow US past your expectations and prepare to use us in a way far more important than we imagine now. We have to let God be God – and recognize that we don’t see what is ahead – in our own lives and in His great plan.

How did Elizabeth let God adjust her expectations? There are five specific acts of Elizabeth that allowed God to redirect her and use her:

First, she stood on the platform God gave her to be used by God:

She was from a Levitical family (Lk. 1:5) – the family background gave her balance and positive experiences of maturity to draw from.

I celebrate having Godly parents. I am thankful that although they were saved within weeks of the time that I gave my own life to Jesus, I saw them struggle to live rightly before God. The wisdom that came from their lips was often not their own – but that of the Word itself echoed through them. A few times in my life I have heard someone refer to my words as though I were wise – and I confess – they are invariably the times when I sound the most like my mom and dad. A good home is a treasure. You may not have come from one – but I urge those of you who are raising children – MAKE ONE. Make your home a place where God is honored, where the Bible is taught and lived, where the local church has your commitment in time, talent, and treasure. Make it a home where the enemy’s words and works are not welcome, where dirty jokes and filthy speaking are not blaring from you TV set or your mouths. Speak the Word of God to your children! Let them have the experience that far too few have in our time – a home that is led by parents that force themselves to be mature, and deal with their problems as adults should.

She was personally and deliberately walking uprightly before God (Lk. 1:6). It was her choice to live the values she was trained in, and follow the Lord from within that afforded her the strength of a track record of God’s faithfulness to draw from. God resists the arrogant, and pulls away from the disobedient to teach the soft heart.

Elizabeth could not be both judicially right before God and walking in a way without blemish in a passive mode. Godliness in the Bible isn’t just about the position of the believer – it is about the CHOICES of the believer. She LIVED for God – and didn’t just tack His name on her self made choices. When she allowed God to shape her choices by His commands – she placed herself in the path of blessing and experienced His faithful rewards.

Heaven is the destiny of all believers – but a peaceful journey to that place is determined by our earnest desire to surrender to God the choices of our daily life. Paul told Eudia and Syntyche in Philippians 4 to “be of the same mind”. They were both believers, but they needed to be careful to BEHAVE with one another to have the peace of God that was promised to a believer. Let’s be clear: If you truly know Jesus, you are Heaven bound. If you are making every effort to follow Jesus – Heaven is already increasingly gaining your heart. Your availability for use is multiplying. Elizabeth WALKED her TALK – and that opened her to use by God. That may sound easy – but remember, this was a woman whose life hadn’t worked out as she thought it would.

She was barren and beyond the point of expecting a child (Lk. 1:7); Her barren womb was interpreted as a personal disgrace by her (Lk. 1:25) – her troubles and prolonged personal pain gave her a depth of relationship with God to draw from. How many times do YOU think Elizabeth begged God for a child? How many times did she just barely make it back from the well and thrust the door closed because she didn’t want others to see her tears? How often did she ask God WHY He closed her womb.

Every time God heard her broken heart He wanted her to understand that He was working a plan. He isn’t cruel – He LOVES us. He LOVED her. He hurt for her – but knew her day would come…. And so will yours. It may not be until you sit at the feet of the Savior that you truly understand why He has decided to do what He has. This one thing I can say with unwavering confidence – there is NO complaint department in Heaven. When you see Him, you will know that He does what is best. The more you see Him in this life – the more you will trust Him to do right. Elizabeth had a deep well to draw from – even if that well was filled with her TEARS of misunderstanding and pain.

Second, she functioned even when her heart was wounded:

She prepared with her husband for his Temple service, as required by Law (Lk. 1:6 note: blameless (am’-emp-tos) in respect to the Law) – this helped prepare HIM to do right. One of the things that is hardest to do in the life of a believer is to DISCIPLINE our emotional lives and follow God in spite of the pains of life.

I try to be very careful about sharing some things with my wife. She is both a godly and wise woman – and I cherish her words. She knows me incredibly well, and is able to help me when my focus is OFF. At the same time, I know that she would be wonded if I were to share every time someone said something harsh to me, or the enemy used the voice of one who was immature to land a hurtful punch on my heart. It happens. Thankfully, not often, but it happens. The reason I try to be careful is because pain is hard to work around. The toughest part of our work for God as a couple is when we are both wounded at the same time. If something happens in our family life that is particularly hurtful – we both have to pull hard to get a positive heart and continue to serve. I cannot imagine how Elizabeth did it. How did she live EVERY DAY with a shame that she must have felt she placed on HIM, and yet try to be a help. She could only do it if she understood that God’s call was to be obedient TODAY and let LIFE sort itself out. We can’t change some parts of life. Solomon said it this way (Ecclesiates 11:3):

If the clouds are full, they pour out rain upon the earth; and whether a tree falls toward the south or toward the north, wherever the tree falls, there it lies.”

Stuff happens. We can’t control everything – and we don’t have the strength or ability to hold back forces bigger than us. Big trees fall and we cannot move them – that is just the way it is. Clouds come and rain – wedding or not. We don’t control most things in life – but we DO control our response to them. We can curl up in a ball and cry, or we can face the fact that God is God and we are not. He did not ask us to do HIS PART – He told us to do HIS BIDDING. We aren’t responsible to understand His plans – just follow His footprints.

She received her husband home and believed the angel’s message (Lk. 1:59-60)– this helped her to understand GOD’S purpose.

1:22 But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them; and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple; and he kept making signs to them, and remained mute. 23 When the days of his priestly service were ended, he went back home. 1:24 After these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant, and she kept herself in seclusion for five months, saying, 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.”…

He came home dumb, but happy! (No comments, ladies…please!) She watched with excitement as he tried to scribble out a profoundly animated message to her:

“God… said… baby…coming…in…YOU….Name….John….You….

must….believe ….or…get…used…to…writing….everything….out….like….me!”

Can’t you see her smile? She gets it. God hasn’t been ignoring her shame, He has been BUILDING HER CHARACTER so that when He answered – she was ready. She had many intimate moments with her loving husband, but none sweeter than when she grasped the promise of God in her heart.

She secluded herself for five months of her pregnancy and rejoiced in God’s work in her (Lk. 1:25) – this helped her prepare for the coming ministry God was about to do through her. God had an assignment that she was to accomplish, and it was about to knock at her door…

God waits in order to display His glory, to dispense His grace, and to grow our character. I like how one author puts it.

When we pray a prayer that is not right, God will say, “NO.”
• When we pray a prayer and we are not right, God will say, “GROW.”
• When we pray a prayer and the timing is not right, God will say, “SLOW.”
• But, when we pray a prayer and all is right, God will say, “GO.” – Pastor Brian Bill, Illinois

Third, she took the lessons she learned and shared them:

Oh, here was Elizabeth’s finest hour. She was used of God to explain the nature of the “unexpected God”. Mary came for reassurance, and she got it from a lady who forged a deep relationship through painful times with her Lord over a long experience of delays to her prayer.

• When Mary came to visit her six months into her pregnancy, she was yielded to the Lord and was empowered to offer rejoicing (eplēsthē: furnished, Lk. 1:41). Letting the Spirit dominate took preparation and choice.

• She grasped what the Lord was doing in Mary and aided the younger woman in coming to grips with what God was doing (Lk. 1:42-45). Learning from God’s lesson took insight and depth of relationship.

You are familiar with Albrecht Durer’s famous painting “The Praying Hands,” but do you know the story behind it? The painting was inspired by the sacrificial, loving acts of a friend. Durer and an older friend were struggling to make a go as artists. Recognizing Durer’s talent, the older man took a job to provide for both of them until Durer could complete his art studies. The work was labor, but he did it gladly for his friend. Finally, Durer made a sale. The money was enough to care for both of them for several months. Now his older friend could resume his painting, but the older man’s hands had become so stiff from the hard labor that he was unable to paint. One day when Durer returned home, he found his friend in prayer, his work-worn hands folded reverently. Durer painted a picture of these hands, capturing them for ages to come as a memorial to the love and sacrifice of his older friend.” (Frank Morgan, Jr. Keys To Unlock Yourself. Nashville : Braodman Press, 1985, pp. 75-76).

Fourth she stood up for truth, even when she lacked support around her:

• She remained obedient to the words of the angel on behalf of her husband’s inability to speak, even when others around her disagreed (Lk. 1:61-62). When her “family covering” was weak, her choices were firm!

Fifth she became part of the wave of testimony of God’s new work!

• She shared the blessing and rejoiced with all who knew her (Lk. 1:57).

• She testified of God’s gracious work (Yohanon is short form of Yeho -chanan “God is gracious”). in the child in a memorable way to all who would hear (Lk. 1:66).

Roland Allen tells about a veteran missionary who came up to him one day after he had delivered his sermon. The missionary introduced himself & said, “I was a medical missionary for many years in India. And I served in a region where there was progressive blindness. People were born with healthy vision, but there was something in that area that caused people to lose their sight as they matured.” “But this missionary had developed a process which would [stop the] progressive blindness. So people came to him & he performed his operation, & they would leave realizing that they would have become blind, but now they were going to be able to see for the rest of their lives. “He said that they never said, “Thank you,” because that phrase was not in their dialect. Instead, they spoke a word that meant, “I will tell your name.” Wherever they went, they would tell the name of the missionary who had cured their blindness. They had received something so wonderful that they eagerly proclaimed it….”– Melvin Newland

Stop and think for a moment, what would have happened if Elizabeth soured her heart because of her shame.

What would the story be like if she was BITTER instead of BETTER because of the ruling of the Sovereign God in her life? Her life, like that of thousands of others, would slip into eternity without so much as an honorable mention. God would have used another, and NOT her. He would have bypassed her and moved His hand to raise up another.

The difference in HER was that she came to understand that God has a reason for every answer to prayer – even if it isn’t the one we want. He knows what He is doing to tell His story the best way.

It is in the act of communion with me that God gives me the best of all gifts. It is in the act of working in my life, and spending time with me…

One of the ancient kings of Persia loved to mingle with his people in disguise. Once, dressed as a poor man, he descended the long flight of stairs, dark and damp to the tiny cellar where the fireman, seated on ashes, was tending the furnace. The king sat down beside him and began to talk. At meal time the fireman produced some coarse black bread and a jug of water and they ate and drank. The king went away but returned again and again for his heart was filled with sympathy for the lonely man. They became very good friends as time passed. At last the king thought, “I’ll tell him who I am, and see what gift he will ask.” So he did, but the fireman didn’t ask for a thing. The king was astonished and said, “Don’t you realize that I can give you anything—a city, a throne?” The man gently replied, “I understand your Majesty. You have already given the greatest gift a man could receive. You left your palace to sit with me here in this dark and lonely place. You could give nothing more precious. You have given yourself and that is far more than I could ever deserve.

Avoiding Myself: "A Story of the Unthankful Heart!" – Luke 17:11-19

There is an old proverb that says “Instead of complaining that the rosebush is full of thorns, be happy that the thorn bush has roses.” It is right to think like that, but it is HARD to think like that! Have you ever been so overtaken with a complaining heart that even YOU can’t stand being around you? I have. It is embarrassing to admit it, but I can think of a number of times in my life when through poor planning of schedule or over commitment, I have become worn down and negative to an extreme. It is something I have to constantly guard against in my life, because I tend to over commit time.

The longer I live, the more I believe that most people spend their energy endlessly reviewing their past days, often murmuring and complaining of their present days, and beneath it all constantly worrying about their future days. I am reminded of the words of the poet and literary critic Randall Jarrett: “The people who live in a golden age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks.” Sadly he wasn’t wrong. We often don’t realize the best days of our lives are the best until much too late. Even as believers, the deep cracks of a complaining spirit can easily show… and we don’t realize how destructive those cracks are in our lives. Complaining people aren’t thankful people – and believers begin their journey with Jesus in both awe and thanksgiving for His work done for us. Our most treasured meal is the little wafer of the Communion meal called the “Eucharist” -the Greek term for “Thank You!” Our faith is formed and rooted in thanksgiving.”

One of the reasons we are un-thankful is simply because we don’t see a complaining spirit through God’s eyes. I recall when that lesson first became real for me. In my early Christian life and experience I recall reading through the Pastoral Epistles for a High School class in Bible. I was fortunate enough to go to a great private Christian school, and had wonderful Bible teachers in my early formative years. During my first read through the words of Paul to Timothy and Titus, I was struck by some words that seemed misplaced in my young life. Because I was reading the verses from the King James Version, let me read them back to you as I was experiencing them, and see if you can identify my problem:

2 Timothy 3:1 This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. 2 For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, 3 Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, 4 Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; 5 Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.

In that shopping list of sinful traits, I confess two portions of the reading bothered me. At the time, I was too young to know why.

The first part that bothered me was that some of the words seemed smaller than the others. Some sinful traits like “blasphemers” or “fierce” seemed extreme and powerful – while others seemed, well… ordinary by comparison. Did God view an “unthankful” person as he did a “blasphemer”? Was “disobedient to parents” a charge that should be on the same list as “traitors”?

• The second problem I had with the list was the end in verse five: “from such turn away”. The problem was that some of those items on the list were true of ME. I couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to stay away from people when I was ONE OF THEM!

Years have passed, and I think some maturity has helped me understand some of the problem – but not all of it. I recognize now that God DOES view disobedience to parents like He views pride and blasphemy. When I reject the authorities God places in my life, I am essentially rejecting Him, and acting arrogantly. I see that now. At the same time, some part of that list still haunts me – because if I am honest, I recognize that I am not nearly as thankful to God for what He has done and continues to do in and for me, as I was meant to be. Some days I should just be obedient to Scripture and AVOID MYSELF. Do you know the feeling?

Thankfulness is a godly characteristic. It is a holy trait. It is an essential statement of our recognition of Who our God is, and what He continues to do for us. Thankfulness is part of practical holiness and practical Christian maturity – but it is too little taught and emphasized. Today’s lesson is about this critical trait.

Key Principle: Real thankfulness is not about reveling in the things God has given, nor about celebrating the way He has fixed my latest problems – it is about looking past the issues and recognizing WHO God truly is, and what He is truly like.

Real thankfulness isn’t just about sentiment, it is about recognition of the truth. God IS good. He DOES love me. He KEEPS caring for me – in spite of my stubbornness. Thankfulness is that overwhelming sense of awe at the grace of God, the mercy of God and the goodness of God.

Tucked into the account of the Gospel according to Luke is a tiny story about this recognition of truth. Jesus told a story that explained the need for thankfulness, and illustrated how it actually was designed to work in us. For a view of the story in perspective, let’s take a moment and set the scene within the narrative:

At the risk of being too repetitious, let’s review the major themes of the Gospels. Remember that Matthew focuses on the WORDS of Jesus. Mark reveals the WORKS of Jesus. Luke is bent on exposing the CHRONOLOGY of the ministry of Jesus, while John focuses on the CONFLICTS in the background of the ministry of Jesus as set before the Temple leaders of Jerusalem’s aristocracy.

Because our story is in the Gospel according to Luke, let’s zoom in and set the book in its context as well.

• Luke was a Macedonian physician and biographer, and traveling companion of the Apostle Paul. He is the only known Gentile born writer included in the New Testament library.

• His two included works – the Gospel according to Luke and the Book of Acts appear to some scholars to be two works of an intended trilogy that was apparently either unfinished or the third part was lost.

• The works are addressed to one called “Theophilus” (friend of God), and has been widely thought to be directed to the lawyer that was defending Paul before Nero. The first part of the writing, according to that scenario, was likely done while Paul was imprisoned at Caesarea (that is, the Gospel) while the later work was done in Rome during Paul’s first house arrest (the Book of Acts).

• Luke says that he collected his accounts from eyewitnesses – so it is more a reporter’s version of the story in the Gospels. It contains more detail on many points than the others, because Luke took the time to ask many people about events.

The layout of Luke’s Gospel follows geography and a biographical form.

• The first two chapters contain seven reporters interviews of both the prophecy and coming of John the Baptizer, and the prophecy and coming of Jesus the Messiah.

• Breaking from standard form, Luke includes in chapter three a REVERSE genealogy of Jesus back to Adam – an apparent attempt to clarify that Jesus was truly human in contradistinction to some of the offshoot groups that were claiming Christ was a Divine entity but not fully human.

• Luke four picks up the life of Jesus when He reached about thirty, the time when a priest in the Temple would begin His holy ministry. The opening story is of a wrestling with Satan on how He would be made known, followed by an announcement of His ministry in a synagogue in Nazareth, His home town. With the extreme and negative reaction of his clan, Jesus relocated to the Sea of Galilee area and began to show extraordinary powers over demons, disease and nature. Luke five includes a number of such miracles, but also begins to show Jesus as a teacher.

• In Luke six through nine, Jesus called a large number of disciples with a smaller more intimate inner circle and began a teaching ministry to them – pouring into them His words and traveling with them to neighboring villages. By chapter ten He sent out the larger group to spread His message, and then entered the Perean Ministry – found in Luke ten through nineteen – an intense time of preparation of the Disciples for His departure.

• By mid-way through chapter nineteen, Luke records Jesus in the Passion Week, facing the Cross.

Our story is during that preparation of the Disciple by Jesus in the winter teachings in Perea. “Snow birds” from Jerusalem stayed in the warm area nearer to the Jordan during that season, so they could hear great Bible conference speakers while the cold rains swept across the Judean mountains. The moderate climate made the area much more pleasant, and the rabbinic teachers of God drew crowds near the Jordan. Jesus was periodically teaching and traveling – using these last months to prepare the Disciples for a time when they would carry the message without Him. They had no idea of the hour, nor of the coming trials.

Let’s pick up our story on the road traveling with Jesus in Luke 17:

Luke 17:11 While He was on the way to Jerusalem, He was passing between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As He entered a village, ten leprous men who stood at a distance met Him; 13 and they raised their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When He saw them, He said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they were going, they were cleansed. 15 Now one of them, when he saw that he had been healed, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice, 16 and he fell on his face at His feet, giving thanks to Him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine—where are they? 18 “Was no one found who returned to give glory to God, except this foreigner?” 19 And He said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith has made you well.”

The Problematic Setting (17:11):

Luke first sets the scene by telling us of the place where Jesus was moving along the seam between Samaria and Galilee, a well known roadway etched into the base of the hills (11). Jesus had some measured popularity in the Galilee region, but was less regarded in the Samaritan hills.

Jesus had what could be described as a “complicated” relationship with the Samaritans. Early in the ministry, Jesus passed through Samaria with His first disciples (John 4) and gave the Gospel to them through the encounter with a woman at the well of Sychar. He signaled a willingness to encounter those who were on Judaism’s largely rejected fringes – and both the woman and the village responded in what appeared to be spiritual hunger. Some time later in His preaching ministry, He spoke well of some in His preaching – such as the “Good Samaritan” story in Luke 10. Yet, a careful look at the ministry of Jesus reveals that as time went on, Jesus didn’t expend any real effort revisit the people of Samaria. It was not until late in His earth ministry, during the last months before His Crucifixion. His disciples showed they had little love for the Samaritans (an understatement) and, in fact, had continued in a disdain for them.

James and John illustrated their bias openly just after the Transfiguration, when Jesus decided to pass back into Samaria on the way to Jerusalem, as recorded in Luke 9:51: When the days were approaching for His ascension, He was determined to go to Jerusalem; 52 and He sent messengers on ahead of Him, and they went and entered a village of the Samaritans to make arrangements for Him. 53 But they did not receive Him, because He was traveling toward Jerusalem. 54 When His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But He turned and rebuked them, [and said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; 56 for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.”] And they went on to another village.

The villages that rejected Jesus in Galilee brought no such words from James and John in the text – but these were Samaritan villages, and they didn’t like Samaritans much. Back to our story on the road… Luke reminds that the lepers included some Samaritans.

Isn’t it strange how prejudice drifts in the face of extreme pain and suffering. Subtle racism slips away when the nurse caring for you has different colored skin, but shows humanity, kindness and love in spite of your inner hesitancy. How small we are when we come to the place that we believe we can measure someone by color, or value someone less because of ethnicity. When we tolerate such small thinking, we show that we forget that God created from a pallet that included many more colors and designs than those we are most familiar with. The leperous Samaritans and Jews that approached Jesus for healing in Luke 17 were separated by theology, but bonded by physical sickness and calamity. We have seen the same from those who suffer from the aftermath of a powerful storm. No hungry person questions the politics of the one dispensing the soup into bowls. No suffering man or woman refuses help from a person who can relieve their pain based on their ethnicity. My point: our prejudices can be broken by the bonding that comes from pain and suffering – it doesn’t go as deep as people think. One of the gifts of pain and trouble is that it melts false walls and reminds us that we share the planet with many who may not look like us on the outside, but they are the same as us on the inside.

Let me be painfully clear: racism is ungodly. Prejudice is a devil-sponsored thought.

Jesus didn’t die less for a yellow man or black man than for a white man. If you think that, you don’t understand God’s Word and you don’t share God’s heart. God weeps for lost men around the world. His heart is to send the Gospel, to rescue the perishing. An African village is as much holy ground when surrendered to Jesus as any township in the west. Cambodia is not less important from the standpoint of the Gospel, they are simply less blessed with the exposure we have had – and that should tug our hearts.

The Pained Sick (17:12-13):

Jesus was nearing a small village, and the leprous and sick men who lived outside the village, (because they were unclean) approached the Master. They cried out and begged Him to have mercy on them. His reputation as a healer preceded Him (12-13).

The ministry of Jesus is built on His ability to heal our brokenness and our confession of need. Unbelieving people don’t receive Jesus because they don’t see Him as Who He is – the Perfect Son of God able to save. Arrogant people don’t come to Jesus – because they don’t think they need to – but have deluded themselves into thinking that they are moral enough to deserve a favorable judgment, or that no such judgment exists.

Consider for a moment the lives of these lepers. They lived apart from other in constant misery and rejection. Torah Law restricted them from daily interactions with family and friends: Leviticus 13: 46 “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothed and let the hair of his head be disheveled.’’ They were to LOOK the part, so that no one would mistake them for NORMAL PEOPLE. Add to that, they understood their reality to be because God smote them. How painful to live a life apart from others, believing God had rejected you. The physical agony was accompanied by the mental anguish of Divine rejection.

The Provided Savior (17:14):

Jesus turned and addressed them, instructing them to get up and go to show themselves to the priests, as though they were healed (14).

In the most basic sense, these broken men were reaching out for some glimpse of mercy and compassion from the Master. They wanted Him to SEE them, and have pity on them. One who seeks pity has been broken by the load, and is searching for some small scraps of acknowledgment and affirmation from their wrecked world. From the ashes they cry and hope someone will hear. Fortunately, there is a Savior. There is a LISTENER. He has heard their cry, and He is able to save.

He could simply have waved a hand and said “Be healed!” Yet He chose to give them an opportunity to remove the mantle of victimization they had woven over their broken bodies. He told them to turn and find their priest, and show him their cleansing – even before it happened. Only in obedience as they went, did they get their healing. They were to take a step of obedience BEFORE they saw the results of obedience – that is God’s way. When we are only willing to obey when we can see the end – that is not trust or faith. God will hear you, but He expects you to walk in His Word BEFORE you see the benefit. He wants you to be faithful in your marriage when the times are tough – and later He will bless you for it. He wants you to stay in His Word when you aren’t feeling anything – and later the Word implanted will be a rescue to you.

There comes a time in most everyone’s life when they will cry out for the tender mercy of the Lord. One Pastor wrote: “A mother once approached Napoleon seeking a pardon for her son. The emperor replied that the young man had committed a certain offense twice and justice demanded death. “But I don’t ask for justice, the mother explained. “I plead for mercy.” “But your son does not deserve mercy, Napoleon replied. “Sir”, the woman cried, “it would not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is all I ask for”. “Well, then”, the emperor said, “I will have mercy. And he spared the woman’s son”.

Jesus doesn’t approve trials and troubles in our lives without purpose – but the troubles come like rough wrapping around a great gift. It is a gift to be brought to an end of self – for it is there one discovers the Savior. He waits to be wanted, but the satiated have no need of Him – only the hungry.

The Pleased Samaritan (17:15-18):

One man, a Samaritan in this mixed group, saw the healing happen in and upon himself, and exclaimed praise to God, returning to Jesus with a heart filled with thanksgiving and praise (15-16). As the healed man bowed before the Master, Jesus turned to the disciples and remarked: “There were ten, but only one – and that a Samaritan – came to say thanks for what God has done in them.” (17-18)

Here is the heart of the incident. A broken man was excited about being made whole, but that wasn’t the most profound part of his exclamation. He understood something new about God – and that gave rise to his praise.

In difficulty, we respond with complaint – because we see the problems, and not the shaping hand of a loving God behind the approval to allow the problems to touch our lives. We live in the delusion that life should work well – even in our fallen world. We come to the wrong belief that comfort is a right, and that our personal advancement and prosperity are major objectives of God. We don’t see the bigger plan, because we make ourselves too large a player in the plan.

Though Samaritans were considered by Jews as strangers to God and apart from the commonwealth of Israel, this man didn’t care – He still approached Jesus. The truth is that anyone can come to Jesus – but only if they will first humble themselves and recognize that God sent His Son. They must remove the stain of their old identity – like the “LEPER” and put on their new new – “PRINCE”. If our first identity will be found in Him, we will be made whole.

The man needed to LOSE something to GAIN wholeness – and so do we. We must lay aside the stains that marked our lives and not allow our sin to NAME us. It is important that our Master’s blood, our Lord’s favor, our God’s grace displace all our past. We are no longer an alien, a stranger, a lost man or woman – we are a child of the King. It is preceded by repentance and its transforming power is wrought in change within and without. No man or woman truly encounters God’s grace and salvation and is left unchanged.

The Perfect Solution (17:19):

Jesus turned and told the man to go along to the priest, his faith had made him whole again (19).

There is an old story about a devout king who was deeply disturbed at the ingratitude of his subjects eating without a word of thanks to God. He saw this particularly among the privileged in the royal court. On a certain day he asked for the kitchens to prepare a large banquet for the nobles. When he and his guests were seated, he told them to wait before they began. Quietly they all watched as a beggar was shuffled into the hall by royal guards. The man in rags sat down at the king’s table, and promptly gorged himself with food. When he finished, without saying a word to anyone, he arose and left the banquet hall. The guests were sickened by the display, and furiously requested the king to send guards to seize the beggar for his ingratitude. The king replied, “This beggar has done only once to an earthly king what each of you does three times each day to our Heavenly King. You sit at a table and eat until you are satisfied. Then you walk away without recognizing God, or expressing one word of thanks to Him. How is it that you do not deserve also to be arrested?”

The Gospel records six times Jesus said to someone “your faith has made you whole”. What does that mean? Is there some inner quality that brings about healing? If I lack this quality, would Jesus be blunted in healing me? Is it not His power that brings about healing?

All of these are valid questions. Let us first acknowledge that what the Bible means by FAITH is not what some believe. It is not blind belief in the unexplained or unknowable. That isn’t what the Bible means by faith at all. The term means simply: “Seeing things through God’s description, not through natural appearance.” Faith is seeing it the way God says it is. It is so trusting His knowledge that we allow Him to take us by the hand and lead us as though we were completely blind. In our own inability to see the whole of any situation, we follow God’s Word and His Spirit that we may see through His eyes.

Don’t forget there is a clear distinction between healing and wholeness. Healing refers to deliverance from physical ailments, and wholeness signifies a change on a deeper level – a transformation of the inner man on a spiritual level. The great benefit of the man’s leprosy was that it broke him, so that when the Savior came by – he was fully prepared to acknowledge his need and extended his hand. Jesus met him on the road, but he also met his need within. Has He done that for you as well?

Real thankfulness isn’t just about sentiment, it is about recognition of the truth.  If He has changed you, perhaps you recognize what the hymn writer expressed when thankfulness spilled out of his grace-transformed heart. He could sense Heaven and the stirring sentiments of the seasoned saints in 10,000 different tongues that cried out to thank the Lord for his salvation. Join the chorus of the Redeemer’s praise, and He will show you something new of Himself. Remember, real thankfulness is not about reveling in the things God has given, nor about celebrating the way He has fixed my problems – it is about recognizing WHO God truly is, and what He is truly like!

Grasping God's Purpose: "Fighting the Rescue"- Luke 19

Suzie and Janie loved the beach. The shells that decorated their dorm room should have been the first clue that they were a bit unbalanced in this regard. Still, there was something about the crashing sound of the surf, the smell of salty air, and the warm feel of the sun on their sun-screened skin that made them feel the relaxation that others feel in a resort spa. They felt pampered by nature. Troubles seemed to slip away into the water with the receding tide.

They took their tubes and lay in a foot of water. The waves were particularly small that afternoon, so the rise and fall of their little tubes seemed to be more relaxed than normal. They were talking about life – assignments that were coming up, professors that were far too boring to keep their eyes open, and a book that Suzie found interesting for her Psych class. Then is happened… neither one knew exactly how. Their eyes were closed and they were silent for what seemed like only a moment. When they opened their eyes, the scenery was not familiar. They had slowly drifted out to sea. They were now far from land. Suzie rolled over on the tube, and out it slipped. She began to slap the water violently, panicking and saying something that made Janie think Jaws had just surfaced and was eating her friend. That wasn’t the case. Suzie simply panicked.

Back on the beach, an old man was collecting shells. He had noticed the two drift out to sea and became quite concerned – so he called the life station, and the guards were already informed of the problem. By the time Suzie began her epic panic, the lifeboat was already en route to saving both of the young students. As the life boat rowed more closely, the lifeguard could see that Suzie had slipped into the water was thrashing. He recognized the panic, and dove in with all his training streaming through his mind. He knew this was a dangerous rescue – because the person in distress was already fighting to live. That fight would become his fight to save her. She would resist her own rescue… and that was such a ingrained response of her panic, there was no stopping it. She would have to be overcome to rescue her – or she would slip into the sea and die because she rejected her rescuer.

Many people this Easter season will find themselves in the exact same position. Not in a sea of water, but in the sea of life. Not drowning, but dying and fighting their rescuer. This isn’t just a physical response of panic… it is the spiritual response of rebellious mankind. We want to save ourselves, and we can’t. We want to control the terms of our lives, and we can’t. We want to guard ourselves from pain and harm, but we can’t We don’t want a rescuer – we want to do it ourselves – but we can’t. Here is the truth:

Key Principle: Deep within the heart is rooted a resistance to rescue. Only those who overcome the impulse to try and save themselves will make it through to life – the others will perish.

There is a text buried in the account of Jesus’ earth ministry found in Luke 19, that tells the story of a rescuer and the fight to stop Him from saving the dying. The text offers three stories to the modern reader:

Story #1: Zaccheus’ banquet where the rescue announcement is made clear (19:1-10).

Story #2: A parable of delayed rescue that Jesus told the listeners at the banquet (19:11-27). This is actually part of the first story – but so long that it seems like an account by itself.

Story #3: The story of Jesus’ Palm Sunday journey into the Temple (19:28-48).

The account is layered in three small stories that all blend together:

  • Jesus reasoning with leaders about His rescue.
  • Jesus weeping over Jerusalem.
  • Jesus cleaning up the Temple’s corruption.

Luke positioned the stories in the order that the interviews he made in building his Gospel account indicated – because he was trying to set the story in the actual order of the events (Luke 1:1-4). The three stories are connected by a simple thought:

Jesus came to offer a drowning people rescue – but some fought the rescuer and tried to stop Him from completing His task.

The truth is they DIDN’T WANT His rescue – they had a plan to do it themselves. They were like many people we work with and see every day. They want to control their own lives. They want to do it on their own – even if that keeps taking them from disaster to disaster. The point of this chapter is that there IS ANOTHER WAY to respond to the rescue of the Savior – and the response has EVERYTHING to do with whether or not you will LIVE or DIE.

The Rescue Announced (Luke 19:1-10):

Luke 19:1 He entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 And there was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich. 3 Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was, and was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. 4 So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” 6 And he hurried and came down and received Him gladly. 7 When they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying,  “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” 8 Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost. ”

Jesus came into Jericho with a plan to rescue a drowning man. Zaccheus was up to his neck in a sea of problems:

  • He was marginalized by people who wouldn’t respect him enough to part and let him have a glimpse of Jesus (19:3).
  • He felt inadequate, and knew he wasn’t able to do what others were – so he looked for help (19:4).
  • He was despised by the people among whom he lived – and they were immediately jealous and upset when Jesus chose to be with him (19:5-6).
  • He was surprised, delighted and even shocked that Jesus wanted to be in his life (19:7).
  • He already knew why others felt about him the way they did – he knew he cheated people and sinned against them (19:8).
  • He surrendered his sinful practices to Jesus without resistance – and he was rescued (19:8b-9).

Jesus used this man to announce His whole intention on invading the life of the drowning man or woman – He came to RESCUE THEM. That was His mission – and that was the mission God gave those that follow Him. We are called to a “ministry of reconciliation” – connecting God to people.

  • Not GOOD people, but drowning people.
  • Not HAPPY people, but those who feel inadequate.
  • Not EASY people, but the marginalized, the unloved, the difficult.

Many will resist us, because they will want to do it themselves. They will believe they are already adequate – or they have found a way on their own. They will not understand us –because they did not understand Him. Those around us will scratch their heads when they watch us invest such time and trouble in such LOSERS. They won’t recognize what we are doing as valuable, because it won’t be as flashy as what the world seeks to do in changing itself.

  • Ours is a quiet and subtle revolution. It is found in the faithful love of a husband and wife desperately praying over their children that they may raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord in the midst of a rebellious generation.
  • It is found in the careful instruction of the holy Words of God, quietly taught in a class of small boys and girls that cannot yet be trusted with sharp scissors and paste.
  • It will be found on the lips of old grey haired men and women, who no longer capture the heart of Hollywood or Vogue magazine – but their quiet testimony offers enduring wisdom and truth yielded from a life given in surrender to the Savior.
  • When fear and anger prevail in our streets, our message of rescue will SEEM weak. It will not be violent and it will not be swift. It will require love and patience, hope and endurance. It will require the application of God’s dramatic display of love in our Savior, shined through cracked clay pots from the lives of flawed men and women. That profound message of God’s love will transform, because it is powerful, not because WE are. The Gospel will not be silenced, nor will it be defeated.

The message that transformed the heart of a drowning, short, inadequate tax collection cheater two thousand years ago will transform the heart of a Muslim that does not find peace in a world view that competes for domination by aggression – but cannot be trusted to offer the truth. The message that filled the empty heart of an outcast in Jericho will still powerfully lift the discarded and worthless feeling divorced woman that has been left cast aside for a younger and more energetic woman. They are all around us and they are drowning… Oh that we could just look in the tree and see them!

The Resistance Explained (Luke 19:11-27):

Jesus told a story. It was directed at a crowd that didn’t like what He was doing – but I guess God is used to that. Most of the things He says to the drowning aren’t popular. We like to think we are MORE CAPABLE, or at least not as stupid as the other drowning guy down the beach. Here is what He said:

Luke 19:11 While they were listening to these things, Jesus went on to tell a parable, because He was near Jerusalem, and they supposed that the kingdom of God was going to appear immediately.

The purpose of the story preceded the telling of it. Luke made it clear that Jesus was saying what He said because there was about to be a SEVERE DELAY in the National Rescue plan to His people. Israel wasn’t ready. Disciples weren’t ready. God promised a New Covenant. He promised to bring the people back from the captors and after a while change their hearts. He promised that the Jewish people would one day experience a complete surrender… but it wasn’t going to happen that Passover. In fact, the delay was going to be significant – but purposeful. His delay of ascending David’s throne offers me salvation today. I was not part of His people then – but the Gospel made it possible that I am of HIS PEOPLE today.

The Disciples thought the Kingdom would come that week, because they didn’t see past themselves.

They didn’t see the lost around them. Whole earthly kingdoms and nation states had no relation to God. Was God to ignore the 14 million Chinese of the Han Dynasty for the sake of the immediate accession of Jesus to the throne of fewer than a million Jews? God’s math, and God’s view were different than theirs – and I am very glad – glad beyond words – that God saw it differently.

Luke 19:12 So He said, “A nobleman went to a distant country to receive a kingdom for himself, and then return. 13 “And he called ten of his slaves, and gave them ten minas and said to them, ‘Do business with this until I come back.’ 14 “But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’ 15 “When he returned, after receiving the kingdom, he ordered that these slaves, to whom he had given the money, be called to him so that he might know what business they had done. 16 “The first appeared, saying, ‘Master, your mina has made ten minas more.’ 17 “And he said to him, ‘Well done, good slave, because you have been faithful in a very little thing, you are to be in authority over ten cities.’ 18 “The second came, saying, ‘Your mina, master, has made five minas.’ 19 “And he said to him also, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’ 20 “Another came, saying, ‘Master, here is your mina, which I kept put away in a handkerchief; 21 for I was afraid of you, because you are an exacting man; you take up what you did not lay down and reap what you did not sow.’ 22 “He said to him, ‘By your own words I will judge you, you worthless slave. Did you know that I am an exacting man, taking up what I did not lay down and reaping what I did not sow? 23 ‘Then why did you not put my money in the bank, and having come, I would have collected it with interest?’ 24 “Then he said to the bystanders, ‘Take the mina away from him and give it to the one who has the ten minas.’ 25 “And they said to him, ‘Master, he has ten minas already.’ 26 “I tell you that to everyone who has, more shall be given, but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away. 27 “But these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them in my presence.”

Parables are sometimes hard to grasp. You have to be especially careful to keep the details out of the main idea, so that only the details that are relevant to the story define the message of the story. They take work, but, like a really good novel, they are worth it. The beauty and richness is lost on a fast food generation – but if you slowly savor it – you will feel the power in the story. Let’s take it apart.

There are two layers to the story.

The first layer is a story about an absentee district ruler that left on a journey to a far country that was under his possession and eventually returned (19:12). The people he was to claim rule over rejected his claim to rule, and sent a request the Senate after his visit to have another ruler over them (19:14) – so he was feeling the weight of rejection that was apparently based on his interaction with them. He felt pressured by enemies, and in the end – when it was determined that his rule would not be withdrawn by those above him – he ordered that his enemies be dragged in and killed right in front of his face (19:27).

His point in the first layer is clear: Reject the ruler and appeal his right to rule –  and you will find yourself without recourse.

Set into that story was the second layer that began with his preparations for the journey, and ended with his return to his household.

In this second layer, the ruler prepared for a journey by handing part of his wealth over to three slaves – each with a significant part of his wealth – and instructed them to conduct his business with them (19:13). (A mina was a measure of gold – a word that entered Greek and Latin from its Akkadian origin for a “weight”. In the first century, a mina was a unit of currency that amounted to about a fourth of the wages earned annually by an agricultural worker. Ten minas would have been worth two and one half years pay for a farm worker – a significant amount to invest in that time.) With ten minas at each servant’s disposal, the man left on his journey. On return, he asked for an accounting of the money invested (19:15).

The first servant invested the ten and gained ten more – a 100% investment increase. The second invested and got a 50% investment increase – adding five more to his original ten. The third came in with only the ten he was originally given. The focus of this layer was primarily on HIM – because he didn’t trust the ruler (19:19). Look at the interaction between the ruler and the servant to see the servant’s position:

  • He recognized the ten minas were his masters (19:20).
  • He understood the task that was assigned to him (19:21).
  • He feared the ruler, and knew the ruler to be a man that would keep track of the money (19:21).
  • He didn’t trust the character of the ruler – and felt he gained in ways that were not to his liking (19:21).

The ruler was perturbed with the servant. He said: “Why didn’t you do it another way then? Why not put it in the bank and gain interest?” He stripped him of the minas and gave them to the one that did the most with them. The others in the room seemed to think this was foolish – after all the one with the ten had already ten more. The proverb offered to explain the scene was this:

Luke 19:26 “I tell you that to everyone who has, more shall be given, but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away.”

Don’t bypass these words – they are the point of the lesson. Jesus said this: A ruler offered every servant the same opportunity, but some didn’t trust his character and decided to do things that ignored his instruction. The one who used what was loaned to him in a way that became productive got rewarded. The one who decided to withhold his obedience and do things his own way, was stripped of what he was offered in the beginning.

His point in the second layer was this: Use what the ruler loans you obediently or what you have been given will be removed.

Now set the two message points back into the context of the problem…Jewish followers were already dividing up their new land grants in their hearts, as Jesus came to Jerusalem. Peter was carrying a sword under his cloak, waiting for the Master to give the order. The Kingdom of God was about to be established by the Messiah – and no one could stop Him! That is, until the King offered two important warnings:

The leadership of God’s people weren’t ready to accept the rule of their King. That rejection would be costly, but God would honor their desire and postpone His establishment of rule at that time. They had been entrusted with something extraordinarily valuable – the written word and now the Living Word –and rejection of them would bring peril to those leaders. Another generation would get the blessing of the King – but it would come in tears when they looked on Him they had earlier pierced (Zechariah 12:10-14). Jewish leadership would blow their chance – and that would leave their children open to deep pain – but the promise would still come.

When the builders rejected the beautiful Cornerstone, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits” (Matthew 21:43). Yet, for those who read that in such a way as to strip the Jewish people in favor of the church – let me be clear here – that is not what He said.

It is easy to read Matthew 21 as though Jesus were handing off the “everlasting and irrevocable possession” of Israel to someone else – but that is not so. Jesus was referring to offering the choice to a future generation of Jewish leaders, not the one that was standing there at the time. Evidence? First, a massive number of Jews were not in the land at the time of Jesus’ visitation. If God meant to overturn His Word concerning them, He did so with a minority presence. That alone isn’t enough, but it should give us pause. Is the majority of “the church” today walking in obedience such that we should feel secure about God using the term “everlasting” in such a manner? For greater evidence which is textual, let me add: Ask the men who were listening to Jesus in Matthew 21 if they thought Jesus was moving the blessing to non-Jews and replacing it with the church or any other entity? I suspect their question to Jesus later in Acts 1:6 “So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” Did they misunderstand Jesus’ pronouncement of removal, or did they appear to understand that He was pushing it off to a future time but maintaining it for the Jewish people? The answer seems clear enough to one who takes the Bible literally.

The Rescuer Fought (Luke 19:28-48)

The end of the passage is the living example of the parable. Two short stories illustrate the rejection of the leadership.

Rejection in the Parade (19:28-40)

The first was the reaction of the Pharisees in the crowd of Palm Sunday. The text reveals that they complained about the overt acceptance of the crowd of their King. When they saw their King coming on a donkey, their minds raced to Zechariah 9:9 and they saw Him openly taking the position of the Servant-king.

Luke 19:28 After He had said these things, He was going on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 When He approached Bethphage and Bethany, near the mount that is called Olivet, He sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you; there, as you enter, you will find a colt tied on which no one yet has ever sat; untie it and bring it here. 31 “If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of it.’” 32 So those who were sent went away and found it just as He had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord has need of it.” 35 They brought it to Jesus, and they threw their coats on the colt and put Jesus on it. 36 As He was going, they were spreading their coats on the road. 37 As soon as He was approaching, near the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the miracles which they had seen, 38 shouting: “BLESSED IS THE KING WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD; Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Him, “Teacher, rebuke Your disciples.” 40 But Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!

The Pharisees rejected Jesus’ overt claim, and the crowd’s adulation of Him. They wanted it stopped! They wanted CONTROL. Jesus cautioned them that Roman control would be exerted if a riot broke out, because of the hurling of the stones! They weren’t in CONTROL, and that wasn’t HIS doing – that was Rome’s doing. They knew it, and it made them seethe inside. The rescuer was there to save them – and they were effectively fighting Him off from completing His task. He stopped and cried because of it:

19:41 When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, 42 saying, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. 43 “For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, 44 and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.”

You see, the Hebrew prophet in exile, Daniel, took the Word of God seriously as he read Jeremiah – according to Daniel 9:1-2. He knew that the return of the Jewish people was supposed to be in seventy years after they were brought into Babylon, because God’s Word said so. He prayed, because he was so distressed that the time was coming and the Jewish people were not preparing to leave. God answered his prayer of faith, and told him that NOT ONLY would the people be going back to the land, but that Messiah would come to them. He would come 483 years of 360 days (a Biblical calendar year) from the time Jerusalem was commanded to rebuild its wall and moat… or 173,880 days from the restoration of the moat, gate and wall system around the city. Later, the Hebrew Bible includes the story of Nehemiah 1, where the restoration was begun, starting the clock. By the time of Jesus’ arrival, the announcement of timing of His coming was already nearly five hundred years old – but the leadership that studied these things ever so closely was not willing to open their hearts. WHY? Because they were living under the illusion of control – and Jesus shattered that illusion with a single sentence.

We hate to admit that we don’t have control of things. We push off our rescuer because we don’t want to be embarrassed – as if DEAD would be better. We live under one illusion after another:

Young women stand in front of a mirror and dress to attract a man of substance and character by getting him to look at her exterior:

  • As if that would attract the right kind of man.
  • As if she can keep him by keeping her exterior looking like that.
  • She paints it, brushes it, cares and maintains it.

The truth is that a man of character is interested in a woman of character – and she needs to give much time to developing that in order to attract the right man. She cannot get the right man solely on the exterior, and even more to the point SHE CANNOT KEEP THE EXTERIOR LOOKING LIKE THAT because she doesn’t control it.

The man of business operates with a solid sense of control – but market forces pull his business as the sea pulls on a tiny fishing boat. The young athlete sculpts his body as if he can, through sheer force of will, stop the years from changing his ability to endure. The man walks into his doctor’s office to get a diagnosis on the pain or problem, somehow believing there is a surgery or a pill that can control anything that his body may throw at him.

CONTROL IS AN ILLUSION. Fighting the rescuer to keep control of your life is a futile and perilous response that will only be shattered when the illusion of control has been stripped away.

Rejection in the Worship Place (19:45-48)

The final story of the passage places Jesus in the south porch of the Temple complex, overturning the money changers and corban (sacrificial items) salesman. This was a provocative action, but it was also revealing:

19:45 Jesus entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling, 46 saying to them, “It is written, ‘AND MY HOUSE SHALL BE A HOUSE OF PRAYER,’ but you have made it a ROBBERS’ DEN.” 47 And He was teaching daily in the temple; but the chief priests and the scribes and the leading men among the people were trying to destroy Him, 48 and they could not find anything that they might do, for all the people were hanging on to every word He said.

Did you see it? Some people rejected the rescuer, because they had an ECONOMIC MOTIVE. Surrender to Jesus would mean RESCUE – but it would also pull the cloak off of their GREED and SELFISH lifestyle that was so nurtured by them.

Others were quietly looking pious but seeking a way to STOP the Rescuer, because His FAME would rob them of THEIR FAME. They liked a world centered on THEM.

Deep within the heart is rooted a resistance to rescue.

Some reject rescue because they want CONTROL – but they don’t have it – because it is an illusion. Some reject rescue because they want POWER, MONEY or FAME – they don’t want to share the stage of their lives with a rescuer.

Only those who overcome the impulse to try and save themselves will make it through to life – the others will perish.

Isn’t it time you stop pushing away the RESCUER and let Him rescue you?

“Three Christmas Cards from God” – Luke 2:10-14, 29-35, 38

Nicholas Sparks is an internationally-bestselling American novelist and screenwriter. Out of his sixteen published novels – six have been adapted to film, including The Last Song,  The Notebook… and the one I want to mention this morning – Message in a Bottle.

The story is a captivating read (as always, insert here a healthy Christian caveat about the language of worldly authors). A young ex-reporter from a well known newspaper named Theresa Osborne now labored as a staff “news researcher”. On a brief trip to Cape Cod, she happened upon a bottle in the sand that contained a captivating love letter addressed “from Garret to Catherine”. Stunned with the depth of emotion that poured from the letter, she worked tirelessly to find the man who wrote the letter, and some others that she came into the possession of during her research, a man named Garret Blake. Garret lost the love of his life to death, and was struggling through grief – including anger at his wife for leaving him so awfully alone. He lived a secluded life now, on the outer banks of North Carolina with his father, Dodge. Theresa arranged to get to know Garret, but she didn’t reveal her knowledge of the letters. She began, unknown to him, to weave and publish a romantic tale of the “messages in a bottle”, without naming names. In time, Garret stepped out to try to continue to live – and even made a trip to Chicago to see Theresa and her young son. His heart began to open to her, until he inadvertently discovered his old letters in a drawer in Theresa’s apartment – and he felt betrayed and left  – alone. Almost a year later, Dodge tracked down Theresa to give her some bad news. Garret died at sea in a storm while attempting to rescue someone. He told her because a bottle with a message inside was found on his son’s boat. In the letter, apparently written a night before Garrett’s failed rescue attempt, he apologized to Catherine and wrote to her that in Theresa he found a new love, a love he was about to fight for. The novel closed with some lessons Theresa learned about life, love and pain.

The novel seemed to me like too little communication too late. Why a bottle? Why not use a phone, email, twitter, a snail mail letter, telegraph, candy gram, singing gram, smoke signals or even sky writing? A message in a bottle doesn’t seem like a great way to communicate – a little slow for my taste! At the same time, there was a charming side of how carefully selected each communication was – and the reality that although the message was addressed to someone in particular – many would eventually read it, or hear about it.

I mention all this to say that God sent three messages the first Christmas season that I want to remind you of in this short lesson from God’s Word. It was as though God sent three Christmas Cards – each to individuals who knew the message was to be displayed to others like those long strings of cards that used to hang in my school classroom as a child at Christmas time. Each card was carefully selected – a message that communicated a truth from Heaven about the child of Bethlehem to the people who celebrated the Savior’s birth on the first Christmas. First, He told the shepherds about the arrival of the baby the night He entered the world. A month later, He told an old man who anticipated the arrival of the Messiah what Messiah’s task would be. Finally, later that same day (as the old man’s prophecy), God opened the mouth of an elderly prophetess the great response to the baby’s arrival.

Key Principle: God sent with the baby a message both of an important promise fulfilled, an essential work begun – along with His anticipation of our response to His magnificent gift.

The First Card: The story of the first “Christmas card from God” was sent on the night of the Savior’s birth. It answered the BIG question in the minds of Joe’s extended family – “How can we know Mary and Joseph didn’t make up the story about this baby’s conception?

This was no small question to Joe’s family, and it is no small question to people around the world today! If Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit – something unparalleled in the human story happened. There truly IS a Creator… and He truly DOES care about us. So much changes if the story is true…

The Bible contains a vivid description of that night. Read it closely, and it will rip down any Hallmark images of the first Christmas. Those images were meant to displace the real story – a story about the darkness of men and the power of God. This was a scene much less “Currier and Ives” and a whole lot more “Homer and Marge” … a scene of poor and restless people, dressed in tacky clothing and living a life much less hygienic than any in our standard of normal living. We have prettied the scene and been distracted by the emotions we project on Christmas from our own family times growing up. Go back in time… it was presented like a beautiful movie.

First, recall that it was NOT a thrilling time – The setting was tax time. If you think that pulling together all those receipts and forms are a hassle, try uprooting your family and moving to another location for the fun of staying eighteen months to three years, while awaiting the census that will only, in the end, cost you more in tax revenues. All this to watch your government spend on personal luxuries of a few while most languished in near poverty. The curiosity and convenience of Caesar wasn’t a strong motivator for a positive attitude on the part of the original Christmas cast… Any positive feeling from the event went against the natural tide of feelings. . Luke 2:1 “Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. 2 This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city.”

Traffic isn’t just a modern Christmas problem. Did you see it? “everyone was on his way” should be read.. “Oi, What a traffic jam! I could live my life without sitting for hours at one more Roman toll booth.. I mean, this is ridiculous! I spent more on the camel to just sit there in this quadruped parking lot waiting for the guy with the idiot donkeys blocking the toll station… I wish some of these old people knew how to drive a camel. I mean, really…” Ok, maybe I am using some imagination… but it was a time when EVERYONE was on the move, and nothing was moving particularly well… I think we can all identify.

People romanticize Christmas in the Bible, for the sake of the story. What we know for sure is that it was a WARM time of year (the shepherds don’t stay out in the fields at night during the cold and rainy season). That means it was more like Sebring, FL than Chicago, IL. Add to the WARM weather a network of traffic laden roadways, and a lot of people who don’t enthusiastically support the rising cost of the conquering troops and their lavish spending masters … and you are closer to the scene. Now sprinkle in the special issues Joseph and Mary were facing…

Not only was it not a thrilling time, but it was NOT an exciting family gathering – Joe and his not yet married but pregnant young wife to be was about to move in with the in-laws – trying to get re-established.  This wouldn’t be comfortable under any circumstances in a small home – not as large as those in our mobile home parks in the south. On top of that, Joe’s family was conservative – and perhaps not so forgiving a family – based on the details. Luke 2:4 “Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, 5 in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. 6 While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Do you see it in the details of the day for our “first family” of Christmas? They had a four to seven day journey, depending on the route they took. They came from a long and great line of “people who used to be famous, powerful and wealthy” but now lived in meager three room cave style dwelling in the middle of no-where – and had to go to a real city to be registered. They weren’t married and she was about to burst with a bundle of joy – a collective groan comes from all the women who hear about this! Think of this pleasant cocktail of heat, pregnancy, chafing and dirt… now we are getting closer to the real feeling of that day. Oh, there is one more thing that you should be aware of – there was a stinging pain associated with the couple.

Read the words: “no room for them in the inn” as “no room in the kataluma” – the guest chamber (meaning, of the family home). There were no “Motel 6” properties in ancient Bethlehem. The family of Joseph was re-gathering in the city of their ancestors for the census. Their first choice would have been to be in the family home. Archaeologists have uncovered homes in both Bethlehem and Nazareth that are commonly called “three room cave style homes”. These homes are essentially a cave in the side of a mountain ridge, with a room built onto the front. Such homes had a rear area of the cave that was for the animals (vacant because in the warm season they sheep are kept out in the fields and sheepfolds on the paths of grazing). The center room is the “guest chamber” of the family home – often used as storage when not occupied. The front room of the house was used as the primary dwelling space – for eating, sleeping and living. The daylight hours were lived outside at work – and the home was neither large nor comfortable enough to house the family for more than the most basic needs.

Joseph wasn’t given the middle room of the house – it was occupied. Instead, his “family” was given the rear of the house – a place that indicates to some of us that he was not very well received by the family… showing up with a pregnant young woman that was not his wife yet. It is worth noting again that she did not appear to have the respect of Joseph’s family. Would they really have kept Jesus’ birth in a stable cave if they believed He was the coming King as Joe and Mary were told? I think not. Mary learned a hard lesson –  my life is to fulfill God’s purposes, not my desires!

For some of you, you can identify with this family. Christmas is a time when you feel a special kind of STRESS. You don’t have the money to do the things that you would really like to do with your family. Your family is… well, let’s just say they are no family set for a Christmas special on TV. You don’t have a lot of space in the house, and it is a lot warmer than you envisioned Christmas being. You like to think of your family being together at Christmas, but the reality is TENSION and TURMOIL. Some of you feel more like a referee that walks on egg shells at family gatherings. Take some solace – Mary and Joe understand you.

Now the first Christmas card from God was delivered…and it came to an unlikely place:  It came to people outside town. Luke 2:8 “In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; 11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.

There it is: God’s message to the men who were watching sheep, but ended up searching for a King.

  • The angels said, “Do not be afraid – the meeting is for the purpose of telling you GOOD NEWS!

The message of the Savior’s coming was GOOD NEWS for people who felt a distance from God, and felt even mistreated on earth. What a great reminder….Even Christians are getting caught up in living the wrong story. We are getting mixed up. A recent poll by the Barna Research Group in America found that only 37% of adults thought the birth of Jesus is the most important aspect of Christmas. 44% of the respondents said family time is the most important part of the Christmas celebration. 3% said presents or parties were the most important part of Christmas. The same percentage said the best thing about Christmas was getting a paid holiday.

Funny, as I listened this Christmas among BELIEVERS I was amazed that many had come to believe that our family time and our worship time are in CONFLICT in this day in which we find ourselves? Why have we come to truly believe that God was more interested in giving us time off with the family than having that same family sit together and celebrate the gift of Jesus while we study His Word? Let me be clear: Whatever you think is more important than your walk with God has become the real object of your worship….and our kids know what that is, even if we don’t say it out loud.

There are times when it feels like the Christmas story has been so replaced in our world, that the birthday boy isn’t invited to the party. The truth is – HE is the reason to celebrate. My heart breaks for those who are looking for something real in the glitter and wrapping of a Christmas that isn’t focused, first and foremost, on worshipping and honoring Christ. There is GOOD NEWS – Jesus the Savior has come. Why would we make this primarily about gifts, meals, parties and decorated trees – they are a distant second.

  • The angels said, “Do not be silent – the NEWS is for everyone!

There are lots of ways to tell the story of Christmas…. And some of them aren’t as successful as others. “There was an art contest held in a local school one Christmas season a few years ago in East Texas. One of the prize winners was a picture drawn by a nine year old boy showing three men, offering gifts to the baby Jesus in his manger. What made the picture unique is how the three gift presenters arrived – there was fire truck on the side of the picture. The principle asked the boy about his decision to draw the truck and the boy, in his heavy East-Texas accent, was quick to reply: “Well, the Bible says the wise men came from a-far.” Despite the wrong detail, the notion of sharing the message was right! The news that God sent the Savior is not something we are to keep to ourselves!

  • The angels said “Do not be still – the baby must be sought and acknowledged!

So many will HEAR ABOUT Jesus this Christmas, but few will take the time to journey to meet Jesus. It is a profoundly simple journey. It begins with acknowledging that God truly WAS behind His coming. It is about admitting that on my own, I cannot be acceptable to God. Even though I may be GOOD, I am not RIGHTEOUS before God. It is about accepting that Jesus came to be my substitute payment for sin. It is about asking Him to take my body, my life, my priorities and my choices – and use re-shape them to His own. He died for me, I will live for Him. I get it – He TRULY IS who the Bible says He is. Listen to these words from John the Apostle”

1 John 5:9 “If we believe the testimony of men, the testimony of God is far more secure; for the testimony of God is this, that He has testified concerning His Son. 10 The one who truly believes in the Son of God has that belief inside himself; the one who does not believe has decided that God’s record is not true, because he has not believed in the Words that God has given concerning His Son. 11 And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12 He who has accepted the Son has the life; he who has not – does not have the Son of God does not have the life.” The issue is NOT was a baby born – but WHO THE BABY WAS– and where the baby truly came from.

  • The angels said, “Do not be downcast” – the gift is offered from God’s goodness!

John says it this way: John 3:17 “For God did not send the Son into the world as a judgment to the world, but that the world might be rescued through Him. 18 “He who believes in Him will not be judged by God; he who does not believe has cast the die to stand in judgment already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” Our message is one of HOPE, but also one requiring a response.

The picture of their immediate and enthusiastic obedience is moving. Luke 2: 15 When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. 17 When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.

Why did God go to the trouble of announcing the baby’s birth to the shepherds? What was the purpose of the first Christmas card from Heaven?

I truly believe that the family members of Joseph were the real recipients of the first card. They would change their beliefs after the shepherds reported the call by the Heavenly host. They were HOME TOWN Bethlehem boys. Maybe these kids like Joe had gotten messaed up in their time up north in Galilee – but we can trust the home town kids to tell the truth…The text indicated who needed to know! Who else would have been included that night in the “all who heard it”? I think it is at least worth considering. The answer to the question: “How can we KNOW the story wasn’t fabricated by a first century couple?” is simple: “They had neither the means nor the knowledge to get a thousand angels together to float above the fields and proclaim the truth of the event.

One more thing before we leave this scene: Mary learned to hold in much of what she experienced, taking private joys and solemn sorrows to heart. When the shepherds came and knelt, she “treasured” and “pondered” (Lk. 2:15-20). Because we live in times when people share intimate details of their lives before whole studio audiences and across American living rooms, it is hard to imagine the benefit of remaining quiet – but Mary knew how to remain calm and quiet. There is a special discipline of silence that is being lost in our western world. We are over stimulated and constantly bombarded with the need to share everything with others. We even get hyperactive at Christmas. In fact, some of us are so focused on making it a GREAT Christmas, we don’t even make it a GOOD Christmas..

There is a rather poignant Christmas story about a little girl who watched her mother and daddy getting ready for Christmas. To her, it seemed that dad was preoccupied with burdens & bundles, & mom was concerned about parties & presents, & they just had no time for her. She felt that she was being shoved aside. In fact, it seemed to her that she was always being told, “Would you please get out of the way?” So one night in December she knelt beside her bed & prayed this prayer, “Our Father who art in heaven, please forgive us our Christmases as we forgive those who Christmas against us.” (Sermon central illustrations).

The next two Christmas cards from Heaven came a month later – both on the same day… mail service being what it is…J

The Second Card: The story of the second “Christmas card from God” was set in stages – ending a month after the birth, and answered the question “Why was the baby born?”

We now move to a month later as Luke tells what happened when Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem for His presentation offering. Circumcision occurred eight days after the birth, but the “days of purification” for Mary went on longer – 33-40 days. It was at the end of this that Jesus was carried to Jerusalem (Luke 2:21-24).

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, 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.”

Simeon’s card was addressed in two parts – the first part to the World: This baby has a PURPOSE from God. He has come to be our RESCUER – a Savior. He has come to be REVEALED to people everywhere in a deliberate mission to give the message. He will bring light well outside the nation of Israel to a PAGAN WORLD.

The second part of Simeon’s message was to Mary: To fulfill His work – He will BREAK YOUR HEART. Any parent knows that we live and die a thousand times in the excitement and pain of our children as they live – we face the heart break of every disappointment or trouble they will suffer in their future. Jesus came to SAVE, but that would be at the expense of SAVING HIMSELF from anguish.

The Third Card: The story of the third “Christmas card from God” revealed the answer to a nagging question – “What am I here for?

Luke 2:36 And there was a prophetess, Anna 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.

Anna lived in an unexpected “Plan B” life. In some ways Anna had something in common with Elizabeth. Anna is a short form of Channah, or “Grace”.

  • Anna learned CURBED EXPECTATIONS!  Anna was widowed after a marriage that lasted only a brief seven years. Now eighty-four years old, Anna learned patience and dependence upon God. She fasted and prayed day and night, never leaving the Temple. Anna was not like most women of her time. She chose 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 then people expected. She chose to serve the Lord. Her expectations, probably the same as other women of her day, were dramatically altered by God’s superintending in her life. She learned to move through the terrible pain of losing her husband, relying on God to financially and emotionally meet the needs of her life.
  • When she curbed her expectations to total reliance on God – she stuck with it! 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 of waiting is incredible patience to wait for anything – much less a baby to mark the redemption. 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 lazy? What if she accommodated her feelings of disobedience and thought: “I don’t feel like looking for the Messiah this morning – I will go in later?” The blessings of being obedient far outweigh the temporary satisfaction of placating my wants and desires.
  • She learned reliance of God meant real strength and real provision! 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! Adjusting our expectations to put them in line with God’s plan is a vital part of maturity.

Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life; you stretch out your hand against the anger of my foes, with your right hand you save me. The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your love, O LORD, endures forever – do not abandon the works of your hands.” — Psalm 138:7-9

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


God sent three messages – Christmas cards if you will allow the metaphor. Each had a purpose – to answer a question:

  • Is the baby truly from God? Yes, God sent His Son in a miraculous way.

  • Why was the baby born?” Jesus came to rescue us – but it  cost Him His life.

  • What am I here for? God uses our lives to know, love and proclaim the message of Jesus.

God sent with the baby a message both of an important promise fulfilled, an essential work begun – along with His anticipation of our response to His magnificent gift.

History records for us an interesting footnote. It was during the dark winter of 1864. At Petersburg, Virginia, the Confederate army of Robert E. Lee faced the Union divisions of General Ulysses S. Grant. The war was now three and a half years old and the glorious charge had long since given way to the muck and mud of trench warfare. Late one evening one of Lee’s generals, Major General George Pickett, received word that his wife had given birth to a beautiful baby boy. Up and down the line the Southerners began building huge bonfires in celebration of the event. These fires did not go unnoticed in the Northern camps and soon a nervous Grant sent out a reconnaissance patrol to see what was going on. The scouts returned with the message that Pickett had had a son and these were celebratory fires. It so happened that Grant and Pickett had been contemporaries at West Point and knew one another well, so to honor the occasion Grant, too, ordered that bonfires should be built.

It is possible that the celebrations of the Son of God this Christmas have made you curious. Maybe they have even made you worry about the meaning of all of this. It is time for you to build a fire and join the celebration. The fire is your life, offer it to Him and He will replace it with HIS LIFE – lived through you.

“From Disgrace to Delight”: Lessons in the Work of God – Luke 1

Have you ever tasted something really bitter? The dictionary struggles to adequately define the term “bitter”, but uses a number of insightful descriptive synonyms: “having a harsh, disagreeably acrid taste; hard to bear; grievous; distressful; causing pain; piercing; stinging; characterized by intense antagonism or hostility.” There is significant variety in these terms, but one thing is absolutely clear – each term suggests it is something that should generally be avoided. Bitterness doesn’t taste, feel or sound fun. Yet, bitterness is a part of the lives of any who have suffered serious, and as yet – unresolved, disappointment.

Sometimes bitter experiences happen because of our own choices. Jim Rohn has rightly said: “We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret and disappointment.” If we fail to discipline ourselves, our natural choices will tend to laziness and lack of preparation. The outcome will be haphazard. In things critical, it will leave us disappointed, for few things of skill or beauty are simply thrown together. That seems fair enough – but that isn’t the whole story of disappointment and bitterness. In fact, some disappointing and embittering experiences aren’t about our plan, they are about things which we strive for, but the outcome is not what we have hoped. Think about it: If variety is the spice of life, then disappointment is the SALT. Bitterness enters our lives with the sensation of salt entering a wound, leaving us in tears and racked with inner pain. If left unhealed, today’s anger will turn to tomorrow’s bitterness. The longer resolution delays, the deeper the wound.

Key Principle: God has a few great lessons to teach  – EVEN for those who struggle to believe Him.

Take a moment and observe two old people, saddened by praying for a lifetime and facing a searing of their spirit. God had not chosen to bring a baby into their arms. They no doubt spent hours seeking Him, wondering why life was going the way it was. They felt deeply disgraced, and I suspect they felt unheard by God. Don’t judge them – really picture them. They followed God. They served God faithfully, but all the time in the background there was a hole in each of their hearts. Though their theology wouldn’t let them say it – they secretly felt God LET THEM DOWN. Perhaps they surmised they weren’t good enough – but then they were confused as they looked at the people that God DID give children to. They worked hard and cared for others. They served faithfully and lived uprightly… yet God didn’t give them the chance for what they longed to have most – one tiny thing…a baby. They didn’t abandon their faith or their ministry. They kept showing up and offered encouragement and assistance to others – even when they felt empty inside. They paid their taxes. They studied God’s Word. They waited… but inside hope faded with each passing birthday.

We enter their story at a time of quiet disillusionment. We learn with them as they learned…

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 from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years.”

Lesson One: God can work at any time – even when it looks like He isn’t watching.

Luke tells us it was a time when people wondered if God really understood what was happening to His people. They were under a serious taskmaster. Herod wasn’t placed on the throne because of his faithfulness to God – but because of his friendship to Caesar. Luke 1: 5 simply opens with the matter of fact: “In the days of Herod, king of Judea…” A simple comment about who was on the throne is so much more. It is an important reminder… Even in the days of compromise, God was very much at work!

Lesson Two: God is at work in deep ways in people at times and in ways we cannot see.

The narrative continued as it introduced the “players” around which God told His story. Luke 1:5b “…there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 “They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. 1:7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years.

The couple we have been peering at in this lesson is none other than the old priest Zacharias and now advanced in years – Elizabeth, a couple from a Levitical household thought to have lived in Ein Kerem, west of Jerusalem in the nearby hills. They were clearly both observant Jews, wholly obedient to the law. The bottom line was this: They were dealing with the SALT in the wound feeling of burning disappointment. If you read carefully, they were not only childless. The note on their age also says something else – they were now HOPELESS in regards to child bearing! Clearly they BOTH felt a burning about the lack of a child.

  • When Elizabeth became pregnant, her words were these: Luke 1:24 After these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant, and she kept herself in seclusion for five months, saying, 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.” When you see another believer that seems like everything in their life is fine – don’t assume that is how they feel about their life. Even faithful believers can have hurts that follow them through their service of God. We cannot see the dragons another is fighting – unless they choose to let us know!
  • A closer reading of verse 13 shows it was a significant subject of Zacharias’ prayers! Luke 1:13 … for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son). Look at the word PETITION. This is not the term “prayer” (proseuche) used in the Greek text. This is a very unique word for prayer… it is the term déēsis (from deō, “to be in want, lack”) – this is the term for a heart-felt petition, arising out of deep personal need. Listen to a believer pray long enough, and you will learn what is close to their heart. This is one of the most important reasons for CORPORATE PRAYER. Prayer meeting isn’t because God cannot hear us all from our own homes. We are told to PRAY TOGETHER, because we hear another’s heart by praying around a circle with those with whom we co-labor.

People are quick to jump to the conclusion that everyone in a service is feeling good enough to be there – DON’T. Some who sit with you are hurting physically, and this is one of the most important parts of their week – so they come no matter how they feel.

When my friend and faithful companion, Pastor Vince was dying – he related to me some of the things people told him were their excuses for being unfaithful in attendance to their church services. As his time to meet the Lord drew near, he wearied of their excuses – especially as he kept coming while in enormous pain. One Sunday, someone remarked that he looked like he was scowling… sort of chastising him. What they didn’t know was the level of his pain and discomfort. They criticized him, because they didn’t know the effort that went into his attendance that Sunday. He kept quiet and smiled, apologizing. He simply said, “Oh, I ‘m sorry, I must have had something on my mind.” He surely did – it was pain.

People naturally assume that the usher, the Sunday School teacher, and the Deacon somehow have less on their plate in terms of pain, trouble and disappointment – and that may not be true. Mature believers learn how to both (Galatians 6:2) “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” and Galatians 6:5 …”each one will bear his own load”. We grow to the place where we help those who need help, but we hold close between us and the Lord as much as we can – to allow God to strengthen us to stand with Him alone. Immature people demand attention. Mature people offer help even when they feel stretched in themselves.

Lesson Three: God uses obedience as a platform for His best work!

A big day came for Zechariah. Luke 1:8 Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, 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.

Zecharias was a Levitical priest of the “course of Abijah” (1:5)- and that deserves some brief explanation:

  • Second Temple Period scholars believe that Temple services were operated by about 7200 priests over the year. For organization purposes, they divided the priests into 24 MISHMAROT – or “guardians” – in groups of about 300, with that of ABIJAH as the Eighth Group.
  • As a result, each week about 300 priests served at the Temple – 50 each day on week days and all 300 on Sabbath. Because their were 24 courses, each course would need to serve twice in each year –to cover all the weeks. In addition, because there were three times a year that all Jews were called to the Temple, all 7200 worked three weeks a year. That meant, that a priest could expect to work five priestly terms in one year of service (1:8).
  • Chores were selected by lot – a way for God to choose specific worker for specific tasks. As a result, if you got a job because “the lot fell on you” – you knew it was as personal as God selecting you for the task. Zechariah was likely called on by lot to lead the prayers of the people ONE time in his life for the national prayer service (1:9). To do so, he donned the Turban, Trousers, Tunic and Torsel (sash), and went inside the Holy Place. Whether he had ever been serving in the room was not known, but it would not have been uncommon for him to rarely, if ever, get to go inside.
  • His work with incense included preparing the spices and mixing them for the incense of the altar – components of the consecrated Ketoret (incense) which appears in the Torah book of Exodus (Ex.30:34-36). Carefully he would have taken measures of The hour of the public prayer service (1:10). Included in the mix was stachte (nataf) – a sap that was collected from a certain tree exterior. An equal part of onyche (shecheleth)– a word that denotes either a pungent dried bit of a see creature ground to a powder and used commonly in Asian incense, or a rock rose bushes small buds. He would add galbanum – an aromatic gum resin with a somewhat musky fragrance, and frankincense– (levonah) the sap tapped from the Boswellia tree by slashing the bark (called striping) and allowing the resins to harden into what were called “tears”. Finally, SALT bound the incense together. As he mixed the elements, he no doubt wondered why God chose him to represent the national moment of prayer – since his prayers didn’t seem to get through at home!

Do what God told you to do, it may be the platform of God’s most powerful blessing in your life! In the late 1800’s Ira Sankey was very famous for being D.L. Moody’s song leader. On Christmas Eve of 1875, he was traveling up the Delaware River on a steamboat. Some of the passengers recognized him and asked him to sing for them. So, he sang the old hymn, “Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us.” One of the lines in that hymn says, “We are thine, do thou befriend us. Be the Guardian of our way.” As Sankey finished the hymn, a man stepped out from the shadows. He asked Sankey if he had ever served in the Union Army. He said he had. Then the man asked, “Can you remember if you were doing picket duty on a bright, moonlit night in 1862?” Sankey was very surprised and said, “yes.” The man looked up at him and said, “I was there too. But I was in the Confederate Army. It was my job to shoot you that night. As you stood there, completely exposed in the bright moonlight, I drew my aim. Then you lifted your head and began to sing the same song you just sang. When you finished, it was impossible for me to take aim again. I thought, ‘The Lord who is able to save that man from certain death must surely be great and mighty.’” (Sermon central illustrations). Sankey sung to the Lord that night, and his obedience to the prompting of God saved his life – and offered him everything else God did through him!

God honors obedience and steady faithfulness, even when we hurt… it becomes the platform of some of His BEST work! Zecharias could have stayed home, and sat idly – paralyzed by his discouragement. It would have been understandable – but he would have missed the blessing that God had prepared. Obedience and persistence in doing right is essential. We cannot grow weary in well doing, or we miss blessing! It is also important to note that even when we practice all that we should and execute faithfully our walk before men, our walk with God is not simply what we know or understand – it is when we obey in spite of the fact that we cannot understand how it all works out – that God really does the most incredible things through our lives. Our walk must become faithful practice rooted in trust in God’s goodness – and that will be tested by circumstance.

Lesson Four: God uses His revelation to explain His work –no amount of experience will teach us as much!

Zecharias presented the mixture of incense to the Lord. The fire of the prayer altar was carefully brought from the main altar outside. When the coals were set on the grate on top of the altar, He fanned them and set to apply the first bit of incense. Concentrating on the work, he was startled to see another standing by him at the altar… Luke 1:11 And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. 12 Zacharias was troubled when he saw the angel, and fear gripped him. 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.”

Zacharias was agitated (Gr: tarasso or “troubled”) by the thought that some priest was perhaps breaking protocol in an apparent breach of Temple purity – a mark of a mature believer is seen in the desire to do the right thing in the right way. When he realized this was not another priest, he feared (phobos)– because he didn’t know what was truly happening. The angel offered astounding words of hope. God unveiled a glimpse of His plan –  and that is what REVELATION is all about. People have questions about their lives, and God offers answers in revealed truth – but we have to listen to that truth when we hear it! No amount of EXPERIENCE can do for us what listening to His Word and understanding it can!

Lesson Five: God expects those who do His work to believe Him… revelation rejected brings trouble.

Zacharias concluded that the angel was wrong – and the God’s revealed truth could not happen. Maybe things work like that in HEAVEN and maybe things work like that even on earth FOR OTHER PEOPLE… but this angel doesn’t know who he is dealing with.

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.

It is easy for us to sink into disbelief when the pattern of discouragement has worn a rut in our faith! In fact, the key to the issue is simple – Zecharias looked at HIMSELF for the answer – and that answer was not there. He looked to HIS WIFE and that answer was not there. As a result, he concluded the answer did not exist. It could not exist. God WON’T do it because God HASN’T done it. I have asked, buddy. I don’t see how it could happen.

Look at Gabriel’s shock at the suggestion that the REVEALED TRUTH of God’s Word won’t happen!

Luke 1:19 The angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.

When we doubt God’s Word, we doubt God’s ability. We question His veracity. We challenge His  majesty and power, all because we are overcome by the size of life’s problems. When we truly see God as God, the size of the appearance of our problems shrink before His power.

The problem is that doing so leads to a penalty…

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.” 21 The people were waiting for Zacharias, and were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them; and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple; and he kept making signs to them, and remained mute. 23 When the days of his priestly service were ended, he went back home. 24 After these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant, and she kept herself in seclusion for five months, saying, 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.”

Silence came to Zacharias, because disbelief robs God’s people of the greatest blessings of our lives! All that God ever wanted was for them to believe His promises and trust that He is truly goodno matter what they were seeing and feeling that day.

That silence was more than an inconvenience… it nearly led to inadvertent disobedience. People were talking for Zecharias because he could not speak for himself. Drop down to Luke 1:57 “Now the time had come for Elizabeth to give birth, and she gave birth to a son. 58 Her neighbors and her relatives heard that the Lord had displayed His great mercy toward her; and they were rejoicing with her. 59 And it happened that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to call him Zacharias, after his father.

One penalty of Zecharias’ disbelief was that he couldn’t announce God’s blessing to him at that time, though other people could. It was only when the mission was jeopardized that God opened his mouth again. How sad to have one of the greatest moments in your life pass you by because of disbelief – but rejection of truth revealed brings trouble.

We don’t realize God’s power… we really don’t. We get so caught up in our own problems…Pastor Mark McCool wrote: “When you think that the moon is on average about 250 thousand miles away from the earth. And Pluto, the farthest planet in our solar system ranges between 2.8 to 4.6 billion miles away. And traveling even farther, 50 billion miles from the earth is what scientist call Interstellar Space, and even it reaches distances impossible for us to imagine! There you find the Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our galaxy. It is just 25 trillion miles away! (About 2.5 x 1013 miles (25,000,000,000,000)) Just to reach that star by space travel traveling at our fastest known craft, it would 81,000 years or 2700 generations! And beyond that, we find what is known as Intergalactic Space, which is the space between galaxies. And beyond that, there is absolutely no ending! Can you imaging a place where no human telescope can discover the contents of its black scape? A place where no human will ever go? Distances so vast and great that no human mathematical equation is ever going to measure it? And then to realize that God is bigger than that? Just the mere whisper of the voice of God created it all!”

Lesson Six: God’s work shows God’s character – pay attention to how the plan reveals HIM (not just details of coming events).

We stand beside the mother in the Temple. The friends are gathered close beside. Crowds come and go, each with their own purpose – but we are there for THAT BABY. What a miracle! God certainly gave this old couple something to celebrate… but it wasn’t simply a BABY they were delighting in. No – it was something else. Look at Luke 1:60 “But his mother answered and said, “No indeed; but he shall be called John.” 61 And they said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by that name.” 62 And they made signs to his father, as to what he wanted him called. 63 And he asked for a tablet and wrote as follows, “His name is John.” And they were all astonished.”

Elizabeth understood something her neighbors did not – this baby was a deeply personal sign to her that God truly is merciful. She needed to learn God was not without feeling toward her shame – He truly is merciful. John (Yôḥānān) is a shortened form of יְהוֹחָנָן (Yəhôḥānān), meaning “Yahweh is merciful “. His anglicized name is derived from the Latin Ioannes, Iohannes, a form of the Greek Ἰωάννης which means “God is generous“. Not only did Elizabeth learn of God…Zecharias needed to learn that God was not holding back on him as One who is stingy – He is generous. For both, they needed to trust that God keeps His Word and knows His plan – even when they cannot see it! All the people standing were astonished because they didn’t realize how the old couple hurt over their lack – and how much God needed to teach THEM through the baby.

Months later, Gabriel came to tell Mary Messiah would be born of her womb, Mary arose and visited Elizabeth…and Elizabeth’s words showed how deeply she learned the value of believing what God revealed. She celebrated Mary’s belief! Luke 1:39 Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, 40 and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 “And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? 44 “For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. 45 “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.” Yes, blessing comes from believing… and believing reveals God’s character.

Lesson Seven: When God’s work is proclaimed and believed, God’s people can rejoice at the way God spreads the anticipation!

The people saw Zecharias scrambling to write. They saw God open his mouth… Luke 1:64 And at once his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he began to speak in praise of God. 65 Fear came on all those living around them; and all these matters were being talked about in all the hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them kept them in mind, saying, “What then will this child turn out to be?” For the hand of the Lord was certainly with him.

They responded just the way people always do when God changes a life radically right in front of them – they wondered what God would do next. When Jesus healed a lame man at the Bethesda Pools – others heard of His power and looked for His passing by. When he spit on the ground to heal a blind man who washed off the mud at the Siloam Pool, people heard the man proclaim – “Once I was blind, but now I can see!” When lives are changed, the testimony of God grows in the hearts of men and women. When he changes YOU, others have hope. That is the power of testimony!

Fifty Christian truckers got together to pray to pray that somehow the sniper terrorizing the Washington, DC area would be caught. Ron Lantz would be retiring as a driver in a few days and didn’t even live in the area, but he felt sure that God would answer their prayers. In fact, he told the others there that God was going to use him to catch the sniper. A few days later he was listening to the radio as he was driving again through the region and felt compelled to pull off the highway to a rest stop. It was just a couple of miles from where the prayer meeting had taken place. As he pulled in, he was shocked to see a car similar to what was being described on the radio right there before his eyes. Carefully trying to read the license plate, a chill went up his back as the numbers matched. He quickly called 911 and remained there for what he said were the longest 15 minutes of his life until the police arrived. He even pulled his truck across the exit, there would now be no escape for these elusive murderers. The rest is now history-the snipers were taken into custody without incident. News crews reported it. A great testimony of God working through prayer strengthened many!

What moved the couple from disgrace to delight was belief that God’s goodness was certain and His promises would be fulfilled. God didn’t wait for them to believe to do a great work through them – for God has a few great lessons EVEN for those who struggle to believe Him.

“Learning His Real Name” – Luke 1:67-80; Malachi 1-3

It was a day like any other in the line to get into the south porch of the Temple in Jerusalem. To get there, Zecharias and Elizabeth climbed a high ridge from the valley of old vines and terraces at Ein Kerem, the spring of the vineyard (traditional home of the couple). The walk to the high hill took a bit more than an hour. From there, a ridge to the west of the ancient city was fairly flat, but the walk was still more than three hours – half a day total for the journey. Elizabeth walked slowly and carefully at Zecharias’ hand motions of urging. She was advanced in years, but the excitement replaced weariness, and joy made the steps lighter. In their hands, the two carried God’s promise.

We should mention that the journey may have been light on conversation. At least, Zech wasn’t answering anyone. It may be – and was very likely – that neighbors and friends joined for the walk, helping their old friends make the journey. Finally they arrived. They walked the plaza looking for the pigeon salesman with the perfect two birds for their shelmim – a delightful “thank you” offering to God for the baby that just a few years before they never thought they would see. They took the birds and gave them to the Levites for inspection and holding, and then stood in the line at the south porch to get a mikveh – a ritual bath. Elizabeth needed to finish the days of her purification (about a month), and Zecharias needed to complete his obedience to the angel’s words – to see to it that the boy was named JOHN. We saw before that (Yôḥānān) is a shortened form of יְהוֹחָנָן (Yəhôḥānān), meaning “Yahweh is merciful“, or perhaps “God is generous“. Elizabeth now knew very well that God was not without feeling toward her shame – He truly is merciful. By now, Zecharias learned that God was not holding back on him as One who is stingy – He is generous. Now they trusted God to keep His Word… but what EXACTLY had God promised in John?

Key Principle: God sent a messenger to prepare people for Jesus’ coming – because some preparation is truly essential to truly understanding Jesus’ message.

Listen to Zech’s words once God opened his mouth again: Everything about Zecharias’ prophecy in Luke 1 spoke out of God’s fulfillment of an old promise. It all pointed out how God was faithful  –  in spite of the fact that men are fickle. He cried out seven truths about John’s coming:

  • God should be praised – He created this blessing. Luke 1:67 “And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying: 68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel…”
  • God has a purpose  – our national redemption. Luke 1:68b “…For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people.”
  • God gave provision – a child of unlikely parents. Luke 1:69 And has raised up a horn of salvation for us —In the house of David His servant—
  • God kept a promise – men were told long ago! Luke 1:70 As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old—
  • God grasped their pain – He purposed to deliver them from the national shame and hatred. Luke 1:71 Salvation FROM OUR ENEMIES, And FROM THE HAND OF ALL WHO HATE US;
  • God honored the past – He kept an oath to Abraham and his sons. Luke 1:72 To show mercy toward our fathers, And to remember His holy covenant, 73 The oath which He swore to Abraham our father,
  • God expected a product – The redeemed are to revere Him and serve Him. Luke 1:74 To grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, Might serve Him without fear, 75 In holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.

He followed up with some piercing words shot right at his baby son – all based on what God showed him about John:

Luke 1:76  “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; For you will go on BEFORE THE LORDTO PREPARE HIS WAYS; 77 To give to His people the knowledge of salvation, By the forgiveness of their sins, 78 Because of the tender mercy of our God, With which the Sunrise from on high will visit us, 79 TO SHINE UPON THOSE WHO SIT IN DARKNESS AND THE SHADOW OF DEATH, To guide our feet into the way of peace.”

You can see it clearly – John would PREPARE HEARTS of people, PREACH HOLINESS by using convicting words to the people. He would PRESENT HOPE to the people surrounded by darkness and POINT HEARERS toward peace with God and each other.

You see, John’s coming wasn’t offered in a vacuum – there was a four hundred year old promise that a “forerunner” was going to come. God promised it, but then took His time fulfilling it. People WANTED IT TO COME TRUE, but after a time simply didn’t believe it would happen in their time – and SURELY WOULDN’T HAPPEN TO THEM. They became “unbelieving believers”. They toughed out a walk without the assurance of the goodness of the God they served. Some fell away, but most served God publicly, and wept quietly. They couldn’t figure out anything else to do. They kept hoping other people that sat near them in worship were experiencing more of God than they seemed to be.

Maybe some of them go to church with us.. even today.

You see, we are very much in danger of “raising a church of atheists” as one writer put it. He described them this way (I paraphrased his thoughts): “They believe in God, but not in any priority of knowing or believing the absolute authority of His Word. They believe in His power, yet worry incessantly and live prayerlessly. They believe in God’s goodness, yet in their daily ignoring of Him and their self-oriented life, they presume on His grace. They desire that He knows them, cares for them and loves them, but not enough to consider carefully what He wants from them. They want the benefits of a relationship without the effort.” They want a God that is part Santa, part Mr. Rodgers, part Gandhi and part genie in a bottle. In reality, many church goers want a SERVANT, not a MASTER. God’s story is great when He is giving salvation freely, or sponsoring a holiday where they GET STUFF – but when it comes to commitment to Him, sacrifice and obedience to Him… well, the ranks thin out.”

By now, we might need John to come back and get us ready for Jesus’ coming this Christmas. We might need a guys whose job description includes PREPARING HEARTS, PREACHING HOLINESS, PRESENTING HOPE and POINTING HEARERS to real peace with God and each other. Yes, it might be a good time for John’s return from retirement… but there is that strange CLOTHING – camel hair – that would make him stick out in our church. Oh, yes – and there is that DIETARY thing – that eating LOCUSTS and honey – we won’t be inviting him to carry ins. Oh, and one more thing… that REMOVED HEAD problem we will have to contend with!

Men and women, long before John was even conceived, God made a set of promises about him that set up the work of Messiah. Before we are ready for Messiah’s entry – that we will celebrate next week – maybe we should consider what God said about PREPARATION for the Holy One’s coming. The promise of a forerunner is found at the collection of the Hebrew Scriptures as we have them in English. The Hebrew edition ends with the books of Chronicles that summarize the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures from Adam to the return from the exile – like a “Reader’s Digest Condensed” Hebrew Bible. In our edition in English, the last words of God were about the forerunner – so that the opening of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John might make sense – with the story of John the Baptizer. Malachi 3 offers the prophecy of forerunner John and fulfiller Jesus – the Gospel writers pick up show the way God delivered on the promise.

Take a minute and skim the words of Malachi before you get to chapter four – because they set up the need and purpose God had for John, and later Jesus. Take a look at chapter one and note a few important words…

Malachi’s OPENING offered two major problems God’s people were fleshing out in chapter one:

First, they showed No Appreciation for all that God had done for them (1:1-5) –  Their priority was on what made their lives seem better, not the incredible blessings God had showered on their people… (does anyone know someone who does that?).

Malachi 1:1 The oracle of the word of the LORD to Israel through Malachi. 2 “I have loved you,” says the LORD. But you say, “How have You loved us?

God used Malachi to speak up and point out the answer. God mentioned Esau and Jacob in verses two and three to show His preferential treatment of their ancestors (2b). By verses four and five, God mentioned a wicked neighboring kingdom called Edom and how God offered Israel exceptional prosperity over their neighbors, and even held down their enemies ability to grow stronger (4-5).

The people saw what they DIDN’T HAVE, not what they DID HAVE. They looked at the economy and complained that job growth was flat. They didn’t marvel anymore at how much they could buy in the local STUFFMART. They much on their “Humpty Meal” at the local “Camel Burger Queen” and complained they didn’t put enough pickles on their sandwich. They stopped noticing God’s daily goodness to them – and whining took over.

Second, in addition to whining, they became personally stingy. The offered Left Over Giving (1:6-14) to God instead of giving to Him their best. Their priority was on keeping for themselves the best, as though God didn’t deserve their best.

Malachi 1:6 “ ‘A son honors his father, and a servant his master. Then if I am a father, where is My honor? And if I am a master, where is My respect?’ says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests who despise My name. But you say, ‘How have we despised Your name?’ 7 “You are presenting defiled food upon My altar. But you say, ‘How have we defiled You?’ In that you say, ‘The table of the LORD is to be despised.’

God remarked they seemed “surprised” when He noticed they were treating Him badly by cheating Him (Malachi 1:6). He told them He saw when they presented inferior offerings to Him (1:7-8). He saw when they ignored their sin and sought His favor on their plans anyway (1:9). He saw when they kept on practicing a religious service while their heart was very far away from Him. (1:10), when their religious language on top of a self oriented life did nothing to offer a real testimony, but rather confused a real testimony of the Living God (1:11). He heard their JOYLESS words when they treated His standards as though they are too difficult and burdensome (1:12-13). He recognized when they cheated Him from the best of their flocks – holding back what God wanted them to give to Him (1:14).

In short, they had become a people dedicated to God when it was convenient. When their own advancement at work was set against faithful service to the Lord – the job won and God lost. When their commitment to serve Him was set against the desire to do something they wanted to do – entertainment won and the Lord lost. Their sons and daughters saw the reality of their faith – it was something you TALK, but not something that causes you to GIVE YOUR BEST.

When I admit that God has become too small in my life, and I have become too large in my eyes – my pleasures, my needs, my wants – what can I do?

God offered a series of simple directives to get the people back on track in the rest of Malachi 2-4. John’s promise is found in the middle of them:

Directive One: Turn and face the Problem (2:1-4). Acknowledge the real problem of compromised faith –  all the others stem from it!

Malachi 2:2…  “If you do not listen, and if you do not take it to heart to give honor to My name,” says the LORD of hosts, “then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings; and indeed, I have cursed them already, because you are not taking it to heart. 3 “Behold, I am going to rebuke your offspring….

Compromised faith leads to defection of our children. That doesn’t mean that every child that walks away is because of a parent’s failure – but it does mean that SOME are. Sadly, too often we know what they saw at home. We know if we acted selfishly and in an immature way at home – and we know if we gave God our best. Let me be clear: play at worship and give God only what is convenient – and your children will walk away disgusted at FALSE FAITH, because it didn’t come from a PASSION FOR GOD. Meet with believers at church only when “there is something for me”. Sit a lot and serve as little as possible. Fill your schedule with stuff you want to become and stuff you want to experience – and sandwich in ministry “where it will fit” in what is leftover – and your children will know it is not really essential to be a part of God’s ministry. God will rebuke our offspring.

Directive Two: Take God’s Word seriously (2:5-7). After all, Facebook and Email can wait until God has spoken into our hearts!

Malachi 2:5 “ My covenant with him was one of life and peace, and I gave them to him as an object of reverence; so he revered Me and stood in awe of My name. 6 “True instruction was in his mouth and unrighteousness was not found on his lips; he walked with Me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many back from iniquity. 7 “For the lips of a priest should preserve knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.

God gave His promises (covenant) so that we would treat it as MORE IMPORTANT than any other communication. It should lead us to revere God and stand in AWE of His love, grace and goodness. We cannot crack it open whenever it fits in, learn it if I have time between work and football games, and slip church in whenever I am not busy doing something else. I am not being self serving here. If I don’t do what God has called me to do – teach tirelessly the Word of God – from this pulpit, I have no right to expect that you will take valuable time and listen. Verse 7 presses hard on my soul –and drives my study. At the same time, if you don’t take the time to worship Jesus privately, you diminish all our worship corporately. If you want a convenient faith – you will learn the Bible as effectively as most Americans learn a second language in High School. You’ll take the course, but it will leave you with the ability to “count to ten” after two years. The Bible is content, and learning content takes real work. If your study of the Word is not serious, no amount of my preparation will leave you full in a message. We must learn His Word thoroughly, and use it to inform all of our decision making – He gave His promises as an object of reverence that we should bow in AWE before Him for His goodness.

Directive Three: Recognize the need to be a good example! (2:8-9). Connect the dots between the results and their root causes.

Malachi 2:8 “But as for you, you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by the instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi,” says the LORD of hosts. 9 “So I also have made you despised and abased before all the people, just as you are not keeping My ways but are showing partiality in the instruction.

Remember, bad examples lead to bad copies! When we aren’t good models, those who follow us become even poorer representations of the pattern we aspire toward. We complain about the next generation as though someone else had raised them. If they did – we let them. We cannot change the world, but we can change our own yielded spirit to the Lord of Hosts. We cannot fix all the politics, but we can truly, really and deeply surrender ourselves to the Lord’s hand. We cannot protest people into the Kingdom, but we can pack a prayer meeting. We cannot stop godless pagans from seizing the airwaves, but we can draw the attention of our hurting neighbor away from their TV set while we pay for their dinner and laugh with them – showing them that we can converse with them even if they don’t vote for “our guy” (whoever that may be) and like our TV network (whichever one represents your belief system better).

Directive Four: Be honest about our Rebellion (2:10-17). Relationships aren’t the problem, but they point to it. They must be dealt with rightly to get to the root problem.

Issue One: Intermarriage (2:10-12). Making relationships that DON’T honor God.

Malachi 2:11… Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the LORD which He loves and has married the daughter of a foreign god.

I live in a time when many believers regularly and deeply align ourselves with non-believers. We draw lines around forbidden things and think God won’t notice. This isn’t only about marriage – it is about alliances – about committing to things God has forbidden. It is about ALLOWING what GOD DOES NOT ALLOW in my life.

Issue Two: Unfaithfulness in Marriage (2:12-16). Using people in relationships God gave us.

People felt God wasn’t listening to them… 14 “Yet you say, ‘For what reason?’ Because the LORD has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. …16 “For I hate divorce,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the LORD of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.”

God gave some men in this room a woman to protect and love – and your eye is roving. It may be roving on the net, or it may be roving at work. God gave some women in this room a man to love and cherish, but you are grinding your teeth every time you pick up his socks. You are allowing the enemy to form in your heart a reason to hold back your help – because he is every bit the imperfect man you chose. Look at verse 16 closely. Don’t just guard your tongue, don’t just protect your eye – watch you spirit… guard your heart. Don’t do less than your vows said you would. Don’t ask God to hear your words in prayer if you don’t mean the words you speak when you make promises.

Issue Three: When tolerance replaces truth – ascribing wrong as right (2:17). Perverting the truth and right values.

Malachi 2:17 You have wearied the LORD with your words. … In that you say, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and He delights in them,” …”

It is easy to agree with everyone and everything. It is easy to call the message of Jesus a message of love and forgiveness. It is easy to boil that message down to a “free for all” lifestyle that lets everyone’s opinion be equal. It is easy to play the COEXIST card. There is only one problem – the tolerance message is built on the notion that there is no ABSOLUTE KNOWABLE TRUTH. It is sweeping the halls of our schools and flying over the airways of a lost generation. It is both incompatible with the message of Jesus (“I AM THE WAY”)  and devastating (“He that has not the Son has not life”) – but many are framing it as the Christian message! Shouldn’t the Christian message be the one that Jesus Christ Himself preached? When we call evil good… God withdraws from the room, because our words no longer make sense.

Directive Five: Remember He is coming and you will stand before Him (3:1-5). Recognize the holiness of God, and His call to your holiness.

Malachi 3:1 “Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts. 2 “But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? …”

We must ask the frank and clear question: “Am I living in obedience to God’s Word and way?” Don’t try to cover the question by listing all the things you do –  I go to church. I work for the church. I sing in the choir or play in the band. I teach a class. I serve God most of the time….Last time I checked that is not the standard. Partial obedience doesn’t cut it….I know this church. We try to extend grace to people and give them a chance to work out the issues in their lives. May I remind you again that our mission as a church is to lead people into a growing relationship with Christ? Our goal is not to hand out free passes to heaven that allow people to continue to live any old way they want. Growth comes from obedience. The Bible clearly states that if you know to do good and don’t do it you are sinning. You are disobeying God. …Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “. . .it is only through obedience that you come to learn the truth.” In fact he strongly suggests that obedience itself is an act of faith. “Are you worried because you find it so hard to believe? No one should be surprised at the difficulty of faith, if there is some part of his life where he is consciously resisting or disobeying the commandment of Jesus.” (Pastor Wes Humble, sermon central illustrations).

Here was the preparing word of John to those who would hear the message of Jesus:

  • Face the reality of Compromised Faith: if no other reason than our children’s sake.

  • Get back into the Word of God: the rest of the stuff we read can’t make us what God wants us to become.

  • Get serious about or Example before others: they are reading the Bible they see in us.

  • Be honest about the relationships I am in – are they honoring God?

  • Get serious about what is going on inside us  – that quiet rebellion we let go on in our hearts.

The time when it will be apparent what we have truly lived is coming. A TV news camera crew was on assignment in southern Florida filming the widespread destruction of Hurricane Andrew. In one scene, amid the devastation and debris stood on house on its foundation. The owner was cleaning up the yard when a reporter approached him. “Sir, why is your house the only one still standing?” asked the reporter. “How did you manage to escape the severe damage of the hurricane?” “I built this house myself.” the man replied. “I also built it according to the Florida state building code. When the code called for 2 x 6 roof trusses, I used 2 x 6 roof trusses. I was told that a house built according to code could withstand a hurricane. I did, and it did. I suppose no one else around here followed the code.”

When the sun is shining and the skies are blue, building our lives on something other than the guidelines in God’s Word can be tempting. But there’s only one way to be ready for a storm – or get ready to meet a Holy Savior…and we want to get ready because the day is approaching fast. God sent a messenger to prepare people for Jesus’ coming – because some preparation is truly essential.