Connecting with God: When the Troubles Overtake You – 1 Peter 1

Drowning-SeaDid you ever feel like you were swimming in the deep end of the pool of trouble, and if God was the lifeguard, He must have been on a break? I set out looking for a good illustration of people having a bad day, and had my hands full with the number of stories.

• This week people went to a café and found themselves scrambling under tables when a gunman opened fire on them.

• Two days ago, hundreds of people evacuated their homes as flood waters took everything they owned.

• Two days before that, tornadoes swept across three states and wiped out homes, took lives and crushed everything in their paths.

We could go on and on, but if we did, we would sound just like your favorite news station…

Let me ask you something: “Were believers immune to those problems?” I know you know they were not. Because that is true, can you understand why some who lost much would begin to think God wasn’t on the job this week? I want to take you back to a time, two thousand years ago, to the day a letter arrived to some believers in the migrant camps of what is now Turkey. They were pressed by tough economics, and physical hardship. They had little and worked hard. They had come to Jesus and were following Him, but that didn’t make their lives easy. In fact, as persecution grew, it made life harder. Peter wrote them a letter in the time of the early church, the beginning of which offered a critical truth for people undergoing troubled times.

Key Principle: Troubles aren’t a sign that God isn’t leading us.

In trouble, God offers grace to build our faith. Let’s look at five encouragements that will help us understand more about that work:

Encouragement #1: God has more for you than you may be able to see from where you are (1:1-2).

Even if you don’t have any “permanent feeling” home here, you are not a mistake. You were chosen by God, saved by His Son and set apart by His Spirit:

The truth is this life may not show His goodness obviously all the time…

1 Peter 1:1 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia…

Some believers speak of blessing as though it is always measured by comforts and bank accounts. That isn’t true. God IS blessing us even when troubles rise and 401K’s sink. You cannot judge a book by its cover, nor a believer by the shell of their body and physical circumstances.

Mature believers are called to see the life of the Spirit of God, and measure blessing by the goodness of our Father. Peter told them: “Surely, you are special!”

1 Peter 1:1b“…who are chosen 2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure.

  • You see blessing in the fact that God selected you as His own (1 Peter 1:1b).
  • You see blessing in the cost to God to bring you to Himself (1 Peter 1:2).
  • You see blessing in the way God’s favor can bring God’s peace amid difficulties (1 Peter 1:2b).

The simple fact is that many believers judge God’s goodness by earth’s peacefulness and life’s ease – and that isn’t the place you will always be able to easily see it. Much of God’s most obvious blessing for you isn’t found on earth, but in the works of the spiritual world. It isn’t always found in the ease of your prosperity, but in His ability to bring peace to your heart amid the storms of life. Mature believers look in the right direction to see the evidence of God’s rich goodness to us. Don’t judge God’s goodness by physical things.

Encouragement #2: The promises of God are for permanent things and a place to truly belong.

You and I have much to look forward to after all this is over! God gave His people rebirth, hope and a permanent place to belong:

1 Peter 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you,

If you look closely at the verses, three ideas will become clear:

First, God blessed us with new life long before we ever thought of proclaiming a blessing to Him. He is initiating and we are responsive. Peter blessed God in 1:3 because God blessed all of us.

Second, when Jesus was raised, it wasn’t only a new beginning for Him; it was a new beginning for all who follow Him. Real HOPE isn’t about getting better politicians, more safety and security in our economy or even having all the nations sign a peace treaty. Real HOPE is found in what God has planned for me for the millions of ions after this short earth life.

Yes, the third truth is this: Our destination cannot be seen and charted on earth – for we are made for eternity and Heaven bound. This is the message aimed at migrants who lived with little, but the truth is the same message belongs to those who have lived with unparalleled prosperity and security. Our message isn’t simply aimed at how to have a happier life now, but how to show our Savior to a lost world NOW.

When the Christian message is framed in temporal benefits – “Jesus will make you rich and healthy today” – it is not framed in the way the Biblical writers offered it. Jesus may bless us in thousands of ways materially, but that isn’t the true measure of our message. The Gospel is about God’s goodness to men in making eternal life freely available to us – not about the number of potatoes in your pot or cars in your driveway. As our world lurches away from the things of eternity, it loses the mooring to real values – transcendent values that do more than benefit us in our time. Remember this: The best ideas of this world were forged by those who recognized that life wasn’t all about their one hundred years on the planet. The short-sighted views aren’t accurate ones here.

Note the way Peter described the inheritance that each believer was promised as he wrote to these migrant workers who passed through the earth leaving barely a scratch when they were gone. He called the inheritance by four words that come from a cloth merchant’s vocabulary:

First, it is “imperishable”: From a Greek word aphthartos: which meant “undecaying”. The immaterial nature of Heaven is such that there will be no “home maintenance” necessary. DIY centers aren’t a Heaven thing; they are for the earth, because things here are constantly perishing. Migrant owned little, but keeping a garment that didn’t fray, tear or simply fall apart was certainly something they understood. Your inheritance won’t fall apart in time.

Second, the inheritance is “undefiled”: From the Greek term amíantos, which means “untinted” or “unstained”. This is a term for coloring cloth intentionally, or trying to find a way to remove an ugly stain when it has embedded itself in the cloth. No one wants to walk around in a stained tunic! Your inheritance won’t get ruined shortly after you get it!

Third, the inheritance was “unfading” – taken from the Greek word amárantos meaning that it would not fade in strength or quality over time. In addition to tearing and staining, cloth can also simply lose its crisp weave and bunch the fabric in a way it looks worn out, long before it is truly worthless. Your inheritance will be as satisfying and new in a million years as the day you enter it!

Finally, the inheritance is “reserved” from the Greek word tēréō which meant spiritually guarded and kept intact. This wasn’t descriptive of the place, as the previous words were, but rather of the intentional guarding of all that was promised. In mercantile centers long ago, as now, guards ensured order. Yet, this seemed more a guardianship that had to do with quality, rather like an “INSPECTOR” and not a guard. Your future inheritance has God’s personal inspection seal upon it. He Who said “It is good!” when He looked at earth has made what comes next and approved it for us!

Encouragement #3: The same power that created all you see if keeping for you all He has promised you – and will keep YOU as well!

Peter recognized that God grants protection in our distress and promise after our testing in this life. It is God Himself who keeps us, and keeps what awaits us. He wrote:

1 Peter 1:5 [to the believers] “who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

Look very carefully at what Peter said about HOW we are protected. Don’t skip the details, for in them comes blessing. First, he made note that we are protected by God’s power. That is true, securing and important. Yet, it is the second part of the verse that may surprise you. The power of God operates through our faith. What does that mean? Since our faith is our “ability to see things the way God says they are,” God protects us by His power but that power is engaged when we take Him at His Word concerning the truth of both this life and the life to come.

Here is the truth: When we trust God and take His Word seriously, we live differently. We are protected because we make choices that both honor God and preserve us. When we recognize that God is telling the truth, we walk in faith as we were told to do in His Word, and He extends a net of protection on our hearts. We may live better here, or worse – that is not the issue. The issue is that we live better WITH HIM. We can see His hand at work, and trust His rescue more fully. The more of our life we learn to trust God with today, the more we will rest in God’s powerful hands for tomorrow and beyond.

Before you leave verse five, take note of the end. Our rescue is not truly revealed until what Peter called “the last time”. It was not of the Church Age that Peter wrote, for it was something future to him. It seems clear to me that Peter was making an important distinction between NOW on earth and THEN in eternity. Let’s again underscore that God’s full and complete rescue of our lives won’t be clear until time surrenders to eternity – and that is the way it was planned by God.

My life with my Savior is protected by Him. My future with Him is held in His power. My present day estate may show some of His blessing, but it may not. It doesn’t matter. Jesus is preparing a place for me, and Jesus keeps His promises.

Encouragement #4: Even troubles have their purpose in God’s plan for my life.

Because we KNOW God has the power and has made the PROMISES of our future, we can celebrate now for a future we haven’t seen – even when today can sometimes look dark (1:6-7). Peter said it this way:

1 Peter 1:6 In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, 7 so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ;

Verses six through twelve may not appear to do much on the surface, but a careful look at them reveals they offer SIX IMPORTANT TRUTHS ABOUT OUR FAITH.

First, faith doesn’t preclude rejoicing; we can rejoice in trouble because of our faith (1:6a). We cannot argue that we WOULD rejoice, but cannot because of our suffering. Faith looks past the body, and past this life. It measures good and bad by what praise it brings the Father, not what pleasant comfort is affords in this life. Pain can make rejoicing more difficult while faith makes it continually possible.

Second, faith doesn’t make trouble go away because sometimes trials are necessary to God’s plan (1 Peter 1:6b). Peter used the terms “if necessary” and made clear that it may be part of God’s plan. Job wondered why, and he wasn’t the last. Yet the record of his suffering left us more prepared for life as it is in a fallen world. He was seeking an answer to his situation while God was using his life to answer the sufferings of millions. Naomi wondered of her loss, seeking a way to redeem her property. God used her story to show how He would bring a Redeemer for the planet. We don’t always know what role our suffering will play in the story of God; only that trouble may be a designed part of our story.

Third, we must recognize, especially when we are in the face of terrible trials, that troubles are always temporary but faith views now that which is already permanent in Heavenly places (1:6b). Trouble focuses us squarely on the NOW, while faith beckons us to see what is beyond the horizon. The longer view always brings hope if God’s Word is true. The end is His praise, not my problems.

Fourth, troubles draw out evidence of our real view of life and create a profound testimony (1:7). The term “proof” is the Greek word dokí-mion that means that which is found to be approved as genuine after testing. Since testing is not for God’s knowledge (which is already full and complete), we must conclude the troubles of life HELP US and those AROUND US to see that our faith is genuine. Our testimony and the truth concerning our Savior is made plain when we walk in hope during troubles.

Fifth, our faith offers more than perishable wealth, for the dividends of faith are permanent and offer ultimate reward (1:7).

Consider what Peter teaches us about faith. Faith is the ability to see as Heaven sees, to believe what God says no matter how much the clutter of temporal troubles is obstructed and our fallen vision fails. It is the ability to taste and enjoy now what has not yet been opened and cooked for our meal – because of the certainty of the chef and the quality of the ingredients. It is such resolute certainty that we willingly place the full weight of our life in trust of the strength of its claims. It doesn’t fade with troubles, but sees through the storm to the land we seek to reach. It makes trouble in life an inconvenience, not the focus of life. It helps us raise our voice in praise and our vision in hope.

Finally, faith allows us to spiritually SEE what physical eyes CANNOT SEE. It allows us to LOVE Him even while He is unseen. His effects are obvious, but His person is beyond physical perception. Faith makes the difference. We believe and experience His salvation that was long before promised by those who wanted to see what we see.:

We simply must capture the formula: love and believe Him and obtain later salvation (1:8-12).

1 Peter 1:8 and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and [f]full of glory, 9 obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls. 10 As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, 11 seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look.

Faith caused others long ago to long to see what God promised and to faithfully report on the Coming One with anticipation. It is their record we believe – but they believed without seeing the One they spoke concerning. That is the nature of faith. We believe now, we see later, and as a result those who observe our testimony benefit. As it is that we benefit from the prophetic voices who believed in the past, so shall others benefit from your belief now.

Encouragement #5: Because we can see with faith, we can navigate the riptides of trouble today.

There are some imperatives we should observe to navigate trouble. They aren’t a list of “dos and don’ts” – but the keys to passing through a storm!

First, we must discipline our thinking! Peter warned:

1 Peter 1:13 Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit… “

Peter told them to “prepare their minds for action and to keep sober in spirit” (1:13). Like driving on ice or in the rain, passing through danger and trouble requires attentiveness and focus. We must PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT IS HAPPENING AROUND US and cannot be haphazard, but must pull in the garment of the mind and not allow ourselves to wander. Through disciplines and focus on what God has said, we can get ready to move ahead and then keep vigilant attention on the forces pressing us. We are not called to withdraw and form monasteries, but to keep watch and build lighthouses. We must be informed, but not overwhelmed by information. We must be accurate in our understanding, but not unbalanced by our consumption of every subversive theory of a coming challenge.

In all this be warned: As the world presses us further and further to constant amusement, we are called to be vigilant and keep our eyes fixed on what is truly happening.

Second, we must change our perspective.

We must turn away from the whining of the world concerning trouble to putting all anticipation wholly on God’s good and undeserved favor! Peter commanded believers to fix their hope completely on grace (1:13b).

1 Peter 1:13b ”…fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

In my experience, the most informed believers in our time seem like the most depressed believers. It is hard to watch freedoms be chipped away and morality fall like a floor mop. Yet, we are the people of HOPE. We are the people that recognize that God is doing GREAT THINGS in spite of the enemy and even in spite of the Congress (smile).

May I ask: “Where are the HOPE FILLED believers of our time?”

They are not found in places that compromise of the Word. They are not in acquiescing to the pressures of a fallen world. Hope springs eternal when fixed on eternal things of the Eternal One, with a clear call to faithfulness to His way. We do not merely HAVE hope; He IS our hope.

Third, we must prayerfully and deliberately remove the mastery of old patterns of fulfillment.

Peter instructed believers to cease being conformed to the driving of their behaviors by former desires (1:14). He wrote:

1 Peter 1:14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, 15 but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; 16 because it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”

Notice the address is for us to be “childlike” in the simplicity and focus to change. Children don’t resist change the way adults do. They learn faster because they rationalize the old behaviors less.

Let’s remember: What we can set aside, we have mastered. What we cannot, has mastered us! We cannot serve God and a bottle, a pill dispenser, a need for applause and acceptance, our need for physical pleasures, or anything else. We will serve God, or we will serve self. It isn’t complicated, but it is hard.

Fourth, we need to see God as He truly is!

For many of us, God is too small in our eyes. He is out in the distance, far off and un-engaged. Peter reminds:

1 Peter 1:17 If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth; 18 knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, 19 but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. 20 For He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you 21 who through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

Believers are to conduct themselves on earth in reverence to God for Who He is, (1:17), and to reckon what God gave to purchase our release from sin (1:19). He planned a long time for our redemption and called us to believe – but it should make a practical difference in us (1:20-21).

When a believer sees the awesome power of God that is readily pictured in the stars, the ocean, the vast canyons or even the miracle of life itself – they begin to understand Who we serve. Trace the Scriptures and consider for a moment how great God is:

God possesses unmatched majesty, unassailable intelligence and consummate glory. His appearance bares all the marks of splendor of the Majesty above all rulers and authorities. His appearance follows the blasts of praise from Heaven, and His regal splendor causes those who behold Him to fall to their knees, or even down upon their faces. He shines with the brightness of the purist light – with no hint of shadow marring His perfect beauty. His truthfulness is absolute, for each word finds its definition in Him. No lie can stand before Him and nothing but absolute purity comes forth from Him. He is immense and yet intimate, opaque and yet discernible. He had no beginning, for He is the beginning of all things. He has no limit to His love, no ending to His life, no perimeter to His being. He is eternal and yet timeless. His mercy is vast but His judgment is sure. His wisdom is perfect yet His innocence is certain. He is intimately relational, expressed as a Father, Son and Spirit but wholly unified, for He is One. There is so much more, but it is captured in a small way by our exclamation: “How great is our God!”

Here is the truth: Believers who won’t set aside the things that have long beset their life don’t see God as He is. He is great in their theology, but not in their heart.

Finally, we need to see past ourselves as we walk through the day.

Peter called on believers to show practical help and care to each other. He wrote:

1 Peter 1:22 Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart, 23 for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God. 24 For, “All flesh is like grass, And all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, And the flower falls off, 25 But the word of the Lord endures forever.” And this is the word which was preached to you.

I want to close this lesson with some excerpted words that came from an article entitled: “Proud People vs. Broken People” by Nancy Leigh DeMoss. Her words remind us that when we see God as He is, we become small. When we do, we recognize the needy about us. She wrote:

Proud people focus on the failures of others. Broken people are overwhelmed with a sense of their own spiritual need.

Proud people have a critical, fault-finding spirit; they look at another’s faults with a microscope but their own with a telescope. Broken people are compassionate; they can forgive much because they know how much they have been forgiven.

Proud people are self-righteous; they look down on others. Broken people esteem all others better than themselves.

Proud people have an independent, self-sufficient spirit. Broken people have a dependent spirit; they recognize their need for others…

Proud people are self-protective of their time, their rights, and their reputation. Broken people are self-denying.

Proud people desire to be served. Broken people are motivated to serve others…

Proud people desire self-advancement. Broken people desire to promote others.

Proud people have a drive to be recognized and appreciated. Broken people have a sense of their own unworthiness; they are thrilled that God would use them at all…

Proud people feel confident in how much they know. Broken people are humbled by how very much they have to learn.

Proud people are quick to blame others. Broken people accept personal responsibility and can see where they are wrong in a situation…

Proud people don’t think they have anything to repent of. Broken people realize they have need of a continual heart attitude of repentance.

Proud people don’t think they need revival, but they are sure that everyone else does. Broken people continually sense their need for a fresh encounter with God and for a fresh filling of His Holy Spirit. [Excerpted from].

Peter reminded us of an important truth: Troubles aren’t a sign that God isn’t leading us. His saving grace should make us both celebrate His goodness, and prepare us for difficult times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Setting of the Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Naming and Circumcision (Eighth day)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Pidyon Haben” of Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Tahorah” of Mary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simeon’s Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anna’s Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider the way Dr. Luke shared her story:

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

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

A God of Invitation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Young Woman of Character

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Task of Incredible Magnitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zechariah’s name means “Yahweh remembers.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Bible story after another makes that point:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Savior Is Born: “Christmas Celebration” – Luke 1-2

christmas-shoppingI can’t be the only person who gets annually bothered by how early Christmas décor is placed in some public places like shopping malls and department stores. After all, though I love Christmas time, I have found myself on occasion feeling like the Thanksgiving turkeys haven’t even lost their “oven glow” before sprigs of holly were going up over the doors in the local shopping mall! I don’t think it is a complete coincidence that Christmas in America has become filled with a holiday spirit that seems so well suited to the marketplace…

I wonder: “Have you noticed how people celebrate Christmas these days?”

Thinking about it, it appears not everyone does it the same way. It seems…

Some people celebrate by shopping. That’s the truth! They live for the opportunity to scan the malls, pick through the piles of goods, and fight their way forward with bargains. They supposedly do it for the gifts they give and the ones they love – but their happiest moments don’t seem to be beside the tree on Christmas morning, but in the hustle, bustle and even the tussle of the shopping. Increasingly, there is quantitative evidence that some American “check out” counters on “Black Friday” appear in store security cameras to imitate “Federation Wrestling smack-down” bouts. If you love to shop for everything from air guns to cheese wedges, there is no better season in our beloved western culture than the Christmas season to get a new sense of holiday “joy”.

Some people seem to celebrate family more than anything else at this time of year. Honestly, if you listen to some talk, they don’t seem to have much “Jesus” in the season. Their excitement sounds more like it is an opportunity to see the children and grandchildren packed into their house, trying to discern the true ingredients of a Christmas fruitcake. Maybe it was the movies that made us think this was what Christmas truly was – a time for Bob Cratchett to come home with Tiny Tim on his shoulder and watch the little ones spying the pot for the Christmas pudding.

The “family Christmas” folks love the thought of people getting together around a sumptuous meal set by a well-ornamented tree. They can almost smell the fire in the fireplace and hear the crackle of the logs. In their mind’s eye, children are laughing with delight, playing with that little toy that captivates them. That is their Christmas dream, a bit of “Currier and Ives meets a Hollywood dream sequence.” Ask anyone in the Smith extended family, and you will hear that it seldom actually looks anything close to that, but it is the dream nevertheless. Christmas seems to offer the unwritten expectation for the family to gather and spend time together, teens willing or not. Jesus may not get invited, but old uncle Harry surely will.

Some people celebrate tradition. Sappy people (like me) watch the same Christmas specials, year after year, as if Marley might show up this year in a better mood, or the Grinch’s heart might not grow fast enough for him to save the sleigh of stolen goods from utter destruction. We KNOW what the stories are, so why do we watch them? The short answer is this: we like the nostalgic feeling of a traditional holiday. After all, much of life is swiftly changing. Everyday my computer tells me to update to Windows 10, because it is so much better than the version I paid them for already. I resist. I don’t like change, and I don’t trust companies that keep pushing out products only to update them the next month. I like the familiar, and so I like the traditions.

I love the smell of a Christmas tree. I like to see lights hung outside as I drive through our festive neighborhoods. I look forward to the jingle of the bells and smell of the cookies. People like me love the warmth of each of our Christmas traditions.

I have also noticed that some people don’t seem to celebrate Christmas much at all; it is more like they “endure” it. Not long ago I read:

“Harried by the holiday, a woman stepped onto an elevator filled with shoppers as she struggled to hold both her bags and her children and sighed, “I think the one that started this whole Christmas thing should be found and shot!” A few snickered, but in the quietness someone from the back of the elevator exclaimed, “No worry, ma’am – they already crucified Him long ago!”

With the idea of “celebration” in mind, let me ask another question: “What SHOULD the celebration be like for Christmas when we think about it from God’s Word?”

Key Principle: Biblically speaking, Christmas Day looked like “Thanksgiving Day”.

Pilgrim hats and turkey with stuffing aside, the original celebration of God’s gift of Messiah was met (by those who knew) by a celebration filled with thankfulness! It was neither solemn, nor tradition-laden. When God sent His Son to put on human skin, the world was interrupted by an invasion from the Heavens – and those who recognized the event couldn’t help but cry out words and actions of thanksgiving.

God promised the arrival long before the Savior’s coming to be sure, as the prophets often unfolded secrets of the story – but only in small amounts of information at a time. His actual arrival was like the “BIG REVEAL” of an HGTV makeover show, as the couple stands in front of their new home, complete with tears and deep words of thanks.

First, the Celebration recalled Promises.

Scan the Bible, and you will see the promises were abundant, but offered in bits and pieces that needed to be assembled to make the whole story clear:

The “What”:

From one of the earliest stories of mankind, the record of the “Fall of Man” as revealed to Moses offered the first promise of a Savior from the Garden of Eden. God declared the “Promised One” would come as a man to deal with Satan’s successful enlistment of Adam and Eve in mutiny against God. In Genesis 3:15 we can see the promise, given amidst God’s cursing of the serpent. He said:

Genesis 3:15 “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.

The “seed of a woman” would be wounded by the enemy, but crush his head. Man may be in league with the enemy of God for the moment, but the Promised Ruler would one day decisively change the whole battle. Notice carefully that the MEANS of arrival was MIRACULOUS SEED was “of the woman”, not the more customary reference to the male contribution to a child’s formation in the womb. This Promised One was not from man, but supplied to the woman by God alone. Mary needed no man for the Spirit was completely capable to supply the needed DNA material. 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.” The miraculous means was certainly something to celebrate!

The “Where”:

Continue to scan the books of the Hebrew prophets and you will find many references to that Promised One. The reference to the PLACE where Messiah would be born – a tiny village in an obscure province – was proclaimed by Micah the Judean prophet:

Micah 5:2 records: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Elsewhere, God stated that Messiah would work in a specific geographic area away from His birth place:

Isaiah 9:1 promised: “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan— 2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned…6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…7 …The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this…” Messiah, though born in Bethlehem, was assigned to live and work in the region of the Galilee, where Zebulun and Naphtali were allotted their ancestral tribal lands. These promises told of the Messiah’s birthplace AND His workplace. The coming of the God-man to these tiny Jewish towns and villages was certainly a cause for celebration!

The “Who”:

Search even further, you will find God specified the LINEAGE from which Messiah would come. Moses reminded us of a time shortly after Abraham made clear to God he was willing to give up Isaac and obey even God’s most difficult commands, that God made clear through Isaac and Jacob the Rescuer of mankind would spring forth. Again from the words of Moses we read:

Genesis 22:18 “…and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” That Messiah was longed for among Jewish women, looked for by Jewish leaders of old and recognized within the people of God as coming from their own tribes of the Jewish people is no secret at all.

The “How”:

In fact, the ASSIGNMENT of the Promised One was clearly related, in detail, by prophets who foretold of Messiah’s innocent life and violent death. One need only read from the prophet Isaiah to see a graphic depiction in Isaiah 53:

Isaiah 53:5 “But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities… 7 …He was led like a lamb to the slaughter…8 …He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people He was punished. 9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth. 10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes His life an offering for sin, He will see His offspring and prolong His days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in His hand…12 …Therefore I will give Him a portion among the great, and He will divide the spoils with the strong, because He poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

With remarkable specificity, Messiah was prophesied to come and be crushed because of the sin of others. He was to be killed in the place of the wicked, but entombed in the place of the rich. He was to be an offering for sin, but to be rewarded after His own sacrifice with great honor. He was to be counted as a criminal, but celebrated as a victor.

Surely His arrival was something to celebrate – because it kept exacting promises long made!

There are literally dozens more of clear statements like these. The promises concerning Messiah can be easily traced – but not all in one passage at one time. God expected His people to search and learn His Word, and take it seriously – but 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.

Second, the Celebration touched people:

If we took a moment to scan the Biblical account of the long-awaited coming of the Savior in Luke’s narrative, we would see a cast of characters that were each mentioned (in addition to Mary at the birth). Luke dutifully reported each of their thankful responses to the revelation that Messiah was finally coming to the world:

Elizabeth (1:41-43) – representing the longing women of the Jewish world

Since the promises were given and made known through Moses, women began looking toward one that would be used by God to meet the need. One day, that promise came true in Mary. As she journeyed to the home of her cousin relative, Elizabeth offered words of thanks to God:

Luke 1:39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home 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 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?

Luke made careful note of Elizabeth’s thanksgiving for Mary’s visit, for the visitor in Mary’s womb, and the clear greeting of this young pregnant girl as the “mother of my Lord!” There was no ambiguity of the arrival, nor of her desire to give thanks! God kept His promise in this young woman of Nazareth, and Elizabeth made that clear. God is as good as His Word – and that is worth the giving of thanks!

Baby John the Prenatal Prophet (1:44) – representing all unconscious creation

Into that same scene we are reminded that John, not yet born, also had a reaction to the arrival of Jesus:

Luke 1:44 [Elizabeth exclaimed]: “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.”

Though mom gave the meaning, the baby did the flipping. This was a cartwheel of joy by a prophet under construction! God chose to meet man’s sin need – and surely that was worth thanksgiving!

Zechariah (1:17,68,72) – representing those who needed to be convinced

It is easier to look back and comment on another’s response than it would have been to BE the person in the story. Luke told us of those who believed and gave thanks, but also of those who found it hard to do without some additional learning. Not everyone seems ready to encounter God when He knocks on their heart. The angel Gabriel told Zechariah:

Luke 1:17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

But Zech didn’t immediately believe. Because of that disregard for the Word of the Lord, the Lord took his voice for a time. When God’s people don’t give thanks to God for His goodness, they always lose their voice for a time. After he learned his lesson inside, months later he saw the baby born and wrote down the name of the child as he was told by Gabriel. The simple scribble was an expression of late obedience. Luke recorded:

Luke 1:67 [Then] His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: 68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them…72 to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant…”

Zech clearly understood the identity of the coming of his son, as well as the work of announcing another child – that of Messiah. This was a celebration of one who needed extra time to truly believe, but it was another moment of thanks in the story. Thankfulness for God’s patience toward those of us who are slow of heart is also included in the story. We may get to the party late, but with time we can learn to say thank you as well!

Angels (2:10) – representing the long awaiting host of God

The story included more than people – it included the Heavens:

Luke 2:10 says: “But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

The Heavenly armies were not poised above the Bethlehem hills to simply bring hot hits from the Heaven Opera Company – they had guard duty that night! Yet, they knew it was an occasion to celebrate. It was a time for Heaven to teach a song that generations would sing – for this invasion of God should be remembered with praise!

Shepherds (2:20) – representing the non-theologian lowly but caring

The lowly were a part of the party as well. Reading from Luke 2:20:

The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

What the angels sang the shepherds hummed – all the way to the village! They testified to what they saw and heart – but they did it with the ring of celebration, praise and awe. Even those the world discounts can learn the song of the Almighty. God didn’t make the important people and forget the lowly – He is Father of all. A thankful response poured from those who felt undeserving, but knew they were the selected messengers of God.

Simeon (2:28) – representing anxious believing Israel

The thankful story poured out, not only on the day of His arrival, but on Jesus’ first arrival at the Temple, eight days later. Arriving to name the child at His circumcision, an old man took the child from Mary’s arms:

Luke 2:28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: 29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”

An old man saw God’s promise realized – the promise he awaited for years and his people awaited for centuries. The right response was thanks because God keeps His personal commitments – and Simeon had one from the Creator. How could he do anything but thank God for His faithfulness?

Consider what we have heard: God touched those who believed His promises. He changed those who didn’t believe at first, but later saw them come true! He taught songs to the lowly from the host of Heaven and confirmed truth outwardly that He had promised in an old man’s heart. It is true, the celebration recalled promises. It is also true the celebration touched lives. It is worth remembering one more thing as we come to the Christmas season this year…

The celebration taught people critical lessons that helped them trust God more.

Inside Luke’s assortment of characters are some women who needed to experience God’s work and learn of His character in a profound way. God snatched away their plans for life and gave them an experience they could not have anticipated. He did it by derailing and interrupting. Why was it important to recall their stories in the text?

Perhaps there is a point we need to remember. God may do His best work in us by disrupting and re-directing our steps…

Interrupted lives

Consider two women who had no idea what God had planned when they started life’s journey. Neither knew their names would be so well remembered in the generations to follow. Neither could imagine how many times their faces would be imagined by painters, sculptors and cutters of stained glass. These women humbled and used by God in the story – and they learned how to join in the CELEBRATION even when God detoured their plans.

Mary learned to recognize the character of God in a new way (Luke 1:48-56).

Consider what Luke 1 tells of Mary’s lesson, given in song. To understand the song, we need to set it in the context of the narrative…Think of Luke 1 as a six-part story:

• First, there was a 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.

• Second, in Luke 1:5-7 the parents of John the Baptizer were introduced with their background information.

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

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

• Fifth, Luke 1:39-56 offered the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, together with the exclamations of “The Magnificat” – where we are going to look in just a moment.

• Sixth and finally, Luke 1:57-80 closed the chapter with the story of John’s birth and naming, when Zacharias’ mouth opened in praise.

Go back for a moment to Luke 1:39-56 records the journey of Mary to Elizabeth, and the fabulous “Magnificat” of Mary. Look what she learned about God…

Luke 1:46 And Mary said: “My soul exalts the Lord, 47 And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. 48 “For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. 49 “For the Mighty One has done great things for me; And holy is His name. 50 “And His mercy is upon generation after generation Toward those who fear Him. 51 “He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. 52 “He has brought down rulers from their thrones, And has exalted those who were humble. 53 “He has filled the hungry with good things; And sent away the rich empty-handed. 54 “He has given help to Israel His servant, In remembrance of His mercy, 55 As He spoke to our fathers, To Abraham and his descendants forever.

Mary became the mother of Jesus, but she also likely became an author and song-writer of Scripture. Is this song a construction of Luke or of Mary? I don’t know, but I suspect Mary’s pondering in her heart came out in SONG! Let me ask this…what is the SONG about?

Mary’s song is about what she learned about God!

She praised God for WHO GOD IS in the giving of the gift. That is the heart of one who has met and experienced God. She called Him the…

1. All-seeing God (1:48a). You have seen one of low rank and elevated her. Principle: No one and no place is God forsaken, He misses nothing on earth!
2. Distinctive God (1:49) God does NOT work like men, His priorities are distinct and apart. No one is like Him.
3. Attentive God (1:50). God observes and recalls those who are faithful in their worship and walk. Her song warns – be not weary in well doing!
4. Innovative God (1:51a). God is not limited to the options we can see or even conceive of! (God loves to make surprise endings!) He can and does reverse the normal order of things!
5. Just and Gracious Judge (1:51b-52). God is ready to bypass those who are proud but elevate those of humble estate.
6. Merciful God (1:53). God fills those who hunger but have been left by other unsatisfied (cp. Ps. 107).
7. Faithful God (Covenant-keeping God, 1:54-55). God does what He promises, no matter how long it takes or how hard the circumstances. He overcomes the ages and the dark clouds. He gets it done… EVERY TIME!

When Gabriel spoke, Mary had no idea how his words would announce changes. Everything in her life changed. Her relationships changed. Her future changed. Her expectations changed. Most of all, her understanding of God changed. Celebration and thanksgiving came from a woman changed in heart, because she truly experienced God.

Anna (2:36-38) – a woman redirected

Late in Luke 2, there is another woman who was changed by God’s hand in her life. She wasn’t at the birth. She didn’t go to Bethlehem. She was at the Temple for the circumcision of Jesus. She was waiting…for God to do something in her life. Take a moment and consider her story.

Luke 2:36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

Her name meant “grace” (Channah) and her story showed how she learned to be a woman groomed by that name. If there was ever a case of God’s redirection, it was in the life of Anna. She learned: God may call upon you to reset your personal expectations to be of best use to His service. Her story touches me every time I read it.

She 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 to meet the needs of her life – and she found the ultimate blessing wrapped in a bundle of the porch of the Temple. She learned that to be used of God fully, you may need to stop dwelling on the things that haven’t worked out and the ones who have committed a wrong against you, and learn to be thankful for God’s direction and those who do right to you!

Anna was very old by the time we are introduced to her in the Word. She 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. She 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 than 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.

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.

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!

In the Bible Christmas was Thanksgiving time.

It was a time to see God touch the lives of people, keep His promises, and redirect lives to His purposes. Shouldn’t it be that time for us as well?

Know the Truth: “A Discerning View” – Romans 1

A SWAT vehicle carries police officers near the scene of a shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015. Police responded to reports of an active shooter at a social services facility.   (Micah Escamilla/Los Angeles News Group via AP)
A SWAT vehicle carries police officers near the scene of a shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015. Police responded to reports of an active shooter at a social services facility. (Micah Escamilla/Los Angeles News Group via AP)

The other day, fourteen people suddenly faced eternity as a married man and a woman, steeped in a deceptive ideology and false religious promises, walked into a Christmas party and riddled the place with bullets. Husbands, wives, brothers, sisters died in a horrific act of terror and violence in what was meant to be a setting of celebration of the coming of the Prince of Peace. Some sought to pin the problem on the guns used, while artfully dodging any evidence that pointed to the motives of those who pulled the trigger. Others tried to make clear the reasons for the killing were religiously derived. The media used its normal wedge tactics, pitting one American after another, while the Federal government seemed transfixed with issues of climate change half a world away. Frustration, blame, covering tracks and obscuring facts seemed the order of the day. When the smoke cleared, there was a story that was mostly lost, except for to a handful of followers of Jesus – fourteen people faced eternity with a sudden jolt.

Did they know Jesus as Savior? Are the families that lost these dear to them being effectively loved and impacted by believers in that area?

Those should have been the questions of believers all over social media. Those were questions on the hearts of a few mature believers – but not most of the country. While they are busy thinking about blame and motive, the people of God are called to see through the mist with a different kind of clarity – the one that comes with an eternal perspective in mind.

The problem is that the “internet age” has brought us tons of information in a steady and unrelenting stream, but has not necessarily made us truly better informed. That seems contradictory; doesn’t it? After all, more information should provide us with a broader view of the world – but it doesn’t seem to be working that way. There are several reasons that may be so.

First, not everything we read is true, because some reporting is factually deficient. We sometimes are left with a wrong impression because of a picture that doesn’t reflect the events properly. For example, I recently saw a news clip of a terror attack in Jerusalem at the Damascus Gate. When the video pulled back, I noticed the gate appeared as it did before the recent cleaning and restoration of the Ottoman features of the gate. The gate was built in 1538, damaged in the 1967 war, and refurbished in 2011. How could the video of the attack be “current” if it showed the gate as it was before the 2011 restoration? In short, it couldn’t. A news outlet was apparently using old footage of an attack and thought no one would notice what they had done. They are supposed to place the words “file footage” on the screen – but who would know?

Second, there are significant numbers of circulated stories that are intentional misinformation left flowing in the daily media stream. I doubt I need to say much about that past this question: “Have any of you been caught ‘sharing’ a post that was bogus?” The collective groans heard in response are enough to validate this is a common occurrence today. Is the problem one of telling lies? Sometimes. Other time is appears poor listening skills and poor information gathering is the culprit. Let’s face it; Some reporters are chasing a story, but some are chasing a proof for their narrative, fighting the facts to say what they want said.

A third problem with the media stream is that truth requires context, and much in the stream lacks sufficient context to make it truly meaningful. Knowing the religious background of a gunman may be helpful in determining motive, but isn’t always. The fact that they were raised Presbyterian probably isn’t relevant as to why they shot up a Post Office. On the other hand, if they entered the build yelling an epithet associated with a specific type of worship, it is likely a key element behind the heinous action that followed.

Fourth, much information flowing our way is connected that actually should not be, creating a false sense of “cause and effect”. Let me offer a harmless example. John is coming home from school on his bicycle and stops at the small grocery store to get a candy bar. When he gets home, chocolate still around his lips, he sits down to eat dinner. He pushes away the peas on his plate. His dad comments: “You ate a candy bar, and that is why you won’t eat your peas.” The truth is, John hates peas. He hates them when he is hungry. He won’t eat them in any case. The candy bar didn’t cause the response – it was going to happen anyway. The Latin term for this was: “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” or “after this, therefore because of this”. The idea is that because something follows another they are connected through cause and effect. Many times this false proof method is used on the nightly news.

We don’t lack news. We don’t lack a stream of information. What we lack seems to be a filter of discernment, and we need one desperately to face these days of confused situations.

We lack a means to sort the truth from the error in the stream, whether planted there of flowing by inadvertent seepage. The stream is not pure – we all know that. How can we develop a filter that will keep us healthy and balanced in spite of that? We need godly discernment, and we have a way to get it…

Key Principle: To view life with godly discernment we must see clearly three people: our Savior, our self and our neighbor.

Take a moment and look at the opening chapter of Romans for a word from God written through the quill of an Apostle in the midst of a fight for truth in the first century church. He mentions the three keys to godly discernment, and models them in his own life. Start at the beginning, with an essential knowledge that moved you out of the world system and gave you spiritual discernment. Here is the weft of the screen of a discernment filter… the knowledge of our Savior!

First, a BELIEVER must KNOW THE SAVIOR! (Romans 1:1-4).

The letter opened…

Rom. 1:1 Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God 2 which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, 4 who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord,

First, Paul recognized in the opening verse that our Savior’s coming was GOOD NEWS, so he called it the “gospel of God” (1:1). The Gospel is the good news that God has made a way to restore the bridge to Him that was crushed in the mutiny and rebellion of the Garden of Eden. Man sinned and deliberately walked away from God. The Gospel is the bridge, made with the wood of a cross, that spans the breach. Men and women are lost without a connection to their Creator. God made it possible to reconnect – and that is GOOD NEWS. The Savior is what I needed to bring my broken self to a Holy God.

Even more than the simple description of the news, Paul gazed upon our Savior and explained Who He is! (1:2-4):

• Jesus was the PROMISED ONE sent by God and pre-announced through the prophets of old (1:2). This was no surprise; God had been saying it for a LONG TIME.

• Jesus came with a PROMISED PEDIGREE of a ruling King (1:3). He didn’t leave a throne to USURP a new throne. He was, is and will be a King, born of a legitimate kingly line in human terms as much as in Heaven terms.

• Jesus displayed openly that He is the POWERFUL ONE from God through the resurrection (1:4). He destroyed man’s ultimate mystery – the experience of death. He walked out of the tomb, and that made His words on the afterlife more fully attested. The religions made of men have one thing in common: all their rulers died and stayed dead. Jesus didn’t.

• Jesus walked in PURITY and for that reason Paul spoke of the “Spirit of holiness” that pervaded His life and walk (1:4b).

• Paul recognized Jesus’ absolute PRIMACY (1:4b) and called “Jesus Christ our Lord (Master)”.

Here is the point: Without recognizing that man was broken long ago, that a Savior came to create a new access to God, and that recognition of the Savior as Master of my life – none of us will truly embrace the “truth” about the world and its issues.

Some will claim that man is basically GOOD in his nature, and will fail to truly grasp the deep corruption of the human soul. If you press their logic, they will be forced to conclude either that man is not truly lost without the Gospel (therefore it is not a necessary message) or that the sense in which Jesus is “Savior” is more by “example” than by “mastery” of every choice of life. They will deny that surrender makes the difference in a life effectively lived for God! (1:4b).

Without an understanding of the Savior, men won’t understand the underlying problems of humanity and the vast spiritual battle into which each man was tossed. They will not be able to comprehend the true meaning of many events on which they report. They will be pushed about by the next tragedy, with no sense of the meaning of all we experience in this world. They will fill in the gaps with nonsense.

The point is this: We have to know Jesus and the Gospel to have a basis to understanding the truth about life. Why? Paul reminded us:

Colossians 1:16 For by Him (speaking of Christ) all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17 He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.

Let us say it plainly, we can’t know our true ORIGIN without Jesus. No godless science degree will reveal the truth.

We cannot know the full RANGE OF EXISTENCE in Creation without knowing Jesus – since He is Creator of things material and immaterial. No naturalist will truly embrace the whole picture of the material world without considering that is a mere portion of what exists.

We will not understand our PURPOSE without knowing the Savior – since we were created FOR HIM. Lost men will expend themselves looking for a purpose that is not real, and will find no contentment in it.

We will never really understand the COHESION of all things without the Savior – since He is the One Who holds all things together.

To know Christ is the beginning of knowing the truth about our world and our sojourn on earth. To attempt to explain the cosmos apart from its Creator isn’t education, it is mere promotion of continued dark delusion.

Second, to discern the truth, a BELIEVER must KNOW their identity in Christ! (Romans 1:1,5-17)

Here we can use the model of the Apostle Paul, the author of Romans 1. What exactly did the Apostle express that he knew of himself? The text reveals at least FIVE ESSENTIAL TRUTHS Paul understood about himself and his mission. These truths began to weave much more into the filter of the stream of information he received on a daily basis. In fact, these became the working assumptions of his DAILY LIFE in Messiah as he all worked to reach out to a dark world.

First, he knew HIS PURPOSE:

Paul saw himself as a servant of Jesus Christ. He referred to himself as bondservant of Jesus – not of the church, not of the darkening world! (1:1). At the same time, he saw the other believers as specifically called of God (1:6) equally as “separated ones” (i.e. “saints” in 1:7).

Rom. 1:1 Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God…. 6 among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; 7 to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Many believers fail to serve God well because they do not believe that He truly OWNS their lives, choices and endeavors. They lay their sin at the cross, but not their wallets, their entertainments, their choices. They serve the gods of fortune, fame, power and pleasure while holding tightly to the “fire insurance” policy of Jesus for their afterlife. Their Christianity is about when they DIE, not about how they LIVE. This simply wasn’t the Biblical view of a mature believer – and still isn’t.

Second, he understood HIS AIM:

Paul knew the objective of his life: His call was to deliberately present the truth of the faith with clarity to a Gentile world in such a way that some would respond (1:5).

Rom 1:5 “through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake…”

Some believers have forgotten that God blessed them to become a blessing to others. God didn’t deposit the news of the Gospel in our lives simply that we might KNOW Him – but also that we would SHARE Him. Followers of Jesus are the possessors of the Divine map in a lost generation. Some will refuse the direction – and that is their right. At the same time, a great many others are perishing and have not heard that such a map exists!

Third, he embraced HIS VALUES:

The Apostle knew the value of people to God: He saw those who came to Jesus as His “called ones” (1:6) who were deeply loved by God (1:7). He was thankful for them as they continued the work of offering Jesus to others (1:8) and prayed for them incessantly (1:9-10). He knew God loved them, but he also saw that EACH INDIVIDUAL brought something to the body – Paul recognized the need for a variety of spiritually gifted people working together (1:11-12).

Rom. 1:6 among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; 7 to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world. 9 For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His Son, is my witness as to how unceasingly I make mention of you, 10 always in my prayers making request, if perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you. 11 For I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established; 12 that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine.

God’s pursuit of lost man began when Adam and Eve hid in the Garden after they sinned. They did not seek God – they hid from Him in shame. They tried to make a life that worked in the new fallen reality. They faced pain, guilt and shame with no protection – for they were not designed for these intensities. At the same time, they did not cry out to God – they hid from Him. They thought it would bring greater judgment if they stood before Him and confessed. It has been the impulse that has kept men from God since that day.

The truth is that many believers have forgotten how much God loves man – no matter how badly he is living right now. We know theologically that God wants to set the captive free, but we don’t like the look and smell of today’s captives. We love the warmth of our church tradition more than traveling in the cold to lost men and women. We value justice and right thinking more than we love the fallen man void of judicial righteousness and drained of moral conscience. We know that inviting the lost into the party will endanger the atmosphere for our children, and have the potential to “contaminate” the pure communications in our circle. There is no doubt that outreach will present new challenges and bring into the circle of believers a new dynamic – but we must remember our Master’s call on our lives. God values those still lost as much as He valued me. I may not use the language of the lost man. I may not have his attitudes. Yet, my innate goodness has not saved me, and my own righteousness doesn’t make me more valuable than the most heinous sinner.

Did you notice in the passage how Paul’s prayer life aided him in seeing the value of people? Prayer will do that! Conversely, prayerless-ness in today’s church may well be a symptom of the lack of caring for people (empathy) that has swept over today’s busy believers. We are assaulted by messages on every side. We become cynical about real needs. We fail to pray because often – we don’t truly care. That lack of caring – the cynical cold of our day – may reflect that we do not really understand the value God places on people that don’t know or love Him.

Fourth, Paul had a certain confidence in HIS IMPACT:

He knew that God was using his life and would continue to use him – and that was a good thing. Being USED was not an abuse, but a purpose. He believed that by sharing with others who Jesus is, they would come to faith (1:13). He believed the failure to reach out to people was HIS failure – not God’s failure. It was HIS obligation to serve God by sharing, not God’s obligation to offer Him eternal life and find others to share the message (1:14-15).

Rom 1: 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented so far) so that I may obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles. 14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. 15 So, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

Isn’t it impressive how Paul really believed that God would use him if he would just continue to walk with Jesus and share his faith? Where do we hear such confidence, even among believers today? Have we lost sight of the power of God to save people? Do we believe that God has left the salvation business? Is sin too powerful for God’s forgiveness as sinners wax bold in their wickedness? Was God more interested in reaching the lost during days when the sins were “smaller”?

Almost instinctively we know that God is still in the saving business, and in the end He stands victorious over all challengers. No sin is bigger than His love. No filth scares the Father. He can and will save lost men and women. He WANTS to. He desires to allow US the thrill of seeing His mighty power in the Gospel change people as they surrender. He ALLOWS us to participate, and then WAITS on us to do what He has called us to do – with grace, love and a winsome spirit reach out to those who seem unlovable.

Fifth, he stood with HIS RESOLVE:

He knew he could not trust his natural eyes to see spiritual things the way they truly are. God’s righteousness is not revealed simply in the eyes of the flesh observing the fallen world. Those whose account has been settled before God (“the just”) make their life choices based on God’s view of things (not what their natural eye concludes – 1:16-17).

Rom 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.”

Far too many believers suffer from SPIRITUAL OPTHALMOLOGICAL difficulties – they haven’t learned to see things through the eyes of a Biblical world view (the Biblical idea of faith is seeing it as God says it is!). Instead, they are depressed by the dark world and its claims. They are angered by their encroachment on our families, our way of life. They claim that Heaven follows this life and then mourn incessantly when a believer is taken from this world to be with the Savior. They even angrily fight with God about “their loss” with little view to their beloved’s gain! They can’t see things as God says they are while grasping tightly to the world’s things as though they were things that last. As a result – their outreach is dulled and their life lacks real spiritual power.

Paul could not be counted among such ranks. As a mature believer, he demanded of himself that his thinking be shot through with Biblical understanding. He drew God’s heart from God’s revelation of Himself. He measured the WORLD based on the WORD – not on any other basis or source. That offered him a great amount of peace in troubled times, and kept him from straying into the paths of wrong values.

Paul knew Jesus, but he also knew who he was in Christ and that made him BOLD, CONTENT and PURPOSED.

Third, a BELIEVER must BE BRUISED BY KNOWLEDGE OF THE WORLD around him! (Romans 1:18-32).

Romans 1 offers an elegant description of the darkened world – AND IT IS A PAINFUL ONE TO BEHOLD. The words offer a window into FOUR REALITIES of the lost world that every believer lives in.

FIRST, they stand clueless before the brink of destruction:

Paul saw the wrath of God (His consistent principles) demanded certain results from their causes (1:18). Greater and greater violation came from suppressing truths God planted in and around them (1:19-20).

Rom 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.

Don’t forget: Biblically speaking, cause and effect is a “God thing”. His wrath (Greek: “orge” is impassioned response) is the obvious result of the deliberate suppression of truth in the lives of people that want to rule themselves rather than follow Him. God knows men can discern clearly: “If there is no God, there are no external standards.” Atheism licenses man to become a law unto himself. Huxley’s rationale that evolution removed all restrictive sexual boundaries seems very much in view here.

A mature believer must take into account that generations of such rejection has left us with some who are entirely unable to see anything offensive or abhorrent in their avowed amorality – the notion that “whatever they feel like is right” is one deeply rooted within. We cannot blame them for every increment of their arrival to that destination – for the wrath of God is very much at work within and without. We must not excuse sin, nor should we work hard to become more and more indignant with the sinner. We must see them as ensnared and offer help as such. If they refuse our help, then they will need to live without it. We should love the sinner, because we are sinners as well.

Second, they are largely unaware of the weakness of THEIR SYSTEM:

It is one thing to be on the brink and know it; it is another to be there cluelessly repeating the same errors over and over. Paul saw that rejection of God was leading to a certain result of empty thinking – forcing a view of WISDOM from the foolishness of the fleshly world (1:21-23).

Rom 1:21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.

Paul identified a progression in the generations of rebellion:

• They knew there was a Creator God, but denied Him the right to rule over them.
• They built up a series of empty or baseless arguments (dialogismos) to support their foregone conclusions.
• Their godless heart obscured truth.
• They replaced study rooted in truth with an unending search based on the wrong premises – rooted in the physical world.

Third, they are driven by endless and insatiable desires:

Paul saw the driving force behind the further march into darkness was the hunger for depravity that came from rejecting His Lordship over them (1:24-28).

Rom 1:24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. 28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper,

With the full weight of their rebellion now pitched to gain “insights” based on principles of their own making, God delivered them over to what they yearned for – a “no rules but what I want” world they could BOTH do wrong and justify themselves as guiltless within. This process not only let them arrive at the wrong conclusions, but soothed any sense of guilt – because it was steeped in studies and arguments that were set upon the same false premises as they were living.

The simple truth is: No God, no ruler. No ruler, no moral wrong answers. Left with no absolutes rooted in a personal Creator, anything could eventually be academically justified, and then “morally mandated”.

Fourth, they were desensitized and did not recognize the moral spiral that appears “obvious” to a believer:

Paul saw the end working of a society marching toward freedom without responsibility – an all-pervading selfishness (1:29-31). The brazenly selfish society was quickly lacking the ability to accept any moral principle (1:32). Listen to this part of the text from “The Message” Paraphrase and see if you can envision some place in our society:

Rom. 1:28-32 “Since they didn’t bother to acknowledge God, God quit bothering them and let them run loose. And then all hell broke loose: rampant evil, grabbing and grasping, vicious backstabbing. They made life hell on earth with their envy, wanton killing, bickering, and cheating. Look at them: mean-spirited, venomous, fork-tongued God-bashers. Bullies, swaggerers, insufferable windbags! They keep inventing new ways of wrecking lives. They ditch their parents when they get in the way. Stupid, slimy, cruel, cold-blooded. And it’s not as if they don’t know better. They know perfectly well they’re spitting in God’s face. And they don’t care—worse, they hand out prizes to those who do the worst things best!”

Paul made clear the steps into darkness:

• Don’t take God and His Word seriously, and wink at injustice and ungodly logic.

• Blame God for making thing so unclear and hiding from us – even when you know it isn’t true!

• Dismiss serving God and actively take His place as the Lord of our desires.

• Find experts that will espouse the truth you made up.

• Allow any practice that matches what people want, no matter how costly to the society and how perverted it once seemed.

• Create one golden rule: Do what feels good to you – not what makes sense for society or fits what has been in the past.

• Open the flood gates as the values of the society plunge into darkness.

A mature believer can see through the veil and recognize the world’s system as empty and bereft of the truth of things. God knows what is real. Every other system will come to nothing. I must understand the world I live in.

While the world gets transfixed on blame and cover-up, with politicians and media pundits chasing a narrative and not a story, followers of Jesus look past the fray and find clarity in the One Who is Truth. That settles them. That offers them hope. That beckons them to involvement.

The people of God were more concerned about the lost souls than the wicked motives – because they saw each life and recognized they needed to meet Jesus.

If that didn’t occur to you, then you got distracted. You fell into the blame and anger trap. You may still be there. Here is the way out…

To view life with godly discernment we must see clearly three people: our Savior, our self and our neighbor.

Confident Christianity: “The Gracious Divide” – 1 Corinthians 8-10

great crossing-the-divideAs a Shepherd and Bible teacher, I can tell you that one of the truths for which I am most thankful is this one: An unchanging Holy God has given much direction about traveling life’s journey. We need not live in clueless uncertainty concerning morality, family, integrity or purity – along with a host of other issues. We can learn the precepts of the Word, and deliberately live a journey whose end is joyfully falling into our Father’s arms for life after this life. His Word is not brief; some truncated index card collection of “how to” instructions that are short on detail.

Don’t be misled by those who try to tell you that God gave tons of detail but never intended His people to actually follow Him by observing what He said. Some argue, for instance, the Law was given to Israel, merely to show people they cannot keep the Law – as if God was on some busywork creative writing exercise that had no real purpose but to prove to men how inept and sinful we are. That isn’t true. The Torah says it was given to be observed:

Deuteronomy 30:11 “For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ 14 But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.”

Increasingly, modern believers treat God’s Word the way our schools have treated sexual purity – “It is WAY beyond what we can expect students to abide by, so we must teach them safe ways to do what they should not engage in.” That kind of thinking isn’t Biblical, but it is invading the hearts of believers. If people are trained to believe the rules do not apply to them, the rules become meaningless. I suspect we can agree that purity standards have nearly reached that point in modernity.

Let me say it plainly: God made standards that were right. When we ignore them, we hurt ourselves and hurt our walk with Him, period.

Now, when we take the Bible as a whole, not all of it is a RULE BOOK. In fact, we recognize a small part of the Bible is about finding God – sections about salvation and rescue from sin. Many spend all their time in those passages, but on the whole, the greater balance of the chapters in the Bible are about specific points of truth to help each of us in our journey of following God.

The section for this lesson from Scripture offers something just a bit unusual. It offers direction to believers about handling our brothers when expressing OPINIONS that are not specified truths of Scripture – but rather our best personal conclusions concerning some issue we embraced by connecting the principles of scripture as we individually understand and apply them to daily life.

It is possible that some of our most dearly held conclusions are not universally embraced by other believers – particularly about participation in activities that some found acceptable and others do not.

In 1 Corinthians 8-10 God laid out some “ground rules” about expressing our liberties in Christ, and living in an inoffensive way with one another in spite of what are sure to be disagreements. Let’s say it this way:

Key Principle: God offered proper ways for believers to disagree on issues of liberty and opinion.

Paul made a simple point that must be understood, renewed and restated to every generation of believers when he spoke about things for which we have differing opinions: The welfare of our brothers and sisters should be more important than our argument unless the argument is about eternal truth clearly stated in God’s Word. Our opinions, especially about personal license issues, must not be more important to us than our family in Christ. Unless you are defending clear principles of the Word, we must recognize that if winning the argument is more important than genuinely helping our brother – something is wrong with our heart. Even closer, we can be right on the issue but destructive to God’s bigger purposes for His people. Being right about an issue isn’t the only criteria for pleasing God.

Fortunately, even before Paul’s instruction, Jesus offered principles by example. From the beginning, followers of Jesus came from differing places in the political spectrum. Matthew was a tax collector. Simon the Zealot came from a party that saw tax collectors as collaborators with the oppressive pagans of Rome. Surely there were camp fire discussions Jesus had to settle with stern looks or clear words. When people get on some subjects, it seems there are no simple ways to quiet them – and some will not be distracted from making their point.

Politics seems to be one of those subjects that have a way of polarizing people in our time. Each side of a debate seems to have its own media outlets, its own talking points, and (worst of all) its own “set of facts”. In the first century, the “issue du jour” wasn’t terrorism, liberalism or climate change – it was about meat that was offered in front of an idol at the “macellum” – the food market – and then sold at a discount to shopper. Some believers thought the mere association of the meat with a pagan altar violated Christian truth – like a Christmas tree that came from a pagan practice. Others didn’t agree and thought that God left the choice to get cheap meat to them.

Doubtful things, like the “meat offered to idols” are those things that some associate with a lifestyle that is characteristic to non-believers. It is not that which has been specifically prohibited by God for a believer, it is that which is “guilt by association”. Gentiles believers were instructed to leave idolatry to follow Jesus (Acts 15), and some made the prohibitions about the meat, and not about the idolatry. The issue was not meat in God’s eyes, for He created the meat!

When I first came to Christ, I was told that Jesus hated drum sets. He couldn’t stand them. He especially hated them if you played them with long hair. I got my hair cut, gave up drums and got rid of them. Now I speak in front of a drum set on the platform of a local church. I have scanned the Scriptures and found that Jesus did NOT hate drums, the culture of believers in the time and place where I grew up hated drums and thought surely Jesus agreed with their ideas.

I don’t think they meant to do wrong, but they misrepresented Jesus. They added words to God’s Word and I believed them until I found out they weren’t in the Bible. They could have gotten me to do things another way – but I suspect they didn’t know how. Let’s see what the Bible says about handling things we don’t all agree on…

General Principles

First, God offered general principles in the beginning of 1 Corinthians 8:1-9. We looked at these last time, but let’s remember… When dealing with things that are not clearly expressed in Scripture, there are some thoughts we need to keep in mind:

• We all have opinions and we have come to believe they are greatly informed (8:1).

• It is easy for our opinions to become more important than sensitivity toward our brothers – this leads to indifferent arrogance (8:1b).

• If we were mature and honest, we would recognize we don’t know as much as we think we do (8:2).

• When we love God, that is what “gets His attention” (8:3). This implies that loving will win more of my brother’s attention as well!

• The argument isn’t as simple as its component parts – because not everyone can see it that clearly (8:4-7).

• My brother is more important than my opinion. Not everything I think needs to be expressed (8:8-9).

Specific Settings

Next, Paul applied the principles in three specific settings (in public where other believers will be, in private, and in settings at the invitation of non-believers) where the use of doubtful things required some instruction to the Corinthians in Paul’s letter. The three settings are:

First, Concerning Disputed Things In Public Places: Eating meat offered to idols in a Temple owned restaurant where other believers can pass by and observe (8:1-13).

Can I engage in the disputed activity in public? Paul answered it with sensitivity:

1 Corinthians 8:10 “For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? 11 For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. 12 And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.

Notice Paul wrote about two specific things: WHERE I participate in the activity, and WHO sees me when I do it.

In 1 Corinthians 8:10-13, Paul outlined the following idea:

• I must be careful about what I do if it is able to be seen by people who may not understand my liberty (8:10a).

• My care is about one who is WEAK, and will be RUINED by my participation (8:10b-11).

• The weak one in view is a BROTHER in the Lord – another believer (8:11b). The issue in the text is not evangelism, but about family matters between believers.

• My participation in public causes them to stumble, wound their own conscience and renew participation in the thing from which God has told them to abstain. When they start participating, they distance themselves from God and fall back into an old life (8:12).

• Maturity demands I conclude the weaker brother is more important than any liberty I may feel I can exercise (8:13).

Lest a believer grab the idea that they always have the public right to do what God has permitted them in private, Paul offered a whole chapter on the way he personally applied truths about liberty.

If you took the time to explore 1 Corinthians 9, you would find Paul’s argument in three parts:

• First, as an Apostle, Paul had great freedom to do a variety of things he decided not to do as a leader (9:1-2).

• Second, Paul recognized people were watching and evaluating his life (9:3).

• Third, though he had the right before God he made a conscious choice not to exercise some of his liberties.

He said he had the right to eat and drink whatever he chose within the standards of God’s Word (9:4), to marry or not as God led him (9:5), to work outside the church planting mission or to take money from that work as God led him (9:6-14), Paul summed up his approach:

1 Corinthians 9:15 “But I have used none of these things.

He went on to carefully explain that he wasn’t asking for anything, he was making a point… It came with the WORK of establishing churches, preaching the Gospel and discipling believers (9:15b-16). In particular, he worked in self-support by choice because he felt it offered him a greater reward in Christ (9:17-18). He eloquently expressed his heart and said:

1 Corinthians 9:19 “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more.” Lest anyone would think all that was easy. Paul made plain it took great discipline and restraint: 1 Corinthians 9:26 Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; 27 but I [l]discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”

In summary, Paul made clear that his MISSION was more important to him than his FREEDOMS, and that is what made him self-curb his liberties. We will fold these truths into the whole context in a few moments – but for the time being, it is enough to recognize this truth.

Let’s say it plainly: God may press a believer to lay aside public use of things for which he has private permission – because other people are watching. Mature believers will care about the mission so much, they will be conscious of leading a weaker brother back into their former fallen lifestyle. This isn’t the only rule, but it plays a great role in the public exercise of liberty.

I may be personally allowed by the Spirit of God to practice something, but I should choose to deliberately NOT make it a public issue if at all possible – in fear that I could cause a weaker brother to stumble. He or she is more important to me than my “right” to participate in anything!

Second, Concerning Disputed things in the privacy of our own home: Purchasing meat that may have been offered to idols for private consumption from the public meat market (10: 23-26).

What of our private lives, then? If God has given us His Spirit and discernment, can we not have freedom in our private lives to do things that we limit from view of any weaker brother? Watch how Paul began with principles, and then moved to applications.

The Principles (10:1-22)

Paul made clear that Israel was an example of the fact that those who BEGAN a walk with God and experienced His rescue, didn’t all please Him. In fact, most didn’t (10:1-6).

He offered a word of “caution” based on Israel’s example, that hungers to do what the world was doing often led the people in the wrong direction at critical points of their journey (10:7-8). He cited the hungers in areas of sexual morality (10:8-9), complaining spirits (10:10) and personal pride (10:11-12).

He noted that God provided other ways to avoid falling into the age old traps of temptation, but they required paying attention to our walk, disciplining our desires and staying away from lifestyle choices of compromise (10:14-22).

Many believers don’t seem to really get the point of favoring distance from the world’s temptations in areas of Christian liberty. They think that liberty allows them opportunity, so they suspend any other faculty that would warn them to avoid private participation in these slippery areas. They keep leaning further and further into activities which have led others toward a fall in the past. Think about it: Wisdom demands that we discern carefully where participation may lead us PRIVATELY. Just because no one else sees what we do doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous to participate. We aren’t as strong as we think we are, and we aren’t free of the spiritual forces of the world like we pretend we are. We are tempted. We will be tempted. We need to be careful. As with our spiritual “older brother” Israel most fellow followers of God won’t take such care, but that is no excuse to silence God’s conviction in us. We need to listen to His warnings.

Application Standards of Private Participation (10:23-25)

Paul tuned inward and made clear some standards he used when governing his participation in disputed things:

1 Corinthians 10: 23 All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. 24 Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor. 25 Eat anything that is sold in the meat market without asking questions for conscience’ sake; 26 FOR THE EARTH IS THE LORD’S, AND ALL IT CONTAINS.

He offered four standards:

• “The Profit” standard: Just because I am allowed does not mean it will help me become what God wants me to be (10:23a) – and that is my goal.

• “The Strengthening” standard: Because I can do this, it may not help me grow strong in the Lord or help me offer strength to others (10:23b).

• “The Humility” standard: Though I can do this, will it help me to appreciate others more, or is it all about me? (10:24).

• “The Peacefulness” standard: I should not go on a “witch hunt” to find trouble and connections to trouble, for God has graciously cared for my life and given good things! (10:25-26). If I don’t knowingly engage in it, I shouldn’t worry about it.

When I am considering personal participation in things that are disputed among believers, I should use caution. I shouldn’t let the sole judgment be “if I would like to” or not. I can accept the good things God gives me and I am allowed to privately use them, but I must measure if these things will mold me into a more godly and growing believer, sensitive to others. I should not look for trouble, but I should be careful about the effect of participation in anything that won’t help me grow in Jesus.

Third, Concerning Disputed Christian things before the Unsaved neighbors: Eating meat that may have been offered to idols when invited to an unsaved person’s “picnic” (10:27-33).

Paul moved from the setting in the “general public” and the “private home setting” to a third locale – the home or party of the unsaved in your community. Note the primary focus wasn’t on the weaker brother here (though it was lurking in the background) but of the approach to the lost. He wrote:

1 Corinthians 10:27 If one of the unbelievers invites you and you want to go, eat anything that is set before you without asking questions for conscience’ sake.

The Apostle made the point that believers are to be both hospitable and not suspicious, using our liberty to participate fully without question – limited only by your testimony for God (10:27). Yet, it could be that another brother was also invited, and he or she has a problem with the menu. Only a believer would care about where the meat was sacrificed, but suppose the situation unfolded like this:

1 Corinthians 1028 “But if anyone says to you, “This is meat sacrificed to idols,” do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience’ sake; 29 I mean not your own conscience, but the other man’s; for why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience?

Because the other believer would be offended, I move to a position of watching out for that other believer, not defending my liberty at their expense. Why? Because Paul wasn’t interested in making THAT LOCALE a place where a dispute would arise between followers of Christ. He wrote:

1 Corinthians 1030 If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks? 31 Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; 33 just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved.

Here is the point: Differences between believers should not be played out in front of the world, and should always demonstrate that people are more important to us then anything we may want to do (10:29-33). We should be inviting and friendly people, not looking for offense or trouble. We must also be careful to turn back on any behavior that is offensive in the public arena when someone who is legitimately offended (because of their weak conscience), demonstrating to them that they are more important than anything we do.

That leaves us with some practical questions concerning liberty:

In the days in which we live, some walk through life perpetually offended.

How do I handle the “perpetually offended” or the “legalist” who wants me to follow his convictions?

Paul didn’t leave this a “free for all” where we are “led by the lowest common denominator” and can only do what everyone agrees they like. He corrected people for such a spirit throughout his letter. Remember, there is a difference between someone who is upset because he disagrees, and someone who is a genuine “weaker brother”. To be a weaker brother there are conditions:

• He is a believer (“brother” – 8:11)
• He will “stumble” in his behavior because of the offense (8:9).
• He does not truly understand the item is not an “intrinsic evil” (8:7-8).

The Bible offers NO words on the legalist that are positive. A legalist is:

• One that desires to get people to conform to his code, believing himself to understand God’s Word better than the others.
• One who is strong enough to continue to act on his own apart from others “violation” of the code he feels is important.
• One that measures others by a self made set of external standards he believes to be equally derived from God’s Word.
• One whose offense is more important to him than the other person, and he shows this in HOW they handle offense (gossip, pouting, etc.)

God told us to be careful not to offend, but also cautions us not to seek to be offended easily – because that isn’t other person centered either. If we have a long standing walk with God, the acts of others should offer us opportunities to lovingly share ways to help them, not offer more venues to judge them! God makes no standard for changing to encourage legalism.

Isn’t doing something in my home that I do not do in public hypocrisy?

• No, because such standards exist throughout the Word. (Some things are appropriate in private, but not in public).
• No, but we should be careful to keep private things from becoming public because they can become a license for others to make poor decisions.

JAY NORDLINGER wrote recently in “National Review” some words about disputes on college campuses:

At Brown University, in Providence, R.I., there is a secret forum in which students may discuss potentially controversial issues freely. … there is an underground group whose purpose is to allow kids to say what they ought to be free to say above ground… The group came about in this way: Last year, Brown was to host a debate on the issue of campus rape. In one corner was Jessica Valenti, a radical feminist, and in the other was Wendy McElroy, a radical libertarian. It was suspected that McElroy would deny there was a “culture of rape.” And this was intolerable to some students, who protested mightily — in advance, mind you. … but this Valenti-McElroy debate came off. Brown had taken some mollifying steps, however. The university’s president announced that she opposed McElroy’s view — and scheduled a lecture for the same time as the debate. The lecture, by a Brown psychiatry professor, was called “The Research on Rape Culture.” Evidently, it was not enough that the debate would be just that: a debate, a clash of views. There had to be a separate event, without a debate, without a clash, without a disagreement. Also, students set up a safe space for those who might attend the debate and be shaken by something they heard. A “safe space”? Yes. This space, in the words of Judith Shulevitz, writing in the New York Times, was a room “equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.” I am not springing a parody on you. This sort of room is set up at Brown and other colleges and universities around the country. One student fed up with this atmosphere … created a Facebook group called “Reason@Brown.” You can set up three types of Facebook groups: Public, Closed, or Secret. This one is secret. … A member can simply express his views without being condemned as a heretic or villain. Without being shouted off the stage. There is actual argument… ..” Read more at:

My point is simply this: Some profound parts of our modern world don’t seem to be able to handle differing opinions.

Can we not make the church a place where we respectfully disagree and lovingly show care at the same time?

Can we not demand that people grow up, and not control the environment with spiritual “safe places” and Play dough? I think we can – and I believe God has spoken on this point.

God offered proper ways for believers to disagree on issues of liberty and opinion.

Second Chances: “The Move to Hope” (Part Two) – Ezra 10

abstract magazine series
abstract magazine series

Read the magazines and blogs on ministry today, and you will get a steady dose of two ideas:

First, the church has not shown enough love to the world in the way we have reflected Jesus to them, and

Second, the world is increasingly offended by our reflection of absolutes in the realm of morality – so we need to navigate sharing them with more care.

The best modern writers “thread a needle” to suggest we shouldn’t “abandon” any of our core beliefs, but we need to be more nuanced about how and when we share them. On first inspection, many in the church in America seem much more concerned with sensitivity than boldness, more with subtle influence than overt zeal. That is a matter of some concern for those who are paying close attention.

That isn’t all bad. I need to be reminded to be tactful and careful all the time! We must be prepared to present Jesus in a way that people can hear what we are saying, to be sure. We naturally shy away from the rude and overly blunt for good reason. Yet, there are times when I honestly question if that sentiment is an accurate portrayal of Jesus and the early church at all. I study the Bible. I study it a lot. I have read Jesus’ self-statements and His methods of ministry as revealed in the Gospels. I have walked the paths of the Apostle Paul and read every word of every letter carefully. Here is what I didn’t see: neither Jesus nor Paul seemed to project a greater concern about the possible offensiveness of their presentation to men than they did about the urgency for lost men’s souls and the need to clearly present critical the truths about God. The early church seemed to celebrate zeal and boldness for Jesus in the face of rising persecution. There appears to be a “disconnect” between the Holy Record and the modern authors.

Whatever happened to the call for ZEAL and the celebration of courage?

I took some time to read more carefully several authors in an attempt to understand what they were seeing that I simply wasn’t. What I found were several lines of argument – mostly framed by the notion that egregious violations from anecdotal Christian history should make us more careful about what we say and how we say it. Their line seems to be something like this: People who claimed Jesus in the past have sometimes been unbelievably unloving in their presentation of Him. That seemed true, so I took some time to ponder that as I reflected on a passage that is very tough to read if all the is true can be found in “syrupy compassion” (Ezra 10)…and the resulting study is today’s lesson.

God’s Word teaches that we must be compassionate, but we cannot make the world’s acceptance our chief goal. We represent God as expressed in His Word. Where that Word conflicts with our modern, ever-shifting and easily wounded sensitivities, we must still speak clearly. We cannot be driven off message by those who ask us to modify God’s Word to be less offensive to them. A message that presents men and women as broken and lost in sin was never, and will never be, truly popular.

Let us be very clear: Compromise of a believer’s call to stand for the revealed truths of God’s Word for the sake of displaying compassion to the world is wrong, for it places the world’s affirmation above loyalty to our Creator. In the short run it may make our faith more palatable to rebels, but it won’t please the God that called us to and for Himself. It won’t represent Him as He truly is. In fact, the lessening of the standards of God’s revealed will can never produce a people more sensitive to God – only people more sensitive to being accepted by a lost world. That isn’t our goal. An ambassador is much more concerned with accurately relating the message of the one who sent him than of being welcomed by his audience. Believers have to keep that in mind. We want to be winsome, but acceptance by the world cannot and must not be our exclusive concern. We want to connect emotionally with lost people because it is dark where they are – but we don’t want to offer them a blanket of comfort to dwell in darkness.

I mention all this because our passage is about a time when God commanded something He never did before, and has never articulated since. This is a “one off” deal, where God made clear that when His intentions were not followed, and people compromised on what He told them to do – the only right way “back” was to take drastic action. Remember our principle from the first part of this message…

Key Principle: There is a process to leading people from disobedience into a right standard.

How do we redirect people when they have done something God said MUST NOT be done?

The scene was one of disobedient Israelites that inter-married with local tribes-people, violating God’s command to remain distinct from such a practice. They were to define marriage “for them” only inside of the tribes of Israel. It didn’t matter what the world did, that was their God-placed limitation. Ezra came to the land, and the intermarriage was shared with him. He fell on his face before God and wept for the magnitude of the violation, and the hubris of leaders who accepted it. Last time we walked through the heavy-hearted response. We ended with the “refocus” on HOPE.

First, Ezra refocused confession toward HOPE (10:1-2).

The beginning is confession of sin – clear, broken and concise…

Ezra 10:1 Now while Ezra was praying and making confession, weeping and prostrating himself before the house of God, a very large assembly, men, women and children, gathered to him from Israel; for the people wept bitterly. 2 Shecaniah the son of Jehiel, one of the sons of Elam, said to Ezra, “We have been unfaithful to our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope for Israel in spite of this.

Talk about a place where “spin” wasn’t happening – I love the fact the verses show Ezra talking straight about the violation. He cried for chapter nine, but now it was time to be decisive.

Ezra attempted to start the wave of complete repentance. He was not putting on a show for the people around him, but rather deliberately falling before the Lord and asking him for much needed mercy. A contrite heart draws others toward God, while a self-centered heart deflects glory from God. Ezra did not wait for others to follow, but lived his life before the Lord, and others saw it for what it was and were moved.

While most people wept bitterly, two leaders stepped forward and spoke with promise and hope about the future. It wouldn’t help to wallow in guilt and despair if they could not offer the earnest expectation that people can change their behavior, and experience God’s grace. The call to repentance isn’t simply a call to an end of wrong behavior, but a call to a new shower of grace and an invigorated new walk with God. Look at the two elements of it in verse two:

• First, there is the admission of guilt: “We have been unfaithful to defining our fences where God put them!”

• Second, there is a call to hope: “God can renew us!”

These two ideas are at the heart of our message to men and women walking in error. We do not explain away the “error” in complexity and compassion – we define right and wrong with the clarion ring of the God’s command. We don’t END with the violation – but with the path to God. The path to the Holy One always leads through humble admission and a request for undeserved favor.

Second, Ezra called on the people to openly commit to difficult changes (10:3-12).

Guilt leads to wallowing in pain while godly sorrow leads to deliberate life change… Without change, hope is an illusion. Things don’t get better until people walk into God’s arms admitting they have been straying…

Ezra 10:3 “So now let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. 4 “Arise! For this matter is your responsibility, but we will be with you; be courageous and act.”

True leaders took up the matter before the country. It was the responsibility of the leadership, but the people needed to commit to stand behind them. It is worth noting that there are times when even the leader is so impacted by the weight of the decision, that paralysis sets in. Nothing motivates the heart of a leader more than followers encouraging him or her to stand for truth — and making a statement of loyalty to God’s purposes in the process.

The leader didn’t run ahead – he brought the people with him. He made sure the commitment was to God’s Word and not simply to him. Because a godly leader is not asking people to follow them apart from the restrictions of God’s Word, the leader can be bold and direct about expecting obedience. Ezra expected the people to make an open promise to do right — and any godly mature leader can do no less. We cannot sanction wrong out of compassion, nor can we make people feel good about denying God’s Word in their lives.

10:5 Then Ezra rose and made the leading priests, the Levites and all Israel, take oath that they would do according to this proposal; so they took the oath.

He was not content to simply address the problem before the people; he continued to be brokenhearted about it. It is the responsibility of the leader to move people past the problem, but that does not mean the leader will not suffer personally the setbacks of facing the problem. Ezra was a man, and as such he was subject to the pain and sorrow that anyone who counsels people out of sin choices in their life can recognize.

10:6 Then Ezra rose from before the house of God and went into the chamber of Jehohanan the son of Eliashib. Although he went there, he did not eat bread nor drink water, for he was mourning over the unfaithfulness of the exiles.

The people needed to be led to the point of decision and change. One of the expectations on them needed to be a specific time schedule. Left open ended, people are inclined put off making difficult commitments forever. Ezra chose a three-day time frame, based on the counsel of the leaders about him. Travel time, and other considerations were no doubt discussed.

10:7 They made a proclamation throughout Judah and Jerusalem to all the exiles, that they should assemble at Jerusalem, 8 and that whoever would not come within three days, according to the counsel of the leaders and the elders, all his possessions should be forfeited and he himself excluded from the assembly of the exiles. 9 So all the men of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days. It was the ninth month on the twentieth of the month, and all the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and the heavy rain.

Ezra clearly defined the expectation because people cannot follow an expectation they do not understand. It was his job to make clear the application of God’s rules. The people needed to face their wrong, and take the tough medicine required to right the wrong. Thankfully, the people agreed to do the tough thing.

10:10 Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have been unfaithful and have married foreign wives adding to the guilt of Israel. 11 “Now therefore, make confession to the LORD God of your fathers and do His will; and separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.” 12 Then all the assembly replied with a loud voice, “That’s right! As you have said, so it is our duty to do.

It is easy to read this without emotion, since the events were recorded twenty-five hundred years ago. Think about the scene. God’s command was violated, and the fence He originally called for needed to be set anew. That wouldn’t be easy, but it wasn’t optional either. We don’t get to be more compassionate than God, more understanding than the Almighty, more clear that the Absolute Light. He places the boundaries and we live within them.

Third, Ezra faced the internal tension and opposition (10:13-17).

There were some practical hurdles that needed to be considered (10:13-14). Ezra needed to listen carefully to the “push back” on the command.

Once everyone agreed that action needed to be taken, specific steps needed to be outlined in the work to make the appropriate responses. The people saw the greatness of the task in front of them, and decided that they would need more time to deal with the issue. This was not an attempt to deny fixing the problem, but a mere recognition that the process of overcoming the problem would be difficult.

Two Hurdles to Overcome

This “push back” was a potential land mine for Ezra. It is easy for the leader to misinterpret any question of clarification or problem presented as rebellion. It is important to recognize that there is a vast difference between opposition of the purpose and questions related to executing the goal. It’s important for us to allow people to explain the difficulties of completing the task, without implying that they are being disloyal or disobedient.

10:13 “But there are many people; it is the rainy season and we are not able to stand in the open. Nor can the task be done in one or two days, for we have transgressed greatly in this matter. 14 “Let our leaders represent the whole assembly and let all those in our cities who have married foreign wives come at appointed times, together with the elders and judges of each city, until the fierce anger of our God on account of this matter is turned away from us.”

A second problem arose that was equally difficult and just as potentially treacherous for Ezra. Inside the practical hurdles, some will be suspicious and insist the only plan is the original plan (10:15). A mature leader must know who stands in opposition, and when it is time to adjust the plan. I think we can understand why SOME would object to appearing to “loosen the standard” to allow more time. Some did in Ezra’s case – but not all…

Ezra 10:15 Only Jonathan the son of Asahel and Jahzeiah the son of Tikvah opposed this, with Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite supporting them.

I think it may be informative that these men included some from the list of Nehemiah 11, showing they apparently did not object to Ezra because he was moving to separate families – but because he wasn’t doing it QUICKLY ENOUGH. They were ON BOARD with the three day plan – but any extension looked like compromise to them.

Beloved, we who have been in the church for a long time need to be especially careful about this kind of attitude. When we see an issue as essential and agree on the prescription from the Word it doesn’t mean the wrestling is over. We may understand the gravity of the sin, and want to see immediate action taken. That all sounds good. When practical considerations were considered, some compromise of the TIMING of the correction was immediately opposed. Why? Because it is appeared to be some kind of compromise; but it was not! Here is the danger: These men adopted a GUARDIAN SPIRIT over the flock – as though they alone knew what was best. They didn’t. Ezra knew what he was doing. God wasn’t un-pleased with his response to loosen the time frame. Ezra wasn’t compromising of truth, only timing. He was wise and kind all at the same time!

If the four men: Jonathan, Jahzeiah, Meshullam and Shabbethai, had considered carefully all that Ezra already said and did before this easing of time – they could have trusted his intention not to be soft on sin, or allow the Word to be overlooked. After all, there was nothing in the narrative that suggested that Ezra didn’t see the sin clearly, and the remedy clearly. They needed to trust their leader – and I believe they DID when the rest agreed to wait longer.

Fourth, the leaders made a careful inspection of compliance to the rule (10:16-44).

Someone once quipped “You can expect what you inspect!” A specific process of investigation of families was engaged in order to decide to whom the order applied, and whether they were in fact following it. Part of facing opposition is taking people’s various positions and not mis-characterizing them or improperly grouping them with other views. We cannot expect people to understand exactly what they should do simply by offering edicts and commands. It is absolutely essential that God’s leaders be clear about God’s standards, then carefully but lovingly hold people accountable for their pledge to follow God – even when it is difficult.

10:16 But the exiles did so. And Ezra the priest selected men who were heads of fathers’ households for each of their father’s households, all of them by name. So they convened on the first day of the tenth month to investigate the matter. 17 They finished investigating all the men who had married foreign wives by the first day of the first month. 10:18 Among the sons of the priests who had married foreign wives were found of the sons of Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and his brothers: Maaseiah, Eliezer, Jarib and Gedaliah. 19They pledged to put away their wives, and being guilty, they offered a ram of the flock for their offense. .. 44 All these had married foreign wives, and some of them had wives by whom they had children.

Before we leave this book and this problem, it is worth noting the final verse – and the emotional pain it represented. How tough it must have been to divide homes and impact children in this way! How “judgy” and “uncompassionate” that must have seemed to those who did not follow God. Even God’s followers would find that hard to swallow. That kind of reasoning isn’t “new” and “modern” – it is as old as the rebellion against God itself. Men think they know more than God. They think God doesn’t know what is best. That was at the heart of the first sin of Eve, and every sin of men and women since. We know better. We get the idea that God is “out of touch” or doesn’t really understand and care for my needs. It is wrong, but it is common thinking.

Seriously! God broke up families with children? That just seems mean!

The truth is that many people think they have a reason not to obey a command of God that seems too difficult or doesn’t seem to take into account their feelings. We can only imagine that the division of these homes would’ve caused great pain to many people. We can hear the psychologists warning of how this will hurt the children for life, and how it would scar the land with broken people. NPR would have a field day with one expert after another who knew better than God what would be the best “for all concerned”. There is nothing more arrogant than a man or woman who looks straight at the Creator and tells Him He doesn’t have the right to set the standards, and should live with the fruits of our jumped fences.

Let’s be absolutely clear: God had no desire to cause such pain — the pain should be placed on the bearer of the sin, not the bearer of the truth. Because these families were united in a way that was utterly inappropriate, there was no way to alleviate their pain.

A recent case illustrates this point — a homosexual couple made their way into a local church, and subsequently came to Jesus as Savior, and were lovingly guided to divide their relationship because it did not conform to biblical standards. The church was not dividing something God put together, for God had never made the slightest hint that such a union was acceptable to Him. The fact that men declared such a marriage legal did not change the fact that the Scripture has spoken on this issue clearly. “What about the adopted children?” some immediately howled.

It didn’t occur to them how flawed their thinking was. They thought that by ignoring the Biblical standards clearly outlined in the Scriptures, somehow things would work out BETTER. We need to guard our hearts against such poor thinking.

Turning from sin to God’s arms is where real hope should be focused. That’s the plan. There is a process to leading people from disobedience to a right standard.

• It doesn’t include ignoring the standard – but applying it.
• It doesn’t assume we are the judge of God’s standards – but the creature for whom they were made.
• It doesn’t sound like an angry weapon – but is given from a broken heart.

Second chances with God have always been about recognizing the truth of Who He is, who we are and what life is truly about. Grace pours out on the broken, not the arrogant. It is clear that the Bible beckons the prodigal’s return – while the modern university calls on us to see the prodigal’s life needs as the “new normal” while we move the moral fences to accept their way. We must see clearly: that is the rebel’s path and God has consistently called men and women to make the painful and difficult choice to do right after we have done wrong and grown accustomed to it.

How many times would you let someone make up the rules in YOUR marriage? Would you let them wander in and out of your bed between trysts? One woman remembers the days after making the tough choice to draw a line…Someone clipped this for me, and I am not sure where it originated, but the author was a woman named Melodie Miller. Listen to how hard it was for her to do what she needed to do to follow God…

“… Unfortunately, my children were at a young age when their father left our home, and they had to grapple with feelings of rejection and abandonment. The first few weeks were brutal. Comforting my children was exhausting and added to my own heartbreak. I held my 3-year-old daughter, Emelia, and 2-year-old son, Elijah, for hours while they cried. Elijah was deeply saddened by his father’s absence, but he was unable to express his feelings verbally. So in the middle of the night, he would wake up screaming. Other times, Elijah wandered around my bedroom crying, not knowing what to do with himself, only to finally collapse exhausted on the floor. Minutes later, he’d despairingly rise to begin the pattern again. Sometimes I’d hold him in a big bear hug. Other times I would sit on the floor and rock him with tears pouring down my face. “Mama’s here,” I’d say. “I’ve got you. I love you. Stop crying, baby. Elijah, please stop. You’re OK. You’re safe. Mama’s here.” To quiet him, I began singing to my son. “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Finally, I cried out to the Lord, begging him to comfort Elijah’s soul with the peace only Jesus can give. Proverbs 31:8 tells us, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.” So I interceded for my broken-hearted children and asked the Lord to protect them from the sins of their father. Elijah’s sobbing went on for many nights. I continued to hold him, rock him, sing hymns and pray until he fell asleep. His anguish began to diminish. Finally, he slept soundly through the night. I learned some valuable lessons about God through that difficult time. I realized that God is: My Comforter: …God cares deeply and shares in my sorrows. God sees my trouble and knows about the anguish of my soul (Psalm 31:7). Just as I shared the pain for my boy’s broken heart, my heavenly Father felt the pain of mine. I need to remember to crawl into my Daddy’s lap when I feel helplessly alone.

I got only a small portion of her story, but it is one I have heard countless times. He plays around, and she doesn’t want to show him the door, but that day comes. She grows distant and he discovers she is in an affair with a guy at work…. Sometimes the person who draws the line in the sand feels like THEY are the one breaking things…but that isn’t so. They are calling their partner back to what God designed for marriage – not the nonsense and games some people prefer to call a life together.

Ezra stepped in and stopped wrong by drawing a line in the sand, redefining the terms back to what God made them. Nothing gets fixed while God’s standards are set aside…

Confident Christianity: “Sound Byte Jesus” – 1 Corinthians 8:1-9

social-mediaThis week, Jesus apparently spent much time on Social Media. He posted a tremendous amount. I took the time to read many of His thoughts on His pages. They were filled with Bible quotes, but seemed to lack clarity at times…

For a while, He appeared in favor of throwing open borders and swallowing the hurting of the Near East in the name of love and compassion. He seemed quite against any religious or loyalty test affiliations for immigrants; that idea apparently seemed thoroughly unloving and unkind. He also seemed to attempt to make some moral equivalent out of the Pilgrims that long ago settled the New World. Jesus used a number of catchy sayings and cartoons and made His point on thousands of posts. Important sources of Jesus’ thinking, like “The Huffington Post” and “Upworthy” shared His thoughts as He poured out important and pithy sayings that made clear what He thought compassion looked like when it applied to our post-Paris immigration scene in the US.

I kept reading… and then I noticed that Jesus didn’t seem to keep one track of thinking, but used other media outlets to swing in other directions on the same issue. I didn’t comment on any of His posts, because I wanted to see where He was going in the evolution of His thinking…

As the week progressed Jesus’ opinions waffled back and forth. Just as firmly stated as His early compassion statements, but supported by different verses than in Jesus’ earlier posts – Jesus started to come out in favor of careful state scrutiny of immigration when there was a significant risk to state security. He didn’t want any state to welcome people without significant assurances that immigrants did not come to bring terror or harm to the streets of that place. Jesus called His people to protect their children and His command to be inviting to strangers did not include people hiding among them who desired to bring violence to their homes.

Jesus was firm and sure on each side – but appeared conflicted. His voice became more muddled as the week went on. He was on both sides of this complex set of issues, and I felt less and less sure where He was going with His thinking. If I were a betting man, I would put money on the fact that many around the world still don’t know where He stands on the issue – even after His many posts.

Let’s be honest: Our newspapers are filled with complex issues. The Jesus of the church of the internet age often seems represented by opposite opinions from His own people – but all of them are quite sure they know what He is thinking based on selections from His Word – even though they don’t seem to agree. I notice that the opinions of Jesus’ people even seem often to be offensive to others among Jesus’ people! Doesn’t that frustrate you?

Wait, I am not trying to be cynical, I want to make an essential Biblical point. My point isn’t to present the definitive “Jesus position” on things like immigration issues of our day – not at all. My point is that followers of Jesus often can’t distinguish between His thoughts and their own perspectives on policy – and we ALL tend to speak as though our perspective is the whole of Jesus’ mind. We need to study Scripture not only to answer questions of morality and reason, but to temper behavior – especially toward one another.

You may ask: “Shouldn’t we disagree when we see it differently?” Truly we should, but we need to keep something in mind: Our testimony is most often best seen in HOW we present our differences – not the SUBSTANCE of those differences. That was true in the New Testament period on an issue – not immigration, but on meat offered to idols. THAT issue doesn’t get people roiled today – but it DID long ago. Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 8 was not so much on the answer to the problem as much as the behavior of God’s people toward one another.

One glaringly large caveat needs to be placed here: There are many things about which God’s truth is clear – but not everything is that clear, so we all should be humble when we navigate murky water. Some followers will lack clarity because they lack information from the Scriptures – they don’t know them well. Others will lack clarity because they have an emotional attachment to the problem, and see it through their feelings. All this should be expected as we work, live, laugh and love each other. Let’s humbly admit that most of settle our minds and then believe our opinion is His opinion – so we all need to be careful. All of us – left, right and center. Those on one side must be as careful as those on the other side – so that in our behavior Christ is not divided, even if our opinions are not all the same.

Key Principle: When we follow Jesus’ teachings, we follow consistent and complicated principles, not simple verse “sound bites”.

Go back with me to the first century. Strip away Islam, immigration, 9/11 and Paris’ terrorism issues and go back in time. The problem was as much a “hot button” issue as these, but needs explanation to help you “feel the heat” lost over two thousand years… The text of 1 Corinthians 8 opened with a simple line that was to evoke deep feelings of certainty and division from the early church…

8:1 Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge.

Paul wrote something that was true at the time, but not true now. THEY all had knowledge – but we don’t. We need help with the issue so we can understand the premise of his argument…

As most Bible students know, Jews had specific regulations placed on them by God in both their Constitutional Code of Law (how Jews were instructed to build a unique homeland) in Deuteronomy 14, as well as Criminal Code of Law (how Jews were to deal with the sin breaches of life before a Holy God in Atonement Law) in Leviticus 11, and only a passing comment in Civil Code of Law (Exodus 23 and 34) since they wouldn’t really have all the food choices in the Sinai to Nebo trip.

In any case, Jews were restricted as a sign of their special covenant relationship with God. As the first century rolled on, more and more Gentiles came to Christ. For a time there was tension by Jews who wanted to get the new followers of Jesus from the Gentile born community, and push them to conform to Jewish dietary and Atonement Laws – in part to get them subject to the Temple (a political reason) and perhaps also in part because they felt it would fully bind them to the God of Israel (a theological reason). Paul spent much of his ministry making clear to both Messianic Jews and former Gentiles now in Christ that Atonement (the covering of sin by animal blood) and the Temple system that supported it were no longer relevant to the wrath of God and salvation. He continued to attend special times at the Temple, because he saw great value in the unique identity he had as a Jew – even as a follower of Jesus. Yet, he made clear that Jesus’ death paid for all sin of any who called upon Him for salvation – regardless of their birth identity.

That message was loved by most, misunderstood by some and rejected by others. The early church needed to settle the crisis being created by differing views that confused the very essence of the Gospel itself. The Jerusalem Council was called, and scholars hotly debated. Coming out of the council, a letter was drafted and Paul carried the message back (along with a first-hand account and explanations) to those born Gentile and now committed to following Jesus. The letter had the following stipulations (found in Acts 15):

Acts 15:23 …“The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings. 24 “Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, 25 it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 “Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth. 28 “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: 29 that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.

Gentile born believers didn’t need to become Jews, and Jewish believers could remain faithfully kosher (since the regulations said nothing about them at all). That’s where the problem started. Several issues began:

• We can easily surmise that not everyone knew where the meat their local butcher sold them came from – and some felt they needed to do “investigative reporting” to let believers know if the meat came out of the bargain market of post offering meat outlets.

• Many Christians came from the lower rungs of society, and the meat at Temple outlets seemed to be consistently cheaper. To serve more expensive meat wasn’t’ simply a luxury; it may have cut into their daily meals by a good bit.

• Most were “a part” of a temple for years, a place for celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, holding monthly guild meetings and getting contracted for labor projects in their field. If they were forced to discontinue attendance at pagan sacrifices, and could no longer participate in the rituals that were so familiar, did the really have to leave the public house, the poppinae (ancient pubs) associated with their former temple? Did they really have to stop getting a glass of conditum (mixed wine drinks) and some meat with their buddies and co-workers because it normally served meat that came from within the nearby temple?

These were first century problems, and Paul addressed some questions about them in 1 Corinthians 8-10. We will be here for a few lessons, because though the issues are different, the principles for the solutions are identical. The point is this: Not every believer was willing to fit into the rules, and not all of them understood what they were and how to apply them. In the vacuum of understanding, disagreements evolved quickly. Like all Christian discussions, people have a tendency to take their strong feeling and equate it with the truth – even if they would readily admit they don’t really know the Word very well. Imagine how much harder it was when much of the New Testament hadn’t even been written and distributed yet!

1 Corinthians 8 can be broken into two parts.

The first part contains the general principles I need to consider in framing my view of a doubtful issue – they are found in 8:1-9 and are a part of this lesson. The second part contains the applications found after verse 10.

An Initial Warning

Paul essentially opened: “Concerning things we feel strongly about but aren’t all in agreement concerning the ‘right and wrong’ of…

Before Paul offered ANSWERS concerning the issue that was perhaps hotly contested, he “fired a warning shot” (verbally) in the air. Look closely:

8:1 Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies. 2 If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know; 3 but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him.

Essentially, there were six immediate truths imparted in the warning of these verses:

First, we all have opinions and most of us feel they are fairly well informed (8:1b) – “We know that we all have knowledge”.

A careful investigation of the ministry of Paul at Corinth will lead any student to recognize Paul was disrespected by some and even openly challenged by others. They, no doubt, would say, “Well that is HIS opinion!” We hear it all the time when believers are challenged to think in new ways. The truth is that many people have made up their minds long before they opened their Bibles. Let’s be honest: There are times when each of us has a rebellion issue within that may be “informing” our opinion.

Second, we all tend to care more about what we think than how our expression of it hurts our brother to whom we don’t listen well (8:1b). Paul said: “Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies”.

Don’t misunderstand him; as a teacher he didn’t enshrine ignorance – rather he balanced opinion with compassion. There are things God has said in His Word and we know they are true. The things Paul prepared to address in this passage concerned issues about which believers disagreed. Paul’s point was simple: Without a view to the needs of our brother (speaking and acting in love) our knowledge would easily serve ourselves, making us feel better about ourselves even when we are hurting others– and that would be a tragedy. If we must offend another, it should (as much as possible) be for the sake of eternal truth, not advancement of some personal opinion.

Ted Sutherland made an observation worth sharing here: “People who live for self, die. People who live for others, live! In Yorkshire, England, during the early 1800s, two sons were born to a family named Taylor. The older one set out to make a name for himself by entering Parliament and gaining public prestige. But the younger son chose to give his life to Christ. He later recalled, “Well do I remember, as in unreserved consecration I put myself, my life, my friends, my all, upon the altar. I felt I was in the presence of God, entering into covenant with the Almighty.” With that commitment, Hudson Taylor turned his face toward China and obscurity. As a result, he is known and honored on every continent as a faithful missionary and the founder of the China Inland Mission (now known as Overseas Missionary Fellowship). For the other son, however, there is no lasting monument. When you look in the encyclopedia to see what the other son has done, you find these words, “the brother of Hudson Taylor.”

Third, Biblically speaking, we must be humble enough to admit that our opinions may not be the absolute truth on the matter (8:2) – “he has not known as he ought to know”.

I know you didn’t come here to learn about your human teacher, but about your Perfect Savior. May I make a very personal observation? This is a constant temptation to any serious Bible teacher or avid Bible student. This truth chastises me all the time. There are times when I think I see something clearly because of my study – but in truth it is probably “clearer to me than to God Himself.” I don’t want you to lack trust in our lessons together; that isn’t the point. I need you to see that when the Word is taught, perfection is poured through an imperfect vessel. Try as I may, I must honestly admit the clear, crisp water of the Word can be tainted at times as it passes through a flawed vessel into the cup of your heart. I need you to pray constantly for me concerning this. Yet, I freely admit it, and 1 Corinthians 8:2 teaches it. We don’t know as much as we think we do. None of us.

Education helps you think and grow, but it doesn’t solve all the issues! It isn’t even close! A lot of really educated people in our society think very proudly that we came from apes, but that doesn’t make it so.

In fact, I think they didn’t hear this little poem…
Three monkeys sat on a coconut tree, Discussing things as they are said to be,
Said one monkey to the other :
“Now listen you two, there’s a certain rumor which can’t be true,
that man has descended from our noble race; why, the very idea is an utter disgrace,
No monkey has ever deserted his wife, starved her baby and ruined her life,
and you have never known a mother monk, who will leave her babies with others to bunk,
and passing them off from one to the other; till those poor babies hardly know which one was their mother,
and another thing a monk won’t do, is to go out at night and get on a stew, and use a club, a gun, or a knife, to take some other monkey’s life,
……yes, man descended the noble cuss, but hey brother monkey, HE DIDN’T DESCEND FROM US!” (By Adlai Naidoo).

I love that! It reminds me that being educated doesn’t mean being right. A little humility about life is called for by God.

Fourth, whatever position we take on any opinion, it should be rooted in our love of God and our identity as His child (8:3) – “he is known of Him”.

Be humble, but don’t wallow in self-loathing. You can know many things, and you and I will become, if we follow God, something significant for His Kingdom.

Remember this observation: The caterpillar, when checked for DNA by a scientist, is in every way already a butterfly. The fact that it LOOKS like a butterfly has nothing to do with what it is becoming. It IS what it IS inside. It eventually will become on the outside what God has already made it to be. Honestly, if we will follow the Master, we will be like that. He Who began a good work in you is still working. If you are open to that work, it is progressing miraculously forward…

Fifth, the judgment must not be made solely on the intrinsic argument of the right or wrong of the act itself (8:4-6).

Paul wrote these words:

1 Corinthians 8:4 Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. 5 For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.

Paul began with what mature believers should KNOW. There is ONLY one God. Every other “so-called god” is not real. It doesn’t matter if that is commonly felt among non-believers (8:5), for the believer (he wrote “for us” in 8:6) the belief of others about their god has no relevance.

Paul continued with how that knowledge informs our PURPOSE. In 8:6 he made plain that BECAUSE there is only ONE true God, we aren’t moved to follow the concerns of other gods, the purposes or ideas of other gods. We exist for the God we know is there. We know He is a Father with a Son. We serve God as Father and Son – eternal, perfect, united as One in Essence. We recognize He holds everything together, and nothing competes with Him in the end. Evil is not His equal. It is a temporary foe. He is the Bringer of our life, the Companion of our journey and the Smile at our destination.

The issue cannot and will not be decided on the basis of whether or not meat was placed before anything that was OF ITSELF real, powerful or dangerous. The idol represented a god that was NOT – and some believers, no doubt thought that was the whole point… but it wasn’t. Just because there is only one God, doesn’t mean that there is no spiritual influence and emotional attachment that should not be considered when one is making a decision about an issue that isn’t initially clear.

I may not be right for doing something that technically won’t hurt me and isn’t necessarily wrong in and of itself. That isn’t the only standard by which I make decisions about my participation in something, or make my opinion about it. There are other factors.

Let me say here that clearly if the issue under consideration can be found to violate a clear principle of Scripture, we have our answer in the passage that addressed it. Yet, if it ISN’T clearly out of bounds, and we struggle with what God truly wants, we must begin with this:

Am I prepared to place this choice under the Lordship of Jesus Christ? Do I recognize His right to rule my life? Do I know I was made for Him, and therefore am to please Him in every respect? That helps me understand Paul’s comments about God and His purposes. Even when I may be allowed to do something, it may not be what God wants me to do – and that matters more.

Sixth, my opinion, as informed as it may be, must take into account a brother that is not as mature! (8:7-9).

Paul warned them:

1 Corinthians 8:7 However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled.

Some experienced SPIRITUALLY DARK POWER in their pagan past. Some don’t really know what to think and the issue under discussion may push them back to a sinful practice, like acting out of hatred or fear. Some may be swayed by our opinion to go back into some part of an unsaved past that doesn’t honor God.

The fact is that my opinion about participation in something is never as important as reflecting Jesus well in front of people.

My opinion cannot override my love and care for my brother (8:8-9). Paul said it this way:

1 Corinthians 8:8 But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat. 9 But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

So what of immigration then?

I know, you will feel ripped off if I don’t answer the question I posed in the beginning about this issue. My end point will probably please no one – yet I believe it to be that which will please the Lord.

The Word offers instruction on BOTH individual compassion and national caution. Any policy rooted in Biblical thinking should attempt to address both. We must use the Scripture properly and remember there is a significant difference with what God calls a nation to do, and verses that tell individuals how to reflect Jesus.

Maybe you believe it is naïve to think we can “vet” people from the Near East without any real mechanisms to “check” stories. Maybe you believe we as a nation are at war with a group that is motivated, at least in part, by a religious strand of Islam. Does that mean we as individual believers are relieved of any responsibility to get involved, informed and then engaged in reflecting Jesus in this problem? It does not. We must seek ways to offer practical and loving help – and positive ways we can address the deep needs and suffering of people. You may applaud the policies of governors to block the refugees – but let me ask you: “What are you willing to do to help people who are honestly and truly being CRUSHED by the situation?”

For those who feel rejecting the refugees is like keeping Jesus out in the cold, I have an equal challenge. I don’t agree with those who think Jesus is on one side of the issue – because He never saw people only as ISSUES or POLITICAL PROBLEMS, and we cannot see them that way and properly represent Him.

If you are going to represent a Biblical position on a complex issue like immigration of Syrian refugees – then use ALL the principles of His Word – not just a few sound bite passages. For example, did God say His people should have compassion on the strangers they encountered – yes! Did He also call those strangers to come under the complete laws of the God of Israel – yes. In other words, Israelites were under no compassionate obligation to take in a wandering family of Amalekites from the desert unless the new comers agreed to become part of Israel’s legal framework and fabric. They weren’t to be settled in some “Amalek-Israelite” subcultural corner of the camp, and be allowed to stand culturally apart while they built a resistance movement to Moses and Yahwist teaching. They had an obligation to become ONE with Israel and pledge loyalty to the nation. Is that parallel simple, direct and with no complexity – of course not! The point is that if you cite the “compassion statutes” without the “responsibility statutes” attached to them – are you truly reflecting the whole picture of what God said? I think not. The proper use of the Scripture in debate over complex issues requires careful application of as many of the principles that relate to the situation as can be found – not by taking the moral high ground on any side with one-sided sound bites.

When we follow Jesus’ teachings, we follow consistent and complicated principles, not simple verse “sound bites”.

Sound bite Jesus is easy. You don’t need to know anything about His Word but the clip you are using to prove your point. The problem is, that isn’t the real Jesus. For His views, there are 1189 chapters of Scripture – and few voices that seem to know what He said in the other places.

Does that mute Jesus’ voice today? Not at all! The Bible HAS spoken out clearly on many direct moral issues of our day. Yet, the sanctity of life and definition of marriage – both of which are crystal clear to anyone reading the Scripture without bending it to unduly suit their need CANNOT be presented with the same clarity as a specific position of God on “single-payer health care” or “Pacific rim economic agreements”. The issue of life is addressed head on in the Bible. Economic policies are often a blend of Bible and a social education framework that is very culturally laden. We have to choose to speak with authority in places God addressed most clearly, and use the principles of Scripture carefully to argue the complexity of other issues of our day. Christians need to reflect God’s Word in the broader way. Complex modern problems are not unaddressed by the Bible – but sound bites won’t get us to the heart of what God truly said.

If you are on the “left” in immigration, and believe that love demands we settle people in your state – you are welcome here. If you think the vetting cannot be thorough in a place that has a destroyed government and you distrust the intentions of some of those who desire to come into our country – you are welcome here. Let the world be divided by left and right, red and blue, donkey and elephant. Let Christians unite in our love for Jesus, and our desire to express that as best we can to a broken world. We will agree on some things, disagree on others. None of us gets to claim that we have all knowledge is something this complex and serious. We will stand together as a team, even when we don’t agree on every aspect of what we should do. We will do it because God’s Word taught us an attitude toward one another in 1 Corinthians 8.

Brethren, we need to grow up and lovingly reflect Jesus in how we disagree about difficult things that still seem unclear even when the sound bites are placed in their context.