I know several people who had a very Merry Christmas this year. Some of them flew to exotic locations and spent Christmas on the beach, or in a big city with lights and dozens of family members. Some of them spent a cozy Christmas in a cabin with roaring fires and glittering snow-covered trees, eating sumptuous meals and unwrapping expensive gifts.
But most of the people I know spent a Christmas that wasn’t “post-card” perfect. Some of them were alone in a small apartment with no presents and no heat. Some were working at a job they hate because they had no other option. Some were grieving loved ones lost in the past months. Some of them are facing economic mountains– debt, job loss, medical bills or taxes they cannot pay, no money for rent or groceries… Some are battling cancer or alcoholism, anger, or fear. Some are estranged from their families, or separated from loved ones because of COVID, or deployment, or divorce. And some are facing persecution, starvation, homelessness, disease, or war.
Christmas comes, whatever our circumstances– and so does the Christ Child. Jesus didn’t come to the earth to bring us all “better” circumstances or worry-free holidays, but to deliver us from eternal death, and equip us to endure the circumstances we face in life. Jesus himself came in chaotic and stressful circumstances, and He came, knowing that He would face rejection, hatred, injustice, and death on a cross.
There are millions of people who spent a “Merry” Christmas and missed the whole point. Some of us indulged in a gift-giving frenzy that left others in the cold. Some of us allowed envy, fear, greed, or bitterness to color our Christmas. In the process, many of us lost sight of the true gifts of Christmas– Peace, Joy, and Goodwill. In fact, “His divine power has given us EVERYTHING we need for a godly life through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness.” (2 Peter 1:3)
And these gifts are not temporary, like earthly Christmas gifts. They are always available, and they never break, expire, or grow dim. My prayer for this year(and the year to come) is that we all may find–and share!– these eternal and astounding gifts, this “inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade…kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4)
Christmas Day may not always be merry in this life, but because of Christmas we can face an eternity that will never disappoint, and we have a living Hope that can carry us through even the darkest hours!
The author of Ecclesiastes (presumed to be King Solomon) was a wise man. Yet he concluded that almost every aspect of life was meaningless– nothing more than “chasing after the wind.” Health, wealth, learning, entertainment, popularity, achievement– they can give pleasure and temporary satisfaction. But in the end, everyone dies, and their health is gone, their wealth goes to someone else, their learning is lost, their name and accomplishments are all forgotten and/ or destroyed.
In chapter 3, the author states that there is a time for “everything”– all the seemingly important activities of life–building, and tearing down, war and peace, living and dying…https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ecclesiastes+3&version=NIV And then he makes a curious statement in verse 11: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Solomon describes this as a burden– mankind can sense eternity, but can live and see only a brief span of it.
So what are we to do?
First, we need to make an important distinction– Solomon explores the pursuits of life and finds them all meaningless. At no point does he say that life itself is without meaning. Nor does he say there is no difference between wisdom and foolishness, honest labor and laziness, or self-indulgence and connectedness. I know some people who, after a quick reading through Ecclesiastes, use it to justify a hedonistic lifestyle. “Nothing matters,” they say. But that’s not what this book actually promotes. It isn’t that “nothing” matters. Rather, it is that none of our personal pursuits produce meaning in and of themselves or beyond our own limitations.
Next, we should be wise in light of the eternity that God has placed in our hearts. Even if our pursuits seem trivial and temporary, they have consequences that ripple through time– long after we are gone. We may not be able to see the future, but we CAN see the effects of wisdom and foolishness in the lives of others, and we can heed the advice of those who have come before us. Most of all, we have the wisdom that comes from God. Solomon’s wisdom, though incredible among humans, was limited to his own experience and learning. His frustration and despair came from knowing how limited it was!
Finally, we must read Ecclesiastes in context. Solomon was wise, but he lacked the vision of his father, David, to fully anticipate the coming of Messiah. Solomon’s ambitions were for the span of his own earthly life. He did not have his hope firmly rooted in a resurrection and an eternal life shared with his Creator. For all his wisdom, he was found lacking in faith. After writing such wisdom (not just in Ecclesiastes, but throughout the Proverbs), Solomon ended his life in a foolish pursuit of relativism and compromise that ruined much of the strength and prosperity he had brought to his kingdom in earlier years.
One thing remains– to fear God and follow His commands. God is eternal–and all that is done for Him and by Him and through Him will never be wasted. Solomon’s life may have ended with failure, but his words and wisdom live on. Our lives may be short; we may have wasted precious time in meaningless pursuits–God has promised that “all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 CSB) and that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6 NIV)
We just celebrated a most unusual Easter– traditions, like gathering at church for sunrise services or grand cantatas, big family meals, Easter Egg hunts, and parades had to be re-imagined, or cancelled. And one Easter tradition that didn’t get a lot of press attention was the damage done to the Easter flower market. Lilies, hyacinths, daffodils, and other spring flowers–some grown locally, others imported from around the world–were unable to be shipped or sold as people are in quarantine. Churches and restaurants, two of the largest consumers of Easter Lilies, had to cancel their orders for this year. People who normally buy lilies from garden centers or florists were unable to do so, and those who grow them were unable to ship them out or sell them. Literally millions of flowers had to be burned, composted, and destroyed during this season of “new life.” Flowers for funerals, weddings, and birthdays were also lost, and millions more will be lost as we approach Mother’s Day next month. What a waste of beauty and life!
Some will say that it is a waste of time to mourn the loss of flowers when we should be mourning the loss of human life to COVID-19. I don’t think it is an “either/or” kind of mourning. There is a lot to mourn during these days, and we should not be ashamed to mourn–loss of connection, loss of beauty in the form of flowers, loss of jobs and prosperity, loss of opportunities– many of which we take for granted.
But Easter is not about our loss– in fact, it is not about loss at all. It is about victory and hope and ETERNAL life– not the life of a lily or even a human body– eternal, joyful, victorious life given to us as a gift for all who will receive it! If we are missing a beautiful symbol of that victory this year, we can never be deprived of the reality the Lilies represent!
In this season, many of us are feeling very much like the “lilies of the field.” Our lives seem uncertain, our days unproductive, even futile as we wait for this crisis to pass. We miss these symbols of beauty and new life, but we must not place our hope in the symbols. We must not place our hope in what we know or what we do or what we own. Jesus reminds us that we are– our souls, our lives, our hopes, our thoughts, and our longings– worth far more than lilies or sparrows– God knows what we need, and His love for us doesn’t depend on our being “essential”, or healthy, or having all the answers.
This season reminds us that our lives here are precious, and temporary as the grass. But our existence is both precious and eternal–and thanks to the very God who clothes the lilies of the field, we need not worry or fear what lies ahead. All who turn to Him will be saved. We are not destined to be burned or composted or forgotten. We may face uncertain days ahead, but God has a purpose and a plan for us to bloom– not just for a season, and not just to adorn a building or a home, but to bloom for eternity in His very presence!
I’ve spent the past few days revisiting one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride. The movie is based on a “fractured” fairy tale, written by William Goldman. In it, a spoiled young farm girl falls in love with a lowly farm hand. When he leaves to make his fortune, the girl promises to wait for his return. When word comes back that he has been killed, she swears that she will never love again, and becomes a pawn of a wicked prince.
** SPOILER ALERT**
Of course, her true love, Westley, has not been killed, and when he finally finds Buttercup, she has agreed to marry the wicked prince, who has had her kidnapped and plans to kill her. “Why didn’t you wait for me?, ” Westley asks. “Well..you were dead,” replies Buttercup. “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it a while, ” says the intrepid Westley, to which Buttercup replies, “I will never doubt again.”
In true fairy-tale fashion, Westley and Buttercup must face many obstacles, including all the dangers of the “fire swamp,”capture, torture, a fake marriage ceremony, and Westley being “mostly dead”– again– before they can have their happy ending. But in the end, “true love” wins over all trials and obstacles, and Westley and Buttercup “live happily ever after.”
We live in a post-modern age, where people tend to sneer at notions like fairy tales, true love, and “happily ever after.” We are more likely to echo the words of the bitter Dread Pirate Roberts, who tells Princess Buttercup that “life is pain, highness, and anyone who tells you differently is selling something.” Ironically, the Dread Pirate Roberts is really Westley in disguise. His life is filled with painful trials, and “inconceivable” obstacles, but he perseveres, and his “happily ever after” makes all that came before fade from memory. Because, in the end, death CANNOT stop true love. It may take a few miracles, and lots of patience, forgiveness, and faith, but true love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7 ESV)
God’s love is true– it is sure and enduring. God’s presence goes with us even into the valley of the shadow of death–even if the shadows and darkness block our sight; even if death seems sure to win. His rod and staff are not tools of torture and dread, but reminders that He is there to guide us, even if we cannot see His face in the gloom.
Life is filled with pain–and Westley was right; anyone who tells you differently is selling you something. God doesn’t promise that our path will always be on smooth ground in sunny pastures. We may face separation from loved ones, flame spurts and quicksand, betrayal by friends, battles with giants, wicked rulers, even rodents of unusual size. But in each of these situations, we have God’s very presence to comfort us and help us endure to the end. And the “happily ever after?” It is eternal and glorious like nothing we have ever known or even imagined.
Fairy tales are not real– but God’s word is. The very reason such tales and myths and legends endure is because they echo what we know to be true– Truth, and Love, and Justice, and Honor, and Hope, and Faith–they are eternally enduring and strong. We recognize the truth that “Death cannot stop true love– all it can do is delay it for a while.” https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+8%3A31-39&version=ESV
I heard a phrase, an idiom, recently..one I hadn’t heard in many years: “I’m as good as dead.” It is an odd phrase, but English is filled with similarly odd sayings, like, “good as gold”, “good as finished”, or “a miss is as good as a mile.” “As good” in each case signifies being close to, or similar too, without being the same; nearly or akin to being. A child who is “good as gold” is one whose behavior is nearly faultless, whose actions and demeanor shine like gold. Someone who is “as good as dead” is someone who is either in very poor health or in dire trouble, and expects to die soon. “A miss is as good as a mile” refers to the idea that a miss, whether narrow or wide, is still a miss..an inch or a mile makes no difference. A puzzle of 1000 pieces, minus one, is still incomplete; missing one’s train by a minute or an hour still leaves one at the depot.
In hearing this phrase, “as good as dead,” I was arrested by the juxtaposition of “good” and “dead.” There is nothing good about death or dying, yet we don’t say, “I’m as bad as dead.” We compare being close to anything as being “good as..”
I think there is an important spiritual and psychological reason. Deep in our soul, we have a desire to be “good.” To be whole, and righteous, and complete. And we also know that we are not whole; not really “good” as we now are. We long to be “as good as” our aspirations; as good as…God. We spend our lives comparing and measuring and striving to be better, and closer to His perfection. And sometimes, we feel comparatively “good.” Other times, our goodness only seems to measure up to failure and death. https://www.theidioms.com/a-miss-is-as-good-as-a-mile/
But we cannot be “as good as dead” any more than we can be “as good as gold” or as good as God. Because “a miss is a good as a mile.” Being almost as good as God will never be enough to save us from the wages of sin, which is death. Being “almost dead” cannot separate us from God’s love, or His gift of everlasting life.
In the Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), there is a short story of a young man who struggles with this concept. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+10%3A17-27&version=NASB The young man asks Jesus, “Good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” In asking the question, the young man already reveals a certain lack of understanding. An inheritance is not something that can be earned; it is a gift that can only be received by an heir after someone’s death. It can be accepted or rejected, or divided between many heirs. There may be stipulations or conditions– and this may be what the young man meant to find out–but inheritance is determined by the giver, not the conditions of the person or persons expecting to receive an inheritance. Secondly, the man assumes that whatever is required, he can accomplish it easily. He expects, in fact, the beginning of the answer Jesus gives him. But Jesus doesn’t begin with the answer. He cuts directly to the heart of the question: “Why do you call me ‘Good?’ No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18) At the heart of this man’s question is the desire to become “Good” like God– to earn eternal life– to be complete and whole through his own actions. This young man doesn’t want to be challenged. He wants to be justified, lauded, and congratulated on his own wisdom and performance. And Jesus starts by giving him the answer he expects. He lists several commandments– five things NOT to do, and one general principle (honor your parents). One can almost hear the sigh of relief from the young man. “I’m as good as guaranteed to get into heaven!”
But that’s when Jesus speaks again. He doesn’t offer a lengthy list of impossible feats; no pilgrimages or vows of silence, no special diets (not even a reminder to follow the Jewish dietary restrictions), no pledge to give more money to the Temple, or lead a rebellion against the Romans. Instead, He gives a single challenge– sell what you own and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven– followed by an offer to follow Him.
Jesus did not offer this challenge as a kind of “gotcha” to the man’s initial question. In fact, the Gospel of Mark says that Jesus felt a love for him as He responded, and a great sadness when the man walked away. But “a miss is a good as a mile.” The young man wanted to know what he could do to be (or if what he had already done was) “good enough” to inherit eternal life. He had done all the things he expected would be enough. He had compared his life and actions with others around him. But he had missed the heart of the matter– inheritance. When he walked away, he was depressed and discouraged– “as good as dead.” Not because there was no way for him to have eternal life, but because he could not hit the target; he could not do the one thing Jesus asked of him, and he could not trust Jesus enough to “follow” the “good” teacher.
The disciples, too, missed the point at first. Jesus had not given the young ruler a simple task in earthly terms. But it wasn’t the action that was difficult; it was the heart attitude. The young man wanted– he wanted the respect of the “good” teacher (not a relationship with Him), the acclaim of all those surrounding him, the honor and prestige his wealth had brought him, AND eternal life– because he was “as good as perfect” in his own eyes. He did not want eternal life more than any of these other things, but in addition to all of them, and by his own efforts.
Lord, forgive me for the times that I have wanted to earn eternal life for myself. Help me to seek you with all my heart, so that I may not miss the blessings you have for me by even the narrowest margin. And thank you, thank you(!) that in those times when I do stray and miss the point, I am not “as good as dead”, but you are always gracious and loving in showing me how to “follow you” and live!
I witnessed a blow-out high school football game last week. The final score was 57 to 0! Once the point differential was over 50, they invoked the “mercy rule.” The game clock would not stop for downs; there would be no more “time out” calls– as this happened late in the game anyway, it just meant that the end came quickly and “mercifully” for the losing team. It also meant that players were less likely to take dangerous risks in the forlorn hope of scoring big points.
High school football has a “mercy rule” so that struggling teams don’t become victims of absolute despair. This team deserved to lose, and they did. They lost big; but they could’ve lost by a wider margin. And they didn’t lose for lack of effort– they pushed hard and gave it a mighty try. But they were not up to the challenge of a better team.
In life, when we come up against Sin, we can give our best effort, and still lose big. Oh, there are certain sins that seem easily “tamed” or “defeated,” but there are others that end up crushing us– maybe it’s an addiction to porn, or a tendency to spread rumors; maybe we harbor bitterness or doubt, or we can’t control angry outbursts.
In the end, we are all losers in the game against Sin– whether the loss seems like a close shave or a blowout, the result is the same. But the consequences are much more dire. The penalty for Sin is Death. Not just a single lost game, but an eternal loss of life and hope and light and love! We are no match for Sin, and Sin shows no mercy. Even with a mercy rule, our situation seems hopeless. But it is not.
Death may seem like a a harsh and undeserved judgment. We “can’t” win. Or, more correctly, we will always lose. Even a “mercy rule,” while it may mean that we don’t get the death we deserve, wouldn’t keep us from being “losers.” This is how many people see God’s offer of salvation– as some sort of mercy rule that keeps us from the fate we can’t avoid. But even if God only offered mercy, it would be infinitely better than we can imagine. Because God’s mercy is not just a “rule”, it is a priceless gift of restoration. We can be free from the “loss” and penalty we deserve, no matter what the “point differential.” Even a close “loss” to sin is wiped out by God’s mercy.
God’s offer of salvation doesn’t just stop at mercy, however. It includes something that will never happen in a football game or anywhere else in life. God extends His Grace– all that we don’t deserve, and never could deserve–above and beyond the already infinite and superior mercy we needed to escape the judgment of Death. We don’t just escape the horrors of death and hell. We are gifted with all we need to win the game– to be co-victors over Death and Sin. God, in His mercy keeps us from losing. In His Grace, He coaches us, plays alongside us, cheers for us, and gives us the power to become all that we need to be to play our best. AND, He has already secured the victory. Far from being in a position where we “can’t” win– God offers us the opportunity to be in a position where we can’t LOSE!
It is my ongoing prayer that if you are reading this, you have already responded to God’s invitation, through Jesus Christ, to be victorious; that God’s spirit would guide me to write what will be helpful in encouraging you and strengthening your faith (as well as my own). I pray that you will grow in faith and make the pursuit of prayer part of your daily walk in Faith. If that is not the case, and you have not accepted both God’s mercy and His grace, I pray that you will take that opportunity today.
Don’t wait for a “mercy rule”– accept the mercy of the Ruler!