Peace on Earth?

I’ve been exploring some of the themes related to the Advent. But what happened afterwards? There is a curious and violent story related to the visit of the Wise Men– before they found Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus, they visited the palace of the ruling King of the Jews, Herod. Herod was intensely curious about the baby– when and where the prophets said Messiah should be born. But unlike the worshipful wise men, Herod wanted to destroy this heaven-sent King; one who could pose a threat to his own power and rule.

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Jesus escaped Herod’s plot. Joseph had been warned in a dream, and had taken Mary and Jesus to Egypt for safety. The Wise Men, also warned in a dream, had failed to report back to Herod the information he wanted. In his anger and fear, Herod ordered the slaughter of all the baby boys in the region, up to two years old. This “Slaughter of the Innocents,” as the event is known, seems to come in direct repudiation of the message of the angels at Christ’s birth. There was no peace in Bethlehem as soldiers dragged innocent babies from their mothers’ arms and killed them. There was wailing and anguish, instead.

How could a loving and wise God allow this to happen? It was no unforeseen accident, either. This event had been predicted by the prophets hundreds of years before it happened, just the same as the prophecies about Jesus’ birth. God could have sent angels to protect Jesus from this slaughter; He could have confounded Herod’s plans and stopped the soldiers from reaching Bethlehem; He could have struck Herod dead before the plot could be carried out…so why did He let it all happen?

I don’t have any definitive answers. But I can share some opinions, based on what I’ve learned of God’s character. I don’t think God was in any way indifferent to the suffering and injustice of this tragedy. But I think there are a few lessons we can take from this strange and disturbing incident:

  • First, Jesus came to share a very human fate. Jesus was not spared the indignity of being born in a cattle shed and laid in a manger. His life was not supernaturally easy or safe or comfortable. It was God’s perfect will that Jesus was vulnerable to attack, and in need of protection– even when it meant fleeing His home.
  • At the same time, He WAS fully God, and as such, posed a danger to men like Herod. Jesus, even from birth, had an authority greater than any king or emperor who ever lived. But He did not come to earth to exercise that power over other people. Instead, He came to serve and to pour out His life for others. It was not His mission to overthrow the existing government, or to challenge rulers like Herod. It was His mission to fulfill the Law, set an example of obedience, preach the Gospel, and offer Himself as atonement for Sin.
  • Herod had the earthly power to do good or evil as a ruler. He had the unique opportunity to join the Wise Men in worshiping the arrival of God’s chosen one– an event that had been anticipated for hundreds of years. Yes, God could have forced Herod to bow before the Newborn King, but Herod could also have chosen wisdom over fear. We have the same opportunity to welcome Jesus as our Savior– or to wage war against Him. Jesus invites us to follow Him, but He doesn’t stop us from making the same destructive choices that Herod made.
  • Jesus did not come to bring a worldly peace, but an eternal “Peace that passes understanding.” Even now, after His death and resurrection, there is still war and slaughter, crime and injustice in our world. But, because of all Jesus did, and is doing in and through those who follow Him, we see that tragedies can be redeemed; hope can survive where there seems to be no hope; and death is not the final victor. I don’t understand why these particular families had to face the tragic consequences of Herod’s rage and fear and ambition. But I understand that God is bigger than Herod; and more powerful than all the chaos and pain that he caused.
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The world is not at peace today. Innocent people– even babies–are hurt and killed in our world. God knows. He aches for our grief and pain. But He also knows His plans. He knows how the story ends– He knows all that has happened, and all that is happening, and all that will happen. Even in the glory of Christmas, He wants us to know that reality. Someday, Jesus will return in all of His authority and power. He won’t just end the reign of evil rulers like Herod– He will render their legacies useless. He will redeem injustices– even genocide and slaughter–and wipe out even the memory of their grief and terror.

God of the Impossible

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. 37 And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Mark 4:35-41 ESV

I’ve been reading through the Gospels this month, and one of the phrases that has stood out for me this year is “ye of little faith.”(or “you have so little faith!) Jesus uses this phrase to chastise His disciples, as well as the crowds– they claim to want miracles, yet when Jesus does miracles, they seem astonished almost to the point of fear. Or they attempt to “explain them away.”

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We live in a world of possibilities– when we are young, we see possibilities everywhere. “When I grow up…” we imagine ourselves as astronauts, or world leaders, or Olympic champions. As we grow older, our world of possibilities grows narrower. We become cynical (or more aware of our own limitations!) and, while we long to see miracles, we neither expect them nor ask for them. We know some difficult or unexpected things are still possible, but we tend to see more “impossibilities.” “My health will never get better.” “My boss will never listen to me.” “I can’t…”

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One of the biggest roadblocks to becoming a Christian (and to continue to grow in faith) is to accept that NOTHING is impossible for God. We set limits on God’s ability, His willingness, His goodness–we expect to be disappointed, disillusioned, and disheartened. And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy– we end up disappointed, disillusioned, and disheartened in others, in ourselves…

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Yet, God has given us an entire book filled with miracles and impossible events that are meant to show us that He is the God of the Impossible; the God of Miracles. From the beginning, God has demonstrated His willingness to make a way when there seems to be no way. From Noah and the Flood, to Abraham becoming the Father of many nations, to bringing Joseph from a pit to becoming the second-most powerful man in Egypt, to the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery…the stories abound. Whether sending food from heaven, water from a rock, or fire from the sky, God’s power is on display throughout the Old Testament. The crowds following Jesus grew up hearing these stories. But after four hundred years of silence, they seemed to remember what God COULD do, but doubt what God WOULD do for those who call on Him.

Jesus walked on water, healed the sick, turned water into wine, cast out demons, raised the dead, and much more. And still the people wanted “proof.” But we are not so very different. Not only do we have all the stories of the Old Testament; we have all the stories of Jesus’ miracles. Yet we still wonder whether God will hear and/or answer our prayers. And it doesn’t take 400 years of silence to cause us to doubt. Sometimes it is four hours, or four days, or four months of seeming silence.

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Nothing is impossible with God. There are some things that are not productive; some things that are not part of His plan. Imagine Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego praying that God would not allow them to go into the fiery furnace? That wasn’t the plan. Instead, God chose to do the unexpected, the unthinkable–the impossible. He rescued them IN the fire– caused them to come through without being singed. Imagine those who prayed that Lazarus would recover from his illness. That wasn’t the plan. Instead, Jesus did the impossible– raising Lazarus after four days; after the funeral, after the burial, after all possible hope was gone.

God excels in the impossible. He delights in it. What impossible situation are you facing today? God may not choose to remove the situation. But He can take an impossible situation and turn it into a miraculous victory. Not because we demand “proof” of His divinity or power. But because His plans are bigger and better than what we can comprehend.

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I’ve shared a bit about one of my current struggles. My Mom is in her 88th year, and her health is failing. She is very independent and lives alone. My siblings and I are being “stretched” in trying to help Mom navigate several decisions and several changing conditions. God has not taken away her health issues, or conveniently provided an easy transition or simple answers to our questions. But He has been “with us in the fire.” That doesn’t mean that I understand all that Mom is going through, or how best to help her from moment to moment. And I’m not asking God to provide a dramatic “rescue” for Mom as she navigates this part of her journey. But I trust that God has already seen the end from the beginning– none of the “setbacks” or “unexpected events” we face can take God by surprise or leave Him unprepared to use them for His glory and our ultimate good.

Daring to Dream

I’ve been reading about Joseph in Genesis. He was the favored son of Jacob (Israel), and he was a dreamer. His dreams were spectacularly unpopular with his older brothers, and got him into a world (or a well) of trouble. (See Genesis 37)

Joseph’s dreams were sent to him from God…they weren’t just wishes or imaginings. But they were grand. Joseph had a dream that all his brothers (represented by bales of wheat) bowed down to him. Later, he dreamed that his entire family would bow down to him. He was just 17, and full of the arrogance of youth. His jealous brothers were so outraged, they plotted to kill him. When an easier opportunity arose, they sold him into slavery, instead. (See Genesis 39-45)

Joseph’s dreams seemed to mock him when he arrived in Egypt as a slave. And after spending years building up a sterling reputation with his master, his dreams were dashed again. Falsely accused and unable to defend himself, Joseph ended up in prison. Who would ever bow down before a convict and a slave?

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Joseph could have become bitter and angry. He could have given in to the frustration of serving those who were willing to let him do all the work and take on all the responsibility, while they got all the credit. But Joseph dared to dream– not the dreams of an arrogant 17-year-old, but the dreams of an honest and God-fearing man. He dreamed that his actions and attitudes mattered– even as a slave; even as a prisoner. He dreamed that God could and would rescue him and vindicate him. He dreamed that God had a purpose for his life– one that depended on Joseph being the best man he could be.

The Bible never records Joseph having visions and dreams in Egypt. But because Joseph had experienced grand dreams as a youth, he was sensitive to the dreams of others. He could have ignored the dreams of Pharaoh’s cup bearer and baker in prison. He could have sneered and laughed at their dreams. He could have told them all about his much grander dreams of old. Instead, he was ready to ask for God’s wisdom to help others interpret THEIR dreams. And in doing so, God gave Joseph the miracle of a dream fulfilled. Along the way, Joseph received life lessons in patience, humility, responsibility, management, integrity, and leadership. Joseph’s brothers–coming to seek grain!– bowed down to him, just as he had once dreamed they would. But they didn’t bow to him as a kid brother; they bowed before Pharaoh’s agent and the second-most powerful man in the entire known world. They bowed before a men who held the kind of power none of them had ever dreamed of. They bowed before a man they might have killed– except for God’s plan. Joseph was sent ahead, trained in the art of management, and perfectly placed to save thousands of lives.

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Sometimes our lives seem like a waste– all our dreams have been shattered, either by circumstances or by our own bad choices. But God can take our most cherished dreams and redirect them into something amazing. He has a purpose for your life. It may not seem grand, like Joseph’s youthful dreams, but in God’s hands, it may have an enormous impact. Some days, it may seem like we’re living through a nightmare, but God writes the ending– and He’s already there!

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We Didn’t Know Who You Were…

Jesus was born in obscurity– yet he was also born during a Census year…

 And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Luke 2:1-7 (NKJV via biblegateway.com)
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This is a Census year in the U.S. (something that has largely been forgotten in the wake of the COVID pandemic.) I actually worked for the Census Bureau for a few weeks this year, doing follow-up interviews for addresses which had not responded for various reasons. Census taking is much different now than it was in Jesus’ day. I had a script, and a smart phone, and several different forms to fill out or hand out to explain what we were doing–one form contained information in at least 14 different languages, and all of them had phone numbers and web addresses where people could “respond” electronically without ever leaving the comfort of their living room, let alone traveling over dangerous hills and trying to find room at crowded inns. I was the one who had to travel– mostly around my small town and within a 20-mile radius. One interview required me to travel 100 miles; another required me to utilize my ability to speak and understand Spanish. Otherwise, the interviews were simple and straightforward. Except when they weren’t.

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“Everyone Counts,” the Census Bureau told us, and I did my best to get names and ages for everyone at every address I visited. But many of the addresses were abandoned buildings– even demolished. Others were summer homes or vacation rentals–I had to be careful not to count the same people twice! Often, I could tell that people were living at the residence, but either they weren’t home at that time or they would not come to the door. Some houses required several attempts before I got any response, and it wasn’t always positive or cooperative.

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I imagine the scene in Bethlehem, though lacking the technology and ease of travel of our modern age, wasn’t so very different. There were people who wanted to do their civic duty; those who were annoyed at the inconvenience and general bureaucratic chaos; those who hated the Roman Government and everything it represented; and some who just wanted to get it all over with and go back to “normal life.”

We know that Joseph was called up to go to Bethlehem because is was his ancestral home. And we know that Joseph would have been counted as the head of the household. But is it possible that Jesus was counted in that census? That he was numbered among his people and with his family? That the God of all creation became a simple hash mark among thousands of others that year? “Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth.” “Infant son.” “Male child.” Jesus was counted. But He was also lost in the shuffle; discounted and ignored.

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10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. 11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

John 1:10-11 (KJV via biblegateway.com)

This season, it’s easy to feel left out, discounted, passed over. This year, especially, it can be lonely and discouraging as we look out on the world from lockdown, or look at faces covered by masks, unknown or unrecognizable. It’s easy to feel that no one sees us. Rest assured, Jesus knows what it is like to get lost in the numbers. He knows what it is to be discounted and misunderstood, rejected, and scorned.

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And He knows exactly who you are and who I am– better than we know ourselves! We count! Not because of who we are, but because He is the creator and author of all life. No matter where you are, no matter who has rejected you in the past, no matter how dark and grim things look– God sees you; God loves you; God has taken you into His count. He doesn’t need a census count to find you, and you can’t get “lost” or hide in the crowd.

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He knows you– Do you know Him?

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