Every year, we celebrate the birth of Emmanuel– God With Us. It is amazing to consider the Love of God that brought Him from His Heavenly throne to a lowly manger stall, the King of Glory contained in the tiny body of a sleepy infant.
But we should be careful not to miss the rest of the story. As wonderful as it is to think that God would love His creation enough to visit among us, to “taste” life as a human, the story gets gloriously magnified as Jesus leaves the manger to enter a ministry. Jesus didn’t just live among us, He healed, taught, laughed, formed friendships, and served among people– many of whom scoffed, scorned, and rejected Him and His message.
And His message was this: God wants– in fact He passionately yearns– to restore the relationship WE have broken. Jesus didn’t come to “taste” human life– He came to GIVE His life as a sacrifice for those who didn’t deserve it, to extend forgiveness to those who had no right to ask for it. The Holy and Perfect God became the guilt and shame of Sin, so that we could be reconciled to Him. He accepted the penalty of Death, so that we could be given eternal life.
This miracle of reconciliation can be difficult to understand. I sometimes get “stuck” in the weight of my past–I know that Christ offers forgiveness, but I sometimes act as though the penalty hasn’t been removed; only suspended. But that’s not what Jesus taught. Like a leper cured of leprosy, I am clean–no scars, no stains, no relapse–all traces of my disease removed. In this world, I will still feel the sting of the consequences of Sin– betrayal, sickness, injustice, even death. But death is no longer my destiny; it is a temporary rest stop on my way HOME.
Jesus didn’t come to “taste” human life; He came to “taste” death– and He came to destroy its power, so that we could know true Life, and live it to the fullest!
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)
In the Gospel of John, there is the curious story of Lazarus. Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary, were good friends of Jesus. There are other stories throughout the gospels of Jesus interacting with this family. But this story appears only in John’s gospel, and it contains some details that raise several questions.
The story begins with an urgent message. Lazarus is gravely ill, and the sisters send word to Jesus to come quickly. Yet Jesus seems to dismiss the message, saying that it is not a sickness that will end in death, and he lingers two days before he decides to begin the journey toward Bethany. There is no sense of panic or urgency in Jesus’s response. And, though it says he loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, he seems unmoved by their obvious distress.
When Jesus finally arrives, Lazarus has been dead for four days. The two sisters both mention, with some bitterness, that if Jesus had come sooner, their brother need not have died. Jesus never gets defensive, but he challenges the sisters about their faith. In his exchange with Martha, he says that her brother will rise again. She agrees that he will rise again in the resurrection at the end of time. But Jesus redirects her faith–“I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth on me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?” (v. 25b-26). Her statement of faith, in spite or her grief and bitterness, prompts her to act. She goes to find her sister and bring her to the Savior, that she might be comforted.
Martha’s faith is small comfort in the circumstances. Her brother is still dead. His body lies rotting in a nearby cave. Her faith is fixed in the distant future, even as the author of Life and Eternity stands next to her. Her belief is wispy– more of a wish or a dream than the solid God-in Flesh standing before her.
Yet Jesus chose to use this seeming defeat as a showcase for His power to give life and resurrection. Many people who saw this were transformed and put their trust in Him. Others saw Jesus’ growing ministry as a threat to their own power and authority. They reacted with fear and even anger, that Jesus would bring the miraculous into their well-ordered normality. The Pharisees, including the chief priest, Caiaphas, determined that Jesus must die in order to “save” them from the Romans. Instead of seeing Him as the agent of their eternal salvation, they saw Him as an obstacle to their limited “freedom” to operate under the Roman oppression.
What is my faith like as I pray today? Do I believe that God “could’ve” or “should’ve” solved a problem in my past? Do I believe that God is not acting fast enough or decisively enough? Do I have a wispy faith that God will make all things right in Heaven, but is uninterested in the “here and now?” Do I believe that God’s answers might upset my life or cause me to “lose” control?
God, as you challenge my faith, help me to declare even my weak and imperfect belief; help me to act on it, and bring others to you for comfort. For in doing, so, I may be preparing the way for an incredible miracle– for revival and renewal; for the glory of Your great Name! And help me to see your answers through eyes of faith, and not fear of the unknown. Help me to trust you for the future I cannot see– a future that is in your capable and loving hands.
I have a friend who is very keen to study if prayer “works.” His theory is that if someone were to measure the number of prayers said in various regions of the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, and compare those numbers to the rates of infection, numbers of deaths, etc, for the same regions, one could “prove” whether or not prayer is effective.
I don’t think my friend is being sarcastic or overly cynical– I believe he is sincere in wanting to study prayer. I accept his desire to study prayer–to quantify it, even to “prove” it, or legitimate it for those who are skeptical. Unfortunately, he wants to study it as an observer, and not a participant, and he wants to conduct a physical study of a metaphysical practice.
Scientists are conducting several studies during this time, to see what “works.” Does social distancing “work” better than building up “herd immunity?” Is there a treatment that works better, or faster than others? Can we develop an effective vaccine? What practices– social, hygienic, medical, political– might help mitigate the spread of future viruses? Even these studies will not be definitive. The results will depend a great deal on methodology, and the conclusions will be open to interpretation.
There are additional problems in studying whether or not prayer “works” or not, because prayer is metaphysical. Here are just a few of the “measurement” problems:
How do you measure prayer? By length of time? Number of words used? The number of prayers prayed by each person over a certain period of time?
Do you count ritual prayers? Mantras? Meditation? Unspoken “thought” prayers? Recitations? Prayers spoken “in tongues” or in ecstatic states?
Do you count corporate prayer as a single prayer or by the number of people in the group?
What about social media? Do you count all the people who say they will send “thoughts and prayers?” Do you count those who say they “will pray,” or only those who are “praying,” or “praying now.”
If you are testing by geographical region, how do you account for people who are praying for others around the world?
How do you measure the efficacy of prayer (as opposed to other factors)? If a region has a higher mortality rate, even though many people prayed, does that mean that prayer “doesn’t work?” Or does it mean that the mortality rate would have been even more devastating (given other factors) without prayer?
More than just measurement problems, there are problems with the very nature of prayer that make such a study impossible:
Even if you could come up with a standard definition of “prayer” in order to get a count, prayer is not a physical substance or action. Prayer is not a “cause and effect” exchange. It is communication. If ten people say the same thing at the same time to the same person, it is not necessarily “more effective” than a single person-to-person exchange. If a thousand people pray to the same “god” who is not a god–“Mother Nature” or “The Force,” for example, it cannot be compared to a single person praying to a Loving and All-Powerful God.
God’s ways are not our ways. If we are measuring for one thing, God may be working for a different, unseen outcome. If more people contract the virus during the “study period”, we see that as “failure.” But God may be preparing that region to build up a resistance or immunity for a future outbreak. God answered prayer in a mighty way that we won’t see immediately. I have known a great many people, and prayed for a great many people who have not received physical healing in this world. They have suffered. They have died. But that doesn’t mean that prayer “didn’t work.” Their sufferings and eventual deaths have often brought about unbelievable works of God– salvation, families restored, friends discovering renewed purpose, strengthened efforts to fight disease, injustice, poverty, etc., and communities coming together in unity and hope.
Prayer is not about measurable results. Prayer is a heart-cry to a caring Creator. It doesn’t just involve asking for healing or miracles or “wish fulfillment.” Prayer involves thanksgiving, worship and adoration, repentance and confession, sharing burdens, asking questions, and building an eternal relationship with God Almighty.
In the end, any study results will be interpreted differently by different people. Some people will be convinced by numerical comparisons to re-consider their view of prayer. Others will never be convinced, no matter how much “evidence” someone else presents.
Prayer isn’t like taking an aspirin, or holding a protest rally, or doing research for a cure. Prayer isn’t about “winning the battle.” It isn’t about “what works.” It isn’t about “what” at all. It’s about WHO.
God “works.” God is sovereign, loving, and wise beyond what we can imagine. His ways endure. And He has vanquished the power of death and disease. Yes, it can still touch us in the here and now, spreading havoc and pain and mourning. But it will never triumph over Hope, and Life, Truth, and Faith. And when we pray, we connect to the source of all that is Eternally victorious! Beyond ANY measure!
Psalm 23:6– And I will dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.
Forever is a concept we acknowledge, but we don’t fully understand. We talk about difficult circumstances, like the current pandemic, lasting “forever.” But they won’t. Such circumstances may last longer than we would like; they may be more difficult than anticipate; they may bring more pain and grief than we think we can bear, but they will pass. Even if they last throughout our lifetime, they will not continue indefinitely.
But God IS forever– He is eternal. And He has created US to be eternal– to live with Him (or apart from Him) FOREVER! Our experience does not prepare us fully for this reality– we only know an existence that is limited by time and space. But deep within, we have an awareness that there is MORE– more than our brief time here; more than the difficulty and disappointment we experience. God has planted this awareness in each of us; this desire to know what comes “after” death; what “forever” really means.
David reminds us that forever is not just a desire for those who follow our Good Shepherd– it is the reality He has planned for all of us.
And that should give us abundant hope and comfort in times like these. What we face today is temporary. This is the “valley of the shadow of death.” We cannot see what is directly in front of us. It continues to bring anxiety and pain, and even death. But, death is not the end. It is only a shadow hiding the light of Eternity. And “Forever” cannot terrify us; it cannot hold terror for those who belong to the one who holds forever in His hands!
Someday, we will not need calendars. We will not need to worry about next week, or our 5-year plan, or deadlines. We will have unlimited opportunities, unlimited possibilities, unlimited life with the source of all good things!
Last week in America, we marked two important dates. We celebrated the birth of a great hero, patriot, and statesman, Martin Luther King, Jr. And we marked the 47th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which effectively legalized abortion across the land.
The life of Dr. King was marked by hardship, oppression, violence, and assassination at the age of 39. Dr. King was a brilliant student and gifted speaker. He led peaceful protests and civil rights marches calling for justice and equality under the law for all people. More than 50 years after his death, there are still issues of racial discrimination and racial tensions in this country. The disproportionate loss of life and liberty among blacks in urban areas has led to a new round of protests, some of which go under the name of “Black Lives Matter.” There is a feeling that, especially with the police and government officials, black lives don’t matter– that black lives are devalued and dismissed as less deserving of respect and protection.
In light of this, there has been “push back” from those who argue that “ALL Lives Matter”, or that “Blue Lives Matter” (blue for police who have become victims of mob violence and angry crowds who feel that the police are responsible for racism and corruption). The argument is that groups like “Black Lives Matter” are not so much about bringing awareness or promoting justice, but are meant to divide us as a nation and exact revenge for past offenses, slights, and perceived slights.
There is speculation about what might have happened if Dr. King had not died when he did. Would he have continued leading non-violent protests? Would the Civil Rights movement of the sixties gained more momentum under Dr. King’s leadership? Would our nation have achieved a new dawn of equality, freedom, and unity, greater and stronger than what we have seen in the last five decades? Would Dr. King be pleased with the progress we have made, or ashamed? Did his life make a difference? Yes. But was it “enough” of a difference? Does it matter to a young person of color growing up in Baltimore or Chicago that Dr. King spoke out, marched, and died for a dream that seems frozen in time and unfulfilled?
In looking at abortion, we see millions of lives who were determined NOT to matter. They didn’t deserve respect, protection, liberty, education, dreams, food, shelter…not even breath and a heartbeat!
Oh God– let us see life as YOU see it. Every life matters infinitely to You. You have created all life–unique, precious, priceless, glorious, fragile, and yet eternal. You walked among people, healed the sick and broken, reached out to the outcast and isolated, welcomed children, and brought the dead back to life. In Christ, you took on human life– breathed the air, knew joy and pain, weariness, hunger, and strife.
One life– every life– matters. It matters, not because we are important to the world, but because we are precious in the eyes of our creator. We celebrate the life of Dr. King, because we was considered important in the history of our nation. But God celebrated Dr. King’s life from the moment of his conception. God knit him together in his mother’s womb, just as He does for each of us. God knew the moment of Dr. King’s birth. He saw every tear, heard every laugh, felt every bruise that Dr. King experienced. And God knew the moment of Dr. King’s assassination. He knew the shock and horror it would be for his family. He knew that years later, we would quote Dr. King’s words and even argue about his relevance and impact. But Dr. King’s life mattered to God even if it had been a life of obscurity or failure.
Similarly, and incredibly, every one of those 60 million lives that have been lost to abortion “mattered” to God. He knew and loved them from the moment of conception. And He knew– He KNEW– that they would be aborted; thrown away and discarded by those who should have loved and protected them. And He LOVES those who killed them– their lives “matter” to God as well. Dr. King’s dream was that his children would be judged by the content of their character. God will judge us one day on that basis; but He offers to judge us by the content of HIS character, if we will trust Him to forgive us for the past, and transform us as we live for Him.
Your life matters to God. It has worth and meaning. You are infinitely precious– so much so that God sent His only son to live and to die for your sake. What an incredible love He has for you! What an incredible love He has for every person you will encounter today!
The English word “life” has only four letters, but the central two form another word– “If.” Life is all about making choices–and facing the consequences of those choices. Often we focus on those circumstances over which we seem to have no choice–I didn’t “choose” to be born, to be born female, to be born into the family or community where I grew up. I didn’t choose to be short, I didn’t choose the color of my eyes or skin or hair (though my hair color has changed as I get older!)
But those are circumstances– they are not my LIFE. My life is made up of thoughts, feelings, actions, attitudes, decisions, and interactions with others. The color of my eyes, my lack of stature, or my family name does not determine my attitude or my inner beliefs or the way I treat others. Who I am is determined by the choices I make– to be proud, to believe that I am superior (or inferior) to others; to choose hope and courage or to wallow in worry and despondency; to make the most of my time, or to waste it; to envy others or be grateful for all that I have; to obey or defy; to take care of my body or make unhealthy life choices; to be a good steward or be wasteful and destructive; to show love or to withhold kindness; to forgive or to hold a grudge; to seek God for his love and mercy, or to blame God for every challenge I face. Every choice (and its consequences) is woven into the fabric of my earthly life– every reaction to bad circumstances, every investment in future goals, every moment spent “just vegging”, every secret habit I continue to indulge..
The word “if” can hold great promise or regret– we can get lost in speculating, “if only…” or we can try to bargain with ourselves or with God, “if…then.” God gives us life, and He gives us “if”– the freedom to choose how we will react to our circumstances; freedom to choose how we will live our lives; the freedom to seek Him; the freedom to serve Him (or not) with all the unique gifts and passions He planted in each of us.
Life is filled with “ifs”– good and bad. “If’s” are conditional and have consequences. God’s love is not an “If.” It is unconditional, eternal, and immeasurable. Accepting it, however is conditional–it is the greatest “if” in the center of our life!
Lord, help me make good choices– choices that reflect the love and mercy You have shown; choices that bring You honor and glory. Thank you for making the choice to send Your only Son, that whoever (including me) believes in Him should have everlasting life!
It’s fall here in western Michigan, and that means falling leaves…lots of them! In cities and larger towns, there are leaf “pick up” schedules. Trucks come along at appointed times to pick up leaves that have been raked and piled up by the roadside or placed (along with other yard waste, sticks and such) into waste bins. In smaller towns and around the countryside, leaves will be raked, piled up and burned or placed in compost heaps and bins. In a few cases, leaves will be left where they fall or are carried by the wind until the snow covers them, to be rediscovered in the spring when the snow melts off.
Falling leaves are part of the cycle of every year. They announce the advent of autumn, delighting us with their colors for a few short weeks. But when that task is done, they fall beneath our feet to be stepped on, swept up, burned up or forgotten. Gone are the memories of shoots and buds blooming in the spring, or rich green leaves shading us from the intense heat and light of summer. Leaves are ephemeral. They pass out of memory and time, their swirling colors lost in a heap of crunchy detritus underfoot.
People are not leaves. We share the same creator, but God has placed eternity in the minds, hearts, and souls of humankind. Whether we are blooming, changing color, falling, or being swept aside in this world, God will gather us all in a great harvest of souls. But we will not be turned to ash or mulched into compost. We face an eternal destiny; one where our true “colors” will be permanent, and our placement fixed. We will either be raised to vibrant life, attached to the source of life and abundance; or we will be eternally “fallen”, swept away by judgment and guilt and the consequences of rebellion.
That may sound harsh and dramatic, but it is written in our soul–we feel it as we watch the withering leaves let go of the tree or smell the acrid of the burn pile. We feel the pain and injustice of people being treated like no more than dead leaves– swept away as just another inconvenience.
Today, I want to look for fallen leaves–we are all “fallen” from Grace, but some have also “fallen” through the cracks or by the wayside–look for people and seek ways I can pray for, reach out to, and offer Hope and Grace, especially to those whom life has swept aside. Someone did it for me…Now it’s time to pass it forward. It’s time to turn over a new “leaf”. Let’s not “leave” the job unfinished–“branch” out beyond our comfort zone and bring in some leaves this autumn!