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.

Go! Tell! Witness! Believe!

15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.

Luke 2:15-17 (ESV)

Go! Tell It on the Mountain! The ancient prophets foretold it. The Angels brought the news to the shepherds, who told it to their neighbors: Jesus, the Christ, is born! He is here among us! God in the flesh! What amazing and glorious news! This same Jesus told parables, shared prophecies, and spoke the Truth– and taught His disciples to do the same! Through the centuries, witnesses have spoken words of hope, healing, and salvation to the next generation, taking the Word as they spread throughout the world.

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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

 
John 1:1; 14
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“Good Christian, fear, for sinners here the silent Word is pleading..”

What Child is This?

Jesus, who spoke the universe into existence, came into His own creation in silence as a newborn baby. The angels announced His coming; the shepherds spoke of Him; the Wise Men came to honor Him. But His arrival was just the beginning. In His ministry, He would speak words that echo through the centuries– words of hope; words of warning; words of life and salvation. And He challenges us to speak as well– to share the Gospel; to be His witnesses to the uttermost parts of the earth (see Acts 1:8).

Our words matter. Our words have power– power to build up, and power to destroy. We have opportunities each day to speak Truth, Hope, Joy, Peace, Compassion, Love…or to stay silent. And we must be careful to speak the truth– even when it is inconvenient, unpopular, or risky. We must not compromise by speaking pleasant platitudes or ignoring danger. Truth is not always pleasant–Jesus’s words were not always welcomed; not always comforting. But they brought healing where it was most needed, and hope where there was darkness.

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And more than words must go out into the world– Jesus didn’t sit in a comfortable corner of a bistro waiting for the hurting and hopeless to come to Him and hear His words. He climbed mountains and crossed lakes; He traveled from town to town; He shared meals and participated in the Synagogue services; He touched lepers and spoke to outcasts. Today, we have amazing opportunities to spread the Good News–technology and media; the ability to meet others in person (COVID permitting!) or via Zoom or Skype or even cell phone; and, in many places, the freedom to speak without fear.

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 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16 (NIV)
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The Word came down at Christmas. Let’s make sure the Word goes out this Christmas– the Savior has arrived! He is Christ, the Lord! Joy! Peace! Hope! Celebration! Go! Tell it on the mountaintops and in the valleys and across the seas!

The Right Time

But when the right time finally came, God sent his own Son. He came as the son of a human mother and lived under the Jewish Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might become God’s children

Galatians 4:4-5 (Good News Translation– emphasis added)

At just the right time Christ died for ungodly people. He died for us when we had no power of our own.

Romans 5:6 (New International Reader’s Version–emphasis added)

Do you ever wonder at God’s timing throughout the Bible? Why did He take the Israelites up to the edge of the Red Sea and THEN send the entire Egyptian army after them? Why did He allow Haman to trick the king into signing an edict that would wipe out the Jews and THEN send Esther to try to save them? Why did Jesus wait until Lazarus was dead to visit His sick friend? Or God’s timing in our own lives? Why didn’t He make it possible to get the job I wanted when I first applied, instead of nearly a year later? Why is life so stressful all at once? Why does God seem to give me wisdom AFTER I’ve messed up? And yet, God’s timing is perfect. Not that it seems that way–in fact, it often seems like God is not paying attention to timing at all.

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Even in Christ’s birth, it seems like the timing couldn’t have been worse–Joseph and Mary forced to travel far from home, only to find that there was no room anywhere for them to rest. And then– THEN–the labor pains began! It was cold, dark, filthy, lonely, and frightening. And not just that evening: the Romans ruled a significant portion of the world with an iron fist. Jews were not forbidden from worshipping God, but they were heavily taxed, regulated, and watched over by their invaders. This newest census was just another part of the bureaucracy and endless government red tape. It seems like it would be the worst timing ever for Emmanuel to appear.

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And yet, Scripture says it was “just the right time” for Christ to come. So what can we discover about this “right time?”

  • God had been silent for 400 years before this– almost exactly the same amount of time the Israelites had been in captivity in Egypt before God sent Moses to lead them out. Coincidence? I’m not so sure…God uses patterns to illustrate concepts. Just as the Israelites had been slaves to the Egyptians, so all of us were slaves to Sin and Death. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” John 3:14 (New American Standard Bible)
  • The prophets made hundreds of statements about where and how Emmanuel would be born– some seemed completely contradictory; yet they were all fulfilled exactly. Again, this wasn’t a coincidence– God orchestrated events over centuries until it was “the right time” for them to all come to pass. Only God could have coordinated it all–the census, the genealogy of Jesus, Joseph’s hometown, Mary’s contractions coming THAT night in THAT cattle shed, instead of on the road somewhere, or in a private room where the shepherds couldn’t visit…
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  • The Jewish people had been in exile off and on throughout the centuries; under Rome, even though they were conquered, most of the Jews who had returned to their homeland were still living there, much as they had centuries before. That wasn’t the case four or five hundred years before– it isn’t even the case today– more Jewish people live outside of Israel than in it!
  • Rome had established its rule over most of the Western World– and with it, they had established a system of roads, common currency, and a complex legal system. All of this played vital roles in the advent of the Savior– from His birth, through His ministry, and even in His trial, death, and the spreading of the Gospel. Before them, the Greeks had established cities and trading centers that would form the basis of the first missionary trips of the Apostle Paul. And they had created a “common” language in which this Good News was first written and spread. Just a few hundred years earlier, the spread of Christianity through letters and traveling ministers would have been much slower, less efficient, and more dangerous. Just a few hundred years later, the Roman Empire would be in shambles; travel would require going through regions separated by differing languages and governments.
  • To me, one of the most fascinating things to imagine is what it might be like if Christ had not come until our own time. First, there would be no Christianity, and none of the work of Christians over the centuries would have been done. But even if we imagine that all of history had unfolded and the present was much as it is, Christ’s birth would not have happened in the same way. Bethlehem would not be under the rule of Rome. In fact, Israel might not even exist; as it is, it exists in hot contention between the Jews, the Palestinians, and their close neighbors in the Middle East. There would be no census, and no need for Joseph and Mary to travel– and certainly not by donkey! There might be “no room at the inn,” but Joseph and Mary would be sent to a homeless shelter, filled with other hapless travelers. The shepherds, seeing angels, might still be filled with fright– mistaking them for missiles! Even so, it would only take minutes for a team of journalists to arrive with cameras, microphones, and commentary! The message of the angels would be dubbed “false” information or “fake news”, as would most of the prophecies about His arrival. “Fact checkers” would “kill” the story, and Mary, Joseph, and all the shepherds and wise men would be “cancelled” or receive threats.
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Or not–I can only speculate. But I can say with confidence that God’s timing, even when it seems odd or “wrong” by our limited perspective, is perfect and worthy of our praise. All that seems “odd” or “wrong” about Christ’s coming when, where, or how He did, is just our limited perspective, and our tendency to doubt whatever we don’t understand.

Emmanuel came! He came at “just the right time” to fulfill all the promises and complete His ministry on Earth. Everything happened just as God designed it. And over two thousand years later, we still “Rejoice!” We sing songs, celebrate, and worship. We breathe in Hope, we give gifts, and we cherish the story of Christmas in hundreds of different ways.

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This same God has a plan for us today. Throughout our lives, He sends blessings, allows struggles, and patiently stands by, offering help and hope to each of us. There is not a single detail of our lives that escapes His notice or is beyond His capacity or willingness to restore, transform, redeem, or renew.

Emmanuel– God WITH us–at “just the right time!”

The Silent Treatment

Have you ever had someone give you “the silent treatment?” Or have you ever been angry or disgusted and refused to talk to someone? It can be very frustrating. You may ask a simple question– even look the other person in the eye–only to face a wall of silence. Silence of this type can be oppressive. It is less an absence of sound than a presence of something heavy and dark.

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God spoke through His prophets, messengers (angels), and sometimes, in visions throughout the days of the Old Testament. But then, He was silent. For four hundred years! There were no new messages, no prophetic visions– just a gloomy silence. There was still noise in the world– chaos, confusion, war, debates, chattering, gossip– but no word from God. He had spoken for thousands of years, and His laws and the words of the prophets still stood, promising a coming Messiah, a rescue and a redemption for the nation of Israel. But then, nothing.

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Imagine how much more glorious it must have been when the angel hosts announced the Messiah’s birth to the shepherds! After such a long silence, they must have nearly exploded with the joyous news! The shepherds, already frightened by the sudden appearance, must have been held in thrall to hear voices from the heavenly realms– something that hadn’t been heard or even heard of for over a dozen generations!

And that’s how it often is–after a period of silence, the sound comes spilling out in a mad rush. Feelings, thoughts, announcements, all waiting to rush out in an explosion of sound and excitement. The silence is over! The heaviness is lifted. The dam has burst, and the words pour out in a great flood.

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When Jesus– the Word of God– arrived, He spoke to many. He told parables and spoke words of healing and kindness and even warning. But at His trial, He refused to answer many of the questions that were posed. He dared to give “the silent treatment” to Pontius Pilate and the Pharisees. People who had refused to listen to Him during his ministry suddenly wanted answers. But He had already spoken and told them everything they needed to know.

Not so with His disciples. He spoke to them plainly and promised them a “counselor.” The Holy Spirit would speak, and would teach them how to speak. There would be no more “silent treatment” for those who knew the Spirit. No need for angelic messengers or prophetic visions (though God could still choose to use them as well)–God’s Spirit would dwell in the hearts and minds of His people.

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And yet, we often feel that God is “silent” in our own time. But is that really the case?

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Have you ever given God the “silent treatment?” How long have you held in resentment or doubt over something God did or didn’t do; a prayer He answered in a way that left you feeling hurt or confused? Is there a wall of silence on your part? It may not even be full silence. Is there some issue or topic you refuse to bring to prayer? Some secret desire you won’t discuss with Him? How does it weigh down the rest of your relationship?

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I have found myself holding things back, keeping silent about things in my life. It stunts my growth and hinders my prayers. But when I finally break my silence, pouring out the full measure of my fears, confusion, and deepest desires, it is like a weight sliding away, and light breaking through the clouds. The joy and relief are overwhelming. (See Psalm 32 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+32&version=ESV) What the psalmist says about sin can apply to doubt, anger, or confusion, as well. Unconfessed and unspoken, it will weigh upon us.

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Don’t give God the “silent treatment.” He already knows all that you would keep back from Him. Silence doesn’t “treat” anything– real healing comes from open communication with the Great Physician. Don’t wait four hundred years– or even four hundred seconds! Let the words (and maybe the tears) flow…And don’t be surprised if your silence is replaced with singing!

We the People

Yesterday and today mark two important milestones in North America. September 16 is Mexican Independence Day, and September 17 is Constitution Day in the United States. On these days, people in our two countries celebrate some of the great things that can be accomplished by “we the people.” The founders of our nations were not perfect, but they fought and worked and came together to make “a more perfect union,” and a brighter future for their citizens.

All around the world, governments are instituted to protect the rights and lives of people– to protect them from danger, to allow them to interact in peace and safety, and to provide for “the general welfare” of all. But governments– even the best–are run by fallible people.

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The Bible tells a long and complex story of the ancient nation of Israel. Tracing its origins to a single patriarch (Abraham), the family grew to be a powerful nation, ruled first by priests and judges, and then by a series of kings. The nation split into two distinct countries, before being scattered and sent into exile. The story of the nation is chronicled (literally) in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles. In the books of the prophets, the same message comes from God again and again–Israel and Judah have both fallen into the same idolatry and corruption that doomed the nations they had conquered in former times. Instead of seeking justice for all the people, and providing order and protection, the leaders had become drunkards, liars, thieves, and murderers. They betrayed their allies, made foolish treaties, oppressed the poor and helpless, and celebrated their own cleverness. “We the People” had devolved into “us versus them.” Worship of God had been replaced by worship of a pantheon of foreign gods–worship that involved ritual prostitution and human sacrifice. Family members and fellow citizens were sold into slavery, robbed and beaten, used and abused, and slaughtered–without remorse or fear of retribution. God’s warnings were followed by His justice and punishment, and the demise of both nations, as well as punishment for their neighbors.

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Israel’s story, while very detailed, isn’t unique in history. Instead, it is a case study of what can happen when the people abandon unity and the rule of law for division and corruption. It is what happens when “who we are” becomes more important than “whose” we are; when “we” are more important than anyone else–even God. Israel and Judah continued to be religious right up to the point where they were dragged off to exile. They brought offerings and sacrifices, sang songs, prayed, and memorized scripture. Their leaders assured them that God would protect them and continue to let them prosper as their enemies marched up to the gates of Jerusalem. They had not abandoned the worship of God– they had just added idolatry to it. They worshipped their own prosperity, they worshipped gods and goddesses of the harvest, of war, of wealth, and wisdom. They still thought God was great– but not necessarily Sovereign.

Who or what are we worshipping today? What “new” and additional principles have we added to our own Constitution? To the laws of the land? To our way of being good citizens in our respective countries? To the eternal Word of God? When we hear the phrase, “We the People,” does it bring to mind people who look and live differently than us? Does it bring thoughts of justice and unity? Does it humble us?

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King David, the second, and one of the greatest of Israel’s kings wrote: “Know that the Lord, He is God; It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.” (Psalm 100:3 NKJV) “We the People,” by ourselves, will scatter and fall into destruction, like sheep without a shepherd.

Fitting In

(Today, I am republishing a post from last year. I will be back with a fresh post on Monday.)

Matthew 5:1-12 (NIV via biblegateway.com):

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

The Beatitudes

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

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No one likes to feel “left out.” We have a deep desire to be accepted, liked, loved, respected, and needed. We want to “fit in.” But sometimes, acceptance and inclusion are not possible. Sometimes, they are offered, but at a price too steep. Sometimes, we make unhealthy compromises in our efforts to avoid conflict or to win respect.

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In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us at least seven principles/actions that will bring us blessing. But they are in opposition to human nature– NOT designed to help us “fit in” with most of society. Elsewhere in scripture, we are told to stand apart from what others are doing or saying. God wants people who will follow HIM, not the world.

  • People who are poor in spirit— this can be taken at least two ways: those who consider themselves poor in a material sense, and hold their money and possessions lightly; or those who are aware of their spiritual poverty, knowing that they need guidance and wisdom from above. Such people will “possess” the kingdom of heaven– not by fighting and straining and striving and grasping for sole ownership–it is God’s gracious gift to be shared by all who are poor in spirit.
  • People who mourn–not people who are eternally gloomy and depressed, but those who mourn the loss of innocence, the injustices of the world, the suffering and grief of others. Such people also rejoice at the sight of a glorious sunrise, or laugh to see children playing– but they do not deny or circumvent the realities of a fallen world. Such people will be comforted, even in the midst of mourning, by God’s sovereignty and righteousness.
  • People who are meek (humble)–there is a difference between being meek and lacking confidence or being a stooge or a fool. Meek people still have boundaries– and they respect the boundaries of others. They stand up for what is right, but they don’t insist on always being “right.” Such people will not stake a claim on the earth or try to grab their “fair share.” Instead, they will inherit all that God has in store for them!
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  • People who hunger and thirst for righteousness–hunger and thirst are natural and ongoing processes. There are people who want “justice” or “righteousness.” They want it NOW. They want it to be retroactive. They want it to be a foregone conclusion. And they want it to be eternal. But they don’t long for personal righteousness, and they don’t want to feel hunger or thirst for it. They don’t want to seek after true righteousness; they just want the results. They just want the world to spin righteously all around them. But for those who hunger and thirst– Jesus is both the Living Water and the Bread of Life. He brings a daily portion of all-sufficient Grace, wisdom, and forgiveness to keep us filled.
  • People who are merciful–I was struck as I read this again by the term merciful. We spend a lot of time and energy talking about God’s Grace– the fact that God gives us untold blessings that we don’t deserve. But here, Jesus is talking about the merciful– not giving others the condemnation or punishment they deserve. I find it much easier to be Graceful than to be Merciful. It is easy to bless others; to be charitable, or charming, encouraging, or bountiful. It is much more difficult to bite back an insulting or critical retort, to forgive a debt, to let go of a grudge, or keep from passing on a juicy morsel of gossip. It is easier to focus on the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would like them to do unto you, than to Love your enemies. Jesus asked us to do both– but the blessing here is for those who show Mercy!
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  • People who are pure in heart–not just shiny on the surface. I can say all manner of spiritual-sounding things; I can do all kinds of good deeds; I can even write blog entries on scriptural truths– but God looks on my heart, to see if it is pure. And if I haven’t covered my heart in posturing and false rituals, justifications and excuses, denials and rebellion, I should be able to “see” God– to have a clearer picture of who He is, what He is doing in the world around me, what He wants me to do and say and become…
  • People who are peacemakers–not just people who “go along to get along,” but people who are willing to help bring about peace, and who will create an atmosphere of unity and respect–at home, in the workplace, and in their neighborhoods. When we bring peace to a chaotic relationship, or create a peaceful atmosphere, we are doing the work of reconciliation, and we are showing others the nature of our Father.
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  • When we cultivate (or allow God’s Spirit to cultivate) these characteristics in our lives, we will not “fit it” with the world around us. We will stand out and stand apart. And that will make us targets for persecution, abuse, misunderstanding, insults, and false accusations. But we can be encouraged, not only because of the blessings Jesus promises in the Beatitudes, but in the reminder that we stand in very good company. We may not fit in at the office; we may be ostracized by our family; we may be targeted in our community– but we fit in with a host of prophets, apostles, saints, and with Christ Himself!

How Can You?!

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14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.

1 Peter 3:14-16 (ESV) via biblegateway.com
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I was approached years ago by an angry non-believer, who asked me in disdainful tones how I could possibly believe in God, Jesus Christ, heaven and hell, and other Biblical tenets. At the time, I was taken aback by the vehemence and anger. I stammered an answer, heart-felt and, I hoped, theologically “correct”–I think I quoted scripture and gave a short version of my personal testimony. The other person was not impressed or convinced. I felt like I had failed. The other person sneered at my belief–and at God!

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I spent weeks going over in my mind what else I might have said. I came up with clever arguments, gripping counter-questions, self-deprecating “homey” zingers, I read books on apologetics, and studied the words of great thinkers…I would be ready next time. I would not be left looking or sounding naive and unprepared. I would have the tools to “win” the argument, and God would be proud of me.

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But in the years since, I have done more thinking (and reading, and praying!) And this past month, as I’ve been reading through the Old Testament prophets, I have found a new perspective. Prophets like Isaiah, Habakkuk, Amos, and Malachi spoke the very words of God to people around them. They spoke to ordinary people, and to the religious and political leaders of their day. And almost none of them listened! In fact, the prophets were hated, sneered at, smeared, imprisoned– some of them were even killed.

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These prophets were prepared. They were not being ambushed with “gotcha” questions, because they were the ones presenting and challenging people with the truth. The truths they spoke were often harsh and offensive. They were truths about coming judgment and destruction, followed by restoration and revival. There was nothing “welcoming” or attractive about their message. But the people remained stubborn, sinful, and unimpressed.

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We live in the post-Resurrection age. Our message contains warnings about judgment and destruction– but unlike the prophets of old, we have a message of immediate and eternal Hope and Salvation. We have centuries of prophecies that have been fulfilled; of testimonies to the power of a risen Christ and the Holy Spirit. Yet even Jesus warned us that “..in the world (you) will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33b ESV)

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We often feel that if we cannot “win over” those who challenge us–if we cannot prove to their satisfaction that we are “right” in our beliefs–that we have failed. Yet we have so many examples of faithful witnesses who suffered and died without seeing the results of their faithfulness. God does not ask us to “win” every battle in convincing and decisive fashion. That’s HIS job! What He does ask is that we should be prepared to give an answer– and that we do it with gentleness and respect.

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I don’t have to silence the critics. I don’t have to have “mic-drop” moments. I don’t have to “win” every debate. God calls me to be faithful, honest, and humble. My words may not change someone else’s mind. But my changed life and God-honoring attitude may plant a seed that someone else’s words and life, and the power of the Holy Spirit will cause to grow into faith– even if I never live to see it!

In answer to the question, “How can you believe?” The answer often lies, not only in what we say about our belief, but how we live it out!

Where Are the Altars?

I’ve been reading through the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc.), and there are many references to altars and sacrifices–both the ones built to honor Jehovah God, and those designed for idols.

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Israel and Judah were guilty of building thousands of altars and shrines to false gods. Some of them were found even inside the Holy area of God’s own temple! As part of God’s judgment, He repeated that He would no longer accept the empty sacrifices of His people–He would no longer hear their prayers, unless they repented.

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I read these words and wondered– Where are our altars today? When I was a child, many of the older churches had what we called an Altar. It was usually a raised platform, with a podium for the minister, and possibly a “host table” for communion. My childhood church also had a small table that held a large Bible. Sometimes, the platform would have a railing around the edge, with a couple of stairs on either side. And, while many churches “passed the plate” for offerings, some had a special plate on the railing of the altar, where people would march up and place their offerings for the week. There it would sit for the rest of the service–random dollar bills of random denominations in random states of being crumpled, folded, and worn, along with checks, and, sometimes even coins. All of them brought forward and placed on the altar.

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Today, many churches have stages, like any large theater or event center. There is no railing, but there are hundreds of spotlights and fog machines. There is no podium for the pastor–just a headset and maybe a small stand for notes. Sometimes, the pastor reads from a teleprompter. Often, he or she is joined by a full band or orchestra, and dozens of singers, actors, or other assistants. No one from the congregation approaches the stage– why would they get up from their comfortable reclining padded seat? No one even “needs” to bring a Bible– the sermon text is printed out on the giant screens hanging above the stage. Our worship is comfortable, and entertaining.

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But we have no altars. There is no place for someone to lay their offering before God; no place to meet with Him in repentance or revival. There is no place to remind us of sacrifice and atonement. Oh, to be sure, many churches have a large cross on display somewhere. Some even have the “host table” for communion– somewhere in the wings, just in case–but the concept of an “altar” has all but disappeared from churches in the West. It is an anachronism–something ancient and uncomfortably part of the distant mists of tradition.

I miss the altar. I believe God misses it, too.

The Whale and the Worm

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God keeps calling my attention to the book of Jonah. It’s not a very lengthy or in-depth book. It has only four chapters, and it tells a single story of the prophet Jonah and his mission to preach to the people of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. But it is filled with lessons about prayer, obedience, gratitude, repentance, and Grace. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jonah%201&version=NIV And we learn four important things about God: He sends, He saves, He sustains, and He suspends.

  • FIrst: God sends. The book of Jonah reminds me of reading Ernest Hemingway. It is compact, terse, and to the point. The very first verse reads, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai.” There is no other intro, no back story, no conversation between Jonah and God… Yet there IS a back story: elsewhere in the Bible, Jonah is mentioned as a prophet of God. Jonah wasn’t an unlikely choice to take a prophecy to Nineveh. He wasn’t new to the whole “prophet” gig– he wasn’t a farmer or a fisherman or a young shepherd boy. He was an experienced seer and prophet.
    I mention this because God sends who HE wants to send. He didn’t have to give this message to Jonah. And when Jonah ran away, God didn’t have to chase him down and give him a second chance. There were other prophets who might have delivered the message without any fuss or drama. There were priests, soldiers, merchants, and shepherds who could have done the job (and likely done a better job!) The book of Jonah reminds us that God’s purposes are often multi-faceted. God’s purpose in sending Jonah wasn’t just about the Ninevites– He wanted to work in and around and through Jonah to reveal His character. He also sent the big fish (the Bible never says it was actually a whale), and later a gourd vine and a worm– all to minister to Jonah. They all appear in the story, but only to Jonah, not to any of the others!
    God will send us–or He will send people (or big fish) TO us. He will send people and things to bless us; and to test our patience! But God sends us what is meant for our good and His glory.
  • God saves: Each chapter contains an example of God’s salvation– In chapter one, God not only saves Jonah from drowning by sending the big fish; He also saves everyone else on the ship. An entire crew of hardened seamen are stunned by God’s power and grace. In chapter two, God rescues Jonah from the fish’s belly, and gives him another opportunity to fulfill his mission. In chapter three, God sees and hears the pleas of the Ninevites–He withholds His judgment and showers the city with amazing Grace. In the final chapter, Jonah wants to die (twice!), yet God provides comfort, compassion, and correction in response. At the end of this book, in spite of storms and raging seas, prophecies of doom and destruction, dangerous journeys, scorching sun, and disobedience, rebellion, and evil– NO ONE DIES!
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  • God Sustains: God could have rescued Jonah without the “whale.” He could have calmed the storm. He could have caused Jonah to walk on water. He could have created a path of dry land for Jonah to walk on… But God caused Jonah to be in the belly of the fish for three days– a circumstance that Jesus used to foretell His own death and resurrection. God sustained Jonah even in the midst of his bitterness, anger, depression, and rebellion. He gave Jonah a miraculous rescue– one Jonah could have shared with the Ninevites to illustrate God’s Mercy. I find it curious that the King of Nineveh invites everyone to fast and pray, saying “Who knows..” Jonah KNEW! He was a living example of God’s Grace and Power. He could have shared this wonderful news with the people of Nineveh, yet he chose to share only the message of God’s wrath. Jonah had the biggest “fish story” in history, and he chose to keep it a secret! In spite of this, God sustained Jonah’s life– against Jonah’s own wishes! How has God sustained us in moments of crisis, doubt, and infidelity?
  • God Suspends: What does that mean? Well, in this book, it means several things. God suspends His judgment against the city of Nineveh–in later Bible books, we see that the people of Nineveh and Assyria return to their evil ways. They do not turn completely from their worship of idols and their detestable practices. Within a couple of generations, they experience the total destruction that Jonah predicted. God is Gracious and Merciful; He is also Righteous and Just. Jonah’s mistake was to despise God’s Mercy toward his enemies; the Ninevites’ mistake was to forget God’s Holiness. But God also suspends Jonah’s life– three times Jonah expresses a passive desire to die: he asks to be thrown into the sea (he does not know or expect that God will rescue him); he asks to die after the Ninevites are spared; and he asks to die when the worm destroys the gourd vine. But Jonah’s desire to die goes unfulfilled. God’s purpose is not that Jonah should die, but that Jonah should learn to LIVE and love: love his life; love his God (better); and love his former enemies. Sadly, we never find if Jonah ever learned his lesson. The author of Jonah leaves us “suspended” as well.
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Our God sends “whales” to rescue us from our rebellious wandering, and “worms” to take away those comforts that keep us from seeing our real needs. He saves us, even though we don’t deserve a second (or third or thirtieth) chance. He sustains us, even in times of failure. And He suspends us, withholding His wrath and giving us loving compassion and correction.
Jonah is not a very lovable character– and that is a great comfort to me in times when I am faced with my own failures and missed opportunities. The people of Nineveh were despicable! They deserved justice and judgment. But God loved Jonah; and He loved the people of Nineveh. And He loves us– more than we deserve; more than we can imagine. He loves the unlovable. He loves the despicable. He loves those who cannot love themselves, and those we are convinced we cannot love.

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May we learn a lesson today from the “whale” and the “worm”– we can trust God for Mercy and for Justice. We can trust Him to save and sustain us; to send us and suspend us. And we can rest in His love and care–whether we find ourselves in a raging sea or caught in the scorching heat, or sent on a mission that tests our heart and soul to its limit.

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

Christmas is a time of joy and light. But the time of Advent is often a time of somber reflection. We remember a time we have never known– a time before the coming of Christ the Messiah– a time before the mysteries of Heaven were revealed and before the victory of Salvation was accomplished. Advent reminds us of the spiritual darkness that existed before God, in human form, in humble obedience, and in sacrificial love, became the Light of the World, and the Hope of All Nations.

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Before the bells rang, and the angels sang; before the kings brought gold and the shepherds ran to tell the news; before there were Christmas Carols, Christmas decorations, or Christmas pageants– there was solemn silence, fear, dread, and waiting. God had been silent. The prophets had been silent. The world had grown hard and cold.

Jesus stepped out of the unfathomable glory of the Highest Heaven– surrounded by armies of angels all worshiping Him and ready to do His bidding. In an instant, He became a helpless fetus inside a helpless young woman, a subject of the Roman Empire, and at the mercy of her culture. Her fiance could have repudiated her; her parents could have disowned her; her community could have had her stoned to death, along with her unborn child. No one, even those who were anticipating the arrival of a Christ, was expecting this tiny baby growing inside the womb to change the course of history.

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He was born in obscurity, in ignominious squalor. He was the Lord of All Creation, wrapped in rags and laid in a feeding trough in an overcrowded city at tax time. There were no bells or carolers, no glittering trees or festivals of lights, no sounds of joy and celebration– not in that manger in Bethlehem. Instead, there were strangers pushing and shoving, shouting, and snoring in the inns and houses and streets, being watched by soldiers and pickpockets alike, as they made their way through narrow, unfamiliar streets and tried to lock out the worry and danger and dread. There may have been silence in the fields and valleys outside of town, but not near the stable where Jesus was born. No. The “silence” we sing about during Advent is the silence inside our own hearts– a call to “be still,” and know that this baby we celebrate is God Incarnate. He is the One to whom every knee will one day bow, and every tongue confess that He is LORD.

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In the stillness and silence of Advent, in the darkness lit only by candles and faint hope, we being to understand the contrast. We re-imagine what came before the joy and hope and eternal clouds of witnesses shouting, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” We remember the days and years before the angels sang, and the star danced across the night sky– before the shocking crucifixion and the glorious resurrection of this still unborn Savior.

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Let us spend these days of Advent preparing our hearts for the true wonder of Christmas. It doesn’t come in the wrapped packages under a festive tree, or in the feasting with friends or family. It doesn’t come with sirens and parades, or speakers at the mall blaring out favorite tunes. It doesn’t come in the majesty of a Cathedral ringing with the voices of a choir and organ. It comes when the silence and darkness of our sin and dread are pierced with the overwhelming glory of God With Us– Emmanuel is coming! But for now, for these moments, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.

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