Sticks and Stones

Last time Any One Who Is Without Sin…, I looked at a few verses in the gospel of John (8: 1-11), and wrote on four insights. Today, I’d like to look at some practical implications.

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  • If I am “part of the crowd” following Jesus, how easily do I get distracted by the “Pharisees” and critics? How often do I wander off track, looking at fine points in the scriptures that fit a particular argument? How often do I get caught up in senseless debates, allowing myself to be offended or riled up? Over the past several weeks, I have seen arguments via FB , e-mail, or other social media sites where Christians are using Bible verses, Church traditions, the U.S. Constitution, and other teachings and documents to defend such things as wearing a face mask, defying executive orders, practicing (or not practicing) social distancing, and condemning family, friends, and neighbors for taking a different view. We live in a society that reacts– often instantly and with confidence in our own morality– instead of listening and contemplating. We like building strong arguments to defend…scripture? tradition? interpretation? Jesus did none of these things when confronted by this mob. He didn’t dismantle their argument with more argument– he simply got to the heart of the matter– how to deal with Sin.
  • How often do I come to Jesus “knowing” the answer before I ask the question? The Pharisees in the story were not really interested in Jesus’ thoughts or wisdom concerning the situation at hand. They assumed that Jesus would have to answer in only one of two ways, and that either way, he would look bad. I may not be trying to “trap” Jesus with my prayers, but often, I AM trying to seek his confirmation, rather than his wisdom and teaching. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.” (1 Corinthians 8:1b-3 NRSV) Many times, I am busier “loving” how much I know than learning how much God loves!
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  • For me, one of the most amazing new insights about this passage is that once Jesus introduces the phrase, “Any one who is without sin…” everyone leaves– everyone except the one who has been caught in the act of sinning, and the One who has always been without sin. Dealing with Sin is a very personal thing– both confronting our own sinfulness, and acknowledging God’s perfect righteousness. Everyone in the original crowd came to hear Jesus teach. And they were comfortable letting someone else be humiliated and condemned for her sin. But when their own unrighteousness was introduced into the situation–secret sins, unconfessed sins, pride, prejudice, and more–they melted away. How often do I slink away, unwilling or ungrateful to see Jesus show mercy to someone I find “unworthy,” knowing that I am equally undeserving, knowing that I am not “without sin?” Yet the sinful woman in question is the only one who receives the full light of Jesus’ love and mercy. Dozens of others, eager to hear Jesus’ teaching, missed the greatest lesson of all. In the very next verse, at the very next opportunity to speak, Jesus makes one of the most amazing statements in the Gospels, “12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”(John 8:12 ESV) It’s not just showing up to hear him speak; it’s not just knowing the law–it’s following him that leads to light and life.
  • Finally, Jesus grants mercy. He doesn’t split hairs about the Law of Moses. He doesn’t dismiss the reality of Sin or guilt. He doesn’t give the woman a long list of do’s and don’ts for the future or a proscribed plan of atonement. He doesn’t give her a blank check to keep sinning. The Bible doesn’t give us an epilogue to the story. We don’t hear whether or not the woman gave up her life of adultery– we assume that she did. But why? Would she have given it up because she had “dodged a bullet” with the mob? Part of the reason she was brought to Jesus in the first place was that Roman law overruled Jewish law. The mob was not likely to stone this woman– especially within the city limits. ( In fact, in the book of Acts, we have the story of Stephen, who was stoned by a mob. He was dragged out of town, after facing trial by the Sanhedrin, and stoned because of his testimony against their unbelief. ) Would the woman’s life have changed because her guilty secret had been exposed, even though she had not been condemned? Or is it more likely that her life changed because she had an encounter with the “One who is without sin,” and found in Him a love greater than condemnation? She hadn’t planned to follow Jesus. She may not have taken his teaching seriously if she had been just “one of the crowd.” She wasn’t singled out because of her beauty or righteousness or knowledge or status. But Jesus poured out on her the fullness of His love and mercy. How would/does such an encounter change my life? Yours?
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The Pharisees saw this woman as a pawn worthy of stoning; worthy of condemnation. They brought her, intending to throw “sticks and stones,” accusations, and painful, even fatal words. Jesus used words of healing and hope. May we do the same today– as we approach our neighbors and friends, and as we approach the Sinless one who died in our place.

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Any One Who Is Without Sin…

I was re-reading a familiar passage in the gospel of John recently, and I was struck by a truth I had missed before. In the first part of John 8, there is a story about a woman caught in adultery https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+8%3A1-11&version=NIV I have read this story many times, and even heard sermons preached on this passage. What struck me this time wasn’t exactly new material, or a new reading, but a new understanding of a detail that was there all along.

The story begins with Jesus teaching a crowd of people in the temple courts in Jerusalem. His teaching is interrupted by a group of Pharisees and teachers of the law. They have a woman caught in the act of adultery, and they come to Jesus asking his opinion about stoning her. They obviously know the laws of Moses, because they cite them. But they cite only a certain portion of the law, and they want Jesus to weigh in (so they can use his own words to trap him).

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Jesus turns the tables, and passively bends down to write letters in the sand. He says only, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one, the accusers and the crowd– everyone except Jesus–melts away. Finally, Jesus asks who is left to condemn the woman. There is no one. Jesus refuses to condemn her, and sends her on her way, telling her to “Go, and sin no more.”

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Four details I want to highlight in this story:

  • There was already a crowd around Jesus before the Pharisees and teachers arrived. They did not bring this woman to Jesus to get an honest answer to a question, or to bring about justice (for that, they should have brought both her AND the man involved!); they brought her to a very public spot to humiliate her and trap Jesus. She was a pawn in a political and religious game, and she was guilty of a crime that was punishable by death. She was accused and forced to stand before a crowd to be condemned without a trial. So often, I read this passage, and my focus is on Jesus and the woman and the Pharisees– I forget that there is a crowd of ordinary people being “played” by the Pharisees for their own purposes.
  • Jesus never answers the question at hand. According to the laws of Moses, the woman should be stoned. That is the point the Pharisees want Jesus to address. They have set him up. If he agrees with their interpretation of the laws of Moses, he should insist that the woman be stoned. But this will be in violation of the Roman laws, and will lead to Jesus being arrested by the Romans. But if Jesus upholds the Roman law, he will be turning his back on centuries of Jewish tradition dating back to Moses. The problem is that the Pharisees have resorted to some half-truths. The laws of Moses DO speak of stoning; they speak of adultery being punishable by death– for both the man and the woman involved. However, the Priests and leaders of Israel have not followed this practice. King David committed adultery with Uriah’s wife. Neither one was stoned or condemned to death. There are no records of other adulterous couples being stoned throughout Israel’s history. So it is rather disingenuous for the Pharisees to bring this case to Jesus and ask him to speak judgment where they will not. Jesus knows this is not about actual justice; it isn’t really about the law of Moses– because they are not following it themselves! By turning the tables back on them, Jesus exposes their hypocrisy and failure in front of the very crowds they are trying to impress with their clever plans.
  • One by one, the woman’s accusers melt away. But it’s not just them, it’s the crowd of ordinary people– the ones who were likely riled up by the Pharisees and teachers. Think about the mob mentality–a guilty woman, caught in the act and brought before a teacher with moral authority–there is nothing like scandal to get a crowd of anonymous bystanders worked up and ready for blood. Yet, Jesus’ gentle reminder that any of us could be found “guilty” of something and condemned to shame and punishment puts out the flame of anger and resentment, and causes the mob to evaporate. No one is left to accuse, to curse, to insult, to humiliate, or condemn.
  • Finally, it’s down to Jesus and the sinful woman. There IS one person there who is without sin– one person who has the right to throw stones, to judge, to punish. Yet he reaches out with compassion and mercy. He is still righteous– he doesn’t shrug off the woman’s sin. He doesn’t say, “Well, that’s no big deal. Let’s just pretend that never happened.” or “I think you’ve learned a valuable lesson here today, young lady.” He simply says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”
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Next time, I want to address each of these details from a practical standpoint in light of modern circumstances, and what lessons I am taking from Jesus’ actions.

Where Can I Hide?

Psalm 139 New King James Version (NKJV)

For the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David.

139 O Lord, You have searched me and known me.
You know my sitting down and my rising up;
You understand my thought afar off.
You [a]comprehend my path and my lying down,
And are acquainted with all my ways.
For there is not a word on my tongue,
But behold, O Lord, You know it altogether.
You have [b]hedged me behind and before,
And laid Your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is high, I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in [c]hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall [d]fall on me,”
Even the night shall be light about me;
12 Indeed, the darkness [e]shall not hide from You,
But the night shines as the day;
The darkness and the light are both alike to You.

13 For You formed my inward parts;
You [f]covered me in my mother’s womb.
14 I will praise You, for [g]I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are Your works,
And that my soul knows very well.
15 My [h]frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.
And in Your book they all were written,
The days fashioned for me,
When as yet there were none of them.

17 How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God!
How great is the sum of them!
18 If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand;
When I awake, I am still with You.

19 Oh, that You would slay the wicked, O God!
Depart from me, therefore, you [i]bloodthirsty men.
20 For they speak against You wickedly;
[j]Your enemies take Your name in vain.
21 Do I not hate them, O Lord, who hate You?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against You?
22 I hate them with [k]perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me, and know my anxieties;
24 And see if there is any wicked way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting.

We can’t hide from God. We can ignore Him, deny His existence, even rage against Him. But we cannot escape His Spirit. We cannot hide who we are or what we think from Him. And we cannot flee from His goodness or mercy; we cannot run beyond His ability to restore us, heal us, or save us. He knows the worst about us, and He calls us to the very best we can be. Which begs the question– Why would we want to escape from God? Why do we try to hide from Him? What is it about God that would give us a reason to flee?

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There are many terrifying things in this world–right now, we are faced with a global pandemic; a plague that brings sickness and death. Now THAT is something worth hiding from! Many of us are “sheltering in place,” trying to hide out until it is safer to interact with others. The disease seems to be everywhere–but it really isn’t– it cannot go where there are no hosts to carry the virus. It can be spread wherever we find other people who are infected, or where the virus lingers on surfaces. The disease does not seek us out or come searching for us if we stay put. Unfortunately, “sheltering in place” comes with its own dangers. We cannot survive long in a bubble. We are interdependent. We need food, medicine, fresh air, and interaction with family and friends to survive and thrive. Hiding away from a tiny virus is only effective in the short term. And there are other diseases from which we cannot hide– cancer and heart disease, and even other viruses that are active, but haven’t been traced or identified.

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There are other terrors that we try to escape by fleeing– hurricanes, fires, floods, war, etc. And we may escape immediate danger from such terrors–if we have advance warning or if we have the means to escape. But there is no place of absolute safety: no place on earth where such dangers cannot exist. There is no Utopia– no earthly dwelling, community, or settlement where there is only goodness, harmony, peace, and plenty. There is no place to hide, and no place of escape.

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It is understandable that we should want to hide from danger or flee bad things, even if such escape is impossible in life. But why should we wish to hide from a loving and merciful God? Is He as bad as COVID-19? Is He as threatening as a hurricane or an air raid?

Certainly, He is as powerful (and even more) than any of the dangers we fear. God has the power, and the authority, to judge, punish, and destroy all who live on the planet. He has the power to obliterate all of His creation, and none of us could stop Him or challenge His right to do as He pleases. And if we should challenge God’s authority, we would be wise to want to run away, hide, or escape the consequences of such foolishness.

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Adam and Eve tried this long ago. After they sinned by eating the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they hid from God. And God’s response was not instant obliteration. He didn’t storm through Eden, destroying everything in His righteous anger before torturing Eve, making Adam watch in horror before He killed them both. Nor did God negate His Holiness by changing the consequences of sin. Death DID enter creation– along with disease, pain, guilt, envy, hatred, lying, greed, destruction– they all exist, persist, and continue to plague all of God’s creation to this day.

But God’s first act–His first words to Adam and Eve after their rebellion– was to seek their presence. God came to walk in the Garden; to meet with Adam and Eve. He called out to them, “Where are you?” He wasn’t asking because He didn’t know that they were hiding. He knew where they were, and why. And even in assigning their punishment, God did not throw extra guilt and recrimination at the fallen couple. He didn’t shout, “How could you do this to ME?!” “How dare you!” “I wish I’d never made you!” “You’re worthless. What a waste of time and energy. Get out of my garden! I never want to see you or hear from you again!”

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God’s Spirit is always seeking reconciliation, communion, restoration, and love. God is Holy, and God is Merciful. Holiness desires Whole-ness. Mercy desires Peace. God pursues us, not because He wants to infect us or devour us or destroy us– God wants to hold us, heal us, and give us Life.

The danger is not in God’s presence, but in our ability to reject it. God is everywhere, but not everyone will see Him, accept His authority, or welcome His mercy. Some will spend a lifetime hiding and fleeing, only to discover that God will, reluctantly, give them what they want– an eternity without Him. Without Grace, without Love, without Peace, without Wholeness, without Hope.

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That is a fate far worse than waking up to “shelter in place,” or even suffering through a virus that can separate us from loved ones for weeks, months, or even a short lifetime.

There are many things worth fleeing in life– But we can find joy, hope, and peace in the presence of a Loving and Omnipresent God.

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Three Words

Essential

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about people who are “essential.” In times of crisis, certain skills and services are necessary to preserve or protect life. In times of war, soldiers, medics, makers of tanks and arms, helmets, planes, boots, and armor become essential. In times of famine, farmers, and anyone with reserves of food or water become essential. In times like these, doctors, nurses, EMTs, and those who make or distribute medicines, PPE (personal protective equipment), ventilators, etc., are essential.

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Being “essential” may sound wonderful, but it comes with a heavy price. Doctors and nurses are stretched and stressed, working ridiculously long shifts and scrambling to find ways to arrest the progress of COVID-19 among their patients who test positive. Meanwhile, their neighbors are complaining about being told to stay home and do nothing because their skills, their businesses, and their contributions are considered “non-essential.” Grocers and the cashiers, restaurant owners, farmers, and truckers are risking their lives to keep people supplied with food, only to have people complain about prices and temporary shortages. And any one of their customers could be spreading the virus– not just to them, but to their other customers. Police officers, already putting their lives on the line, are now asked to interact with those who may be carrying and spreading this virus, as well as dealing with an angry and frustrated population chafing under orders to stay home and stay inactive. And those who are “essential” are also vulnerable– tired and frightened and inadequate to meet every need–they are not infallible or indefatigable.

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There are really only a few things in life that are actually essential–breathing (which is one of the reasons COVID-19 is so scary, because it attacks the lungs), water, food, and basic shelter (protection from excessive heat or cold). And, while many around the world are facing more extreme shortages than others, most of the chafing and complaining has less to do with not having the essentials than with being (or not being) labeled “essential” with very little notice or guidance, and asked to bear the brunt of a crisis they cannot predict or control.

Redundant (non-essential)

For every person who is feeling the pressure of being “essential” in a time like this, there are others who have been labeled “non-essential”– redundant, expendable, “in the way.” “Stay home!” “Stay away!” “Don’t!” Don’t shake hands, or hug, or visit friends or loved ones (unless you can do so via phone or internet). Don’t touch– don’t touch door knobs or counters or surfaces– don’t even touch your own face!

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The intent of these messages is a positive one–“help stop the spread of this virus”–but the message often gets lost in the tone of fear and panic that accompanies it. “If you don’t (go away, stay away, stop touching, stop asking questions, stop being in the way…) other people, especially ‘essential’ people, will get sick and die.” “If you could just go away, disappear, be quiet, etc., until this crisis dies down…” Feeding your family, keeping your business open, earning a living, using or developing your skills, offering your services or products– none of that is “essential” right now. You have nothing to offer in a time of crisis– you are expendable. Perhaps not forever, but just now– just for a few more days, weeks, months?…

Jesus offers us a shocking view of what is/who is “essential” or “redundant.” In his encounter with the “rich young ruler,” (see https://pursuingprayer.blog/2020/02/07/a-miss-is-as-good-as-a-mile/) Jesus listens as the young man seeks to justify himself. He has done everything he deems “essential” to inherit eternal life. But Jesus challenges him with one “essential”–sell what he has in order to serve the poor and “redundant.”

Jesus had frequent encounters with lepers– the most “redundant” and expendable people of his day. They were contagious, “unclean,” unwanted. And Jesus also encountered those with great power and prestige–priests and rulers, centurions and tax collectors. Many of them were also considered “unclean,” and unwanted! Those for whom Jesus had the sternest warnings were those who refused to accept, respect, or help those they preferred to judge.

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Whosoever-

Jesus, the only One who actually has the right to judge, didn’t come to further the division of people into categories and labels. While he didn’t turn a blind eye to sinful activities, neither did he point fingers. And while he celebrated faith and service when he found it, he didn’t flatter or fawn over those whose service was more “essential” than others’. Instead, Jesus invited “whosoever” to believe in him (John 3:16), to follow him, and to become part of the Kingdom of God. (Revelation 22:17). Someday, He will judge us, and we will be separated. But the one “essential” will be whether or not we have chosen to depend on Him and trust Him for the wisdom and strength to do His will in service to “whosoever” we encounter.

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There is no one so “essential” that God is required to accept her/him into the Kingdom. This may be a strange notion to some of us, who have fallen into thinking that we earn our salvation through good works or memorizing doctrinal statements. But NO person is essential in Heaven. And that’s not bad news or meant to condemn–it is simply a reminder that God’s standard is level and fair. We don’t have to strive and stress; we don’t have to have all the right answers, or do all the “right” things– in fact, we can’t.

And there is no one so “redundant” that God cannot accept him/her into the Kingdom. Again, this may be a strange notion, that we cannot “out-sin” God’s salvation. We can’t mess up, wash out, face-plant, or fail such that God cannot redeem, rescue, or revive us. God will never tell us to “stay away,” “wait,” “don’t get too close.” Instead he says, over and over again, “Come!”

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Whosoever is struggling with exhaustion, or impossible expectations, panic, fear, sickness, anger, depression, loneliness, hunger, rejection, injustice, confusion, or emptiness– let them come!

…And I Am Not.

In my last post, I talked about “When God Doesn’t Answer..” Of course, there are times when God seems silent, and I spoke about a couple of times when that was true in my life. God’s timing and wisdom are reminders that He is God– and I am NOT.

I want to revisit that theme for a bit. I was reading the post and realized that I spoke of the waiting and hoping and God’s faithfulness in sending an answer in the person of David, who became my husband. I spoke of God’s ways being higher and better than our ways– and they are. But I left out one aspect of God’s character. Forgiveness.

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It is tempting, and I gave in to the temptation, to focus on my feelings, and my positive actions during those years of waiting– taking good advice and making good use of my time as a single to volunteer and serve. But I also did plenty of wallowing in self-pity, of questioning God’s goodness and His timing. I slipped into bad habits that I had to break as a married woman– selfish habits and indulgent thought patterns. And I find myself battling new bad habits, slipping back into depression and isolation, or taking for granted the blessings of married life.

I don’t say this to negate God’s goodness in answering my longing for a husband and family, nor to suggest that God’s long silence and eventual answer were any less gracious and loving. Instead, I want to thank Him for being patient with me, for extending both mercy and grace in His good time, and in spite of my bad behavior.

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God’s mercy and his goodness surround us–especially when we don’t see them. When we doubt His presence, when we accuse Him of not caring, when we pout, and posture, and resent the road He has us traveling. God’s word is full of stories of people who waited– some patiently, some not so much– and people who wandered, and even rebelled. And many of them perished without ever seeing God’s answer or without repenting. But I cannot think of any instance where someone who sought God’s face or His forgiveness and was turned away– EVER. God followed the grumbling nation of Israel for forty years, His anger breaking out against them multiple times, but He remained faithful to His promise to bring them to the Promised Land. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Deuteronomy+1&version=NCV God went so far as to remove His Spirit from King Saul, but He allowed Saul to continue to reign, even when Saul tried to kill God’s anointed one and his own son-in-law. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+19-24&version=NIV God followed David from his days as a shepherd boy through his reign as Israel’s king– in spite of David’s sins, in spite of the drama and chaos of his household, in spite of betrayal by his own sons and generals.https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+kings+2%3A1-10&version=CSB God chased down Saul on the road to Damascus– after Saul had hunted and hounded faithful followers of the Messiah.https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=acts+8%3A1-3%3B+9%3A1-18&version=ESV

God is patient and faithful with us– whether we have grumbled at His timing, or turned our back on Him for a season, or actively rebelled against His sovereignty and kindness.

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When God seems silent, we often forget that He also remains silent in the face of our grumbling. He withholds His righteous judgment, giving us ample opportunities to rethink, repent, and return. His silence reminds us that He is God– and we are not. He does not owe us an answer– nor does He owe us a second chance. But He will give us both in His time. Because He is God– in His sovereignty, in His boundless Love, and in His mercy–and I am not. I am not God. I am the (sometimes) grateful recipient of all that He gives.

May I be grateful today, not just for the blessings and gifts and answered prayers, but for the patience, grace and mercy I don’t deserve.

Resent, Relent, or Repent…

We’re getting ready to enter the Lenten season–six and a half weeks of reflection and preparation before Easter. Lent is not a celebration in the traditional sense– it is solemn and reflective, personal and, sometimes, painful. It is a time of getting “real” about our sinful condition. The Bible says we have all fallen short of the Glory and Holiness of God (Romans 3:10) and deserve God’s wrath. The natural consequence of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and permanent separation from the goodness of God.

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There are many ways we can react to this reality. I know many people who resent God’s Holiness and His laws. They do not want to face God’s righteous judgment; they believe that God’s laws are cruel and unjust, and that they do not have to answer to anyone greater then themselves.

Others want to bargain with God. They feel that if they relent– if they set a goal to do more good than harm, if they strive to be better than “the next guy”–God will weigh their good deeds in the balance and judge them in comparison with how bad they “might have been.”

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But God doesn’t judge on a curve– He doesn’t judge us by our measure, but by His. And none of us “make the grade.”

If that were the final word– the end of the story– there would be no reason to relent, and it wouldn’t make any difference if we were resentful. But God, from the very beginning, designed a different outcome. His judgement is just, but it is not without hope or remedy. God Himself has given us the chance to change– to repent. Repentance is agreeing with (not resenting) God’s judgment, and responding (not bargaining) with changed behavior and a changed attitude.

Lent begins when we confront the great gulf between God’s Holiness and our sinfulness. It stretches through the realization that sin and its consequences surround us, hem us in, and poison our world. It is a time of sadness and gaping loss, when we long for healing, for hope, and for a home we’ve never seen. It is a time for reflecting on the cost involved–not just in human suffering, but in God’s suffering as a human. God, who could have, in His righteousness, destroyed even the memory of mankind, chose to share our sufferings– hunger, cold, exhaustion, rejection, heartbreak, betrayal, death– to that we could be delivered into everlasting life.

Lent ends as we remember Jesus’ death and burial– His ultimate sacrifice for our debt. It ends with a shattering trumpet-blast of hope and joy on Easter Morning. Our sadness and loss is NOT the end– Sin’s power and poison are illusory. They have no power over our Great God.

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It can be tempting to respond to our present circumstances with resentment. It can be tempting to relent in our rebellion– trying to bargain with God, and minimize the cost He had to pay, trying to pay the price ourselves with a show of good behavior and a superficial devotion.

But God’s great Love and Mercy should draw us to worship and true devotion. As we reflect on the great gulf between sin and holiness, it should cause us to gladly repent– to lay on the altar all the substitutes and lesser things that keep us from full communion with the Lover of Our Souls.

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Our prayers during this season may be difficult. They may be filled with grief, loss, and pain. But they may also be filled with hope and joy as we anticipate the gift of Grace. And they should be filled with praise. After all, Lent is a season; a season to reflect, a season to repent, a season to mourn, but a season with a beginning and an end; a season that gives way to celebration and a sure hope of resurrection!

Inconceivable?

One of my favorite movies is “The Princess Bride.” Based on a modern “fractured” fairy tale by William Goldman, it tells the story of a young couple whose “fairy tale” romance is complicated by his death, her kidnapping on the eve of her wedding to an evil prince, and rodents of unusual size…

One of the kidnappers is a Sicilian mercenary named Vizzini. Vizzini brags about his intellect, and claims to know more than anyone. He also claims that his plot to kidnap Princess Buttercup is perfect to the last detail. But when a mysterious stranger begins following them, and foils each of Vizzini’s efforts to shake him, Vizzini grows more and more rattled. His brilliant plan turns out to be less than perfect. In fact, the mysterious stranger (who turns out to be Princess Buttercup’s long-lost true love) succeeds in rescuing the princess and defeating Vizzini in a battle of wits.

As each of Vizzini’s efforts fails, he declares it is “inconceivable” that the stranger should win. Even in the face of clear evidence, Vizzini finds it unbelievable that his plan should have failed–and failed again! Finally, one of the other kidnappers turns to Vizzini and says, “You keep using this word; I do not think it means what you think it means”.

I often hear people scoff at faith in God– “it doesn’t make sense.” “There’s no proof that God exists.” “How can you believe all those old myths–Noah and the Ark; Moses and the Red Sea; David and Goliath–they’re impossible in ‘real life’.” “It’s inconceivable!” “Stop saying all that stuff about God!” “Stop saying you’ll pray for me.” “Prayer is nothing more than wishful thinking.”

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And it can be difficult to have faith, sometimes. We don’t ‘see’ what God is doing in our lives and circumstances.” We don’t understand the bigger picture. We don’t believe that God sees or hears us in the middle of our struggles. But God tells us time and time again that nothing is impossible for Him; that He knows all that happens, and that He works all things together for the good of those who follow Him (Romans 8:28). God is able to do “exceedingly, abundantly, above all that we ask or think..”(Ephesians 3:20)

Those stories in the Bible; those “unbelievable” stories we hear or read about miraculous healings and lives transformed…we can choose to ignore them, or scoff at them. We can, like Vizzini, claim that they are “inconceivable,” or try to explain them away while trusting our own knowledge and experiences to get us through life. We can ignore the wise counsel of others, ignore our conscience, and laugh in the face of danger. But in the end, we are human. We are fallible. We are not all-knowing or all-powerful. And we are not immune to sin and its poisonous consequences. The only chance of escape is to be rescued by someone who is “immune” to sin– our Savior, Jesus the Lamb of God.

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It may seem “inconceivable” that God would part the Red Sea, or save Noah in the Ark; it may seem beyond belief that Jesus would be born as a human, live among people who denied Him, die on the cross and be resurrected on the third day, so that He could take away the power of sin and death for anyone who will trust Him. But it is precisely this Good News that has transformed the lives of millions of people throughout the centuries since he came.

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It may seem “inconceivable” that God would listen to our “little” prayers and care about our every need– but He does! His Love may be beyond our ability to comprehend or explain– His power extends beyond our wildest imagination. But if we have faith– even as small as a mustard seed (Matthew 17:20)– we can experience God’s Love, Power, Grace, and Salvation in miraculous ways.

On a Cold Winter’s Night…

One of the great classic Christmas carols, “The First Noel,” describes the night of Christ’s birth as a “cold winter’s night, that was so deep.”

It is dreamy and dramatic to think of Jesus coming into a cold, dark, dreary (and even snowy) world, bringing angels, glorious stars, kings bearing expensive gifts, and joyous songs.

In the past two posts, we’ve looked at Jesus as the Light of the World, and the Word of God; we’ve looked at Advent as a time of darkness and silence, in anticipation of the coming light and the Gospel. The idea that the world before the Birth of the Savior was cold continues the pattern of absence. Darkness does not exist independently. Neither does silence or cold. Each is the absence of something else– Light, sound, warmth–and it can only be known by the degree to which its opposite is reduced, distant, or absent.
In contrast, the light, sound, or warmth is made more evident in contrast with its opposite–we may not notice a slight difference in lighting on a sunny day, or a slight difference in temperature; but a candle in a dark room, or a whisper in a silent auditorium has a dramatic effect.

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We don’t actually know the exact date of Jesus’ birth, and while December falls during winter, that doesn’t always mean a cold night in every part of the world. If shepherds were watching their flocks in fields just outside of Bethlehem, it is not likely that the temperatures were below freezing, or that there was snow and ice all around. The Middle East is not known for icy winters, after all. Nighttime generally brings colder temperatures, and it may be close to freezing by the middle of the night if you have no fire or protection from the wind, but a “cold winter’s night” is more likely to be found in Minnesota or Finland, not in Bethlehem, and usually in the middle of winter– January– rather than the beginning of the season.

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However, just like the darkness and silence, the cold of that first Christmas was spiritual in nature. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+1%3A9-12&version=ESV). Jesus entered a frigid world– a world of closed-off people, suspicious, oppressed, angry, sick, and world-weary. Hatred can be cold, but colder still is apathy and disdain and hopelessness. The world of Advent is a world desperate for the light and heat and sound of God’s love– not because God is absent, but because people have moved so far away from Him. The light becomes dimmer, the songs become a series of indistinct noises, and the cold and damp of night creep into our souls. Today, even with the hope and light of the Gospel story, we take our focus off of the true light of the world, and the true source of warmth and love, and too often focus on the lesser warmth of a new jacket, or the glittering lights of a shopping center, or the strident sounds of greed and envy.

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Jesus may not have come in the cold of midwinter. But He came into a world of cold hearts as a helpless baby in a strange and unwelcoming land. And he was wrapped in rags and placed in a feeding trough– the warmest place that could be found. But even in this tiny, shivering baby, there was the warmth of Pure Love. And it was felt by all who came in contact with Him– shepherds rejoiced, Mary pondered, Wise Men knelt in adoration.

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I love seeing candles and firesides at Christmas time– I love coming into a warm house, full of laughter and love, or singing carols on a cold night, and being invited inside to share the warmth. I love fellowship at church, and sharing a hug and a smile with those I meet. Imagine the warmth of God with us–All of the warmth and life of being wrapped in the arms of Grace, and held by the nail-scarred hands, never to be cold or alone ever again. Can you feel it? Can you anticipate it? Imagine passing that on to someone who has never known such warmth…on a cold winter’s night…

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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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