Sunday, December 28, 2014

God With Us

During this time of year, one of my favorite things is to attend a musical concert featuring Handel's Messiah. I love the majesty and meaning of the music that declares that "He shall reign forever and ever."  Within this elaborate work of musical art, we find five names of the Messiah, that are worthy of reflection and meditation. Those names are deeply meaningful, and contemplating them makes us aware that indeed, God is with us."

The first is from Matthew 1:23, which quotes Isaiah 7.14. The ESV renders this as:

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us).

Everybody needs to be reminded that God is with us.  At times, when the troubles of life threaten our well-being, we need to feel God's presence and care.  All too often, we feel quite the opposite.  In Dante’s Inferno, the medieval storyteller takes us to the very gates of hell, upon which are inscribed the words, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”  According to Dante, hell is defined as a place where there is no hope.  A lot of people are living in hell on this side of the grave.  They cannot feel God’s hopeful presence, even though He is embracing them all the time.  Psalm 139.8-9 (ESV) says:

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
    Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!

            The blessing of Immanuel, the hope of Christmas, is that God is with us.  We don’t have to abandon all hope, because God is walking with us every day.  Christ in us is the hope of glory.  Since the dawn of the church, Isaiah’s prophecy of Immanuel has been embraced by Christians as referring not only to an event that would take place in the prophet’s own time, but also pointing to the future coming of Christ.  In the same way, Christians interpret Isaiah 9:6 in messianic terms.  Along with Immanuel, Isaiah gives other names for God that we need to understand during this season and throughout the year.  Handel quoted the prophet, who said:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
 and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
 Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9.6 ESV).

            Wonderful Counselor—what a marvelous name!  Each of these names for the Messiah is comprised of both a noun and an adjective.  This lets us know that He is more competent than just any counselor, greater than any pagan god, more faithful than any father, and more peaceful than any earthly prince. 

What a beautiful thing to know that Jesus is more competent than any counselor.  These days there are all kinds of people who call themselves counselors.  There are life coaches and psychologists, psychiatrists, attorneys, school guidance and vocational counselors, and much more.  Proverbs 15.22 (ESV) says, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.”  Proverbs 20.5 (ESV) tells us, “The purpose in a man's heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.”  Everybody needs someone to talk to, someone to listen to our troubles and give us wisdom and insight.  Sometimes we shy away from counselors because they intimidate us.  As Tennessee Williams said, they meddle too much in our private lives.  But we need their voice of experience to guide us.  Yet even the best of counselors will fail.  Jesus, the Wonderful Counselor, never fails.  His voice speaks wisdom to our hearts and never leads us astray.

Many people claim that this passage in Isaiah refers to a messianic figure who was merely human.  The next phrase is the reason why Bible scholars say this can be only Jesus—He is the Mighty God.  Why is this adjective necessary?  Is it because there are indeed many gods?  1 Corinthians 8:4b-6 (ESV) says,

“…An idol has no real existence…there is no God but one…For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—  yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”

            Indeed, there are many supposed gods—those that have religions devoted to them.  Then there are those things like riches and pleasure and power that simply have people chasing after them with religious devotion.  Yet, above all these things, Christ is the only Mighty God.  Because he is not just a god but the only actual God, His power outstrips all the supposed powers that we could imagine.  The Bible says that one day “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2.10-11 ESV).”  One day, all creation will declare that He is the Mighty God.

            “Everlasting Father,” declares the prophet, looking toward a Savior fully human but also eternal God.  Certainly there are all kinds of fathers.  On Father’s Day we celebrate good fathers, and even thank God for those good qualities possessed by bad dads.  Throughout our lives we try to have the best relationships we can with our fathers, and those of us who are dads try to be the best we can be.  Sometimes we even adopt spiritual children, investing in the lives of those who aren’t biologically related to us.  But every father, good and bad, will have his funeral.  At the worst, people will celebrate his demise.  At the best, they will mourn his passing and try to live up to his example. 

            Yes, earthly fathers are for a time, but the heavenly Father is for eternity.  When our worldly fathers’ voices are silenced by the years, the Everlasting Father still speaks truth to His children.  Every one of us needs the Everlasting Father.  We need His love, protection, provision, and wisdom.  Thank the Lord that, while earthly dads are limited by time, the Everlasting Father is forever.

            Finally, Isaiah predicts the Prince of Peace.  There are all kinds of princes in the world—rulers that range from benign to beastly.  The sixteenth-century Italian diplomat and political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli wrote a treatise called The Prince, in which he says that rulers should gain power by any means possible.  All immoral actions can be justified as long as they work toward the prince’s ultimate goal of control.  Machiavelli says that the prince should do what is politically expedient, not necessary what is right.  To express this idea, we often say, “The end justifies the means.”

            In contrast, the Messiah does not seek peace by any means necessary.  Christ doesn’t simply seek political peace, but affects inner peace in the hearts of all who trust Him.  We await the day when the Lord returns, establishing righteousness and renewing creation.  Until that day we wait for inner change—spiritual transformation that makes us a different kind of people.  As such, believers do not say that the end justifies the means.  Instead, we trust the Prince who can bring His peace even in a world of unrest.  Kingdoms crumble and governments fail, but peace reigns in the hearts of all who trust the King of souls.

            “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  These are the names of the God who is with us.  He never leaves us nor forsakes us.  Isaiah 9.2 (ESV) says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”  By that light we all can see, and we can more than see.  We can walk in faith that shines brighter than day.  We can walk with confidence because God is with us.  Authority rests “upon his shoulder…of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end (Isa 9.6-7 ESV).”

Do the Right Thing

Do you ever find yourself in a position where you need to make a difficult decision, and you don’t know what to do?  Often the best decision isn’t the easiest thing, and sometimes a person has to choose between the lesser of the two evils.  In Between Two Truths, Klyne Snodgrass writes:

During World War II, Winston Churchill was forced to make a painful choice. The British secret service had broken the Nazi code and informed Churchill that the Germans were going to bomb Coventry. He had two alternatives: (1) evacuate the citizens and save hundreds of lives at the expense of indicating to the Germans that the code was broken; or (2) take no action, which would kill hundreds but keep the information flowing and possibly save many more lives. Churchill had to choose and followed the second course.[i] 

            In Matthew 1.18, Joseph faced a tough choice, and had no idea what he should do.  “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”  Can you imagine being in Joseph’s position?  In those days, family honor was everything.  Brides were supposed to be virgins, and it seemed that Mary was not.  She had this crazy story of miraculous conception, and Joseph just didn’t know what to believe.  Perhaps the words of the prophet rang in his ears, directing him to a decision: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6.8 ESV)?”  This seemed helpful as he tried to determine what the Lord required of him.  But in reality, it seemed to present three different options.

            First, Joseph could choose to do justice.  Certainly, everyone believes that acting justly is always the best thing…or is it?  According to Deuteronomy 22, the just punishment for adultery, fornication, or incest was death by stoning.  Joseph was within his rights to seek the death penalty against Mary, and keep his honor clean.  Justice means doing the right thing, and doing the right thing means seeking justice…doesn’t it?  For every crime, a punishment that fits?  Joseph must have considered what the right thing to do was in this situation.

            In your life decisions, you have the option of seeking.  Justice is a good thing.  It means treating all people fairly, doing what’s right.  Justice means giving everybody what they deserve.  But sometimes justice can be harsh.  Giving people what they deserve might mean doling out punishment—and then you have to ask yourself whether you’re really qualified to make that decision, or whether it’s the right time for action.  In Tough Times Never Last, But Tough People Do, Robert Schuller writes:

I remember one winter my dad needed firewood, and he found a dead tree and sawed it down. In the spring, to his dismay, new shoots sprouted around the trunk. He said, "I thought sure it was dead. The leaves had all dropped in the wintertime. It was so cold that twigs snapped as if there were no life left in the old tree. But now I see that there was still life at the taproot." He looked at me and said, "Bob, don't forget this important lesson. Never cut a tree down in the wintertime. Never make a negative decision in the low time. Never make your most important decisions when you are in your worst mood. Wait. Be patient. The storm will pass. The spring will come."[ii] 

Just because it’s in your power to give somebody what they deserve, does that mean that you should?  Justice might mean cutting down the tree, or the person—or it may not.  Is there a better way?  Micah says we should do justice AND love kindness.

            Joseph decided to take the higher road of kindness, in regards to Mary.  Though he didn’t necessarily believe her story, he decided to treat her as if it were true.  He chose to give her the benefit of the doubt.  Justice called for her death, but the law also allowed him to save her life by forgiving her.  This he was willing to do—but he drew the line at marrying her.  The hurt had gone too deep for that.  In those days, betrothal was different from today’s engagement.  In order to get out of the marriage, he had to divorce her.  Verse 19 (ESV) says that “Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”  In his mind, that was the path of kindness.

            What decisions do you have to make right now?  Is there a way of justice to which you are perfectly entitled, but then a higher way of kindness?  Which of the two is the better path?  There’s an old saying that goes, “It may be true that there are two sides to every question, but it is also true that there are two sides to a sheet of flypaper, and it makes a big difference to the fly which side he chooses.”  For the Christian, kindness ought always to win out over justice.  Yet Micah says that there may be three sides to this flypaper.  Did you know that flypaper has three sides?  There’s the wide sticky side, the wide non-sticky side, and then there’s the narrow edge.  Micah points out the third, most narrow path of all: Do justice, love kindness, AND walk humbly with your God.

            Joseph was a good man.  This means he was prepared to choose kindness over justice.  But this word “and” in Micah is a powerful word.  It means that you don’t get to choose between the three—you have to do them all.  Be fair, show mercy, and walk humbly with God, all at the same time.  For Joseph, walking humbly before God meant listening to God’s message.  Self-will says, “I know the right way.  I can make this decision all by myself.”  Walking humbly with God says, “Lord, I want you to show me Your way—and I’m willing to do it.” 

            Walking humbly with God, Joseph’s heart was ready for the third option.  He neither had to have Mary stoned to death nor did he have to put her away quietly.  Joseph chose to follow an angel’s advice, “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit (v. 20 ESV).”  Walking humbly with God, Joseph admitted that he didn’t have all the answers.  Admitting that he didn’t have all the answers, he opened himself for God’s creative plan.  Marry Mary anyway.  Accept the child.  Raise him as a son.  It was preposterous—but it was God’s way.  And this was the path Joseph chose.

            “Do justice, love kindness, AND walk humbly with your God.”  This is what the Lord requires of you.  Do you have any tough decisions to make?  Are you asking yourself how you can do the right thing?  Maybe the right thing is to seek justice—but perhaps there’s a higher way of kindness.  And there may be a way that’s higher still.  If you listen with a humble heart to God’s voice that speaks in the midst of your confusion, you just might hear that angelic message, directing you toward the greatest mission of your life.  I pray that in all the decisions you have to make, that God will show you what is good, what the Lord requires of you.  I pray that, like Joseph, you’ll do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.

[i] Klyne Snodgrass, Between Two Truths - Living with Biblical Tensions, 1990, Zondervan Publishing House, p. 179.
[ii] Robert H. Schuller, Tough Times Never Last, But Tough People Do!, Thomas Nelson.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas Miracles

            I love the classic film Miracle on 34th Street, directed by George Seaton and starring Maureen O’Hara and John Payne.  In the film, Kris Kringle is horrified to find the Macy’s Santa Claus drunk on the job, just before the big parade in New York.  After he takes the derelict’s place, he is offered a job as the Macy’s Santa.  He takes the position, inspiring many by his honesty and surprising knowledge.  But his boss is convinced that he is insane because he thinks he is the real Santa Claus.  I won’t give away the rest of the movie if you haven’t seen it, but the miracle involves restoring faith in Santa to many people, and a surprise ending to a court trial that determines whether or not Santa Claus does in fact exist.  It’s a charming Christmas movie that, along with It’s a Wonderful Life , I could stand to see year after year.  But, even if it were a true story, would it be an example of a miracle?
            Hollywood likes to throw around the term “Christmas miracle,” but gravely misunderstands what a miracle really is.  Often, Christmas films portray Santa’s fulfillment of holiday wishes as Christmas miracles.  But miracles have nothing to do with St. Nick.  Miracles are a display of God’s power—sometimes by breaking natural law and sometimes simply as natural “wonders” that inspire awe of God.  Searching through the Gospel texts, I found twelve Christmas miracles that demonstrate God’s power.  The first eight are examples of the kind of miracles where God breaks His own natural law.  The last four are examples of events that are perhaps less supernatural but are startling nonetheless.

  1. Appearance of the archangel Gabriel to Zechariah (Lk 1.11).  Nobody could doubt that the actual appearance of an angel is an out-of-the-ordinary event that transforms a person.  Zechariah’s life would never be the same after his angelic experience.
  2. Stopping of Zechariah’s speech (Lk 1.22).  When the old priest didn’t believe the angel’s message, Gabriel glued the man’s tongue to the roof of his mouth.  His missing speech ability would prove to his neighbors that he really had seen an angel.
  3. Conception of John (Lk 1.24).  Zechariah and Elizabeth’s conception of their son John was a miracle because they were well past childbearing years, and Elizabeth was believed to be barren.
  4. Appearance of an angel to Mary (Lk 1.26).  The same archangel appeared to Mary and predicted the birth of her son Jesus.
  5. Conception of Jesus (Lk 1.31-35; Mt 1.23).  Though Gabriel’s description of the conception process is puzzling, it is clear that God’s only begotten Son was to be conceived like no one else.  Neither Joseph nor any other man was the father of Jesus.  God’s son was born of an actual virgin (Greek, parthenos), meaning that she had never been with a man, and not that she was simply a young woman.
  6. Releasing of Zechariah’s speech (Lk 1.64).  When Zechariah wrote that his newborn son’s name was John, in obedience to Gabriel’s command, his tongue unstuck and his speech was restored.
  7. Appearance of angels to the shepherds (Lk 2.9-14).  Not just one angel, but a multitude of the heavenly host, announced the Savior’s birth.  They filled the air with their voices, declaring peace on earth and God’s good will.
  8. The Christmas star (Mt 2.9).  Much debate has raged over the nature of this star.  Some suggest that it was a conjunction of planets.  Others say, “If the Bible says it was a star, then it’s a star.”  Still others suggest that it was an angel, since angels are often referred to as “stars” in the Bible.  Any way you slice it, a moving light in the sky that led visitors to Jesus’ home was miraculous, and literally pointed to God.
  9. Prenatal John leaping inside his mother’s womb in the presence of prenatal Jesus (Lk 1.44).  Jumping John may not be miraculous in the supernatural sense, but it certainly provided an “aha!” moment for his mother.  Elizabeth saw significance in the fact that the baby leapt at the exact moment that pregnant Mary drew near.  This is miraculous in the sense of God speaking to a person supernaturally, through their experience of a natural event (like a sunset, the ocean, etc).
  10. Zechariah’s words of prophecy (Lk 1.67-79).  Anybody can guess the future, but the old priest’s words seemed inspired, and certainly came true.
  1. An angel appearing to Joseph in a dream (Mt 1.20).  Everybody dreams, but a dream that comes from God has momentous importance.  Because of the angel’s appearance to Joseph, the man agreed to take Mary as his wife, despite her unexpected pregnancy.
  2. Both Matthew and the Wise men are warned in dreams, about Herod’s plot to kill Jesus (Mt 2.12-13).  Again, dreams are natural things, but they gain supernatural significance when they come from God and give directions like these. 

            The Christmas story gives twelve examples of miracles that God did, just to bring His Son into the world.  But miracles don’t just happen in the Bible.  They are real-life occurrences of God demonstrating His power in people’s lives.  Sometimes God performs miracles that break natural laws, and other times God simply uses natural events to supernaturally speak to people.  Both of these types of events are often called miracles.
            Just this past week at Halifax Regional Hospital in South Boston, Virginia, eight-year-old Joshua Martin was revived after being clinically dead for an hour and a half.  One of the medical personnel attending to young Joshua describes himself as an atheist.  Yet after being involved in this display of divine power, he declared the event to be a miracle.  Joshua’s mother asks believers to pray for her son’s continued recovery.  He is proof that miracles still happen today.  And not just at Christmas.
            Perhaps you’re in need of a miracle in your life today.  It may be a financial miracle, or a restored relationship.  Maybe you need God to grant physical, spiritual, emotional, or psychological healing for yourself or a loved one.  Or you might need a message of wisdom or encouragement from the Lord.  You might be praying for physical protection, or deliverance from evil influence.  Christians can have confidence that God still performs miracles today.  We can’t dictate the way that God will act in our behalf, but we can trust that God is “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think (Eph 3.20 ESV).”   We can know that, as the angel told Mary, “Nothing will be impossible with God (Lk 1.37 ESV).”

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Watching and Waiting - The Great Adventure

 Advent is a time of great adventure.  It’s a time of excitement, yet also a time of waiting.  It’s a festive season that feels like no other time of year.  Along with the church sanctuary, most homes are being decorated, but the real time of celebration is not yet here.  And so we wait.  This is a difficult thing to do—especially for the impatient and the immature.  I remember when I was a child, trying to stay up all night and wait for Santa Claus.  But somehow, no matter how long I waited, no matter how I tried to keep my eyes open, I would always end up waking up with a start on Christmas morning—having missed the nighttime visit of Old Saint Nick.  Jesus tells us to keep watch and wait, to not grow weary but to be alert. 
Advent is a time of adventure.  The word advent means “important arrival.”  During the Advent season, we wait for the important arrival of the Christ child.  We also remember that Christ will come again—and we wait patiently for His return.  The word advent is related to the word adventure.   Adventure means “to risk the loss of something.”[i]  Advent is a time of waiting, but waiting can be tough because it seems like we’re risking loss while we’re waiting.  On the contrary—purposeful waiting, godly waiting, means resting in the knowledge that God will bring His purpose about in the right time.  The adventure of Advent isn’t in striving, but in patiently trusting God.  Advent Calendars and Advent candles help us with this work of waiting.  They help us mark time and remember that God’s Advent will come. 
Some things are worth waiting for, but they definitely need to come at the right time.  Like the birth of my second grandchild a few weeks ago—Jonah was definitely worth the wait!  In the same way, Christmas is worth the wait.  You wouldn’t want it to come prematurely.  If people could decide to have Christmas anytime they wanted, then 25th December wouldn't be as much fun.  It's good to wait and to enjoy things together.
Mark’s thirteenth chapter is all about watching and waiting—not for Christmas to come, but for the greatest adventure of all.  The chapter is called Mark’s Little Apocalypse.  It is divided into two parts.  The first part is Jesus’ answer to one question.  The second is Jesus’ answer to another.  Verses 1-4 (NASB) say:

As He was going out of the temple, one of His disciples *said to Him, “Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down.”
As He was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew were questioning Him privately, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled?” 

In verses 5-23, Jesus answers the first question, “When this destruction will come?”  His answer brings chills to the spine.  He speaks of false christs, betrayals, wars, and famines.  He tells his followers to flee when they see an abomination in the temple, for the end is near.  That end came about in 70 AD, when Rome destroyed the temple in Jerusalem.  In verses 24-27, Jesus answers the second question, “What will be the sign when all these things will be fulfilled?”   Matthew 24:3b (NASB) renders these two questions more clearly: “Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?”  Jesus’ first answer is about events that must happen within a generation.  The second answer is about events that will take place at the end of the age.
Many people get hung up on verse 30, which says, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”  The NASB conveniently adds a footnote which points out that the word Jesus used, genea, can also be translated as “race.”  In other words, since Jesus has just finished talking about the destruction of Jerusalem, the fall of the temple, and a threat to God’s people, He wants to assure His disciples that God’s people will not be utterly destroyed.  This verse does not indicate that verses 24-37 must be interpreted as being within a literal generation of Jesus’ prediction.
At the end of the age, Jesus says the sun and moon will be darkened.  Angels will act as reapers, gathering God’s faithful.  The last day, the day of judgment, will be a day of fear for the faithless, but a day of delight for the redeemed.  In verse nine, Jesus says, “Be on your guard.”  In verse thirteen, He commands us to endure.  In verse 23, He says, “Take heed.”  Jesus says in verses 33-37:

33 “Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time will come. 34 It is like a man away on a journey, who upon leaving his house and putting his slaves in charge, assigning to each one his task, also commanded the doorkeeper to stay on the alert. 35 Therefore, be on the alert—for you do not know when the master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— 36 in case he should come suddenly and find you asleep. 37 What I say to you I say to all, ‘Be on the alert!’”

            Waiting on God is difficult for me.  It is difficult for us all.  Perhaps you have something happening in your life, where you have to wait for God’s timing.  It seems like the answer never comes, and you get anxious just sitting around waiting.  The summer, 1993 issue Leadership talks about someone who made some bad decisions because he couldn’t deal with boredom.  He showed how difficult it is to just sit and wait:

Several years ago, I heard the story of Larry Walters, a 33-year-old man who decided he wanted to see his neighborhood from a new perspective. He went down to the local army surplus store one morning and bought forty-five used weather balloons. That afternoon he strapped himself into a lawn chair, to which several of his friends tied the now helium-filled balloons. He took along a six-pack of beer, a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, and a BB gun, figuring he could shoot the balloons one at a time when he was ready to land.
Walters, who assumed the balloons would lift him about 100 feet in the air, was caught off guard when the chair soared more than 11,000 feet into the sky -- smack into the middle of the air traffic pattern at Los Angeles International Airport. Too frightened to shoot any of the balloons, he stayed airborne for more than two hours, forcing the airport to shut down its runways for much of the afternoon, causing long delays in flights from across the country.

Soon after he was safely grounded and cited by the police, reporters asked him three questions:

"Where you scared?"  "Yes."

"Would you do it again?" "No."

"Why did you do it?"  "Because," he said, "you can't just sit there."[ii]    

Sometimes it can be difficult to just sit there and wait on God.  We can become anxious and decide to take matters into our own hands.  Like Larry Walters, we can end up a victim of our own hasty decisions, suspended between this thing and that thing, and at the mercy of any wind that may blow us back and forth.  G. Campbell Morgan advises us to wait.  “Waiting for God is not laziness. Waiting for God is not going to sleep. Waiting for God is not the abandonment of effort.  Waiting for God means, first, activity under command; second, readiness for any new command that may come; third, the ability to do nothing until the command is given.”  I hope that you’ll learn patience as you watch and wait.        
This Advent season, we wait for the coming of Christmas, the celebration of the advent of the Christ child.  But we also remember Jesus’ instructions to us: that we are to watch and wait for His second coming.  I remember my dad telling me the story of something that happened to him one day as he was driving.  A cloud formation, combined with a trick of the sunlight, looked so amazing that Dad said he had to pull off the road.  He didn’t pull over just to get a better look, but also so that he would be ready in case this was the Rapture.  Of course, it wasn’t the Rapture, but Dad wanted to be prepared if this was the second advent of Christ.  He wanted to be ready for the great adventure.
I’m not saying you need to pull your car over for every cloud formation.  I am saying that during this season of Advent we need to wait for His arrival.  We need to look for His coming in the clouds, in the snowflakes, in the carols carried by the crisp wind.  Seek Him in the manger and in the faces of the children gathered round.   Look for the ways God is appearing in your life.  Be patient.  Keep alert.  Watch and wait.  Seek Him, and you will find Him.  That is the great adventure.

[ii] Leadership, Summer 1993, pp. 35.

Monday, November 24, 2014


Having family in West Virginia, my sister-in-law Kimberly hates to hear people make jokes about West Virginians.  Growing up in Virginia, she certainly heard a lot of them.  If you’re not from Virginia, then maybe you don’t know that most West Virginia jokes have something to do with people marrying their relatives.  In West Virginia, for example, you are free to marry your first cousin once-removed, but you may not marry your half-cousin.  However, Virginians have nothing to joke about—our Western relatives have a law that bans first cousins from marrying each other, while in Virginia, first cousins are free to marry.[i]  If you want to compare, I guess the joke’s on us!
            While I have never actually known anybody who married a cousin, I have known some people who have married distant relatives.  Two of our dear friends found out that they were distantly related to each other, after the wedding.  Then there are two different ladies that I have known who each married a man and then his brother after his death.  They didn’t do it because they had to—but because they fell in love with one brother after the other.  This practice of one brother marrying another brother’s widow, is called levirate marriage.  It was common in biblical times, and wasn’t done simply because of love.  In fact, it was required by Hebrew law.[ii] 
            In those days, their idea of the afterlife wasn’t as complete as it is today.  For a person to “live on” after they died, it was believed that the family name had to be preserved.  So it was very important for a man to have a male heir—both to carry on his name and to inherit his land.  If a man died without a male heir, then his brother was supposed to marry his widow, and give her a child in the name of the deceased brother, in order to carry on her late husband’s legacy.  Keeping family land in the family was also important, so if land was sold outside the family, it was the obligation of the closest male relative to purchase it back as soon as possible and keep the land in the family name.  Also, in those days only men could own property, so if a man died without a male heir, the closest male relative was supposed to purchase the property from his widow, in order to keep the land in the family.  Typically, the man who married his late brother’s widow would also purchase his brother’s land from the widow.  In this unique role, this man was called the widow’s kinsman-redeemer.
            We find this practice exemplified in the story of Ruth.  In chapter one, Naomi’s husband Elimelech dies, and Naomi’s son Chilion dies, leaving his widow Ruth.  The two widows move from Moab to Bethlehem, where they try to survive on charity.  In chapter two, we read how Ruth discovers that the the property where she is gleaning is owned by a man named Boaz, who is a close relative of her late husband and his father.  In chapter three, Ruth makes him aware of the family connection, and her need of redemption.  He agrees to redeem her, unless there is a closer relative who might do so.  In chapter four, Boaz discovers a closer relative who might redeem Ruth by purchasing the property and marrying her.  Yet that relative (who shall forever remain nameless) is content to pass on the responsibility to Boaz.  Unlike the shirking family member, Boaz agrees to both the land transfer and the wedding, and becomes Ruth and Naomi’s kinsman-redeemer.
            We find this word redeem in scriptures.  We use it in hymns and sermons, but few people really understand its full meaning.  It can mean “to buy back,” as in a land purchase that returns it to family ownership.  It can also mean “to make good,” in the sense of giving something value that previously had no value or even negative value.  For example, when I take a newspaper to the grocery store and present this coupon, I can redeem the coupon for a dollar value.  The coupon has no value in and of itself, but when I redeem it, I can get something valuable for it.  The kinsman-redeemer did both of those things.  Boaz bought back the property, and he brought Ruth and Naomi out of poverty by taking Ruth as his wife.  Further, Boaz gave Ruth a son, Naomi a grandson, and Elimelech an heir to carry on his name. 
            In her blog, Worshiping with Children, Carolyn Brown of Charlottesville, Virginia points out that Ruth is a story of three people who go above and beyond the call of duty in order to do the right thing.[iii]  First, Ruth leaves her homeland behind in order to take care of Naomi.  Then, Naomi carefully thinks out a plan for Ruth’s happiness instead of wallowing in her own loneliness.  Finally, Boaz redeems Ruth and Naomi, even though there was a closer relative who truly had that duty.  In the same way, God calls Christians to go out of their way to take care of the people around them—to lift them out of poverty, loneliness, despair, and that feeling of worthlessness that so quickly destroys the soul.  This is the job of the kinsman-redeemer.  This is the job of every believer.
            It’s our job to redeem our fellow human beings because Jesus modeled that kind of love toward us.  Jesus did more than He had to, in order to set us free from poverty, despair, worthlessness, and oppression of the soul.  More than the love of a husband for his wife, Jesus’ love for you was the purest, most undefiled kind of love.  Jesus redeems all who receive Him when He trades their spiritual poverty for His great riches, when He takes a soul that feels worthless and gives it value and meaning.  Then He calls us to love our fellow human beings with the same everlasting love.
            In Wake Up Calls, Ron Hutchcraft writes:

A gathering of friends at an English estate nearly turned to tragedy when one of the children strayed into deep water. The gardener heard the cries for help, plunged in, and rescued the drowning child. That youngster's name was Winston Churchill. His grateful parents asked the gardener what they could do to reward him. He hesitated, then said, "I wish my son could go to college someday and become a doctor." "We'll see to it," Churchill's parents promised. 
Years later, while Sir Winston was prime minister of England, he was stricken with pneumonia. The country's best physician was summoned. His name was Dr. Alexander Fleming, the man who discovered and developed penicillin. He was also the son of that gardener who had saved young Winston from drowning. Later Churchill remarked, "Rarely has one man owed his life twice to the same person."[iv]

We find ourselves in a similar kind of debtorship to God—we who have been saved by Jesus’ grace.  So our Lord calls us to pass on the blessing.  Like Ruth and Naomi and Boaz and Jesus, we go out of our way to bless and redeem those around us.  We do it because we are thankful—because we are grateful for what our Lord has done for us.

[ii] Deuteronomy 25.5-6
[iii] Brown, Carolyn.  Worshiping with Children.  “Year B - Proper 27, 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, 24th Sunday after Pentecost (November 11, 2012)”  October 25, 2012. 
[iv] Ron Hutchcraft, Wake Up Calls, Moody, 1990, p. 22.

Friday, November 21, 2014

At the Feet of Jesus

            Today I want to talk about feet.  Yes, feet.  I’ve heard that in the average person’s lifetime, your feet will carry you the equivalent of five times around the planet—yet we give them very little thought.  Until something goes wrong with them, that is.  I’ve broken the little toes on each of my feet, and I’m amazed at how one little digit can affect so much about the way a person stands, walks, and balances.  Now that I’m a runner, I think about my feet a lot more than I used to.  I try to pick out shoes that will not only cover my feet, but support them properly as well.  I may be developing a little tendonitis in one of my toes, so that makes the right shoes all the more important.  My feet will be carrying me for the rest of my life, so I want to take care of them.
            I know the consequences of not taking care of your feet.  One spring break I went to New York City on a mission trip, washing and trimming and bandaging the feet of homeless people who had not taken care of their feet all winter.  You can imagine what that was like!  Feet are ugly things on anybody, but especially on those who haven’t taken care of them.  But the Bible says there are some people who have beautiful feet.  “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation, and says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns (Isaiah 52.7 NASB)!’"  Today I don’t want to talk about just any feet—I want to talk about beautiful feet.
            In the third chapter of the book that bears her name, a poor girl named Ruth sneaks up on the sleeping landowner Boaz and uncovers his feet.  He awakens and sees the woman at his feet.  She introduces herself as his close relative in need of protection, and asks him to spread his cloak over her.  Most readers are confused about the meaning of this chapter, and even biblical scholars disagree about its significance.  Some think that this story is indecent, while others suggest a chaste ritual that has been lost to modern readers.  Either way, the result is that by placing herself at the feet of Boaz, she makes a covenant with the man who will become her redeemer.  No matter how funky Boaz’ feet are physically, Isaiah 52.7 rings true in the ears of Ruth. 
            As I read this story, I can’t help but think of other accounts of some women named Mary who place themselves at the feet of their Redeemer.  There’s Mary of Bethany who anoints Jesus’ head and feet with expensive ointment.  She wets his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair.  She is rebuked for being so forward (especially for a woman with a checkered past), yet Jesus praises her for it.[i]  In one form or another, this story makes it into all four gospels, and Jesus says that everywhere God’s word is preached, her story will be told because of the good thing she does for him.
            Then there’s another story of Mary of Bethany, who has a particular love for Jesus.  In Luke 10.38-42 we read about Jesus visiting the house that Mary shares with her brother Lazarus and her sister Martha.  Martha gets irritated with Mary because Martha is making all the preparations for the meal while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet.  Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to help out, but Jesus affirms Mary’s behavior, saying she has chosen the better thing.
            Again we have the story of three women named Mary who gather at the foot of the cross.  Scholars disagree about all their identities, but many believe them to be Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Salome the aunt of Jesus and wife of Cleopas, and Mary Magdelene.  When all the other disciples abandon their Lord, only these three Marys and John the Beloved remain at the cross.  Because she remains at Jesus’ feet, Mary receives a blessing from her son and John receives instructions to care for Jesus’ mother.[ii]
            Today, Christians need to remain at the feet of Jesus.  Like Ruth, we need to recognize our Redeemer, the only One who can save us.  We must remove anything that separates us from our Lord, receiving His blessing and salvation.  Like Mary of Bethany, we have to sit at His feet, not missing out on any opportunity to learn from Him.  As she anointed Jesus feet with and wet them with her tears, we need to pour out our worship as we wait on the Lord.  Remaining at the feet of Jesus means risking everything to be with Him, the way John and the Marys stuck by the Lord at His crucifixion.  Like them, we receive His love and instructions when we wait at Jesus’ feet.  Placing ourselves there, we relate to Him as Lord.  It’s at His feet that we understand our position of humility and servanthood and gratitude for what He has done for us.
            Nobody knows exactly what Jesus looked like physically.  Isaiah 53.2 says that the Messiah would not be beautiful, that we should desire Him.  Of all his body parts, certainly Jesus’ feet must have been the most ugly—dirty and worn from hard toil and travel.  It was Jesus’ feet that received the nails that held Him to the cross.  Yet the Bible says, “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation, and says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’"  It’s at the feet of Jesus that we meet our Redeemer, that we receive His teaching, that we pour out of love before Him, that we hear His pronouncement of love, and that we receive His instructions for life.  Let’s make sure that we take a proper position with Jesus—and sit at His feet.

[i] Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-50; John 12:1-8.
[ii] John 19.25-27.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Lord of the Harvest

“Lord of the Harvest”

Ruth and Boaz
             Like many farmers in Rural Virginia, Boaz grew up in a good home, learning to love God and take care of his neighbor.  He came from generations of farmers before him.  His family grew wheat and barley that provided bread for the people of the small town of Bethelehem, which literally means “House of Bread.”  Like many of our local farmers, he was raised with a good work ethic, and believed that people who can work should work to provide for themselves.  Yet he also took care of those who couldn’t meet their own needs. 
            In Boaz’ day there were no welfare plans or social security systems in place.  Those who could not work begged for bread.  The poor who could work but had no jobs gleaned in the fields.  Going behind Boaz’s grain harvesters, gleaners picked up the bits left behind, the pieces that fell to the ground unbundled.  It took gleaners a long time to gather enough to eat, but at least there was enough to eat.  Boaz had compassion for the gleaners, and followed the tradition of leaving the edges and borders of his field uncut, just so there would be more for the poor.  He instructed his reapers not to pick up pieces that were accidentally left behind, so the gleaners could have even more.[i]  In this way, Boaz honored God by caring for the less fortunate.      
When Russell and Lois Harris, members of my church, first told me about the gleaning ministry they work with, it was in explanation of all the boxes of produce they had sitting around their house.  Occasionally they would give me a bag of apples or potatoes, telling me about the ministry that they help that goes around to salvage food and distribute it to the poor.  In my mind, I pictured a few people with trucks going to farms and collecting fallen apples off the ground to give to the poor.  But I found out it is much more than that.
In 1998, Rev. Ron Davidson was so convinced of the need for an organization that met human needs in a way that other relief organizations did not, that he left his church of 1,200 members in order to work full-time to start a non-profit ministry called Gleaning for the World.  Modern gleaning is where corporations donate their overstock supplies or goods that are close to expiration to charities like Davidson’s, and those organizations distribute them to people in need.  Gleaning for the World partners with other local groups that help with the distribution.  They have developed a crisis response plan that helps them respond to disaster situations.  Now, every year his volunteers distribute over $40,000 worth of food, medical supplies, clothing, and other life-sustaining care to people around the world.[ii]
Rev. Davidson remembers a man in Guatemala with four children who were sick, whose family got the food, medical care, and clothing that they needed.  He recalls toddler twins who were starving to death, who got the nourishment and care they needed, and who are now healthy six-year-olds living in an orphanage.  He tells the story of a grandmother in central Virginia who was trying to raise five grandchildren on social security, who now has a full pantry because of his ministry.[iii]  Gleaning also has a Teddy Bear Brigade that distributes stuffed animals to children in crisis, providing a sense of emotional well-being to kids who just need something to hug.  Now, Gleaning for the World is continuing to meet local needs, and is also working to stop the spread of Ebola in West Africa and protect Christian refugees from the spread of militant Islam in Iraq and Syria.[iv]  As it does its work of humanitarian aid, Gleaning for the World is blessed to lead over 30,000 people to Christ every year.[v]  People like Rev. Davidson, and Russell and Lois, make that possible.
You know, it’s easy for people who are blessed with plenty to have a lying attitude in which they’re convinced that they don’t have enough.  “I don’t have enough stuff,” they say, so they have to hoard more.  “I don’t have enough time,” they tell themselves, so whenever they’re asked to volunteer to help others they make excuses.  They say, “I don’t have enough money,” so when they’re asked to donate of their resources in order to help the poor they tighten their grip on their wallets.  Metaphorically, they never leave the edges of their fields unharvested because they’re convinced that they need it all.  They forget that the Lord of the Harvest provides enough for those who trust Him to have their needs met, and to have something to share.
As he was in his fields, Boaz met a poor young widow named Ruth.  She was gleaning on the edges, picking up the leavings that she could find.  Before he had ever seen her, he had heard of her reputation.  She was that foreign girl who had left her father and mother in the land of her birth, giving up everything that she had previously known, in order to accompany her widowed mother-in-law to Bethlehem.[vi]  He knew that she could have chosen selfishness, but believed instead that somehow if she was faithful, her needs would be provided. 
Boaz believed the Lord had called him to provide for Ruth and Naomi—to be the caretaking agent of God in the world.  He could have had an attitude of poverty, convinced that he had to harvest to the edge and keep it all for himself.  Instead, his grateful heart knew that the Lord of the Harvest would provide his needs so that he could take care of others.  So he invited Ruth to drink from the water that his servants drew, to feel safe among his workers, to eat the food that he provided, and to harvest the extra that he commanded his servants to leave behind. 
God calls believers to provide for the needs of the poor in the same way.  You might do this by donating to Gleaning for the World or working for a local relief organization.  You could help those in poverty by contributing to the relief efforts of your church or denomination.  During this season of harvest we need to remember that the Lord of the Harvest will meet all our needs so that we can be generous with those in need.  This is how we put our faith into action.
James 2:14-17 (NASB) says:

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.

2 Corinthians 9:11 (NASB) reminds us that if you give to the needs of the poor, “you will be enriched in everything for all liberality, which through us is producing thanksgiving to God.”  Acts 20:35b (NASB) says, “…You must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” During this season of thanksgiving, as we give thanks for what God has provided for us, our natural response should be one of gratitude and charity.  I pray that you, like Boaz and Rev. Davidson and Russell and Lois, will put the needs of others ahead of your own.  I pray that as you’re generous toward others, you’ll trust the Lord of the Harvest to provide your needs.

[i] Leviticus 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19
[iii]  November 8, 2014.
[iv]  November 8, 2014.
[v] If you’re interested in helping Gleaning for the World, or making a donation, they can be reached at 7539 Stage Rd., Concord VA 24538.  Phone: 1-877-913-9212. 
[vi] Ruth 2:11