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).”