Tag Archives: hope

Why did the US death rate jump sharply in recent years? – First Sunday of Advent 2019, Part 1

2 Dec
Photo by Kyle Johnson on Unsplash

If you could say in one word what you want more of in life, what would that be?

What this question gets at is longing.  This Advent, we are talking about longing. 

Advent is a season of longing.  Ancient Christians created the season of Advent as a four week long preparatory time for the great celebration of Christmas.  Advent means “coming,” and it looks back to the first coming of the Messiah, when Jesus was born.  It also points forward to Jesus’ second coming.  As Jesus taught us, we need to be ready for his second coming.  There is a sense, then, in which Advent is a period focused on longing for Jesus to return, and so we would do well to evaluate our longings.  Are we longing for the right things?

I read an article this week in which the author asked the same question of her readers that I asked you: in one word, what do you want more of in your life?  This is just another way of asking, “What do long for?”  Nearly 800 people responded, and the results were fascinating.  I’m going to list the top 8.  What do you think nearly 800 people in our society said they want more of? 

  • 8 – Confidence
  • 7 – Fulfillment
  • 6 – Balance
  • 5 – Joy
  • 4 – Peace
  • 3 – Freedom
  • 2 – Money
  • 1 – Happiness

People have many longings.  This is no surprise.  What is alarming is that there seems to be a growing sense in our culture of longings going unfulfilled.

Another article I read talked about this.  The article studied the death rate in the USA from 1959 through 2017. The general trend: the death rate improved a great deal for several decades, particularly in the 1970s, then slowed down, pretty much leveled off and has recently reversed course after 2014, increasing dramatically since then.

The article reported sharp especially among those in mid-life, ages 25-64.  The report showed the trend to be true both genders, all races and ethnicities.  By age group, the highest relative jump in death rates between the years 2010 and 2017, a jump of 29 percent, was people age 25 to 34. What is going on?  The title of the article is “There’s something terribly wrong.” 

One person in the article said:

“Whether it’s economic, whether it’s stress, whether it’s deterioration of family, people are feeling worse about themselves and their futures, and that’s leading them to do things that are self-destructive and not promoting health.”[1]

This is alarming because, we are the richest country in the history of the world.  We’re not in a major war.  Our health care is amazing.  We have loads of connection through social media.  We are more educated than ever before.  We have so much opportunity.  Yet there is deep despair in so many in our culture, leading to self-destructive behavior.  What is going on?  Perhaps at the root is a epidemic of unfulfilled longing.

As I answered for myself the question above, “What do you want more of in life?” I’ll admit that “peace” and “money” were the first two words that came to my mind.  Let us consider this: How many of us thought of Jesus?  How many people are longing for Jesus? 

We might actually find that a bit odd.  “What do you mean, ‘longing for Jesus,’ Joel?” What I am referring to is the long-held Christian idea that in Jesus and Jesus alone is where we will find the answer to all our longings.  But is it true? Keep following the blog, as our next few post will look into that.


[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/theres-something-terribly-wrong-americans-are-dying-young-at-alarming-rates/2019/11/25/d88b28ec-0d6a-11ea-8397-a955cd542d00_story.html

How the godly fall – Characters: Samson, Part 2

5 Nov
Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash

A fall from grace. Maybe you’ve experienced it. Or maybe another’s fall has affected you. There have been a number of high profile such failures, and countless more lower profile examples that don’t get reported in the news. No matter the situation, they impact people deeply, leaving us wonder, “How did that happen?” Parents split up. A pastor commits an atrocity. A friend betrays you. Sometimes we fail ourselves, when we don’t live up to our own expectations. How does this happen? And where is God in this? As we continue the story of our third character, Samson, in our current series, we find the answers are sometimes far from easy.

In the first post in this series on Samson, everything surrounding his birth and early years is amazing.  God has intervened, even before Samson is born, setting him up to be a powerful, godly leader. Perhaps most significantly, we learned that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Samson, a very rare occurrence for ancient Israelites, and a clear indication that God had high hopes for Samson.

Then we come to Judges 14.  Look at verses 1-2.

Huh?  Samson goes to get a wife from the Philistines? That’s the enemy, remember.  Worse, Samson isn’t just making a bad decision in fraternizing with the enemy, he is breaking God’s law.  Both Exodus 34:16 and Deuteronomy 7:3 forbid the Israelites from marrying outside of their own people.  What is going on here?  Has something happened in Samson’s life between chapters 13 and 14?  After setting us up for Samson to be a godly deliverer, the writer now has us scratching our heads.  Unless, Samson isn’t going to be the hero we thought. 

As we continue reading in chapter 14, Samson’s parents are disappointed, and they push back, trying to get him to obey God’s law. Samson is having nothing of it, basically demanding that they get the Philistine woman for him to marry. 

Then the writer curiously tells us in verse 4 that, “this was from the Lord.”  Again, we readers could really be confused by this.  Is God condoning sin?  Or is there another way to look at this?  At this point in the story, there are no answers to these questions.  As Samson’s story unfolds, however, the writer will lead us to some answers.  For now, suffice it to say that even though Samson is a flawed character, God is still at work. Let’s continue the story, and what we discover is that the Spirit of Lord comes upon him twice in this chapter, showing God’s presence in his life.

The first occurrence is in verse 6, when the Spirit of Lord comes on Samson to protect him, as Samson kills a lion that attacked him.  That alone is astounding.  He kills a lion.  With his bare hands.  It is okay to think, “That’s not normal.”  Lions kill people.  Not the other way around.  Something is going on with Samson.  We know what is going on: the Spirit of the Lord is on him.  Essentially Samson has a superpower. 

Days or weeks later he passes by the dead lion, and he notices that it has honey in its carcass. Samson not only eats it, but he also gives some to his parents to eat.  This might seem like a random detail, but it is important at this stage in the story.  In the first post, we learned that God wanted Samson to have what was called a Nazarite vow for life. There were three main rules a Nazarite would follow, as they were specially dedicated to God: no alcohol, no touching dead things, and no cutting their hair. Also God’s law forbade any Israelite from touching a dead carcass, let alone eating from it.  So Samson not only broke his vow to God, he also brings his parents, though unwittingly on their part, into breaking a law.  What does this tell us?  Just as he was flippant with God’s law by marrying a foreign woman, here again he shows disregard for God.  Take a pause with me and let’s consider what we are learning about Samson thus far. We have a guy with super strength, but he seems to disregard the source of that power, God’s Spirit, as he is repeatedly trampling on God’s law.  This is not a good pattern; it’s called biting that hand that feeds you. 

Then we come to the wedding feast, which was a typical seven-day-long drinking party.  Again we need to remember his Nazarite vow: no alcohol.  The text doesn’t tell us that he drank, but at a seven-day long party that would normally feature alcohol, and knowing Samson’s proclivity for disregarding his vow, it seems highly likely to me that he drank. 

I think this is especially likely when we consider the ridiculous drama he gets into with his new bride and her people.  30 Philistine men were given to Samson as companions, and some scholars speculate that these men were there to protect the proceedings from Samson.  Perhaps they were a kind of security detail, making sure Samson stays in line. 

So Samson proposes a riddle to them.  If they could solve his riddle by the end of the feast, he would give the men 30 sets of clothing and 30 linen garments or capes, but if they can’t figure it out, they would have to give Samson that much clothing.  Here’s the riddle:

Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet.

Judges 14:14

Do you know what Samson is talking about? Samson clearly thought no one would figure it out.  And it seemed for a while like he was right.  Actually, he was right. There was no way anyone was figuring it out, because it was about the honey in lion that he had previously killed.  It’s cool that the translators made his riddle rhyme in English, but is it even a riddle?  It is more like an impossible guess. How could the Philistine men ever know what he is talking about?  They can’t know and they are frustrated about that, so these men start going behind Samson’s back, trying to get his new bride to help them.  She is one of them, a Philistine.  Will she be loyal to them or to her new husband who is an Israelite, enemy of the Philistines? 

His new bride cries the whole seven days of the wedding feast because Samson won’t tell her the answer to a riddle. Finally, after she begs him repeatedly, he divulges the meaning of the riddle. With little time left before the feast is over, she gives the answer to her people.  They in turn tell Samson the answer, and he is angry, because now he owes them 30 sets of clothing. 

At this moment, Samson’s story shifts into darkness.  It is also at this moment we learn of the second time the Spirit of the Lord comes on Samson in this chapter, but this time it is not for protection like it was with the lion.  This time he travels to a Philistine city, Ashkelon, where he kills 30 Philistine men and strips them of their clothes to pay up.

Samson’s war with the Philistines has begun. While it might seem like God has given Samson a victory over Israel’s enemies, we’ve also watched Samson begin a fall from grace. Yes, he struck a blow to the enemy who had been ruling over Israel for 40 years. Yes, God empowered him. But Samson actions were dark, betraying his vow, acting in anger and disregard for God. These are warning signs.

Perhaps you’ve seen that pattern in yourself or in others around you. The slow fade into darkness. The lack of concern for what might seem like small things, little lies, selfish purchases, and the like. These actions often reveal a direction of life, and that a larger fall could be coming.

As God is gracious with Samson, not abandoning him even when he disregard’s God’s law, God is gracious with us. Merciful. Patient. Return to him before the fall. Confess and repent. Will Samson? Will you?

No matter how bad it is, there is hope – Characters: Samson, Part 1

4 Nov
Photo by Benjamin Davies on Unsplash

What gifts has God given you?  Sometimes we call them spiritual gifts.  Or it could be our personal abilities.  Our aptitudes. Things we are good at.  Could be working with our hands.  Thinking.  Art.  Communication.  Leading.  There are many such gifts.   Have you ever wondered if you’re using those gifts the way God wants?

Or maybe you are concerned you’re not using those gifts how God wants.  Maybe you’re wondering if you’ve messed up in life and God has passed you over.  In our quiet moments we can wrestle with those kinds of thoughts, can’t we?  I know I do.  When Michelle and I came home from one year as missionaries in Jamaica, I wondered if we had just ruined something.  I knew intellectually or theologically that God isn’t like that, but the thoughts were there for sure.  The dark thoughts.  The fears that we had squandered something.  Maybe you’ve wrestled with those thoughts too.  In this week’s series of posts, I believe you’ll find some hope.

A few weeks ago we started a series titled Characters. It is about people in ancient Israel that are generally considered to be heroes, but when we read their stories closely we find them to be broken or flawed people who really struggled.  And yet God still uses them.  There is hope for us in that. 

So far we have met Jacob, and his son, Joseph, two of the patriarchs of the nation of Israel.  Their family moved from Canaan (which is modern-day Israel) to Egypt. Eventually tboth died, but their family grew into the nation of Israel, still living within Egypt.

The new King of Egypt, the Pharaoh, feared their growth and enslaved the Israelites, resulting in a slavery that lasted 400+ years.  But God raised up a deliverer, Moses, who led the nation in an exodus from Egypt, headed back to their ancestor’s original home in Canaan, which they called the Promised Land.  When Moses died, Joshua became the leader of the nation.  Under Joshua’s leadership, the nation fought the conquest of Canaan and eventually settled in the Promised Land.  Moses and Joshua were strong leaders who kept the nation faithful to God, but after Joshua passed away, the nation struggled. 

We pick up the story in Judges 2.  In this chapter the writer describes a cycle of sin the nation of Israel went through.  Verses 16-19 give us a summary of the whole book of Judges: sin, punishment, God’s redemption through a leader/judge, and freedom…until the people start sinning again. The cycle would happen all over.  Imagine how God must have felt watching his people turn their backs on him.  Yet he is a faithful God, raising up judges to rescue them. Again, do you see the hope for the flawed?

This week, we’re going to meet one of those judges: Samson.  Turn to Judges chapter 13.  By chapter 13, there have been numerous judges, as Israel has gone through many of these cycles of sin, punishment, judge, and salvation.  We don’t know how many years have gone by since the days of Joshua, but it could be hundreds of years.  What has happened in those years is a gradual spiritual decline in the nation.  A nation that has moved farther and farther from God.  Sound familiar to your nation? 

In chapter 13 we are at the beginning of another cycle of sin.  Verse 1 tells us that the people did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and he delivered them into the hands of the Philistines for forty years!  Who are the Philistines?  They are a pagan people, living mostly along the Mediterranean Sea, and one of the arch-enemies of the nation of Israel. 

Into this national situation, Judges 13 tells the fascinating story of the birth of the next judge, Samson.  The basic details are in verses 1-5.

Already in these opening verses, we see God entering the story to be the faithful, redeeming God that he is.  How do we see this?

First, he is going to give a childless couple a baby.  That happens a lot in the Bible, right?  So often, in fact, that should tell us something about the kind of God he is. He brings hope!

Second, if you read the whole chapter you’ll find that Samson’s parents are decent people.  His dad Manoah seems a bit comical, bumbling.  His mom seems a lot more stable and possibly even more faithful than his dad.  But these aren’t paragons of godliness.  God is gracious.

Third, an angel shows up.  When angels show up, we should take notice.  How many times did angels show up to announce the birth of the previous judges?  I’ll let you research that on your own.

Fourth, there are special vows that God declares must happen in this pregnancy and baby.  Samson’s mom needs to take uncommon measures during her pregnancy: no alcohol, no unclean food.  And what’s more, her son will be a Nazarite for life.   

“Nazarite” is from the Hebrew word that means “separated” or “dedicated,” as the angel indicates about the child in verse 4.  It was a vow that people could choose to take.  But God wanted this child to be born as a Nazarite, and to live that way his whole life. As a result there are some specific rules the child will live by: no alcohol, no touching dead bodies, and his hair is never to be cut. 

Fifth, look at verses 24-25. The chapter concludes with the birth of the child, whom they name Samson, and we learn that the Lord blessed him and the Spirit of the Lord began to stir in him.  That phrase alone is a very rare description for people in the Old Testament.  The Spirit of the Lord only came upon a few people.  Samson was one of them. 

The account of Samson’s birth sets the stage for Samson to grow up to be a mighty man of God.  Think about what we have seen.  His parents were decent people, perhaps especially his mom.  God miraculously gives Samson to them.  Samson is set apart from birth in this special role called a Nazarite.  And the Spirit of God is on him.  Add that all up, and you have all the raw material for Samson to be a dynamic man of God.

In fact, it almost gives us the idea that he could be the one to bring the nation back to the place where Moses and Joshua had taken it.  We even get a hint of that from the angel’s words that Samson would begin to deliver the nation from the hands of the Philistines. 

Everything surrounding Samson’s birth and early years is amazing.  This is a reminder that God is a bringer of hope. If it seems like your life is too far gone, too messed up, know that when it comes to God, there is always hope.

God’s purpose for your life – Titus 3:1-8, Part 4

8 Aug
Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

Stop! Don’t read this post. (I know. That’s not an advisable way to start a blog post.)

Before continuing with this post, thought, if you haven’t read the previous post, part 3, please go back and read it here. In this series of posts, we’re studying the amazing teaching of Titus 3:1-8, so actually, I would recommend you start with the first post. But at the very least, please take a few minutes and scan through part 3 in this series, as you need to have a grasp of the verses in Titus 3 that post covered in order to see the significance this one will cover.

What I talked about in the previous post relates to the next phrase in verses 5-6, “renewal by the Holy Spirit.” Paul has been teaching about the transformation that God works in our lives. Christians often call it salvation, and in that amazing gift of grace, Paul says, God pours the Holy Spirit into our lives, further causing renewal to take place.  That means God himself enters our lives to renew us.  I don’t know that I can understate how important that is. 

I get the sense that we need to think and contemplate an awful lot more on the fact that the Spirit of God has been poured out on us to renew us. 

In the midst of busy lives, of work, of sports, of Netflix, of TV, of all that you do, have you pushed the Spirit to some tiny corner of your lives?  Intellectually, I would agree the Spirit is with me.  But in the reality of my day to day life, to what degree do I have a relational connection with the Spirit?  If I’m honest, I rarely think about or attempt to interact with the Spirit.  How about you?  Because God is with us, by his Spirit, however, wouldn’t a deeper connection with the Spirit be something we should look into? 

But Paul is not done.  Look at verse 7.  His thought continues, and there is more incredible news.  All this amazing mercy and love and kindness of God, that saved us, washed us, and renewed us from an old way of life, is for a reason.  God has a purpose. 

Before telling us the purpose, Paul has one more important phrase to set the stage. 

Paul says, “Having been justified by his grace.”

“Justified” is a really important biblical theological word, rich in meaning.  Oftentimes scholars debate as to how we should understand it.  The word that Paul used has the idea of putting things in right relation, or making things right.  That’s what God does through Jesus.  He is making things right between us and God.  Another English word that might be an even better fit is “rectification.”  By his grace, God rectifies the situation, he makes it right. As we’ve already seen in the previous post, God makes us into new people, and earlier in this post, God generously pours his Spirit into our lives. God is at work making things right in our lives.

Why would God do this?  If it wasn’t because of anything we did, and it wasn’t, why would he do this?  As I said, he has a purpose.  Paul now puts it all together telling us why God’s kind, loving, merciful gracious salvation appeared into our darkness, saving us, transforming us, even to the point of pouring out his Spirit on us through Jesus.  Why would God do all that?  Why would Jesus go through the incredible 33 years of his birth, life, death and resurrection?

Paul tells us in verse 7: “so that we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” 

This is amazing good news! 

Paul is using family language here.  God wants us to be his heirs.  That means he wants to adopt us into his family.  This is exactly what he said in Titus 2:14, that he was making a people for himself.  God wants you to be in his family. Stop reading this post, and just dwell on that thought a minute. God wants you to be in his family. Do you know that? What do you think about that?

But wait, there’s more, Paul says! God also wants you to have the hope of eternal life.  As I said in the series of posts on Titus 2:11-15, though in that section Paul was teaching about good news in Jesus, he surprisingly didn’t talk about eternal life. He does now.  God wants us to have hope of new life with him now and for eternity. That’s how much God wants you to be in his family.

So look really closely at what God has done.  Into our mess, God appears and does a work of transformation, giving us the gift of himself, so that we can be a part of his family and have hope for eternal life.  That’s good, good news.  That’s worthy of jumping, shouting, cheering, praising, and getting on iMessage, Instagram, Facebook or your phone or walking around your neighborhood and saying, “People, do you realize what God has done???” Paul is describing the revolutionary work of God that is available to all: he wants you to become new, so that you can be a part of his family now and for eternity.

Hope when life is very dark – Titus 3:1-8, Part 3

7 Aug

Do you have a dark past? Is life feeling messy or difficult right now? If you answered “Yes” to either of these questions, you’re not alone. All of us go through really troubling times. In the middle of it, we can feel a confusing mixture of fear, sadness, pain, longing, despair, and we wonder if things will ever change. Usually we think they won’t.

As we continue studying Titus 3:1-8, Paul is thinking about those dark days in the past when in verse 3 he says, “At one time.”  After talking about how the Christians in Crete should be subject to the authorities and live Christianly in the world, Paul has a shift in his flow of thought, drawing their attention to the past.  He wants them to be totally different people than he used to be, than they used to be. 

When he says, “we too,” he could be talking about himself, which is important because, as a leader, he is owning and admitting his past faults.  Paul lists the way he used to live:  foolish, disobedient, deceived, enslaved by passions, living in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.

Paul could be talking about himself because before he became a Christian, he was pretty rough, persecuting Christians.  This is very much connected with what he just said in the previous verse about being humble.  Christians should be willing to admit our faults.  Leaders especially, we need to be committed to admitting where we mess up.  It’s hard to admit our faults, though, isn’t it?  I sense that in our society we have moved toward less admittance of our faults.  It seems to me that people are much quicker to blame others, and not accept fault.  We have too few examples of people who screwed up, owned it, confessed it, and strove for penance, reconciliation, healing.

Paul is also not saying that everyone used to horrible, though.  But maybe there is at least something on the list that describes how you and I used to be. 

Verse 3 is difficult.  Who likes to remember our dark pasts?  And yet Paul is leading us there, so let’s follow his lead.  Look at the words he uses in verse 3 to describe the dark past.  Take a moment to dwell on them.  For the most part Paul is describing those times when we made a mess of our lives.   What was that for you?

A choice to indulge an unhealthy relationship.  To engage in addictive behaviors.  To cross the line into illegalities, because maybe you were angry, you were hurt, you were maybe trying to impress someone.  Maybe people pushed you to act a certain way, and you wanted to be included in their group.  Maybe you were deceived by someone and they hurt you.

As Paul says, remember those times when you felt malice, which is a feeling of wanting to hurt someone.  Remember those times when you were envious.  Maybe a family member or friend was prospering or gaining accolades, while you are working super hard long hours, and seeming like you are not advancing.  And envy creeps in.   Maybe you had someone at work hate you.  Maybe you have someone you hate. 

It can get dark, can’t it?  Remember the darkness? It’s no fun.  Maybe you have some of that darkness even now in your life.  Maybe you feel like you are living it now. 

And into the darkness something happens.

Look what Paul says in verse 4.  God intervened! His kindness and love appeared.  It wasn’t us.  We didn’t do it.  God stepped in.  This is so similar to what he said earlier in 2:11 – the grace of God appeared!  Praise God!  He steps into our darkness! 

When we are in the mess and muck of life, even if it is a situation of our own making, we can feel hopeless and alone.  But Paul says, God our Savior is loving and kind.

What’s more, Paul says in verses 5-6, God saved us!  He steps into our mess and saves us.  Not because of our righteousness. Remember the darkness in verse 3, which says we were far from him, the furthest thing from righteousness.  Paul says God saved us because of his mercy.  We need to spend time dwelling on that too.  God is merciful.  Even when we used to be living in a mess of our own making, he is still merciful.  We don’t deserve it, but he is loving and kind and gives us mercy.

What does mercy involve?  Just words?  Maybe just a pat on the head?  Oh no.  Paul says, God saves us so deeply, so thoroughly, from the inside out.  We’re talking transformation here.  Look at these words he uses:

He saved us through the washing of rebirth

He saved us through renewal of the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.

Rebirth and renewal.  We need to talk more about these two! 

Paul calls it the washing of rebirth.  This is symbolized in the celebration of baptism.  The water and act of baptism symbolize the reality that God is doing within us.  All that junk we read about in verse 3, all of it is washed clean, and we are reborn.  So not only are we cleaned, but we are reborn.  We are new people.  A new beginning.  We’re not the same as we used to be.  What Paul is describing is incredibly similar to what we saw him teach last week in chapter 2, verse 14, when he talked about redeeming and purifying us.  When Jesus gets in your life, he makes a change!

Check back in as we’ll continue talking about this change in the next post.

God works in mysterious ways? [False ideas Christians believe about…God’s involvement in our lives. Part 5]

22 Mar

Does God seem mysterious to you? Confusing? Distant?

In this fifth and final post in our series fact-checking phrases about God’s involvement in our lives, we’re seeking to evaluate the phrase: “God works in mysterious ways.”

This is related to “everything happens for a reason”.  When we say “everything happens for a reason” we are saying we believe God is working things for good, and though we might not immediately know that good outcome, if we look for it, we will find it.  Or we might realize it later on.  Sometimes it only becomes apparent many weeks, months or years later. 

But when we say “God works in mysterious ways,” we are saying that we might never figure it out.  That sometimes God’s purposes are unknowable.  Sometimes God is mysterious. In fact, the Bible teaches this.

In Isaiah 55:8-9 we read, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Or we could turn to, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 29:29)

So what does this mean?  Theologians tell us that one of the first things we need to learn about God is that he is incomprehensible.  What “incomprehensible” means in the theological sense is that we in our human capability will never be able to fully understand God.  God will always be somewhat mysterious to us.

But that does not mean he is totally mysterious, as he has revealed himself to us.  In fact we Christians believe that he has revealed himself quite extensively, to the point that we can know him well.  He has revealed himself in nature, in his Word, and especially in Jesus, who shows us a wonderful picture of what God is like. 

What do we learn about God through what he has revealed?  That God wants to be in relationship with us, and he has revealed enough about himself for us to have a close relationship with him. 

When we say “God works in mysterious ways,” however, we are often in a quandary, unable to figure out why a bad thing has happened.  Thus it can be our attempt to console ourselves.  There is, however, another way we use “God works in mysterious ways,” as expression of trust.  Though we don’t understand our pain, we still want to express our faith in God. This is in keeping with the psalms of lament which, after a major complaint against God, still include a statement of trust.

“God works in mysterious ways” can also be an expression of frustration or despair.  We might not want to be in the situation.  We want answers and details and they are not coming.  We don’t want God to be mysterious, and we rebel against the confusion. 

Think about Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he was going to be arrested and crucified.  What was God’s answer to Jesus’ prayer?  “I hear you, son.  But you will have to go through this.”  Sometimes God will answer in a way we don’t expect or we simply don’t like! 

The problem is that saying “God works in mysterious ways” can give the idea that God is random, or purposefully mysterious, almost like he is playing games with us, trying to be sneaky or tricky.  There is no doubt that there will be situations in life that we cannot figure out, but God also has tendencies, patterns, ways of working, and is not mysterious.   As you walk with God, you get to recognize his work in the world. 

To say “God works in mysterious ways” can be a way of pushing God to the margins of life, however, rather than embracing him in the midst of mystery.  Think again of the psalms of lament, crying out in complaint to God.  In those laments, the psalmists are fully embracing the mystery, and yet still reaching out to God, seeking to bring him close in the middle of the pain. 

So in conclusion, we Christians believe God is at work in the world.  Yes, there are times when we might not be able to figure out what he is doing or why.  But we use our free will to choose to follow him, to honor him, in the middle of the pain.

If you are trying to comfort or encourage people who are in pain, I encourage you to avoid these phrases we’ve studied in this series of posts.  I know it can be very hard to know what to say, and thus we often default back to what we have heard ourselves.  This is the tendency where as adults, to our horror, we realize, “I sound just like my parents!”  Even when we promised ourselves we would never say the things our parents said to us.  Now it’s coming out of our mouths!  Why?  Muscle memory.  We heard it said to us, and it just comes right back out.  Often we learn later in life that what our parents said was actually based in wisdom! But when it comes to these phrases we have been fact-checking, we would do well to battle the tendency to just let them spill out without thinking.  It might mean forcing yourself to be quiet.  It might mean giving the hurting person a hug and simply saying, “I’m here for you, I love you, call me anytime,” and then checking back on them over and over and over, not giving up on them.

A Christmas Surprise [Fourth Sunday of Advent]

2 Jan

Photo by dylan nolte on Unsplash

Today we’re going to meet shepherds.  But as I studied these passages, what emerged was something surprising, something unexpected!  During Advent, we have been following the readings in the Lectionary, and our first passage is Micah 5:2-5a. Micah gives us in verse 2 a prophecy of a future ruler who would come to rule over Israel.  Can you figure out why this is a prophecy that is mentioned at Christmas almost every year?

Because of the reference to Bethlehem!  That is the first part of the prophecy: notice that it actually says it is given to Bethlehem Ephrathah.  Bethlehem was the town, and Ephrathah was the region.  It says that Bethlehem was a small clan, and yet in the nation of Israel, it might be the second most famous city behind Jerusalem.  Why?

Bethlehem was the birthplace of kings!  Do you remember the first king who was born there? David, the greatest king of Israel.  Now in this prophecy we are told that there was going to be another king born there.

So Israel was awaiting the arrival of the King.  Why?  Because, as Micah tells us in verse 3: Israel broke the covenant God had made with them, and they were abandoned by God.  Israel could read this passage and you could see how they might not fully get the part about their sinfulness.  The passage doesn’t say “Israel you broke my covenant, so I am abandoning you.”  But there are plenty of other places in the prophets where God said to the people, “You disobeyed me. You broke our agreement.”  We saw this in Jeremiah’s prophecy which we studied a few weeks ago.  But here in Micah 3, it could seem like God is just randomly abandoning them, and so when this new king is born and rules the people again, that new king is going have the power of God and bring security and peace to the land.  If you are living in Israel through all the many occupations by foreign powers, Micah 5:2-5 sounds really great.  Right around the time of Jesus’ birth, you might be expecting a savior to be born who would lead Israel’s armies to fight the Romans, and kick them out of the land and bring peace. 

But there is more to the story!

In verses 4-5 we learn that this new ruler, this new King from Bethlehem will shepherd his flock.  It will be a wonderful peaceful time.  This would have been a familiar image to the people of Israel because their great king David, the previous king born in Bethlehem, started his career as a shepherd.  Then fast forward to Jesus’ birth, it was the lowly shepherds whom the angels of God visited to declare the amazing news that the new king had been born in Bethlehem.

So in Micah, we read the prophecy of a new Shepherd who was to come from Bethlehem.  Now we turn to the second reading, Psalm 80:1-7, written by Asaph, and one we actually studied the last year, when we were studying psalms of lament.

Who do we meet in verse 1?  The Shepherd of Israel!  But this is an entirely different shepherd than the one promised in Micah.  The psalmist is writing a song that a group of people would sing, and we see that they are singing to God.  They say that God is a shepherd who leads Joseph like a flock.  Joseph is one of the nation of Israel’s patriarchs. In fact, do you know who Joseph’s dad was?  Israel (also known as Jacob), which is how the nation got its name.  Thus the psalmist is using the word “Joseph” to refer to the whole nation of Israel.

Then the psalmist talks about the one who sits enthroned between the cherubim.  That is another very Jewish image.  The cherubim were angels that were crafted out of gold and placed on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant.  Remember the Ark of the Covenant?  Not the big boat that Noah made.  That Ark was essentially a small box that was kept in the tabernacle and later, the temple.  I’m talking about the same Ark that is featured in the movie Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Do you remember what was kept inside the Ark?  The stone tablets on which God wrote the Ten Commandments, some manna, which was the food God sent Israel from heaven, and finally the high priest Aaron’s staff which had budded with almond blossoms.  And God’s presence would rest between the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant.

So while this psalm is referring to God as the Shepherd of his people, their situation is dire. Look at verses 2 and 3.  Asaph is calling for help, salvation, and restoration.  Things are bad.  He uses the word “awake,” making it sound like God is asleep.  That is very similar to the word “abandon” we heard in Micah.  Israel knows that God is powerful, but for some reason he is not answering their call for help. What this call for help indicates is that they can’t do this alone.  They need God.

In verses 2-7 then we have a nearly identical theme to Micah: they are feeling God has abandoned them, and they are crying out for restoration.  There is a deep longing in this psalm for God’s salvation.

Now we fast forward to the First Century AD, to our third passage, where are going to hear about the fulfillment of the prophecy of Micah and the answer to the prayer of Psalm 80. Turn to Luke 1:39-45, where we read a fascinating story.

It is a story of two women.  Mary and Elizabeth.  Relatives.  Mary is from the northern part of Israel.  She is a young girl from the tiny town of Nazareth.  She is engaged to be married to a man named Joseph.  But there is a problem.  Mary became pregnant before she is married.  We know that the baby growing inside her is a miracle baby, placed there by God.  But no one in Mary’s town knows this.  Only Joseph.  So as Mary starts showing, it could get very uncomfortable for Mary and Joseph.  Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, her relative, who lives near Jerusalem in the south.  We don’t know the specific relationship between the two ladies: aunt & niece, or maybe great aunt, etc.  We just know Mary is young, Elizabeth is old.  Both are pregnant with special children. 

These babies are the two messengers! Do you remember the two messengers of Malachi 3?  In that chapter we learned that one messenger would arrive and prepare the way for the second messenger, who was the Lord.  These two babies had been predicted over 400 years before, and now they are about to be born.  Read verses 39-45.

Isn’t that wild?  The first messenger, the one who would prepare the way is John, which is Elizabeth’s baby.  There he is in the womb, leaping at the sound of Mary’s voice, because Mary is the mother of the second messenger.

The story gets even wilder as we read that Elizabeth was filled with the Spirit, and in a loud voice said speaks this really cool poem. 

In the poem, Elizabeth has blessings for Mary, for Mary’s child.  She praises Mary for her belief in God, and she proclaims that Mary’s child will be her Lord!  And in the middle of it all we read Elizabeth’s question: Why am I so favored?  Elizabeth is marveling at how God has blessed her!  Elizabeth is getting to see the fulfillment of prophecy and the answer to centuries of prayer come to pass right before her eyes.  And she is mother to one of the babies, and her relative is mother to the Lord!  Wow! 

It is hard to put into words what a wonderful scene this is!

After Elizabeth speaks, then Mary speaks.  What we read next in verses 46-55 is Mary’s Song, sometimes called Mary’s Magnificat, which is the first word of the song in its Latin translation.  In our English translations it is the word “glorify” or sometimes translated “magnify”.  “Magnify the Lord, O my soul.”

Look how she describes the Lord, just like the ruler and shepherd who will be the savior of the world.  He is a just and merciful and good God.  He scatters the proud, but he lifts up the humble.  He feeds the hungry, but sends the rich away empty.  He cares for those who are oppressed and he is not impressed with those who the world worships.  

With this amazing vision of our savior God in our minds, turn to our fourth reading, Hebrews 10:5-10.  Here we meet the one who was promised in Micah, the one prayed for in Psalm 80, and the one the Mary raised as a baby.  But what we find is that this savior, this Jesus, is not at all what we thought

The passage starts in verses 5-7 with a quote from Psalm 40.  Look at verse 5.  Isn’t it interesting that God does not desire sacrifices?  It sure seems like God desires tons of sacrifices when you read the OT Law.  But Psalm 40 reminds us in verses 8-10 (here in Hebrews 10) that sacrifice is not sufficient.  God actually wasn’t pleased by them.  There was, however, one sacrifice that was sufficient.  The shepherd who sacrifices himself for the sheep!  Hebrews 10 doesn’t use the phrase, “the shepherd who sacrifices for his sheep,” but Jesus did.  He said in John 10 that he was the Good Shepherd who gives his life for his sheep.

When Jesus came to us, even in the form of a little baby, he was saying, “Here I am, I have come to do your will, O God.” 

It is like the writer of Hebrews is envisioning a conversation in heaven between Jesus and God the Father.  God is saying, “My people have turned away from me, and all those sacrifices they do are empty and meaningless because their hearts are far from me.  They are just going through religious rituals. But that is never what I wanted!  I wanted to be in a real relationship with them, a loving relationship. But they are so easily tempted away by lesser things like false gods, destructive addictions, empty possessions, things that will never satisfy.  What can change the human heart?”   

I imagine heaven goes silent.  And then Jesus raises his hand.

He exclaims, “I’ll do it!” and he could.  He alone could do it.  He alone could become a human, live a perfect life, show us the way of his Kingdom, call us to follow him, and then give his life as the ultimate sacrifice, once for all.  Jesus willingly came and gave his life.  

When Jesus made that sacrifice, the writer of Hebrews tells us in verse 9 that God honored that sacrifice, setting aside the first idea, which was all those sacrifices at the temple that we read about in the Old Testament.  That sacrificial system was set aside, and God established a second new plan, that of Jesus being the once and for all sacrifice.  And look what happened!

In verse 10 we read that we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all!  When Jesus gave his life on the cross and then 3 days later rose again from the dead, he showed that his sacrifice was the one true sacrifice!  He defeated sin, death and the Devil, and made a way for us to be holy like he is holy.

That is not at all what Micah or Psalm 80 expected.  They wanted a military ruler to defeat the Romans, and Jesus said, “Here I am, I have a much, much better and bigger plan than that.  I will defeat sin, death and the Devil.”  And that is just what he did.

Now we can see clearly why Elizabeth and Mary are praising God!  Jesus is the savior of the World.  It was totally unexpected.  The Shepherd gave his life for the sheep.

In the midst of the darkness of sin in our lives, we have hope.In the midst of our pain, no matter what you are struggling with, we have hope.

We can choose to rejoice just like Mary and Elizabeth.  On Christmas Eve we rejoice!  And we can rejoice any day throughout the year, no matter what is going on because we have a Shepherd who cares for us, who gave his life for us.  One of the ways our family has been trying to apply this principle is to be intentional about playing worship music, especially in those moments when life is hard.  Instead of wallowing in the pain, getting bitter about it, we have been playing worship music to purposefully redirect our thoughts to the hope we have in our Good Shepherd who loves us and gave his life for us! How will you rejoice?