WOULD YOU?

“Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.” … Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.” Luke 1:30-31,34 (NLT)]

It’s no wonder that the angel Gabriel told Mary not to be afraid. Angels were not an everyday occurrence and, when they arrived, lives were changed. As God’s messengers, angels sometimes brought good news, offered protection, or comforted people, but they also brought warnings and executed God’s judgment. Although angels rescued Lot, they also warned of Sodom’s destruction! Balaam received a stern warning from a sword-bearing angel, David wrote of destroying angels, and 2 Samuel tells of an angel nearly destroying Jerusalem. Mary’s initial confusion and concern at seeing an angel is understandable. When reassuring the girl, Gabriel tells her she is “highly favored” by God; he’s not brought bad news, but good. Nevertheless, she knows her life is going to change; she just doesn’t know how!

Gabriel then tells Mary in what way she’s found favor—by giving birth to a child named Jesus who will fulfill the promises of Scripture. I don’t think Mary fully understood the ramification of Gabriel’s words simply because she was stuck on the “How?” of his words. When the angel told Zechariah of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the priest questioned out of disbelief saying that he and Elizabeth were too old. Mary, however, didn’t question whether God could do such a thing; she just asked how He would do it. That it would be a miracle through the Holy Spirit was all she needed to know! Calling herself the Lord’s servant, she immediately acquiesced to His will.

Mary’s answer is one of amazing faith. Unlike Moses, she didn’t list her weaknesses or the problems facing her and unlike Jonah, she didn’t run in the opposite direction. Although the angel encouraged Mary by telling her of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Mary never asked for proof as did Gideon. Mary’s faithful response is that of highest obedience to God.

We know the rest of the story; Mary did not. She didn’t know how Joseph or her parents would react, where God’s plan would lead, or what would be demanded of her in the future. Trusting that the Lord would work out the details, she simply walked forward in faith. When God gives us a task, are we as obedient as Mary? We should be!

There’s some task which the God of all the universe, the great Creator, your redeemer in Jesus Christ has for you to do, and which will remain undone and incomplete until by faith and obedience you step into the will of God. [Alan Redpath]

Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her. [Luke 1:38 (NLT)]

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A SEASON OF GETTING OR GIVING?

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. [John 15:12 (ESV)]

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. [1 John 4:18-21 (ESV)]

santaThe National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend between 727.9 and 730.7 billion dollars on Christmas gifts and merchandise between November 1 and the end of the year. If they’re correct, we’ll have spent nearly $95 for every one of the 7.7 billion people on earth (most of whom won’t get any of those purchases). It’s ironic that a day set aside to honor the birth of Jesus, the Savior who sacrificed His life for us, has become a frenzied season of obtaining and consuming.

While this clearly is a season of indulging, let’s also make it a season of giving. Some of us make our giving decisions by asking, “What’s the least I can give while still honoring God?” Others ask, “What’s the most I can give without changing my life?” A very few, however, simply offer what they have. When a young boy offered his lunch, Jesus fed a multitude. When a poor widow shared her one serving of flour and oil, three people ate for three years. When a farmer shared his sack of grain and loaves of bread, Elisha and one hundred hungry men ate to their hearts’ content. The boy, widow, and farmer offered what they had, not what remained after they’d eaten their fill and, instead of having less, everyone had more.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis suggests that the real obstacle to giving could be fear—the fear of insecurity. We’re afraid that, if we share what we have, we might not have enough later. What if the stock market crashes, we lose our jobs, need long term nursing care, or outlive our money? Lewis points out we must recognize that fear for what it really is: temptation. Worry is one of the enemy’s favorite weapons!

Jesus told us to love one another in the way He loved us and that was unqualified sacrificial love on the cross! Being saved by God’s grace doesn’t free us from obedience to His command. Our knowledge of God’s perfect love should dispel all fear—not just about judgment or eternity, but about today and the days after this one. What we give is between us and God but we must never let fear enter into the equation. “In God we trust” is written on our currency. Do we really trust Him? If we do, why do we have such trouble sharing our assets with His children? Let us trust Him and obey.

Not, how much of my money will I give to God, but, how much of God’s money will I keep for myself? [John Wesley]

Teach those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which is so unreliable. Their trust should be in God, who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment. Tell them to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and generous to those in need, always being ready to share with others. [1 Timothy 6:17-18 (NLT)]

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COMING SOON – ADVENT

However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows. And since you don’t know when that time will come, be on guard! Stay alert! [Mark 13:32-33 (NLT)]

Since 2014, we’ve awaited the opening of a new grocery store. Having missed all three of its previous launch dates, it is supposed to open today. Promising to be a “local destination,” this store isn’t just another Publix or Kroger’s. This “culinary mecca” and “foodie paradise” promises to be the Disneyland of grocery stores. In its 77,000 square-feet, there will be a food court and restaurant along with a book corner, five-level children’s play area, cooking demonstration kitchen, and coffee, smoothie, juice, wine and cocktail bars. They’ll churn fresh butter, roast fresh coffee, make their own ice cream and candy, pull fresh mozzarella cheese, and bake wood-fired pizzas. There will be tanks of live tilapia and shrimp along with six-hundred gallons of live lobster. Like any grocery, they’ll have fresh produce and bakery, dairy case (with artisan cheeses), wine department, butcher shop, bulk food, flowers, and whatever else you could possibly find in a grocery store. The store claims it will be “the kind of place where you’ll want to hang out.”

I’m not sure about the grocery, but I know we’ll want to hang out with Jesus when He comes again. As Christians, we expect Him to return from heaven and we look forward to the day when we will see the full glory of our God. I’ve only waited five years for the grocery but Christians have waited nearly 2,000 years for Jesus. The date of His return is even more elusive than the store’s actual opening date. While the store’s owner attributes the delay to hurricane Irma, his plan getting bigger and grander, parking lot issues, and finding 400 workers, we’re not sure why God has delayed. After reminding us that God’s time is different than ours, the Apostle Peter explains that Jesus is patiently waiting for His return because He is giving humanity as much time as possible to choose to follow Him.

Just because there’s been a delay in the store’s opening doesn’t mean it won’t open and just because Jesus has delayed coming doesn’t mean He won’t! Jesus promised His disciples that He would come again and, when they saw Him ascend into heaven, two angels proclaimed that Jesus would return to earth bodily and visibly. As Christians, whenever we recite the Nicene or Apostles’ creeds, we acknowledge our belief that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead and that His kingdom will have no end. If we have faith in Jesus, we must have faith in His return!

If I’m not driving past the grocery store, I might miss its grand opening but I’m not likely to miss Jesus’s return. The first time Jesus came it was as a baby in a manger and He was overlooked by many. The next time He comes it will be as a conquering King. He will come “on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” and “send out his angels with the mighty blast of a trumpet.” [Matthew 27:30-31] I don’t think anyone will miss the armies of Heaven when they arrive!

Although, the grocery store is supposed to open today (Monday), I’m writing this on Friday so I don’t know if it actually will. Then again, I also don’t know if Jesus returned over the weekend. Unlike the grocery store, He’s not going to announce the date! If He doesn’t come today, He might come tomorrow. In any case, we’d best be ready for Him when He does!

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, the believers who have died will rise from their graves. Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever. [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 (NLT)]

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UNLIMITED

expect a miracleBut Jesus said, “You feed them.” “With what?” they asked. [Luke 9:13a (NLT)]

After the crowd followed Jesus to the far side of the Sea of Galilee, He sat on the top of a hill, taught them about the Kingdom of God, and healed the sick. The gospels specify there were five thousand men but, considering that women and children probably accompanied them, there may have been as many as fifteen thousand or more. Late in the afternoon, the disciples asked Jesus to send the people away so they could go purchase food. Rather than dismiss them, Jesus said to feed them, but the disciples responded there wasn’t money enough to feed them all. When Andrew mentioned a boy with five loaves and two small fish, he added, “But what good is that?” Seeing neither money nor food enough, the disciples had missed the point; they were seeking a human solution for a God-sized problem.

Looking more like naan or pita than a modern loaf of bread, the boy’s loaves probably were about 7-inches in diameter and no more than an inch thick. As for the fish, with no refrigeration (or mention of cooking), they probably were dried or pickled and something like sardines. Did the boy even think his lunch would make a difference to that enormous crowd? The disciples certainly didn’t. Although the boy didn’t know what Jesus could do with his meager offering, he gave what little he had to Him. One boy shared his food with thousands and, instead of having less, everyone had more!

While the people’s problem had been lack of food, the disciple’s problem was graver: lack of faith! As first-hand witnesses to Jesus’s miracles, they’d seen Him turn water into wine, heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, give hearing to the deaf, free the demon-possessed, cure lepers, make the lame walk, and return a dead girl to life. When Jesus asked His disciples what they had to feed the people, not one of them said, “You, Lord! You can feed them!” Having seen His power, they didn’t see that their greatest asset was standing right in front of them. With his offering, this unnamed boy showed more faith in the Lord than did His own disciples!

How easily we forget that, while man’s resources are limited, God’s are unlimited. “It’s impossible!” is never heard in Heaven and shouldn’t be heard among His believers here on earth. When we offer what little we have to God, He can do more with our gifts than we can imagine! He will take our meager offerings and turn them into an abundance of blessings. Instead of worrying about how it can be done, we must have faith that it can be done! When we provide God with our fish and loaves, He will provide the miracle!

It is true that we have but our five coarse barley loaves and two small fishes; in themselves they are useless. Well, then, let us give them to Christ. He can multiply them, and can make them more than enough to feed the five thousand. [Archdeacon Frederic Farrar]

Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” [Matthew 19:26 (NLT)]

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FROM START TO FINISH

Together they will go to war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will defeat them because he is Lord of all lords and King of all kings. And his called and chosen and faithful ones will be with him. [Revelation 17:14 (NLT)]

Christ the KingSeeing the rise of secularization, communism, fascism, and atheism following World War I, Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King in 1925. He wanted to remind Christians who their only King was and that it was Christ (and Christ alone) who should reign in our hearts! Originally celebrated the last Sunday in October, the feast day was moved to the last Sunday of the liturgical year in 1969. In spite of being created by the Roman Catholic Church, many Protestants including Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians celebrate the day.

This year, Christ the King Sunday was yesterday. Celebrating Christ’s second coming, His messianic kingship, and His sovereign rule over all creation, it marked the end of the church year. Next Sunday, the first Sunday in Advent, begins the new liturgical year. Advent means “the arrival or coming of something” and, for Christians, Advent is a time of preparing to celebrate Christ’s first arrival (his incarnation) and also a time of anticipating His second coming “when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed.” [Titus 2:13].

While our children or grands might have candy filled Advent calendars to help them count down to Christmas, many adults observe this season of anticipation with a spiritual discipline, such as memorizing Scripture or Bible reading. Although no Christmas Eve service would seem complete without hearing the account of Christ’s birth in Luke 2,  there are twenty-three other chapters in Luke’s gospel! If you started December 1 by reading one chapter in Luke and read another chapter every day until the 24th, you’d wake up Christmas morning having read the entire gospel. As we busy ourselves in preparation for the holidays, reading Christ’s story and words might keep our minds on the reason for Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago.

The last week before Christmas, when life gets busier and it’s harder to keep centered on Jesus, Luke’s narration can keep us grounded in Christ as we see God’s plan fulfilled. On the 18th, Jesus will predict His death for the third time. In the next day’s reading, before taking His triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Jesus will tell His followers what is expected of them between His departure and second coming. We’ll read of His conflict with the religious leaders on the 20th. On the 21st, Jesus warns the disciples about the future: the persecution, the tribulation, and second coming. It will be Judas’ betrayal, the last supper, and Peter’s denial on the 22nd and Jesus’s trial, crucifixion, death and burial on the 23rd. Finally, on the 24th, we’ll read of His resurrection and ascension. Hopefully, as Luke’ words take us from annunciation to ascension, Christmas morning will be a more meaningful to us all.

May we always remember that Jesus is the only reason for the season!

The immense step from the Babe at Bethlehem to the living, reigning triumphant Lord Jesus, returning to earth for his own people–that is the glorious truth proclaimed throughout Scripture. As the bells ring out the joys of Christmas, may we also be alert for the final trumpet that will announce his return, when we shall always be with him. [Alan Redpath]

I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! [Luke 2:10b-11 (NLT)]

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HOW COULD HE?

For the Lord is good. His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation. [Psalm 100:5 (NLT)]

black vultureTears fell on my newspaper as I read the account of a toddler so violently raped that multiple surgeries will be required to repair the damage done to her little body. Nothing, however, will erase the abuse and my heart bled for the girl. From reading the book of Job, I knew not to ask God, “Why?” Nevertheless, I cried out to him, “How could you allow such evil to touch this child?”

Satan was unable to harm Job without God’s consent. Although he wasn’t permitted to kill Job, most of his family died—apparently, with God’s consent! When Jesus told Peter that “Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat,” it was clear the God allowed Satan to tempt Peter and the others. The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness specifically so that He would be tempted. Wondering if these instances mean Satan always needs God’s permission to wreak his havoc on the world, I asked again, “How could you let him do this?”

Although Satan sometimes asked permission, I’m not sure we can infer that Satan always asked God’s permission to act against His children. Scripture doesn’t tell us he asked God if he could enter into Judas or tempt David with Bathsheba, Solomon with his foreign wives, Achan with Jericho’s plunder, Joseph with Potiphar’s wife, Esau with a bowl of stew, or Gehazi with Naaman’s money.

Satan and God are neither opposites nor equals. Satan was created and will end but God always has been and forever will be. While God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, Satan is none of those things. Unlike Satan, God has supreme authority over all things. That, unfortunately, leads me to the troubling conclusion that, while Satan may not always ask permission, nothing happens unless it is allowed by our sovereign God.

Coming to grips with the reality of evil may be the greatest challenge to our faith. If we truly believe that God is good and created everything, we have to ask how a good God could create evil. According to Augustine of Hippo (354-430), a truly good God is incapable of creating evil. Either something else created evil or evil isn’t a thing. But, if God created everything but couldn’t and wouldn’t create evil, we’re left with the conclusion that evil, while real, is not a tangible created thing! Rather than a thing, like a piece of fabric, Augustine posits that evil, like a hole in that fabric, is a lack of a thing; evil is a void in or lack of goodness. Augustine said, “Evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name ‘evil.'” He explains that, rather than choosing to do evil, men (exercising their free will) choose to turn away from good (which is sin). I don’t know if Augustine’s explanation is correct; I’m not sure I fully understand it. What I do know is that God called everything He created “good.” Although the tree in Eden contained the knowledge of good and evil, the evil wasn’t in the tree or its fruit. Adam and Eve’s lack of obedience, their turning away from the goodness of God, is what tore a hole in the goodness of the world.

The issue of evil will continue to trouble me, as it probably will you. Not being omniscient, we’ll never fully understand God’s purposes and ways; why He allows what He allows will remain a mystery. What isn’t a mystery, however, is who and what we know God to be! He is love! Our righteous God is sovereign over everything in the universe. He gave mankind free will and, with that free will, we can turn away from His righteousness but we also can choose to be moral and virtuous. For now, we must trust what we do know about God and believe in His wisdom, goodness and love (and continue to pray for those harmed by evil). “I do not know the answer to the problem of evil,” said Os Guiness, “but I do know love. That’s the key thing. In Jesus, we cannot doubt the love of God for us if we look at the lengths to which He went.”

God Almighty would in no way permit evil in His works were He not so omnipotent and good that even out of evil He could work good. [Augustine of Hippo]

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. [John 3:16 (NLT)]

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