WALKING IN HOPE

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” [Revelation 21:3-4 [(NLT)]

dawnMy Advent devotional suggested taking a prayer walk while looking for signs of hope. I took my regular route and, since I often pray while walking, I wasn’t sure how this walk would be different. Nevertheless, I went in search of hope. The first thing I noticed was the sun rising in the east—a sure sign of hope with its promise of a new day and all of its possibilities. I spotted a family of ducks waddling down to the pond. The five youngsters were no longer little yellow fluffs of feathers but mama duck still kept her eyes on them. Mothers of every species hope to keep their children safe—even when they’re no longer children! I noticed the lilies, canna, and arrowhead that had been planted at waters’ edge last spring to prevent shoreline erosion. They were starting to bear their first flowers—another sign of hope because it means they took root and will serve their purpose. A few people had decorated their houses for the holiday; since not all the décor was secular, I found hope that some people still keep Christ in Christmas. Further on, a patient great blue heron stood absolutely still, neck fully extended, hoping to catch a tasty fish breakfast. It reminded me that we must remain patient in our hope—all things in God’s time. Seeing a few wood storks wading in the water also was a hopeful sign; once an “endangered” breed, their status has been upgraded to “threatened,” meaning there is hope for the survival of their species.

Since this was a prayer walk, I went through my prayer list of hope-filled prayers for what could be called happy endings—things like a successful surgery, passing grades, reconciliation, recovery from illness, sobriety, a new job, successful endeavors, the sale of a house, safe travels, a problem solved, and an obstacle surmounted. Sadly, for some of the names on my list, happy endings on this side of the grass don’t seem likely. Modern-day Jobs, the cards they’re holding are bad ones. Unlike Job who got a better hand in a re-deal and ended up with more than he’d had before, they appear stuck in their dismal situations with no new cards in sight. Barring a miracle, their circumstances aren’t likely to improve. In 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul mentions the three things that last forever: faith, hope and love. He calls love the greatest of the three; perhaps hope is the hardest.

Wondering about the purpose of my hope walk, I thought back to the day’s Advent readings from Revelation and Isaiah. Advent hope isn’t a wishful thinking/finger-crossing kind of hope, like hoping the pathologist’s report says “benign.” It’s more than hoping a good outcome for something about which we’re unsure. Our hope is in God and He’s already promised us a better future. Advent hope is knowing that, in spite of our circumstances, God eventually will work it all together for our good. While we hope for deliverance from our present troubles, we know that, ultimately, we will be delivered. Our hope isn’t in situations, people, medicine, or the stock market and we don’t need a knight in shining armor to rescue us from our woes. Our hope is in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit! Whether the hand dealt to us looks hopeless or not, we continue to maintain Advent hope by looking away from our circumstances to the One who holds our lives in His hands.

Our hope is in Immanuel, which means “God is with us”! He is with us in our birth and death, sickness and health, joy and sorrow, good times and bad. Let us remember that, if He is with us, then we are with Him—in His resurrection, ascension, and the glory of His second coming!

Optimism and hope are radically different attitudes. Optimism is the expectation that things—the weather, human relationship, the economy, the political situation, and so on—will get better. Hope is trust that God will fulfill God’s promises to us in a way that leads us to true freedom. [Henri Nouwen]

The Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). [Isaiah 7:14 (NLT)]

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STANDING ON HIS PROMISES

Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks to God, and distributed them to the people. Afterward he did the same with the fish. And they all ate as much as they wanted. [John 6:11 (NLT)]

queen butterflyThe feeding of the five thousand is one of the more impressive of Jesus’s miracles. The gospels’ writers surely thought it important; other than the resurrection, this is the only miracle recorded in all four accounts. While small details vary, they all agree that Jesus had only five loaves and two fish when He said a blessing over the food. Although a typical Jewish blessing would have been something like, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth,” I think Jesus said something quite different. I don’t think He thanked God for five loaves and two fish and I don’t think He asked God for more provisions. In spite of not having sufficient food to feed even fifteen let alone more than five thousand, I think Jesus thanked our more-than-enough God for the more-than-enough food that would feed that multitude. I think the One who promised, “If you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours,” thanked His Father in Heaven for His abundant provision before that food ever appeared!

We don’t know exactly how this miracle transpired but none of the gospels’ writers describe anything impressive like fish and bread falling from heaven, Jesus staggering from the weight of the food that appeared in His arms, or needing extra baskets to distribute it (although twelve baskets were needed for the leftovers)! This extraordinary miracle occurred without drama or fanfare; as the food was distributed, it never seemed to diminish and, even though everyone ate until full, food remained.

Giving thanks in advance really isn’t so odd. Back in August, when we celebrated our anniversary, our children gave us play tickets and a night’s lodging in a nearby town. Our reservations, however, weren’t until October. Nevertheless, we didn’t wait two months to thank them. Even though we’d not checked into the hotel, enjoyed dinner and a comedy, or been assured at check-out that all expenses were paid, we thanked them in advance because we knew them to be good to their word.

A pastor recently shared his own story of giving thanks in advance. When he accepted a new job, he knew there had been some financial irregularities and questionable practices under his predecessor. Nevertheless, he was shocked to discover the church was so far behind in mortgage payments that the bank was considering foreclosure. He then learned that the church also was in debt to several church members. Sure it couldn’t get any worse than an insolvent church, the pastor received a notice from the city that, unless their gravel parking lot was paved within thirty days, services could no longer be held. That Sunday, as he delivered the disturbing news to the congregation, the pastor made one request. He asked everyone to say a prayer as they walked to their cars and felt the gravel’s stones beneath their shoes. They were to thank God for the smooth new asphalt under their feet and to praise Him for His timely provision of a parking lot! That was faith! Together, pastor and church stood on God’s promises of provision and, within thirty days, that parking lot was paved (and paid for). Eventually, through faith, prayer, good stewardship, and God’s provision, all of their debts were paid and the church got back on solid financial ground.

After the pastor told his story, I recalled the chorus to an old hymn, “Standing, standing, standing on the promises of God my Savior…I’m standing on the promises of God.” I wondered if I only thank God after His provision, which is gratitude, or if I stand on His promises and thank Him in advance, which is faith. If I have enough faith in my children to thank them before receiving their gifts, I should be able to trust God enough to thank Him for blessings not yet received. Do I stand on the promises of God? Do you?

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God. I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart. I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours.” [Mark 11:22-24 (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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DOUBT AND UNBELIEF

The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.  [Deuteronomy 29:29 (RSV)]

purple coneflowerGod makes Himself known through His creation, His word, and in the still small voice of His Spirit and the things He has revealed to us are what make our faith possible. Nevertheless, there is much that He has not made known to us, which is why faith is necessary. A day will come when our questions will be answered; when that time comes, our hope will turn into reality and what we believe will be seen. But, until then, there will be occasions of doubt. Doubt, however, doesn’t mean we’ve lost our faith; we can’t doubt what we don’t believe!

John Piper likens our faith journey to driving a racecar and doubt to an opponent splashing mud on our windshield. We don’t quit the race because of a little mud; instead, we slow down, turn on the windshield wipers, and clean off the muck! Questioning how the man who’d been nailed to a cross and sealed in a tomb could rise from the dead, the Apostle Thomas had reason for his doubt. Although the others claimed to have seen Jesus, Thomas hadn’t and questioned their claim. Had they seen and touched the wounds in His hands or the gash in His side? Thomas thought he needed that kind of proof to be sure it was Jesus. But, like a good racecar driver, in spite of the mud on his windshield, he didn’t quit the race. Thomas was still with the disciples when, eight days later, Jesus appeared and offered his maimed body to the doubting man. Perhaps, simply hearing the Lord’s voice and seeing Him standing there was all the disciple really needed. We never read of him actually touching Jesus before exclaiming, “My Lord and my God!”

While doubt comes from a troubled spirit and a questioning mind, unbelief is an act of the will. A deliberate choice, unbelief is the opposite of faith! It says, “I hear you, but I choose not to believe you!” The story is told of an atheist and Christian who were debating the existence of God and the truth of Scripture. At the end of their discussion, the atheist asked the Christian, “What happens if you faithfully live your Christian life and, when you die, you discover that you’ve been wrong all this time?” The believer answered, “Having lived a good life of joy and love, I simply will remain dead.” He then asked the atheist, “But, what if I am right and you’re wrong?” The atheist replied, “Then I will have made the greatest mistake of my life!” That mistake will have eternal repercussions!

Faith is a journey and we all will wrestle with doubt along the way, as I did in yesterday’s devotion about evil. “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!” said the father who asked Jesus to heal his son; I echo his prayer. Jesus doesn’t demand enormous faith before He acts on our behalf. He said a tiny mustard seed of genuine faith is all that we need to move mountains. When moments of doubt occur (and they will), let us continue to pray, “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!” God, the creator and sustainer of our faith, will give us faith when we ask. He will help clean the spattered mud off the windshield of our car so we can finish the race.

Sometimes we need to go through the foyer of doubt to get into the sanctuary of certainty. [Greg Laurie]

If ours is an examined faith, we should be unafraid to doubt… There is no believing without some doubting, and believing is all the stronger for understanding and resolving doubt. [Os Guinness]

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” [John 20:29 (RSV)]

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. [Hebrews 11:1 (RSV)]

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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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LOST AND FOUND

Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. [Luke 15:4-6a (NIV)]

dahlia“The long, dull, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather. You see, it is so hard for these creatures [mankind] to persevere. …this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition.” So writes the demon Screwtape to his nephew, an apprentice devil trying to win a young man’s soul, in C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters.

A woman recently shared her story of Satan’s campaign of attrition. Since childhood, she dutifully attended church every Sunday and, once she had children, insisted that the family worship together. She’d taught Sunday school, volunteered for service projects, and attended churchwomen’s programs. Nevertheless, after her youngest left for college, she woke up one Sunday morning and, for no particular reason, decided to stay home. She skipped church the following week and the weeks after that. Before long, she returned the Bible on her bedside table to the bookcase and never picked it up again (not that she’d picked it up much before then). When she stopped praying, I’m sure Satan thought he’d won his campaign. None of this was because she was plagued with doubts or had experienced something that shook her faith. She just gradually stopped caring and, starved of fellowship, God’s word and prayer, her faith had withered away.

Fortunately, we have a loving Shepherd and, when one of his lambs goes missing, He will go in search of it, which is what the Holy Spirit did one Sunday several years later. The woman awoke that morning and, for no apparent reason, felt compelled to go to church. Once there, she learned of a church-wide challenge to read the Bible and committed to doing it. Realizing her need for a study group once she dug into her newly purchased large-print Bible, she joined one. Her faith again became active and alive; the good Shepherd had brought her home!

At one time or another, many of us have experienced similar experiences of having our faith grow dim and dusty; if you haven’t, chances are that you will. The enemy doesn’t quit when we accept Christ; he just changes his tactics. We must be alert to his methods and persevere in our faith as he tries to destroy our relationship with Jesus by making us complacent, neglectful, or simply bored. He nibbles away at things like church attendance, Christian fellowship, Bible study, and prayer so that, instead of growing spiritually, we begin to atrophy. When we take our eyes off the Shepherd, like the lost lamb, we wander into the wilderness.

Fortunately, we are never so lost that we can’t be found. Even when we think we’re finished with God, He’s never finished with us. God certainly wasn’t done with that woman. Shortly after her return to the church, she entered seminary at the age of 52! Now ordained, she is the pastor who teaches my Tuesday Bible study!

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. …You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.  [Hebrews 10:23-25,36 (NIV)]

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