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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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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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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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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