NINE MONTHS

Mary responded, “Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed. [Luke 1:46-48 (NLT)]

campionWe know that within a few days of the angel’s visit that Mary went to her cousin Elizabeth’s home, but what of those first few days after the annunciation? Did Mary tell anyone or did she wait until she’d seen proof of Elizabeth’s pregnancy before she truly believed that she, too, was with child? Did she tell Joseph immediately or wait until she returned to Nazareth three months later?

Have you ever wondered how that conversation went and about Joseph’s initial reaction to her unbelievable news? The couple’s betrothal was far more involved and serious than today’s engagements. In those days, betrothal wasn’t just an agreement between two people; it was an arrangement and commitment connecting two families. Joseph would have presented a ketubah, or marriage contract, to Mary and her father and paid a bride price, called a mohar, to compensate her father for the cost of raising the young woman. He then would have returned home to prepare a place for her and their engagement may have lasted as long as a year. Although the couple didn’t live together and certainly didn’t have sex, they were bound to one another as if married.

Though unconsummated, their betrothal was binding and could only be undone by a divorce with just cause (such as Mary not being a virgin). Knowing he wasn’t the father of her child, Joseph could have had her stoned for adultery. Matthew tells us he considered quietly divorcing her until he was visited by an angel who explained how the baby was conceived. But what of Mary’s parents? Worse, what about the reaction of Joseph’s family? How did Mary and Joseph explain this miraculous conception? Who would believe them? For that matter, what about the gossips of Nazareth? Mary had gone to visit her cousin and returned pregnant so it couldn’t be Joseph’s! There probably were whispers of scandal surrounding Mary all of her days.

After the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would conceive without virtue of a husband, he left. We can only hope that when the Holy Spirit came upon her and the Most High overshadowed her that Mary was given more than a baby—that she was given wisdom and strength beyond her years. I suppose any doubts Joseph had about the baby boy eventually were allayed by the unprecedented visits of shepherds and angels at the nativity, their encounters with Simeon and Anna at the temple, and the visit of the Magi with their extravagant gifts. Nevertheless, I’d like to think that the angel who visited him also gave him wisdom and strength for the challenges ahead.

The Christmas story actually begins nine months before that extraordinary night in Bethlehem. In celebration of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, many churches celebrate the feast or festival of the annunciation on March 25 but it’s easily overlooked by many of us. Today, as I set out the figures for the nativity scene, I thought about Mary and Joseph and couldn’t help but wonder what happened in the nine months between Nazareth and Bethlehem.

All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel,  which means “God is with us.” [Matthew 1:22-23 (NLT)]

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BUT HOW?

Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.” … Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.”  [Luke 1:34,38 (NLT)]

queen butterfly Angels taking on bodily form and appearing to people certainly wasn’t an everyday occurrence so it’s understandable that Mary was troubled and perplexed by Gabriel’s presence when he showed up in Nazareth. After telling her not to be afraid, the angel gave her the startling news that she would conceive and give birth. Mary may have been a virgin but she knew that babies weren’t brought by the stork or found in a cabbage patch. “But how?” was her first response.

“But how?” Isn’t that our typical response when God calls us to His work? Abraham couldn’t see how his people would possess Canaan, Sarah couldn’t see how God could give her a child when her child-bearing days were over, Moses wanted to know how he could convince both the Israelites and Pharaoh, Gideon asked how he could rescue Israel, Samuel asked how he could anoint a new king without being killed by Saul, and Zechariah asked how his wife could possibly become pregnant. Given their situations, “But how?” certainly seems understandable.

The angel’s answer that the Holy Spirit would come upon her still didn’t tell Mary exactly how her pregnancy would come about. Had that been me, I would have wanted a better explanation and then followed with a series of “whys” and “what abouts.” While being told that her barren cousin Elizabeth was already pregnant may have reassured Mary that what seems impossible can actually happen, Elizabeth was married and Mary was not! “But how?” probably was just one of many questions circling in Mary’s head.

Unlike Moses, Mary didn’t try to squirm out of the task with excuses; unlike Sarah, she didn’t laugh in unbelief; unlike Gideon, she didn’t ask for a series of signs; unlike Samuel, she didn’t point out the problems she was sure to face with her pregnancy; and, unlike Zechariah, she believed the angel. After asking him, “But, how?” Mary accepted the simple explanation that nothing is impossible with God and humbly submitted.

Do we forget that God doesn’t have the limitations we have? He can make manna appear, feed 5,000 with a few fish and loaves, part the sea, walk on water, restore sight to the blind, and raise the dead. Nevertheless, we often ask, “But how?” when called by God to serve and then allow the logistics of His task keep us from doing His work. Could we be missing God’s blessings because we’re too busy asking, “But how?” instead of responding in faith? Let us never forget that God will work out the how; we just need to submit as readily as did Mary.

You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said. [Luke 1:45 (NLT)]

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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OTHER DEMONS

No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:37-39 (NLT)]
Halloween ghost

Yesterday, I wrote of the emotional vampires that can plague us but there are other demons even harder to spot than those two-legged ones. Invisible, they go by the names of guilt, anger, doubt, resentment, shame, regret, fear, and worry. They haunt us with “if only,” “what if,” “should have,” and “could have” and leave us discontented, sullen, resentful, fearful or worried. They are the hobgoblins that whisper lies and half-truths in our ears: we’re unlovable, contemptible, unforgiven, helpless, inadequate, or worthless. Like vampires, these monsters also can suck the life out of us. Friends of the enemy, they keep us from living boldly, stepping out in faith, and leading the fulfilling and joyful life Jesus promised.

It’s time to declare war on these monsters; they have no place in our lives. In the old movies, evil was repelled by the crucifix—a mere religious symbol. In real life, however, it is the power of Jesus that defeats the enemy! Through His power, we can banish those demons that steal our joy and suck the life from us. We can face our secrets, shed our shame, forgive others (and ourselves), know we are loved, release our anxiety and fear, trust God and choose His truth. The voice we hear can be that of the Holy Spirit rather than the unsettling voice of the enemy. With the power of the cross, we will be able to step out of the haunted house of our lives not in fear, but in faith—not in darkness, but in light.

Heavenly Father, help us look into the dark corners of our lives and, through your power, banish the demons that keep us from the abundant life you promised.

The scariest monsters are the ones that lurk within our souls. [Edgar Allen Poe]

The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life. [John 10:10 (NLT)]

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you. [Philippians 4:8-9 (NLT)]

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RATINGS

Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant. [Galatians 1:10 (NLT)]

passion glower - pasqueflower“Over 1 million served,” was the sign Ray Kroc posted at his first McDonald’s franchise in 1955. That number became 100 million in 1958 and was 1 billion in 1963. When the number of burgers served surpassed the 99 billion mark in 1994, operators were told to change their signs to “Billions and Billions Served!” Executives at McDonald’s claim they no longer keep track of how many are served but I don’t believe it! Someone there knows exactly how many of those hamburgers have been sold, along with the number of Egg McMuffins and chocolate shakes.

People gauge their success with numbers and I’m no different. Before quitting my work for the day, I often check the stats for my web site. How many people visited and how many views did they take? Did I get any new subscribers? Worse, did I lose any? I doubt that I’m alone in checking stats; we all seek approval and use some sort of yardstick to measure our success. The restaurant measures sales, the YouTuber his subscribers, the author his place on the best seller list, the student his class rank, and the blogger her followers. We live our lives measuring and comparing: how many likes on the posting, hits on the website, orders taken, compliments on the outfit, friends on Facebook, or Christmas cards received.

Granted, publishing a blog is a little like speaking into a radio station microphone and not knowing if anyone is listening. Nevertheless, I had to ask myself, “Whose approval do I seek?” Like most people, I tend to seek tangible approval from people when the only approval that matters is that from God. It’s not who or how many people follow me; the only thing of importance is that I follow Him!

Our pastor shared the story of a successful evangelist who literally lost his voice. No longer able to preach, he asked God, “Don’t you care about my ministry?” The answer clearly given to him was, “No! I care about you!” I think of his story whenever I struggle with my writing ministry—when the words don’t come or I feel like I’m speaking to an empty auditorium. God cares about us—not about our triumphs and certainly not about how many people hear our voices or read our words. That pastor’s voice returned when he understood that God loved him rather than his accomplishments. Consider the Old Testament prophets: with Haggai (at whose urging the temple finally was rebuilt) being the exception, most of the prophets’ messages fell on deaf ears. Misunderstood, persecuted, ridiculed and ignored, by human standards they were failures. God, however, uses an entirely different kind of measuring stick. The prophets’ lives tell us that the success of our endeavors is not what matters; what matters is our obedience to God’s word and the doing of His will. It’s not about our glory; it’s about our bringing glory to God!

So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless. [1 Corinthians 15:58 (NLT)]

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FILL ME UP

Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. [John 6:35 (NLT)]

moon at dawnSince he had a business meeting in Switzerland later in the week, my son went to London over the weekend to see his daughter who is in college there. Nearly every photo texted back to us showed my grand eating. Admittedly, she is a starving college student, living on a tight budget, who has grown tired of eating peanut butter, hummus with veggies, Raman noodles, and pasta in her apartment, so she took advantage of having access to her father and his credit card. With Dad paying the bill, she could again eat steak and lamb chops, indulge in gelato, and stock her pantry with fruit, meat, and cheese from Borough Market. As much as this starving coed needed food, what she really needed was a visit from home. Hugs from her father probably offered more nourishment than any amount of food. His visit did more than replenish her cupboards; it recharged her emotional batteries.

Sometimes, we have a hunger that won’t be satisfied by a trip to Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, or Olive Garden; no amount of food can satisfy spiritual hunger. Rather than having our father visit, take us out to dinner, and fill our grocery bags, we need time with our Heavenly Father so He can fill our hearts and souls.

Last week, early in the morning, my husband asked if I had time for a walk at the beach. “No way!” was my first thought. Having spent several days in preparation for presenting a Bible study that evening, I was way behind in my writing, the bed linens needed changing, the laundry basket was full, and there were enough crumbs on the floor that you literally could eat off it! But, knowing how overwhelmed and spiritually empty I felt, I agreed. Being early risers, we arrived shortly before dawn and the full harvest moon in the west watched over us as the sun rose in the east. Feeling like I had yesterday, today, and tomorrow in the palm of my hand, I was reminded that God really does. In awe, as the moon’s light shimmered on the water while the sky grew pink with the sunrise, I walked in the beauty of God’s creation and felt His peace descend on me. Filled with His grace, I was renewed, refreshed, and restored. Remembering a lovely praise song, I silently sang: “Fill me up, God. Fill me up, God…” As the aroma of bacon wafted from a beach-side restaurant, my stomach reminded me that I hadn’t yet eaten breakfast. Nevertheless, that quiet time with my Heavenly Father sated my spiritual hunger and filled me up in a way that bacon, eggs, and toast never could.

God gave us a weekly Sabbath to rest, relax, restore, and replenish. The Hebrew word sabbat, which we know as Sabbath, comes from the verb sabat which means to stop or cease. The observance of the Sabbath every week was central to the Israelite’s life (and should be to ours) but, sometimes, in our fast-paced world, one day a week is not pause enough. There are times, like that Thursday morning, when we need what Terry Hershey calls a “Sabbath Moment” — a temporary cease-fire from the assault of busyness that so often bombards our lives. It’s a brief turning away from the day’s hustle and bustle to spend time with our Heavenly Father. The Sabbath moment does for us what her father’s visit did for my grand: it feeds and restores us. It fills us up!

More of your spirit is what we need,
More of your annointing,
More of your glory, fill me.
Fill me up God (fill me up God),
Fill me up God (fill me up God),
Fill me (that’s what I really want). [Will Reagan]

Let them praise the Lord for his great love and for the wonderful things he has done for them. For he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things. [Psalm 107:8-9 (NLT)]

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NO WORDS OF COMFORT

Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. [John 14:1-3 (NLT)]

snowy egretTomorrow would have been Sally’s wedding anniversary but there will be no celebration because tomorrow is the six month anniversary of her husband’s death. Instead of flowers, dinner, and romance, there will be tears. This morning, Sally called her step-mother, Sue, to share her dread of tomorrow. When telling me this, the older woman admitted to being at a loss for words of consolation. This woman of faith, a pastor, had difficulty finding comforting words for a very simple reason: her step-daughter is Jewish. When Sue married Sally’s Jewish father, she respected her new family’s faith just as they respected hers. They know her beliefs and what she does for a living. Sue gladly answers their questions but she chooses her words carefully when speaking of God and, while tempted, never evangelizes. Although her words this morning were as reassuring as they could be without speaking of Jesus, Sue knew they were nowhere near as comforting as they could have been.

In the Hebrew Bible, Sheol is mentioned as the place of the dead and the idea of a resurrection appears in Daniel and Isaiah. The Talmud contains references to heaven (Gan Eden), hell (Gehinnom), and the World to Come. Unfortunately, the who, when, what, how and where details are missing and Judaism is ambiguous (and often contradictory) about what happens when one dies. Sue said she listened carefully during her son-in-law’s funeral and interment for words of comfort but heard none at all. After reading the funeral prayer El Maleh Rachamin and the Mourner’s Kaddish, I had to agree.

Had Sally been a believer, Sue might have told her daughter-in-law that she was not alone in distress and reminded her of the time Jesus walked on water and stilled the storm. We have a God who knows when we’re in trouble, is willing walk on water to reach us, and will bring us peace in the middle of the tempest! Sue would have told Sally how much God loves her—so much so that He gave His one and only son so that all who believe would not perish but have eternal life. She would have comforted her with the story of Lazarus and Jesus’s words to Martha that He was the resurrection and life and that anyone who believed in Him would live even after dying. Then again, maybe the widow would have found Revelation’s promise that He will wipe every tear and there will be no more tears, mourning or death comforting. Sadly, those words are of little cheer to a non-believer.

No words can take away the sorrow of a young woman suddenly losing her beloved husband, the father of her three small children, but there is much in our faith that can ease that pain. No Christian is left to face sorrow alone; we have a Savior, a Comforter, and the reassuring and powerful words of Scripture. Thank you, Jesus.

I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. [John 14:27 (NLT)]

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