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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SACRED

And yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, and you are the potter. We all are formed by your hand. [Isaiah 64:8 (NLT)]

What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, “Stop, you’re doing it wrong!” Does the pot exclaim, “How clumsy can you be?” [Isaiah 45:9 (NLT)]

turk's cap lilyI used the Lenox bone china that belonged to my mother and some of the stoneware that belonged to my husband’s grandparents at our Thanksgiving dinner. While the Lenox was special ordered from the city’s finest department store as a wedding gift in 1938, the stoneware was purchased in 1929 at the local five-and-ten-cent store. The ornate gold-rimmed Lenox is translucent and elegant; used only on special occasions, it still looks new after eighty years. The stoneware is opaque, less formal and meant for daily use; having been used every day for more than forty years, a few pieces are chipped or stained. When compared, people might think the Lenox more valuable than the stoneware, but they’d be wrong. Both are equally precious because they tell the story of generations gathering together for good food and fellowship and both sets of china served their specific purposes well.

As I laid out the plates for our holiday dinner, I thought of Isaiah’s words using the metaphor of God as a potter and us as His clay. Do we get to complain that we’re not fancy china with gold trim? Do we feel short-changed if we’re pottery instead of porcelain? We shouldn’t; God created and designed each one of us perfectly for our specific purpose. While our general purpose is to glorify God, each of us has been given a special way to accomplish that goal with our unique personalities, talents and gifts. Some, like the busy Martha, are as practical as Corningware and designed for everyday use while others, like her sister Mary, seem as impractical as the gold-rimmed Lenox that should be hand-washed. All of us, however, are special and, unlike my china, we’re not part of a set. No one else has the exact same pattern; we are one-of-a-kind limited editions!

Although the word “sacred” is usually used in a religious context, anything that is set apart is said to be sacred. For example, motherhood is a sacred calling, Wrigley Field is sacred territory to Cubs’ fans, and, for many, a roast turkey is sacred to Thanksgiving dinner. Something that is sacred can also be said to be consecrated to or belonging to God. In both uses of the word, we are sacred beings. We belong to God and He has set us apart for a specific purpose. As we celebrate our sacred uniqueness, we should be aware of everyone else’s uniqueness, as well. If we have a divine purpose, so do they; if we are sacred, so is everyone else we meet! If God’s thoughts about me are precious, so are His thoughts about my neighbor. Moreover, it’s not just my name that He’s etched into the palm of His hand—everyone’s are!

As we move into this holiday season and deal with the challenges of traffic, crowded malls, long lines at the grocery, short-tempered wait staff and sales clerks, difficult and demanding customers and bosses, meeting impossible deadlines, and the other demands that accompany Christmas, let us look at one another with the eyes of Jesus—eyes that see the sacredness and beauty of each individual, even if they have a few chips or are a little rough around the edges!

Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude. Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will grant you his blessing. [1 Peter 3:8-9 (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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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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CIRCLING THE AIRPORT

airplaneYour word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path. … Give discernment to me, your servant; then I will understand your laws. [Psalm 119:105,125 (NLT)]

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take. [Proverbs 3:5-6 (NLT)]

I’d been struggling over a devotion for days. The Bible verses were selected, several paragraphs written, and it even had a title. Nevertheless, I just couldn’t finish it. It was like taking off in an airplane, heading toward Chicago, circling O’Hare airport, but never landing. Every few days, I’d return to my partially finished work only to circle some more; I couldn’t tie up the loose ends and come to my conclusion. Eventually, I prayed about it; having felt God’s guidance when I started out, why couldn’t I land the plane? I was doing his work, why wouldn’t he help me finish the job?

I remembered the Apostle Paul. He was doing God’s work and yet his plans didn’t always work out. In spite of his desire to visit Rome, God prevented him from doing that for several years because He wanted Paul to preach elsewhere. That wasn’t the first time God had thwarted Paul’s plans. In Acts 16, we learn that the Holy Spirit prevented Paul and Silas from going to Asia (probably to Ephesus) so they went to Phrygia and Galatia. Then, when they headed north to Bithynia, the Spirit intervened again and sent them through Mysia to Troas. While in Troas, Paul had a clear vision of a man calling him to Macedonia and so Paul went. Although Paul’s destination had been Asia, his plan hadn’t been God’s; Europe before Asia was God’s itinerary. In God’s time, Paul eventually visited Ephesus, Bithynia, and Rome but he only got there because that was God’s destination.

Like Paul, sometimes we decide our destination and, unless it also is God’s destination, we won’t get there. I thought back to that unfinished devotion. Since I’d drawn my conclusion before completing the work, I was trying to make the Scripture fit the conclusion rather than drawing a conclusion from the Scripture. Having taken off without looking at the flight plan, I was circling O’Hare when I belonged at Newark! Once I revisited the Bible story about which I’d been writing, I asked God what He was saying in it and finished my work quickly.

Sometimes, instead of drawing conclusions, we jump to them. Instead of looking at all of the evidence, we cherry pick to reach the conclusion we want. When we do that in Bible study, we are guilty of what is called eisegesis (which is reading meaning into the text) as opposed to exegesis  (which is reading the meaning out of the text). In eisegesis, we inject our own ideas into the verses, allowing us to make them mean whatever we want them to mean. In exegesis, careful objective analysis leads to the explanation of the text. One (exegesis) does justice to the text while the other (eisegesis) mishandles it.

I’d had an idea and wanted Scripture to support it instead of looking at the Scripture and discovering what it said, meant, how it related to the rest of the Bible, and how it applied to our lives. Whether it’s drawing conclusions or planning a trip, where we want to go often is not where God wants us to be. When that happens, we’ll probably encounter difficulty getting there.  Before taking off, it’s wise to consult Him about the flight plan!

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. An evil soul producing holy witness Is like a villain with a smiling cheek, A goodly apple rotten at the heart. [Williams Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice”]

Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth. [2 Timothy 2:15  (NLT)]

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