GOD-INCIDENCES

Remember the things I have done in the past. For I alone am God! I am God, and there is none like me. Only I can tell you the future before it even happens. Everything I plan will come to pass, for I do whatever I wish. [Isaiah 46:9-10 (NLT)]

monarch butterfly - milkweed

I suspect that most of us live rather ordinary and somewhat predictable lives that are occasionally interrupted by major life events (some of which are welcome and other which are not). For us, it is life’s little surprises—its happenstance and serendipity—that keep our lives from becoming humdrum.

We probably have no problem crediting God with the big blessings of life—things like the birth of a healthy child, a benign biopsy, a successful surgery, 10 years of sobriety, 50 plus years of marriage, the grand’s graduation, the better paying job, or God’s gifts of salvation and forgiveness. On the other hand, we tend to think of the little unexpected blessings—the butterfly or bluebird, the chance meeting, the out-of-the-blue phone call from an old friend, the sermon that spoke directly to our need, making the tight connection at the airport, or the humorous email that arrived when we were in the dumps—as mere coincidence or luck. After all, it seems that our Almighty God must be far too busy running the universe to deal with the minutiae of our everyday lives. Absolutely nothing, however, is unimportant to a God who sees every sparrow fall, knows the number of hairs on our heads, and has etched our names on the palms of His hands. Just as the universe is not run by random chance, neither are our lives!

God can multitask better than a one-armed paper-hanger or a mom with triplet toddlers! While God was keeping the stars and planets aligned back in 470 BC, He also orchestrated Persian King Xerxes’ insomnia and his attendant’s choice of what part of the king’s chronicles was read to him. For that matter, He is the one who placed the villains plotting the Xerxes’ death within ear shot of Mordecai. Rather than coincidences, all of the events in the book of Esther were part of God’s finely crafted plan!

Although we speak to God in prayer, we often chalk up His answer to luck or coincidence. God can speak audibly but He also speaks through seemingly random things—the day’s Bible verse, a chance meeting, a song on the radio, a casual comment, a wrong number, words in a book we accidentally open, and even a bout of insomnia. When we credit the little blessings of life to coincidence, we’re happy. When we credit them to their orchestrator, however, we become thankful. While we’re surprised by these seemingly random or capricious events, our God never is! Everything in our lives has passed through His hands!

Yesterday, we gave thanks for our food, family, health, homes, and all the major blessings of our lives. Today, let’s give thanks for the little blessings, the godsends, that make our ordinary lives so extraordinary—the things that encourage us when we want to give up, put smiles on our faces, fill our hearts with joy, answer our questions, or remind us how much we’re loved. Along with all the big things, let’s be sure to give God credit for the little ones—the God-incidences—that He scatters throughout our days. His fingerprints are everywhere we look!

You can make many plans, but the Lord’s purpose will prevail. [Proverbs 19:21 (NLT)]

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

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YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW

Lord, I trust in you. You are my God. My life is in your hands. [Psalm 31:14-15a (ERV)]

Going by the popular name of “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” the Brunfelsia is one of my favorite Florida flowers. Three colors of pansy-like fragrant flowers can be seen on the one plant at the same time: the deep purple of the new flower, the pale lavender that appears shortly thereafter, and the pure white just before the flower falls off. Although we get to see what this flower looked like yesterday, looks like today and will look like tomorrow, we don’t get to see the past, present and future of our lives all at once. God, however can.

This lovely flower was brought to mind last week when I had my yearly exam at the dermatologist’s. In honor of Thanksgiving, one wall of the waiting room displayed brown, orange, red, and yellow construction paper leaves scattered under a banner that asked, “For what are you thankful?” While reminiscent of an elementary school classroom bulletin board, the answers written on those leaves by both patients and staff weren’t like those of the average grade-schooler who knows little of things like death, biopsies, addiction, loneliness, strokes, cancer, conflict, bankruptcy, job loss, homelessness, violence, or struggle. While a fourth-grader might have written her dog’s name on a leaf, only a mature adult would have said, “I’m thankful for the troubled times because, without them, I wouldn’t be the person I am today!”

Indeed, I can’t say I was thankful for my troubles when they occurred but, like that person, I am thankful for what God did with them in my life. The hurdles, pain, injury, loss, and trouble that seemed so random and senseless at the time make sense in retrospect. I can see how God brought those difficult yesterdays together to bring me to a better and more beautiful today and how today’s challenges will lead me into an even more amazing tomorrow. Having no crystal ball to see how it all will come together at some point in the future, however, we simply must trust God with our tomorrows and settle on only seeing the past, present, and future at one time in the lovely flowers of the Brunfelsia.

Another name for the Brunfelsia is “Kiss Me Quick Before I Fade,” but I tend to think of it as the Carpe Diem flower. The phrase comes from the Roman poet Horace and was part of his injunction to “carpe diem quam minimum credula postero” meaning “pluck the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one.” Horace, who died in 8 BC, was a pagan but, had he been born at a later date and become a follower of Jesus, the poet could have trusted in his tomorrows because he would have known they were in God’s hands.

As for me, while thanking God for the blessings of yesterday (even though I didn’t appreciate many of them at the time), I will pluck this day with enthusiasm and joy while trusting God with the next one. He planted us right here and at this time for a reason and He will faithfully cultivate, prune, water, and nurture us. Trusting that God knows what He’s doing, what He wants for us, where He’s taking us, and how He will get us there, let us release to Him all of our yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows.

God promises a safe landing but not a calm passage. [Bulgarian Proverb]

The Lord guides our steps, and we never know where he will lead us. [Proverbs 20:24 (ERV)]

So I saw that the best thing people can do is to enjoy what they do, because that is all they have. Besides, no one can help another person see what will happen in the future. [Ecclesiastes 3:22 (ERV)]

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NEW WINE (Matthew 9:16-17 – Part 2)

But now we have been cut loose from the law; we have died to the thing in which we were held tightly. The aim is that we should now be enslaved in the new life of the spirit, not in the old life of the letter. [Romans 7:6 (NTE)]

concord grapesWhen explaining to some of John the Baptist’s followers why His disciples didn’t fast, along with the illustration of patching an old garment, Jesus compared His new way with winemaking. While many of us have sewn patches on clothing, few of us are experienced winemakers. Nevertheless, we know that today’s vintners ferment their wine in oak, stainless, concrete, or clay barrels rather than wineskins. Our only experience with wineskins may hearken back to college football games and ski trips when some fellows carried a wineskin filled with an alcoholic beverage hidden under their coats.

In the 1st century, however, wine often was fermented in large wineskins made from animal hide or bladders. Like new material sewn on old fabric, new wine in old skins also would be a failure. When unfermented juice was put into a skin and left to age, gasses would form. Although new wineskins were pliable enough to hold both wine and gasses as they fermented, old skins were hard and brittle. Without elasticity, the old skins would be unyielding as the new wine expanded during fermentation. Eventually, the old skins would burst and both wineskin and wine would be spoiled.

Thinking of new wine, today is Beaujolais Nouveau Day in France. Observed with music, fireworks and festivals, it celebrates the release of the first wine of the season. Bottled and sold just six weeks after harvest, Beaujolais Nouveau is intended for immediate drinking. I thought of this fruity red when Jesus concluded His two parables with these words in Luke 5:39: “But no one who drinks the old wine seems to want the new wine. ‘The old is just fine,’ they say.”

With Beaujolais Nouveau, people who prefer the old to the new are correct. In spite of its popularity, Beaujolais Nouveau rarely lives up to its promise and never is as rich as properly aged red wine. The result of shortcuts and additives, unlike other wines, it doesn’t even improve with age. Calling it “near wine,” wine critics have compared Beaujolais Nouveau to eating raw cookie dough.

Jesus, however, wasn’t talking about new wine; He was talking about the difference between the old religious legalism of the Pharisees and the new way of God’s grace found in Him. He cautioned that it is far easier to fall back into the old familiar ways than to take on anything new. Grace through faith was a radical idea and Jesus knew He couldn’t put new ideas into inflexible closed minds. For many people, it was easier to remain in a life governed by laws and regulations than to step out in faith and live according the Spirit.

Unlike Beaujolais Nouveau, the rich life found in Christ isn’t the result of shortcuts or additives. Following Him lives up to its promise and only gets richer and better with time. Like Beaujolais Nouveau, however, the message of hope and salvation Jesus brought into the world is worthy of celebration (and not just on the third Thursday of November)!

Then he took some bread. He gave thanks, broke it and gave it to them. “This is my body,” he said, “which is given for you. Do this in memory of me.” So too, after supper, with the cup: “This cup,” he said, “is the new covenant, in my blood which is shed for you.” [Luke 22:19-20 NTE]

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SEWING ON A PATCH (Matthew 9:16-17 – Part 1)

juvenile green heronYou have stripped off the old human nature, complete with its patterns of behaviour, and you have put on the new one – which is being renewed in the image of the creator, bringing you into possession of new knowledge. In this new humanity there is no question of ‘Greek and Jew’, or ‘circumcised and uncircumcised’, of ‘barbarian, Scythian’, or ‘slave and free’. The king is everything and in everything!  [Colossians 3: 9-11 (NTE)]

Even though it wasn’t required, zealous Jews like the Pharisees and John the Baptist’s ascetic disciples fasted twice a week. For many of them, their religion had become one of laws, rituals, and works. When some of John’s followers questioned why Jesus’ disciples didn’t fast as did they, Jesus explained with the illustration of patching an old garment with new fabric.

No 1st century seamstress would sew a new piece of unshrunk cloth onto a worn and washed piece of clothing and not just because the two pieces wouldn’t match. Ancient cloth was usually wool or linen, both of which shrunk when washed. After the garment was washed, the new patch would shrink causing it to pucker and pull away from the old. Such a repair job would only make the original tear larger. Cutting a hole out of new fabric would ruin it, as well. The new way of Jesus, a way of grace rather than law, relationship rather than ritual, and faith rather than works, could not be patched into the old religious practices of Judaism.

It’s important to remember that Jesus never said the garment was bad, only that it was old. In fact, the Greek word translated as old was palaios. Meaning old in the sense of worn out and decrepit, palaios conveyed the sense of being obsolete, antiquated, or on its last legs. The garment had served its purpose and it was time for a new one!

Jesus’ way couldn’t be patched into the old religious practices of Judaism and His simple illustration made it clear that, in spite of their shared beginning, Christianity is not an extension or Version 2.1 of Judaism. Rather than repairing or reforming Judaism, He inaugurated a brand-new covenant. He didn’t improve the old system; He replaced it with a new version of man’s relationship with God. Jesus didn’t die on the cross just to repair us; He died and rose again to make us new!

Thus, if anyone is in the Messiah, there is a new creation! Old things have gone, and look – everything has become new! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NTE)]

Don’t suppose that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I didn’t come to destroy them; I came to fulfil them! [Matthew 5:17]

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HISTORIES

gardeniaThis is what the Lord says: “Because you have obeyed me and have not withheld even your son, your only son, I swear by my own name that I will certainly bless you. I will multiply your descendants beyond number, like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will conquer the cities of their enemies. And through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed—all because you have obeyed me. [Genesis 22:16-18 (NLT)]

When reading the Bible in canonical order (the order the books are placed in the Bible), the two books of Chronicles seem to be a repeat of the books of Samuel and Kings. When reading the Bible in historical order, with the text arranged in the order in which the events occurred, it becomes evident that their authors didn’t relate identical events the same way. After finishing the last chapter of 2 Chronicles (in which Cyrus allowed the Judeans to go home) in my chronological Bible, I went on to portions of Ezra, Haggai, Zechariah, and Daniel. Following Daniel 6, however, I found myself at 1 Chronicles, chapters 1 through 9 consisting of nine chapters of Israelite genealogy beginning with Adam and continuing on with at least 900 more names. Wondering at its placement and the differences between Kings and Chronicles, I did a little digging.

The books of Kings and Chronicles were written at different times, for different audiences, and for different reasons. Because Kings ends with the release Judah’s King Johoiachin from prison during the reign of Babylon’s Evil-Merodach (562-560 BC), scholars think it was written during the early years of the exile and completed around 560 BC. Chronicles, however, ends more than thirty years later at the conclusion of Judah’s exile. Because several generations of Zerubbabel’s descendants are in its genealogy, scholars think it was written around 450 to 430 BC and possibly as late as 400 BC. Kings seems to have been written for Judah’s exiles in captivity while Chronicles was written for the exiles who returned to their homeland—many of whom, like Zerubbabel, were born in captivity.

Kings presents a distinctly negative view of both the northern and southern kingdoms’ kings. All nineteen of Israel’s kings and twelve of Judah’s twenty kings are portrayed as bad. Moreover, any faults of Judah’s eight good kings (such as their failure to destroy the pagan shrines and David’s adultery with Bathsheba) are mentioned. Written for the exiles, King records the failures of both kingdoms’ earthly kings, their blatant disregard for the law, their rejection of God’s prophets, and their idolatry. Its negative narrative clearly explains why the Jews ended up in captivity with their homeland in ruins. It provided an answer to the exiles’ question of, “How did we get here?”

As for those nine chapters of genealogy in the Chronicles—they answered the returning exiles’ question of, “How is this history relevant to me?” It connected the people, most of whom had never lived in Judah or worshipped at the Temple, with God’s divine plan—a plan that began with Adam and continued through His covenant promises made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David.

Since the returning exiles’ families originally came from Judah, the Chronicler concentrated on the southern kingdom and mentioned the northern one only if relevant to Judah’s story. While he didn’t exactly rewrite history, the Chronicler accentuated the positive and eliminated some of the negative by not mentioning things like the seven years of warfare between Saul’s death and David becoming king of “all Israel” or Absalom’s rebellion. Its genealogy and more positive take on Judah’s history provided this new generation with a more optimistic and hopeful outlook as they rebuilt their nation and looked forward to the coming Messiah.

The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants, until the coming of the one to whom it belongs, the one whom all nations will honor. [Genesis 49:10 (NLT]

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CHAMELEONS

Let all who fear the Lord repeat: “His faithful love endures forever.” In my distress I prayed to the Lord, and the Lord answered me and set me free. The Lord is for me, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me? [Psalm 118:4-6 (NLT)]

chameleonWhen writing about mimicry yesterday, I thought of Esther and her cousin Mordecai. The book of Esther takes place between 483 and 473 BC but the story began about 120 years earlier when Mordecai’s great-grandfather was in the second group of Jews deported from Jerusalem to Babylon. Rather than treating these deportees as captives or slaves, they were more like immigrants. Although they were given new Babylonian names, the were allowed to keep their God as long as they also worshipped the Babylonian ones. After Babylon fell to Persia in 539 BC, the first Jewish exiles returned to Jerusalem the following year. Perhaps because they’d become comfortable in their new homeland or feared the challenge of rebuilding Jerusalem, like many others, Mordecai and Esther’s family did not return.

Going by their pagan names, Mordecai and Esther blended in with their neighbors. His name was a version of Marduk, the patron god of Babylon, and Esther’s was a derivative of Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of war and sexual love. Although most Jews lived away from the Persian capital of Susa, they lived in the city where Mordecai served as a government official.

When King Ahasuerus (better known as Xerxes) sent out the casting call for his new queen, Esther was one of several hundred women selected for this ancient version of “The Bachelor.” Mordecai’s motive for telling Esther to conceal her Jewish lineage is unknown. While he may have feared anti-Semitism, he also may have thought having his cousin share the king’s bed would further his career. Even though she would break Jewish law by sleeping with a man not her husband, marrying a pagan uncircumcised Gentile, and eating unclean food, Esther followed her cousin’s direction and did not reveal her heritage. Having integrated into Persian society and no longer observing Jewish law, Mordecai and Esther had become chameleons.

Esther pleased the king; she was made queen and her cousin became a palace official who served at the king’s gate. Since both commercial and judicial business took place at the city gates, Mordecai’s position was an important one, possibly that of judge. It was at the gate that he overheard a plan to assassinate the king but Mordecai intervened and the king’s life was saved. The new queen and her cousin, however, continued to conceal their ancestry until the king appointed Haman the Agagite as prime minister and second-in-command.

The proud Haman demanded that all of the king’s officials bow down to him. Although Jewish law did not prohibit bowing as a sign of respect, Haman wanted more. The word used was shachah which meant prostrating oneself by lying down flat, extending hands and feet, and placing one’s face in the dirt. Haman was demanding the sort of reverence that belongs only to God and Mordecai refused to do it. When officials asked why he wouldn’t bow, Mordecai simply replied that he was a Jew. While he may not have kept a kosher home or worn tassels on his robe, Mordecai drew the line at prostrating himself before anyone but God. The Jew’s refusal enraged Haman and set in motion his desire to exterminate the entire Jewish population in the empire. It was when Esther revealed both her heritage along with Haman’s evil plan, that the massacre was thwarted.

Unlike Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who continued to remain true to Jehovah while in captivity, both Mordecai and Esther chose to be pragmatic by compromising their faith and disguising their heritage. It was only when they stopped being chameleons and revealed their true identities that they served the one true God.

While we probably won’t be asked to save a nation, there will be times when God expects us to risk our status and security and step out in faith to serve Him. Real security, however, is not found in people, position, wealth, or power; it is found in God. When the time comes, will we be chameleons or show our true colors?

But when I am afraid, I will put my trust in you. I praise God for what he has promised. I trust in God, so why should I be afraid? What can mere mortals do to me? [Psalm 56:3-4 (NLT)]

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