FOR SUCH A TIME AS THIS

Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?” [Esther 4:14b (NLT)]

balloon over serengettiAlthough the book of Esther never mentions God by name, His fingerprints are found throughout the story as it illustrates God’s providence in human affairs. The Jews were in captivity in Persia and the Persian King had banished the queen. Along with all the other beautiful virgins in the land, the young Jewess Esther is taken to the King’s harem. She finds favor with the king and is declared queen while the evil Haman plots the massacre of every Jew. When Esther’s cousin Mordecai requests her help in begging for the king’s mercy, she hesitates out of fear. Reminding Esther that she isn’t exempt from Haman’s evil plot, Mordecai asks, “Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?”

I thought of Haman’s question as churches around the world struggle to provide worship and study opportunities during this crisis. By the time our church, Coastal Fellowship Church, was a year old, we’d developed a free App providing more than calendar, prayer requests, devotions and online giving. Through strategic partnerships, it provided preschool video Bible adventures and material from the Bible Project that now includes videos on reading Scripture, the Bible’s books from Genesis through Revelation, wisdom topics, and a word study. More recent offerings include a number of short videos showing where sports and faith connect and two series from Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University.

At the time, I’m sure people wondered why a church like ours – brand new, without a building, with minimal financial support, and a small congregation of mostly senior citizens (some of whom still use flip phones) – became so committed to 21st century technology and developing an App. Our pastor felt God’s call to do an App and, as he led, the congregation, without clearly understanding its importance, followed in obedience to God’s urging. If anyone wondered why we did it, the last few weeks gave us the answer. Rephrasing Mordecai’s words, “Who knows if the App was developed for just such a time as this!”

We didn’t know over a year ago that online resources and platforms would be essential to serving the Church during this global pandemic. Distanced geographically, we remain connected by faith. We are a global church serving a global God and the App allows us to do just that!

The technical expertise acquired while creating the App enabled us to stream services within a few days’ time and develop a permanent platform for services and Bible study by the second week. Because the App received 30 awards for everything from logo to video and animation, it’s had international exposure; available on several platforms, there have been 40,000 downloads from all over the world. The strategic partnerships that started with the App led to more partnerships, including one with N. T. Wright, and expanded our offerings to better serve the global community. Our first Sunday service was viewed by people throughout the world with 2,182 viewings in the first week! What’s really important is that 88% of those viewers watched the entire service! (I’m not sure 88% of a congregation stays awake during a live sermon!)

As mortals, we don’t know God’s long range plans; even if we did, we wouldn’t understand them. Joseph didn’t understand why he ended up a slave in Egypt until he saved his entire family from famine. Moses didn’t know why he was raised by Pharaoh’s daughter until God spoke to him from a burning bush. David didn’t know why he kept doing target practice with his sling until he came face to face with Goliath. Esther didn’t understand why she became queen until she saved an entire nation and I never knew that sending a daily Bible verse to a few women would morph into a daily devotional. Even though we don’t see God’s vision, like Abraham, we follow His lead. Once we get wherever God has taken us, we’ll know why we’re there. God will tell us, “For just such a time as this!”

It was by faith that Abraham obeyed when God called him to leave home and go to another land that God would give him as his inheritance. He went without knowing where he was going. [Hebrews 11:18 (NLT)]

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” [Isaiah 55:8-9 (NLT)]

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A NEW NORMAL

My dear family, when you find yourselves tumbling into various trials and tribulations, learn to look at it with complete joy, because you know that, when your faith is put to the test, what comes out is patience. What’s more, you must let patience have its complete effect, so that you may be complete and whole, not falling short in anything. [James 1:2-4 (NTE)]

hoary comma anglewing butterflyBy the end of the phone call, tears were rolling down my cheeks; yet another loved one is seriously ill. Given my age and that of my friends, I shouldn’t be surprised; we are nearing our expiration dates so receiving news of someone’s illness or death is becoming my new normal.

As I added this new name to my lengthy prayer list, I considered the new normal for those on it: chemo, radiation, weekly blood work, reconstructive surgery, chronic pain, widowhood, Parkinson’s, financial troubles, Alzheimer’s, the challenges of staying sober, and the demands of 24/7 care giving. Their normal certainly isn’t one they would have chosen deliberately.

Then I thought about the new normal to which all of us are adjusting because of COVID-19: social distancing, elbow bumps and toe taps, streaming church services, travel restrictions, hand sanitizers and bleach wipes, phone calls and emails instead of meeting over coffee, broken supply chains, cancellations, working from home, lay-offs, school closings and on-line classes, along with hoarding, shortages, and price gouging! None of us are immune to COVID-19 and many of the people I know and love will be touched by it. Things will get worse before they get better and there will be more tears before this ends.

COVID-19 has disrupted all of our lives and, while we have little control over the virus, we do have control over navigating our new normal. The eight bottles of tequila in one woman’s cart told me how she’s planning on doing it! Three women in Australia got into a brawl over a cart of toilet paper while, in Italy, a man’s inadvertent brush against another erupted into a fist fight that ended only when the police and an ambulance arrived. Don’t let that be us! While we can’t discount the threat, our new normal must not be one of anger, violence, alcohol, fear, complaint, drugs, denial, depression, paranoia, panic, or anxiety.

Let us remember that we have a God who loves us. Life isn’t perfect, but it hasn’t been perfect since Eden! Nevertheless, life is doable, not on our strength, but through God’s power. Coronavirus (like pain, disappointment and loss) is just another one of those unwelcome gifts that come with life in a fallen world. Like Job, we will never know the “Why” of it but, as Christ followers, we know in whose hands we rest.

Jesus told us trouble was inevitable; no one gets a free pass. Nevertheless, a pastor friend often says, “It’s all good.” In itself, COVID-19 isn’t good any more than are cancer or the death of a child. Nevertheless, it’s “all good” because God, in His infinite wisdom and love, will bring good out of it. We may not see it, we don’t always like it, and rarely do we understand it, but it is all for good. While we may have tears, R.C. Sproul reminds us, “For believers, there are no tragedies!”

Because of Christ, we have victory over sin and Satan; Romans 8:28 assures us that we also have victory over our circumstances. Let us stand on God’s promises and boldly navigate the next several weeks while praising, thanking, praying, walking in faith, and bringing light into the darkness (while frequently washing our hands)! Let the joy of the Lord be our strength in this new normal.

We know, in fact, that God works all things together for good to those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. [Romans 8:28 (NTE)]

For this reason we don’t lose heart. Even if our outer humanity is decaying, our inner humanity is being renewed day by day. This slight momentary trouble of ours is working to produce a weight of glory, passing and surpassing everything, lasting for ever; for we don’t look at the things that can be seen, but at the things that can’t be seen. After all, the things you can see are here today and gone tomorrow; but the things you can’t see are everlasting. [2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NTE)]

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NEVER THE EASY WAY

No one who is tempted should ever be confused and say that God is testing him. The One who created us is free from evil and can’t be tempted, so He doesn’t tempt anyone. [James 1:13 (VOICE)]

When the Apostle James tells us that God can’t be tempted by evil, we wonder how Jesus could be tempted to sin while in the wilderness. Christians agree that Jesus never sinned but some question whether He actually could. They hold the “impeccability” position: because Jesus was God, sin was impossible and He couldn’t have been tempted. Others hold the “peccability” position: because Jesus was a man, he could sin and was tempted. Still others, recognizing His dual nature, say that, as a man, Jesus could be tempted to sin but, as a divinity, He couldn’t.

Jesus was both God and man in one person. Rather than ceasing to be God while on earth, He added humanity to His being. At the same time, He was both divine and mortal, impeccable and peccable, immortal and mortal, infinite and finite. He didn’t have a multiple personality disorder with dueling personas; His fully divine nature was united in perfect harmony with his fully human one. While Jesus’ human nature was tempted by evil, His divine nature was not. Nevertheless, the temptation was real!

When in the wilderness, Satan tempted the hungry Jesus to make bread from stones. As the One who later fed a multitude with a boy’s lunch, we know Jesus could easily have done it; but He didn’t. Satan then tempted Jesus to prove himself by jumping off the highest point of the Temple. We know that the One who walked on water and passed unseen through an angry mob didn’t need angels to bring Him to safety. Jesus could have transported Himself safely to the ground effortlessly; but He didn’t. Finally, Satan tempted Jesus by offering Him kingdoms and glory if only He’d worship the enemy. We know the One who returned the dead to life, healed the sick, and turned water into wine didn’t need Satan to give Him kingdoms and glory. With a snap of His fingers, the One who was there at creation was capable of performing such an extraordinary spectacle that all of Jerusalem would have knelt immediately in worship; but He didn’t. When I look at those temptations, I see Satan tempting the Jesus to use His divine power to take the easy way out of the struggle and suffering that lay in His future as a man.

Satan left Jesus after that but his departure was temporary. He lay in wait for the next opportunity and I suspect he frequently tempted Jesus to take the easy way. As God, Jesus could be anywhere He wanted but, as a man, He had to walk to get there. God never gets tired, hungry, or thirsty but Jesus the man did When we look at the miracles done by Jesus, there was a unique purpose to each one and, while they helped to establish His identity, none were done to make His life easier. He deliberately chose to meet the challenges of life as a vulnerable human not an invincible God. Jesus never took a shortcut as God!

Satan is merely a fallen angel and was no match for the divine nature of Jesus. Satan, however, can overpower man and it was as a man that Jesus had to defeat him! Satan wanted to prove that no man could be obedient to God’s will but, by living as a man and resisting temptation, Jesus did just that. Out of love for us, Jesus defeated Satan by living sinlessly as a man and by dying as a man at Calvary.

Though He was in the form of God, He chose not to cling to equality with God; But He poured Himself out to fill a vessel brand new; a servant in form and a man indeed. The very likeness of humanity, He humbled Himself, obedient to death—a merciless death on the cross! [Philippians 2:6-8 (VOICE)]

For Jesus is not some high priest who has no sympathy for our weaknesses and flaws. He has already been tested in every way that we are tested; but He emerged victorious, without failing God. [Hebrews 4:15 (VOICE)]

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FORTY DAYS

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted there by the devil. For forty days and forty nights he fasted and became very hungry. [Matthew 4:1-2 (NLT)]

Moses Fountain - Bern SwitzerlandIn Scripture, the number forty often appeared in the context of preparation, judgment, or testing. The rain poured down upon Noah for forty days and nights. After spending forty years in Egypt and another forty as a shepherd, Moses twice spent forty days with the Lord on Mt. Sinai. The Israelite scouts spent forty days exploring the land of Canaan and, because the people lost heart and rebelled at their report, they spent an extra forty years wandering the wilderness (one year for each day the men explored). Jonah warned Nineveh their destruction would take place in forty days, Ezekiel lay on his right side for forty days because of Judah’s sins and, before being slain by David, Goliath taunted Saul’s army for forty days.

The number forty has significance in the life of Jesus, as well. After His baptism by John, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness for forty days of testing and, after His resurrection, Jesus remained on earth for forty days. Just because the number forty frequently appears in the context of trials, however, does not mean that forty is merely symbolic. Remembering that God is the One who chose the time, forty days probably means forty days.

Although people like David, John the Baptist, and Moses spent a time of testing in the wilderness, we wonder why Jesus, the son of God, would have to undergo a period of testing before beginning His ministry. Moreover, we wonder how Jesus, being God in flesh, could be tempted. Although both wholly God and wholly man, it was Jesus the man who grew, walked, talked, and was crucified for our sins, and it was Jesus the man who demonstrated His humanity by undergoing temptation. Obedience really isn’t obedience if disobedience is impossible and it’s impossible for our good God to sin. As God, Jesus couldn’t be tempted to sin but, as a man, He could. The sinless Lamb of God had to remain sinless, not as God, but as man and out of obedience to God the Father.

It’s how Jesus resisted temptation that is most telling. As God, he easily could have rebuked Satan and sent him scampering with a wave of His hand. As a man, however, Jesus relied on Scripture to defeat the evil one. God has provided us with His word as a way to withstand temptation. Of course, we have to know His word before we can use it against the enemy! I suppose we could spend the next forty days doing just that!

Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone. Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous. [Romans 5:18-19 (NLT)]

If you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall. The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure. [1 Corinthians 10:12-13 (NLT)]

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IT’S JUST BEGINNING

We know that our body—the tent we live in here on earth—will be destroyed. But when that happens, God will have a house for us. It will not be a house made by human hands; instead, it will be a home in heaven that will last forever. [2 Corinthians 5:1 (NCV)]

butterweedI can’t understand why a young mother lies on her deathbed when an elderly Alzheimer’s victim whose mind is long gone remains in this world. I will never comprehend why one person suffers a debilitating disease for years and another person breezes through life with nary an ache or pain. I wonder how a young family can be wiped out in a car accident when the drunk driver who caused the crash survives without a scratch. I will never grasp why some people are in such despair that they take their lives while others bravely fight to take each breath. I don’t know why one child is born with multiple birth defects when his sibling is the picture of perfect health or why one child is abused and another one is cherished. Life often seems incredibly unfair!

How can we make sense of the wicked prospering while the godly suffer let alone understand random shootings or terrorist attacks? How can we make sense of a world that makes absolutely no sense? It’s not fair and yet we can’t even cry “foul!” There was nothing fair about Jesus suffering and dying for our sins!

The answer to my query is that, because mankind sinned, we live in a broken world: a world that is not as God meant it to be. That’s not a very satisfying answer but, if we truly believe that God is good and that it is He (rather than some cosmic roulette wheel) who is sovereign over the world, we must trust Him. There are divine reasons for all that passes through His hands and those reasons are not ours to know. It is God who is the treasure and not the various blessings He bestows on any of us in this life. The trials endured by us or others do not permit us to put God on trial.

While the here-and-now makes little sense to me, there is one thing I do understand: our trials are short-lived but the blessings of the godly are eternal! Whatever happens in this world is just a small part of the rest of our lives. We’re merely in the preface of the best book ever written or viewing the trailer for the greatest movie ever produced. We’re seeing only a rehearsal of the finest ballet ever danced and have heard just the prelude to the most beautiful symphony ever composed. We’re in the lobby of the grandest hotel ever built and have tasted but a bite of an appetizer in the most delicious feast ever prepared. We’re barely out of the driveway on an extraordinary never-ending journey. Let us take comfort in knowing the best is yet to come!

Life would be void, senseless and of no portent if our existence here for 70 years or more were to end as we draw our last physical breath. Our life on earth is but a drop of a moment in the ocean of time. To dis-acknowledge God would be to admit the futility, the hopelessness of existence. It would be to place reliance merely upon flesh, the physical body and the physical structure of man … It would be to deny the presence and existence of a soul. [Lionel Luckhoo]

The Lord All-Powerful will prepare a feast on this mountain for all people. It will be a feast with all the best food and wine, the finest meat and wine. On this mountain God will destroy the veil that covers all nations, the veil that stretches over all peoples; he will destroy death forever. The Lord God will wipe away every tear from every face. He will take away the shame of his people from the earth. The Lord has spoken. [Isaiah 25:6-8 (NCV)]

And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Now God’s presence is with people, and he will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death, sadness, crying, or pain, because all the old ways are gone.” The One who was sitting on the throne said, “Look! I am making everything new!” [Revelation 21:3-5 (NCV)]

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LAZARUS AND THE RICH MAN (Part 1 – Luke 16:19-31)

And he will answer, “I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.” And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.” [Matthew 25:45-46 (NLT)]

purple prairie cloverWere I not a believer, I don’t think I’d find the concept of eternal life very comforting. While Jesus made it clear there is an afterlife, He also spoke of the destinations awaiting us in that afterlife. In the gospel of Luke, we find Him telling the parable of the rich man and the beggar named Lazarus. [16:19-31] Indifferent to the plight of the destitute and diseased Lazarus, the rich man lived a life of indulgence and luxury while Lazarus lay outside his gate, hoping for just a few scraps from the rich man’s table.

When Lazarus dies, angels carry him to the bosom of Abraham. The presence of both angels and Abraham told Jesus’s audience that Lazarus was in Heaven. Being in Abraham’s bosom refers to the Jewish custom of reclining on couches while dining (which brought the head of one man almost into the bosom of the one sitting beside him). From this description, Jesus’ listeners also knew that Lazarus was sitting at Abraham’s side, in a place of honor, at a banquet in Paradise. In contrast, when the rich man dies, he is sent to Hades, the realm of the dead. Jesus’ mention of it being a place of torment and flames, however, implies the rich man is in what Jewish tradition called Gehenna, a place of fiery torment and punishment. This parable makes clear that there are two destinations awaiting us when we die and one is far nicer than the other.

Still thinking that he’s in a position to call the shots and give orders, the rich man calls to Abraham, telling him to have pity and send Lazarus over with some water to relieve his agony (something he’d refused to do for the beggar). Explaining that there is a great chasm between the two places and that no one can traverse the span in either direction, Abraham reminds him that he had his reward during his lifetime. This parable leads us to the conclusion that, once we reach the end of the line here, we will not be getting a second chance to make things right in the hereafter. The impassable abyss means our first destination after death will be our final one!

Realizing that his behavior in life determined his hereafter, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers about his fate. Abraham replies that they’ve already been warned in Scripture. When the rich man insists that his brothers will repent and change their ways if someone returns from the dead, Abraham answers that even someone returning from the dead couldn’t convince them. It’s ironic that when Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus returned from death, rather than believe him, the Pharisees planned to kill him!

While the rich man could not warn his brothers about the consequences of their behavior, Jesus warns us with the rich man’s story. Hell is a real place and, after death, the unrighteous are eternally separated from God in a place of torment. There are eternal consequences to our choices and, if we prefer not to have God in our lives on earth, He will accommodate us in eternity, as well.

It is better to beg bread on earth than water in hell. [Dwight Moody]

And anyone who believes in God’s Son has eternal life. Anyone who doesn’t obey the Son will never experience eternal life but remains under God’s angry judgment. [John 3:36 (NLT)]

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