butterfly weedBut when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. [Galatians 4:4 (NLT)]

When an angel of the Lord told the elderly priest Zechariah that his barren wife, Elizabeth, would conceive a son, the old man was struck dumb because of his unbelief. As happened with Samuel more than 1,000 years earlier, this child’s future was decided even before his conception. This time, however, it was God who decided the boy would be a Nazirite, have the spirit and power of Elijah, prepare the people for the coming of the Lord, and be named John. Imagine the mute Zechariah, with gestures and writing, trying to explain his supernatural encounter to Elizabeth and her reaction to his shocking news.

As strange as God’s timing must have seemed to the elderly Elizabeth, God’s timing probably seemed even stranger to Elizabeth’s cousin, a young virgin in Nazareth named Mary. While Elizabeth’s unexpected pregnancy seemed late in coming, Mary’s must have seemed terribly premature to her and her betrothed, a carpenter named Joseph. Nevertheless, both of these unexpected pregnancies were part of God’s enigmatic plan and came at exactly the right time, at least for Him.

We don’t know why God chose that particular time in history for the births of John and Jesus. Did God pick it because He had the right people to be the parents he needed? The priest and his wife were “righteous in God’s eyes, careful to obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations,” [Luke 1:6] which certainly qualified them as a prophet’s parents. For the parents of Jesus, God needed a both a virgin and lineage to King David. Rather than glowing words to describe Mary, we only have the virgin’s obedient and willing response. Risking rejection, disgrace, and even stoning, she willingly offered herself as God’s vessel. As for Joseph, he was a righteous man, of the house of David, and, like Mary, obedient to the Lord. Perhaps God chose that time because conditions were favorable for the start of a ministry: there was peace in the empire, Greek had become the universal language, an excellent road system enabled easy travel, and a postal service existed. Was it a perfect combination of both people and conditions? We’ll never know; we only know that the time was right for God.

Nevertheless, I’m sure God’s timing didn’t make much sense to either woman. For Elizabeth, God seemed late and, for Mary, He seemed way too early. Let us remember, however, that God is neither late nor early; He’s always right on time!

In the infinite wisdom of the Lord of all the earth, each event falls with exact precision into its proper place in the unfolding of His divine plan. Nothing, however small, however strange, occurs without His ordering, or without its particular fitness for its place in the working out of His purpose; and the end of all shall be the manifestation of His glory, and the accumulation of His praise. [B.B. Warfield]

Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. [Ecclesiastes 3:11 (NLT)]

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“For this child I prayed, and the Lord has granted me my petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord. As long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord.” [1 Samuel 1:27-28 (ESV)]

Maligne Lake - CanadaRichard Williams was watching TV when he saw a tennis player awarded a $40,000 check for winning a tournament. He decided then that his as yet unborn children would become tennis stars. Williams wrote a 78-page plan detailing their future, taught himself how to play tennis and, when his girls were four, started teaching them to play the game. Before they were even born, he’d planned the future for tennis greats Serena and Venus Williams.

Hannah did much the same thing for her child Samuel. Heartbroken at her inability to get pregnant, she promised God that, if He gave her a son, she would give him back to God as a Nazirite. Although the Nazirite vow was to be voluntary and temporary, Hannah committed her as yet unconceived child to a lifetime of separating himself from the world, dedicating himself to the Lord, and never cutting his hair, consuming wine (or any grape product), or getting near a dead body. After giving birth to Samuel, she fulfilled her vow; once he was weaned, she brought him to Shiloh and left him in the care of Eli the priest.

Can you imagine the youngster’s tears as he watched his parents leave? Every year, when his family returned to Shiloh for worship and sacrifice, Hannah brought a new coat for the boy and, every year, Samuel remained in Shiloh while his family went back home with the five siblings that arrived after his birth. Instead of playing whatever little boys played in 1100 BC, Samuel remained as an apprentice to an old priest in the temple. Can you imagine his loneliness and grief? Nevertheless, this is the life Hannah decided he should have.

Perhaps, however, it wasn’t Hannah but rather God who wrote the plan for Samuel. Hannah had no children because “the Lord had closed her womb.” Could He have been waiting to open her womb until she became desperate enough to make such an amazing sacrificial vow?

The priest Eli had two grown sons, Hophni and Phinehas. In spite of being priests, they were wicked worthless men who cheated, seduced women, stole from the people, and were unworthy to carry on Eli’s priestly duties. Could God have arranged circumstances so that someone worthy of the task could grow in godliness while apprenticing to Eli? When Eli and his sons died, it was Samuel who became the priest, prayer warrior, first of the prophets, and last (and most effective) of Israel’s judges. It was Samuel who anointed both Saul and David. It was Samuel, the child given to God before his conception, who was listed by Paul in the Hall of Faith.

At first glance, Hannah seemed a bit like Richard Williams (and a host of stage moms and sport dads) who decide their children’s dreams for them. Looking closer, we see that God mapped out a scenario even more elaborate than Richard William’s 78-page plan. I’m sure it didn’t make much sense to Hannah when she made the vow that took her son from his family and it certainly didn’t make sense to the young Samuel when he watched them wave farewell. In retrospect, however, it makes all the sense in God’s world; He has a way of making sense of it all!

And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord. [1 Samuel 3:19-20 (ESV)]

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Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. [Hebrews 12:1-2a (NLT)]

nodding onion“How was work today?” asked the wife in the Born Loser comic strip (drawn by Chip Sansom). Her husband answered, “Horrendous!” adding, “It feels so good that it’s over, I’m almost glad it happened!” Having had times when my prayer was simply, “Lord, just get me through this!” I understand. Sometimes, life seems so challenging and exhausting that we’re willing to settle for merely getting through it. That, dear friend, is setting the bar far too low. God has better plans for us than just getting by and none of us are born losers.

Sarah wanted a baby so much that she was willing to settle for surrogate motherhood when, in fact, God promised that she’d give birth to a nation. When he fled to Midian, Moses just wanted to escape persecution for killing an Egyptian. God’s plans were that he would lead the Hebrews to freedom. The orphaned Esther probably just wanted to settle down with a nice Jewish boy. She never imagined that God’s plans included making her a queen who would save her people from genocide. Gideon, hiding in a winepress, just wanted to get the wheat threshed so he could feed his family. God’s plans were that he’d defeat the Midianites and become Israel’s fifth judge. The widowed foreigner Ruth just wanted to feed herself and Naomi with the leavings in Boaz’s field. She never dreamt of being great-grandmother to Israel’s second king and ancestor to the Messiah. The woman at the well just wanted to fill her water jug and go home without incident when she got the living water of Jesus. Zacchaeus, the tax man, would have been happy just to catch a glimpse of the rabbi from Nazareth. He got much more when God came for dinner and brought salvation with Him. What of the fishermen from Galilee who just wanted to catch enough fish to pay their bills and put food on the table? Did they ever imagine they’d break bread with God? Considering all that God can accomplish through us, it would seem that our hopes and dreams often are way too small.

The Apostle Paul doesn’t tell us just to get through the race—to schlep halfheartedly through the course set before us. He tells us to strip every weight that slows us down and run (not walk) with perseverance. Sin can trip us up but so can our attitude. Just hoping to make it through the day (week, month or even year) hinders our run by setting the bar too low. We must never be willing to settle for less than the best—less than the best that God has in store for us and less than the best that we have to offer Him!

Why just settle with merely getting through life? If God just met our expectations, He’d never have the opportunity to exceed them and exceed them He will! When we allow God to determine our dreams and obediently follow His plan, the result will surpass our wildest dreams. He didn’t promise a life of just getting by: He promised a life of abundance—not a life of riches—but a rich life.

The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark. [Michelangelo]

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)]

May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. Amen [Ephesians 3:19-20 (NLT)]

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And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” [Mark 5:34 (RSV)]

Queen butterflyIn Mark 5, we have three miraculous healings: the demoniac in the Gerasenes, the bleeding woman, and the daughter of Jairus. A Gentile, the demoniac didn’t seek out the Lord. What did he do to deserve healing? I have a dear friend, a man of faith, whose wit, intelligence, and joy have been stolen by severe dementia. Countless prayers have been offered on his behalf but he only gets worse. My uncle was a man of faith but he descended into the hell of psychosis from which he couldn’t escape even in his sleep. In spite of prayers for release from his demons, that release only came when he died. Why was the demoniac healed and not them?

The woman with the blood issue had been suffering for twelve years and, after spending all her money to find a cure, she’d only gotten worse. Sure that just touching His robe would heal her, she fought her way through the crowd to Jesus. He told her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” What about all of the other people with faith for whom there is no healing? My mother had deep faith and even took part in the healing ritual of the laying on of hands but she died of cancer at forty-seven. Her faith didn’t bring healing and my prayer list is filled with the names of suffering people who, like that woman, have exhausted every possibility searching for a cure. Their faith is as strong as that of this nameless woman and yet they are not healed. Why her and not them?

Then there’s Jairus, the man who fell at the feet of Jesus and begged him to heal his daughter. By the time they arrived at his house, the girl was dead. Jesus held her hand, told her to get up, and she did. What did Jairus or his daughter do to deserve healing? As the local synagogue’s leader, had he been one of those in the synagogue who criticized Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath? He may even have been with the Pharisees when they accused Jesus of being possessed by Satan. Why was his daughter restored and not the little girl for whom I pray every day? Her parents and countless others have knelt before Jesus and begged for healing and it doesn’t come. We’re not even asking Him to raise her from the dead; we just want her to live!

There is no satisfactory answer as to why God restores health to some and not to others. Someday, in heaven, we’ll understand but, for now, we must have faith and trust in God; that’s not always easy. We must never think that healing is deserved. It is neither proof of our faith nor of God’s love for us and we can’t allow bitterness or anger to fill our hearts when healing doesn’t occur.  While there are many instances in Scripture where Jesus links faith and healing, there are many others where the healing seems almost random. Let us remember that Jesus healed only one person of the many who were by the pool in Bethesda. Even for the most faithful, miraculous healings are the exception and not the rule!

Jesus told the bleeding woman her faith made her well and then he told her that she was healed which tells us that being well and healed are not necessarily the same thing. Faith makes us well (or whole) in a way that health can’t. Jesus healed ten lepers but only the one who returned was told that his faith had made him well. He wasn’t made well when his leprosy was cured; he was made well when his gratitude and faith allowed the power of Jesus to enter his heart. Faith in Jesus is what makes us well; while it may or may not restore health, faith will always make us well. Lord Jesus, it is well with my soul.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.
[Horatio G. Spafford]

Then said Jesus, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” [Luke 17:17-19 (RSV)]

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You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead! [Mark 16:6 (NLT)]

empty tomb - north naples churchYesterday I mentioned the wooden cross and rustic nail on my desk that serve as reminders of the terrible price Jesus paid for our salvation. Although early Christian symbols included a dove, ship, lyre, anchor, and fish, the cross has become the universal symbol for Christianity. While Coca-Cola’s logo, Nike’s swish and McDonald’s golden arches may come close, I doubt there is any so recognizable sign in the world. Nevertheless, a gruesome instrument of Roman torture seems an odd symbol for a faith that preaches such things as reconciliation, sacrifice, forgiveness, hope, love, and peace. While I’d never wear a miniature gallows, guillotine, or electric chair on a chain around my neck, I do wear a cross. Although it symbolizes everything that happened to Jesus on that dark Friday two thousand years ago, the cross would be meaningless if the tomb had not been empty Sunday morning.

As we walked out of worship service on Easter morning, we came upon a large replica of a stone tomb. The boulder that had covered its opening since Friday was rolled away and it was empty except for some linen cloth resting on a ledge. Like the women who came early that first Easter morning (and Peter and John who arrived later), a few curious children entered the tomb. No angel was there to reassure them, but they didn’t need one. They’d come from Sunday school and know the Easter story well. At worship services, they’ve joined their parents in saying: “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.” Rather than frighten them, that dark empty tomb reassured them of Jesus’s continual presence in their lives.

Jesus’s death upon the cross is important but it is His rising from the dead that demonstrates triumph over evil, sin, hate, and death. It is the empty tomb that allows us to say these words in the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ…[who] was crucified, died and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again… I believe in…the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”

Out of curiosity, I searched the stock of several Christian supply stores using the word “tomb.” There were plenty of books, choral collections, CDs, and songs with “tomb” in the title, some Easter stickers depicting an empty tomb, and even a “Raiders of the Empty Tomb” kit, but there were no empty tomb t-shirts, paper weights, jewelry, or wall décor. Apparently, there is no danger of an empty tomb replacing the cross as the universal symbol of Christianity. Nevertheless, when we see a cross, let us never forget that the story of God’s love for us did not end at Golgotha. It didn’t even end with the empty tomb three days later. The story of God’s presence, grace and love continues today.

Christians do not believe in the empty tomb, but in the living Christ. [Karl Barth]

So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. But there is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back. [1 Corinthians 15:21-23 (NLT)]

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And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment, so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him. [Hebrews 9:27-28 (NLT)]

Zermatt - Switzerland - crossAfter warning us not to put them in our pockets and accidentally take them home (or put them in the dryer if we did), small pieces of paper were given to everyone in attendance at last week’s Good Friday service. Following the sermon, we were asked to write a sin (or sins) for which we repent on the papers, come forward, and nail them to a cross resting on the steps before the altar. Listening to the hammering echoing in the sanctuary, I thought of what it must have sounded like two thousand years ago when Jesus and the others were hammered to their crosses: the loud pounding of the hammers, the commotion of the crowd, the mockery of the soldiers, and the cries of agony from the men as those blunt tipped nails pierced their bodies.

Those slips of paper were made of nitrocellulose; often used by magicians, they are commonly known as flash papers. Once we’d nailed our papers to the cross, the pastor ignited them and they instantly disappeared in a brilliant display of fire. Nothing, neither smoke nor ash, was left of them. What a powerful illustration of the way Jesus’s blood, shed on the cross as those nails were hammered into Him, made our sins disappear forever.

Next to the small olive wood cross on my desk, I now have a three-inch square-cut nail, a souvenir from Good Friday’s service. The cross, with its distinctive grain, artistic shape, and smooth finish, is so beautiful that it’s easy to forget it represents an instrument of torture. The dark rustic nail beside it will better remind me of the sacrifice Jesus made for all of us. Paying the price for our sins, His death brought us back into fellowship with God the Father. After the joy of Resurrection Sunday, however, it’s easy to forget the magnitude of that sacrifice until Lent rolls around next year. Let us never forget the miracle of forgiveness that occurred when a suffering bleeding and totally sinless Jesus endured torture and death for the forgiveness of our sins.

He has redeemed me, a lost and condemned human being. He has purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death. [Martin Luther]

Christ suffered for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God. He suffered physical death, but he was raised to life in the Spirit. [1 Peter 3:18 (NLT)]

Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us. [Ephesians 2:18 (NLT)]

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