WE DON’T KNOW WHEN – Advent

Sandhill Canes - Moraine Hills State Pk.When the Son of Man returns, it will be like it was in Noah’s day. In those days before the flood, the people were enjoying banquets and parties and weddings right up to the time Noah entered his boat. People didn’t realize what was going to happen until the flood came and swept them all away. That is the way it will be when the Son of Man comes. … So you, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know what day your Lord is coming. [Matthew 24:37-39,42 (NLT)]

The pleasant autumn, with temps in the 60s, suddenly took a sharp turn toward winter. The day’s high was 37° at 4:00 AM and, as the winds increased to over 25 mph, the temperature plummeted. Instead of enjoying the balmy weather of southwest Florida, we were visiting the Midwest and enduring an arctic blast. As we walked in the park that wintery December day, we observed hundreds of Sandhill Cranes and Canada Geese in the marsh. In preparation for their seasonal migration, they gather in the wetlands here. The birds are usually gone by now but, because of the mild fall weather and still plentiful food, they’ve recklessly delayed their departure. Colder temperatures and snow are predicted; soon the marsh will freeze and food will be scarce, not just here, but all along their migration route. Are they like the people of Noah’s day or the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah—having a rollicking good time right up until the weather changes and disaster rains down on them? By the time they realized what was happening, it was too late!

Jesus compared His second coming to the surprise arrival of a thief in the night and unbelievers have good reason to fear that day. As with the flood and Sodom’s destruction, swift and sudden judgment will accompany Jesus’ return. Like unbelievers, Christians don’t know exactly when the thief will appear yet they have no reason to worry. To carry the thief metaphor further, believers aren’t afraid of the thief because they are well insured. Their acceptance of Jesus gives them assurance of salvation; their sins are mercifully forgiven and they have everlasting life. There is nothing to fear!

Seventeen years ago, my granddaughter made her entrance into the world nearly two months prematurely. Not anticipating the early arrival, her unprepared mother was visiting family 1600 miles away from home and her father was 450 miles away from them both on a business trip. On the other hand, when that grand’s father made his entrance thirty-one years earlier, he was more than two weeks later than expected. Although worried and weary of waiting, even I was surprised when he finally made his presence known. While both my daughter-in-law and I had faith that our babies would arrive, neither of us knew the precise time and both of us were taken aback by the unexpected dates. Christians have faith in Christ’s second coming but, like a pregnant woman, we’re not quite sure when. Just as pregnancy’s morning sickness, swollen feet and expanding belly tell a woman her delivery day is approaching, there will be clear signs that Christ’s return is near. The date of deliverance, however, remains unknown.

As we spend Advent preparing for the celebration of Jesus’ first coming, let’s also use this time to prepare for His promised return. Just because we don’t know the exact date doesn’t mean we should be surprised when that day arrives. Three days after our walk in the park, we returned to find the marsh frozen and the birds gone. They’d seen the signs and made the right decision; we should do the same.

For you know quite well that the day of the Lord’s return will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. When people are saying, “Everything is peaceful and secure,” then disaster will fall on them as suddenly as a pregnant woman’s labor pains begin. And there will be no escape. But you aren’t in the dark about these things, dear brothers and sisters, and you won’t be surprised when the day of the Lord comes like a thief. [1 Thessalonians 5:2-4 (NLT)]

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THE CHAIR

What sorrow awaits those who look to Egypt for help, trusting their horses, chariots, and charioteers and depending on the strength of human armies instead of looking to the Lord, the Holy One of Israel. [Isaiah 31:1 (NLT)]

The best-equipped army cannot save a king, nor is great strength enough to save a warrior. Don’t count on your warhorse to give you victory—for all its strength, it cannot save you. [Psalm 33:16-17 (NLT)]

Lake LouiseThe small chair looked quite inviting but there was a note on it: “Broken—do not use.” That note has been resting on the same chair for several years. Had the chair been mine, it would have been repaired or at least hidden out of the way. As it is now, the chair is useless and an invitation to disaster. Just a slight breeze might blow the warning off the chair; the next person to come along could sit there and end up sprawled on the floor surrounded by splintered wood.

In contrast to the precarious antique chair at my friend’s house, is the large leather arm chair in our family room. It’s not there for looks—it’s there for support and comfort. Oversized and well-built, it’s strong enough to hold my weight and that of all the grands as they pile on it with me. It’s durable, comfortable, welcoming and dependable.

Some people depend on things as fragile as that broken chair—things that look nice but can’t be trusted like wealth, career, appearance, possessions, power, contacts, intelligence, or fame. They may appear sturdier than that broken chair but, like it, they can easily shatter and collapse when we need them most. Our circumstances can change in an instant and what we had yesterday may not be here tomorrow. The Old Testament is filled with stories showing the danger of relying on the wrong things. The kingdoms of Israel and Judah suffered for their dependence on idols, other nations, and themselves rather than God; we will, too. When we depend on anything as weak as a rickety old chair, eventually it will collapse and we’ll be left to pick up the broken pieces. As for me, I’d rather depend on a God who is like our arm chair—strong, steadfast and indestructible! Ours is a rock-solid God who won’t fail us, no matter how much weight we place on Him.

On who or what do you rely? Is it reliable….as reliable as God?

But the Lord watches over those who fear him, those who rely on his unfailing love. He rescues them from death and keeps them alive in times of famine. We put our hope in the Lord. He is our help and our shield. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name. Let your unfailing love surround us, Lord, for our hope is in you alone. [Psalm 33:19-22 (NLT)]

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BOTH SEEN AND HEARD

And the angel also said, “You are now pregnant and will give birth to a son. You are to name him Ishmael (which means ‘God hears’), for the Lord has heard your cry of distress. … Thereafter, Hagar used another name to refer to the Lord, who had spoken to her. She said, “You are the God who sees me.”  [Genesis 16:11,13a (NLT)]

sparrowThe slave woman Hagar felt invisible. It was Sarah who was loved by Abraham; Hagar was just a substitute womb. Of course, Hagar wasn’t entirely blameless. Once pregnant, she taunted her mistress with her fertility and Sarah retaliated by treating her harshly. Abraham washed his hands of the whole thing when he told Sarah the way she treated (or mistreated) the maid was her business, not his. After all, Hagar was little more than a brood mare; the powerless victim of Sarah’s scheme, she meant nothing to Abraham so she ran away. Invisible, unappreciated and unloved—she sat by a spring of water in the wilderness. The angel of the Lord heard and saw her, comforted her, gave her hope of a future and sent her back to her mistress. From then on, Hagar referred to the Lord as El-Roi: the God who sees me.

Fourteen years later, Sarah bore a son—Isaac. Animosity and jealousy between the women and sibling rivalry between the boys made a bad situation even worse. Now that the promised son was born, Sarah demanded that Abraham get rid of both Hagar and Ishmael. Although Abraham was upset about losing his first son, Hagar continued to be invisible, unappreciated and unloved by him. After strapping some food and water on her back, he sent mother and son off into the wilderness. Their water supply was soon depleted and, at death’s door, Ishmael lay under a bush and cried. His name meant “God shall hear” and, indeed, God did. Hearing her boy’s cries, God again reassured the distraught woman of her son’s future and opened her eyes so that she saw a well and a means of survival.

We have a God who sees and hears us. If He could see an invisible unloved slave woman in the wilderness and hear her unwanted son’s cries, He can see and hear us. If He knows when a sparrow falls to the ground, He knows when we need Him. It may seem that we’re invisible and unheard by those around us but we are never invisible or unheard by Him. He will open our eyes to possibilities and give us hope and a future.

What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows. Matthew 10:29-31 (NLT)

But in my distress I cried out to the Lord; yes, I prayed to my God for help. He heard me from his sanctuary; my cry to him reached his ears. [Psalm 18:6 (NLT)]

Why should I feel discouraged, Why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart feel lonely, And long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? A constant friend is He;
His eye is on the sparrow And I know He watches me.
[“His Eye Is On the Sparrow” by Civilla D. Martin]

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STAND YOUR GROUND

Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. [1 Corinthians 16:13 (NLT)]

So be strong and courageous, all you who put your hope in the Lord! [Psalm 32:24 (NLT)]

Queen butterflyYesterday I addressed abuse of power; today I address those who are ill-used or victimized. In the book of Esther, we meet King Xerxes, the king of Persia, whose reign spread over 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia. One of the wealthiest men in the world, he hosted a six-month long celebration to display the wealth of his kingdom. At its conclusion, he held a lavish week long banquet for all the men in attendance. There were no limits on the wine consumed and, after seven days of hard drinking, the King (said to be “in high spirits”) commanded that his queen, Vashti, come to the men’s banquet. Wanting his guests to gaze on her beauty, she was to wear the royal crown on her head. Since Vashti was specifically commanded to wear her crown and no other attire was mentioned, rabbinical tradition interprets this as meaning only her crown. Whether naked or dressed, it was against custom for a woman to appear in a gathering of men and hardly fitting for a queen to be paraded like a piece of meat in front of a group of drunken rowdy men. Knowing full well the consequences of denying the arrogant king, Queen Vashti refused to be exploited as part of his debauchery.

What became of the beautiful  queen who refused to be intimidated by a king or demeaned in front of a bunch of lustful men? Her brave defiance meant she was banished from the king’s presence forever. Having traded her crown for her self-respect, no more is heard of her. Of course, her disobedience opened the door for the orphaned Jewess named Esther to become queen. Although we know nothing more of Vashti, I suspect her banishment and the king’s intimidating temper was the talk of the royal harem.

When Esther’s cousin Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman, the king’s pretentious vizier, the pompous man hatched a plot to slaughter not just Mordecai but all the Jews. Mordecai asked Esther to approach the king and plead for her people. Aware of Xerxes’ temper and knowing that anyone who approached him without being invited was doomed to die, she balked. Not to be dissuaded, Mordecai reminded her that she may have been made queen just for that opportunity. For three days, Esther fasted, prayed and pondered her decision. I wonder if she thought of Queen Vashti—the woman who boldly stood up to the king in spite of the consequences. How could Esther do any less for the Jews?

We’re not likely to be asked to make a display of ourselves before a group of intoxicated men, bow down to an official, or save an entire race. Nevertheless, Vashti’s, Mordecai’s and Esther’s actions teach us about standing up for what is right, refusing to do what is wrong, speaking up when something is amiss, not accepting abuse, and daring to take a stand, no matter what the consequences. Refusing to compromise our ethics, betray our faith, or lose our self-respect is not easy. Being the one who resists exploitation, reports abuse or blows the whistle is difficult and putting the welfare of others over our own security may come at a high cost. Queen Vashti lost a kingdom, Mordecai nearly lost his life, and we may lose our jobs. On the other hand, Mordecai and Esther’s story ended well. Mordecai became the prime minister and Esther continued as queen. Vashti, Mordecai and Esther bravely stood their ground and refused to retreat in the face of evil. Can we do any less?

Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ. … Don’t be intimidated in any way by your enemies. This will be a sign to them that they are going to be destroyed, but that you are going to be saved, even by God himself. For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him. [Philippians 1:27, 28-29 (NLT)]

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WHO KNOWS?

This is the message we heard from Jesus and now declare to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all. [1 John 1:5 (NLT)]

black white butterfly

An old Chinese parable tells of a poor farmer whose only horse runs away. His friends commiserate over his bad luck and ask how he’ll plow his field. The farmer answers, “Who knows? We shall see.” Two days later, the horse returns along with several wild horses. When the farmer’s friends congratulate him on the good fortune of having a stable full of horses, the farmer replies, “Who knows? We shall see.” The following week, while trying to tame the horses, the farmer’s son breaks his leg in three places. The farmer’s friends offer condolences and wonder how he’ll survive without his son’s help. The farmer answers, “Who knows? We shall see.” When a war breaks out, the Emperor’s men arrive and conscript all the young men in the village. With his leg in a cast and needing crutches, the farmer’s son is considered unfit for battle and remains in the village. As his neighbors watch their sons leave home, they congratulate the farmer on his stroke of luck. He replies, “Who knows? We shall see.” Although the son’s leg eventually heals, he has a bad limp. The farmer’s neighbors express their sympathy for such trouble. “Who knows? We shall see,” he again replies. By the time the war is over, all of the village’s boys have died in battle. With his several horses and one living son, the farmer is able to plow several fields and grow wealthy. When the villagers congratulate him on his good fortune, the farmer replies, “Who knows? We shall see.”

This 2,000 year-old tale reflects Taoist stoicism and the belief in Yin Yang—everything in the universe consists of two complementary yet opposing forces. There is no good or bad, only that which appears to be so. The resigned farmer is subject to fate and it is only his attitude over which he has control. Associated with this philosophy is the Yin Yang symbol: two equal parts of white and black comma-shapes with a black dot in the white side and a white dot in the black one. It represents the belief that good and bad aren’t at war but rather in a constant state of flux; there is a little bad in all that’s good and a little good in all that’s bad.

While it is comforting to think there are no absolutes and that life is just a balance of opposites, that’s not Biblical. We live in a world of absolutes and our triune God is absolutely righteous and the sovereign judge of all that’s evil. Not all things change—our God is immutable and Jesus is the same today as He was yesterday and will be tomorrow. If Christians had a symbol similar to that of Yin Yang, it wouldn’t show equal forces with neither side struggling for dominance. It would have the light consuming the dark. Good and evil are not balanced—they are at war and good won the war when Christ died and rose from the dead! Moreover, there is no dot of darkness in God’s light.

If this was a Christian parable, the imperturbable farmer wouldn’t answer, “Who knows? We shall see.” Rather than being complacent and merely accepting his fate, he would find purpose in it. He’d echo the Apostle Paul’s words, “In all things I give thanks, knowing that I can be content in all circumstance because my strength is in Christ.” The Christian does not find peace in a philosophy—he finds peace in the person of our triune God. Like the Taoist farmer, he doesn’t know what the next day will bring or how it all fits together but, unlike that farmer, he knows who is writing the story and how the story eventually will end!

Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. [Philippians 4:11-13 (NLT)]

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FROM A DISTANCE

Bryce Canyon National Park - PatriarchsFor both of you betrayed me with the Israelites at the waters of Meribah at Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin. You failed to demonstrate my holiness to the people of Israel there. So you will see the land from a distance, but you may not enter the land I am giving to the people of Israel. [Deuteronomy 32:51-52 (NLT)]

When the Israelites won their first battle against the Amalekites and Moses acknowledged God as the reason for their victory, they’d been away from Egypt for less than two months. The power of God that exhibited itself in his staff was new to Moses. Nearly forty years later, the Israelites arrived in the wilderness of Zin to camp at Kadesh. Because there was no water, they rebelled against Moses and Aaron. The brothers wisely took the problem to God who gave them specific instructions: take the staff, speak to the rock, and watch the water pour out. Instead, Moses angrily spoke to the people, “Must we bring you water from this rock?” and then struck the rock twice with his staff. Although God graciously provided the water in spite of the men’s disobedience, they defied a direct command from God and were punished. Neither man was allowed to enter the Promised Land.

Granted, Moses was tired, frustrated and annoyed. He’d spent a third of his life leading over two million of these “stiff-necked people” and now, with the end in sight, they protested and complained yet again. Perhaps it was his anger that led him to disobey God. On the other hand, perhaps Moses had forgotten who it was that provided forty years’ worth of guidance and miracles. In forty years, through God’s power, Moses and that staff had done more than cause plagues in Egypt, part the Red Sea, and bring the Israelites victory in battle. He’d been in the presence of God and received the Ten Commandments, made bitter water sweet, provided both quail and manna, and led a nation through the wilderness. By saying that he and Aaron would bring the people water, it seems that Moses may have forgotten who actually provided that water. Moses and Aaron showed too much faith in themselves and the staff and too little faith in God.

We break faith with God when we disobey Him or fail to acknowledge His presence in our lives. God is quite direct when telling us what to do and how to do it and He expects us to do it His way. Because of their disobedience, Moses and Aaron missed the blessing for which they had waited forty years. We don’t want to view the Promised Land from a distance; we want to enter it! Moreover, let’s never forget who actually provides us with the guidance, wisdom, strength, and ability to attain whatever success we have on our journey through life. Like Moses’ staff, we are merely His instruments; both the power and glory belong to God.

If you love me, obey my commandments. … Those who accept my commandments and obey them are the ones who love me. And because they love me, my Father will love them. And I will love them and reveal myself to each of them. [John 14:15,21 (NLT)]

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