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Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Resolution: One More Mile

I've never been really hip on New Year's resolutions. I don't have the staying power to make them, much less keep them past January 14th or so. I'm a huge "excuse maker" even though, at the time, I don't like to put it that way. They're not excuses, just real bonafide reasons. Reasons why I can't exercise (too cold, too hot, too wet, too sick), reasons why I have to eat sweets (someone else made them and I'd hurt their feelings if I didn't), and reasons why I can't get my work done (I have to play with my dogs, they're lonely).

And so I always panic at this time of year when I start hearing other people's sense of resolve. It makes me feel like a loser to hear that others have such noble desires for their new years and I actually assume they will follow through. Perhaps that should be my New Year's resolution: not to compare myself to others and not to give others so much credit for being perfect while banging myself on the head for being a loser!

Instead I'm going with an inspiring idea I just read on a fellow blogger's post. I don't know this woman personally so I'm not prone to think she's perfect yet; I just know her idea resonated with me and sounded doable at the same time. I like doable. And I like her resolution.

I'm simply going to go the extra mile this year.

I like this resolution because it was recommended by Jesus Himself in Matthew 5:41:

And whoever shall force you to go one mile,
go with him two.

Jesus is talking about going beyond what the Law says you have to do and doing at least a little bit more. He's talking about holding yourself to a different standard, a standard of godliness, of holiness. And He's talking about doing more than just enough to get by.

And in many ways that is what I've been doing. Enough to get by.

When I'm out hiking with either my husband or my friend Kim, I'm usually the one who says something like, "Maybe we should go head and start back pretty soon" if we're on an in and out trail. They are always the ones who say something like, "Let's go one more mile and see where that takes us. Then we'll start back."
Inevitably I'm glad we did the extra mile. That's usually when we see the babbling brook, the beautiful summit, the cave, the bathtub in the middle of the forest, or the bear. This year I'm going to be the one who says to myself, "Let's go one more mile" and then I'm going to do it.

And that doesn't just mean I'll hike a little further.

My hope is that it will mean I'll get a few more queries written, I'll actually cook dinner more often, I'll visit the widows I keep saying I'm going to go see, my quiet time with the Lord will go beyond a single cup of coffee, I'll call my parents more often, I'll take my husband lunch occasionally, I'll put the clothes away instead of letting them mound up folded on the futon, and I'll really get to know some of my MOPs moms.

Just a little bit more. That's often all that's needed. And yet I so often stop at just enough.

Imagine what can happen if I go just one more mile. I don't fancy seeing any bears necessarily, but I'd love to see dinner on the table more often. I'd love to see me get to know my neighbors. I'd like to have a cleaner house and a bigger income (You have to understand here that I'm a freelance writer and speaker. My income is completely commiserate to how much effort I put out. I'm not talking about becoming a workaholic. I'm just talking about buckling down and doing my work!).And I'd love to see someone come to know Jesus because I went the extra mile to tell them about Him.

And so, as we approach 2010 it is with great hesitancy that I even post this resolution of sorts. I've confessed my tendency to make excuses, um I mean reasons, for not following through. But the truth is I'll know if I'm stopping a mile short every time. You may not. I've become a master at appearing that I'm giving my all. But I'll know.

So I'm truly resolving to go the extra mile. In fact, you won't want to go hiking with me. I'll be the one saying, "Come on! One more mile! We can do it." Of course I also may be the one giving you a dozen reasons why we can't: it's getting late, my toes are hurting, the sun is starting to set behind the mountains, I think it looks like rain, I think there may be hunters over there,.....

To which you should just say to me. "Kay, you promised...one more mile."

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Resting Before the 1st

It's a good thing January 1st with all its newness and resolve is close at hand. I'm going to need that kind of impetus to drag me out of this slumbering lull I have fallen into since the beginning of Christmas break.

Because my kids are home and my husband has even taken off a couple of weeks from work, my schedule has changed drastically. I've not been getting up at my normal 6:30, blogging early or even getting my walk in on a regular basis. I've worked on my present writing assignments at the strangest times and always with interruptions. And I'm eating at something like 8:00, 2:00 and 8:00 instead of the normal 6:45, 11:30 and 6:00. I'm constantly surprised when I look at the clock and basically nothing seems to be getting done! Laundry is piling up and, unfortunately, I don't care enough to do anything about it consistently. It's slowly getting done, but the pile grows faster than it decreases.

All this to say, I have finally resolved myself to just "going with it!" So I'm taking a little break from my  normal life? Why is that a problem.? The answer is, it's not.

In fact, we all need a break here and there.

Just this past Sunday as my daughter and I drove home from the fast food place we had all stopped for lunch, 16-year-old Abby remarked, "Why is it that every Sunday at this time I feel like I need a nap? I don't take a nap any other day, but on Sunday afternoon I feel exhausted!"

I agreed with her assessment and offered something like, "Yeah, it's interesting. Maybe that's why God told us in the Bible to work for six days and rest on the seventh. I guess He knows what He's talking about."

Abby nodded in agreement, went home and climbed into her bed. We didn't see her for another two hours at least.

I have to admit, my favorite part of a hike is the resting points. Not just because I'm a bum at heart, but because it is often those places where you stop and take a break that you really appreciate where you are. You stop looking at where you're putting your feet (so you don't step on a snake or off a cliff) and you lift your eyes up to take in the scenery. You appreciate the cool breeze, you look behind you and see from whence you've come, and you pull out that bag of trail mix you've been looking forward to.

(This is my friend Kim resting on the AT. She's going to kill me for posting this picture, but she is demonstrating my present attitude perfectly.)

And so it is with life in general. When we have our noses to the grind, our schedule in full motion, and our focus on the next activity, we tend to miss the beauty of the moment. We grow exhausted easily, we get anxious over all that lies ahead, we become so focused on our pursuits that we neglect the scenery.

January 1st usually propels me to set a few new goals, reaffirm my work ethic, tackle life with renewed vigor and buckle down with new determination to finish that which I've left undone. But for another day or two, I'm taking in the scenery, breathing in the fresh air, and munching on whatever strikes my fancy. That translates to playing games with my husband and son, watching movies with my daughter, eating potato chips and dip (something I NEVER eat), going to bed late and rising after seven in the morning. My walks may or may not happen.

As for the laundry? I might better throw in a load or two just so we can all at least smell good while we're breathing in the fresh air!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Walking Through the Valley

This morning James and I had the privilege of visiting with two different women who are walking through very difficult times. Both are godly women who are facing scary and uncertain physical problems.

One friend is a bit older than us and just said goodbye to both of her parents this year. Her mother had suffered from Alzheimer's for several years. Her father had tended to his bride to the very end and then joined her in heaven only months after her departure. Now it appears our friend, on top of continuing her familiar battle with MS, may be dealing with this same terrifying disease. She was very lucid when we visited with her this morning, but she openly confessed to having many strange dreams, delusions, and blank moments. Her health is not good and her mind fails her frequently.

We had breakfast with the other woman and her husband before they left to have her CT scan. This younger woman will be meeting with a neurosurgeon tomorrow to discuss the findings and his plan for treating her. We already know, due to previous tests, the prognosis will be grim at best. Regardless of today's test, she will have to fight to live.

I don't normally embrace opportunities to visit the sick. Count it against me if you will, but I have never felt comfortable in their presence. I don't feel like I have anything to offer, I'm afraid of saying the wrong thing, and, perhaps most of all, I'm humbled by their battle. I feel I have no right to offer them anything. I've not been there, yet, and I have no clue what they are feeling. Still, my love and concern for these two ladies propelled me to do what was very difficult for me because I knew it was important. I knew it was right.

This post is not about the plight of those who are waging a battle against illness. While God has graciously helped me to move past my fears so that I can at least minister to these folks in some small way, I certainly have not been close enough to that kind of pain to write about it with any measure of knowledge or perception. I'm sure the day will come when God will see fit to increase my acquaintance with such a battle, but up to this point we have only had a few small scares. They didn't seem that small at the time, grant you, but looking back they pale in comparison to the uncertainties these two women face.

This post is about those of us who walk with those who are hurting, those who are sick, those who are facing grim news. And perhaps not so much those who are walking arm in arm with them, but more specifically those who are watching from afar as someone dear, but not so close, walks through a season of difficulty.

What is there to do?

I heard from these women (and a concerned husband) this morning several things that I can do. They requested some actions; others were implied. But this is what I heard:

  • Pray. Obviously. But don't just say you'll pray. Stop right there and offer a simple prayer in their presence. Ah, to know that someone is beseeching the God of this universe on your behalf. I'm not anymore comfortable praying in front of people than the next person. For some reason everyone assumes ministers and their spouses just automatically know how to pray eloquent prayers. False. I just stumble all over my words like everyone else. But I committed years ago that any time I visit someone who is sick or hurting or grieving, I will at least ask if I can pray for them. No one has ever told me no. And I've never prayed a masterful, inspiring prayer. I've just talked to God on their behalf. More than once people have told me, with tears in their eyes, that I was the only one who offered to pray with them. That doesn't make me special, just obedient. I encourage you to pray with those who often can't word their own prayers because they are in such a state of grief or worry.
  • Call. Pick up the phone or knock on their door, but make personal contact. Of course we need to use a little discernment and good judgment. Some people don't want a lot of visitors and others need their rest. But I think it's better to err on the side of being turned away rather than making the mistake of never showing up. Illness and grief breed isolation. And isolation breeds more illness and grief. I've already confessed that I have great difficulty making a visit to a hurting person. But I have to get over that and do what is best for the other person. When I do make a visit, I simply pray for God to carry me every step of the way and to help me not say anything that might be hurtful. He hasn't failed me yet.
  • Protect. Those who are walking closest to the sick or grieving person often bear such heavy loads and are under the scrutiny of everyone looking in; they need those who are a little more detached from the situation to walk with them. My parents have a ministry to caregivers. They work through Hospice and relieve those who are caring for dying people so they can run a few errands, get their hair done, or just have some time to themselves. I know my mom and dad often feel like they're not able to do enough for these weary people and sometimes they feel they are more in their way than helpful. But I imagine their assistance is more needed and appreciated than they often ever realize. Tired caregivers may not be able to offer a lot of appreciation. They're exhausted and drained. But they need others to come along and hold them up, offer a little refreshment, and give some perspective. One of our friends we visited this morning made only one request of us - that we protect her husband from the judgment of others. She knew from experience that sometimes people judge harshly those who are caring for an ailing spouse. She just wanted to know that someone would be there to defend him if that happened.
  • Relieve. Our other friend made a different request. She just wanted to know that her responsibilities at work and at church would be taken care of. Obviously it is hard for her to even lay those responsibilities down, hopefully temporarily. But since her doctor has told her that she must concentrate on getting well, she knows she must let go for now. And she needs to be assured that things are being taken care of. My husband is trying to get everything taken care of quickly so that she can know who is stepping in for her and she can face her crisis with confidence that her beloved students will not suffer.
I'm sure there are other things we can do for those who suffer, even when we are not the ones walking hand in hand with them. We are, after all, the body of Christ. We are called to share others' burdens with love and compassion.

Maybe you are like me and this is not an easy fit. No excuse. Let's not let anyone walk through the valley alone. Even if we ourselves are on a mountain top while they are walking in the valley below, at least we can shine a little light on their path, encourage them with compassionate words, relieve them of some of the load, and pray them through.

If you are in a valley today, my heart goes out to you. Please consider that not everyone knows what to do to help you. Be patient with us. Tell us what you need. Most importantly, tell God what you need. He will never fail you even if I do.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Strategic Risks

Dominion - that's the name of the game my husband and son brought home yesterday and consumed the rest of our day. It's one of those strategy oriented, European looking games you can only get at specialty game shops or on the Internet or such. It requires a lot of set up and has a book full of instructions. Not normally my style, but since it's the Christmas season and I'm all into family time and since my husband was good natured enough to play Taboo (the game I got for Christmas) the night before, I agreed to play with my two men.

And I whooped them!

Six games out of seven!

Who would have thought that I'd enjoy such a manly-looking game? But I did. And I liked the game too. Sure I was winning, over and over and over... But I also just really liked the game.

After I went to bed I thought about whether the game was more of a strategy game or based on luck. I decided, since I was winning so much and all, that it's definitely a strategy game. But there's also an element of luck involved undoubtedly. (I'm sure James and Daniel would say, at this point, that it's all luck! Sorry guys. Just not true!)

And that got me to thinking about life. Not the board game. We played that one two days ago because it was my daughter's Christmas present. Believe me, no strategy involved there! The board game Life is all luck, or bad luck, as was the case with me.

But real life, if we're going to be winners, definitely requires a strategy. I think that's what the wealthy young man was inquiring about in Mark 10:17-22 when he rushed up to Jesus, fell on his knees before Him and said, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" He wanted to know how to win.

Don't we all?

That's why there are things like self-help books, career counselors, life coaches, talk shows, women's magazines, and financial advisers. We all want to know the strategy for living well.

Well, Jesus gave this young man the strategy and I don't know if it sounded too simple or too extremely difficult, but he wondered off grieved and more confused than ever. Jesus had told him simply to forsake his old pursuits and values and follow Him. In other words, get a new strategy. Quit trying to accumulate the wealth so you can win, give it all away, and follow Me and do things My way instead.

And thus we have that perfect combination of strategy and risk. There is a winning strategy for living well, but it will require, seemingly, some risks on our part as well.

I say "seemingly" because once we've taken the risk, we find there was never any risk at all. Doing things Jesus' way is never a gamble; it just feels that way at the time.

Just last night I was tested in that. No, it wasn't while I was playing Dominion. It was during one of those very real moments of decision. A moment when I craved to look good to others, to look like I had it all together, but instead I probably looked quite foolish.

Last night I found myself in a situation where my reputation was seemingly on the line. I was plunged into a dilemma that was not of my own making but very much required my help. If I helped with a good attitude and without explaining myself to others I risked the chance that I might come out looking like I had been irresponsible, like I was late and negligent. My pride wanted to explain to others that this mess was not my fault, but that I had simply come to the rescue of another who had really blown it. But if I said anything it would make others feel bad. What would I do? Would I risk my own reputation in order to preserve the feelings of others? Or would I set everyone straight so that I came out looking good?

I knew one thing. I knew what Jesus' strategy was. It's very clearly written in His Word.

"Don't push your way to the front; don't sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don't be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand." (Philippians 2:3-4 - The Message)

And yet it felt like such a risk to go with His strategy. Why is that? I've put Him to the test over and over and He has never failed me yet. And still, each time I come upon a crossroads where I must make a strategic decision about how I'm going to "play this hand," His strategy seems risky.

In the end, I went with the strategic words of Philippians 2:3-4. I kept silent and didn't try to explain myself or the irresponsible actions of another that had shed a bad light on me. I did it Jesus' way.

The verdict isn't in yet as to whether or not people saw me as incompetent and irresponsible. But at this point  others' opinions do not matter. I know I have chosen the right strategy, the one that ultimately wins every time.

And so, let me remind you one more time for the fun of it, I won Dominion six times out of seven last night.  I don't know if my winning streak was due to my smart strategy or just plain luck.

But with Jesus' strategy and no real risks involved, I win at Life every time.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Our Journey to Bethlehem - Day 15

I had every intention of posting early this Christmas morning, but alas the celebration of the day kept me from it. Not a bad excuse I believe.

When I have had a few moments today, on this glorious Christmas day, to reflect on what I might write on this our last day of our journey, I've thought about why we've made this journey to begin with. Why did we walk through the Bible a little bit at a time to finally arrive in Luke chapter 2 where our Savior was born?

Because it was important to remember that He, Jesus, our Messiah, is what it is all about. Not just what Christmas is all about, but what everything is all about. He is our hope, our light, the truth, the way, our friend, our redeemer, our reason for living. It's all about Him. Every bit of the Bible is about Jesus, God's greatest expression of His love for us.

And, thus, every bit of our lives should be about Him. May it be that now that we have journeyed to Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of our King, that we will celebrate His life, His death, His resurrection, and His awaited return every day.

"The first Noel the angel did say, was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
In fields where they lay keeping their sheep, on a cold winter's night that was so deep.
Noel, noel, noel, noel, Born is the King of Israel.

"They looked up and saw a star shing in the east, beyond them far,
And to the earth it gave great light, and so it continued both day and night.
Noel, noel, noel, noel, Born is the King of Israel.

"And by the light of that same star three wise men came from country far;
To seek for a king was their intent, and to follow the star wherever it went.
Noel, noel, noel, noel, Born is the King of Israel.

"The let us all with one accord sing praises to our heavenly Lord
Who hath made heaven and earth of naught, and with his blood mankind hath bought.
Noel, noel, noel, noel, Born is the King of Israel."

Today, December 25th, was Christmas. But don't let the celebration, the wonder, the gratitude stop. He is here. We can't stay in Bethlehem celebrating His birth; we must go out into the world just as the shepherds did after seeing the babe in the manger and tell everyone that Jesus is here.

My prayer is that each of us would continue the celebration of Christmas in our lives every day until everyone knows that Jesus Christ has come. Praise God, our Savior has been born.

And now, come again, Lord Jesus.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Our Journey to Bethlehem - Day 14

Can you believe we are almost there? Almost to Bethlehem where that little baby would quietly slip into the world that He created, clothed in flesh and humanity, bringing peace and light into a world of chaos and darkness.

As we've journeyed toward Christmas for the past 14 days we've traveled all the way from Genesis to the gospels, trying to wrap our brains around the enormity of that special birth. We've looked at God's huge love for His creation, His people. We've reflected on our great need for one to save us from our own self-destructive ways. We've glanced at our inability to get ourselves right with our Maker. And we've taken a few legs of the journey to remember that there are still so many in our world who live in darkness, ignorant of the good news of Christmas.

Today we'll actually travel into Bethlehem with Mary and Joseph, two very young people who have faced one shock after another in recent months. They are traveling to Bethlehem for a census. Joseph must report to Bethlehem, the homeplace for his family, the house of David. But of course Mary is great with child. That means she is miserably pregnant - experiencing the pains of pulled tendons in her abdomen, suffering from a little indigestion perhaps, having trouble sleeping, wrestling with the moving baby as she tries to get comfortable, and walking on swollen ankles and feet.

Joseph surely has plenty going through his head. Did he do the right thing by marrying Mary and not putting her away? If the angel's message is true, how can he possibly act as a father to the Son of God? Not to mention, just the normal worries that consume a new husband and father.

Our journey has been one of biblical reflection. Theirs has been much more personal, much more tiring, and much more like jumping off a cliff than a sentimental journey.

While you've been reading my words each day, I've been reading the simple but profound words of another author. Years ago Barbara Robinson penned The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, a simple intermediate level children's book that later became a TV movie starring Loretta Swit. With wit and fresh tenderness Robinson tells the story of how the Herdmans, a gang of wild and unruly brothers and sisters who are on a first name basis with CPS workers, change a small town church's Christmas pageant for the better.

At first it appears the Herdmans' antics will ruin the pageant before it even takes place, but in the end the "worst kids in the history of the world" managed to teach everyone something new about the evening Christ was born. When Mary (played by Imogene Herdman) shows up with a black eye, the wisemen (played by the Herdman brothers) come bearing their food-basket Christmas ham instead of precious oils, and the angel (Gladys Herdman) shouts a hardy "Hey! Unto you a child is born!" the Christmas play takes on a decidedly real tone.

The narrator describes it this way:

"It suddenly occurred to me that this was just the way it must have been for the real Holy Family, stuck away in a barn by people who didn't much care what happened to them. They couldn't have been very neat and tidy either, but more like this Mary and Joseph (Imogene's veil was cockeyed as usual, and Ralph's hair stuck out all around his ears). ...
Since Gladys was the only one in the pageant who had anything to say she made the most of it: "Hey! Unto you a child is born!" she hollered, as if it was, for sure, the best news in the world. And all the shepherds trembled, sore afraid--of Gladys, mainly, but it looked good anyway."

As I read this delightful book each night and chuckled at the antics of the Herdman herd, I had the opportunity to look at the events of that special evening afresh. Not that the Herdman rendition was more accurate than Luke's by any means, but perhaps their take on the events of that first Christmas were more true to life than what I've pictured in my mind's eye all these years.

We've tended to glamorize that first Christmas Eve quite a bit, don't you think? We assume that the stable somehow smelled more like a freshly painted nursery than a barn. We picture Mary and Joseph with clean clothes and freshly combed hair instead of having the well-traveled look and smell. We envision gentle, sweet-smelling sheep and cows sitting by and gazing with tenderness at the young couple. And we assume the labor and delivery of the Savior happened instantaneously, with no pain or fear for the teenaged mom. Finally, there's the tendency to see Mary as a saint instead of an average, but godly young girl with a few skin blemishes, oily hair, and timid eyes.

So today as we travel the last few miles to Bethlehem, approach a crowded inn with Mary and Joseph only to be turned away, and finally settle in at what might have been nothing more than a small cave, let's be real about it. Let's do our best to paint a more accurate picture of what that holy night might have been like. Let's allow Mary and Joseph to be anxious, exhausted, and young. Let's breath in the odors of the animals, the weary bodies, the earth. Let's take in the darkness of that night, the fear of the unknown, and the crowded condition of that city.

And there, in the realness of it all, we'll see that holy is not restricted to clean and perfect. Holy happens in the everyday, the common, the earthy, the imperfect...in teenagers like Mary and Joseph....in children like the Herdmans...and in people like you and me.

Hey! Unto you a child is born!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Our Journey to Bethlehem - Day 13

And then, 400 years later, God spoke again.

By this time the Roman government had named Herod, a non-Jew, king of the Jews. He was busy rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, not in anticipation of worhsipping the one true God there, but as a manipulation tactic to increase the Jews' loyalty to him, a scheme that never really panned out.

And serving in this temple built by Herod was a devout priest named Zacharias, which means "God remembers." He was married to a woman who had remained barren into her advanced years and her name was Elizabeth, which means "God's Oath." I tell you the meanings behind their names simply because I think it is interesting and perhaps even significant that when you put the two together you get, "God remembers His oath." And indeed He did.

No these weren't the parents of the Messiah. These were the parents of a very special and anointed man who would pave the way for the Messiah. But I've gotten ahead of myself.

One very special day as Zacharias was performing his priestly duty in the temple, God spoke. To him. And Zacharias about had a heart attack. No the scriptures don't literally say that, but that's exactly how I interpret "and fear gripped him."

Isn't that interesting that Zacharias was serving God, probably burning incense and offering up the prayers of his people, but when God spoke back, it scared him to death? But I can't fault Zacharias too much. I've been more than a little shaken when God has spoken back or responded to my prayers as well. "You want me to do what?" "You want me to move where?" "You fixed it?" "Oh my!"

What did God say to Zacharias? That his wife Elizabeth would bear him a boy child, finally! Zacharias was to name him John. And John would be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he was born. He would have a special assignment.

John, later to be known as John the Baptist or John the Baptizer, would prepare the way for the Messiah by turning people back to the Lord. In other words, he would wake the people up a little. They, just like Zacharias, had probably grown so accustomed to God not speaking that they would undoubtedly be startled when He started speaking again, much more so when He actually showed up on the scene. John was to get the people ready for the Messiah because they had been lulled into a spiritual slumber.

And on our journey to that stable in Bethlehem, that is where we will pause today. We'll stop and ask ourselves if we have also fallen asleep spiritually. Have we been lulled into spiritual slumber or complacency? Are we startled when God speaks or acts? Do we brush off the whisperings of the Holy Spirit because, like Zacharias we can't believe He's talking to us? Are we struck dumb when He gives us a special message or ministry because we just can't wrap our feeble minds around it? Do we read the ancient words of the Bible with sleepy familiarity instead of reading them with eager anticipation?

We need to wake up!

Hear the words of John the Baptist:

Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29)

For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the spirit without measure. (John 3:34)

He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him. (John 3:36)

In other words, this is Him! This is the Messiah! Don't miss Him. He is the One who takes away your sin. And He is the one who speaks the words of God directly. Pay attention to what He says and you will be saved! Remain in your state of spiritual slumber and you'll miss your opportunity!

As we approach Christmas day and as we continue our figurative journey to Bethlehem, let's make sure we're ready to hear from God and respond to Him. God began speaking again after a 400 year silence and He hasn't stopped since. He continues to speak to us through His abiding, indwelling Holy Spirit and through His Word. Are you listening? More importantly, are you anticipating His voice and obeying what you hear?

If not, "Make straight the way of the Lord!" (John 1:23)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Our Journey to Bethlehem - Day 12

This morning the silence in my house is golden. With two demanding dogs, two chatty teenagers, a husband who plans on doing "plumbing work" today, and multiple electronic gadgets that seem to pop on at a moment's notice, silence is rare here, especially during the holidays. So I enjoyed it last night when everyone else was out of the house and I'm soaking it in now while everyone is still asleep.

But silence isn't always a good thing.

After God had warned His people through the prophets for centuries, they still remained independent and defiant. Oh sure, they would return to Him with their heads hung low from time to time, especially when the oppression from their captors became unbearable. But their hearts remained fickle, uncommitted, and cold toward God. Still, God continued to tell His people not only of the impending judgment, but also of a New Covenant that would be ushered in by Jesus the Messiah. He warned them of His wrath while assuring them of His love. That's the kind of God we have...patient, merciful, compassionate.

But while God had spoken passionately to His people for centuries through chosen messengers, there came a day when He chose to speak no more. I can understand that, can't you? I've had round and round discussions with my children where I tried to communicate to them that I was for them, that I knew best (because I really did), that I loved them and therefore must say "no", only to have them continue to go round and round with me, insisting on having things their way. Finally, disappointed that I wasn't getting through, frustrated that they couldn't see how much I loved them, and tired of saying the same things over and over.... I just stopped. Later we might pick up the conversation again or the consequences of our discussion would simply fall into place, but at that moment I had no more to say.

And so God said no more through prophets or messengers. There was a holy silence that echoed through the land. Perhaps the people even enjoyed that silence for a while. Scripture indicates they didn't generally respond all that well to the prophets' messages, so maybe they relished their absence at first.

But I know from experience that eventually that silence grew wearisome and caused an ache in their souls. I know because I've endured the silence from a loved one and longed for it to end. I'm sure you have as well. And God is not just any friend or family member; He is the lover of our souls, the sustainer of the breath we breathe. We need to hear from Him.

I realize yesterday's journey to Bethlehem took us down a strikingly similar route, but I am drawn again today to consider those in our world who have yet to hear about Jesus. For them the world must be one noisy place that echos with the silence of God. Not that He isn't speaking to them through the majesty and wonder of His creation and His involvement in this world, but so many have yet to hear a spoken message about His promise of a Savior and the fulfillment of that pledge. For those who haven't heard the name Jesus, life is very similar to how it must of been during those 400 years between the books of Malachi and the gospels. Aching silence.

Take just a moment. Say that name . "Jesus." Say it again. "Jesus." What a precious name. How many times each week do you read or hear that name (spoken with reverence)? Many, many times I am sure, if you so desire. But there are millions and millions of people in our world, some in our own country, who have never even heard that precious name. They are still living in the silence.

Will you and I help break that deafening silence for them? Will we speak the name that God finally introduced to the world 400 years after He had stopped talking? It's Christmas and our culture, ruled by the prince of darkness, would have us keep silent about the very reason for this remarkable season. Let's not do that. Let's break the silence.

" Jesus. "

Monday, December 21, 2009

Our Journey to Bethlehem - Day 11

Well it's time to resume our journey to Bethlehem and we just have a few short days to get there. I do hope you had the opportunity this weekend to worship the baby who was born there in that stable. There is nothing better for us to do this Christmas in the way of celebration than to spend some time reflecting on His greatness and our need of all He does for us.

And yet...maybe there is one thing we could do...

Up to this point in our journey we have seen God's love demonstrated through His tender creation, His merciful promise of redemption, His purposeful selection of a people, His mighty release of the captives from Egypt, His patient tolerance of a wayward nation, and His compliance with their wishes for a king. God has loved and loved and loved, for that is who He is.

While God's love never ceases and nothing can separate us from it (Romans 8:38-39), He is not and will not be trampled on and taken advantage of. Unlike so many parents who simply throw their hands up in the air and moan, "I can't do anything with these kids!" God never loses control of His children.

And so in the book of Isaiah we a see a definite turn of events. Through His prophet, God spells out for His wayward, disobedient, disloyal, stiff-necked people His plans for the future. He lets then know that times will get tough, tougher in fact.

Why? Because....

They've esteemed men higher than they've esteemed their God. (Isaiah 2:22)

They've taken pride in the bounty they've acquired, forgetting the God who supplied it. (Isaiah 2:7-8)

They've sought out the aid of foreign countries and their rulers instead of running to God with their problems. (Isaiah 2:6)

They've called evil good, and good evil. (Isaiah 5:20)

They've thought themselves to be clever and wise and haven't consulted God. (Isaiah 5:21)

They've accepted bribes to do what they knew was wrong. (Isaiah 5:23)

They've partied to the point of drunkenness and called it glamorous. (Isaiah 5:11-12, 22))

They've used God to their advantage like a magical puppet, calling on Him in case of emergency only and then complaining when He didn't act quickly on their behalf. (Isaiah 5:19)

Does any of this sound familiar, friend? It does to me. Our world today is not so different from the culture God condemned in Isaiah's time. And the church, God's people, are guilty of the same grievances. We look to Hollywood and Washington to set the pace, and follow as closely as we can. We have great difficulty knowing the difference between right and wrong and fret about offending anyone when we know the truth. We take pride in our intelligence, our modern advances, our sophistication. We revel in our affluence but forget from whence it came. And we call out to God like petulant children in the event of a natural or economic disaster, growing impatient when He doesn't fix things to our liking at the snap of our greedy little fingers.

And I'm not just throwing blame on our "society"; I'm claiming my fair amount of the blame as well. Shame on us all.

What a mess we are in. Very similar to the mess that caused division and unrest among the Israelites. Very much like the mess that caused them to eventually fall prey to other nations, resulting in bitter oppression, poverty, and great loss. Very much like the mess that made them hopeless.

But that's what it took for these people to fall to their knees. That's what was needed to drive them to look for a Messiah. By the time that baby was born in Bethlehem, the Jews were starved for a savior. They weren't completely squared away on what kind of savior to expect and thus most of them missed Him, but they were starved all the same.

I think our world is starved for a Savior today as well. Not just here in affluent and misguided America, but also
  • in lands where poverty and physical hunger dominate
  • In countries where false religions have proven to be empty and even dangerous
  • In countries where strife and anger pervade
  • In countries where diseases wreak havoc
  • In countries where leadership is corrupt and people are abused and enslaved
  • In countries where darkness has become the norm
  • In countries where children are sacrificed for wealth and women are considered property
Our world is hungry for some hope, a little love.
Jesus is the hope of the world. He loved the world enough to die for it. What are you doing to tell others about that love? Want to give a meaningful Christmas present this year? One that is really wanted? One that will not be returned or broken or run out of battery life?

I have a suggestion.

Now, go tell whoever you come in contact with today, "Love has come. His name is Jesus."


Friday, December 18, 2009

Our Journey to Bethlehem - Day 10

I'm one of those people who likes to find out what everyone else at my table is ordering at a restaurant before I decide what to have for myself. I can look over the menu and nothing looks all that great, but as soon as anyone else chooses to order a certain dish, that item suddenly appeals to me. Are you like that too? What is it about us that makes us want what someone else has? I can totally be in a no-meat kind of mood and scanning the salad choices, but when my friend looks up from her menu with a decisive smile and announces, "I'm having the 1/3 pound burger with cheese and mushrooms!" suddenly I'm craving juicy red meat!

That's exactly what happened to the Israelites. No, they didn't suddenly all crave hamburgers, but they did want what everyone else around them had. They wanted a king!

As we continue our journey to Bethlehem today, we come across the elders begging Samuel, the judge over all of Israel, to appoint them a king. In fact here is what they said,

"Now appoint us a king for us to judge us like all the nations." (1 Samuel 8:5)

Samuel wasn't pleased with this request. Not only did he feel like they were stepping outside of God's will for them, but his feelings were hurt. But God, who had dealt with the offensive nature of the Israelites far longer than Samuel had, told him,

"Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them. Like all the deeds which they have done since the day that I brought them up from Egypt even to this day--in that they have forsaken Me and served other gods--so they are doing to you also." (1 Samuel 8:7-8)

And so, the Lord allowed the people, His people, to have a king. But He warned them. It wouldn't be as nice as they thought it would. Their sons would be sent to war in the king's army. Their daughters would be enlisted to work in the king's palace. Their fields would be taken to grow his grapes and olives. And don't forget about taxes. He'd take a tenth of their seed and use their servants to plant his crops.

More importantly, God would not play second fiddle. He would not come running to their rescue when their king did not lead them well. (1 Samuel 8:18) If they had an ungodly king, God would deal with the people accordingly.

Did they still want a king? Yes. Because at least they'd have what everyone else around them had.

As you know, Israel would have some good kings and some bad ones. More bad ones, by far. While we often immediately think of David when we think of the King of Israel, King Saul was the first king appointed for the people. He was chosen based on those superficial, exterior kind of qualities that so often appeal to people. He was handsome, tall, from a good family, etc. But he would later reveal his true nature. He was conniving, melancholy, distrustful, disloyal to God, and easily provoked to jealousy.

David was chosen to be king because he was "a man after God's own heart." And indeed, David was mighty in battle, soft-hearted toward His God, loyal to God's plans, good to his people, and just. But even David had problems at home. He committed adultery and murder, and his children were wayward and confused.

Solomon was wise and wealthy. He had the privilege of building the Temple of God in Jerusalem, where God's presence dwelt among the people. Royalty and wise men from far away lands would visit Jerusalem during Solomon's reign to view his wealth and gain from his wisdom. But it all went to Solomon's head and he married far too many wives from far too many different nations and they pulled his heart away from God.

After Solomon's reign the kingdom of Israel split in two. Now two sets of kings would rule over God's chosen people - a divided kingdom. Neither would fare well and often these kings were their downfall.

Before we get too academic today, let's pause for a water break and think about what we've gleaned from this portion of our trip. Why did the people want a king? They said it was because they wanted to be like those around them, but what specifically appealed to them about these foreign kingships?

Could it be that there is something in us that is drawn to authority coupled with a little pomp and circumstance? That fact that the world stood still to watch Diana marry Prince Charles makes me think yes. The fact that movie goers watched Grace marry Prince Rainier makes me think yes. The fact that millions visit the archaic palaces of royalty gone by each year, makes me think yes.

Something in us wants someone to be in charge who rightfully sits on the throne. We want to be ruled well by one who knows what he is doing, who cares for his people, who has a plan and knows how to carry it out, and who owns the cattle on a thousand hills. And, while most of us would only dream of getting to eat from that king's royal table, we at least want to envision the grand balls that he would surely throw and some would attend.

Well, the people of Israel would never know that kind of king. Instead they would eventually be taken captive by foreign kings who would rule them instead, often treating them cruelly. And on the night that little baby was born in the City of David, they would still be looking for the king of their dreams. But who would have thought he'd be right there in that lowly stable instead of a palace?

The King of kings and Lord of lords was born that night in Bethlehem. He came to rule, but He would not take that authority by force. He would simply offer it to those who were willing to enter into His kingdom through a narrow path, a small gate. He would set up His kingdom in the hearts of people, of all places, and He would rule with peace and grace.

I hope you know that King. I hope He sits on His rightful throne in your heart. He is that king we dream of. The one who owns the cattle on a thousand hills, the one who rules with dignity and grace, the one who has a plan and knows how to work that plan. And, sweet dreaming friend, He is the one who is preparing a great feast for His loyal subjects where we will all eat from His table and share in His rejoicing. You are invited to the ball and one day He will come for you, riding on His white horse and clothed in splendor.

That baby in Bethlehem grew up to be a King.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Our Journey to Bethlehem - Day 9

Today we'll pick up the pace and move on into the Promised Land, where the Israelites have settled in among the neighboring nations despite God's warning to completely drive out the inhabitants of the land. Oh they drove out a few, but then I suppose they grew weary of the work and settled in among the rest. Sounds a lot like how we handle our own enemies of God. You know how it goes. We won't watch this show on television, but it's just too much work to keep such diligence over what enters our minds so we might watch that one occasionally. Or we don't usually gossip, but occasionally, when you have an especially juicy morsel to share, you might chew on it for a while with a friend. No big deal. That's what the Israelites thought too.

But there was a real danger in "settling". Some of the good Jewish boys noticed a few of their neighboring gals and before they knew it wedding bells were ringing. And a few of the Jewish farmers realized the neighboring merchants had good prices on their plows and business relationships were begun. No harm, right? Wrong. Step 3, the good Jewish folk started going to the Canaanite and Midianite and every-other-ite homes for dinner and coffee. They started talking politics and religion, as is our tendency. Before long, there were conversations like this going on:

Wife: I noticed Mr. and Mrs. Bedite don't worship our God. They have several gods. And if they pay homage to their gods, they do special things for them. They bless their crops or give them more boy children.

Husband: Hmmm. Interesting.

Wife: Our God doesn't do us any special favors if we plead with Him. And He makes us obey all these silly rules.

Husband: Hmmm. You have a point there.

Wife: Maybe we should keep worshiping our God, but we should also get one of those little statues I saw at the Bedites and pay homage to it too. You know we could really use a few more boy children to help you out with the work around our farm.

Husband: Hmmm. Maybe we should.

Wife: I'll take care of it tomorrow!

And so in Judges 2:12 we read:

"and they forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed themselves down to them; thus they provoked the Lord to anger."

And so, as we walk through the land the Israelites shared with the Canaanites, we have to ask ourselves, "Do I have any idols? Have I forsaken my God for the gods of the people around me?"

If we just look around our houses for little statues that we bow down to, we could probably all say, "no, no idols here." But the Bible doesn't define an idol as just a wooden or stone statue. An idol is anything we "make into" a god, anything we fashion, not only with our hands, but also with our minds, our imaginations, and then give it our allegiance and devotion. It's anything we put our hope in.

So, I ask again, do we have any idols? I personally think most of us struggle with idol worship, even though we have certainly become more sophisticated in our approach. We don't bow down to stone statues or dance around asherah poles. But we might bow down to ungodly policies and demands in order to keep our jobs. And we might dance around our culture in order to appear current and sophisticated. We decide what really matters in life and we'll bend over backwards, jump through hoops, lay down our convictions, and pay any price to get what we think will somehow satisfy.

But there's another type of idol worship that Christians are even more susceptible to. That is the worship of a god of our own imagination rather than the true God. You know that god. For instance, some of us worship a god who is basically a jolly Santa Claus, obliged to give us whatever we ask for as long as we've been good. And then some of us acknowledge a laisez-faire god who created the world but really has no interest in it now, thus no authority either. Fortunately you don't really even have to worship that god. He's not worthy and we're actually smarter than him. There are many other gods that people worship today that have just a smidgen of the Bible's God, but in the end they're weak, dumb, easily manipulated, powerless, non-authoritarian, and gullible.

No big deal, right? After all, we're just human beings doing the best we can. Beware, the Bible says in Jonah 2:8, "Those who bow down to idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs." God will not pour out His blessings on those who are looking for blessings elsewhere, even if they're looking to a god who resembles Him a little bit.

And so, as we walk through the land God had promised His people and notice the altars to false gods, we wonder what we are to do about this idol worship that even we have bought into. The answer lies in the manger in Bethlehem. 

You see I believe we often create and worship idols because we don't really know our God. If we knew Him, how wonderful, how loving, how sufficient, how powerful He is, we would not bother with silly gods of our own imagination. And that is one of the reasons Jesus came to this earth in the flesh.

John 1:18 says that while no man has seen the one true God, Jesus, the begotten Son of the Father, has come to "explain" Him. He lived among us so we could see God's nature, hear His words, experience His compassion, watch His power at work, and understand His plan.

As we approach Bethlehem where God incarnate, God in the flesh, came into the world, let's honestly ask ourselves how well we know Him. If we're lacking in our understanding of who God is, let's commit to getting to know Him better. We may need to read through the gospel accounts of Jesus' walk here on earth. We may need to meditate on His words. We may need to spend more time with Him. But let's do whatever it takes to get to know our God. He's so much greater than any god of our imaginations, and so worthy of our worship.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Our Journey to Bethlehem - Day 8

Yesterday we camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai where Moses gave God's Law to His chosen people. Today we will pull out our trekking poles and hike on up the mountain where God gave Moses the details of how to construct the Tabernacle. Of course, the Hebrew people were not allowed to go up this mountain and enter God's presence, but you and I live on this side of the cross and have been given complete access to our Holy God because of the blood of Christ. Praise God! But alas, I've gotten ahead of myself.

The Tabernacle was a portable worship center like no other. It was constructed according to God's very specific plans with carefully chosen materials. Remember those gold and silver vessels the people of Israel had left Egypt with? God had planned ahead. Skilled workers endowed with wisdom from God were handpicked to craft the building itself, all the vessels that would be used for worship, and the garments worn by the priests. Nothing was left to the imagination of the people; God gave Moses very detailed instructions that were to be carried out to the nth degree.

There are all sorts of angles we could look at the tabernacle from as we journey on to Bethlehem today. We could see how each of the elements in the tabernacle represent Jesus. We could talk about the ceremony the priests had to go through each day and each year in order to atone for the people's sins. We could discuss the Holy of Holies and how God's presence hovered there among His people. And we could marvel at the fact that while God tabernacled among the people in a man-made tent for all those years, He would later tabernacle among them in the body of a man, Jesus Christ.

But here's where I'm choosing to go today instead.

It interests me that God spelled out for the people how they were to worship Him. He didn't leave it up to their imagination or earthly wisdom. He designed the dwelling place, the clothing for the priests, and the instruments of worship. He explained who would do what and when. He set the standards very high and insisted upon strict observance, not just to be difficult, but because there is indeed a correct way to approach a holy God and there are also myriad wrong ways to approach Him. Cleansing, repentance, humility, atonement, obedience - all necessary to come before our God, and not just "as we see fit." These are heart matters and God knows the difference between rote performance and true worship that originates in truth and in spirit.

For millenniums people have tried to worship God or some other god. Why? There is something within us that longs to worship. We see beauty in nature and we gaze with appreciation. We hold close a newborn baby and we stare in awe at the miracle of new life. We look into the magical blue eyes of a lover and something in us wants to just jump in as though those eyes are pools of blue water. We listen to a skilled soprano sing a beautiful aria with seemingly no effort and we are pulled to our feet with shouts of "Bravo! Bravo!" while tears are streaming down our face. We watch our quarterback run 80 yards through a maze of giants for the winning touchdown and we jump up on the bleacher with high fives all around. Almost daily we are drawn to give someone, something a little credit. Our heart strings are played, our emotions soar, our spirits want to get out and boogie. We need to demonstrate that "someone" is greater than ourselves and we have been amazed.

Many people never truly understand that while it is fine to applaud a great performance or feel goosebumps at the love of another person, our greatest worship should be reserved for the One who is truly worthy, the One who makes all those other things or people what they are to us. They end up directing their worship to the wrong person or thing.

Others realize that there is something, someone beyond what they can behold with their eyes and so they try to reach out to this god. Hence, religion. The problem with religion is that every single one of them are based on man's attempt to reach up to God instead of God's one simple act of reaching down to man. Every attempt to reach up to God is clumsy and disrespectful in some way, whether it be good deeds, ceremony, emotional worship, meditation, sacrifice, you name it.

So as we journey on to Bethlehem today, let's thank God that we don't have to create some way to get to Him. We don't even have to construct a tabernacle in our back yard, dress in special clothing, go through a series of cleansings and sacrifices, or pray a certain prayer. We simply come to our God through the person of Jesus Christ. He is our sacrifice and our high priest. He is the one and only way to come to God.

And when we get to Bethlehem, like the Shepherds who will join us there, we will be drawn to worship the one true God. What will we do? We could shout with joy, do a dance, or play our little drum. But my bet is we will automatically fall to our knees, hang our heads low, and weep. Why? Because while something in us automatically knows to worship, I believe God showed us how to worship in that stable. Matthew 2:11 says of the wise men who later visited the Child, "they fell down and worshiped Him..."

Worship isn't a matter of interpretation. From the the Tabernacle to Solomon's Temple to the manger to heaven, it's all about Jesus. It always has been; it always will be.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Our Journey to Bethlehem - Day 7

It's the 7th day of our journey to Bethlehem. Today we are continuing on to the birth place of Jesus in a 15-day series I started Monday, December 7, 2009. If you'd like to walk with us, it's never too late to catch up. You can read the previous posts or just jump on the trail right where we are today. You are welcome here as we walk through God's Word all the way to the evening that our Messiah, Jesus Christ was born.

Ah, the Law! Talking about getting tripped up...We'll try not to trip as we continue our journey on to Bethlehem today, but that was really the purpose of the Law in many ways.  

After God had brought His people out of Egypt and they had begun their trek to the Promised Land, He gave them the Law and the Tabernacle. The Law to give them God's standard for living, the Tabernacle to give them a pattern for worshiping Him. Both would be important for making them a distinguished people.

God wanted His people to be so different, so holy that others would step back, take notice, and scratch their chins while saying, "That's a peculiar people. I wonder why they live as they do?" And then someone else would nod and say, "Yes, they're different alright, but have you noticed how blessed they are? How well they live? Must be that God they worship." And thus His people would be a blessing to the other nations around them, leading them to follow the true God also.

But as you and I know it didn't quite go that way. Before Moses could even deliver God's Ten Commandments to them, these fickle people were worshiping a golden calf. And when God faithfully provided for their needs, they became impatient, greedy, doubting, and argumentative. They certainly didn't behave very holy.

Would you or I have behaved much differently? Who knows? The real question is, do we behave any differently? Or do we also set up false gods, worshiping gods of our own making instead of the one true God? Do we become impatient with God's timing, jealous of others' abundance, doubtful of God's promises, and argumentative towards God's ways? I do.

Good news. God wasn't surprised by the Israelites' stubborn disobedience and He isn't taken unaware when we miss the mark either. Psalm 103:14 says, "For He Himself knows our frame (what we are made of); He is mindful that we are but dust."

God expects holiness. He wants us to live like His friend Noah - to walk in integrity of heart, to be without blame. But He knows better than to expect perfection from creatures made from dirt.

So why did God give the Law? Paul answered that very question for the Galatians. He said the Law was given as a sort of tutor that would lead people to Christ. How? Through frustration. God's people would try to obey the Law, fail, try again, fail again and finally throw their hands up in the air in frustration with the whole thing. They would cry out to God, "We want to obey You. We want to live Your way. We want to do right. But we can't! Lord, God Almighty help us!"

Didn't quite go that way for most of the Israelites. They became hard of heart and stiff of neck. They eventually shook their fists at their loving God and said, "We'll do things our way, thank you very much." Sad thing is, that's exactly what many people do today as well.

And so why are we even stopping here at the foot of Mt. Sinai where Moses delivered God's Law to His people? Why have we passed this way on our journey to Bethlehem? The answer is found in Galatians 3:24-26.

Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith.
But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.

And Matthew 5:17 where Jesus said,

"Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill."

God was leading the Israelites to Jesus through the Law. He also leads us to Jesus through the Law. We only realize our desperate need for a Savior when we become frustrated with our inability to do right, live holy, and act justly on our own.

Are you frustrated today? Is there something that you are trying to do right that you just can't seem to get a grip on?
  • Are you trying to be more patient with your children? 
  • Have you been convicted of your need to hold your tongue more? 
  • Are you tired of the bad taste that gossip leaves in your mouth? 
  • Do you long to control your temper? 
  • Have you had enough of jealousy and envy; is it ruining your chances for contentment? 
  • Do you long to rid yourself of anger and hate, but they seem to build instead of dissipating? 

Sweet friend, we need to get to Bethlehem. There in that stable lies a babe who was born to enable you to live with power and success and strength and conviction and grace. He doesn't change the Law of righteousness that your soul longs to live by; He doesn't annul it. He simply infuses you with the Spirit of the Living God, enabling you to live victoriously, when you place your faith in Him instead of yourself.

We better keep moving. We need that baby!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Our Journey to Bethlehem - Day 6

It's the 6th day of our journey to Bethlehem. Today we are continuing on to the birth place of Jesus in a 15-day series I started Monday, December 7, 2009. If you'd like to walk with us, it's never too late to catch up. You can read the previous posts or just jump on the trail right where we are today. You are welcome here as we walk through God's Word all the way to the evening that our Messiah, Jesus Christ was born.

Alright, everyone up and at'em! It's time to get out of Egypt and head toward the city of David. I know the Israelites are anxious to move on. They've been in another man's land now for 430 years and it's time for them to move on to the land God had promised them.

Once again we won't spend too long on the Biblical account. I imagine you are familiar enough with the story of how God called Moses, the stuttering, ex-communicated, Israelite, adopted son of the princess, to free His people from their captors. Equipped with the memory of the recent burning bush incident and an amazing staff, Moses sets off to see Pharaoh about releasing his Israelite brethren. Since his brethren didn't seem too impressed with God's choice of deliverer it's probably a good thing he brought his brother Aaron along.

You'll also recall that Pharaoh was none too impressed with Moses or Aaron. He played them like a schoolyard bully taunts and teases his subjects. But while he played a mean game of "Red Light/Green Light" mixed with "Father Pharaoh, May I?", God reminded him over and over that He owned that playground. He sent a series of plagues that eventually stripped Pharaoh of his pride, his resources, and his honor. And in the process, He also hardened Pharaoh's heart against ever willingly letting the Israelites go. Why? So there would be no mistaking Who got who out of there.

Finally, when Pharaoh's heart was as hard as they come, God warned that He would go into the midst of the Egyptians around midnight striking dead the firstborn of each household - from the palace to the slave quarters to the barns. The huge death toll would cause as great a cry of agony as ever had been heard in Egypt - a louder and more piercing cry than the wailing of the mistreated Israelites. 

But God's people were to be spared this horrific night of death. How? They were to follow God's directives to a T - taking one unblemished male lamb per household, keeping that lamb in their home four days, killing it, applying the blood to their two doorposts and the lintel of their house, roasting the meat of the lamb that same night and eating every bit of it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. But this would be no relaxing meal. They were to eat with their sandals on their feet and their staffs in their hands, ready to head out the door the minute Pharaoh yelled a desperate "get out!" from the palace porch. And so they did.

God's spirit swept through Egypt that night taking the life of every firstborn, both men and livestock. But at the homes where the blood had been obediently applied to the doorposts, the death angel passed over and lives were spared. Once again, God had warned of a judgment of death. Once again, He had provided a way of escape. And once again, those who accepted that way of escape and obeyed the conditions by faith were spared. Only this time instead of an ark, there was a lamb.

That perfect male lamb came into their homes like a pet to be adored. He won his way into the hearts of at least the children I am sure. Then, amidst the tears and misunderstanding, that lamb had to be killed, its blood had to be collected and applied to the appropriate place. And the Israelites had to eat of that lamb, all of it.

Scholars propose that approximately 250,000 lambs had to be slain that passover night. Why? Because unlike with the other plagues, the Israelites were not automatically immune from this final judgment. They were given a warning and provided with a way out, but each family had to act on that warning and demonstrate their faith in God's provision.

Later, one perfect Lamb would die for all the world. Because that Lamb died and His blood was shed, we all have a way of escape from the penalty of death. But once again there is no automatic immunity. Each individual must apply the blood of that Lamb to their own lives, identifying themselves with God's perfect provision. That perfect Lamb was born in a stable in Bethlehem and was even visited by shepherds who were probably tending the lambs that would be used in that year's Passover celebration. 

Today let's praise God for the Lamb, the One who died so we don't have to. He is our Passover Lamb. 

"For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate..." 1 Corinthians 5:7-8

What are we celebrating? The same thing the Israelites were celebrating as they walked out of Egypt with gold and silver given to them by their captors. Freedom, a fresh start, relief from oppression, a God who has heard our cry, a hope and a future, a journey to somewhere better, life in the shadow of death, and so much more. Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Our Journey to Bethlehem - Day 5

It's the fifth day of our journey to Bethlehem. Today we are continuing on to the birth place of Jesus in a 15-day series I started Monday, December 7, 2009. If you'd like to walk with us, it's never too late to catch up. You can read the previous posts or just jump on the trail right where we are today. You are welcome here as we walk through God's Word all the way to the evening that our Messiah, Jesus Christ was born.

In case you're wondering if we are going to cover every bit of Genesis on this journey, no, we're not. In fact, today we skip ahead several generations to Exodus Chapter 1.

Isaac, spared from death by his covenant keeping God, has had two sons, Jacob and Esau. God has chosen to continue His covenant through Jacob, whom He would later rename Israel. Israel had 12 sons, thus the nation of Israel - 12 tribes who would have 12 distinct histories with God. 

As we continue on our journey today we find the descendants of Israel in the land of Egypt. I'm sure you remember they ended up there because of a severe famine. But God in His providence had arranged for one brother, Joseph, to "go ahead" of his 11 other brothers (through a series of misfortunate events as bad as anything imagined by Lemony Snicket!) to make sure there would be provision for them and that the king of Egypt would be in a generous frame of mind toward them by the time they got there. Don't you just love those moments when you realize that God has thought ahead of you in your own life? When you realize He was working all along, even when you were wondering where He was? Mmm, mmm.

At any rate, the years have passed and the 12 families of Israel have grown considerably. In fact, Exodus 1:7 literally says they had increased so much in number that they had swarmed the place, filled it up! Not only that, they had become a mighty people.

For a while things were fine. The king who had given Joseph so much favor probably told his son and maybe even his grandson to "be nice to these folks; they're good people." But eventually, a king came along who hadn't gotten the memo. He was afraid of them, and you know what powerful people do to people they are afraid of. They put them to work, keep them so defeated and worn down they can't think straight. That's what this king did anyhow.

And so, God's chosen people, the nation of Israel, the family of father Abraham find themselves in captivity. Well, couldn't they have just up and left? No, we all know how that goes too. They had become necessary to the king's economy and dependent upon his provision. He wasn't going to make it easy for them to go anywhere and they didn't feel like they had the wherewithal to strike out on their own. They were bound in the chains of slavery, gripped with the vice of fear, and shackled to their own insecurities.

Does that sound at all familiar to you? As we walk toward the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ, I thought it might be wise to think about the people we are passing on the trail. For that matter, we might need to consider the people we are walking shoulder to shoulder with. 

Have we not all, at times, been held captive by something bigger than ourselves, something powerful and suffocating? We've certainly all know the death grip of Satan, the prince of this world. Whether you were saved out of that captivity at the age of 8 or 10 or 22 or 52, at one time he held you prisoner to his ways and his thinking. Praise God if you have been released from his domain by the Prince of Peace.

Many of us have also been chained to some sort of bondage, held in the grip of some addictive habit or substance. We've battled with bravery and determination, but come up short because we just don't have the power to break free within us. But, praise God, many of us have finally broken free when we laid down our own toy-like weapons and ceased depending on our own feeble strength. We've turned to our risen Lord and whispered, "Help. I can't do this." And He, with a protective vengeance has swooped in to rescue us from that which sought to defeat us.

Others of us have been held captive by crippling feelings such as our insecurities, the guilt over past mistakes, anger toward an offender, jealousy, bitterness, you name it. While we may have been released from Satan's power, he has continued to taunt us with lies and we have listened. And those lies have yielded great power in our lives, keeping us from moving on to our Promised Land. But hopefully, many of us have also seen those lies for what they are, applied the truth of God's Word to our lives like healing ointment and broken free from those chains as well. 

And finally, some of us have lived in prisons where another seemingly held the keys and jangled them in our face. Married to an alcoholic, separated from a wayward child, abused by an angry parent, victimized by a sick stranger, belittled by a demeaning boss, _____________________. I have no idea the wide variety of prisons out there. But once again, I know many have either broken free or managed, by the grace of God, to turn their prison cell into a test lab for His goodness and sufficiency instead.

So as we pause just outside of Egypt, I encourage you to look in on the Israelites in their state of bondage. And as you ponder their condition, remember you own. Are you one of the blessed who has been set free? You do realize it was that babe born in Bethlehem who set you free, right? 

Jesus read from the Scriptures in Luke 4:18, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because...He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and ...to set free those who are downtrodden."

And as we set up our tents here on the banks of the Nile for the weekend, I also encourage you to consider if you are still being held captive by anything other than the love of God. Any fear, any insecurity, any sin, any bitterness, any situation, any habit, anything? You're not supposed to be there, sweet blog friend. Please talk with Jesus about it this weekend.

Finally, I mentioned earlier that we need to consider those we are passing on our journey. Let's be aware this Christmas season that there is a world full of people who are living in bondage - to Satan and his dominion, to addictions, to crippling pasts, to unhealthy relationships, and so much more. Now is a good time to develop a little compassion for these people and to remember that Jesus came to save them too.

Well, that's where we'll stop for this week. Thank you so much for joining me on this journey. It really has helped me to focus on what Christmas is all about. I hope our travels are doing the same for you. Merry Christmas dear friends!