The other night I attended my daughters holiday music concert. She sang in the second grade chorus, but there were other groups including strings, band, and fifth grade chorus and choir. You know, if I’m candid with you I have to say that I have attended better concerts. Some of the performance was lackluster; notes were missed, entrances were shaky, and then there were young musicians playing stringed instruments…need I say more.
Yet, it is hard to compare unequal things even though we do it often. These kids were prepared to give it their best. They practiced and took instruments home. They learn hand motions and sign language to go along with their songs. And they were so joyful and proud of their efforts. What I liked was at the end of the concert, everyone stood up and gave the children a standing ovation. I joined in that, proud of my daughter and the kids who had put in the time and effort to do their best.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that sometimes we think we are being applauded for our performance when we are actually being applauded for our effort. I realize that if I live for the applause of God, I am sure not hoping he compares me to others that are better than I am. If I could supply him with a list of persons who I think might make good comparisons, then we could perhaps go down this path. (Like trying to establish the price of the house you’re buying by looking at the worst prices in the neighborhood!)
God, please don’t compare to Jesus, or the martyrs, or some of the saints who have sacrificed so much to follow you! But what I want to assert is that God’s applause isn’t beckoned by perfection of performance, if that was the case then he would not recognize our achievements at all. You see, even the greatest achievements of the church and God’s people are still imperfect outcomes done by an imperfect people. I do believe God recognizes effort, however, and that is why God is so pleased and happy with us. When we give God “with all of our,” then he is proud of us. The Bible says to Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength. We need to practice and take the performance of this verse seriously, because Jesus prioritized it as the number one command. But even when our performance is dissonant and the wrong notes are played, it is the effort that God sees and it is the effort that God applauds.
There are many times I wonder why it is that study of the Bible has been a part of the life of faith, encouraged since the time I was young. You see, there was a time in our world in which many people attended the worship service came to hear the word of God read to them, to hear it explained, and then spent very little time reading on their own. It wasn’t because they were unfaithful, it was because they were illiterate. So, there was a dependence upon the church to tell the larger story of God—through the Bible—so that the people would know what to look for and do in their lives.
This is not my experience, in fact, as a young man I thought that reading the Bible was a chore. Maybe you have a hard time getting into the word of God, but I want to suggest that we are living in a shifting time for the church, because for the past 50 years or so many evangelical churches assume that their people are reading and studying on their own. This is one of the biggest difference between some of the earlier, more liturgical churches and many of the more recent, populous movements of the 18th and 19th century. The newer church groups, like the one I’m a part of, are beginning to realize that people are not choosing to read their Bibles. The scholars call it a post-literate world in which we can read, but choose to explore other forms—for us those forms are multi-media and digital.
So, there is a shift back to wanting more scripture presented in the worship service, reminding us of the story of God that we rarely engage in Monday-Friday. And while we can argue what people OUGHT to do, there is a difference in all of our lives between what ought to happen and what seems to really happen! (Am I right?!?!?)
However we engage, we need to focus on the larger story of God because it is God’s historical faithfulness that helps us in times of trouble, both individually and collectively as a church. Listen to the words of the psalmist Asaph:
1 Please listen, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph’s descendants like a flock.
O God, enthroned above the cherubim,
display your radiant glory
2 to Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh.
Show us your mighty power.
Come to rescue us!
3 Turn us again to yourself, O God.
Make your face shine down upon us.
Only then will we be saved.
4 O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies,
how long will you be angry with our prayers?
5 You have fed us with sorrow
and made us drink tears by the bucketful.
6 You have made us the scorn of neighboring nations.
Our enemies treat us as a joke.
7 Turn us again to yourself, O God of Heaven’s Armies.
Make your face shine down upon us.
The Psalm points us to a refrain, “Turn us again to yourself, O God. Make Your face shine down upon us. Only then will we be saved.” This refrain speaks of the ever unfolding story of our God. “Turn us again to yourself” looks backwards at all the times God has abruptly stole our attentions away from other things. God interrupted our world and turned our heads around. God did it in Egypt, at the Sea Crossing, and by protecting his people over and over again. “Make you face shine down” focuses on the present situation in which the psalmist cries out for help. The Psalmist knows that he can ask God for help because God has acted before, but presently there is a need for confirmation of God’s presence. Then, there is a statement of faith in future deliverance…”only then will we be saved.”
For the church, of any generation, this message is one centered on Christ. Through this Christmas season we teach and focus upon the birth, life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. We ask to know the Lord’s presence in the midst of our congregations and on a daily basis in our lives. We long for the second coming, the time of redemption and full salvation from this world. It is these verses below that Asaph wrote so many years ago to provide new meaning in our hearts today, he wrote this to God:
17 Strengthen the man you love,
the son of your choice.
18 Then we will never abandon you again.
Revive us so we can call on your name once more.
19 Turn us again to yourself, O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies.
Make your face shine down upon us.
Only then will we be saved.
God, tell us your story from Alpha to Omega, beginning to the end, so we can see your power, know your faithfulness, and stand in awe of your love. For today, we ask to feel your presence and know your Son Jesus because we want to be saved, we want to be his people on the day of his return. God, make us your people because we don't deserve it but your grace and mercy provides a relationship between us. Amen.
I’m not sure if you believe in omens or signs, but you will at least get a laugh out of this one. Yesterday morning I woke up and I have been having some stiffness in my right ankle. As a result, I tend to grab both handrails and gently lower myself down the stairs each morning to make coffee and try to wake up. I managed about five steps before my left foot slipped off and I found myself laying at the bottom of our staircase with a sore little toe on my left foot.
There I was, on the floor, and all I could do is laugh at myself, get up, and wonder what in the world would happen during this week…because when you fall down the stairs on Monday morning, it can’t be a good sign! (about a half hour later I hear the thud, thud, thud, sound again and my daughter yells, “I’m OK.” on Monday, my family had a 50% chance of falling down the steps…we were 2 for 4 that morning—Not Good!
Now, that was a funny story, but the Advent reading from Isaiah 7:10-16 is in the middle of a very serious political landscape. I will not take the time to go into detail here, because if you can navigate to this page on a computer then I am sure you can look up the background of this text explained by far smarter persons than yours truly. However, one point is necessary here. Ahaz, the King of Judah (the southern portion of a divided Kingdom), has trusted other kings and given his allegiance to the Assyrian king meaning that Ahaz has not trusted God or sought God’s guidance as Judah was being threatened by Israel (the northern portion of a divided Kingdom) and Aram. Yet, God offers Ahaz a sign to help him in his distress, and well…here’s the way Isaiah tells the story…
10 Later, the LORD sent this message to King Ahaz: 11 “Ask the LORD your God for a sign of confirmation, Ahaz. Make it as difficult as you want—as high as heaven or as deep as the place of the dead.” 12 But the king refused. “No,” he said, “I will not test the LORD like that.”
13 Then Isaiah said, “Listen well, you royal family of David! Isn’t it enough to exhaust human patience? Must you exhaust the patience of my God as well? 14 All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). 15 By the time this child is old enough to choose what is right and reject what is wrong, he will be eating yogurt (more like curds or butter) and honey. 16 For before the child is that old, the lands of the two kings you fear so much will both be deserted.
For Ahaz, this is a bittersweet sign from God. We connect to the first part in that the birth of Immanuel means that God will continue to be with the people and God has not forsaken them even in the midst of Ahaz poor decisions. This child is the hope of the future of the Kingdom (Judah) for sure. However, Isaiah also indicates here and later in chapter 8:1-4 that Assyria will be violent with Ahaz and Judah, and this happening is God’s judgment against them.
Immanuel, God with us, such a reassuring image in that the virgin will conceive and bear a son who bears that name. This passage is a Messianic prophecy, that is it points us toward Jesus and is picked up in Mathew 1:22-23 because there is a connection between this image and the image of Mary as virgin conceiving and bearing Immanuel. It is a beautiful image, but we must not forget the continuing image of Messiah through the book of Revelation in which Jesus is portrayed as the king whose return we long for, coming in full apocalyptic glory, as both judge and savior. At this time, we are invited to hope, pray, and long for this revelation—but also to evaluate our faithfulness and allegiances and make sure that we are ready for such an event.
In Matthew 5, Jesus speaks from a mountain telling the people who have gathered there, “Blessed are…” Some contemporary translate that to mean, “Joyful are those” in that same text. However, if you read those “Beatitudes” you will find that the attributes mentioned by the Lord Jesus are not the usual list of “a few of my favorite things.” Well, some of the questions that we so often must come to terms with is why is the Lord God praiseworthy? How do we know God? When can we see God? I believe Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, is encouraging and reassuring a group of people gathered there while also challenging and condemning a group of people not present on the mountain, but present in the socio-religious landscape of everyone assembled there.
So, Jesus clarifies who gets to see God, participate in God’s work, and understands the real reasons to praise God. God has a long history of taking care of the broken, healing the sick, and being a helper in the time of need. Of course, if we never consider ourselves broken, sick, or in need—then there isn’t much need for God. The horrifying prospect here is not just that, but also that there isn’t produced in our lives the JOY of the Lord.
Let me focus us on Psalm 146:5-10 and notice the first line, “But joyful are those who have the God of Israel as their helper…”
5 But joyful are those who have the God of Israel as their helper,
whose hope is in the Lord their God.
6 He made heaven and earth,
the sea, and everything in them.
He keeps every promise forever.
7 He gives justice to the oppressed
and food to the hungry.
The Lord frees the prisoners.
8 The Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are weighed down.
The Lord loves the godly.
9 The Lord protects the foreigners among us.
He cares for the orphans and widows,
but he frustrates the plans of the wicked.
10 The Lord will reign forever.
He will be your God, O Jerusalem, throughout the generations.
Praise the Lord!
Here in Psalm 146, the reasons to praise the Lord are abundant. Praise the Lord for creating sky, earth, and sea, and all that is in them and for keeping promises without ceasing (verse 6). Praise the Lord, too, for giving justice to the oppressed, food to the hungry, freedom to the imprisoned, and sight to the blind, not to mention a few other items, such as protecting strangers and supporting widows and orphans (verses 7-8). There’s a lot of praiseworthiness here. Simply put, the psalm gives credit where credit is due.
Of course, the flip side is also quietly present, “But miserable are those who do not have help from the God of Israel…” Flip the psalm and hear the list of those who might not witness the help of God and I wonder this—What fills our time and energy? Are we busy seeking those things that make us strong and powerful and whole and secure? Are we crying out to God for HELP!
Can we claim that the source of our JOY most certainly is the response to our deepest longings? May the Joy of the Lord be your strength, may God be the deepest longing of our hearts, minds, and souls.
It is hard to believe that a baby being born might actually save the world. I mean, where was Satan when the baby was vulnerable and helpless, when he squirmed in the arms of that pre-teen mom of his? What happened to the evil kings and the lords that saw him as a threat? Surely Hell noticed…I mean, if we have the boldness to still claim there is one. Perhaps because I grew up knowing the story, I forget how bizarre it is…how hard it is to not believe, but to live out on a daily basis.
There are so many other, more tangible things for me to hope for and thank God about…for example the fact that I live in the most powerful nation in the world, the beacon of freedom and liberty. I have a job, a family, a group of friends, a house, a car, and I could keep listing. And therein lies the rub of this story I’m living, in the midst of my comfort I am supposed to long for something greater, purer, and better than what I have.
I am convinced the Bible wasn’t written to me. I know this because it was written to people who lived a long time ago and their names, stories, and dreams are found in the pages I read. And they, unlike me, often longed for a better life free of war, famine, hunger, and pain. Sure those things exist in our contemporary world, but I have to search for them because they are not at my door (well, at least on in this moment).
But, eventually, the things I like so much about this life I live and this story that is me will change…something will happen that is unexpected and perhaps even tragic. That may be where you find yourself right now as I write this. Often, and you can read it to be certain, but often the Bible doesn’t allow us long to wallow in the reality of our vulnerability and weakness before it shows us a vision of God’s Kingdom…the place we hope to call home. This is the case in Isaiah 34, in which war is being described and then without hesitation we get this in chapter 35:
1 Even the wilderness and desert will be glad in those days.
The wasteland will rejoice and blossom with spring crocuses.
2 Yes, there will be an abundance of flowers
and singing and joy!
The deserts will become as green as the mountains of Lebanon,
as lovely as Mount Carmel or the plain of Sharon.
There the Lord will display his glory,
the splendor of our God.
3 With this news, strengthen those who have tired hands,
and encourage those who have weak knees.
4 Say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, and do not fear,
for your God is coming to destroy your enemies.
He is coming to save you.”
I would advise you to read the whole chapter, because it is all good! You see, there is a day coming when “the Lord will display his glory, the splendor of our God.” This will reconstitute our existence and recreate our world. It isn’t a government that was the signal of this change, it wasn’t a family, or a house, or car, or money…the signal of God’s Kingdom was a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Satan was bound by Him, evil was defeated by Him, kings and lords were limited by Him, and Hell only does what Jesus says to do! For those who need it, there is always hope to be found in the Bible, especially in the darkest most dreary times. Live hope today!
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.