Sunday, December 26, 2010

When the Star Disappeared

What must the wise men have thought as day after day, their journey continued with no end in sight? What must their families have thought when their loved ones decided to set out on the journey in the first place? Who in his right mind would leave home to travel by faith, following not a map, not a handwritten message, but a shimmering pinpoint of light in the night sky?

The magi traveled such a long distance to find the king of the Jews, initially going to Jerusalem--where one would expect to find such a king.

Scripture says, "magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him'" (Matt. 2:1-2). They weren't looking for Herod--self proclaimed king of the Jews. No, the one "born king" was the one they sought. But in Jerusalem, they came up empty.

MacArthur says the verb tense "saying" implies the magi asked not once, not twice, but repeatedly, continuously as they walked around the city, "questioning everyone they met."*

In Jerusalem, no one knew of such a king's birth. But just the idea of a "born king" set the city on edge: "When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him" (v. 3). One definition for "troubled" in Strong's is "to strike one's spirit with fear and dread." That's how I imagine Herod felt.

King Herod has made me scratch my head a bit this Christmas season. He's the one with the legacy of sending soldiers to murder all the little boys in Bethlehem. With a heart full of murderous intentions all along, why trust foreigners to bring him the intel? Or why not send his own trusted envoy to accompany the magi? For someone wanting to squash the competition, it makes sense. But for reasons only known to God, Herod sat and waited until he realized he'd been duped.

Meanwhile, the wise men kept moving, this time directed not by a star, but by Herod and the chief priests to Bethlehem: "and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy" (v. 9-10).

This isn't the way I remember my Christmas story. Why rejoice at the star? Hadn't they been following it across the desert for miles and miles and miles? By now, wasn't it as familiar as their camel's gait?

I don't think so. Their "exceedingly" joyful rejoicing seems to imply that the star had, at some point, disappeared and now had returned. If that is the case, then what faith must the magi have had to continue on their journey with no visible light as their guide?

And although Scripture doesn't say it, what exceedingly rejoicing joy, what unspeakable joy the magi must have felt to see their journey of faith rewarded with sight of Immanuel, God with Us.

This upcoming year, God may ask you and me to set out across the desert, following His light. At some point, the visible guiding light may disappear and we may question our actions. We may question if God is really even there, if He cares at all.

Keep walking. Keep pursuing Him with your everything. And at the end of the journey, we will see His light face to face.

*The MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1121.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Remember the Lamb

I pass our family nativity, each time pausing just a moment to glance at the herd of sheep. One, two, three, four, the two held by the shepherds. Seven sheep.

Each year, our family adds one piece to the nativity. This year's addition was the woman at the well. Today, she pours water for Mary's donkey. This coming spring, she will stand by a well, waiting for Christ to change her life.

A few years ago, though, was the year for sheep. Five of them came in one box, so they technically counted as "one" piece. At that time, the lambs outnumbered the people circled around Mary and Joseph.

Each year I set them out, I think "that's quite a lot of lambs," but five days ago, I realized how wrong I was.

It's not too many's not enough.

This week, one of my favorite bloggers, Jennifer Dukes at Getting Down with Jesus wrote a guest post on another blog, reminding her readers of the Passover Lamb and how God's story has continued through the ages and still isn't finished.

Ever since, I've been dwelling on the babe in the manger, on His role as the Lamb of God.

In preparation for Passover, Old Testament tradition required that on the tenth day of the Hebrew month Nisan, the people were to choose a sheep or goat "year-old mal[e] without defect" for sacrifice so that God would literally "pass over" their sin (Ex. 12:5). Then, each family was to take that sheep in the house and care for it "until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight" (Ex. 12:6).

One lamb for the sin of each family. MacArthur says this would have meant the sacrifice of at least a hundred thousand Passover Lambs*

A hundred thousand lambs. But not just once. A hundred thousand lambs each and every Passover year.

Yet still, it wasn't enough to save the world from sin, to reconcile mankind with God the Father.

But then came one in a lowly manger, a perfect, spotless lamb.

And one Passover, He hung in agony on the cross, until 3 p.m. when the shofar blew, announcing the time when a lamb would be sacrificed for the whole nation of Israel.**

At that exact moment, He intentionally gave up His life as a sacrifice, saying, "'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.' When he had said this, he breathed his last" (Lk. 23:46).

Five lambs. A hundred thousand lambs. A million lambs.

Ironically, they weren't enough. But one was and is enough.

As Peter reminds us, "For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect" (1 Peter 1:18-19).

In the hustle and bustle of Christmas, take time to remember the Lamb.

* MacArthur. The Murder of Jesus: A Study of How Jesus Died, p. 47.
**Ray Vander Laan. The True Easter Story: The Promise Kept (video, 2000).

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Natural Response

I had already decided not to post this week.

With three children and me all catching the stomach flu on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, then my husband succumbing to its grips on Saturday, my time with God this week has been very little, too little to give you some human-contrived lesson from the Word.

Don't get me wrong. Each of my days has been littered with a hundred short bursts of prayer for healing, for strength to make it another hour, for please not another load of laundry tonight.

But God speaking back to me? If He did, my ears didn't hear over the sick cries of three children as I reeled from my own sickness.

This afternoon, as I cared for those three now-recovering children, as I fussed over a still very sick husband in bed, literally out of nowhere, the apostle Peter popped into my mind.

I lay down for a ten minute breather, remembering (vaguely) the story of Peter's mother-in-law. I guess I've always just thought of the disciples as men with little to no family responsibilities other than themselves. Stupid thought, I now realize. If Peter had a mother-in-law, then Peter had family obligations.

I wondered how did he do it? How did Peter--the disciple, one of three in Jesus' inner circle--how did he fully follow Christ yet still have time to take care of a sick mother-in-law?

I shook my head in wonder and defeat, knowing all too well that my following Christ this week has seemed much, much less than "fully" as I've taken care of my sick body and a sick family.

But then I took the next step and looked up the passage of Scripture. Mark says, "Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. 31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them" (Mk. 1:30-31).

Luke says upon her healing, "she immediately got up and waited on them" (Lk. 4:39). Matthew, too, reports the healing...and the woman's waiting on them once she is healed.

Three out of four gospels record this story. And all three emphasize (1) the intensity of her sickness (a high fever), (2) Jesus intervening by completely healing her, and (3) the woman's act of serving Jesus once she was healed.

It's the third part God wanted me to see.

She was healed. She served...not out of necessity, but out of gratitude for what the Lord had done for her.

When God healed me this week, I began serving my children, my husband...what I thought was a required action, and in one way, it was.

But in another way, I serve my children and my husband because I am called to love as Jesus loves...and one way to show my gratitude for His healing me is to serve Him by agape-loving those around me even when they are really, really unlovable.

The same idea applies in other realms of our lives. When God does a work in our lives, whether that work is physical healing, financial healing, or spiritual healing--our natural response should be to serve Him...immediately.

Image: copyright of Corbis images.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

I'll Have a Cynical Christmas

Maybe it's the economy. Or maybe the road construction blocking every route across the Amite River to the city shopping districts. Or maybe...

Last week, I made two forays into the melee. The little Christmas shopping I do is long ago finished, but that doesn't mean I'm going to hibernate until others return to a sane shopping pattern.

As I made my routine purchases, as I chatted with the cashiers, as I waited in longer lines than normal...I was amazed to find it missing--

The spirit of Christmas.

So far this year, outside the walls of my home and church, I've yet to find that cultural Christmas spirit of joy, peace, and love that manages to mysteriously infect the masses during this season of the year.

Sure, there are always a few Grinches complaining. But among Christians and non-Christians alike, I've always been able to see a greater than average number of broad smiles that reach the eyes, hear laughter resonate around me, feel the graciousness of others reaching beyond themselves.

But not this year.

I've seen impatience, irritation, bitterness, and just plain apathy. But most of all? I've seen, heard, and felt the cynicism--the pervading belief that nothing is going to get better because nothing ever does.

And that concerns me--not the thought that things might continue in a downward spiral, but the cynical attitude about life in general, an attitude that even some Christians seem to have.

Has not our God made promises to His children? And has not God been faithful to fulfill all His promises?

Consider two instances of cynicism from the pages of history:

The prophet Jeremiah most likely prophesied to a pretty cynical audience--the people of God living in exile from their homeland. The exiles probably thought God had abandoned them and believed they might as well just "make the best of it" because things wouldn't get any better and they would never return home. As the book of Esther shows, many did just that--made a new life for themselves in Babylon.

But God said, "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'" (Jer. 29:11). He spoke promises of a return to Jerusalem...for those who followed Him in faith.

Earlier in history, the patriarch Abraham and his wife, Sarah, battled cynicism as well. When Abraham was 90 years old, God said his wife Sarah would bear the child of promise. At this news, "Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, 'Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?'” (Gen 17:17).

Cynical laughter. A lapse of faith that God could work beyond human limitations to fulfill His promises.

Sarah wasn't much better than her husband. When three "men" appeared at her house "in the heat of the day," Abraham told Sarah to hurry up and make some bread to entertain their divine visitors.

I can just imagine Sarah murmuring angrily to herself as she mixed the flour and oil--making bread wasn't exactly something a woman wanted to do in the middle of a hot day, even if the visitors were heaven sent.

Later, as she eavesdropped, she heard the visitors say she would bear a son within a year: "So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, 'After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?'” (Gen. 18:12).

Again, this cynical laughter, this lack of faith in God's ability to overcome anything.

Cynicism is an easy response to the world around us. But it's not just an attitude problem. Instead, it shows a deeper problem with a person's heart and soul.

Cynicism is the opposite of faith. It is faithlessness in God.

Granted, things may not get better. The economy may not recover. Society may not do a 180 in regard to its morals.

But that doesn't mean we throw in the towel and sit, complaining in our own cynicism.

Instead, we get down on our knees. We pray. We ask. And we wait in faith that God will move in our best His time.