Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Different Kind of Resolution

If you're like me, you haven't even begun to recover from Christmas, much less realize that tomorrow is New Year's Eve. And yet, ready or not, 2012 is coming quickly to a close.

With each new year, a guilty twinge creeps into my consciousness, whispering that I'm supposed to make a list of resolutions. It's what you're "supposed" to do to better yourself.

When I was an optimistic young girl, I did make lists--exercise five times a week, read my Bible every day, be kinder to my brother.

But it never failed. Less than one month into a new year, and my clean slate started getting red marks on it. I'd break one resolution, then another. And before I knew it, I just gave up, once again feeling worthless that I couldn't be perfect in one thing for even a measly thirty days.

And yet I think the problem was my resolutions were flawed from the start--I was always the one making up resolutions for myself rather than asking God what He would have me to do and then asking Him to help me obey Him in His strength rather than in my own.

All I really needed to do was look in His Word. Look at His commands.

As 2013 rushes near, my heart isn't really looking for a resolution. Rather, over the past year, God has been drawing me to Christ's charge for Christians to share the gospel with a lost and dying world.

But I don't think it's my heart alone that should be firmly resolved to get the Word out there, but should be the heart of every Christian as well.

During Jesus' ministry, He told His disciples, "'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age'" (Matt. 28:18-20).

Later, after Christ's resurrection, He told those same disciples, "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

In these two verses alone, Christ empowers you and me to act...but not so that we can fulfill our petty, individual desires. Instead, He empowers us for a greater purpose--to share the truth of Jesus, to teach God's word, to make Christian disciples.

It's an awesome charge not to be taken lightly, although many Christians do (myself included). It's a heavy command, yes, a command--Jesus says "go" not "go if you are brave enough" or "go if you have the gift of convincing speech" and He says "you will" twice, not "you might."

Christ made this a command because He knows the outcome--heaven or hell. And He knows how many souls are at stake. Consider the statistics. 1.5 billion people have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ (IMB "Who's Missing").

1.5 billion.

Wikipedia claims Yankee Stadium seats 50,000. So fill Yankee Stadium 30,000 times and that's how many people have never heard about Jesus, not counting the billions more who have heard of Jesus but not accepted Him as their Savior.

If each person who reads this would share Jesus with one each week in 2013. And if that one would share Jesus with another one....

As the famous preacher Charles Spurgeon said, "If sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies. And if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay. If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned and unprayed for." 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Being a Sign to Others: When Your Family Doesn't Celebrate Christ in Christmas

A single day remains before we gather round friends and family to celebrate Christmas Day.  Most of us have plans of exchanging gifts as well as shared meals, laughter, and joy.

We will linger long over pie and coffee, say our good bye's more than once before we finally tear ourselves away from each other and part ways, all knowing that these few precious moments may be the only ones throughout the whole year when we will sit in the same room as our loved ones.

Perhaps some of these friends and family do not celebrate Christ's birth, deny his deity, or simply  deny Him as master over their lives.

We know they are lost, that need to claim Him as Savior and Lord.  Yet, we don't want to beat them over the head with the gospel each time we meet together, especially when they have heard the Word of God and have made it clear to us they don't want us "preaching" to them.

What can we do? When we are given this opportunity to meet with them face to face, one that we may not have for another 365 days.  Or maybe never again.

Do we hold our tongue? Hesitate to mention Christ at all because we fear offending others?

I'm not advocating starting a confrontation or family feud at your Christmas gathering.  Yet, a Christian can still use the opportunity to act as a sign to others.

The book of Ezekiel takes place approximately 593 years before Christ's birth.  In its pages, the Lord makes Ezekiel mute unless the prophetic word comes directly from above and out his human mouth.  Ezekiel's very life was to be a sign to others through his actions.

Honestly, Ezekiel's actions seem really odd.  Even to those in his day when allegories and living metaphors were more easily understood, I'd be willing to bet he got some really strange looks and his name mentioned more than once behind closed doors.  Still, he obeyed God and lived his life as a sign.

For example, in Chapter 4, Ezekiel creates a model of Jerusalem, builds a siege wall, and begins using battering rams against it.  As the Lord says, "This is a sign to the house of Israel" (v. 3).

Later, the Lord says, "Load the baggage on your shoulder in their sight and carry it out in the dark.  You shall cover your face so that you cannot see the land, for I have set you as a sign to the house of Israel" (Ez. 12:6).

In both instances, Ezekiel uses his life, his actions as a testimony concerning Jerusalem's pending destruction at the hand of Babylon.

Several chapters later, God takes Ezekiel's wife but commands him not to mourn her death.  The Lord says, "Thus Ezekiel will be a sign to you; according to all that he has done you will do; when it comes, then you will know that I am the Lord God" (Ez. 24:24).

The chapter ends with God telling Ezekiel he will regain his ability to speak when the prophecy of Jerusalem's destruction is fulfilled and captives come from Jerusalem: "On that day, your mouth will be opened to him who escaped, and you will speak and be mute no longer. Thus you will be a sign to them, and they will know that I am the Lord" (v. 27).

And in those two preceding verses is the key to why Ezekiel's actions are so important--you will know that I am the Lord God.

Ezekiel's actions were to act as a sign for all others to see in the hopes that they would see the truth, turn from their wickedness, repent, and truly know Him as their Lord.

Likewise, our family and friends need to see Christ in us who claim Him as Savior and Lord.

Even if we never open our mouths to speak one word of Scripture to "preach at" them, on Christmas day and throughout the year, our family should be able to see Jesus in our actions, hear our personal love for Jesus always spilling from our very lips.  When asked about our past year, we should be prepared to give God the glory for all He has done, all He has brought us through.

Even if our families won't listen to the plan of salvation, we are still given an opportunity to share Christ with our very lives, our words, our gestures.

It's an opportunity on Christmas Day and every other day of the year.  It is a lifestyle of godliness, holiness, and purity to point a lost World to Him who can save them.

We must decide.  Are  we prepared to be a sign to others?  Are we prepared to live a life that testifies to the entire world that God does require a different standard of living?  Are we willing to make that level of commitment?

Or will we simply compromise when our friends ask us to, stay completely silent for the sake of political correctness?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Significance of Twenty Children

Massacre of Innocents painting, 1824
There I am, surrounded by a table full of young boys, all under the age of six.  Two of them keep sneaking open their markers when they think I'm not watching, the temptation to color a shepherd standing alone against the void of night much too great to withstand, or so it seems.   

My Bible lies open in front of me revealing the words of the familiar Christmas story.  It's not like I even have to look, read the verses. 

I know the beginning, middle, and end by heart.  

Even without reviewing my teacher's book, I know last week was the story of the shepherds and Christ's birth.  The week before spoke of the immaculate conception as well as two angels visiting both Mary and Joseph. 

This week is the Magi.  Gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Camels, elephants, tents, and a star lighting the way to the young Christ child's home in Bethlehem.

We count the wise men on the coloring sheet, discuss how it may have been more than three men even though they only brought three gifts.

The boys squint their foreheads hard when I ask them to remember back to Daniel and the lion's den.  I tell them this same Daniel may have been the one who taught some wise men in Babylon the prophecy of Jesus' coming birth so that the wise men generations later would continue to watch for the star.

My oldest son pops open a black marker.  Even to him, this is old news, not really interesting when there is arts and crafts lying in wait.

Then, I mention "mean ole King Herod" and the wise men's dream warning them to return home a different route because of the King's desire to kill the Christ child.  The squirming dies down a bit.  Even at four and five years old, little boys are just wired to hone in on the danger/adventure part of the story.

I have their attention, so I reread the passage where Herod lies to the Magi about his true motives.  When I ask if Herod really wanted to come worship Jesus, one boy's eyes get big.  "Noooooo." he solemnly whispers.  "He wanted to kill him."

And then my eyes fall on the next passage. 

For a moment, I had forgotten this part of the story--King Herod's response when  he realized the Magi had duped him:

"Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi. Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:
'A voice was heard in Ramah,
Weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children;
And she refused to be comforted,
Because they were no more'" (Matt. 2:16-18).

As a teenager, I imagined the horror of thousands of children dead.  Years later when I read scholars believe Herod's henchmen may have slaughtered around twenty* children under the age of two, I was less appalled, almost even blew off the event in light of the other horrors of the New Testament. 

Twenty is such a small number in comparison to the other heinous murders Herod is guilty of (including killing his own sons).  Even the historian Josephus doesn't bother to even mention this small event--twenty insignificant Hebrew children in a tiny, insignificant town weren't a blip on his radar.

Twenty children.  Insignificant.  

Today, though, as I sit in too-small chairs with my class of little boys, when I think back to this past Friday's tragedy in Connecticut, twenty doesn't seem so insignificant any more.

My co-teacher and I pause for a moment, both of our hearts sinking in remembrance, filled with words we can't express in the presence of innocence.

I can't not make the connection between one senseless slaughter of innocents with another, even if two thousand years separate them, even if one will tie up all the newspapers and airways for months while another was virtually ignored in a world where only Roman citizens were considered important.

I want to ask God why.  Why did he warn Mary and Joseph but not the other mothers and fathers of small children living in Bethlehem? Why allow such senseless brutality--then. now.?

But with small eyes on me, I say none of this.  I don't know the answer.  I can't wrap my mind around this historical loss of this many children, much less the twenty children who have faces, names, personalities.

So, I swallow the lump in my throat and say what I do know.  

"God protects us every day.  Every second we live without harm is a gift from God.  He does not promise to always keep us from harm.  But His Word does promise that He will never leave us nor forsake us."

In this upcoming week as this sadness burdens our minds and hearts, we must cling to promises from the Word such as these.

He may not always shield us from heartache, pain, and death.  But He does weep with us and will never abandon us, even in the midst of such horrors that this life holds. 

"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me" (Ps. 23:4).

*Walvoord, John F., and Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary.  Wheaton: Scripture P, 1985.

Image: Fran├žois-Joseph Navez (1787–1869) "The Massacre of the Innocents." 


Sunday, December 9, 2012

Direction for the Hopelessly Lost

“Hopelessly lost” is a good adjective to describe me, not just in a spiritual sense but in a physical one as well. 

When God was assembling my double helix, He left out the genetic code that would give me a sense of direction. North, south, east, west—don’t ask me. Instead, I attempt to drive by landmarks—the house with the “Quilts for Sale” sign out front, the farm where sheep used to graze twenty years ago, the intersection where golden squash and plump unshucked ears of corn were heaped overflowing in baskets one summer. 

Even then, driving familiar roads is incredibly difficult, especially when a route I’ve driven dozens of time should be familiar but still isn’t. A few weeks back, I got lost driving to my friend’s house and had to call frantic for help.

As you can probably guess, I have a serious fear of being lost. Going prayer walking each week through the maze-like twists and turns of subdivisions has a couple times left me frantic, almost lost with thoughts of leaving breadcrumbs along my path to ensure I find my way back to the van.

Several years ago, my husband bought me a Garmin as a Valentines’ Day gift, but it died a well-mourned death two summers ago. Ever since, each time I get behind the wheel, I feel like a trapeze artist flying through the air with no net. If I let myself think about it, it’s terrifying and I'll just stay home, instead.

All too many times, I don’t know the way when others find it childishly simple.

Tonight marks the second week of advent, two purple candles now flickering in the darkness. During Week One, we focused on Christ being “our Hope.” This week, the focus is on Jesus being “the Way.”

In the upper room when Jesus was preparing the disciples for what was to come, He said, "'In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.' Thomas said to Him, 'Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?' Jesus said to him, I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me" (Jn. 14:2-6).

Jesus clearly tells us that He is The Way to everlasting life, to the place He is preparing for us. What’s more, He is the only way. But trusting in Christ alone for one’s salvation is a plan so simple that it’s easy to miss.

Even for the directionally challenged, it sometimes seems more logical, even easier to forge our own paths and trust in the good works of our hands, in what “feels” right in our gut versus trust in Him and what His many times head-scratching Word says about The Way He has laid out for us to follow.

But leaning on our own sense of direction will only result in us being hopelessly lost. Proverbs 3:5-6 speaks of Christ’s followers finding the Way by trusting in Him by faith: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart And do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight.

Trust, faith in Christ is the only Way. Relying on a map made by human understanding will only take us down a different path than the one leading straight to salvation.

As difficult as Scripture is to understand at times, to know the Way is to know the Word. John tells us, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14).

In this Advent season, the Word is about to make His appearance in flesh. The Way is coming to make Himself known to a lost world.

While we may not know the exact paths, hills, and curves God wants us to take on our journey to Him, we do know He has given His Word as a roadmap to help guide us in the Way.

For one so confused by earthly directions, the idea that there is only one Way is actually quite comforting. If I keep my eyes firmly focused on Him, if I ask in faith for His guidance and keep my mind and heart rooted in studying and applying His word, I can’t get lost.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

One Flame of Hope

This evening marks the first Sunday of advent, the season when we Christians pause in concert to remember the sacrifice a King made when He chose to enshroud himself in the flesh of a newborn babe.

After sundown, Husband, the children, and I gathered still unsure stomachs around small cups of soup and cornbread to light the first of the long purple tapers.

As husband searched for the matches, I stepped to the living room and reached for the most well-worn Bible in the house, a New American Standard version that husband and I clung to through the worst season of our lives.

The faded cover has long since ceased to be attractive; its binding has been glued more than once; and some of its pages are stained from always being set down in the midst of life, itself. Its words, however, are still just as piercing and perfect as when the book was glossy and stiff bound with that audible crackle upon opening.

Little eyes watched as red-tipped match struck, sulfur sputtering, leaping to golden flame.

"This candle represents hope," I proclaimed.

Hope.

Even though at times we may despair, feel there is no hope, none of us really knows what it is like to live in a world without hope.

The prophet Jeremiah spoke of hope. In his letters to the exiled Israelites, to those people who felt as if their God had abandoned them to their wretchedness...to this group, he spoke words of hope.

"'For thus says the LORD, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’" (Jer. 29:10-14).

Even in exile, in judgment, in slavery, in the midst of God's wrath--even then, there was hope for them.

A Savior was coming, one who would save them from their sin, who would reunite humanity with a holy Father.

The same holds true for us today. As Peter rejoiced, "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade"(1 Peter 1:3-4).

Hope has come.

Hope is here.

Hope is coming.



**Posting from the archives tonight, as a stomach flu has attacked our house again, a little over a year since our family succumbed last year to a nastier breed of the virus. We pray for healing and are thankful He is Lord of all.