Sunday, December 28, 2014

What Carries You Away?

Last Christmas week was marked by faded skies and torrential rains, all culminating in a good amount of flooding throughout the state. Our farm’s fishing hole has swelled well beyond its banks to birth an endless river racing across the asphalt where a parish road should otherwise be.

As you  might imagine, it wasn’t long before that young stream began to carry away the blanket of autumn that had covered our lawn and the edges of our hay fields for the past few months.  Fossilized leaves, small branches, and even plastic toys moved in unison towards the lowest point.  No matter that they would eventually bottom out in an enormous pile elsewhere, the current was too strong to remain still.

As 2014 ends, I can’t help but think of how short the year has seemed, how carried away I have been through the days and months on the calendar.

We would all do well to realize this life is about being carried away.  If we are not carried away by one thing, we will be carried away by another.

The prophet Isaiah gives opposing images of being taken away by one of two things.

To begin with, he describes the person who is carried away by sin, saying:

For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.  There is no one who calls on Your name, Who arouses himself to take hold of You; For You have hidden Your face from us And have delivered us into the power of our iniquities” (Is. 64: 6-7).

Our sins “take us away” like the leaf in the wind, our divinely-granted “free will” actually leaving us at the mercy of our sinful act in that freedom.  With each sin, we become imprisoned to the path our lives take, no matter what we would have otherwise chosen for ourselves. 

That’s the thing about sin—we attempt to categorize them, to rationalize them, to minimize them when justifying our choices.  But no sin is pure.  No sin will leave us firmly planted where we want to be.  Instead, before we even realize it, that sin will wither our tender hearts until we are but a husk of one who was once sensitive to the voice of God and farther downstream than we ever thought possible. 

There is another choice, though.

Isaiah speaks of one who, instead, chooses to love obedience to the Lord, who chooses to love the people of Israel and her God, Yahweh:

Be joyful with Jerusalem and rejoice for  her, all you who love her; Be exceedingly glad with her, all you who mourn over her, That you may nurse and be satisfied with her comforting breasts, That you may such and be delighted with her bountiful bosom.’ For thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, I extend peace to her like a river, And the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream’ (Is. 66:10-12).

Just as surely as our sin will carry us away, so, too, will our obedience to the Lord, only this time, the result is positive, although just as equally out of our control. 

When we choose obedience to the Word of God over sin, we are taken away by the Lord’s peace.  We don’t wake up and choose a path of peace.  It chooses us when we choose to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and mind.

In this life, we will be carried away by something.  Free will is not free.  And what happens next is beyond our control but is also dependent upon what we do now.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be the withered leaf of Isaiah 64.  I want to be the well-nursed child of Isaiah 66.  What I become, though, depends of what I allow myself to be carried away by—my sin…or my love and obedience of the Lord.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

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 by offering her a living water so she will never thirst again.

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

Each year I set them out, I have thought, "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, 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).

When you see that babe in a manger, picture in its place a spotless lamb being born for the sole purpose of dying as a sacrifice.  Look at his chubby baby hands, and imagine them pierced and hanging on an old rugged cross.  Look at his feet that both fit into one of your hands, and see them walking willingly to his slaughter.  Hear the tiny cry of a helpless infant and remember his words, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Lk. 23:34).

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).

Pub. 12.19.10

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Mentor: Preparing the Way

Many of us know well the straight-line plot of the Christmas story.  Angel Gabriel visits Mary with the news that she is with child, though yet a virgin.  She immediately runs to her cousin, Elizabeth, who is miraculously pregnant despite her age, and when she returns three months later, Mary tells her fiance Joseph who obviously does not believe her since he plans to privately put her away versus having her publicly stoned.  

Then, the angel appears to Joseph in a dream, confirming Mary's words so that when he awakens, he immediately takes Mary as his wife, even going so far as to protectively take her along with him to Bethlehem to be counted in the census.  There, amidst the least of humanity is born the greatest of all, Immanuel, God made flesh, dwelling among us.

But what about that little side trip to Elizabeth's?  In those days with no Wal-Mart or Dollar General on every corner, trade caravans frequently traveled between cities.  If anything, being under Roman rule only increased traffic along the trade routes.  So, although it sounds insane for a young girl like Mary to just take off to her cousin's house in a nearby town, it probably wasn't as crazy as it sounds.  Also, the fact that the angel named Elizabeth as a relative, or cousin, implies she and Mary may have already had a relationship as family would have, especially in those days.

When Mary asks the angel "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" the angel explains about the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, then without pause adds, "'And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. For nothing will be impossible with God'” (Lk. 1:34, 36-7).

God needn't have given Mary further "proof" than the angel's presence that His Word would come true.  In other places in Scripture, He chastens those who ask such questions.  And yet, perhaps because Mary was so young or perhaps because God knew her question wasn't so much a lack of faith but a lack of comprehension of the nuts and bolts of the process,  He did give Mary a kind of Gideon-like fleece in this verse about Elizabeth, not only providing proof that could be confirmed but also a place touched by God's miraculous hand where Mary could go to for encouragement and mentoring.

Mary's response to the angel shows obedience and belief, and in this faith of a young girl, Scripture says, "Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth" (Lk. 1:39-40)..

 She hurried.  I imagine Mary hurried because she was excited to know her relative who had been barren all her life was suddenly six months into her pregnancy even though she was past typical child bearing age. Perhaps Mary, herself, had even prayed diligently for years for Elizabeth to be with child and to remove the curse from her household. 

I imagine she hurried because as much as she believed by faith, she wanted to believe by sight as well.  

I imagine she hurried because she wanted desperately to share what was happening to her with someone who would truly understand the miracle of God.

And Mary wasn't disappointed.  

As soon as Mary's foot passed over the threshold of her cousin's home, Elizabeth was speaking words of affirmation and comfort to Mary's soul.  Scripture reads, 
"When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.'" (Lk. 1:41-45).

Luke records that Mary stayed with Elizabeth "about three months, and then returned to her home" (v. 56).  It is likely Mary was there when Elizabeth gave birth to John who would become known as John the Baptist, the one whom Scripture says, "came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.' For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet when he said, 'The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight!’'" (Matt. 3:1-3).

Just as John the Baptist came to prepare the way of the Lord, to prepare hearts for Jesus and the baptism by the Holy Spirit, so, too, Elizabeth helped prepare the way for Mary to be the mother of the Savior.

Those three months with Elizabeth were a divinely appointed preparation time for Mary to be mentored both spiritually and physically for what was to come in the days ahead.

And that's it.  Story over.  Scripture never records what happens to Elizabeth.  Did she die before King Herod served up John then Baptist's head on a platter?  Or did Elizabeth live long enough to suffer through the loss of her one and only son?  I'm not sure the answer really matters.  

Whether or not God required Elizabeth to suffer in this way, the death of John the Baptist must have been a way to prepare Mary for what was to come with her Jesus, whether through continued mentoring as she watched Elizabeth grieve the loss of her flesh or through the grieving she felt as she mourned, herself, due to the spiritual connection she must have felt with John since he was an infant.

These side-stories in Scripture, those names included in the larger story but whose sub-plots we dismiss or too easily pass over--these are where we should see ourselves.

Are we the Elizabeth, mentoring a young Mary as she prepares to begin a life devoted to supporting the Savior?

Or are we the Mary, seeking out that Godly mentor to show us how to live Godly lives both during the good and the bad we know must come on our journey?

For me, I am both, and in a way, that's how I believe it should be for us all.  At this time of year, may you and I earnestly seek to be an Elizabeth in someone's life.  Likewise, may our hearts be sufficiently tender (no matter how old and wise we think we are) to seek our our own Elizabeth to prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The "Opportunity" of Advent

Yesterday marked the first day of Advent, the countdown to Christmas. 

Around the world, God's people gather round the kingly purple and pink candles to strike the first into flame, lighting the darkness with a single light of hope

Our family reads Scripture, discusses the story of Messiah as told from the pages of the Old through the pages of the New Testament.  We try to prepare our hearts for Who is to come in 25 short days.

In Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, the editors compiled such authors as Bonhoeffer, Luther, Donne, Kierkegaard, Aquinas, and Yancey as a day-by-day journey through Advent to help Christians think beyond the manger to the cross.  It is a challenge to, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, think more deeply about the meaning of Christmas to understand that the Word made flesh is first and foremost, "frightening news for everyone who has a conscience" (p. xv).

As the book's Introduction says,

"We miss the essence of Christmas unless we become, in the words of Eberhard Arnold, 'mindful of how Christ's birth took place.'...Advent is not merely a commemorative event or an anniversary, but a yearly opportunity for us to consider the future, second Advent--the promised coming of God's kingdom on earth" (p. xv).

In the excerpt from Luther, he draws us to see ourselves in the Christmas story:

"Therefore see to it that you do not treat the Gospel only as history, for that is only transient; neither regard it only as an example, for it is of no value without faith. Rather, see to it that you make this birth your own and that Christ be born in you" (p. 219).

It is the you that Luther focuses on, quoting Luke 2:10 when the angel said to the shepherds, "Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people; for there is born to you this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" and Isaiah 9:6 when the prophet said, "Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given."

We are that you, that us in the Christmas story. And with that inclusion of humanity in the story of Christ's birth comes a responsibility to not merely hear the Christmas story but to become the Christmas story.  As Luther says, "This is the principal thing and the principal treasure in every Gospel. Christ must above all things become our own and we become his" (p. 219).

It is with that knowledge that we are called to be like the Shepherds--to hear and share the good news, the gospel of Jesus' birth, death, and call to be like Him in a faith walk with God that demonstrates itself in a lifetime of selfless acts of love to one's neighbor.

Bonhoeffer likewise echoes this call to consider the season of Advent not as merely Jesus coming to a manger bed but of a holy God coming in our midst and seeking to take up residence in our hearts and lives: "When we hear Jesus knocking, our conscience first of all pricks us: Are we rightly prepared? Is our heart capable of becoming God's dwelling place? Thus Advent becomes a time of self-examination" (p. 201-202)..

Jesus knocks on our heart's door during this Advent season.  It is not a mere season or holiday.  It is an opportunity for us to examine our lives in light of the gospel of Jesus.

If you're looking for something a little out of the ordinary when preparing your heart for Advent, consider ordering from Amazon a copy of Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and ChristmasIt will send you beyond the manger and even beyond the cross to the heart of Christmas that should live within us all.