Answered Prayer

What happens in us after we pray? What is our heart attitude? What is our mental attitude? What about those things that still hover in our periphery but we no longer pray about? What do we do with seemingly unanswered prayer? What do we do with answered prayer, especially when it’s not answered the way we expected? What do we really believe about prayer? What do we really believe about God?

Put yourself in this scene: Zechariah has just learned from a heavenly messenger that after years and years of praying, his deep desire to have a son will happen, and not only that, his son is going to be appointed by God to prepare the way for the messiah. How did Zechariah respond to this news? Did he jump for joy? Nope. Quite the opposite in fact:

 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.

 When his time of service was completed, he returned home.  (Luke 1:18-23)

As Pastor John was preaching on this passage, and as I was pondering Zechariah’s response,  I thought of researcher Brene Brown’s thoughts on joy. She says:

 

“If you ask me what’s the most terrifying, difficult emotion we feel as humans…I would say joy. (We fear) something bad’s going to happen’… we lose our tolerance for vulnerability. Joy becomes foreboding: ‘I’m scared it’s going to be taken away. The other shoe’s going to drop…’  we try to beat vulnerability to the punch.

I’ve been there. Have you? Zechariah most certainly was. He was not in a mental position or heart position to get his hopes up again. He knew the odds were stacked against him, that he and Elizabeth were too old to have a child, and he had experienced too much pain over their barrenness to let this angel, this messenger from God, erode the protective wall he’d built around his heart over this particular subject.

Since an angel appearing in the holiest place of the temple wasn’t proof enough that God was about to do the impossible, Zechariah asks “how can I be sure?” He then speaks his “I am” statement; his rational argument as to why the angel’s words can’t be true…”I am old; my wife is old…”

The messenger responds with his own “I am” statement: “I am Gabriel”.  Gabriel’s name would not have been unfamiliar to Zechariah the priest. Gabriel was the angel who visited Daniel in the Old Testament. Gabriel goes on to say: “I stand in the presence of God and I have been sent to tell you this good news…”

What on earth went through Zechariah’s heart and mind at this revelation? I feel fairly certain that, had it been me, I would no longer be standing. Despite the fact that Gabriel’s first words to Zechariah were “Don’t be afraid”, I think at this point in the encounter I would have been terrified.

What follows for Zechariah’s doubt is the consequence of silence until John the Baptist’s birth; however, God did not remove the gift of a son from Zechariah and Elizabeth. Their prayer for a son was still answered with a holy yes. Zechariah’s doubt did not cause God to withdraw his hand. That’s an important thing for us to remember. Yes, there was a consequence for Zechariah, but God’s kindness, God’s miracle, and God’s purpose were not thwarted by his doubt. Zechariah and Elizabeth were still going to have the son who would be the forerunner of the messiah.

What about us? What is our posture around prayer–especially over those things that come from the deepest parts of us? According to Sunday’s sermon:

  1. We can lose hope.
  2. We can hang on to a glimmer of hope.

I have definitely experienced both. I have lost hope on dark journeys. Hopelessness leads to despair, and in those dark places of despair, faith dies. Our perception of God’s character gets warped to the point that God seems cruel, distant, not worth pursuing. I’ve been there. What those seasons in my life have led to is self-destruction which spills over into others-destruction. None of us is an island.

Hanging on to a glimmer of hope is a better option. Henry Blackaby, in his classic Bible study “Experiencing God” reminds us that Truth is a person. Jesus tells us in John 14:6 that he is the way, the truth, and the life. What does it mean for truth to be a person? The way I understand it is that no matter what we see–what seems obvious to our physical beings and our limited understanding–God always has the final word. In the gospels, when Jesus showed up, humanly impossible situations changed in an instant.  The incurable were cured. The dead were raised. The outcasts were embraced. God always has the final word, and in this case, an old barren husband and wife were going to bear a son.

Zechariah had lost hope in this dream. It would appear that he believed God listened to the prayers of the people, but had given up hope that God listened to his personal prayer…after all, years had passed.

What about you? Are you full of faith when you pray for others but when it comes to yourself do you struggle to believe that God even cares? Do you struggle to believe that some of the huge things you are praying about can change? Do you believe that you (and the deep desires of your heart) matter to God?

I’m not going to say that any of this is easy. We certainly don’t always get our prayers answered in the ways we desire; God is not Santa Clause, but what we do get is deep connection with God, the assurance of God’s “withness” even in the hard seasons. Is that enough for us? If so, no matter the outcome of our prayers, we can experience joy, and there is a secret to that joy…

Brene Brown states: “I have never interviewed a single person who talks about the capacity to really experience and soften into joy who does not actively practice gratitude.”

Can we muster up gratitude even in the dark? Can we thank God for being with us in the dark? Can we thank God for hearing us? Can we thank God because we know He himself is Truth, and therefore, there is always a glimmer of hope?

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. (Isaiah 9:2)

Zechariah’s son was the forerunner to that light who shone into our deep darkness . Zechariah’s son was impossible in human terms…but he was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth anyway, for nothing is impossible with God. Do we believe that?

Do we believe that The Light clothed himself in flesh and showed us what God really looks like? Is there enough of a glimmer of hope that we believe the message of the angels who said that Jesus’ birth brought peace and good will for all of us? Do we believe?

Practice gratitude. Hold on to hope. Your prayers have been heard, and our loving God, in His time and His way will respond.

–Luanne

On Sunday, as I listened to Pastor John talk about losing hope, I couldn’t stop thinking about Ephesians 2:14. The verse begins with the words, “For he himself is our peace…” (NIV) Paul is referring to Jesus here. In 1 Timothy 1:1, Paul writes about Jesus as “our hope”. Luanne wrote about God himself being truth. She referenced John 14:6, where Jesus (the visible image of the invisible God) states, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” These verses don’t say that Jesus gives us peace, or that he offers hope, or leads us to truth. They state that he IS our peace, our hope, the truth.

This is so significant to me. It has been years–going on a decade now–since I first discovered Ephesians 2:14. I remember how it felt to my heart to let those words wash over me. I had been married five or six years, was mommy to four littles (all born within five years), and life was chaos. We had just experienced a season in our marriage that wreaked havoc on my heart, we were adjusting to a new church family, and we were struggling with jobs, finances, and our own obvious lack. I was in my mid-twenties, and I was starving for a real, authentic relationship with God. Despite my lack of time, the chaos around and within me, and the exhaustion of mothering a baby and three toddlers largely on my own in that season, I was chasing after God. I got up early and stayed up late because I was desperate for him. I was trying so hard to be everything I thought I needed to be, and my mind was a land mine. Peace was seemingly out of reach. And then…

“For he himself is our peace…” 

This changed everything for me. I began to see Jesus differently, and I began to find freedom from trying to force a peace I craved, but couldn’t seem to muster up. The recognition that Jesus is our peace led me to understand that he is the embodiment of all that we are not. He is our joy when we are grieving, our hope when we are hopeless, our truth when lies spin our minds crazy, our way when we’re lost in the dark, our life when we feel dead inside. He is not simply the giver of these good things–he IS these things. And if we know him, regardless of the desperate state we may find ourselves in, we have access to all of it at all times. The glimmer of hope that Luanne wrote about that can keep us from despair, it doesn’t come from us. That hope that shines in the darkness is Jesus himself. 

Zechariah didn’t have Jesus yet. I feel a lot of compassion for this man in his doubt… God had been silent for 400 years. For all we know, Elizabeth could have been all the way through menopause, making it physiologically impossible for her womb to be open and able to carry a baby. Perhaps they had prayed fervently for decades, maybe long after her body went through changes that rendered child-bearing an impossibility. It’s possible that for them, to stop praying for a child felt like a hard-fought surrender, like the death of a dream that they had to grieve. Maybe they thought that laying it down was their way of trusting God’s will for them in the wake of their despair. We don’t know the details. We do know from Luke’s account of this couple that they were righteous and blameless and followed all of God’s commandments. We know they, in their old age, continued to seek God, despite their disappointment and the presumed curse of barrenness that marked them culturally. And we know that, like Luanne wrote about, Zechariah faithfully lifted prayers for his people.

I can’t imagine what 400 years without a word from God felt like to the priests who continued to pray. That’s almost twice as long as our country has existed. The United States of America is 243 years old. Let that sink in. When I really pause and think about it, Zechariah’s doubt makes so much sense to me. I’d like to think that a visit from an angel would be more than enough to resurrect any lost hope in me… but I probably would have reacted in a similar way.

I’ll mention again here that Zechariah didn’t have Jesus yet–not in the way that we do. He hadn’t yet come on the scene, and the people didn’t have the access to him that we have now.

But I can still doubt like he did… Even on the other side of the resurrection, with the Holy Spirit living within me, I can find it hard to access the glimmer of hope that is Jesus alive in me.

I’m so grateful that doubting doesn’t cause God to remove his good gifts from us. Luanne wrote, “God did not remove the gift of a son from Zechariah and Elizabeth. Their prayer for a son was still answered with a holy yes. Zechariah’s doubt did not cause God to withdraw his hand. “ I wrote similar words in my notes on Sunday. Zechariah’s doubt didn’t disqualify him from receiving from God. It did cost him the ability to speak for a while. Which was probably not a lot of fun. But you know what? I’m so thankful that scripture has this record of his humanity… his failure of faith, his doubting. And I’m even more thankful for the record of God’s faithfulness. I’m glad the story doesn’t record a perfect man reacting perfectly in a moment of shock and fear and disbelief. It makes the story relatable, believable, and it speaks to the heart of a good and loving God.

Because we all doubt. We all experience moments where hope seems out of reach, and the heaviness of despair settles in and stays a while. I wasn’t sure if I’d write about this or not, but I can’t seem to shake it (even though I’d like to)… So, I’ll tell you a bit about my own crisis of hope.

When my mom was dying, so many people prayed for her to be healed. Including her. She prayed with hope and expectation and she believed her God would answer. She never wavered, and there were many alongside us who lived out that same unshakable faith.

I wasn’t one of those people. I prayed faithfully for healing early on. But as her disease progressed–somewhere along the way–I stopped asking. I lost sight of any glimmer of hope.

It still grieves my heart to write those words, more than five years after losing her. I couldn’t pray for her healing because I couldn’t grab onto enough hope to say the words. What I was seeing with my eyes told me that we were approaching the end of her days with us. I had also experienced dreams and conversations with God during which I believed he was preparing my heart for the coming loss, but I still wish I could have prayed with hope and faith and believed for her healing. I believe that God can do the impossible. I’ve seen him work miracles in the lives of many–including myself. But I couldn’t find hope enough to believe it for my mom. I tried, but my heart couldn’t rise to pray. I prayed for mercy, for relief from her pain, for so many other things–but as she got sicker and sicker, I stopped praying with hope for her miracle.

There were those who, in the wake of her death, had the audacity to suggest that we didn’t have enough faith, and that’s why she died. Even though I know God doesn’t work that way, you can imagine the way that hit my heart. The questions that swirled… The what-ifs… I struggled with feeling responsible for her death–for so many reasons. One of those reasons was my own lack of hope, my failure to ask for a miracle I didn’t have the courage to believe God for.

I’m so grateful that I know we don’t have a transactional God. This is what the story of Zechariah reminds me of, and why I’m so grateful it’s recorded with all of the messy included. His doubt didn’t disqualify him from receiving the gift of his son, just like my doubt didn’t cause my mom’s death. Our God is not an “if this/then that” God. He is a good Father and he gives good gifts. There is so much we’ll never understand about why things happen the way they do, but we can trust that our God, as he was revealed in Jesus, is good. He is our truth, our peace, our hope, our life. He is all that we are not, and we have access to all that he is--even when we can only see a glimmer. Even when we can’t see at all. He never ceases to be all of this and more, so we are never truly hopeless. Because he is always with us. 

As we approach Christmas Day and the celebration of the arrival of our God in human flesh, I pray that we’ll each be able to see the glimmer of light that is Jesus. I pray that as his light dawns, we’ll find the hope that we need to hold on and keep believing–even on the darkest nights–and that we’ll be assured by the gracious love of our Father that he does hear and answer our prayers, even when we doubt.

–Laura

Image result for jesus is our hope

Angelic Prophecy

“Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God is showing grace to you. For I have come to tell you that your prayer for a child has been answered. Your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son and you are to name him John… His birth will bring you much joy and gladness. Many will rejoice because of him. He will be one of the great ones in the sight of God. He will drink no wine or strong drink, but he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even while still in his mother’s womb. And he will persuade many in Israel to convert and turn back to the Lord their God. He will go before the Lord as a forerunner, with the same power and anointing as Elijah the prophet. He will be instrumental in turning the hearts of the fathers in tenderness back to their children and the hearts of the disobedient back to the wisdom of their righteous fathers. And he will prepare a united people who are ready for the Lord’s appearing.”

(Luke 1:13-17, The Passion Translation)

Last week we looked at the first part of the messenger’s proclamation to Zechariah. He was informed by the angelic visitor that his prayer had been answered–he and Elizabeth would have a son. They would call him John. As if that message was not startling enough, there was more. This child would be set apart, great in the sight of God, filled with the Holy Spirit in the womb. He would be a forerunner–THE forerunner. The one who would prepare the way for the long-awaited Messiah. I wonder if Zechariah was remembering these words from the prophet Malachi as he listened to the angel:

 “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LordHe will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers [a reconciliation produced by repentance], so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse [of complete destruction].” 

(Malachi 4:5-6, AMP)

Zechariah and Elizabeth would have a son, finally. And they would know much about what he would be like and who he would become before he ever inhaled the air of earth. He was the one who would prepare the way, according to the angel’s message. His would be a life filled with, as Pastor John detailed, potential, power, and purpose.

He would grow up close to the presence of God, and that would increase his human potential astronomically. He would never experience a moment without the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. And he would know his purpose: to break the silence and announce the coming of the Messiah.

In verse 17 of our passage, the Passion Translation reads: “And he will prepare a united people who are ready for the Lord’s appearing.” The footnote says that the words “a united people” are the words used in the original Aramaic. I couldn’t find much else about it, unfortunately. But it stands out to me. We know that when Jesus came on the scene, and certainly when he began his ministry, not all people were united or ready for his coming. There were many opinions and judgments made about him, and there was much division among the people because of him.

Perhaps what John was to do was to bring together all those who were waiting expectantly for the coming King, and unite them under a message that Jesus himself would reinforce. Maybe the words of that verse meant that those who were ready for the Lord would be united under the message John preached, and it would be that message that would prepare them for the coming of the Lord?

What was the message that John preached? He began his ministry preaching about repentance. He invited the people to change the way they thought, to change the way they saw God and others. The spiritual leaders of that day had modeled self-righteousness, arrogance, and rules-based living. John’s message challenged their teachings. He told the people that those who have should give to those who don’t have. He told them to stop robbing from each other, to refrain from extortion, and to treat others with dignity and honor. He exhorted them to stop falsely accusing one another and to, instead, treat others with kindness. He told those with power to stop using it against the powerless. John preached about a whole new way of thinking and being in the world, and about forgiveness and becoming new. This was the message that would prepare those who had ears to hear. This was the message that would unite those who accepted it.

It was a message not unlike Jesus’ first public proclamation about himself just a chapter later in Luke, as he quoted the prophet Isaiah:

 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”

(Luke 4:18-19)

John was the voice in the wilderness that prepared the way for the message of Jesus to be heard. Those who were excited about John were excited because he brought something new to the old teachings. He brought word of a coming Messiah, and the new way that this coming kingdom would operate. It was a message that assigned value and worth, dignity and acceptance to those who could accept it. It paved the way for the radical ways and message of Jesus. That message would shake up the whole world, turn powerful systems upside-down, and extend an invitation to all. Everyone. The whole world. 

We are all the voice in the wilderness today. 

What message are we proclaiming? Pastor John said on Sunday, “Let the message of Jesus be your life.”

Our lives–the way we live, the way we love, the things we say and do–they speak. They expose what we believe, whether we think we are proclaiming a message or not. Do we offer Jesus to a waiting world? Do we love in a way that prepares hearts for an encounter with our Messiah?

As we live and move and interact with those around us, I pray that our lives will reveal the message of Jesus the way that John’s did. And I pray, especially during this season of Advent, that we are willing to be the voice in the wilderness, preparing the way for the arrival of our Savior.

–Laura

I am writing my portion of the blog on week 3, day two of this year’s advent season.  This year is different from others that I remember. This year, it seems that everywhere I turn, John the Baptist–his birth and his ministry–are being emphasized. Usually, in my experience, the story has begun with Mary or with Old Testament prophecies, but this year, curiously and intriguingly John the Baptist seems to be at the forefront of many advent devotions and messages. Anytime I see a common theme arising from multiple locations, I pay attention. Why does God have John the Baptist on the hearts of so many?

John, the advent announcer and forerunner of Jesus, is often treated as a minor character in a greater story. We gloss over his impact and move on. However, when we pause and spend time with John’s story, we realize how profound a role he played. I can’t recall another prophet whose birth story is so emphasized.

God wanted us to know both of his parents came from priestly lines, were considered righteous and blameless, were mature in years and mature in their faith, and that despite the tremendous disappointment of not having a child, they continued to serve God faithfully.

God wanted us to know about the angelic visit and the prophecy spoken to Zechariah regarding his not yet conceived son. Laura wrote out the prophecy above from the beautiful Passion Translation, I’m going to reiterate it here from The Voice paraphrase:

Zacharias, your prayers have been heard. Your wife is going to have a son, and you will name him John. He will bring you great joy and happiness—and many will share your joy at John’s birth. This son of yours will be a great man in God’s sight. He will not drink alcohol in any form; instead of alcoholic spirits, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit from the time he is in his mother’s wombHere is his mission: he will turn many of the children of Israel around to follow the path to the Lord their God.  Do you remember the prophecy about someone to come in the spirit and power of the prophet Elijah; someone who will turn the hearts of the parents back to their children; someone who will turn the hearts of the disobedient to the mind-set of the just and good? Your son is the one who will fulfill this prophecy: he will be the Lord’s forerunner, the one who will prepare the people and make them ready for God. (Luke 1: 14-17)

This is an incredibly big deal. God had been silent for 400 years. In those 400 years, the religious fathers had added rule upon rule upon rule upon rule for the Israelites to follow. The weight of trying to be right in God’s sight was heavy and becoming heavier all the time. The entire religious structure had become behavior-based and the religious leaders determined who was in and who was out; who was righteous, who wasn’t; and who was being punished by God and therefore not allowed to participate (the sick, the disabled, the foreigner, women, etc). Into this mean-spirited time period, a sweet elderly couple was visited by an angel who spoke the words of the prophet Malachi regarding their impossible to conceive, soon-to-be on the way son. Their son would fulfill Malachi’s prophecy. The silence was shattered and huge things were about to happen.

We don’t know anything about John’s formative years, but we do know that when he reached adulthood and appeared on the scene, he caused a bit of a ruckus.

His is the voice that God chose to use after 400 years.  He is the prophet who came in the spirit of Elijah. His message is bold.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke let us know that a large portion of John’s message was about repentance and producing fruit in keeping with repentance.

What would fruit in keeping with repentance look like? John’s listeners would have understood that repentance wasn’t about sin. The word–metanoia in the Greek—literally means new mind. In other words, change the way you think, allow your current thinking to be challenged, produce fruit that shows you are thinking in a new way, God’s way.

All of our outward actions begin in our minds. All of them. So the message of repentance is about allowing God to renew our minds. It’s only been in the last century that the word repent got twisted into having something to do with condemnation, shame, and sin, which is not the ministry of Christ. If we ponder that, we’ll realize that thinking new thoughts–thoughts that produce fruit that looks like Jesus makes a whole lot more sense–and John is paving the way for that.

When the people ask him “what shall we do?”  In other words…what is the evidence of this fruit…

John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (Luke 3: 10-14)

Hmmm. This is certainly different from all the rules and behavior-based striving that had become the religious system of the day. Rules and behavior-based striving are self-focused.  John is preaching an others-focused mindset:  Share what you have with those less fortunate, don’t cheat people in order to line your own pockets; don’t speak poorly of or lie about others, don’t slander another’s character; those of you who have power, don’t use it to take advantage of those who have less power; don’t finagle ways to get more and more–be content and live generously with what you have.  John’s preaching looks very little like the majority religious culture of his day and very much like counter-cultural living.

The angel addressed this counter-cultural mindset in speaking to Zechariah in Luke 1:16…

He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. (NIV)

He will turn many of the children of Israel around to follow the path to the Lord their God. (The Voice)

He will persuade many in Israel to convert and turn back to the Lord their God (The Passion Translation).

He will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. (NASB)

Bring back and turn back indicate they had lost their way.  Have we?

The prophecy continues:  “he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to:

turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and

the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—

to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17)

Who are the fathers?  Yes, it could be that the biological fathers had turned their hearts from their children, but it could also be the spiritual fathers. The religious leaders of the day would have been their spiritual fathers, and we learn from both John the Baptist and from Jesus that those fathers did not minister with the heart of God. John called them a brood of vipers, Jesus called them white-washed tombs and talked about the heavy yoke they placed upon people, keeping them from God rather than drawing them to God. They were judgmental, critical, exclusive, and mean-spirited.

What would it look like for these fathers’ hearts to turn to their children? If John’s message is one of repentance…what would new thoughts look like for “the fathers”? Is it possible it could mean that rather than a shaming, condemning, exclusive message and being known for all they’re against, they could cultivate loving thoughts that would turn into loving actions toward those they were called to shepherd?

And the disobedient…who are they? The sinners?  If we read the apostle John’s understanding of this, he writes: And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love. (2nd John 1:6) 

Jesus himself makes it super simple: If you love me, keep my commands. (John 14:15) What are his commands? Jesus says the greatest one is  “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself… (Mt. 22:37-39)

 So the disobedient would be those who don’t walk in God’s love. Hmmm. Strong’s concordance defines the disobedient as the unpersuadable. The unpersuadable would resist repentance (thinking a new way)…so the disobedient are stuck in their ways, convinced they are right and can’t be persuaded to love God’s way.

Another thing John the Baptist was going to do was turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous. What does that even mean? 

If, as Strong’s defines it, wisdom means understanding, or knowledge and holy love of the will of God and righteous means equitable (in character or act), or as others have put it, righteous means being rightly related to God and others, we begin to see a theme developing in John’s life purpose.

The last phrase of this prophecy is  Your son is the one who will fulfill this prophecy: he will be the Lord’s forerunner, the one who will prepare the people and make them ready for God (The Voice) or He will prepare a united people who are ready for the Lord’s appearing. (TPT). 

Are we a united people ready for God to do whatever he wants to in our midst? Are we a united people ready for the Lord’s appearing?

As we ponder John’s mission and ministry, and as I ponder why I keep running into advent readings this year that are centered around him, I also must ponder what the Holy Spirit is communicating to the church.

Could it be that we’ve lost our way? Have we turned our hearts away from the children we are to shepherd? Are we the unpersuadable, stuck in our ways and disobedient because we’ve forgotten that love is our highest calling? Have we forgotten to seek understanding from God on every matter, or forgotten to love his will, (which is for us to bring his kingdom to earth by loving others into his presence)? Have we forgotten to be equitable, to live generously, to place ourselves in the shoes of another, to see life from another’s perspective and work toward the flourishing of all people everywhere?

Could it be that we are not prepared for a real encounter with the real Jesus who deeply loves and is for everyone everywhere, and who detests our manmade traditions?  Will we allow him to turn our hearts toward the world? Will we be unpersuadable or are we willing to change our perspective, think a new way and see things from His point of view?

The word advent means “to come”. Jesus is the one who was and is and is to come. (Rev. 1:8 and 4:8). Are we prepared for his coming, both in the future and in the right here, right now? Are we ready to let him use us his way, producing his kind of fruit, to draw people to God? 

–Luanne

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Unexpected Interruption

On Sunday we sang the words “Hark, the herald angels sing…” As is the case with many Christmas carols, we oftentimes sing the lyrics without taking time to think about what we’re singing.

The word “Hark” means listen; “herald” means an official messenger bringing news, and “angel” is a spiritual being who acts as an agent or messenger of God. 

So we sing, “Listen! Official messengers of God are bringing news to us…”

And that’s exactly what happened to Zechariah in this week’s sermon. What was the message that the angel brought? “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John… (Luke 1:13)

The angelic message continues, but this is as far as we took it on Sunday because in these few words there are things we need to see.

Last week we learned that Zechariah and Elizabeth were both from priestly lines, they lived blamelessly and faithfully before God, they were old–beyond childbearing years– and they had never been able to have children. On this particular day, Zechariah was chosen by the casting of lots to enter the holy place to offer incense to the Lord as the people prayed outside. This was an honor, a once in a lifetime experience, and one that not every priest would have.

Zechariah entered the holy place; he assumed he would be alone. He lit the incense, he prayed, and then realized that he was not alone after all. No wonder he was startled. I think we all would have been. Luke’s attention to detail is always packed with more than meets the eye, so Luke’s inclusion of the angel’s location needs to be taken into account…verse 11 tells us that the angel was standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When I was digging into these verses I learned that this meant that the angel was standing between the golden lampstand and the altar of incense. The symbolism of the golden lampstand is often equated with the foreshadowing of Jesus, the light of the world…so the fact that the angel was standing between the prayers of the people and the coming Messiah while bringing Zechariah a message from God, and not just any message, but the message that Zechariah’s not yet conceived son would be the forerunner to the Messiah is pretty incredible. Pretty awe-inspiring when we stop to think about it.

There had been 400 years of silence from God when this angel showed up. The people, to their credit, were still seeking God. They had not given up. What might have been some of the things they were praying for that day? They were living under Roman oppression. They were a minority people group. The Romans ruled through violence and intimidation. There had been no fresh word from God in a very long time. Life could not have been easy. How would you have prayed? What would have been on your heart?

What might Zechariah have been praying for? How might he have been interceding for his people?  Was he praying for their deliverance from Rome? For the Messiah to come? For God to show up on their behalf as he had in their history? Might he have even whispered a personal prayer about having a son…or would he have given up that idea by now?

As he was praying in the solitude of the holy place,  an angel appeared, addressed Zechariah by name and told him not to be afraid. I wonder if that worked? I think I would have been shaking in my shoes. But the next words…your prayer has been heard… would have certainly gotten my attention, and I’m sure it got Zechariah’s. Which prayer?

The angel reveals that it’s the prayer that Zechariah had probably prayed over and over for year upon year–the prayer for a son. The Passion Translation offers a footnote right after the word “prayer” in verse 13 that says: “The Greek verb allows for a possible translation of “prayer you don’t even pray anymore.”  Sit with that for a moment. Was Zechariah still praying that prayer? He and Elizabeth were beyond childbearing age…would he have still prayed for a son? We don’t know the answer to that question–what we do know is that God heard his prayer, and on this particular day, God ordained that Zechariah would be in the holy place to receive the gift of the message that Elizabeth would bear him a son and the son’s name would be John. John means “Jehovah is a gracious giver” (Strong’s Concordance). Can you even begin to imagine what that moment was like for him? Wow.

Prayer. It’s such a mysterious thing–this opportunity to enter the heavenly realm, converse with Almighty God- and be part of the unleashing of God’s power right here on earth. Many of us pray daily–even multiple times a day.  I won’t even try to tell you that I’m patient when I don’t sense a response from God. We live in the day of the immediate…we think microwave ovens take too long, and if someone doesn’t respond to a text message in what we think is a timely manner, we get frustrated. We want God to answer our prayers, with the answers we want, right now. Sometimes it works that way. Most of the time it doesn’t.

As Pastor John was preaching about Zechariah, I was reminded of Daniel. In Chapter 10 of the book of Daniel, we learn that Daniel had received a troubling vision from the Lord, which led him to fast, to mourn and to pray. 21 days into his fasting, mourning and praying, an angel visited him with these words “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them.  Both Zechariah and Daniel were told not to be afraid and that their words had been heard. 

What about us–our prayers?  Are our words heard? What happens when we pray?

In Revelation 8 there is an interesting passage regarding prayer which reads:

Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne.  The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.  Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (3-5). 

What are we to make of these verses in regards to prayer?

In 2015 at the International Justice Mission’s Global Prayer Gathering in Washington D. C.,  IJM’s founder, Gary Haugen started the conference by saying “Prayer matters.”  Haugen then quoted Blaise Pascal: “God instituted prayer to communicate to creatures the dignity of causality.” and went on to say God has always used secondary means – human means – to accomplish His sovereign purposes.  God’s primary means is moving His people to pray, then answering their prayers…   

Putting Haugen’s statements, Pascal’s quote, and the Revelation’s passage together, do we realize the magnitude of the gift that God has given us in prayer? Do we realize that our prayers really do affect what happens on planet earth? Even as I type these words, I am awestruck once again at the fact that God not only allows, but invites us to join Him in accomplishing His purpose through prayer. He invites us to pray for our world, our nation, our neighbors, our churches, our places of business, our politics, our relationships, our children, our ability to see and understand the things of His kingdom, the courage to carry out his mission with love, for His kingdom to come and His will to be done on earth, for ourselves, our needs, our desires, our heart cries–everything. And He. Hears. Us. Do we believe he does, even when we can’t see any evidence? Even when, from our perspective, answers don’t come?

Sometimes the answers don’t come the way we envisioned. I prayed for my marriage over and over…prayed for it to be healthy and strong. The answer to that prayer led to a one-year separation, individual therapy for both my husband and me, and then couple’s therapy–but through that incredibly difficult season, God was answering my prayer.

I prayed over and over for God to work in my children’s lives in the ways I wanted him to work. Instead, God gave me opportunities to learn more about unconditional love, about grace, and about embracing friends and loving them well. We had the opportunity to see one friend come into a relationship with Jesus. We’ve also been surprised at what we (at the time) considered an unlikely friend bringing another of my children closer to the Lord. Through my prayers for my children, God changed me.

There are some prayers that I’ve prayed for years, and as of yet have not seen a response. There are some…like the desire to see my mother healed and losing her instead… that I’ve been quite angry about. There are some regarding very current situations that as of yet I can’t tell what God is doing, and some days are really hard in this season. And then there are beautiful moments where God offers encouragement through a friend, a breakthrough with an at-risk student at school, a song lyric that takes me to my knees, a friend healed, a marriage saved, a beautiful sunset, a moment of holy stillness, a moment of laughter, a granddaughter climbing in my lap for “snuggles”, a fresh revelation from scripture– evidence that even though I can’t see with my eyes what I want to–God is here, he is good, and he has heard my prayer.

My husband’s great-grandmother prayed diligently for one of her sons to become a minister. None of them did, but two generations later, there’s an unusual number of her descendants who are ministers or married to ministers. She didn’t see any evidence of the fruit of her prayer on this side of heaven, but God heard her and responded in his time.

Pastor John brought up Psalms 77 and 18 in his sermon–if you are struggling with God and/or prayer–spend some time in those Psalms. Look at the honesty of those psalmists–the wrestling, the frustration. and also the reminders, in the midst of the pain and the hard, of who God is and how faithful he’s been.

Life on planet earth is not easy, but we can take comfort in the fact that God has heard our prayers. My prayers, your prayers, and all the prayers of God’s people are before the throne of God, they will have effect…He hears them, and in his time and in his way, he responds.

–Luanne

I cannot (and don’t ever want to) get over the ways that God shows up in the small, in the details, in moments far too connected to be mere coincidence.

I read Luanne’s words early this morning. I wanted to see how the Holy Spirit had led her to write this week so that I could pray into it and hold her words in mind as I moved into my own personal prayer time. What she wrote is rich–packed with truth, authenticity, and hope. My soul was noticeably lighter by the time I read her last sentence. When we hear testimonies of God’s goodness, his withness, his faithful response to our prayers, they have that effect on us.

I reread a few paragraphs, thoughts already forming about where I might go in my writing. I then set it aside, breathed in the air around me—air now thick with hope and expectation—and settled in with a steaming mug of coffee to read and pray and listen to the God who is, indeed, always responding to our prayers.

The first book I picked up was an Advent devotional. This year is the seventh in a row that I’ve pulled out this beautiful book, and I look forward to it as much now as I did the first day I opened it. One of my favorite things about it is that at the end of each day’s reading, there are three questions posed, with space to journal my answers.

This morning’s questions asked specifically about answered prayers—things that were torn but God turned them into gifts, places of unraveling that now bear the marks of God’s touch—as well as areas that still feel torn—the, seemingly, unanswered prayers. Of course that would be today’s devotion. I read through my answers from years past…

In 2013, I was praising God for bringing the gift of restoration out of Luanne’s torn marriage that she wrote about above. In 2016, I wrote a prayer of thanks for a friendship that was developing—a friendship that, to put it gently, had some rocky beginnings. This year, I added a prayer of gratitude for the priceless gift that same friend has become, for how often she has been the embodiment of Jesus’ love to me, for the ways God has knit our hearts together, for the depth of the sisterhood we share. In 2013, I was asking God to heal my mom’s illness. A year later, I wrote about my grief over losing her, and my anger with God for not healing her the way I wanted. There are prayers written there for my kids, prayers over ministries, over friends, and finances. There are prayers over complicated relationships & situations—some have been resolved, and some are no longer a part of my life.

The small page contains evidence of my gratitude, joy, anger, pain, hope, disappointment, fear, grief, surprise, delight, and resentment. Recorded on this page, in many different colors of ink, are milestones that cover seven years of my journey with Jesus. There are highs and lows, and there is much change—in my prayers, my understanding, and in me. There are prayers that have been answered over the years—many, in fact—and there are those that remain unanswered to this day. I added some new ones this morning. I needed that pause this morning, the reminder of a deep and growing relationship with a God who answers—and sometimes doesn’t. I noticed something as I read over my own words…

Luanne shared with us earlier that, “The Passion Translation offers a footnote right after the word “prayer” in Luke 1:13 that says: “The Greek verb allows for a possible translation of “prayer you don’t even pray anymore.” She then encouraged us to, “Sit with that for a moment.” I did. It kind of took my breath away. And as I read through my journaling, I noticed that there are prayers written there that I don’t even pray anymore. Why? When did I stop? I know that I need to spend some time pondering the prayers I’ve given up on, and why. Are there prayers you don’t even pray anymore? When did you stop? As you read the portion of Psalm 77 below, consider times when you’ve felt similar things…

 I poured out my complaint to you, God. I lifted up my voice, shouting out for your help. When I was in deep distress, in my day of trouble, I reached out for you with hands stretched out to heaven. Over and over I kept looking for you, God,
but your comforting grace was nowhere to be found.
(Perhaps we stopped praying certain prayers because we got tired of looking and not finding him…) As I thought of you I moaned, “God, where are you?” I’m overwhelmed with despair as I wait for your help to arrive. I can’t get a wink of sleep until you come and comfort me. Now I’m too burdened to even pray! (Maybe the hurt became too heavy, and the continual burden has rendered us silent…) My mind wandered, thinking of days gone by—the years long since passed. Then I remembered the worship songs I used to sing in the night seasons, and my heart began to fill again with thoughts of you. So my spirit went out once more in search of you. Would you really walk off and leave me forever, my Lord God? (Is it possible we’ve felt abandoned, waiting on answers that never come?) Won’t you show me your kind favor, delighting in me again? Has your well of sweet mercy dried up? Will your promises never come true? Have you somehow forgotten to show me love? Are you so angry that you’ve closed your heart of compassion toward me? Lord, what wounds me most is that it’s somehow my fault that you’ve changed your heart toward me and I no longer see the years of the Mighty One and your right hand of power. (Maybe we think we’ve done something wrong, and that God’s heart is no longer inclined to listen to our cries?)

 (Psalm 77:1-10, TPT)

The psalmist’s cries hold some clues as to why we sometimes find it futile to keep praying. But Psalm 77 doesn’t end at verse 10. Here are the next five verses:

Yet (such a powerful little word!) I could never forget all your miracles, my God, as I remember all your wonders of old. I ponder all you’ve done, Lord, musing on all your miracles. It’s here in your presence, in your sanctuary, where I learn more of your ways. For holiness is revealed in everything you do. Lord, you’re the one and only, the great and glorious God! Your display of wonders, miracles, and power makes the nations acknowledge you. By your glory-bursts you’ve rescued us over and over. (11-15, emphasis mine)

Asaph doesn’t shy away from the hard questions. He expresses his anguish clearly and with much emotion. AND—he takes time to remember what he knows to be true of his God, to ponder the ways he’d shown up in days gone by. Lament & remembrance—these are good practices. And they’re modeled for us all over the Psalms. There are also Psalms that are filled with much rejoicing, exuberant celebration even, over the goodness of God. We looked at one such Psalm on Sunday, and I’ve included a large chunk of it below:

Lord, I passionately love you and I’m bonded to you, for now you’ve become my power! You’re as real to me as bedrock beneath my feet, like a castle on a cliff, my forever firm fortress, my mountain of hiding, my pathway of escape, my tower of rescue where none can reach me. My secret strength and shield around me, you are salvation’s ray of brightness shining on the hillside, always the champion of my cause. All I need to do is to call to you, singing to you, the praiseworthy God. When I do, I’m safe and sound in you. For when the ropes of death wrapped around me and terrifying torrents of destruction overwhelmed me, taking me to death’s door, to doom’s domain, I cried out to you in my distress, the delivering God, and from your temple-throne you heard my troubled cry. My sobs came right into your heart and you turned your face to rescue me. The earth itself shivered and shook. It reeled and rocked before him. As the mountains trembled, they melted away! For his anger was kindled, burning on my behalf. Fierce flames leapt from his mouth, erupting with blazing, burning coals as smoke and fire encircled him. He stretched heaven’s curtain open and came to my defense. Swiftly he rode to earth as the stormy sky was lowered. He rode a chariot of thunderclouds amidst thick darkness, a cherub his steed as he swooped down, soaring on the wings of Spirit-wind. Wrapped and hidden in the thick-cloud darkness, his thunder-tabernacle surrounded him. He hid himself in mystery-darkness; the dense rain clouds were his garments. Suddenly the brilliance of his presence broke through with lightning bolts and with a mighty storm from heaven—like a tempest dropping coals of fire. The Lord thundered, the great God above every god spoke with his thunder-voice from the skies. What fearsome hailstones and flashes of fire were before him! He then reached down from heaven, all the way from the sky to the sea. He reached down into my darkness to rescue me! He took me out of my calamity and chaos and drew me to himself, taking me from the depths of my despair! Even though I was helpless in the hands of my hateful, strong enemy, you were good to deliver me. When I was at my weakest, my enemies attacked—
but the Lord held on to me. His love broke open the way and he brought me into a beautiful broad place. He rescued me—because his delight is in me! God, all at once you turned on a floodlight for me! You are the revelation-light in my darkness, and in your brightness I can see the path ahead. With you as my strength I can crush an enemy horde, advancing through every stronghold that stands in front of me. What a God you are! Your path for me has been perfect! All your promises have proven true. What a secure shelter for all those who turn to hide themselves in you! You are the wrap-around God giving grace to me.  Could there be any other god like you? You are the only God to be worshiped, for there is not a more secure foundation to build my life upon than you. You have wrapped me in power, and now you’ve shared with me your perfection. Through you I ascend to the highest peaks of your glory to stand in the heavenly places, strong and secure in you. You’ve trained me with the weapons of warfare-worship; now I’ll descend into battle with power to chase and conquer my foes. You empower me for victory with your wrap-around presence. Your power within makes me strong to subdue, and by stooping down in gentleness you strengthened me and made me great! The Almighty is alive and conquers all! Praise is lifted high to the unshakable God! Towering over all, my Savior-God is worthy to be praised! This is why I thank God with high praises! I will sing my song to the highest God, so all among the nations will hear me.

 (Psalm 18:1-13, 16-19, 28-35, 46, 49 TPT)

This Psalm is all about the power of prayer—both the power in our crying out and in God’s answers. It highlights truths about God’s goodness, his power, and his response to hearing the cries of his children. I read the words aloud a moment ago, and it stirred my soul to worship. I am carrying heavy burdens this season, tears have been my companions more days than not—yet, I will praise the God who hears my cries.

I needed this message, this reminder to pour out—in screams and sobs if necessary—all my many prayers to my God who hears and responds. I needed the reminder to remember, to look back. Tears fill my eyes now, as I think back over the words I read this morning, in my own handwriting from years past. I needed the reminder that grief & gratitude, joy & pain, praise & lament—these are not mutually exclusive. In fact, in order for them to be experienced fully, they must co-exist. This is simply the way that our God has wired us.

I would be lying if I tried to tell you that I have answers or resolution to the things that are breaking my heart. The weight of these days feels like more than I can bear more often than not. My soul is lighter than it was yesterday—but that doesn’t mean I’m done feeling sad or sorrowful. It doesn’t have to. I can choose to be heartbroken and hopeful at the same time. I can cry and smile in the same moment. There will always be pain in this life. Some prayers will remain seemingly unanswered forever. We will never understand why some things happen the way that they do. But our God is good, and he shows up in the unexpected to let us know he sees, he hears, he loves—more than we could ever comprehend. He showed up in more ways this morning than I have time to write about here. There were many unexpected “coincidences” throughout my prayer time. For me, small as they may have been, these things were unmissable.

I pray that we will all find ourselves in the midst of unexpected moments with our good God in the days and weeks to come. And I pray that those moments will reassure our wandering hearts that he does listen, he does hear, he cares deeply for each of us, and he does respond. May we keep praying, friends, with unshakeable faith that it matters.

–Laura

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An Unusual Couple (Luke 1:5-7)

“We tend to sanitize the birth story of Jesus, fashioning it into a pristine, shimmering nativity scene adorned with gold accents and residing comfortably on a hallway table or atop a fireplace mantle… We do this with our spiritual journeys too, wanting them to be comfortable and clean, desiring something attractive that we can easily accessorize our lives with–but that isn’t reality, is it? Life comes with the collateral damage of living, with failed plans and relational collapse, with internal struggle and existential crises, and we carry these things into this season. The good news is we don’t need to discard our messiness to step into this season and we couldn’t even if we wanted to. Bring every bit of your flawed self and all your chaotic circumstances to this day. Welcome the mess.”     (Low: An Honest Advent Devotional, John Pavlovitz)

I read the words above in one of my Advent devotionals early Sunday morning–the first day of Advent this year–and I thought of them again hours later, as I listened to the message at church. It can be easy to fall into the trappings of a shiny, sparkly Christmas. It can be tempting to recall the familiar story–whatever version has embedded itself in our consciousness–and stop short of engaging our hearts in the messy and the real of the season.

The real story of Christmas is full of twists and turns. So much of the how, the when, the why just doesn’t make sense. If we look closely, we’ll likely find more questions than answers. Four-hundred years of silence interrupted by an angel visitation? A virgin conception? A dirty, manger birth? Shepherds witnessing the announcement? Wise men from the east? None of this looked the way those awaiting their Messiah expected it to look. We’re familiar with these unusual happenings. They’re part of the story we celebrate each year.

Fascinating as these parts may be, we are not looking at these parts of the story this year. In this year’s Christmas series, Pastor John is walking us through another unusual part of the story, a part often overlooked. We are looking at an unusual couple: Zechariah and Elizabeth, who would become the parents of John, the forerunner of Jesus. Their story, like most of the Christmas narrative, doesn’t really make sense. As we take a closer look at them, perhaps we’ll find some hope for when our own seasons don’t make sense.

Pastor John identified four things that made these two an unusual couple. They were:

Unusually Priestly. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth were from priestly lines. Luke sets this up in contrast to the political oppression of their day.

Unusually Righteous. They were identified by the way they were rightly related to God, set apart as upright and blameless during political upheaval.

Unusually Barren. Both of them were “well advanced” in years, and without a child of their own–a major blemish in their culture at that time.

Unusually Named. In a time when many women were named “Mary” or “Martha”, both of which mean “rebellion”, Elizabeth and Zechariah’s names reflected something else. Zechariah means, “The Lord remembers”, and Elizabeth means, “God is my oath.”

Zechariah and Elizabeth were an upstanding couple. A couple who could trace their heritage all the way back to the beginning of the priesthood. A couple whose very names were reminders of God’s withness and his faithfulness, who were rightly related to God in every possible way.

And yet, they were barren. 

Barrenness was a blemish they couldn’t escape in their day. Those on the outside looking in likely whispered among themselves, wondering what these two had done to be so cursed by God. They were likely rejected by some, and isolated from their community because they had been refused the blessing of a child. Can you imagine their questions, their wrestling? In a culture that equated children with blessing and identity, as the way to outlive your own life, how must this couple have felt? I imagine they wondered why. I imagine they asked why. They may have spent hours and days on their faces, begging God to bless them with the one thing they didn’t have–a child of their own.

I imagine their pain was deep, their lack of understanding a cloud that wouldn’t leave. And still, they remained rightly related to God, faithful to him.

We’ll dig into the story and see how God showed up for them–when all hope seemed long gone–in the weeks to come. For now, let’s wrestle with the tension this unusual couple likely experienced. Maybe observing theirs can help us identify our own.

What is your blemish? Where is the tension in your life right now? What are the things that make you feel unusual… perhaps even un-chooseable? What part of you makes you feel disqualified?

We have a God who chooses the unusual things, “the things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.” (1 Corinthians 1:27, NLT) “Unusual” is not a disqualification. God still chooses the unlikely ones–and that includes all of us, with all of our many reasons why he shouldn’t. He chooses us because of all that we think stands in the way–not in spite of those things.

We’ll see as we continue this series just how God came to Zechariah and Elizabeth–in the middle of their very real, very hard circumstances. And we will see how Jesus is still coming for us today–if we look for him. Ann Voskamp, in her gorgeous Advent devotional, The Greatest Gift, writes,

“This, this, is the love story that’s been coming for you since the beginning. It is possible for you to miss it. To brush past it, to rush through it, to not see how it comes for you up over the edges of everything, quiet and unassuming and miraculous–how every page of the Word has been writing it, reaching for you, coming for you. And you could wake on Christmas only to grasp that you never took the whole of the Gift, the wide expanse of grace. So now we pause. Still. Ponder. Hush. Wait. Each day of Advent, He gives you the gift of time, so you have time to be still and wait. Wait for the coming of God in the manger who makes Himself bread for us near starved… Mark Advent with a counting, a way of staying awake and not missing… And the heart that makes time and space for Him to come will be a glorious place. A place of sheer, radiant defiance in the face of a world careening mad and stressed. Because each day of Advent, we will actively wait. We will wait knowing that the remaking of everything has already begun.” 

Jesus came, and he comes still. May we stay awake to the wonder in this season. May we look at the unusual with fresh eyes–both the unusual parts of the familiar stories, and the unusual parts of our own…

–Laura

Each advent season, I ask God to show me something new–I ask for fresh revelation in the Christmas story. Each year, God reveals something new. I don’t know what this year’s revelation will be, so I will seek, ask, knock and wait in anticipation until it comes. I’ve been doing this for a number of years now. Why? Because I don’t want to lose the wonder, I don’t want to lose the mystery, I don’t want to settle into the familiar story as if I already know it. I don’t want Christmas as usual. God always has new things to show us, new depths to explore, fresh revelation to wrestle with or be awestruck by. Nothing has to be “usual”.

Laura encouraged us to look at the unusual with fresh eyes–the unusual of the familiar stories, and the unusual of our own stories. Where do you find yourself this year? How has your 2019 been? What frame of mind are you in as the advent season begins?

What frame of mind were Zechariah and Elizabeth in? We only looked at a few introductory verses on Sunday, yet they were enough to show us that God’s plan was going to be fulfilled through an unusual set of circumstances.

“In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.” (Luke 1:5-7)

Laura highlighted the main points that Pastor John made regarding these verses: Zechariah and Elizabeth were unusually priestly, unusually righteous, unusually barren, and unusually named, and I am going to add that they were unusually beyond child-bearing age. Luke states it pretty bluntly “they were both very old.”  I don’t know how old very old is, but here they were–faithfully serving the Lord, no children to carry on their legacy, and they were old. And God saw them. And God knew them. And God chose to use them. And through them and their son, John (the Baptist),  the four hundred year silence of God was broken.  We will dig into their story and John’s birth in the next few weeks; however, for today, I want to emphasize that God loves to use the unlikely and the unseen.

Zechariah and Elizabeth were old. They were quietly living out their lives in the days of Roman rule, under Roman oppression as part of a minority people group. They were not trying drawing attention to themselves as they practiced their Jewish faith, consistently serving God in the synagogue, and living blamelessly and righteously according to the law of Moses. I imagine they believed that’s how they would spend the rest of their days. I truly love the fact that even though they were old, they were still actively pursuing and serving God.

Years ago, my family met a man named Buddy Wood. He was old. He was also vivacious, full of life, and children-mine included-flocked to him in droves. Buddy faithfully served the Lord and spent a good bit of his time being invited to speak to groups of senior citizens. He once said something to me in a conversation that will stick me forever. He said that although his body was aging, the Holy Spirit within him would never grow old. He lived with a fresh perspective, a holy “what’s next?” and encouraged others to seek God and choose to love and serve God faithfully as long as they were alive on this planet. Age doesn’t exclude any of us from being used by God.

I get the feeling that Zechariah and Elizabeth knew that.  We don’t get the feeling that they were disgruntled. We don’t get the feeling that they were judgmental and full of themselves. We are told that they walked blamelessly with God, and served faithfully day in and day out. I don’t even get the feeling from these verses that they were waiting for the spectacular. They appear to be content to walk with God, despite life’s hardships, and they loved Him.

I don’t know where you find yourself this season, but I want to encourage you to keep leaning into God. The life of the Holy Spirit is within you. The Spirit does not grow old or weary. God sees you. God knows you, and God loves the things that make you unusual. He is faithful; he wants to use your story in his story. Allow yourself to push beyond Christmas as usual into the wonder of whatever God wants you to see and experience as you walk faithfully with Him.

–Luanne

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Advent #4: Peace

It is Christmas time,  and as I sit to write this my house is still and quiet. My heart is filled with gratitude over the significance and beauty of this day that we celebrate. My gratitude to God for coming to us overwhelms me. Where would we be without the gift of God in the flesh?

Each year, I ask for fresh revelation. I don’t ever want to be so familiar with scripture that I miss something new God wants to show me. There are always new things to notice, to ponder, to wrestle with, to be transformed by. Sometimes things I haven’t seen before rock my world and lead me to dig in to scripture for months. It is always fresh because the Holy Spirit makes it so. Pastor John’s sermon on Sunday gave me some things to ponder.

The Peace candle is also called the Candle of the Angels–the angels who announced that God’s peace had arrived on earth in the form of a newborn baby. His Shalom–His answer for all that is wrong in the world, all that creates chaos, all that is broken, was embodied in this tiny homeless baby who had been laid in a livestock feed trough.

The words of the first angel to appear read like this:

And there were shepherds residing in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Just then, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! For behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today in the City of David a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord! And this will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there appeared with the angel a great multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests!” Luke 2:8-14

In their greeting, Luke used the Hebrew word “Savior” the Greek word “Christ” and the blended word “Lord” which was understood by the Hebrew people as Adonai, their name for God, and the Roman world was quite familiar with the significance of the word Lord. Right there, in the declaration of the angels is the first public announcement that God is here on the earth, that He is here for everyone, and that His peace is available. Those on whom His favor rests are those who recognize Him and step into life under His Lordship. What those on whom HIs favor rests really means is those on whom His kindly intent rests, His kindness–the very thing that leads us to repent (Rom. 2:4)–available to all people everywhere.

The shepherds are the ones who receive this message. The shepherds whose very profession causes them to be unclean. They are at the bottom of the religious hierarchy, unable to enter the temple themselves. They are outcasts, “less thans” — and, as often happens with those deemed “other” or “outsiders”, they have been stereotyped. They were stereotyped as dishonest people, so much so that they were not allowed to testify in court. Their testimony was always considered invalid. Yet, these very people, are the ones God chose to confirm that the angel’s message was true.

I can’t help but make the connection that another stereotyped, less than, people group during this time period whose testimony  would be considered invalid were women. Yet, who did Jesus honor by giving them the awesome ministry of telling the disciples that He was alive? (Mt. 28:7-10)

I think there is much for us to ponder in God’s deliberate choices here. We must always be extremely careful with stereotypes. Those considered other, less than, and marginalized may be the very people that God is using to show us more of Himself and His Kingdom’s ways.  In His Kingdom the last are the first, the least are the greatest, the humble are the lifted up, and His ministry of making things right–peace for all humankind–belongs to all of us who call Him Lord. We minister to Him when we love the hungry, the imprisoned, the poor, the naked, not as less than, but as Christ Himself. (Mt. 25). And I know from personal experience, He has much to teach us through the marginalized.

So our first unlikely messengers, the shepherds,  after they see Jesus, leave rejoicing and go tell everyone. Our second unlikely messengers, who actually declare Jesus as King, are the Magi.

Matthew 2:1-2 tells us all the detail we get about them in this story: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem  and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

There are lots of assumptions made about the Magi–we most always see them in a group of three riding on camels, and they show up at the manger. Scripture doesn’t tell us that there were three, or what their names are, or that they rode on camels. What we do know is they came a long distance, they knew, when they saw his star, that the King of the Jews had been born, and they came to worship him.

First important thing to note–these are not Jewish men. The Magi are Gentiles, considered pagans. What is God doing by including these outsiders? Not only are they Gentiles–they are mystics.

We don’t know much about these particular Magi, but this is not the first time Magi appear in scripture. Magi were members of many ancient cultures–the Babylonians, the Chaldeans, the Medes, and the Persians. They were interpreters of dreams, astrologers and astronomers, priests and teachers/anointers of kings.  In the Old Testament book of Daniel, in the account of King Belshazzar’s encounter with the writing on the wall, we learn that Daniel, who had been taken to Babylon during the Israeli exile, became chief Magi under King Nebuchadnezzar:

The king summoned the enchanters, astrologers and diviners. Then he said to these wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing and tells me what it means will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around his neck, and he will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.” Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant.  So King Belshazzar became even more terrified and his face grew more pale. His nobles were baffled.

 The queen, hearing the voices of the king and his nobles, came into the banquet hall. “May the king live forever!” she said. “Don’t be alarmed! Don’t look so pale!  There is a man in your kingdom who has the spirit of the holy gods in him. In the time of your father he was found to have insight and intelligence and wisdom like that of the gods. Your father, King Nebuchadnezzar, appointed him chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners.  He did this because Daniel, whom the king called Belteshazzar, was found to have a keen mind and knowledge and understanding, and also the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles and solve difficult problems. Call for Daniel, and he will tell you what the writing means.” Daniel 5:7-12.

When Daniel was brought in, he made it very clear that he served the Most High God, and Daniel said to the king that the Most High God is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and sets over them anyone he wishes. (v. 21)

Daniel was a Magi. Daniel was an undeterred, courageous, uncompromising lover and follower of the Most High God. Daniel counseled three kings in Babylon. He had great influence. Is it possible that the Magi that came to worship Jesus knew that the King of the Jews would be born because Daniel was a faithful witness to God’s promises and prophecies 600 years before?

Matthew continues, in his account to let us know that the Magi went to King Herod to find out where the King of the Jews was to be born. Herod called in his priests and teachers of the law to find out, and Herod was greatly disturbed. Once the Magi learned that the prophecy spoke of Bethlehem, that’s where they went. The star led them to  the right house. They were not the least bit concerned that Jesus wasn’t in a palace. They presented him with gifts, and they worshiped him. They were declaring that Jesus is King.

God’s ways are not our ways. The religious community of Jesus’ day rejected him as King. He was a threat to their traditional way of doing things, and a threat to their power. The political community of the day certainly had no tolerance for a competing Kingdom. But God’s plans and ways will not be thwarted by our fallen world’s systems. He chooses foreigners, outsiders, oppressed people, mystics, and anyone else He cares to use, to draw us to Himself. Are we willing to let go of stereotypes? Are we willing to let the box we’ve put God in fall away, so that we can see Him, know Him, serve Him, love Him, and be instruments of His peace in this world that so desperately needs to experience His kindness and His love?

What have I to offer
To heaven’s King
                                                    I will bring my life, my love, my all…                                                   (Chris Tomlin, Adore)

My life, my love, my all. May this be the gift we offer to Jesus as we celebrate Him this season.

–Luanne 

Luanne wrote:

His Shalom–His answer for all that is wrong in the world, all that creates chaos, all that is broken, was embodied in this tiny homeless baby who had been laid in a livestock feed trough…”

I took the liberty of highlighting Luanne’s use of the word “all” above, because it so very important in our attempts to understand what the Shalom–the peace–of Jesus is all about. If Shalom is setting things right and bringing wholeness and restoration to ALL that is wrong and broken (and it is that…), then peace is only ever possible if ALL are included to the same degree. Where any are excluded, or where there is the absence of chaos but only through the means of hierarchy, there is not Shalom. Because in those instances, things are only really “right” and “whole” for some. The Prince of Peace came to rewrite our definition of peace. It was never meant to be exclusive.

The Shalom that was ushered in with Jesus’ incarnation “set right” all previous exclusion and rejection. From the day of His birth through His very last breath, we see this play out in extraordinary ways…

Luanne wrote about the shepherds–how they were viewed in society, and how their testimony was null in the eyes of the people of that day. She also wrote about the women–the first to preach the good news of Jesus’ resurrection–and how their testimony was also worth nothing in the courts of that time. I can’t help but think of the servants who were the only ones to see Jesus turn water to wine during the wedding feast at Cana (John 2), and the Samaritan woman (that’s two strikes against her according to the culture of that day) who experienced the Shalom of Jesus and went on to tell her whole village–and many believed in Jesus based upon her testimony. These are only a few examples of Jesus bringing restoration to all… Inclusion where exclusion and hierarchy had previously reigned. Acceptance where there had been only rejection. Healing and freedom where there had been brokenness and shame. He came to set it all right…

Do you know what is so mind blowing about all of this? All of these stories made it into our scriptures. They were written down by men who, according to the accepted practices of their time, could have completely dismissed their words. And what would we have if they had?

The two most important events in the life of Jesus–the incarnation and the resurrection–were reported by outsiders whose testimonies were invalid in all of the courts of that day. These stories that we celebrate on our two most important Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter, were first told by those who were most dismissable. Our all-powerful, Holy God chose those who were least likely to be believed, those most on the outside, and entrusted these precious ones with the biggest headlines that would ever be written. Because this powerful, holy God is perfect love and His disposition is kindness and He is a God who sees and sets right the wrongs of this life. This God saw to it that if the “haves” wanted to know the story, they would have to be quiet and listen to the “have nots”. And we see this invisible God in the person of Jesus who came, as Luanne said, as a “tiny, homeless baby”–so that His life could deliver true Shalom to ALL…

When Shalom comes, this peace that includes and restores all things, it can feel like rejection and loss to those who have become accustomed to being the “elite”. We see this play out during the life of Jesus, too. How, as He elevated those who had lived under the feet of others–under the weight of power structures and systems that oppressed them– those who had the power and stood on top were very unwilling to be brought down to the foundation of equality Jesus was rebuilding (the foundation was first set in Eden–broken humanity destroyed it). His ways felt like loss to those who were on top. And it was loss–loss of all that was keeping them from the wholeness that is only possible Jesus’ way.

I am so grateful that the story of Jesus was written through the testimony of the leasts, the lasts, the lowly, the rejected. I am so grateful there were some who did believe their testimony–because what if they hadn’t? I believe this love story of God coming for all of us would have still been told, because God is, well God and all… But I love that it was told by those who had probably never before been entrusted with news that carried any real weight–yet, here they were, carrying the weight of Glory within their testimonies… 

It can be tempting to see this as a reminder that even when we feel less-than and unqualified to share our testimonies, we should share them anyway–and, maybe there are times we need to remember exactly that… But I would challenge all of us to take a good look at ourselves and our “place” in the world before we land in that place. Who around us is stereotyped? Whose testimony is deemed invalid in our time? Who are those seen as unclean in our culture? If the answer to those questions is not us, then we need to understand that we’re the ones who’ve become accustomed to being the “elite”. And we’re invited into the Shalom of Jesus. We are invited to come down to the level ground of Jesus to listen to those who He’s brought up to that same foundation. The foundation of the Prince of Peace–real, lasting, all-inclusive peace. Where all is made right, and all are made whole. Where all are invited to call Jesus our Life, our Lord, our King. On this foundation, the Kingdom of heaven comes. And the ways of this Kingdom are love and Shalom.

Are we willing to give our lives, our love, our all to the King of this Kingdom?

–Laura

shepherd pic

Advent #3: Joy

In September of 2011, my book club read Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts. Her book fell into my hands during a confusing season in my life, just a few months before a very dark season in my life. I began to practice very intentional gratitude, writing down three things a day for which I could be grateful. This practice of counting gifts– being grateful, ended up saving my life. Ann writes, As long as thanks is possible, then joy is always possible. 

Joy. The theme of the third Sunday of Advent.

Pastor John took us on a journey through Colossians 2:6-7:

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened (established) in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

He highlighted four truths from these verses that will lead us to joy.

In order to live our lives in Jesus, we first must identify who is Lord of our lives. Is it Jesus or is it me?  For Jesus to be Lord means that I yield my will to his, my desires to his; I  walk with Him, spend time with Him–He is the focus of my being.

1. Live in Jesus: The Apostle Paul encourages us–once we have settled who is Lord– to continue to live our lives in him. To continue signifies an ongoing action. I think sometimes in modern day western Christianity, we emphasize the gift of eternal life , but de-emphasize living our everyday lives in him. We check our quiet time or our prayer time off of our “to-do” list, and carry on with our day any way we want to. To truly live in Christ means that my choices, my behavior, my attitudes, my thoughts, the way I influence and am influenced all show that Jesus is my Lord. And may I point out, that Jesus doesn’t make us mean. One can not look at his life in the gospels and come to the conclusion that his followers are to be hateful and mean, so if my life is lived in Him, my behavior and choices will draw people toward him–but this absolutely can’t be manufactured. It is an overflow of the life source of Jesus in us, which brings us to our second truth:

 

2. Rooted:   At this time of year, there are Christmas trees all around us. Some are real, some are artificial, neither one is alive. The real trees, once they’ve been cut, begin the dying process immediately because they’ve been separated from their life source. They no longer have roots that are bringing them nourishment and the ability to grow. The artificial ones never had a life source. They are pretty, but they are fake.

Jesus tells us the importance of staying connected to Him as our life source. He knows that connection to Him leads to life and to joy. He says:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener…Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.  If you remain in me and my words remain in you, …you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples… Now remain in my love...If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love… I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete…. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you… This is my command: Love each other. “(Excerpts from John 15: 1-17)

Connection to Jesus, our life source, leads to His joy, which is the only real joy that exists.

Once we’ve settled who is Lord–which source we will draw our life from, which source our roots will tap into– we can then be:

3. Built up: To be built up means to grow or build upon the foundation that has been laid.  I’ve said this before, and it will probably come up again, but I can not emphasize strongly enough that we do not transform our own lives. Christianity is not a behavior modification program. Jesus transforms our lives. Our part is to intentionally connect to Him. I can look back over my life, and easily see that I am not the person I used to be. (Praise His Holy Name!) He has changed me. I don’t know how, but I know that it’s real. Spending time with Jesus has changed me. Loving Jesus has changed me. Being rooted in Him as my life source, knowing that apart from Him I can do nothing, making time to be with Him, checking in with Him throughout the day, owning it when I mess up (which is frequently), staying connected to His love, has changed not just my life, but me–in the very depths of my being. And the beauty of a relationship with Jesus–there is always more to know, more mystery to explore, more layers to allow Him to peel back, more growth to be had. It’s a living relationship. Pastor John worded it this way, he asked us to ask ourselves “What’s your next step?” We all have one. Take the step. Build. Grow.

My dad is one of the most beautiful examples of a life being built on Jesus that I know. He had his 89th birthday last month, and do you know what his one requested Christmas gift is? A new study Bible. His roots go deep. He and I still have wonderful conversations about new things being revealed to him. As long as you are still living and breathing on planet earth, there is more of Jesus to know; however, living in Him, being rooted in Him and built on Him is not “rule” following. That does not lead to life. Being connected to Him, the resurrected, alive, very present Jesus,  leads to life.

I won’t pretend like there aren’t (many) times a day that I have to make a conscious choice to make decisions that honor Him, but I don’t do that out of obligation or “have-to”, or performing. It comes from being in love with Jesus, with determining that He is my Lord, and asking the Holy Spirit to strengthen me and help me in my choices. True, the ultimate decision lies with me–God has not made us robots–but choosing His way, His life, leads to my life, and to joy.

4. Strengthened (Established) in the faith:  I’m not going to lie, sometimes I don’t like the phrase “in the faith”, because of what it sometimes implies; something boring, stagnant, fixed, but to be established in the faith means that my beliefs are actuated into something real and living. My beliefs that God is who He says He is, that He fulfills His promises, that He loves me unconditionally, that my life is founded on a very real, very alive, very active resurrected Savior with whom I visit every day, leads to living differently, seeing the world differently, seeing people differently–and that relationship allows me to:

Overflow with thankfulness, which leads to joy: the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess 1:6), righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17),  I get to be a disciple  who is  filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:52).

Remain in the vine, be filled with the Spirit, be grateful, and the fruit of God’s joy will overflow in your life, and people will be drawn to Him through you–no matter your circumstances.

As long as thanks is possible, then joy is always possible. 

–Luanne

What does a tree do when it is thirsty? Its roots reach and twist and search for water. It knows it has to have water. It’s built into the DNA of the tree. If it finds water, it drinks and it grows. If it doesn’t, it eventually withers and dies.

We are a little more complicated than a tree. We are born into this world and as long as we are breathing, and our organs are all functioning, we are considered “alive”. But we come into this world spiritually dead. Dead things can’t reach for anything… So how do we ever come alive?

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart… (Ecclesiastes 3:11a, NIV)

There is a longing in each heart that we can’t explain away. There is a reaching of our roots for soil that will satisfy… a desire not created or contained in our humanity but placed there by the Divine, that we might discover all that our eyes cannot see. It is Jesus, the Word that breathed creation, that was with God in the beginning; the Word made flesh that dwelt among us–it is He who wakes us up and reveals our need for Him.

“Even as He exposes the need, His is the Presence that meets it.” (Emily P. Freeman, The Next Right Thing podcast)

Zephaniah prophecied these words more than 600 years before the birth of Jesus:

On that day the announcement to Jerusalem will be,“Cheer up, Zion! Don’t be afraid! For the Lord your God is living among youHe is a mighty savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.” (Zephaniah 3:16-17, NLT)

That day that Zephaniah spoke of came. We remember the angst of the waiting and the Glory of His coming with lyrics like these:

“O come, O come, Emmanuel… and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here–until the Son of God appear…

“Long lay the world in sin and error pining–til He appeared and the soul felt its worth!”

He set eternity in our hearts that we might wake up to our neediness. And then He came. He appeared in the flesh as the One who meets our need.

But… we don’t always reach for what we need. We don’t always reach for the right water. Sometimes we wake up to our need, by the grace of God, but reach for everything but Him to meet it. We drink from stagnant ponds of self, performance, others, approval, riches, fame, and many more… in a futile attempt to find the life our souls long for. Instead of plunging deep into the soil of Christ, our roots sometimes crawl around on the surface, frantically searching for what is readily available to us if we would only stop reaching higher and higher… and instead, allow our roots to go down and be hidden in Him…

The soil of Christ is the only place we’ll find the living water our souls crave. Rivers of living water flow just below the surface, and we are all invited to tap into this source. But the life of Christ and His Kingdom always involves going down. The upside-down way of the Kingdom requires that self be buried in Jesus, fully submerged in His life. It’s only when we willingly go low that He can raise us into “…oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of His Glory.” (from Isaiah 61:3) We must be rooted in the soil of Christ, continually drinking from His rivers of living water. This is the beginning of living in Him. Luanne wrote:

“…if my life is lived in Him, my behavior and choices will draw people toward him–but this absolutely can’t be manufactured. It is an overflow of the life source of Jesus in us…”

Behavior modification and all attempts at finding life anywhere but in Christ are part of living above the surface. Manufactured life eventually repels others rather than drawing people in, because every one of us is searching for the one thing that is real to satisfy our thirst. People may buy an act for a while–but the eternity set within our hearts will cry for more when we drink for too long from what is artificial. What will draw others, Luanne said, is the overflow of the life of Jesus in us that is revealed in our changed behaviors and choices.

But first, before we can overflow, we have to drink. We sink our roots deep into the soil of Christ and–because He doesn’t make it difficult to come to Him–we find that, as soon as we break through the surface, as soon as we acknowledge Him as our Lord, as the One our souls ache for, we find ourselves surrounded by rivers of life. We don’t have to dig around in this soil, performing for and pleading with Jesus to satisfy our thirst. It’s immediate. And who is invited into this immediate satisfaction of our desperate thirst?

On the final and climactic day of the Feast, Jesus took his stand. He cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Rivers of living water will brim and spill out of the depths of anyone who believes in me this way, just as the Scripture says.” (John 7:37-38 Message)

Anyone. All of us. And in case we weren’t certain after those words, there are these words:

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Let anyone who hears this say, “Come.” Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life. (Revelation 22:17 NLT)

Anyone can come. And not only once… The verse says “let anyone who desires drink freely… As much as we want.  If we accept the invitation to freely drink in deep draughts from our source, if we continually go to Him, drink in His life, we’ll find that “… Rivers of living water will brim and spill out of the depths of anyone who believes in me this way…” We become what we continually consume. If our lives are hidden in the soil of Him, and if we are continually drinking in His living water, we’ll find that–as Luanne said before–we will overflow. Rivers of living water will spill out of us. Rivers move and flow, carrying life, and growing new life, both within and all around them. Ezekiel 47:12 says it this way:

 Fruit trees of all kinds will grow along both sides of the river. The leaves of these trees will never turn brown and fall, and there will always be fruit on their branches. There will be a new crop every month, for they are watered by the river flowing from the Temple. The fruit will be for food and the leaves for healing.”

Beautiful… Life. Change. Growth. And none of it on our own… Luanne wrote:

“He has changed me. I don’t know how, but I know that it’s real. Spending time with Jesus has changed me. Loving Jesus has changed me. Being rooted in Him as my life source, knowing that apart from Him I can do nothing, making time to be with Him, checking in with Him throughout the day, owning it when I mess up (which is frequently), staying connected to His love, has changed not just my life, but me–in the very depths of my being…”

I could say those same words about my experience with Jesus. Our experiences are unique to each of us, of course, but the result is the same: I have no idea how He’s changed me, but I know that He has. I know I’m nothing like the me I was before I was rooted in Him. Somehow, my life was absorbed into the life of Jesus and step by step, He is working His life and ways through every fiber of who I am. He is rewiring my heart, renewing my mind, refocusing my thoughts, restructuring everything about me so that as time goes by, I’m a display of HIS glory, not my own. This transformation process is what grows His fruit in my life. Because of His life in me, love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and JOY can grow and exist in me… and then, overflow out of me.

This assurance of His life working in me, changing me, is why thanks is always possible. Because regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in, regardless of the sorrows of this life, if we are rooted in Him, that’s a forever thing. Nothing and no one can remove us from our life source. Roots planted in Him, hidden in Him, cannot be separated from Him. Even if we are cut down above the surface, our roots remain connected to our source… And even a stump can grow again…

But on this humbled ground, a tiny shoot, hopeful and promising, will sprout from Jesse’s stump; A branch will emerge from his roots to bear fruit… (Isaiah 11:1, Voice Translation)

When we’re rooted in Christ, we’re connected to life that will never end. For this reason, no matter what, thanks is always possible. So, joy is always possible.

“Joy to the world, the Lord has come…”

And He keeps coming, and bids us, “Come, and drink freely from the water of life.”

Repeat, repeat the sounding JOY…

–Laura

Image result for living evergreen tree in snow

Advent #2: Love & Preparation

So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective. Your old life is dead. Your new life, which is your real life—even though invisible to spectators—is with Christ in God. He is your life. When Christ (your real life, remember) shows up again on this earth, you’ll show up, too—the real you, the glorious you.

(Colossians 3:1-4a, The Message)

On the second Sunday of Advent, Pastor John lit the love candle. He invited us to consider how we are preparing for the coming of Christ, and whether or not it’s the love of Christ–or something else–that is magnified in our lives. During this season, as John pointed out, we do a lot of preparing. We spend time decorating, cooking, planning, wrapping–and we see Christmas morning as the culmination of all of our preparation. If you remember what we talked about last week, though, you know that we–as Jesus followers–aren’t only looking back at when he came in the past. We are looking with hope toward His coming again. That means our “preparation” need not be seasonal. It is, instead, a lifestyle.

Pastor John told us that he believes there is a verse that summarizes what Christmas needs to be about. It is Colossians 3:2, contained within the passage above. I opened with the Message paraphrase of the passage because it adds nuance that makes the whole passage more understandable. But you are probably more familiar with the NIV translation of verse 2. It reads,

Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

How does this verse fit with Christmas? The same way that it fits every day of the year. Which, if I’m not mistaken, was Pastor John’s point. We take time to celebrate and remember the first Advent of Christ at this time every year. But how we live, what we prioritize, where our focus is–these ought not change with the seasons. For Kingdom-minded Jesus followers, the “spirit of Christmas”–hope, love, joy, preparation, celebration, giving–is how we aim to live every day.

How do we live this way? We set our minds on things above, not on earthly things.

Does this mean we live with our heads in the clouds, dreaming of heaven and angels with harps? Uh, no. Thankfully, it doesn’t mean that at all. And not setting our minds on earthly things does not mean we stop decorating, gift-giving, white elephant partying, etc…

What it means is we have to find our focus. What, or who, is most important to you? What do you prioritize? What we focus on has our attention. Whatever has our attention becomes the object of our affection, our love.Whatever has our love is magnified in us. People know what we love because whatever we are focused on, we naturally magnify. So, to “set our minds” is to bring something into focus, to give our attention to something.

The verse tells us to set our minds on things above, not on earthly things. I love the way the Message expresses this part: Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective. “Things above” are the things of Christ. The things that matter to Him, to His kingdom. The earthly things aren’t all bad–many earthly things are good, and lovely. We’re just not supposed to set our minds on these things, give our affection to them, prioritize them. We are invited to look up from all the things of this world that can consume our hours and our days, and be alert to Christ. He is the One worthy of our affection, and His kingdom is the one we live from. 

I listen to a weekly podcast called “Things Above”. It is hosted by author James Bryan Smith. He describes his podcast this way:

“This is a podcast for ‘mind discipleship.’ It is for those who want to set their minds on ‘things above’ (Col. 3:2). Each week, I will offer a glorious thought–something good and beautiful and true, something excellent and praiseworthy–to fill your mind with heavenly truths.”

I love listening to this short podcast every week because it does exactly that. It offers glorious thoughts–thoughts that draw me deeper into Kingdom-mindedness, thoughts that deepen my understanding of the character of God and what that means for life here and now. Thoughts that I can set my mind on…

But what do we do once we find our focus and set our minds on things above? Is that it? Focus on Christ and watch Him for the rest of our lives?

Far from it… We can choose to live that way if we want to… But, according to novelist & journalist Chuck Palahniuk, living that way wouldn’t be living at all. He wrote,

“The easiest way to avoid living is to just watch.”

If we set our minds and our attention on Jesus and His ways, but don’t join Him where He is, we aren’t living. This line, from the Message translation of our Colossians passage, seems to be in agreement with Chuck:

Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is.

John said on Sunday that “movement marks [God’s] whole story.” Every part of the story that includes Creation, life & death, our humanity, and God’s activity in it all moves. And perhaps no part of the story moves more than the pages where Jesus put skin on and came to us as one of us.

What if Zechariah & Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men had simply watched…? Simply seen and heard…?

Here’s the thing–

It is possible to focus on Jesus, give Him our attention, and watch what He’s doing… all without moving from the place where we are.

However, if He has all of our attention, and if that attention becomes affection that blossoms into love that outgrows our insides… it’s impossible to simply watch.

When preparing our hearts and making space for our King becomes our one overwhelming desire, when we are wholly focused and wholly devoted to the One leading us, when we can say “Jesus, be the center of it all” and mean it with all that we are, we. will. move. Because love moves. Love sees what Jesus is doing and is stirred to join Him–no matter the cost.

The individuals in our familiar Christmas stories had an awareness of God. But more than being aware of Him, they were devoted to Him. He was their priority. And so when He came to them, in whatever ways He chose, they accepted His invitation to join Him on the journey of a lifetime. A journey that would change not only their lives, but would change the entire world.

Maybe we need to ask ourselves where we are this Advent season… Are we sitting in the stands, spectators who live with our heads down, focused on the things of earth? What if God wants to move part of His story through you? Through me? I have no doubt that we are invited to partner with Him as He changes this world. I have no doubt that He desires for all of us to join Him in what He’s doing right now. He loves to bring things above to bear through things below… More specifically, through people below.

Will we join Him?

–Laura

Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

Sit with that verse for a minute. Let it have your attention–your focus. Ponder what it means.

Laura wrote above:

What we focus on has our attention. Whatever has our attention becomes the object of our affection, our love.Whatever has our love is magnified in us. People know what we love because whatever we are focused on, we naturally magnify. So, to “set our minds” is to bring something into focus, to give our attention to something.

I also want to reiterate Laura’s point that to “set our minds” on something does not imply that we just sit and watch. To set our minds on something leads to the trajectory of our lives. Our actions begin in our minds, our words begin in our minds, our choices begin in our minds, our relationships thrive or not depending on how we think and what we choose as a result of those thoughts.

Scripture is not silent on this issue:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…(Ph 2:5).

For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (Romans 8:6 ESV)

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  (Romans 12:2)

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind‘; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27)

Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

So, this week’s advent theme is love, yet it would appear that we are talking about something totally different–except for the fact that what we love consumes our minds, and agape (unconditional love) is a Holy Spirit empowered choice of the heart and mind followed by action.

As I’ve pondered our key verse--set your minds (focus) on things above, I’ve wondered if “things above”– rather than referring to things far off, way up in some inaccessible place– could mean “things above” as in above our fallen world’s ways of doing things and our fallen world’s ways of thinking…setting our minds on the way God thinks–his mindset.

God has said to us:  As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:9).

 I believe that to set our minds on things above means to align ourselves with God’s ways. In order to align ourselves with His ways, we must know Him, and to know Him we must love Him, and if we love Him, we will walk with Him, and He, and His ways,  will consume our thoughts, and those thoughts will inform our choices, and our choices will lead us to live in Him, and His life in us will spill over to those around us, and He will be magnified. 

Paul, just a couple of verses after he wrote set your minds on things above… wrote the phrase, …Christ, who is your life...

Acts 17:28 tells us that in Him we live and move and have our being. That verse certainly implies that Jesus is our total life force– it also implies action– movement.

Pastor John, when talking to us about focusing on and magnifying something, explained to us the science behind magnification. In order for something to be magnified, light rays, which normally run parallel to one another, have to be bent, which happens when they pass through a curved lens. Those light rays then converge-are concentrated through the lens- and bring whatever is out of focus or hard to see into focus, making it possible to see detail that was previously unclear.

I love the fact that magnification has everything to do with the bending of light. Light is always on the move. The Apostle John tells us of Jesus that in him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. (John 1:4)

In the Old Testament, when Moses asked God to show him His glory, God replied “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”(Ex. 33:20).

But in the first advent, God bends His glorious, blinding, all consuming light rays in the person of Jesus— and concentrates all of His love and His desire for relationship with us through Jesus, so that who He truly is–the God whose very nature is love– can be made clear to us. He makes Himself knowable and approachable through Jesus–the Light of all mankind. When we look through Jesus we see who God is. If we have seen the Son then we have seen the Father. (Jn 14:9) 

The Christmas story includes beautiful accounts of magnification and light.

Mary, in her song of praise (after Gabriel fills her in on God’s plan), exclaims my soul magnifies the Lord… (Luke 1:46)She rejoices that she is part of God’s plan and is willing to make Him great, to bring Him into focus, to carry His light, to yield to His plan, to magnify Him.

In Luke 2 we are told that there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them... Brilliant light caught their attention and resulted in them being among the first to see God in the flesh, to worship Him in person, and to carry the message of that encounter to those around them. 

In Matthew 2 we learn that the wise men, when looking for Jesus, told King Herod,  “We have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”  Light led these men to leave their own country and travel a great distance in order to draw close to God who had come to make Himself known in the person of Jesus.

There is acknowledgment, awe, and movement in each of these encounters.

Jesus, in John 8:12 tells the people “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Whoever follows me… will have the light of life.  To follow implies movement.

In Matthew 5:14 Jesus tells us “You are the light of the world…”

To be the light of the world; to magnify the God who so loves the world that He gave His only Son; to bring God into focus, means choosing to bend before Him, to yield to His ways, so that His glorious light rays can shine through our lives, illuminating Him in a way that those around us can see Him and experience His love, His life, His light.

Beautiful lyrics that we sing every year speak of this glorious light:

Silent night, Holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light. Radiant beams from Thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace.  Jesus, Lord at Thy birth. Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth. (Joseph Mohr)

Redeeming grace, grace which makes it possible for us to be restored, to be made new, to be in relationship with God, to receive His light, to be His light, to reflect His love…

In Him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.

Set your mind…

 

–Luanne

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