A gift of divine grace (a #TBT post)

Rembrandt’s “Adoration of the Shepherds”

It doesn’t look promising for the people of Judah.

From Isaiah 7:18 through the end of chapter 8, it’s a message of despair. Armies will march. People will be humiliated. The population will be diminished to the point that just a couple of animals can provide enough food. They will find themselves oppressed by the nation to whom they turned for help. Spiritually, they will turn from God seeking the advice of spiritualists and the occult.

The dismal news comes to a climax in Isaiah 8:22: “And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness.”

But … (don’t you love it when God says, “but.”) … into the darkness comes a great light. Continue reading

Advent Encounters: Mary, Part One (a #TBT post)

The Annunciation by Matthias Stomer (early 17th century Dutch artist)

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

(Luke 1:26-38 ESV)

Oh, Mary. This is just the beginning of your story.

And I have questions, questions, questions … and not like the ones in the song. I’m guessing you pretty much had no idea that your baby boy would bring sight to the blind man or calm a storm with his hand. Maybe you did, but that would make you one of the very few who understood who your son was and what he would do as the promised Messiah.

All that aside.

Did you scream when the angel appeared? I mean, a mouse running across the floor is likely to make me yelp and this is an ANGEL!

Just how old were you? Folks who follow your son centuries later are all out of whack. Scholars tell us you were pretty young, but we insist on portraying you as a 20-something (or older) in various art forms. You could really help us maintain continuity if you could let us know.

Were your parents at home when the angel popped in? Did they freak out when they heard a man’s voice in your room?

And about Joseph. I know what the book of Matthew tells us, but what was it like, one-on-one when you told him about the angel’s visit?

I know this comes later, but why visit Elizabeth? I guess the angel’s mention of her prompted thoughts of her which might logically lead to a visit, but you had just received some seriously life-changing news and you decided to go off for a visit.

Speaking of that visit, please tell me someone went with you that the Bible never names. I’d hate to think of a young woman making such a long, dangerous trip alone.

Did you have anyone you could turn to during your pregnancy? Anyone who would listen when you were flat-out scared about the immense responsibility that comes with a newborn? Anyone who could offer words of comfort when you were worried that something would be wrong with the baby? Or, did the whole town simply sit in judgment on you and make you face the whole experience alone?

That’s enough of the questions for now.

But, before I go, I have to tell you one thing.

I love how you expected the miracle.

The angel showed up and started talking about having a son and how great he would be and how his kingdom would never end. You simply ask how it would happen since you were a virgin.

You didn’t make the logical assumption that the angel was talking about a child you would have with Joseph at a future time.

You expected a miracle.

And you expected it to happen immediately.

That doesn’t happen today. It’s too easy to be cynical and pessimistic. We’re clinical, scientific and prone to over-rationalizing. It’s too easy not to expect a miracle.

This Advent, let me live in expectation of miracles.

***
These Throwback Thursday (#TBT) posts are some of my favorites from previous blogs presented here with only the slightest editing. This post originally appeared on an older blog on December 3, 2010.

Advent Encounters: Elizabeth

After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”
(Luke 1:24-25 ESV)

Sarah laughed.

Hannah surrendered.

Elizabeth hid.

Three women to whom three promises were given exhibited three different reactions.

Sarah overheard the promise of an angel and laughed.

Hannah kept her vow to give her child to the Lord.

Elizabeth remained in seclusion, away from the public in a silent home with a husband who couldn’t speak and probably couldn’t hear because of his impertinent request for a sign.

In the silence, the worship was deafening.

Imagine living in a time when having no children was considered a disgrace. Think of the whispers among the townspeople as the years pass on and there’s still no baby. What thoughts run through your own mind when you know ― as Elizabeth and Zechariah no doubt did ― that those who fear the Lord will be blessed with a full house and there are still only two people at your table?

And now, God promises a child.

And one is on the way even though you’re considered too old.

Of course, you worship the One who made the promise and the miracle.

In the few words that Scripture devotes to her time in seclusion, Elizabeth echoes the words of her ancestor, Rachel, as she acknowledged God for showing her favor and taking away her disgrace from among the people.

Another promised son with a God-designed destiny.

Sarah’s son Isaac became the father of Jacob, whose sons became the leaders of the tribes of Israel.

Hannah’s son was Samuel the priest who anointed Saul and David, shepherding the nation through its early days under the rule of kings.

And Elizabeth’s son would have the greatest honor of all though he would never take it for himself. Years later, people would be drawn to him ― a prophet in the desert declaring the coming of the kingdom of God, calling on all to repent. He would declare the coming of the Messiah.

This Throwback Thursday post originally appeared on a previous blog.

The Bookshelf: The CSB Reader’s Bible

So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the message about Christ. (Romans 10:17)

Our faith grows as we read and study Scriptures but a recent study shows that only 37 percent of Americans read the Bible once a week or more.

How can we grow that number?

No one translation or edition of the Bible will capture the attention of a public that appears to be at least somewhat resistant to reading the Scripture, but the CSB Readers Bible offers an engaging format that puts a quality translation onto a reader-friendly page.

Chapter markings, verses and text headers have been eliminated from this edition as have footnotes, study guides, photos, devotions, and all of those other “helps” that have crept into a myriad of other editions of the Bible. As a result, any given page looks like the page of any book with single-column, left-justified print that focuses reader attention where it should be – on the words of the Scriptures.

I had never thought the headings, chapters and verse numbers made a difference in how I read the Bible. I learned differently when I settled in to read the book of Ruth. Without the visual cues to which I have been accustomed, I read the book’s four chapters much faster than I ever had before. It never occurred to me that all the “page furniture” could be a distraction – but it clearly was.

The CSB Reader’s Bible doesn’t leave the reader totally without guidance, however. Chapter beginnings are subtly marked with a blue capital letter, as can be seen on the photo on this page. Quotations from the Old Testament are also presented in bold, which is helpful for identifying those occasions in which the gospel writers referred to the prophets.

That’s where the purpose of this edition of the Bible runs up against its usefulness for deep study. Without a footnote, the reader has to consult other sources to find out what Old Testament texts those bold-faced quotations come from. It’s also hard to use this edition in a small group setting due to the lack of verse numbers.

But, that’s OK. That’s not the purpose of this particular edition. This edition is meant to connect the reader directly with God’s word, allowing an immersive experience without the clutter. And that’s just what it does.

If you get distracted while reading, or find yourself bogged down in a plan to read through the Bible, consider the CSB Reader’s Bible. I know that, for me, this will not be an edition of the Bible that just sits on the shelf to collect dust. It will be the go-to version when I want to read a few pages before bed or the entirety of one of Paul’s letters during breakfast.

Additional thoughts

Why chose the CSB version? The translation philosophy for the team that created the CSB version strove to balances literal translation with readability in the English that we speak today. As a result, the translators use literal translation when the word-for-word translation is understandable, and a more dynamic – or thought for thought – translation for other areas. The result is a translation that is both understandable and accurate to the original texts.

When did verses get added to the Bible anyway? The chapters we use today were first added to the Scriptures in the 12th century by Stephen Langton though some form of chapter divisions can be found in manuscripts dating to the fourth century. Verse divisions were added by Robert Estienne in 1551.

 

Disclaimer: B&H Publishing provided me with a free copy of the CSB Reader’s Bible in exchange for my unbiased review.

Faithful to the promise {The Sarah Series 5}

our-actions-and-decisions-today-will-shape-the-way-we-will-be-living-in-the-future

Abram had been renamed Abraham. Sarai had been renamed Sarah, but there was still no child in the tent when the Lord visited his chosen couple by the oaks of Mamre. As Abraham entertained the guests, as was proper in those days, one of the mysterious guests asked about Sarah. She wasn’t far away. Curiosity drew her to the entrance of the tent, where she overheard the unexpected guest’s bold announcement: He would return in a year and Sarah would have her long-awaited son.

Sarah did what any nonagenarian would do when confront with the prediction of a pregnancy. She laughed. It is not a surprise that Sarah laughed at the idea of having a child. Genesis 18:11 makes it clear that Sarah had aged beyond child-bearing years when the Lord made his visit. When her laughter (which I always imagined as a wry chuckle) subsided, she muttered, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?”

Imagine her shock and embarrassment at the Lord’s next words.

Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” (Genesis 18:13-14 NIV)

In response, Sarah did what anyone of any age would do. She denied laughing.

But it doesn’t work to make such a denial to the Lord. Sarah and the Lord presumably never lock eyes during the encounter, but the Lord is fully aware of Sarah’s laughter and he calls her out on it.

He called her out on her sin. In laughing at the Lord’s words, Sarah wordlessly called her Lord a liar – just like we do when we talk ourselves out of the dreams God puts into our hearts. Silently, the barrage of excuses overwhelm us when we know his calling.

“Go serve in the nursery.”
“I can’t. I’m terrible with little kids.”

“Sing in the choir.”
“No way. Other people sing better than me.”

“Give that homeless man your takeout.”
“I could barely afford it myself. I can’t give it away.”

“Quit your job and serve me.”
“What about the bills?”

Through our laughter, through our questions, through our doubt, and through our rebellion God remains faithful to his promises – just as he remained faithful to his promise to Sarah. Her unbelief did not negate the blessing of Genesis 18:10, which echoes the blessing given to Abraham, “I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her.” Within a year, God’s promise of a child would finally come to pass. Despite her doubt, God provided.

The LORD came to Sarah, as He had said, and the LORD did for Sarah what he had promised. (Genesis 21:1)

May he do for you what he has promised …

Sarah and GodThis post is part of an ongoing series, The God of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. All of the posts in the series can be accessed here.

Ahead of time {The Sarah Series 4}

entering-into-the-rhythm-of-gods-timing-in-the-mundane-prepares-us-to-accept-his-timing-in-the-extraordinary-1

“Abram got two things down in the land of Egypt which really cause him trouble: one was wealth, and the other was this little Egyptian maid.”

This is how the late Bible teacher J. Vernon McGee introduced Hagar into the story of Abram and Sarai. In time, she became a key – but divisive – figure in the family, as did her son.

Years had passed since the initial promise and Sarai was still barren. God had even expanded on the promise when he made his covenant with Abram, declaring his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Month after disappointing month, Sarai waited. Her patience waned along with her hope until she struck upon a culturally-acceptable solution that defied the will of God.

In Abram’s time, maidservants were not only considered property, but also legal extensions of their mistresses, even in the most intimate of ways. Children born to them, then, would be considered legal heirs to the father’s estate. This, Sarai reasoned, would give Abram his long-awaited heir, and fulfill the promise made by the Lord.

But – as happens so often when we presume to act in the place of the Lord – the plan did not work out as Sarai had hoped. Abram agreed, and Hagar became pregnant. Hagar’s contempt for her mistress grew along with the child in her womb until Sarai could bear it no longer. Too late she confessed her plan had been conceived in error, and took out her anger and frustration on Hagar. The situation became so volatile that Hagar fled into the desert, expecting to die. Sarai’s plan brought unintended consequences throughout her lifetime as conflict remained between her and Hagar and her son, Ishmael.

Sarai’s scheming coupled with Abram’s willingness to acquiesce to a dubious plan reveals a lapse of faith. Sarai had enough faith to follow her husband as they left Haran without direction, but her faith was not strong enough to believe that God would deliver the child he said he would. To be specific, God wasn’t acting on Sarai’s timetable to have a child. Who can blame her? Sarai was a senior citizen, to put it kindly. The tick-tock of the biological clock was barely audible if it was happening at all. To her reasoning, the only way a child could possibly come into their lives was through her own intervention and her own planning – and it ended in disaster.

Too often, I find myself rushing ahead of God’s plan. There are times I do more planning than praying, more scheming than submitting. More often than not, the plans and schemes do not work out as I had hoped, and then I turn to prayer and submission in hopes of salvaging the mess I had made.

Though we tend to think about God’s timetable as it related to major life choices, we also must understand that God operates on his timetable every single day. Please understand I have no intention of over-spiritualizing the little annoyances of everyday life. Our God cares enough and is big enough to preside over the details of our lives and still have an abundant capacity to take care of the larger issues facing the planet – more often than not through our willing hands and spirit. Is he behind the delay at the office that caused you to miss the pile-up on the highway? I don’t know. Maybe. Or, it could just be that co-worker that waits until the last minute to spring a project on you.

What I do know is that God has prescribed rhythms for our lives to draw us closer to him. This, too, is God’s timing. In his timing, we rest for the Sabbath each week. We not only pray over someone’s needs; we also do what we can to help. We spend precious time in his word daily, seeking to know him better. Even our vacations – when we take them – can be a way of drawing closer to the Lord. Entering into the rhythm of God’s timing in the mundane prepares us to trust his timing in the extraordinary. Sarai learned this in time, as do we all.

Read the beginning of Hagar’s story in Genesis 16.

Sarah and GodThis post is part of an ongoing series, The God of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. All of the posts in the series can be accessed here.

A not-so-beautiful ruse (The Sarah Series 3)

Sarah and God

Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister,so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”

When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman. And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels.

But the Lord inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!” Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had.

Genesis 12:10-20

 

Obeying the call of God, Abram and his entourage began walking. They walked the length and breadth of Canaan, where Abram once more heard the promise of God as the Lord told him, ““To your offspring I will give this land.”

But a famine struck. The situation became so dire that Abram led the family into Egypt. In making this bold move, Abram had but one concern. It had nothing to do with the armies of Pharaoh or the hostility they could face as outsiders in a land not their own. It had everything to do with Sarai, whom Abram believed to be so exceedingly beautiful that she would attract the attention of Pharaoh. Not only did Abram think Sarai would attract the Egyptian ruler’s attention, but also that he himself would be murdered as Pharaoh’s desire for Sarai overtook him. So Abram devised – and Sarai agreed to – a plan in which they would present themselves as brother and sister rather than husband and wife. They believed the subterfuge would protect Abram from Pharaoh. Maybe the scheme would even lead Pharaoh to treat Abram well.

It is natural to question why such a plan would be necessary. Sarai was between the ages of 65-70 by this time. Could she still be so beautiful as to attract the attention of the ruler of Egypt?  A portion of the Dead Sea Scrolls seem to suggest that she was indeed still that physically attractive. Other scholars suggest Sarai’s dignity, bearing, and style contributed to giving her a striking impression. However we may describe her beauty, it was indeed enough to capture the attention of Pharaoh, and the story unfolded just as Abram had predicted – almost. Sarai was taken into Pharaoh’s house, and Abram was given livestock and servants.

God, however, had a plan to bring his chosen couple’s ruse to light. Scripture doesn’t tell us exactly how Pharaoh determined that his relationship with Sarai was the root of all the ills of his household, but he rightly traced the problem to Abram. After a good reprimand, Pharaoh sent the couple away, along with all that had been acquired during their stay.

The plagues sent on Pharaoh and his household show the first instance of God intervening in the lives of Abram and Sarai to protect the promise. There would be other instances – some of them strikingly similar to this one. We would think that Abram and Sarai would have learned from that first mistake, especially after God had so clearly intervened on their behalf.  Yet, they – like us – continued to devise their own strategies rather than trust fully in the promise that God has made. We make small decisions every day that rest on our own strength rather than trusting God. We make massive decisions throughout our lives that rise from our own thinking and planning rather than from the plans of the One who made us.

And, like Sarai and Abram, we sometimes find that God corrects our path. As much as we may want it, we don’t see plagues rain down on our adversaries, but we do see obstacles crop up as we move along our own trajectory until we finally surrender in prayer and give up our plans for the greater plans of the Lord.

To be honest, I need to fully surrender each day to the Lord to assure that the visions I have for my future come from him and not from my own misdirected ego. I’m not good at surrender. I fail as often as I succeed in doing so. In the end, though, I know that surrendering my small dreams opens the door to God’s greater dreams.

Read the whole story in Genesis 12:10-20.

Out of Ur {The Sarah Series 2}

Sarah and GodThe story of Abram – as it is often told – begins with a great call from God to leave everyone and everything that he knew to go to a land he did not know as he was led by a God he did not understand. This, too, is often where Sarai’s story begins, mentioned alongside Abram’s nephew, Lot, and all of Abram’s people and possessions as the journey from Haran into the unknown begins.

But Haran was not their home, and obedience to the call of God was not the beginning of Abram and Sarai’s story.

Their story begins in Ur of the Chaldeans. Scholars debate over the site of the ancient city, but generally agree it is in the Middle East in or around what is modern-day Iraq. There we meet Terah, a descendent of Noah’s son Shem, and his sons Abram, Nahor and Haran. For reasons not expressed in the text, Terah decided to move. That he packed up his family to go on a journey is less interesting than their intended destination. Genesis 11:31 tells us:

Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot (Haran’s son), and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there.

We barely know Sarai’s name before a stark truth is revealed — Sarai was barren and had no child. This declaration provides a vital context to the promise that would be made to Abram when God called him. The command to go included the seemingly impossible promise that Abram would the father of a great nation.

But, look ahead a few centuries and see the impossibility brought to life. Imagine yourself sitting around a campfire in ancient Egypt. You are part of a family and a people that have been slaves for generations. These moments – surrounded by your people and listening to the stories of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – fuel you through the drudgery of the work given each day by your Egyptian task masters. Tonight, the old woman is talking about Sarai. Her gray hair is pulled back under a worn headscarf. Her skin, tanned and wrinkled from the desert sun, adds to her air of wisdom. Her, gnarled by decades of slave labor, move expressively as she tells the story.

“And Sarai was barren,” she said dramatically. “She had no children.”

Everyone around the campfire laughs instinctively. You look to your mother and lock eyes. She smiles. You smile back. You both understand you are two daughters of Sarah sitting among dozens of daughters of Sarah in a nation of thousands of daughters of Sarah.

Barrenness appeared to pronounce a death sentence on the divine plan. But, in the course of time, it offered a background for God’s power to be displayed as obstacles and hurdles were overcome. What God had done for Sarah is still being done in the lives of women today. Obstacles, hurts, illnesses, disappointments, and loss create walls we feel unable or inadequate to climb on the path to what we know God has called us to do. We question the call. We question the process. We may even question God. We can never question his capacity to do abundantly more than we could ever imagine, and all we have to do is look back to the life of Sarah for confirmation.

Many years stood between the promise and its fulfillment, and there were multiple incidents brought on by Abram and Sarai themselves that threatened to derail the promise. We’ll explore one of those in next week’s post.

The God of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah

Sarah and God

“The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.”

“… the God of your ancestors …”

Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel …”

“… the God of Jacob …”

“… the God of Abraham …”

These names for God were on the lips of the nation of Israel from the moment Moses heard the Voice speaking from the flames of the burning bush. They were repeated in song and in solemn assemblies as the nation remembered its identity as the chosen people of God.

Hearing these names conjures images of the patriarchs wandering the length and breadth of the land the Lord swore would be theirs, waiting for the promises to be fulfilled, and listening for the voice of God to offer direction. It speaks of the eternal nature of the Lord, and of his faithfulness to the men who would give rise to the nation that he would call his own.

But these men were not alone.

Alongside Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. These were the women through whom the promised children would come. These are the women who came to know the eternal nature of God, his faithfulness and the truth of his promises though – like their husbands – they did not follow the Lord perfectly. They wavered with unbelief. They were impatient. They failed to trust in God’s timing.

Or, you could say, they were a lot like us.

A closer look at the lives of these women, though, reveals an overall life of faith in God and in experiences that point to the one who would provide the ultimate fulfillment of the covenant promises, Jesus.

What does it take for us today to cultivate a life of visible faith in which our humble walk with the Lord daily points to the promises we find in the resurrected Christ?

Let’s strap on our sandals, and find out by walking alongside Sarah in her journey with Abraham. It all begins in Haran, in ancient Mesopotamia.

 

 

Blessed hunger

Copy of Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

My kitten, Sparkie, is loves to eat. He is always hungry, and will eat anything available. If a cat could be passionate about eating, Sparkie is. Nothing stands between him and a good snack. Case in point? Look what he did to my bag of potato chips earlier this week.

 

I was thinking about this verse from the beatitudes as I was doing the dishes a couple of nights ago. A dirty skillet with the some residual bits of beef barbecue (as we in Pennsylvania define it) was on the counter beside me. Soon, I heard the familiar thump of Sparkie’s paws as he landed on the counter, immediately setting to work licking out every last morsel of barbecue.  The only way to stop him was to yank the pan away from him. Even then, he tried to follow the tasty treat as I sunk the pan beneath the dishwater.

“You must be a hungry little dude,” I said to him, as he looked at me with those deer-in-the-headlights eyes of his.

It dawned on me that this stupid little animal just showed me what it meant to be hungry – so hungry that you sniff out the food, leap a height several times your own size to reach it, and stick with it until it disappears.

When was the last time I was that hungry for God? When was the last time I actively sought Him out, determined to stop at nothing until I found him? What obstacles have I overcome to grow closer to him or to seek out justice in his name? What have I done to make the words “on earth as it is in heaven” true? Have I been faithful in my efforts to follow him?

This is what it means to hunger and thirst for righteousness. It’s hungering after God and his righteousness in ways that I can’t even adequately describe. Maybe that’s why this post was so hard to write – until a kitten and his quest for just a taste of people food reminded me of the longing we should all have for the things of God.

 

makarios_31Days

This post is part of this year’s #write31days challenge. Click here to see all of the posts. To learn more about the challenge, visit write31days.com.