FORTY DAYS

 

And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.  (I Kings 19:8) 

I can hardly wait.  In just a little over a week, Lent will be here, the Christian penitential preparation for Easter, the day we celebrate Christ’s resurrection.  And why am I looking forward to Lent?  It’s that season when we can choose to devote ourselves to intense focus on Jesus’ sacrifice for us and how we can respond. 

During the forty days of Lent, some people will give up certain foods or will spend more time in prayer.  Some will fast of all or some meals daily, and some will eliminate entertainments.  In these forty days as we intentionally wait on God, we seek to know him better, and we wait until we sense our spirit has connected with our heavenly Father. 

And that’s the point of listening.  What will God say to us?  What new direction will he send us?  How will he shift our priorities?  We sit in quietness, being still and knowing he is God.  When he speaks, there is no question in our minds as to what we should do.  The question is Will we obey the still small voice? 

Elijah had defied wicked Queen Jezebel and her pagan prophets.  He had stood alone on Mt. Carmel proclaiming the reign of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel and defeated all the prophets of Baal.  And yet, when Jezebel sought to kill him, he ran and hid himself beside a little bush, ready to die.   

God sent an angel who gave him food and water and told him to rest.  And then a second time, Elijah was encouraged to eat and rest.  The refreshing that came from above was sufficient to carry Elijah, depleted as he was, for forty days and forty nights. 

Lent for us becomes that time of waiting quietly before God and allowing him to nourish us, to give us rest, to refresh and bless us.  Waiting, resting, refreshing.  Followed by strength. 

Father, cause us to return to the quietness and renewal that we find in your presence.  Feed us so that we know our empowerment is from you alone.  Rest and refresh us.  In Jesus’ holy name.  AMEN. 

STABILITY

…he will be the stability of your times…  Isaiah 33:6  ( ESV)

When we were children, Papa decided it was time to find a larger house for his growing family.  We settled in a beautiful new home, and Papa’s diligent gardening made our lawn the envy of the neighborhood.  It wasn’t long, however, when hairline cracks began to appear in the walls of our dream house, and Papa announced that we’d be moving again.

This time Papa didn’t trust a ready-built house for his family.  Not at all.  He and Momo found a one-acre lot in a suburban neighborhood, and Papa and a friend built our forever home from the ground up.  When it came time to put in the landscaping, it was clear why Papa had chosen this particular neighborhood:  under the few inches of topsoil, there was solid rock.  The house is still standing, and when last I was inside, there still wasn’t a crack.

2020 was a year none of us will forget.  Perhaps, with me, you celebrated New Year’s Day with anticipation of a better year—a new vaccine for the dreaded Covid and the opportunity for our country to return to work and to life as we know it.  Perhaps we might even look forward to planning a family trip or a reunion with loved ones we haven’t seen since shut down.

Just barely into January we saw that relief would not be coming soon.  From any quarter around us.  UNLESS we look to the Rock.  Isaiah (51:1-3) from of old exhorts us to:

 ” Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD:  Look to the rock from which you were cut, and to the quarry from which you were hewn…  For the LORD will comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; He will make her wilderness like Eden and her desert like the garden of the LORD.  Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and melodious song.”

The foundation of our lives, the Rock on which we are built is the only stability that will see us through these stormy times.   And he is sufficient.  He IS the stability of our times; he will not be shaken; he will not be broken; he will not disappear.  Anchored to him, we can weather the tempests, and when they are over, we will still be standing.

              My hope is built on nothing less
              Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
              I dare not trust the sweetest frame
              But wholly lean on Jesus’ name

              On Christ the solid rock I stand
              All other ground is sinking sand
              All other ground is sinking sand.  (Robert Critchley)

Father, save us from ourselves and the false notion of self-reliance.  We stand in you.  In Jesus, our Lord.  AMEN.

HOPE

Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Matthew 6:10

Two men, so recently filled with joyous expectation for a brilliant future, commiserated over their shredded dreams.  A stranger joined them as they walked and enquired about their sorrow.  How could he have been so ignorant of the grief they shared?  As the stranger reflected on their shared history and what had been predicted from ancient times, hope was rekindled, and spirits seemed to rise above raw emotion.  When the stranger gave thanks over the bread broken for lunch, they knew he was Jesus.

This past year, 2020, has been a great international leveler.  Not one country has escaped the Corona virus; all have suffered.  In our country, we were experiencing unprecedented economic prosperity and growth; joblessness was at a record low; opportunities seemed to be limitless.  We were barely into the new year when the virus struck a blow that upended the whole world.  And it changed our lives.

Those men who walked along Emmaus Road bowed down with grief probably shared thoughts of what had been their dreams for the future:  emancipation from Roman rule; a house and farm for everyone; a renewal of David’s Kingdom.  Their world crashed when their Messiah was crucified.  Were they walking away from their sorrow?  Was their journey an attempt at discernment?  God saw and sent Jesus.

Why THOSE two men?  There were so many others suffering.  But they were chosen to hear the words of hope, to have their eyes opened.  Somehow, the God “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid” saw two lonely men walking out their despair and came to speak Truth to them.  God had won victory over death and was announcing the Kingdom that would bring about a revolution greater than anything they had ever thought or imagined.  And, as they listened, their hearts burned within them.

We’re walking into a new year.  Perhaps the old one symbolized the death of many things, but now the Kingdom has come.  This is a year of possibility and we can live into the reign of our Lord as we rekindle our faith in his faithfulness.  As we open our eyes.  As we welcome his rule in 2021.

 Father, we welcome you as Lord and trust you to renew us and fill us again with your Spirit and presence.  Thy Kingdom come; thy will be done.  AMEN.

CONFIRMATION

The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.  Deuteronomy 33:27

Imagine having an angel appear with a message that will dramatically alter your life and possibly even end it.  That was young Mary’s experience when Gabriel appeared announcing her choice as the mother of Messiah.  Mary’s trusting response: “… Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38).  Mary didn’t question; she said, “Yes.”

Do you think that Mary had second thoughts after the aura of the angel had faded away?  Did she, perhaps, wonder if her mind had been playing tricks?  Had she been daydreaming or had her imagination been playing games?  The Bible doesn’t speak to that.

And then there’s noble Joseph who learns that his fiancé is pregnant with someone else’s child.  He could have publicly denounced her, even led to her stoning if the old rules were still to be observed.  But Joseph, God’s earthly father for his Son, was also attuned to God’s voice who assured him that the baby was God’s only Son (Matt. 1:20-21) and that he could continue his plan to marry her.

This is all part of the story that we know and recite, but have you considered the magnitude of Mary and Joseph’s faith in participating in God’s plan?  Of all the questions and struggles they might have endured?  Of all the struggles we sometimes experience as we step out in faith to do the unthinkable?

There’s more.  God didn’t engage Mary and Joseph in a wild-haired scheme and then expect them to work it out on their own.  Not in the least!  Instead, God was with them each step of their marvelous journey. 

Look at the confirmations (plural).  Mary went to visit Cousin Elisabeth (the priest’s wife) who, upon seeing her, spoke a blessing and declared that she was carrying “her Lord” in her womb (Luke 1:42-43).  And then near Bethlehem the shepherds saw the angels and went to see the baby (and his parents) whom the angels had announced (Luke 2:8-20).  Just a few days after Jesus’ birth he was taken to the Temple for circumcision where he met Simeon and Anna who both confirmed Jesus as Messiah (Luke 2:21-38).  Finally, the wise men, strangers from a far country, arrived at Mary and Joseph’s dwelling to find Jesus, fell down, worshipped him, and presented their gifts (Matt. 2:11).

God had chosen Mary and Joseph for a unique life as earthly parents to his Son.  They were challenged to trust their heavenly Father in bringing Jesus into the world, but God didn’t leave them without his Presence and his guidance in doing his will.  We don’t know what was happening in the hearts and minds of this young couple, but we do know that God continued—in his own miraculous way—to encourage them and to confirm his word spoken by the angels.  What Mary and Joseph acted out in their lives, God validated by one and then another of his servants.

And so it is in our lives.  Whatever the faith walk to which God calls us, we never need to fear—even if it seems totally preposterous.  God is able to lead us to his fulfillment; to provide the resources to achieve the goal; and the encouragement to keep us moving in the most trying of times.  He knows exactly what we need to carry on.

When there was nothing visible to see, Mary and Joseph trusted and obeyed.  And God confirmed their faith.

Father, give me the courage of Mary and Joseph to follow in the hardest times, knowing that you are with me until I reach your destination.  AMEN.

BUDGETS

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?  Romans 8:32

I don’t know if Covid has affected you or your work’s economy, but it certainly has had an impact on our world missions ministry.  Let me rephrase that.  It certainly has had an impact on our department’s budget.  Our biannual missions meeting this past week reassured me that God’s work and his people had not been slowed down a bit even though their funds had been affected.    Somehow God has just provided creative solutions to continue the good work that he has begun through us.

We’ve cut our budget three times and have eagerly offered the new numbers up to our heavenly Father to see how he will provide.  (I’ve discovered that following Jesus is one of the most adventurous ways one can live.)  Several days ago I received a letter from one of our missionaries in which he listed some urgent needs with specific costs and prayers for donations.  I sent the letter on to members of our World Missions Prayer Group, and that very night someone called me saying she would send a check for the exact amount listed in the letter.

I sometimes have to remind myself that Jesus said, “If you…know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”  (Matt. 7:11)  As if we would do more for our children than God would do for us, his very own.

When I approached our bishop a couple of months ago asking if I could cut my work days and salary (due to travel restrictions), I had already been reassured that God would oversee my financial affairs while I disciplined my spending.  As I walk out this new faith challenge, I have not been disappointed at God’s loving care and look forward to his continued provision.

You may be experiencing your own test regarding finances or health or whatever.  Let’s go forward together anticipating God to appear at any moment.  He cares.

Father, thank you for your lovely surprises.  Strengthen our trust in our care.  AMEN.

MERCY

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.  Psalm 23:6

A precious saint tells the story of a shopping excursion downtown with her father.  After the purchases had been made, he took her to the soda fountain for a treat.  They both enjoyed a delicious chocolate milkshake and then went home.

A while later, the father overheard his small daughter boasting to her brothers about something she’d picked up at the store counter—a wonderful, long-handled spoon that had come with the shake.  When the boys ran off to play, Father gently approached his daughter and asked her about the spoon.  Was the spoon hers or had she taken it from someone else?  After a few more questions, the little girl admitted that she had taken something that didn’t belong to her.  To her horror, her father pronounced that she would have to return the spoon to the rightful owner.

The following day, the little girl and her father climbed into the family sedan and headed for the department store and its soda fountain.  Not a word was spoken.  All the little girl could think of was having to face the manager and admitting her theft.  Would the police come and arrest her?  Would she have to leave her family and go to jail?  By the time the two reached the store, tears were streaming down her cheeks.

Father and daughter returned to the scene of the crime, and then the father picked up the little girl and seated her at the counter.  He signaled for the attendant to come—and ordered two more chocolate milkshakes.  As the drinks arrived, the father spoke softly into the little girl’s ear, “Now you can put the spoon down on the counter,” and then he gave her a loving smile and a little pat.  No recriminations or denunciations, just loving mercy that allowed her to tangibly undo her childish misdemeanor.

Do you wonder that this dear earthly father became the picture of a heavenly Father for the little girl who grew up to be a faithful servant of her Lord?  How often do we think that repentance must be bitter and that restoration must be costly? 

Actually, mercy and goodness flow freely to us at our repentance because the cost has already been paid.

Father, words are inadequate to express our gratitude for your kind mercy given us freely through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  AMEN.

STILLNESS

…  In quietness and confidence shall be your strength. But you would not… Isaiah 30:15

Through the years studies have been done on the effect noise has on stress and fatigue.  As expected, people exposed to higher levels of noise experience more stress and greater fatigue whether in an office or airplane or any other venue with noticeable decibels of noise.  And, if you’re one of those people who has full concerts or speeches or sports events going on in your head 24/7, imagine the stress level and fatigue exposure.

The year 2020 has introduced all of us to record-breaking noise:  frightful and contradictory medical reports; apocalyptic political predictions; chilling street pronouncements; alarming community behaviors; and so much more.  Who wouldn’t be disturbed?  Watch any late news broadcast if you want to be up all night.  Engage in any discussion about matters with someone of a different opinion, and be assured you’ll be rattled for hours.  Noise.

The children of Israel were also subject to noise from every side—particularly when they moved from obedience to Jehovah to relying on other alliances with pagan neighbors.  Isaiah was sent to his kinsmen to remind them that strength would come from rejecting panic and being quiet before their God while bolstering their faith in confident reliance on him.  He was the one with whom they had a covenant relationship, the one who had never broken a promise, the one who always responded to their cries for help.  He’s the one who said, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psa. 46:10).  The same God who said, “Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord” (Exodus 14:13).  Our total dependence is on him.

Isaiah, reminding the Israelites that the secret of their success was quietness and confidence, goes on to say, “But you would not…”  We have the same choices in the middle of this crazy environment.  Will we still our churning thoughts and give all our anxiety to the only one who can bring quietness?  Will we cast our cares on him, fully trusting his faithfulness to strengthen us for whatever circumstances await us?

Not one of all the LORD’s good promises to Israel failed; every one was fulfilled (Joshua 21:45).  Different time, same God.  Same promises.  What will we do?

Father, the noise is hurting my heart.  I choose your quietness; I rest and am confident in YOU.  AMEN.

INJUSTICE

Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people, from the deceitful and unjust man deliver me!  Psalm 43:1  (ESV)

I doubt that there is a person alive who has not been victimized by injustice.  This may be among life’s most painful experiences.  Slander, false accusations, untimely deaths, undeserved attacks, untrue labels, wrongful judgments, misunderstandings, and miscommunications.  Injustice is especially bitter when it comes from someone we love.

My husband, a state judge, rarely allowed himself to become emotionally involved in his cases, but Stephen’s case was different.  Peter presided over numerous hearings, studied evidence and did personal research of the facts and precedents.  He saw flaws in the presentations and errors in proceedings of other courts, but he was overruled by the appeals court.  One of the most difficult assignments Peter fulfilled was setting the date for Stephen’s execution.  And one of his most wrenching experiences—at Stephen’s request (“Will you come as my friend?”)—was being present at Stephen’s death.

Few of our dealings with injustice are that momentous, but we all know the bitterness that arises from being treated unfairly.  In fact, that pain can be resurrected years after the fact if injustice isn’t resolved.  Jesus showed us how to take the sting from injustice when he suffered on the cross.  He had been betrayed by a friend, and all his most intimate companions had left him.  False accusations were followed by brutal torture, excruciating pain, and death.

On the cross, Jesus, that Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, in final triumph over all the evil of time and eternity, prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).  Omniscient, all-knowing God, through his Son was asked to pardon those who brought unmerited suffering and death to his only Son.  The basis of the argument:  “They know not what they do.”

Can you resolve that puzzle?  They knew they were killing this itinerant preacher.  They knew they were responding to political pressure.  They knew he had done nothing worthy of death.  So what didn’t they know?  They didn’t know who Jesus was.  They didn’t know he was the Son of God, the Lord of Life, the Word, the Savior and Messiah.  Jesus himself had said that only his Father revealed the identity of his Son (Matt. 16:17).  Yes, those who called for Jesus’ death knew about him, but they didn’t know him.  “Father, forgive them…”

Oswald Chambers says that there is always one thing we don’t know about other people, and that may be the very thing that gives insight to their behavior.  It may not excuse it, but it informs the phrase Jesus used, “They know not what they do.”

Is it time to release the bitterness of unjust words, wounds, judgments, suppositions?  Jesus, our example, has showed us how to do it.  Now we can ask him to work forgiveness and healing in us as only he can.

Father, give us grace to forgive just as you’ve forgiven us.  In Jesus’ name.  AMEN.

WORDS

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.  Psa. 19:4

Does anyone remember when parents whipped out a bar of soap and washed those bad words out of the mouths of children who spoke disrespectfully or said naughty words?  If that were the case today, I’d buy stock in Proctor & Gamble, assured that I was set for life.  I must be living in an alternate universe because the language I hear today is not at all familiar.  At the end of some days, I almost feel the need for a good scrub, especially in my ears.

What has happened to polite discourse?  Another thing I remember from childhood is the adage, “If you can’t say anything good about someone, don’t say anything at all.”  Geez.  If that were today’s rule, we’d be hearing nothing but the Sound of Silence.  James was right on target when he wrote, “…the tongue is a fire…and it is set on fire of hell” (Jas. 3:6).

Are you as weary as I am by the horrendous volley of words that seem to be intent on destruction?  What good can come from non-stop derision, fault-finding, judging, ridicule, mockery, and contempt?  And, sadly, this is not a partisan issue.

I’m reading about the early Church in the first three centuries of its history and note that one of the criticisms levied at it was the meanness of the Christians.  Digging a little deeper I saw that non-Christians disparaged Christians because they wouldn’t participate in popular social activities—the theater, the army, classic literature, sports—that were saturated with pagan worship.  Christians knew they were to be set apart from secular practices that were in opposition to Christ.  And what about us?

Do we dare to be different?  Peter says (I Pet. 3:10) that we are to keep our tongues from evil and deceitful speech; our conversation is to be full of grace (Col. 4:6); we should only say what is helpful to build others up and to benefit them (Eph. 4:29); we are to keep our tongues from …lies (Psa. 34:13); we’re not to slander but to be peaceable, considerate, and gentle (Titus 3:2); and the tongue of the wise brings healing (Prov. 12:18).  There are many other directives pertaining to what we say.

Apparently, Isaiah had a problem with his tongue—when he answered God’s call, the angel took a burning coal from the altar and touched his mouth saying his sin was forgiven and his iniquity taken away (Isa. 6:6-7).  I guess even preachers must learn to control their tongues.  And so should we.  I’m ready to take the pledge to use my tongue to build others up and to benefit them.  Enough of this tearing down.  (And that also means I don’t pass judgment on those who weaponize their tongues.  Instead, I pray for them.)

Father, I leave the judging to you, but I ask you to forgive me for using my words to wound rather than to heal.  Make me an instrument of your peace and love.  In Jesus’ name.  AMEN.

GETTING WELL

When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”  John 5:6

The man had an unspecified “infirmity” for thirty-eight years.  He was among the crowd who populated the porches around pool of Bethesda, and, with them, he waited for an angel to stir the pool.  Popular thought was that the first person who got into the pool after the angelic visitation would be healed.  Apparently, this infirm man was rather slow—he’d been waiting for thirty-eight years.  Then Jesus happened to walk by. 

The text states that Jesus knew the invalid had been there a long time, but he asked a question that most of us would say was rather (forgive me) stupid.  “Do you want to get well?”  Every single day for thirty-eight years someone had to transport the sick man to the pool.  Every day the man was dependent on someone else to provide food and perhaps even more intimate assistance.  And Jesus comes along and asks if he wants to get well.

In her memorable book, The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom tells of her aunt’s distress over the anniversary of the death of her husband’s aunt many years prior.  Tante Jans required a tonic and quiet in a household of lively children so that she might observe the somber occasion.  Apparently, she wanted to embrace the event that had caused such grief.  Tante Jans didn’t want to release the sorrow.

I have known folks who have suffered but who have also become so identified with their wounds that Jesus’ question would be offensive.  Who wants to be healed of a malady that offers so much recognition, or pity, or admiration, or attention?  Who wants to have to pick up his bed and start the hard, disciplined road to forgiveness, to personal responsibility, to healthy habits?

Someone I love has carried a grievance for many years; in fact, he has carried several grievances for many years.  The bitterness in his soul has affected his body so that now the sickness is in his joints and other parts.  When I urged long ago to let go and forgive, his reply was, “I’m not ready.”

Jesus’ question long ago was not so foolish after all.  God doesn’t overwhelm us and force us to be well.  His healing comes at the cost of our letting go of bitterness and injustice, of thoughtless wounds, of deception, of self pity.  He won’t make us let go.  He just asks the question, “Do you want to be healed?”

Yes, Lord, I release all the suffering I have carried.  Please take it all and make me whole.  In Jesus’ name.  AMEN.