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The Birth of Jesus Foretold

“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’” (Luke 1:34-35 esv).

By the time of the Angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary, the land of Israel found itself under Roman rule, which at times could be oppressive. The reality posed by Rome challenged the widely held belief among the Jews that our God is the only god, and we are His chosen people. The present reality produced a widespread yearning for God’s redemption, which many thought His Messiah would accomplish.

Gabriel announced a message to Mary that had been anticipated and hoped for by many. So, on the one hand, she was prepared to hear it and receive it. There was only one problem. She was to be the vessel of God’s redemption, giving birth to His Son. And she was a virgin: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

Gabriel then proceeded to relay how this would be accomplished, concluding with the reminder, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37 esv). The Jews found themselves in a difficult period awaiting God’s redemption, and Mary found herself incapable of seeing how she could fulfill what Gabriel told her.

The message of Advent is God entering into human history in a way that previously He had not done. At the moment when things looked the bleakest for His people and impossible for Mary, He provided a way. He entered their story. Upon hearing what God intended to do, Mary’s response was one of trust and obedience: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38 esv).

Throughout the Bible, God showed up to deliver His people. When circumstances seemed the darkest, He sent messages of hope. When things seemed impossible, He sent deliverance. God is for us. The annunciation of the birth of Jesus to Mary proclaims that He is with us.

Will we choose to respond to God, like Mary, with trust and obedience? Even when we don’t understand how He will accomplish His purposes, will we choose to act as His servants? Mary chose to trust what God told her and to submit to His will. Her choice led to the redemption of the world. This Advent, do we trust God regardless of the appearance of our external circumstances? Will we obediently submit to His will for Him to bring hope and deliverance in our lives?

PRAYER

Father, thank You for sending Your Son. Regardless of how difficult the circumstances appeared, You made a way. Lord, may we submit to You as Your servants to bring Your light and hope to our world. Amen.

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Do You Want to Be Blessed?

“How happy are those whose way is blameless, who live according to the Lord’s instruction! Happy are those who keep His decrees and seek Him with all their heart. They do nothing wrong; they follow His ways” (Psalm 119:1-3 hcsb).

Hebrew poetry, like the psalms, uses a form known as “parallelism.” Parallelism within poetry offers a way of saying something and providing either a statement of equivalent meaning, a statement of antithetical meaning, or an expanded meaning. The first verses of Psalm 119 offer parallelism that provides an equivalent meaning.

For example, “Blessed are those whose ways are blameless” equals those “who walk according to the law of the Lord.” In other words, those whose ways are blameless walk according to the law of the Lord. Notice that this parallelism also brings clarity to what the psalmist meant about a way that is blameless. How does one have a blameless way? By walking in the law of the Lord, i.e., obeying God’s commands. And this is where verse 2 begins: “Blessed are those who keep His statutes.”

Verse 2, then, continues the parallelism of verse 1: Those whose ways are blameless equal those who walk according to the law of the Lord equal those who keep His statutes. Verse 2 also has its own parallelism between the first and second parts of the verse: Those who keep His statutes are those who seek Him with all their heart.

Once you become aware of this technique with Hebrew poetry (in Psalms, Proverbs, and the prophets especially), it helps to clarify a lot of “spiritual” language of the Bible. For example, how often do we hear a call to seek God? But how does one do that? It’s right here in Psalm 119:2—we seek God with our whole heart by keeping His commands. The thought of verse 2, however, continues into verse 3: “They do no wrong but follow His ways.” This also explains how one seeks God with their whole heart, by doing no wrong, which is walking in His ways. As we already noticed, a person’s way is blameless when they walk in the law of the Lord, which means keeping His statutes and commands. 

The Psalmist provided us with the path of blessing, to walk in the law of the Lord, to keep His ways, which means that we seek Him with our whole heart. Then we will be blessed.

PRAYER

Lord, may we seek You with our whole heart by keeping Your statutes and commands. Amen.

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Far from the Promise

“David left Gath and escaped to the cave of Adullam. When his brothers and his father’s household heard about it, they went down to him there” (1 Samuel 22:1 niv).

David found himself for a period of his life having to flee from Saul. Saul pursued him wherever he went. David felt so pressed that he even had to seek refuge with Achish, the Philistine king of Gath (Goliath’s hometown). As you can imagine, the Philistines mistrusted David and did not welcome him warmly. So, David left Gath and escaped to the cave of Adullam.

Adullam sits on the border between the Philistine territory of Gath and the tribal territory of Judah (David’s tribe). It overlooks the Elah Valley where David defeated the Philistine champion, Goliath (1 Samuel 17). So, David flees from Saul, unaccepted even by Saul’s enemies, and finds himself in the cave at Adullam overlooking the site of his greatest victory.

When David defeated Goliath, he found himself at the top. He defeated Goliath, saved Israel, defended the honor of God and Israel, and was taken into Saul’s court. Also, he had been secretly anointed the future king by Samuel. Things looked promising. You have to wonder whether David thought his path from his victory in the Elah Valley to the throne was going to be a smooth, straight shot. To a certain extent, when he stood over the body of Goliath, cutting his head off with Goliath’s sword, the Philistine army fleeing with the Israelites in pursuit, he stood very close to God’s promise to him of the kingship, there in the Elah Valley.

When he found himself in the cave of Adullam, overlooking the same valley, the location of his greatest triumph, he was the furthest from the throne and God’s promise than he had ever been. Every morning when he woke, he looked over the scene of his victory, and you wonder whether he found himself despairing of God’s promise. “Has God really said?” “Because I certainly don’t see the path from where I am today to what he promised me.” “Me, a king?” “I’m running for my life and living in a cave, hardly the house of a king.”

Have you ever found yourself in a place where you feel an overwhelming sense of despair? The vision that God gave you for your life, your future, seems a million miles away, and God Himself seems even further away. You remember your victories, those moments when you felt triumph that God was right with you. But now all of that seems like a dream, and you find yourself in despair.

The cave of Adullam was not the end of David’s story. Nor will your times of despair be the end of your story. God is faithful. Rarely does He bring us straight from the victory field to the throne. Rather, He leads us on a winding journey where we learn to trust Him and His promises, even when He and they seem far away. God is at work; therefore, we will not despair forever.

PRAYER

Father, wherever we find ourselves, lead us in Your ways and to Your promises. Amen.

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Are You Lazy?

“A lazy person’s way is blocked with briers, but the path of the upright is an open highway” (Proverbs 15:19 nlt).

We don’t often think about habits like laziness and discipline as being spiritual qualities, but according to the Bible, they are. The Proverbs repeatedly caution about the consequences of laziness. In this passage, the author likens the way of the lazy to a path overgrown with thorns. A way that is untended, a difficult passage for those on a journey. This image resonated with the ancient readers who understood the work associated with clearing a path and maintaining it. A path overgrown with thorns provided the image of lazy person.

The way of the upright stands in contrast. This path provides a level highway, a way that people can easily travel from place to place. The author of Proverbs interestingly did not contrast the way of the lazy with the path of the diligent; rather, he contrasted the lazy with the upright. In other words, laziness—lack of discipline and industry—he equated as the opposite of being upright, which we often identify as a spiritual condition.

How often do we see laziness and lack of discipline within our lives as a reflection of our spiritual state? This may not elicit the emotional high of singing worship music, but in truth, the Bible has a lot to say equating discipline with being spiritually upright—or its opposite (being lazy) as contrasted to our uprightness.

Paul articulated the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians. By referring to it as such, we often relegate these behaviors and habits to the spiritual realm, but if we look at them, they are all actions brought about by discipline, spiritual discipline. As humans, we are not naturally prone to exemplify “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23 nlt).

The fruits of the Spirit come about and grow in our lives through disciplined action and choice. God doesn’t just make us this way when we come to Him. We must choose to discipline ourselves to be this way and live this way. The opposite of such discipline is laziness. And a “lazy person’s way is blocked with briers.” It is not a path that benefits anyone or can be used.

God is not honored by laziness or lack of discipline. What does our activity say about our relationship with Him?

PRAYER

Father, as we endeavor to honor You in everything we do and say, help us to be more disciplined, so that we may produce the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. Amen.

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Put Your Hope in God

“As a deer longs for streams of water, so I long for You, God. I thirst for God, the living God. When can I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while all day long people say to me, ‘Where is your God?’ I remember this as I pour out my heart: how I walked with many, leading the festive procession to the house of God, with joyful and thankful shouts. Why am I so depressed? Why this turmoil within me? Put your hope in God, for I will still praise Him, my Savior and my God” (Psalm 42:1-5 hcsb).

Do you ever find yourself longing for God? Do you ever feel so overwhelmed by your circumstances that you cry out to God in absolute desperation yearning for His help? Do you ever find yourself asking, “God, where are You?”

The writer of Psalm 42 felt that way. He found himself overwhelmed by his circumstances, downcast within his soul. He felt buried under the billows and waves. His memories of the past—when he experienced the joy of traveling to the house of the Lord on pilgrimage—didn’t soothe his torment; they actually added to it: “Why, my soul, are you downcast?” He longed for God, for His deliverance.

His circumstances, those around him, and even he himself questioned of God, “Why have You forgotten me?” It’s understandable when we find ourselves overcome with life and our circumstances to feel forgotten by God, to feel isolated and alone. The author’s strength, however, comes from his ability to affirm his hope in God within his circumstances: “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God.” He asks the question twice (verses 5 and 11), “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” The answer, in part, pertains to the very real and overwhelming circumstances in which he found himself. Yet, both times, he answers his question affirming his belief that God had not abandoned him.

By the end of the psalm, his circumstances have not changed and neither have his emotions; he closes the psalm asking why his soul is downcast. But, in spite of his circumstances and emotions, he confesses his confidence in God and that he will yet praise Him. This is not merely the power of positive thinking. His conviction emerges from a deep realization that, regardless of his situation and feelings, God had not abandoned him; God is still his hope.

Faith is not willing ourselves to believe. Faith doesn’t require a lot in moments of joy and security. The test of our faith appears in those moments when, even after professing our belief in God, nothing changes. Maybe the depression even deepens. Do we have the deep, penetrating conviction that God has not abandoned us regardless of how things seem? Can we remain convinced that He is our hope, even when we do not see it or feel it? When we feel abandoned by God, do we still long for Him even as the parched deer longs for the cool streams of water?

PRAYER
Father, regardless of our circumstances or feelings, You are our hope and our God. Come to us in our desperation. Amen.

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How’s Your Temper?

“A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention” (Proverbs 15:18 esv).

We live in a world where people’s tempers constantly simmer below the surface. If we hear something on the news, see something on social media, or hear someone say something that we do not agree with, how often do our tempers flare? How quick are we to respond?

Our hot-tempered responses rarely resolve anything. Rather, they lead to an escalation, which, as Proverbs says, stirs up strife. Yet we feel that we have the right to respond, even in the heat of the moment. We see this demonstrated in the world around us repeatedly.

Communication cannot occur in the midst of strife. Nothing positive comes from a hot temper. Often, hurtful and overheated comments result from such a response. Someone seeks to defend themself from attack rather than try to understand the issue or point of contention. In our desire to make ourselves heard—or when we respond in anger—we lose the ability to communicate.

“But he who is slow to anger quiets contention.”

The Bible provides practical instruction for us to develop into spiritually obedient followers of the Lord. In fact, biblical spirituality primarily pertains to how we interact with others in our daily lives.

Think for a moment how often in our world—in your own world—would a milder response heal a situation, allow for productive communication, and calm an escalating situation? How would it change our civil and political discourse? How would it impact the communication in our homes between spouses, children and parents?

Nothing lasting or of value can come from strife. If we cannot communicate in the most fundamental of manners, we certainly cannot encourage one another in following the Lord. How’s your temper? Are you slow to anger? Or do you reflect the hot-tempered society we live in? Do you seek to calm contention, or are you stirring up strife? Are you part of the solution or part of the problem?

PRAYER
Father, help us today to be slow to anger in word and deed. May we calm contention in our families, among our friends, in our communities and throughout the world, so that Your name is glorified through us. Amen.

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Do You Fear God?

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10 niv).

We usually equate wisdom with what we know. Knowledge equals wisdom. Some may add that wisdom is the proper application of knowledge. The Bible, however, teaches that wisdom equals the fear of God. That’s a rather odd equation for us, because when we speak of fear, we refer to an emotion connected with dread or terror. Those aspects are part of the biblical idea of fear, but within the Old Testament, fear of God is often synonymous with love of God.

Deuteronomy 6:5 called upon the children of Israel to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (niv). A few verses later, within the same spirit, they are commanded: “You shall fear the Lord your God and serve Him, and shall take oaths in His name” (Deuteronomy 6:13 nkjv). Loving God means fearing Him and serving Him. In other words, we fear (love) God by obeying (serving) Him.

Within the Bible, one does not gain wisdom by merely acquiring knowledge, information, or facts. Wisdom comes from fearing (obeying) God and His commandments. To know something within the Bible refers to a relational interaction. After Abraham obeyed God and took Isaac to offer him up, God said to Abraham, “For now I know that you truly fear God” (Genesis 22:12 nlt). He knew that Abraham feared God because Abraham obeyed. One cannot know God without obeying God. And God learns our degree of commitment through our obedience to Him.

Wisdom, then, comes from obeying God, which is what relationship with God looks like in the Bible. It comes through relational interaction, which pertains to our doing His commands, not our emotions about Him.

Do we daily pursue the wisdom and insight of God? To acquire it, we must fear (love/obey) Him. This is what it truly means to have a relationship with God.

PRAYER
Father, may we grow in our fear and knowledge of You today as we obey You with all our heart, soul, and strength. Amen.

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True Discipleship

“Now Ezra had determined in his heart to study the law of the Lord, obey it, and teach its statutes and ordinances in Israel” (Ezra 7:10 hcsb).

In both Hebrew and Greek, the word for “disciple” means “student.” A disciple, then, is one who studies. We tend to use the term disciple to mean a follower, but that is not the biblical idea of discipleship. Ezra provides the model of a biblical disciple: one who studies, who does, who teaches. In fact, this is the progression of biblical discipleship: Study leads to doing, and as one progresses with study and doing, he or she gains the ability to teach others.  

Our discipleship suffers because often we do not view study as a foundational ingredient of our becoming disciples. Instead of making disciples—who study the law of the Lord and observe it—we seek to make followers, which has a different connotation.

Some Christians segregate study from spirituality, fearing that study erodes one’s relationship with God and seeing a conflict between the head (study) and the heart (the seat of one’s true relationship with God). Just as an aside, while we identify the heart with emotions, passions, and deep feelings, in the Bible the heart was associated with the mind and learning (biblical people assumed the emotions lay in the kidneys). So, when the Bible calls on us to love God with our heart, it means to love God with our mind, our learning, our study.

Biblical discipleship requires study. It’s at the very core of discipleship: “The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher” (Luke 6:40 niv). Jesus indicated that the way one truly becomes like Him is by being “fully taught,” meaning that we study and practice His teaching. Jesus also said that the proof of our love for Him depends on our keeping of His commandments (John 14:15), not how we feel about Him.

If we are going to be true disciples of the Lord, like Ezra we must set our hearts to study the law of the Lord, which leads us to do it, and as we become fully taught—studying and doing—we teach others. The commission that Jesus gave His disciples was to “make disciples”—not converts or followers, but disciples. How can we make disciples, students, if we aren’t studying and doing the words of the Lord? In order to disciple, we must first be disciples, and the way to do that was shown to us by Ezra the scribe: Study the law of the Lord, do it, and teach others.

PRAYER
Father, may we grow in our learning and doing of Your word to become more like our teacher, Jesus, so that we can make disciples of others for Your glory. Amen.

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Remember Where You Came From

“Remember that the Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2 nkjv).

Remember! One of the most frequent commandments throughout the Bible is “Remember!” Remember the road you’ve traveled, the struggles and trials you’ve faced. And remember Who brought you along your path. Remember Who provided for you, cared for you, and calls upon you to remember and observe His commandments. Remember.

We often turn to God in our times of need. When circumstances, finances, diagnoses, and life are too overwhelming, then we turn to God. We cleave to Him through those wilderness times of our life, relying upon His presence and provision. But, once He brings us through those times and we find ourselves upon a firm footing, standing in the Promised Land, how quickly do we forget, rely upon ourselves, and ultimately turn from His ways? Remember.

The festivals that God gave Israel within the Old Testament served two purposes: 1) They were connected with the agricultural cycle, particularly the harvest times, and 2) they called the people to remember what God did for them in the wilderness, how He led them and provided for them. The agricultural nature of the festivals called upon the Israelites to remember Who sent the rain in its season so the crops could grow, and ultimately Who was responsible for their sustenance and provision. The connection with the wilderness wanderings called upon the people to remember a time when their need for God and His provision was more acute, to remember where they came from.

During the fall harvest festival, Sukkot, God instructed the children of Israel to construct temporary shelters, or booths, that they lived in for the duration of the festival. “Live in temporary shelters for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in such shelters so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in temporary shelters when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 23:42-43 niv).

Dwelling in booths was to remind future generations—generations that did not experience the hardships and uncertainty of the wilderness—how God provided for His people. When later generations found themselves living prosperously in the land, the booths reminded them of a time in their history when their forefathers lacked such prosperity, and in that moment they should remember God, Who brought Israel out of Egypt.

What is the ultimate goal of this remembrance? We find it in the passage from Deuteronomy quoted initially: “Remember … whether you would keep His commandments or not.” We confront our limitations and smallness in times of need. We realize how finite and limited we are. It becomes easy to turn to God in those moments. And, as a loving Father, He comes to us. But when we find ourselves in times of prosperity, it’s too easy to think we stand alone on our own two feet, and turning from God and His commandments becomes easy.

Remember—where He has taken you. Remember—His commandments. Remember—He is King.

PRAYER
Father, thank You that You take us through the wildernesses of our lives and provide for us. May we always—in good times and in bad, in plenty and in want—remember You and Your commandments. Amen.

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The Day of Atonement

“So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God” (Matthew 5:23-24 nlt).

The Bible describes three types of sins: 1) intentional sins that I commit against God, 2) unintentional sins that I commit against God, and 3) sins that I commit against my neighbor. For sins I intentionally commit against God, the only course of forgiveness is repentance: “You do not want a sacrifice, or I would give it; You are not pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit. God, You will not despise a broken and humbled heart” (Psalm 51:16-17 hcsb). The sin sacrifices—which represent only about 17 percent of the sacrifices commanded by God—pertain to those sins unintentionally committed against God. For the sins that I commit against my neighbor, however, repentance to God and sacrifices do not atone for them according to the Bible. I must make restitution of up to four times the damages and be reconciled to my neighbor, both in the Old and New Testaments.

Jesus’ injunction to His followers (Matthew 5:23-24) comes from this biblical realization regarding the different ways in which we must deal with the broken relationships in our lives. For Jesus’ first-century Galilean listeners, the only place they could make an offering was in the Jerusalem Temple—a journey that took at least four days from the Galilee. It’s striking to hear Jesus’ words as His initial audience did: If you are at the altar in Jerusalem and remember that someone has something against you, leave your offering, go back at least four days’ journey, and be reconciled. Then return to Jerusalem and present your offering to God. Reconciliation with one’s neighbor provided the foundation for that offering to be accepted.

Jesus’ commandment to His followers, even the spirit of it, grew from the world of ancient Judaism. This commandment is still practiced today within the Jewish community in the days surrounding Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most holy day within Judaism. In the days leading up to Yom Kippur—a day when people fast, repent, and call upon God to forgive the sins they committed against Him—Jewish people first seek to be reconciled with their neighbors. They ask forgiveness and seek to make restitution. Why? Because of the belief that we cannot ask forgiveness from God on Yom Kippur if we have unrepaired relationships with our neighbors; those must be repaired first, even if we must make restitution. Then, when we come to God, our gift will be acceptable.

This same spirit stands behind the words of Jesus in the Gospels. My relationships with others provide the foundation for my relationship with God. Zacchaeus told Jesus, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” Jesus responded, “Salvation has come to this home today” (Luke 19:8-9 nlt).

When we think about the Day of Atonement, we often focus upon our relationship with God and His forgiveness of our sins. The Bible teaches that our repairing, making restitution, and reconciling ourselves with our neighbor provides the foundation upon which God accepts our gifts to Him: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother he has seen cannot love God he has not seen” (1 John 4:20 hcsb).

PRAYER
Father, forgive us as we have forgiven. Amen.

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