Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Confidence in Challenging Circumstances

As I write this morning, we are under social distancing guidelines as a result of Covid-19. School is canceled, churches aren't meeting, stores are closed, people shelter in place.

And I have seen the people in the book of Luke differently.

Zechariah and Elizabeth were "both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren..." (Luke 1:6-7). Zechariah and Elizabeth's life was not driven by their desire for a child. Apparently Zechariah had prayed and asked for a son (1:13), but his obedience and devotion to God was not dependent on God's gifts. It was dependent on God Himself. God was their audience. God was their heart desire. God was their motivation and reward.

The lack of a child, or God's answer to their prayer, did not inhibit their service. "Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense..." (Luke 1:8-9). Zechariah's ministry and diligence to his calling was not affected by God's answer, or lack of answer. He followed through. He was dependable. He was faithful to his calling--not resentful, withholding, or anxious--but steady and unmovable.

Elizabeth's response to having a child reveals her heart. She did not want a child so everyone would see, so everyone would finally notice and include her in conversation, in the responsibilities and company of children at play. She set herself apart, choosing communion with God over the enthusiasm and excitement of others. "After these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant, and she kept herself in seclusion for five months saying, 'This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace among men'" (Luke 1:24-25). Her desire and devotion was not to the women clambering at her door to share tidbits of advice on pregnancy, to ask after her health, to carry back news and gossip of her blossoming figure. Her focus and heart were set on the Lord Himself. Which led to her time with her relative, Mary.

And as I read of Joseph and Mary's journey to Bethlehem, I had to wonder that Mary didn't say, "Joseph, go ahead. Count me as one of your family. I'll be here when you get back." It seems that being "with child" is a good reason not to travel cross-country and endure uncertainty. After all, this wasn't just any baby--and what mother today would take on that journey under those conditions? This was the Son of God. The was not just a baby; it was THE baby.

But if Mary hadn't gone, prophecy wouldn't have been fulfilled, "And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; for out of you shall come forth a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel" (Matthew 2:6; Micah 5:2). If Mary hadn't gone with Joseph, there would have been no lowly stable birth, no shepherds, no proclamation to those who knew them. No doubt there would have been wonder and awe--but Mary's obedience to governing authorities led to a wonder-full, timeless, matchless birth of our Savior.

God uses the confines of our present reality to form and shape us into the image of Jesus Christ. He uses circumstances, government edicts, and even our desires to accomplish His will. There is no need for fear, anxiety or worry. He is powerfully, wisely, wholly, mercifully using all things for good. Yes, frustrated plans. Yes, disappointment. Yes, suffering and uncertainty. But in and through it all, God is at work.

"Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass." 1 Thessalonians 5:24

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Speak No Evil

Words are cheap. We can't see them. Like Snapchat messages, the appear and disappear. They can be misunderstood, misinterpreted, misapplied. Teaching children how to speak is important--not just word order and proper usage, but proper choices as well. "Watch what you say." "Say what you mean." "You shouldn't have said that..."

For years this passage in James bothered me,

But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. (James 3:8-9).

No one can tame the tongue. No one. Really? Then why does the Bible teach so much about our words and controlling what we say? Why all the instruction if it's impossible?

Using the Bible to interpret itself, I discovered that

The heart of the wise instructs his mouth And adds persuasiveness to his lips. (Proverbs 16:23)

Jesus says it more clearly:
For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. (Matthew 12:34)

But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. (Matthew 15:18)

The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart. (Luke 6:45)

When you and I are surprised by what comes out of our mouth in a heated situation, the truth is we really did mean it. Maybe we didn't intend for it to come out, maybe we hoped to keep it inside, hidden, and silent. Maybe we regret those inescapable words. But Jesus teaches that we said what we meant. It was already there, in our heart and mind.

In that case, it's true. We can't tame the tongue. We can work to change habits and patterns, but sarcasm, anger, crude language, and cutting remarks will find their way to the surface. They can't be quieted. When stirred, they rise to the surface and burst.

The answer is to harness my heart. Words and actions are a vehicle for my desires. What I want, value, and treasure is communicated outwardly. It has been said that "My actions betray my beliefs." The same is true of words. Snippets of words can be controlled and managed, but the whole of my speech reveals my heart. And there's more bad news,

The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)

That's the struggle. Not only is the tongue unstoppable, the heart is deceitful, sick, and wicked. We need a new one. But there is a way. There is hope.

Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26)

Recognition of my sinful, wicked state, of my selfishness, arrogance and pride is the first step. The second is a humble plea that God would forgive and cleanse. He will, and He does, when we come believing that Jesus Christ already paid the price of our sin against Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10).

At that time we are given new life, a new heart, the very Spirit of God to fight the desires and sin that remain. Daily, hourly, as we renew our mind with the Word of God we replace our own desires with God's. Then, when difficulties arise, our plans are thwarted, and others sin against us, we respond with a different heart. Our words are different, not because we've wrangled them, but because they come from a different source altogether.

Put it into context and this is what you have:

If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.

See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh.

Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:2-18)

Wednesday, March 11, 2020


It would seem that church goers, evangelical Christians, whatever-you-call-them-in-your-neck-of-the-woods, look down on depression and loss. They seem above it all. There is little or no room for despair. But as I read the Bible, it's there. It there among people who should "know better," among the good guys, so perhaps our platitudes and judgment should be applied to those who struggle with the idea of depression and despair being unbiblical.

Here's the thing. We say and think and rest on the fact that we are not to grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). And I honestly believe that if Christ is our hope, we will not give in to despair for as long as others. That those who belong to Christ will receive comfort, peace, and a settledness even in affliction. But in reading the book of Luke, in contemplating Christ's death and resurrection, we must agree and see the true despair and loss. The disciples lost Christ. They lost the source of hope. They experienced true despair. We could counsel and encourage them till the cows came home, remind them of all Jesus had said, but the reality of the situation is that Jesus. Was. Gone. They had nothing. They were hopeless. And the fact is, what they experienced and the way they interpreted the situation was real. It was, in fact, the most hopeless, despairing time of all eternity--and they felt it. They knew it. They were immune to hope because they felt the weight of reality, loss, emptiness. It had a grip on the pit of their stomach--and it was justified.

What do you do when your foundation, your security, your reason for living is gone? We may use the term jokingly, but loss of hope is the worst. It's below bottom. There's no way out. The disciples had lost everything that mattered. Jesus really died. Gone. A lifeless body in a tomb. And in His last moments, they had deserted and betrayed Him. He would never know how much they missed Him. They blew it--and He died alone. What guilt! What shame! What fear, desperation and despair.

Is it any wonder that His resurrection was received with skepticism and trepidation? There were some who had lost loved ones and received them back. They may have understood a measure of the disciple's joy, but oh, what an energy-sapping turn of events to receive, not just Jesus, but the hope of all He'd promised. Their weeping, gloom, wracking grief had been for naught. Not only was Jesus here, "in the flesh," there was now multiplied hope, joy, and peace that everything else He said would come to pass. "For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us" (1 Corinthians 1:20 NKJV).

To their amazement, forty days later, He left. Again. But as always, He left with a promise. This time they believed Him. They had proof and confidence that in Jesus Christ, a promise made is a promise fulfilled. This goodbye was not accompanied by guilt, shame, embarrassment, fear, and betrayal but hope. Here is a description of Jesus leaving them a second time:

While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they, after worshiping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising God. (Luke 24:51-53)

To those who've lost the best, who have lost your foundation, your joy, your reason for living: you are not alone. You feel very alone. You are in a dark, desperate place. Here is a biblical example of those who know and understand what it is to grieve without hope. To grieve ugly. To grieve until your gut hurts and your tears run dry. God gave us a record of men who traveled beyond the rim of despair.

Beautifully, that is not the end of the story. God intervened. He brought the only hope that matters. When Jesus breaks into your gloom and despair, you will live again. You will have peace and confidence. This world is a broken, sinful, wicked, dark place. You are not wrong. But God has entered. He promised to be with us, to give us the "light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God" (2 Corinthians 4:4). Cry out to Him. Don't stop. Turn to Him. Let loose the bindings that keep grief close, tight, and protected. Let Jesus see the pain. Invite Him to sit with you in the darkness. Pour out your heart. He is okay with your guilt. He isn't surprised by who you are or how you've responded. But He is waiting for your call.

For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you.

But having the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed, therefore I spoke,” we also believe, therefore we also speak, knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you. For all things are for your sakes, so that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God.

Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:6-18)