Archive | September 2018

The God who breaks into our world

Shepherds near Bethlehem

In the musical My Fair Lady, the character Freddy begins to sing a beautiful love song to Eliza Doolittle: “Speak, and the world is full of singing, and I’m winging higher than the birds.  Touch, and my heart begins to crumble; the heavens tumble, darling, at thy….”

But that’s as far as he gets before Eliza interrupts him with a song of her own—a song of complaint: “Words, words, words!  I’m so sick of words.  I get words all day through, first from him, now from you.  Is that all you blighters can do?  Don’t talk of stars burning above.  If you’re in love, show me.  Tell me no dreams filled with desire.  If you’re on fire, show me.  Here we are together in the middle of the night.  Don’t talk of spring; just hold me tight.  Anyone who’s ever been in love will tell you that this is no time for a chat.  Haven’t your lips longed for my touch?  Don’t say how much.  Show me.  Show me.  Don’t talk of love lasting through time.  Make me no undying vow.  Show me now.  Sing me no song.  Weave me no rhyme.  Don’t waste my time.  Show me!”

Eliza is weary of beautiful words about love; she wants actually to be loved.  She doesn’t want just to hear about how much someone would love her; she wants to experience love in action.

Making a rather broad generalization, it could be said that the first testament of the Bible is a promise of love that God would someday pour out on us.  But after 929 chapters of promises from Genesis through Malachi, we, too, might cry out with Eliza, “Don’t talk of love lasting through time.  Make me no undying vow.  Show me now.  Sing me no song.  Weave me no rhyme.  Don’t waste my time.  Show me now!”

Christians divide the Bible into two sections which are normally titled the Old Testament and the New Testament.  But better titles might be the Promise Given and the Promise Fulfilled.  The Promise Fulfilled begins with the birth of Jesus wherein a significant move is made from promise to fulfillment, from words to action.

This shift from the Promise Given to the Promise Fulfilled began in an inconspicuous manner.  Most of the world was completely unaware of any change.  All they noticed was the birth of a baby in an insignificant little town in the boonies of the Roman Empire.

But heaven could not contain its enthusiasm, so a crowd of angels burst forth into song during the night on a hill above Bethlehem, shouting, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests.”

The shepherds who heard the angels’ joyous song reacted in terror.  They had no prior experience of supernatural choruses, but they knew well the terrors of this world.

As the shepherds watched their sheep that night, they did so in the shadow of the Herodian, the fortress of Herod the Great, built on the highest hill in the vicinity, three miles southeast of Bethlehem.  At the time of Jesus’ birth, the Herodian was the third largest fortress in the world, covering more than 45 acres, looming above them, as imposing as Herod himself.  Herod had established and maintained his control over Israel through wise political finagling and through cruel force.  The Gospel of Matthew tells us that when Herod receives word of the birth of Jesus, who is described to him by the Magi as the new king, Herod calls for the slaughter of all male children in Bethlehem two years of age and younger.  History also records that Herod killed his father-in-law, several of his wives, two of his sons, and many other people.  It was said, “It is better to be Herod’s hog than to be his son.”  When Herod grew sick and knew his death was near, he ordered the arrest of many well-loved leaders in Jerusalem, with instructions for them to be put to death when he died so that there would be morning in Jerusalem at his death.

For those who lived under the terrifying reign of Herod, anything out of the ordinary easily brought their fear and terror to the surface.

But something began to shift for them at the announcement of Jesus’ birth.

To journey to Bethlehem to welcome this newborn king, who is identified to them as their Savior, the Messiah, the Lord, was to put their lives at risk if Herod should find out what they had done.  But something began to shift for them at the announcement of Jesus’ birth, for now it is no longer simply words of promise but the arrival of the real thing!  With the birth of Jesus, God entered our world, which meant that love over estrangement had come into our world and that hope over fear had established residency here.  That made the journey to Jerusalem to celebrate the birth of this baby worth the risk for these shepherds!

The report from a Wycliffe Bible Translation Team echoes this good news: “Au, the national translator, and I were struggling to translate the Christmas story.  As usual, some concepts, like peace, were almost unknown in the local language.  We finally struck on the following to describe the angels’ visit to the shepherds in Luke 2:14: ‘God in heaven is just so good!  So the people who live in this world, if God’s heart is happy with them, then their fear is all-gone now!’

“Au’s eyes shone as I read this aloud.  ‘That’s so true!’ she exclaimed.  ‘When I was a young woman, I saw two paths to follow.  One was God’s path, and one was my own path.  When I followed my own path, I was afraid of everything.  When I decided I would turn away from doing wrong on purpose and follow God’s path, my fear was gone.’

“I had never seen freedom from fear in the Christmas story, but it was an insight which still encourages me.”

 

 

Advertisements

A Shepherd Who Cares

sheep

I wish the Bible had chosen a different analogy when describing us.  I wish the Bible likened us to a lion, affirming our strength, or to an owl, for our wisdom, or to an eagle, suggesting that we rise above the confines of this planet, or to an elephant, since no one pushes them around, or even to a camel, for camels persevere through the toughest circumstances.

But the Bible chooses to liken us to sheep who may be the one creature on this planet most dependent upon receiving care from others.  Sheep cannot outrun their enemy.  They cannot fight off their enemy.  They cannot defend themselves against their enemy.  And they cannot outthink their enemy.  They simply fall victim to attack.  It doesn’t even require an enemy to put a sheep in mortal danger.  If a sheep falls onto its back in a rut when its fleece if full, it can get stuck there and never be able to right itself.  It will die there on its back if no one comes along to turn it over.

Since sheep are so dependent, it matters greatly who cares for them and what kind of care is given.  In his book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Phillip Keller writes of an uncaring shepherd: “The tenant sheepman on the farm next to my first ranch was the most indifferent manager I had ever met.  He was not concerned about the condition of his sheep.  His land was neglected.  He gave little or no time to his flock, letting them pretty well forage for themselves as best they could, both summer and winter.  They fell prey to dogs, cougars, and rustlers.

“Every year these poor creatures were forced to gnaw away at bare brown fields and impoverished pastures.  Every winter there was a shortage of nourishing hay and wholesome grain to feed the hungry ewes.  Shelter to safeguard and protect the suffering sheep from storms and blizzards was scanty and inadequate.

“They had only polluted, muddy water to drink.  There had been a lack of salt and other trace minerals needed to offset their sickly pastures.  In their thin weak and diseased condition these poor sheep were a pathetic sight….

“To all their distress, the heartless, selfish owner seemed utterly callous and indifferent.  He simply did not care.  What if his sheep did want green grass; fresh water; shade; safety or shelter from the storms?  What if they did want relief from wounds, bruises, disease and parasites?

“He ignored their needs – he couldn’t care less.  Why should he—they were just sheep—fit only for the slaughterhouse.”

It seems to me that there are many around us like these neglected sheep: the homeless, veterans struggling with PTSD, refugees, persons struggling with mental health issues, and others.

How would a loving shepherd care for these sheep?

The prophet Ezekiel foretold the kind of shepherd Jesus would be: “I Myself will search for My sheep and look after them…. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered…. I Myself will tend My sheep and have them lie down…. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays.  I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak…. I will shepherd the flock with justice” (Ezekiel 34:11, 12, 14, 15, 16).

What a difference when a Shepherd actually cares for the heart and soul of His sheep—as God truly cares about our heart and our soul!

The question we need to grapple with is: What view will we take of the vulnerable and hurting and needy persons around us?  Will we view such persons in the same way as the tenant shepherd viewed his sheep, “They were just sheep—fit only for the slaughterhouse”?  Or will we care about their heart and soul as the Good Shepherd does?  Will we be an extension of the cold-heartedness of the world?  Or will we seek to be an extension of the love of Christ?

God Holds Our Sorrows

Isaiah 53.4

Though Isaiah prophesied about Jesus 700 years before Jesus was born, and though he prophesied about Jesus’ death over a hundred years before the invention of crucifixion, Isaiah provides a gruesomely accurate picture of the physical nature of Jesus’ crucifixion in Isaiah 53:4-6.

He speaks of Jesus being “pierced for our transgressions.”  Dr. Paul Brand elaborates, “Roman executioners drove their spikes through the wrist, right through the carpel tunnel that houses finger-controlling tendons and the median nerve.  It is impossible to force a spike there without maiming the hand into a claw shape.  And Jesus had no anesthetic as his hands were marred and destroyed.  Later, his weight hung from them, tearing more tissue, releasing more blood.  Has there ever been a more helpless image than that of the Son of God hanging paralyzed from a tree?

And Isaiah speaks of Jesus being “crushed for our iniquities.”  Dr. Cahleen Shrier explains, “As Jesus hangs on the cross, the weight of his body pulls down on the diaphragm and the air moves into his lungs and remains there.  Jesus must push up on his nailed feet (causing more pain) to exhale…. The difficulty surrounding exhalation leads to a slow form of suffocation.  Carbon dioxide builds up in the blood, resulting in a high level of carbonic acid in the blood.  The body responds instinctively, triggering the desire to breathe.  At the same time, the heart beats faster to circulate available oxygen.  The decreased oxygen (due to the difficulty in exhaling) causes damage to the tissues and the capillaries begin leaking watery fluid from the blood into the tissues.  This results in a build-up of fluid around the heart and lungs.  The collapsing lungs, failing heart, dehydration, and the inability to get sufficient oxygen to the tissues essentially suffocate the victim.”

Isaiah also provides a wonderfully accurate understanding of the theological nature of Jesus’ crucifixion in these verses.

Isaiah tells us that “the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all,” and he tells us that he “took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows.”  In other words, Jesus died for our sins (the bad things we have done), and in his death he took up our sorrows (the sinful and bad things done to us).  These are two distinct theological issues that point to the different ways in which God handles our sins and our hurts.

What does God do with our sins?  Micah 7:19 informs us that God “will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.”  Psalm 51:1 & 9 express that God will “blot out all my transgressions/blot out all my iniquity.”  Psalm 51:2 adds that God will “wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”  And Psalm 103:12 declares, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.”  Consistently throughout Scripture, sin is described as something God gets rid of—something God eradicates so that He does not have to look upon it any longer.

But God handles our sorrows in a very different way.  Rather than getting rid of them, God picks them up and carries them.  God holds our pain close to His heart.  In John 11:35 we find Jesus weeping with those who were grieving.  In Psalm 56:8 we are told that God puts our tears in His bottle.  Psalm 34:18 assures us that God is “close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”  Psalm 147:3 adds, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”  And 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 describes God as “the God of all comfort who comforts us in all our troubles.”

The knowledge that God does not remove our sorrows like He does with our sins, informs us that there can be something redemptive in our sorrows, and it assures us that we will never be left alone in our sorrows but rather that God will pick up our sorrows and hold them close to His heart as He holds us close to Him in the midst of our pain.

 

Is There a God Who Cares?

tears

Each individual is but a tiny dot on this massive planet on which we live, and our planet is but a tiny dot in the universe.

Could it be possible, though, that there is a God who cares for us individually?

Some would argue that there is no such thing as a god who cares about us.  In his book The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design, Richard Dawkins wrote, “Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind.  It has no mind and no mind’s eye.  It does not plan for the future.  It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all.”

According to Dawkins, there was no god watching over the formation of this world, and there is certainly no god watching over any of us today.

The ancient Greeks believed in many gods, but they did not believe that it was in the nature of the gods to care about us.  William Barclay points out that in Greek thinking, the primary attribute of the gods was apathy.  He explains their perspective: “How did the Greeks come to attribute such a characteristic to God?  They argued like this: If we can feel sorrow or joy, gladness or grief, it means that someone can have an effect upon us.  Now, if a person has an effect upon us, it means that for the moment that person has power over us.  No one can have any power over God; and this must mean that God is essentially incapable of feeling any emotion whatsoever.  The Greeks believed in an isolated, passionless and compassionless God.”

The argument is logical: Why would God care for individuals if such care would subject God to sorrow and pain over the troubles of those whom God cares for?

Wycliffe Bible translator Ray Elliott ran up against something similar as he worked with a man named Cu while translating 1 Peter 5:7 into the Nebaj Ixil dialect in Guatemala.  Every time Elliott tried a different way of translating “God cares for you” into Nebaj Ixil, Cu would reply, “We can’t say that!”  Nothing in Ixil culture or history supported the idea of God caring on a personal level.  But as Elliott kept trying to find a way to translate that phrase, Cu finally blurted out, “You mean God really DOES care for each person as an individual?”

Over and over and over again, the Bible assures us that God cares for us immensely and personally!

David became convinced of this.  So when he was captured by the Philistines (in 1 Samuel 21:10-15), David cried out to God (Psalm 56), and he declared (verse 8), “Record my misery; list my tears on your scroll—are they not in your record?”

David had discovered that God not only cares about us, but He honors and cherishes our misery and our tears.  Rather than ignoring or overlooking our sorrows and our hurts, God keeps a personal record of them.

It is an incredible thing to know and to take to heart that our tears matter that much to God!

In her book When God Weeps, Joni Eareckson Tada remarks, “God, like a father, doesn’t just give advice.  He gives himself.  He becomes the husband to the grieving widow (Isaiah 54:5).  He becomes the comforter to the barren woman (Isaiah 54:1).  He becomes the father of the orphaned (Psalm 10:14).  He becomes the bridegroom to the single person (Isaiah 62:5).  He is the healer to the sick (Exodus 15:26).  He is the wonderful counselor to the confused and depressed (Isaiah 9:6).  This is what you do when someone you love is in anguish; you respond to the plea of their heart…. It’s the only answer that ultimately matters.

Yes, you matter immensely and personally to God!  He holds your tears in His scroll; He gives His heart to you!