When you read through all the books of the Jewish Scriptures and come to the final two verses, you find that the last thing God said to his people was a promise: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.”
Since the writing of those verses in the book of Malachi around 430 B.C., Jewish people have been hoping for the arrival of Elijah to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. Even today, when Jewish people celebrate Passover, they set an extra chair at their table, in hopes that Elijah will come and fill that seat. Every year, during the meal, someone will get up from the table, go to the door, and look to see if Elijah has come.
Just a few verses into his story of Jesus, John points our attention back to the promise of Malachi 4:5-6, that God would send his servant to prepare the way of the Lord. John writes, in John 1:6-9, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
How did John go about the task of preparing the way of the Lord? How did he go about the work of testifying to the light?
John fulfilled his assignment by doing two key things: He strove for what is good and just, and he pointed to Jesus.
In striving for what is good and just, John called people to repentance. He told people to turn away from their sinful ways. He told them to act with integrity and with compassion. He even told Herod Antipas to repent of his corrupt relationship with his brother’s wife.
In pointing people to Jesus, John spoke of Jesus as one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and as the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. And John stressed that he must decrease so that Jesus would increase.
John the Baptist had a unique role in history. He was the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. But John also sets a model for us to follow, for we, too, are given opportunities to point people to Jesus.
How are we to do it? It seems that we are to do what John did. We are to strive for what is good and just, and we are to point people’s attention to Jesus.
We live in a world where integrity is often lacking, where hypocrisy is frequent, where cruelty is too common, and where apathy often reigns. We live in a world where people long to find individuals who act with care and kindness and sincerity and trustworthiness. A life like that draws people to Jesus.
The story is told of a woman who was crossing a street at London station when an elderly man stopped her and said, “Excuse me, Ma’am, but I want to thank you.”
She looked up and asked, “Thank me?”
He replied, “Yes, Ma’am, I used to be a ticket collector, and whenever you went by, you always gave me a cheerful smile and a ‘Good morning.’ I knew that smile and kindness must come from inside somewhere. Then one morning I saw a little Bible in your hand, so I bought one too, and I found Jesus.”
When we show genuine care for others we attract people to Jesus.
Madeleine L’Engle suggests, “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
Matthew and Luke begin their stories of the life of Jesus with pieces of the traditional Christmas story—the record of a baby born in Bethlehem. John probably knew the Christmas story better than anyone else, for when Jesus hung on the cross he assigned John the task of caring for his mother. According to the records that have been passed along, when John moved to Ephesus, Mary lived in his home. But John does not record her memories of Jesus’ birth.
It’s as if John looked at what happened in Bethlehem, stepped back, and asked, “Do you have any idea what really happened here? This is not just any baby who was born in Bethlehem. This is the Maker of the universe who has become a baby human!”
So John opens his gospel by describing Jesus as “the Word,” stressing that Jesus was with God from the beginning and was God, that all things came into being through him, and that he was the life and the light of the world.
John wants us to marvel over the magnitude of this miracle.
It was nothing less than the Creator of the universe who took up residence in an amniotic sac for nine months.
The Limitless God, who stretched out the stars in the galaxies, kicked against the walls of his mother’s womb.
The Omnipotent—the All-Powerful—had to receive nourishment through an umbilical cord.
The One who is Invincible became the delicate weaving together of flesh and bones, ligaments and muscles.
The One who is Spirit and Truth was given eyebrows and fingernails.
The Almighty God was pushed through the birth canal then wrapped in swaddling cloths.
The One for whom the angels sing, “Glory to God in the highest,” had to nurse at Mary’s breast and be burped on Joseph’s shoulder.
The All-Knowing God would have to learn how to walk and how to say, “Abba.”
About this incredible paradox, Augustine wrote, “Man’s maker was made man that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast; that the Bread might hunger, the Fountain thirst, the Light sleep, the Way be tired on its journey; that Truth might be accused of false witnesses, the Teacher be beaten with whips, the Foundation be suspended on wood; that Strength might grow weak, that the Healer might be wounded; that Life might die.”
Luci Shaw expresses this wonderful mystery in “Mary’s Song”:
Blue homespun and the bend of my breast keep warm
this small naked star fallen to my arms.
(Rest…you who have had so far to come.)
Now nearness satisfies the body of God sweetly.
Quiet he lies whose vigor hurled a universe.
He sleeps whose eyelids have not closed before.
His breath (so light it seems no breath at all)
once ruffled the dark deeps to sprout a world.
Charmed by doves’ voices, the whisper of straw, he dreams,
hearing no music from his other spheres.
Breath, mouth, ears, eyes—
who overflowed all skies, all years.
Older than eternity, now he is new.
Now native to earth as I am, nailed to my poor planet,
caught that I might be free,
blind in my womb to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended I must see him torn.
Every year, in September or October, Jewish worshipers celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, to remember God’s care for them throughout the years that they wandered through the desert, on their journey from slavery in Egypt to their new life in the Promised Land. Scholars believe that Psalm 95 was written for the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles. Indeed, the psalm concludes with a recollection from Israel’s time in the desert. But the focus of verses 8-11 is not on God’s good care of them but on the hardheartedness of those who doubted God and grumbled about Moses to the point that Moses feared that they would stone him to death. What is particularly interesting about the incident at Massah and Meribah (Exodus 17) is that it takes place on the heels of the people walking through the Red Sea (Exodus 14 & 15), and the bitter water of Marah being cleansed (Exodus 15), and the provision of manna from heaven (Exodus 16).
Psalm 95 is a call to us to make a choice concerning how we respond to the challenges we face in life. It is a warning to us not to choose the way of hardheartedness and grumbling (as happened at Massah and Meribah). It is an invitation to us to choose the way of gratitude and trust (as we are encouraged to do in the first seven verses of Psalm 95).
Verses 1, 2, and 6 are filled with invitations to us: “O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise…. O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!”
Such invitations to us to enter the practice of worship, trust, and gratitude ae invitations to us to step away from the misery of resentment and to step into God’s treasure house of joy and contentment.
Henri Nouwen explains, “Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift. My resentment tells me that I don’t receive what I deserve. It always manifests itself in envy. Gratitude, however, goes beyond the ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ and claims the truth that all of life is a pure gift. In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.
“Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of a complaint. I can choose to be grateful when I am criticized, even when my heart still responds in bitterness. I can choose to speak about goodness and beauty, even when my inner eye still looks for someone to accuse or something to call ugly. I can choose to listen to the voices that forgive and to look at the faces that smile, even while I still hear words of revenge and see grimaces of hatred.”
It is as though gratitude sets us free and invigorates our life. Robert Emmons points out, “The practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life. It can lower blood pressure, improve immune function and facilitate more efficient sleep. Gratitude reduces lifetime risks for depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders, and is a key resiliency factor in the prevention of suicide.”
Henry Jowett adds, “Life without thankfulness is devoid of love and passion. Hope without thankfulness is lacking in fine perception. Faith without thankfulness lacks strength and fortitude. Every virtue divorced from thankfulness is maimed and limps along the spiritual road.”
Perhaps a young girl named Debbie expressed it best. When asked by Art Linkletter, “What is salt?” she answered, “Salt is what spoils the potatoes when you leave it out.” We could say something similar about gratitude: “Gratitude is what spoils life when you leave it out.”
In his book The PAPA Prayer Dr. Larry Crabb discusses the danger to our spiritual life when the focus of our prayers gets stuck at the level of asking God to give to us what we want.
Prayer is about communication with God—with our “heavenly Father.” There is a significant difference between the way a baby communicates with a parent and the way a healthy grown child communicates with a parent. A baby’s communication consists of screams, demanding that it receive the milk or the attention it demands. A baby never calls out in the middle of the night for the purpose of asking mom or dad how they are feeling. A baby never initiates a conversation to find out what is on a parent’s heart or mind. Hopefully, communication between a grown child and a parent will change. Hopefully, communication between a grown child and a parent will focus more on deepening the relationship than screaming to have one’s demands met.
If our communication with God remains merely on the level of crying out for what we want, something is seriously awry in us.
Larry Crabb writes, “Think about it. Older children still riding in strollers through grocery stores are among the most demanding creatures on the planet. They look past the spinach and apples to the boxes of sugar clumps advertised as cereal. And they demand, ‘Give me that,’ with no interest in knowing the one hearing their request and even less interest in trusting that person to choose what’s best for them. Petitioning without relationship—that’s what our praying so often amounts to, even though it’s well disguised. No matter how piously we couch our requests and no matter how passionately we declare our confidence in the Giver’s generosity, we stay in a receiving mode. ‘Gimme! Gimme!’ It’s all about us…. Let the Giver stop giving, and we throw a tantrum. We think of it as fervent prayer….
“If we value our satisfaction in Christ more than we value Christ Himself, we remain committed to ourselves and not to Christ. We may think we’re committed to Him, and in a sense we are—but only as a means to an end. The end is not Christ’s glory; the end is our satisfaction….
Christ’s relationship with His Father was the driving passion behind every request He made. Relationship preceded petition. His life is a profound demonstration of the point I’ve been making: that getting God is worth infinitely more than getting the things we want from God.” (p. 40-41, 42, 57, and 49)
Psalm 86 is one of five psalms in Scripture specifically titled a Tephillah (or “Prayer”). The psalm begins almost like a child still riding around in a stroller, as David cries, “Incline Your ear, O Lord, and answer me…. You are my God; be gracious to me, O Lord, for to You do I cry all day long. Gladden the soul of Your servant, for to You, O Lord, I lift up my soul…. Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer; listen to my cry of supplication.”
But at verse 8, the focus of the psalm shifts. The focus is no longer as much on the clamoring to get what David wants as on his relationship with God: “There is none like You among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like Yours…. For You are great and do wondrous things; You alone are God. Teach me Your way, O Lord, that I may walk in Your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere Your name. I give thanks to You, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify Your name forever. For great is Your steadfast love toward me….”
Psalm 86 is a model to us of prayer. It lets us know that it is still good for us to pour out our hearts to God, with the freedom to ask God for whatever we feel that we need. But the psalm also helps us to recognize that we should not remain only at the level of crying for our needs to be met, but that our focus should shift to seeking to deepen our relationship with God. It is in deepening our relationship with God that we find deepest satisfaction—whether or not we receive the things we think we need.
It is reported that the following bit of prose was found in the pocket of an unknown soldier:
I asked God for strength that I might achieve. I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health that I might do great things. I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy. I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men. I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life. I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for but everything that I had hoped for. Almost despite myself my unspoken prayers were answered. I am among all men most richly blessed.
When we come to the end of Abraham’s life in the book of Genesis, Scripture makes it clear to us that we have not actually come to the end of Abraham’s life.
Genesis 25:8 tells us, “Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years.” The text is clear here, “Abraham breathed his last”—when you stop breathing, you die—“and died”—you can’t say it any more clearly than that. Abraham is dead!
Yet the verse goes on to tell us that Abraham “was gathered to his people.” Certainly this does not refer to Abraham’s bones being deposited in a family crypt with his ancestors, for Abraham had left the home of his ancestors. His body would be placed in the cave of Machpelah that Abraham had purchased for a burial place for his wife Sarah. Hers were the only bones in the tomb at the time of Abraham’s death, but the text is clear that Abraham “was gathered to his people” and not just to his wife. Moreover, Scripture also tells us that Aaron and Moses were “gathered” to their people, but both of them died in the desert and were buried there, far from any of their ancestors.
The fact that Abraham (along with Aaron, Moses, and many others in Scripture) “was “gathered to his people” is one of the early indications we find in Scripture that the end of our life on earth is not actually the end of life for us. Scripture lets us know that we can look ahead to on the other side of death—a new life full of joyful reunions with loved ones who have gone before us.
Shortly before his death, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin wrote, “Many people have asked me to tell them about heaven and the afterlife. I sometimes smile at the request because I do not know any more than they do. Yet, when one young man asked if I looked forward to God and to all those who have gone before me, I made a connection to something…. The first time I traveled with my mother and sister to my parents’ homeland of Tonadico, in northern Italy, I felt as if I had been there before. After years of looking through my mother’s photo albums, I knew the mountains, the land, the houses, the people. As soon as we entered the valley, I said, ‘My God, I know this place. I am home.’ Somehow I think crossing from this life into life eternal will be similar. I will be home.” (from The Gift of Peace, by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin)
The end of life on this earth will actually be a going home to our true homeland and to joyful reunions with those who have gone before us.
Dr. Howard Hendricks of Dallas Seminary shared with a friend shortly before he died, “I’m going from the land of the dying to the land of the living.”
This world is where people die. Heaven is where death is behind us and where people live. When Abraham “was gathered to his people,” he left the land of the dying. He “was gathered to his people” in the land of the living. That’s how it is for all who belong to the Lord of life.