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A marvelous miracle & laborious plodding

A Christian is a strange species of being.  The very nature of faith and of a personal relationship with Almighty God fills our lives with a variety of paradoxes.  A.W. Tozer points out, “A real Christian is an odd number anyway.  He feels supreme love for One whom he has never seen, talks familiarly every day to Someone he cannot hear, expects to go to heaven on the virtue of Another, empties himself in order to be full, admits he is wrong so he can be declared right, stoops down in order to be lifted up, is strong when he is weakest, richest when he is poorest, and happiest when he feels worst.  He dies so he can live, forsakes in order to have, gives away so he can keep, sees the invisible, hears the inaudible, and knows that which passes knowledge.”  I would add to Tozer’s list that the Christian life is the strange mixture of the miraculous indwelling of God’s own Spirit in us and the believer’s deliberate, laborious plodding along toward spiritual growth.  We are a mix of what God is doing in us and what we are pursuing toward God.  Discard either side of the mix and the Christian faith becomes empty. 

In his book Prayer, Philip Yancey shares a moving story about the first part of the mix, the miraculous indwelling of God’s Spirit:

“I have seen evidence of God’s presence in the most unexpected places.  During our trip to Nepal, a physical therapist gave my wife and me a tour of the Green Pastures Hospital, which specializes in leprosy rehabilitation.  As we walked along an outdoor corridor, I noticed in a courtyard one of the ugliest human beings I have ever seen.  Her hands were bandaged in gauze, she had deformed stumps where most people have feet, and her face showed the worst ravages of that cruel disease.  Her nose had shrunken away so that, looking at her, I could see into her sinus cavity.  Her eyes, mottled and covered with callus, let in no light; she was totally blind.  Scars covered patches of skin on her arms.

“We toured a unit of the hospital and returned along the same corridor.  In the meantime this creature had crawled across the courtyard to the very edge of the walkway, pulling herself along the ground by planting her elbows and dragging her body like a wounded animal.  I’m ashamed to say my first thought was, She’s a beggar and she wants money.  My wife, who has worked among the down-and-out, had a much more holy reaction.  Without hesitation she bent down to the woman and put her arm around her.  The old woman rested her head against Janet’s shoulder and began singing a song in Nepali, a tune that we all instantly recognized: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’   

“‘Dahnmaya is one of our most devoted church members,’ the physical therapist later told us…. ‘[W]e have a little Christian chapel here, and Dahnmaya comes every time the door opens.  She’s a prayer warrior.  She loves to greet and welcome every visitor who comes to Green Pastures, and no doubt she heard us talking as we walked along the corridor.’  

“A few months later we heard that Dahnmaya had died.  Close to my desk I keep a photo that I snapped just as she was singing to Janet.  Whenever I feel polluted by the beauty-obsessed celebrity culture I live in—a culture in which people pay exorbitant sums to shorten their noses or plump up their breasts to achieve some impossible ideal of beauty while nine thousand people die each day from AIDS for lack of treatment and hospitals like Green Pastures scrape by on charity crumbs—I pull out that photo.  I see two beautiful women: my wife, smiling sweetly, wearing a brightly colored Nepali outfit she had bought the day before, holding in her arms an old crone who would flunk any beauty test ever devised except the one that matters most.  Out of that deformed, hollow shell of a body, the light of God’s presence shines out.  The Holy Spirit found a home!” (p. 273-274) 

The other side of the mix has to do with us deliberately and laboriously plodding along toward spiritual growth.

Chuck Swindoll comments, “I love babies…. I think it’s a delightful, enjoyable experience to watch babies grow up and to become little people, little men and women…. But you and I know that there are some things about little babies that are not very attractive.  We humor them because they’re babies.

“Here’s a list of things: They are dependent and demanding.  They are unable to feed themselves.  They are unable to stay out of messes.  They love to be the center of attention.  They are driven by impulses, such as hunger, pain, sleep.  They’re irritated when they’re dirty, even though they made the mess, and you’ve gotta clean it up.  They have no manners, no control.  They have little attention span, no concern for others, no abilities or skills. 

“Now these are natural things that are a part of babyhood.  But when you see adults with those characteristics, something tragic has happened, something terribly unfunny.  The Christian who is not interested in growing wants to be entertained.  He wants a diet of milk when he cries for it.  He wants his way.  And he’s gonna get it, no matter how many he will have to disrupt to get it.

“You see, in order for a Christian to handle solid food, he has to have a growing, mature digestive system.  He needs teeth. He needs to have an appetite that is cultivated over a period of time for deep things, for the solid things of God.  Spiritual babies must grow up.  Some of the most difficult people to live with in the church of Jesus Christ are those who have grown old in the Lord but haven’t grown up in Him.”

We need the work of God in us, and we need to work at growth.

Who is Jesus?

Who is Jesus?  And what does it matter to us who He is? 

In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Colossae, Paul describes Jesus as “the image of the invisible God” (1:15).  The Greek word Paul uses here is eikon.  A diminutive form of that word is found in an ancient letter from a Greek soldier named Apion to his father Epimachus.  Apion writes, “I send you a little portrait of myself painted by Euctemon.”  The use of eikon here gives us a bit of an idea about who Jesus is: His is the visible portrait of the invisible God.  As John 1:18 puts it, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made Him known.” 

In his commentary on Paul’s letter to the Colossians, William Barclay adds a further explanation: “When a legal document was drawn up, such as a receipt or an IOU, it always included a description of the chief characteristics and distinguishing marks of the contracting parties, so that there could be no evasion and no mistake.  The Greek word for such a description is eikon.”  In today’s context, the distinguishing mark of a person would be the person’s signature, or fingerprints, or DNA.  That’s who Jesus is.  He is the signature of God.  He is the fingerprint of God within this world.  He bears the very DNA of God.  If we want to know the character and nature of God, what we need to do is to look at Jesus.   

Paul also describes Jesus as “the firstborn of all creation” (1:15) and as “the firstborn from the dead” (1:18).  The wording here can be a bit confusing to us.  We may think Paul is suggesting that when God got around to creating things, the first “thing” He created was Jesus.  But in the writings of that time, the term “firstborn” was not as much a description of time or sequence as of stature and honor.  Paul was not implying that Jesus was the first “thing” God created, but he was stressing that Jesus has the place of honor over all of creation and over the resurrection from the dead.  Paul makes this clear in verses 16-17: “For in Him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through Him and for Him.  He Himself is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.”  Jesus is the One who has sovereignty over creation and over resurrection.  If we want to be at peace with creation, and if we want to be at peace with death and resurrection, the way to do it is through the One who has authority over them.  

Paul also describes Jesus as the One through whom God was pleased to reconcile all things to Himself (1:20-22).  According to the Associated Press, on July 15, 1994, Victoria Hoffman accidentally drove into a rain-swollen lake.  While holding her 7-year-old son up, she struggled to keep her own head above water enough to scream for help and gasp for air.  When rescuers arrived, she used her last bit of strength to shove her son to the rescuer before she was pulled under water to her death.  On the cross, Jesus gave us into the hands of our Rescuer while giving up His life to save us.  Jesus is the One who reconciles us to God!  As Paul put it in Colossians 1:21-22, “And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, He has now reconciled in His fleshly body through death, so as to present you hold and blameless and irreproachable before Him.” 

The True Treasure of Prayer

Someone observed, “The disciples, upon whose shoulders rested the initial responsibility of Christianizing the world, came to Jesus with one supreme request.  They did not say, ‘Lord, teach us to preach,’ or ‘Lord, teach us to do miracles,’ or ‘Lord, teach us to be wise.’  They said, ‘Lord, teach us to pray.’” 

The disciples—probably because they beheld Jesus’ devotion to prayer—valued the importance of prayer.  In the busyness of our hectic lives, though, we have forgotten the value of prayer.  In an article entitled “Fatal Omission,” Ben Patterson points out, “Prayer is always getting nudged aside, neglected, or perfunctorily performed as more pressing concerns take center stage.  Many of us feel we just have too much to do to have time to pray.  That is the problem.  At bottom, we don’t believe we are really doing anything when we pray—other than pray, that is.” 

A significant portion of the problem comes when we fail to grasp that the more important aspect of prayer is not what we get but what we become.  We easily get obsessed with the issue of receiving “answers” to our prayer requests, but God is more focused on what kind of people we are becoming.    

Through the practice of prayer, we get the opportunity to become people of greater patience, and to become people of deeper compassion, and to become people of higher integrity.  And as we pray for others, we get the privilege of standing beside them and of being part of the team that supports them in becoming more and more of what God would have them to be.  

In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he takes this privilege seriously.  He comes alongside them and becomes part of their team of supporters as he prays to God over what they can become in Christ.  He prays for their lives to be pleasing to God as they bear fruit in every good work (verse 10), for them to be strong (verse 11), and for them to be able to endure life’s challenges with patience and joy (verses 11-12).  The first thing he prays for, though, is that they will “be filled with the knowledge of God’s will” (verse 9). 

The way Paul expresses it here suggests that being “filled with the knowledge of God’s will” leads to the other matters Paul prays about on their behalf.  For the will of God has less to do with taking a predetermined turn in the road as with becoming the kind of people God would have us to be. 

The prophet Micah addresses this when he states, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)  What God wants for us (what He wills for us) is to become people of integrity, justice, compassion, mercy, kindness, and humility.  “In the end,” Mark Labberton argues, God’s will for us—His call upon our lives—“is about continuous formation into the likeness of Jesus Christ far more than it is about finding direction or getting a job.” (Called, p. 135).

Prayer has to do with trusting God, and it has to do with us becoming more and more of what God would have us to be.  Brennan Manning pulls these two matters together well in a story he shares: “When the brilliant ethicist John Kavanaugh went to work for three months at ‘the house of the dying’ in Calcutta, he was seeking a clear answer as to how best to spend the rest of his life.  On the first morning there, he met Mother Teresa.  She asked, ‘And what can I do for you?’  Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him.  ‘What do you want me to pray for?’ she asked.  He voiced the request that he had borne thousands of miles from the United States: ‘Pray that I have clarity.’

“She said firmly, ‘No, I will not do that.’  When he asked her why, she said, ‘Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.’  When Kavanaugh commented that she always seemed to have the clarity he longed for, she laughed and said, ‘I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust.  So I will pray that you trust God.’” 

Faith, Hope & Love

Faith, hope, and love: We often find these three words together, but they were not found together in recorded literature until the apostle Paul. 

These three virtues encompass the most critical human longings. 

Faith addresses the universal longing for security in life and for our lives to have meaning.  Without faith, life is marked by distrust, noncommitment, and meaninglessness.  Bertrand Russell sums up well the emptiness of life without faith: “We stand on the shore of an ocean, crying to the night, and the emptiness; sometimes a voice answers out of the darkness.  But it is a voice of one drowning; and in a moment the silence returns.”

Faith provides the strength we need and which we long for in the dark times of our lives.  While speaking out against Nazism in Germany during the reign of the Third Reich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated, “I believe that God can and will bring good out of evil, even out of the greatest evil.  I believe that God will give us all the strength we need to help us to resist in all times of distress. But He never gives it in advance, lest we should rely on ourselves and not on Him alone.”    

Oswald Chambers adds, “Faith is deliberate confidence in the character of God whose ways you may not understand at the time.”

Faith that is grounded on the character of God gets us through the toughest of challenges.

Hope addresses the universal longing for significance, contentment, purpose, and destiny to life.  Without hope, life is marked by despair and discouragement.  Without a hope that is grounded in the presence of and the goodness of God, Documentary filmmaker Sheila Nevins said in an interview on NPR, “I don’t know where we came from.  I don’t know where we’re—well, I know I came from a fish, but I don’t really know where I’m going…. It’s a terrifying thing to be alive and human and not know why you’re here, who put you here, don’t you think?”

Hope in the goodness of God and the presence of God lifts our souls up from despair.  As Emily Dickinson points out, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.”  Hebrews 11:1 puts faith and hope together in a wonderful way: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Love brings a sense of joy and fulfillment to life.

Love addresses our universal longing for acceptance, belonging, and community.  Without love, life is marked by apathy, hostility, and loneliness. Mother Teresa points out, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”  Larry Crabb adds, “Because we were wired to breathe the life-giving air of community, we cannot endure the thought of isolation.  We fear aloneness—life without connection, achievement without companionship, existence without friendship, forever wandering in lonely despair.  Loneliness is a taste of hell.”  

Love, however, brings fulfillment.  C. Neil Strait comments, “Love is the ingredient that makes every relationship in life, whatever it is, a little better.  Love has a capacity to mend the broken, heal the hurting, and inspire the despairing.  Love that reaches beyond the misunderstandings and the failures is a love that unites and encourages.  Such a love is one of our world’s greatest needs.”

No wonder Paul wrote so often about faith, hope and love.  No wonder God calls us to practice these three virtues. 

Good News to All People

On the night of Jesus’ birth, a common Palestinian tradition was nearly missed. 

In Palestine, during the time of Jesus, when a baby was due to be born, it was traditional for friends and family and local musicians to gather near the home.  When the birth was announced, the musicians would break into music and song.  There would be great rejoicing, with many congratulations extended to the parents. 

But when the time care for Jesus to be born, Mary and Joseph were far away from their home in Nazareth.  No family gathered around them.  No friends waited outside the home.  No local musicians showed up to join in celebrating the birth of their baby. 

The traditional Palestinian songfest was nearly missed at the birth of Jesus… but not quite.  Luke tells us what happened: “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign to you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom He favors!'”

Though their family and friends were far away, and though no musicians gathered to await the birth of this baby, God sent His own singers to celebrate the birth of Jesus!  By divine intervention, the tradition of singing at the birth of a child was preserved… but with at least one important difference:

It wasn’t just hometown singers who celebrated the birth of Jesus; it was heavenly musicians, for the significance of Jesus’ birth extended far beyond the town limits of Nazareth, or of Bethlehem, or even of Palestine, or of the Middle East.  Local musicians would have been sufficient for welcoming into this world a baby who was born to be a ‘hometown kid.’  Nazareth’s singers would have been adequate for the birth of any boy who would grow up in Nazareth, and make his career in Nazareth, and raise his family in Nazareth.  But Jesus was not born to be merely a hometown kid.  As John 3:16 points out, Jesus was born on Christmas day because God so loved the entire world! 

Since Jesus came for the whole world, a band of local musicians was not enough.  A proper celebration of His birth would require a choir composed of people from every nation on earth—or it would require a multitude of angels representing all of heaven and all of earth.

No wonder the Christmas carol emphasizes, “Joy to the world!  The Lord is come: Let earth receive her King; Let every heart prepare Him room, And heaven and nature sing!”

Two Scenarios

Imagine two scenarios:

Imagine a faithful, loyal, trustworthy servant of a king—a servant whom the king knows he can depend upon.  Imagine that this servant has been assigned to stand at the gate of the city to wait for the arrival of the king’s beloved son.  The servant stands at the gate to the city through the long, hot days of summer.  And the servant stands at the gate to the city throughout the bitterly cold nights of winter.  Knowing that the king’s son will arrive one day, but not knowing when that day will arrive, the servant stays there waiting, and waiting, and waiting, anxious to welcome the king’s son as soon as he appears.  Years come, and years go, and the servant remains at his post.  Finally the son arrives.  The servant throws his arms around the king’s son and welcomes him to the castle.  He shouts out the good news of the arrival.  Then the faithful servant asks permission to go home, at last, to rest.

That’s the picture Luke gives of an old man named Simeon.  He had been waiting and waiting and waiting for the Messiah—the King’s Son—to arrive.  He had been standing at his post, waiting faithfully throughout the years.  Now, at last, when Mary and Joseph bring their baby to the temple to be dedicated, Simeon takes the baby into his arms, welcoming the King’s Son.  Then Simeon asks permission to go home.  Simeon greets the arrival of Jesus with a song of great joy!  (Luke 2:25-32)

Now, imagine a young man—we’ll call him Jack—who is in love with a wonderful young woman—we’ll call her Janet.  Though they live for away from each other, they write the most heart-touching letters back and forth, and both have promised their undying love to one another.  Closer to Jack’s home, though, is another young woman—we’ll call her Kathy.  Jack enjoys the company of Kathy.  He enjoys the beauty of her face, her beautiful eyes, her lovely smile, her attractive figure.  It thrills him when she touches his hand or puts her arms around him, or when they press their lips together.  Jack and Kathy have been getting serious and have begun to talk about moving in together.  As it so happens, though, Janet suddenly, and surprisingly, shows up at Jack’s door one afternoon—just as Jack is heading out on a date with Kathy.  Suddenly Jack faces a dilemma.  So long as Kathy was here and Janet was far away, Jack could get by.  He could enjoy his heart-touching love letters with Janet and his kisses with Kathy.  But as soon as Janet arrives at his home, Jack must make a choice.  He has to choose between the two of them. 

In a rough way, that’s what Simeon addresses when he says of Jesus, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed” (Luke 2:33-35).  So long as God stays in heaven, we can send lovely prayers upward, promising our undying devotion to God, while enjoying on earth whatever sins we want to engage in, but when God suddenly appears on earth—or in our lives—we have to make a choice.  Will we live faithfully or unfaithfully?  Jesus’ arrival causes the thoughts of many hearts to be revealed.  In this way, Jesus causes the falling and the rising of many people.

Will we live as faithfully as Simeon?  Or as unfaithfully as “Jack”?

God Remembers!

Zechariah.  His name means, “Jehovah (God) Remembers.”

Why would parents choose such a name for their child?  And why do we come upon so many references in the Hebrew Scriptures to the fact that God remembers? 

Could it be that God is growing old and struggling with His memory?  Or could it be that God is scatterbrained and not always remembering things?  Or could it be something else?

The “remember” part of Zechariah’s name is the Hebrew word zakar (or zechar).  Most literally, it means “to leave a mark,” or “to make an impact.”  Larry Crabb adds, “In ancient Near East culture, the word referred to a king’s assistant, to a man charged with the important privilege of reminding the king of matters that required his royal attention.  Zakar came to mean someone who remembers something important that moves him to do something important.” (Fully Alive, p. 67-68)

When the Bible speaks of God remembering it is not suggesting that a clarity of recall has suddenly burst through a prevailing fog of forgetfulness, but that God is about to take action on that which He has been holding in His heart.  For example, Genesis 8:1 tells us that “God remembered” Noah and the animals on the ark, and the next line tells us that “God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided.”  When Rachel is grieving over her lack of children, Genesis 30:22 reports that “God remembered Rachel,” and goes on to tell us “and God heeded her and opened her womb.”    As the Hebrew people suffered as slaves in Egypt, Exodus 2:24 records that “God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham;” immediately after that God speaks to Moses from a burning bush and sends him to Egypt to deliver His people.

When Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth gives birth to a son who will grow up to become John the Baptist, Zechariah (whose name means “God Remembers”) sings a song about God remembering His people.  Luke 1:72 stresses, “Thus He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered His holy covenant.” 

Holding to Biblical precedent, Zechariah is stressing that God is about to take significant action on behalf of those whom He has been holding in His heart.  The action here is that John the Baptist has been born, and He will prepare the way for Jesus.  Salvation is on the way! 

The reason the Bible speaks so often about God remembering is for our sake: We need to remember that God always remembers us and always holds us in His heart. 

I greatly appreciate Erik Raymond’s explanation of this: “We forget to remember.  But God never does.  You can feel the weight of this truth in a passage like Psalm 9 where the Psalmist is feeling the sting of persecution.  Through the eyes of faith he is confident in God’s ultimate victory, and he even boasts of as much (verses 4-6).  But in the midst of his rehearsal of who God is and what He will do, the Psalmist is reminded that God remembers them.  ‘Sing praises to the Lord, who sits enthroned in Zion!  Tell among the peoples His deeds!  For He who avenges blood is mindful of them; He does not forget the cry of the afflicted’ (Psalm 9:11-13).  Consider the beautiful irony of this passage.  The King of kings, whose deeds are worthy of being proclaimed among the nations, remembers the weak.  He never forgets.  His mind is a veritable steel-trap.  He knows the conditions and concerns of His people.  How encouraging is this?  Amid acknowledging your own personal weakness, you find such a castle of strength.  The existence and needs of God’s people never escapes God’s mind.” 

I have been told that when Martin Luther struggled with discouragement he would say to himself over and over again, “I am baptized; I am baptized.”  It was his way of reminding himself that he was remembered by God, that he belonged to God, that he was held securely in covenant relationship with God. 

That’s how it is for us.  We need to remember that God remembers us, that God will never forget us, and that God will take action on our behalf.