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.”

 

 

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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!

Where God Chooses to Live

Solomon's Temple

Many years ago, a Muslim acquaintance asked me whether I would become a snail if I had the opportunity.  I assured him that I would not.  He followed that up by asking why I supposed Almighty and all-glorious God would choose to become one of us.  That was a great question.  Here is my answer: I would not become a snail because I do not care for snails, but God became one of us because, for some strange reason, God loves us that much!

Now imagine something with me: Once upon a time, a great king lived in a magnificent palace of glistening, carved marble, with courtyards and garden, pools and fountains, mosaic floors, and elegant tapestries upon the walls.  In his palace, the king enjoyed the finest things of life.  Chefs prepared for him the greatest of feasts each night; court musicians and jesters performed for his entertainment; and skilled artists produced delights for his eyes.

In a desert, in the remote southern section of the kingdom, lived a small, impoverished, insignificant band of people.  One year these people gathered together all of their wealth (which actually amounted to almost nothing).  With their supposed wealth, they built a palace—at least they called it a palace.  Rather than carving walls from marble, they built walls from sunbaked bricks of mud and straw.  The only decorations upon those walls were the random edges of straw protruding from the bricks.  The floor was dirt.  Water was scarce, so they constructed no pool or fountain, nor did they even attempt to plant a garden to beautify the surroundings.  They could provide no chef or musicians or artists.  In essence, this “palace” was nothing more than a shack, a hovel, a gloomy box in the barren desert.

Nevertheless, these impoverished desert-dwellers sent a letter to the king with the following request: “Dear King, we have built a fine palace for you, and we invite you to come live with us.”

Shockingly, the king accepted their invitation.

Here’s the real story: Around 3000 years ago, a rather insignificant people in a rather dismal part of the world put together all of their wealth and built what they considered a masterpiece.  They laid great stone blocks on top of great stone blocks and covered every stone with a floor of cypress and with walls of cedar.  They covered ornately carved doors and walls with a veneer of gold.  They beautified an inner and outer courtyard with two great bronze pillars, twelve bronze oxen, various bronze and gold furnishings, and two golden cherubim, each ten feet tall, with outstretched wings meeting above the Ark of the Covenant.  They were proud of the house they made for God!  But, if truth be told, Solomon’s great temple was but a shack, a hovel, a gloomy box in the barren desert compared to the majesty of heaven, in which God already dwelt.

Nevertheless, these people made a request to God, and I quote from 2 Chronicles 6:41, “Now arise, Lord God, and come to Your resting place.”

Shockingly, God accepted their invitation, and 2 Chronicles 7:1 tells us that the glory of the Lord filled that temple.  Why?  Because God actually loved these people!

Here’s another real story: 1 Corinthians 6:19 tells me that my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.  If truth be told, it is but a shack, a hovel, a gloomy box in a barren desert.  The top has turned gray.  The foundation (the feet) have endured several broken bones from years of basketball.  I have to wear corrective lenses.  My hearing has declined.  I am on medication for high cholesterol and high blood pressure.  I get grouchy and resentful.  I struggle with insecurities and bad attitudes.

Nevertheless, I sent a request to God some time ago.  My invitation read, and I quote, “Jesus, will You please come live in my heart?”

Shockingly, God accepted my invitation; God sent His Spirit to live in my soul—and He has never left, despite the poor condition of the abode.  Why?  Because God actually loves me!

 

A Miraculous Atonement

fish in fish's mouth

One of the most bizarre of Jesus’ miracles is recorded in Matthew 17:24-27.  To pay the temple tax, Jesus tells Peter to “go to the lake and throw out your line.  Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin.  Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”

Why didn’t Jesus simply instruct Judas to take this amount out of the purse that he kept for the expenses of Jesus and the disciples?  Why does He send Peter to the lake for a coin in the mouth of a fish?

To understand this miracle, it helps to understand something about this tax and about this fish.

The Tax: To a significant extent, the tax was like the toll we pay to cross a bridge.  Growing up in Oakland, California, if I wanted to go to San Francisco, I would drive across the Bay Bridge, but before driving across I would have to pay the toll.  The toll went to the maintenance of the bridge so that it would be safe for me and others to drive across.  For the privilege of visiting San Francisco, I would simply pay the pertinent toll.

Like a bridge giving access to San Francisco, the temple gave people access to God.  For the privilege of having access to God, people were required to pay a tax for the maintenance of the temple.

But who has to pay the toll?  Would a person already living in San Francisco have to pay the toll for others who want to come visit “the city”?  Or is the expense only for those who want to come into the city?  Would One who already has access to God (as the second person of the Trinity) have to pay the temple tax?  No, the tax is for those who want to gain access to God.

The Fish: There are two species of fish in the world which have the unusual habit of protecting their young by opening their mouths wide and allowing their young to swim into their open mouths.  One species if found in the Sea of Galilee and is commonly known as St. Peter’s Fish.  Jesus sent Peter to find a coin in the mouth of a fish who uses its mouth to protect its young.  Jesus was giving Peter a picture of the self-sacrifice He would soon make for Peter…and for us.

In the two verses just before this miracle is recorded, Jesus spoke to His disciples about the self-sacrifice He was about to make for them.  In Matthew 17:22-23, Jesus said to His disciples, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men.  They will kill Him, and on the third day He will be raised to life.”

By sending Peter to the lake to get a coin that would cover the cost for both of them from the mouth of a fish who protects its young in its mouth, Jesus was letting Peter (and us) know that He has got us covered, that He will take us into Himself to protect us and care for our needs.

Jesus did this symbolically with a coin from the mouth of a fish that would pay the temple tax (also known as the “atonement tax”) for Himself and Peter.  He did this for real when He died upon the cross for our forgiveness and to give us access to God.  That’s why 1 John 4:10 declares, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

The Wedding God Longs for

chuppah picture

The second-to-last chapter of the Bible begins with a beautiful expression of God’s longing to welcome us into His everlasting love: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”

This is a passage I have often shared at funerals—at the end of a person’s life—to declare the joy that awaits us in heaven as we come into the unending loving embrace of our God.  But here is what excites me the most: That sentiment (that expression of God’s longing for a marital-type-of-love with us) does not suddenly pop up out of nowhere at the end of the Bible.  It is also conveyed very early in Scripture.  We may not recognize it with our 21st century American eyes, but there is tremendous wedding imagery in the giving of the 10 Commandments.

In an article in The Jewish Woman, Esther Piekarski and Rishe Deitsch share, “The concept of marriage does not apply only between men and women in Judaism; our entire relationship with our Creator is considered a marriage.  Our wedding anniversary is the holiday of Shavuot, the day on which we received the Torah [the Law].  And just as a marriage should be continually renewed, so too, each and every year we once again relive the giving of the Torah, our marriage to G-d…. and we are taught that Mt. Sinai itself, the smallest and most humble of all the mountains, was held above our heads, symbolizing the wedding canopy, the chuppah.  When we received the Ten Commandments, the foundation of the Torah, this represented the giving of the marriage contract, the ketubah, representing our love, commitment, respect and responsibility within this relationship.”

An article in JewishJewels.org adds, “Fifty days after the Feast of Passover, we celebrate Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks…known also as Pentecost…. It is traditionally believed that the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai fifty days after the Exodus, arriving at the mountain on the sixth day of the Hebrew month Sivan…. God gave His people the Law on this special Pilgrim Feast, earning it yet another name: Z’man Matan Torateinu, the Season of the Giving of the Law.  It is fascinating to note that the events of Acts Chapter 2 occur on the Feast of Shavuot.  The Holy Spirit was given on the exact day that the Law had been given.  Coincidence?  Absolutely not!  The giving of the Spirit made it possible for the Law to move from the outside (tablets of stone) to the inside (the human heart).”

Briefly stated, here are some of the images of a wedding that we find in Exodus 24:

  • In a Jewish wedding, a bride must express her consent to the marriage. That’s what we find in verse 3: When Moses told the people the words of the Law, “they responded with one voice, ‘Everything the Lord has said we will do.’”  They freely consented to the wedding.
  • Before the wedding, the bride and the groom (separately) must take a mikvah, a bath for spiritual cleansing. Verse 6 describes God’s mikvah: “Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he splashed against the altar.”  Verse 8 describes the bride’s mikvah: “Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.’”
  • A Jewish wedding includes the signing of the ketubah, the marriage contract. Verse 12 states, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone with the law and commandments I have written for their instruction.”  The Law is nothing short of our marriage contract.
  • A Jewish wedding is considered a simcha, a joyous occasion. No wonder verses 9-11 tell us that when “the seventy elders of Israel went up…they saw God, and they ate and drank.”  The receiving of the Law (the wedding with God) was and is celebrated as a joyous occasion!