Saturday, December 19, 2009

Choose This Day

Joshua once declared before the people of Israel, "If serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD." This bold proclamation is very admirable from a Christian standpoint.

Modern Christians don't usually fret about being led astray by a pagan pantheon as some of Joshua's contemporaries were. We often assume that idolatry is no longer a problem for us. Yet the idols of our ancestors and our neighbors still tempt us, but today those idols are things like money, power, or pride. It's easy to forget that we don't have to call something a god in order to worship it and that anything we worship instead of God is an idol. Whenever I betray my Christian beliefs in pursuit of something, then that thing—whatever it is—becomes an idol to me. For as long as I choose to put other pursuits ahead of following God, I am an idolater (even if it's only for a few seconds).

I love God very much, but if I am honest with myself, I am forced to admit that I cheat on God several times a day. Sometimes I selfishly put myself first, as though I were my own god. Sometimes I devote energy and resources to worldly goals instead of heavenly ones. In some moments I am more concerned with wealth and prestige than I am about righteousness and salvation. I'm serious about following Jesus, but I recognize that I am not perfect, and my judgment is not always sound. Sometimes I choose to serve the wrong person or thing.

Every day I have hundreds of chances to decide whom I will serve. Will I follow God or will I allow myself to be led astray? So often I blind myself to the reality of these choices and declare that I am following God when my actions show otherwise. It's easy to say that I choose to serve God, but it's harder to live out that choice. It is not enough to declare my faith if I do not live it. Because I serve a merciful savior, He gives me chance after chance to choose rightly and to follow obediently. I must choose each moment whom I will serve. Every decision I make can bolster my commitment to Christ or challenge it. I ask God to help me choose wisely throughout the day so that I can be a more consistent Christian.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Advent Lessons: Good News

The Gospel of Luke paints a very vivid picture of John the Baptist's preaching. Luke portrays John as a bit of a firebrand, calling the people a "brood of vipers" who were in dire need of repentance. All in all, it's a pretty serious and heavy message, and John doesn't pull any punches. He tells the crowd that Jesus is coming to gather the wheat into the barn, but he will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. After relating this dire warning, Luke writes, "And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them." On the surface, John's message may not look like very good news. He's basically telling everyone that if they don't shape up, they're going to be in big trouble. Jesus is coming to clean house, so they'd better make sure they're on the right side or else. To the casual listener, that probably sounds more like a threat than gospel.

The truth is that God's message of love is inside John's preaching, but we have to pay attention in order to see it. Inside all that doom and gloom are several bits of good news:
  • God is going to clean up the mess. He's going to gather in the wheat and burn the chaff. He's going to get rid of that which does not bear fruit. Paul's letters address the idea of a purifying fire that will cleanse us of all unrighteousness. As Christians, John's words are not so much a threat of damnation as they are a notice that God is going to clean out all the bad stuff in our lives. The more we repent, the easier we will make the refining process on ourselves. If we corrupt ourselves until nothing but evil is left, we could be utterly consumed. But when we repent, we are forgiven through Jesus and we are purged of all the sins that plague us, leaving righteousness and unfettered joy behind. If we are willing to submit to Jesus, we can be made wheat instead of chaff, and this is a very good thing.
  • Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John is telling us we need to repent, but we don't have to do it alone. God is providing the tools and the strength we need to become better people. We are incapable of adequate repentance when we're on our own, but with the help of the Holy Spirit we can be reformed. Jesus is not just a judge—He is also a redeemer who enables us to receive salvation.
  • Being children of Abraham won't win us salvation. That's especially welcome news to people who aren't descendants of Abraham. John is introducing the radical idea that being right with God is about more than performing rituals or being born into the right family. We are justified through our redemptive relationship with Jesus, and that relationship is available to everyone. We don't have to be in the right place at the right time or pass a complicated test, but that also means that we can't rely on such arbitrary things to save us. We have to have a real and meaningful relationship with God, and that will take some effort and commitment on our parts. Still, God wants to have that relationship with us, and that's incredibly good news.
  • We need to start treating each other better. John tells the people to share more and to stop cheating each other. We don't get to be so selfish, but that means that maybe we won't be victimized as often either. John is not only encouraging us to be nice to people—he's also encouraging other people to be nice to us. If preparing for Jesus means embracing justice and generosity, then Jesus' world is certainly going to be a happier place for everyone. 
Sometimes we are like a brood of vipers, but the point is that Jesus is going to make us better. We might be terrible sinners sometimes, but it's good news that God cares enough to send someone to tell us to repent. Jesus is offering us salvation, so it's fantastic that John came to tell us about him, even if he had to use really strong language to get our attention. Luke quotes Isaiah's prophecy about John and Jesus, saying, "All mankind will see God's salvation." Honestly, that's the best news that any Christian can hope for.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Advent Lessons: John the Baptist

John was a man with a purpose. His entire life was centered around a single mission: to prepare the world for Jesus. John went out into the wilderness and attracted all kinds of people with his eccentric ways. He told the people that they should get ready for someone unlike any prophet in their history, someone who could baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire. In essence, John spent his entire career as a prophet capturing people's attention and then diverting them to Jesus. John's extremely effective introduction probably saved Jesus a lot of initial legwork. By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, John already had a lot of people thinking about his message. There were also a lot of people hanging around John who saw the spectacle when Jesus came to be baptized. There's no question that John was a very dedicated and successful forerunner to Jesus.

Still, I can't help but notice that outside of working for Jesus, John didn't really have a life. John knew that being "the voice of one crying in the wilderness" was more than just a day job. Everything about John's life down to where he slept, what he wore, and what he ate was part of his mission to promote Jesus. As far as we know, John never married or had children. He didn't have a trade or even a roof over his head. Preaching on behalf of Jesus was his entire life. Eventually John's zeal for God even resulted in his death because he dared to cross Herod and Herodias. John knew that it was essential for him to prepare people for Jesus, but he also knew that Jesus' ministry—not his own—was the main event. He told the crowd that he was unworthy even to untie Jesus' sandals.

At first glance it kind of seems like John got a raw deal. He got stuck in the desert wearing camel's hair and eating locusts. He had to preach day in and day out and was denied the comforts of a traditional family life. Eventually he lost most of his followers to Jesus, and he faded from the spotlight until he was eventually murdered by King Herod. When John knew his death was coming soon, all he wanted to know was that Jesus was the one for whom he had waited and that his work of preparation was indeed complete. John's life was dedicated to Jesus, and he asked nothing for himself. That kind of single minded selflessness is difficult to fathom. How many of us would want to give up our homes and comforts to devote ourselves completely and utterly to proclaiming the gospel? How many of us could reshape our entire lives to force ourselves to focus on God 24/7? John's life can seem a bit miserable to a modern Christian.

And yet, John said that he was happy. When one of John's disciples complained that followers were defecting to Jesus, John told him that was good news. "The bride belongs to the bridegroom," John said. "The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less." John thought of himself as a devoted friend to Jesus, and nothing could bring him more joy than to do a good service for his friend. He didn't want the honor and acclaim that belonged to Jesus—instead John rejoiced when he saw the people paying attention to Jesus, even though that meant they were paying less attention to him. John discovered that selfless service for a beloved master and friend is one of the greatest imaginable sources of peace and joy. He truly understood the blessing that Jesus was bringing into the world, and he felt blessed to be able to be a part of that process.

John teaches us that true happiness doesn't come from living a comfortable lifestyle or achieving big things. Instead, joy comes from being a member of God's team by contributing to something incredibly important and worthwhile, whether we get personal recognition or not. John knew that he couldn't save the people himself, so he was more than happy to direct them to the redeemer who could. John was not the most important character in his own story, but his task was still essential. Every job God assigns to to us is both important and fulfilling, even if it doesn't seem very glamorous on the surface. We may not gain any material rewards for doing God's work, but we will be blessed with joy. John lived in the wilderness and ate bugs, and yet his joy was complete. That's a powerful lesson for all of us.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Advent Lessons: Isaiah

"The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this." (Isaiah 9:2,6–7)

This is one of the most popular prophecies cited during Advent. Isaiah tells the people of Israel that God will send a Messiah to them to set them free from their enemies and to make them a good and prosperous nation once more. They will rejoice, Isaiah says, as people rejoice when they bring in a plentiful harvest. Many Christians find this passage to be one of the most beautiful and inspiring messages in the entire Bible.

Yet, when Jesus was born, not everyone reacted with joy. Herod sent soldiers to kill all the young boys because he thought Jesus might threaten his rule. Jesus made many powerful enemies during his ministry, and those enemies eventually brought about his crucifixion. There was no joy on the day that the chief priests handed Jesus over to Pilate. These leaders saw nothing of Isaiah's promise in Jesus, perhaps because they didn't truly understand what Isaiah's words meant.

In essence, Isaiah promised that God would give the people a wise, mighty, merciful, and eternal king. He would provide someone who would rule over the people justly, someone who would take care of them and give them a bountiful future. That's not necessarily the promise that Jesus' enemies wanted, however. Humans have always been a "stiff-necked people" who frequently would rather do things recklessly our own way than follow someone else—even God—obediently. Do we really need advice from a wonderful counselor? Do we truly want the mighty God among us taking control of our lives or an everlasting father to tell us what to do? Do we want a prince to bring us peace, or would we rather keep fueling our endless bickering and continue to jockey for power and position amongst ourselves?

God's promise through Isaiah is extremely noble, and we are not always mature enough to appreciate it. We worry that submitting to a king, even a perfect king like Jesus, would inhibit our freedom to do whatever we want, and the promises of a peaceful and fruitful existence aren't always enough to take that sour taste out of our mouths. In many ways, we are just like Adam and Eve, unimpressed with the blessed reality of Eden when the tantalizing possibility of absolute autonomy lies before us. What do we need with a generous and merciful God if we have already convinced ourselves that we should be able to do just as well on our own? All too often we resent God's interference instead of reacting with the joy that Isaiah proclaims. Jesus is not a president and does not reign at our consent. He is the everlasting king of all the Earth whether we like it or not, and that can be difficult for us to swallow in our misled pride.

Every day we each have the chance to deal with this passage from Isaiah. Jesus is with us even now, ruling over our lives and giving us good advice that will lead us down the path to righteousness. The question we constantly face is whether to welcome Jesus' dominion in our lives or to resent and reject it. Do we want a good king, or do we want to be bad kings ourselves? On the days when I see the truth of God's mercy for the incredible gift it is, I do feel the joy that Isaiah promised. I follow Jesus with jubilation and truly feel like someone who has emerged from darkness to see a great light. The fact that I have a Lord, redeemer, and friend in Jesus can seem wonderfully overwhelming. Those are the days when I am closest to God and when my soul is the healthiest. Those are the days when I feel most blessed. I want to have more of those days and to commit myself totally to Isaiah's promise.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Advent Lessons: Mary

Mary was engaged to be married to a carpenter named Joseph. She was a young woman, and so far her life was probably proceeding much as she had always imagined it would. She would be married to a good man, together they would raise a family, enjoying a modest but hopefully happy life. Then an angel came to visit her, changing everything and nothing all at once. The angel told her that God wanted her to bear His own son. She was going to be made pregnant by the Holy Spirit now, while she was still a virgin. She was still supposed to marry Joseph and have the family she always wanted, but it would be a different kind of family. This pregnancy would mean that her reputation could be tainted because she was not yet married. She would have to raise a son who would be God incarnate, perhaps the most challenging task anyone had ever faced. She didn't know it yet, but she would even have to flee with her family and live in exile because her son would have powerful enemies before he was even born.

When the angel delivered this startling news to Mary, she probably couldn't even begin to imagine the implications. Still, she must have understood that she was being asked to give up control of her life. The angel did not ask for her consent. He simply explained God's plan for her life and what would happen. Yet, Mary knew it was important for her to accept the future that God had shaped for her. "I am the Lord's servant," she said to Gabriel. "May it be to me as you have said." She went to visit her cousin Elizabeth to find support in this emotionally challenging time in her life. Together the two women encouraged each other and celebrated the plans that God had for them.

Perhaps God chose Mary precisely because He knew that she would meekly accept His rather extreme interference in her life. He knew that she would love His son, not resent the upheaval in her life that Jesus would represent. She could accept the enormity of bearing God's son and could endure the miracle that would appear to be scandal to everyone else. She would love Jesus and would be a devoted mother to him, no matter how many changes and challenges he brought to her life.

Faced with the prospect of being chosen to bear God's son, Mary did not lament that she had lost control of her own destiny. Instead, she proclaimed, "My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name." I like to think that even in the dark times when she was on the run from Herod's soldiers and even when she saw Jesus led off to be crucified, she remembered these words. Somehow, because this was God's plan, everything would be worth it. Despite the hardships, she wouldn't have wished that God had chosen someone else instead of her. She was God's servant, and she truly wanted to do whatever He asked of her.

Not many of us are such willing servants. We prize our autonomy and our independence so dearly. Which of us would want an unplanned pregnancy at all, much less a baby fathered by God? Which of us would be willing to completely turn over our lives to God? Would we be more like Moses, trying to talk God out of His crazy plan, or would we accept meekly as Mary did? God chose many obstinate people to be his servants, and he somehow managed to talk even the skeptics like Moses and Jonah into doing what He had chosen them to do. Yet he chose a woman who didn't argue at all to do the most important job of all—to bear and raise His only son. God has had many servants through the generations, but Mary was one of a kind. She was willing to trust her God completely, even when He chose her to do something that should have been impossible. Many would call Mary naive and overly passive because of this, but I find her to be admirable.

Would the life Mary had planned for herself have been better than the life God chose for her? I think if Mary were here today, she would tell us that nothing could ever have been better than carrying the son of God under her heart and loving him passionately all 33 years of his life on Earth. She could never regret being a part of something so incredible, and that's exactly what God chose her. Perhaps I too may be chosen for wonderful things if I can truly be a willing servant. 

Monday, December 14, 2009

Advent Lessons: Zechariah

God sent the angel Gabriel to tell the priest Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth would give birth to a son. This was an amazing promise considering that Elizabeth was barren and past her childbearing years. Zechariah asked the angel for proof that his promise was real. Gabriel seemed a bit affronted that Zechariah had questioned him. "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news," he replied. If Zechariah wanted proof, then Gabriel would give him proof—he told Zechariah that he would not be able to speak until his son, John the Baptist was born.

This story teaches me that when God tells me that something amazing is about to happen, it's generally not the best idea to reply, "Yeah, right."

Of course, in Zechariah's defense, he was alone in the temple lighting incense when Gabriel appeared before him. It would have been really easy for Zechariah to wonder if he was hallucinating as he breathed in the fragrant fumes. What if the angel was a figment of his imagination? How could such an incredible thing really be happening? And so Zechariah asked Gabriel to prove that he and his message were real. You and I would probably do the same. Zechariah believed in God, but he wasn't expecting such an incredible miracle. That's the whole point of miracles—they defy all of our expectations. Often when we are faced with the wonder of God's power we become skeptical. We think it's more likely that our brains are malfunctioning than that God would do something so extraordinary in our lives.

I think I understand how Zechariah felt when he beheld Gabriel with disbelief. I sometimes feel that way myself. How can I tell the difference between God's guiding hand in my life and my own imagination? How can I be sure that the messages I get from God are authentic? Sometimes, like Zechariah, I find myself wanting a sign. However, I've learned to be careful what I ask for. I may not get the sign I want.

Still, Zechariah's muteness was a gift from God. He asked for a sign, and Gabriel gave him a sign that was unmistakable. Zechariah could no longer doubt this miraculous encounter. His muteness was a forceful reminder that Gabriel and his message were real. God was not vindictive and did not leave Zechariah mute forever—his voice was restored when Gabriel's promise was fulfilled in the birth of John. In the end, Zechariah was blessed with a son, something he had longed for but given up as an impossibility. Zechariah had to learn the hard way to trust God, but then again, the lesson wasn't so hard after all. After nine months of muteness he was blessed with a son, and that miracle is what he carried in his heart for the rest of his life.

We can doubt God, but sooner or later He will get our attention. He is capable of all things, even proving to skeptics like us that He has the power to work wondrous miracles in our lives. When I doubt, it's OK for me to ask for a sign. That might not turn out exactly the way I had hoped, but somehow God will give me what I need in the end. God's miracles are real, so I can allow myself to believe in them. Zechariah certainly learned to believe, and he found joy in doing so.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Keep Trying

Sometimes when the going gets tough, I simply want to give up. It's tempting to think that my struggles don't matter anymore or that my efforts don't really make any difference anyway. I want to quit, resign, forfeit. Still, I've discovered over time that although there are many times when I want to give up, there are only a few cases when I really should.

The mean old Hawks coach in the movie The Mighty Ducks (1992) told his little hockey players, "It ain't worth playin' if you can't win!" Even from a sports perspective this is completely ridiculous. Losses can be very informative, teaching teams lessons that will help them win the harder games later in the season. Losing forces us to develop character, to work on our game, to try harder and do our best. Losing is just a part of the game. Still, it's so tempting to get stuck in the "winning is everything" mindset. What is the point in doing our best if our best isn't good enough? Wouldn't we maintain more dignity if we just quit instead of facing ridicule as we try and fail to reach big goals?

From a Christian standpoint, I know that it's often important to toil on when things get tough. Love is hard and relationships are difficult. Being a contributing and peaceful member of the Body of Christ is not always a picnic. Do I consider a divorce every time my husband and I have a fight? No. Do I leave as soon as my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ are dealing with difficult issues? No. Do I abandon my calling if I face obstacles along the way? I certainly hope not. Sometimes sticking with the things I really care about may feel like beating my head against a brick wall. All the time I spend working for the things I care about may feel like wasted time, and the strides I make towards my cherished goals may seem feeble and insignificant. My failures may loom large and give me great pain and embarrassment. Still, defeat is only the end of the journey if I give in.

God is my ally, and He's famous for turning defeats into victories. How many times did God lead the underdog Israelites to military success? How many times did He choose unlikely champions to change the world? Moses was an outcast murderer with a speech impediment when he encountered the burning bush, and God turned him into a heroic leader. David was a shepherd who attracted the homicidal jealousy of the king, and God made him a beloved monarch. Moses' story didn't end with Pharaoh's first rebuff, and David's tale wasn't over when he fled Saul's palace. More was coming. Every Christian has been promised a victory through Jesus Christ. All of our efforts to follow God and make a difference in the lives of those around us, even if they seem feeble now, will be strengthened by the very power of God. Everything may seem really difficult today, but eventually we will have victory.

God is with me in everything I do, even now, but there is a caveat. God can't really add any strength to my efforts if I don't make any. God supports me, but I must choose to act. If I give up, how can God turn me into a victor? If I choose to walk away from an important endeavor, I will be slamming the door in God's face, essentially telling Him that I don't trust Him enough to keep trying. I will be saying that I believe defeat to be inevitable and writing off the chance of a miracle. Sometimes I do have to cut my losses, I know, but not on the really important stuff. If I believe that God is calling me to do something, then I believe that He will provide a way for me to do it. It might be messy, but in the end it will work out. My faith is based on the conviction that even when my faith itself fails, God will not. Reminding myself of this restores my faith when I feel weak.
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