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01-22 Jesus in Psalm 118

          The last two weeks, we have seen that God’s Messiah, who entered the world and human history in the person of Jesus, was not a surprise.  The nature, temperament, trials, mission, shall we say the story of God’s Messiah, had been written hundreds of years earlier in the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament.  It was essential that the coming of God’s Messiah be described before the Messiah came into the world.  How else would the people know to expect the Messiah and how would people know who was the authentic Messiah?  I use the word “authentic” because there have been false Messiahs.  While the research on false Messiahs is incomplete, there have been no fewer than 27 Jewish people who have claimed to be God’s Messiah. There have also been more than 20 Christians who have made Messianic claims, including Ann Lee, a central figure of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, also known as the Shakers, who settled in Colonie, NY.  Ann Lee was said to have described herself as the “’embodied all the perfections of God’ in female form and considered herself to be Christ's female counterpart.”

          God wanted to make sure that the people could know the truth about the authentic Messiah and so God shared His knowledge with the people through the prophets and writers of the Hebrew Scriptures. The last two weeks we saw that God gave His knowledge about the Messiah through Psalm 110 and Psalm 22.  This week we will see the truth about the Messiah, about Jesus, was foretold in Psalm 118, and the good news that the Messiah was to bring to us.  In Psalm 118, we will see that God knew that his Messiah would be rejected by those who should have known Jesus was the authentic Messiah.  Jesus was not rejected by the common people so much as Jesus was rejected by the best and brightest people of Israel.  Jesus was rejected by the people who seemed to have their act together spiritually, physically, and emotionally.  The healthy and wealthy rejected Jesus because he did not, in their opinion, fit in.  Jesus did not fit the mold they wanted.  And because Jesus was rejected, Jesus became the target of abuse and ridicule.

          Rejection, not fitting in, not being wanted, being abused, and being ridiculed are painful human experiences.  Rejection deflates us robbing us of hope and a future.  Rejection can produce within us anger, anxiety, depression, jealousy, and sadness.  Rejection is hard and feels very much unfair.  Some of you have or are experiencing rejection.  I have some good news for you.  You are in good company for Jesus was rejected by many people and is still rejected by many people today.  But, and this is the important part, Jesus was never rejected by God and if you seek to follow Jesus, you will never be rejected by him.  Let’s see together why that is the truth and good news for everyone here.

          First, we read from the New Testament Gospel of Mark an account of Jesus sharing a parable with his disciples and a group of Pharisees, religious leaders that shadowed Jesus but consistently rejected Jesus’ teachings.  A parable we know is a story designed to teach an important Biblical truth that people do not seem to understand.  The Gospel writers Matthew and Luke also included this parable in their account of Jesus life and ministry. In the interest of time, I am not going to go into depth for every element of the parable Jesus told.  I just want to emphasize a couple of points from the parable so that we have time to understand the broader context of Jesus’ words.

          Mark wrote, “1 Jesus then began to speak to them in parables: ‘A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower” (Mark 12:1).  We might not immediately understand the significance to Jesus’ opening words, but the Pharisees would unmistakably see that the man in the story was God and the vineyard was Israel.  The Pharisees would remember that in the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophet of Isaiah specifically, wrote these words:  “1 I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.  He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines.  He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well…The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the nation of Israel” (Isaiah 5:1-2, 7a).  So Jesus’ opening words to the parable clearly meant the story was about God and the nation of Israel.

          Jesus continued the parable, “Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. But they (the tenants) seized him (the servant), beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Then he sent another servant to them; they (the tenants) struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another (servant), and that one they (the tenants) killed. He sent many others; some of them they (the tenants) beat, others they (the tenants) killed” (Mark 12:3-5).  The Pharisees would have understood that given that the man was God and the vineyard was Israel, the tenants would be the leaders of Israel (them), and the servants would be the prophets sent by God with a message of righteousness.  The history of Israel is replete with stories of the leaders of Israel beating and, at times, killing God’s prophets.

          Despite the mistreatment by the tenants, the vineyard owner, God, desired to make things right with the tenants.  Jesus said, “He (The owner-God) had one (servant) left to send, a son, whom he loved. He (The owner-God) sent him (God’s son) last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’  But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.  What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.  (Mark 12:6-9).  Jesus’ story is thinly veiled and speaks about God sending his son (Jesus) to the nation of Israel only to have the tenants, the Pharisees, out of jealousy and envy the son.  The tenants, here the Pharisees, could not see the blessing there was in having the son come to them to redeem the situation.  The Pharisees seethed with anger as Jesus warned that their pride, envy, and rejection of him would be their undoing.

          Jesus then further connected the parable with what the Pharisees ought to know from the Hebrew Scriptures.  Jesus said, “10 Haven’t you (Pharisee) read this passage of Scripture: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; 11 the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (Mark 12:10-12). The verse cited by Jesus come from Psalm 118.  Jesus knew these experts in the Hebrew Scriptures had had read Psalm 118 many times before.  What was clear from Jesus’ question was that the Pharisees had not allowed themselves to receive Psalm as God’s Word of what would happen in and through the authentic Messiah.

          What was it about Psalm 118 that Jesus wanted the Pharisees to contemplate, and by extension, for us to know?  Let’s look at a couple of key passages and, in particular, those leading up to Jesus’ quotation from the Psalm 118 to the Pharisees.

          The psalmist said, “15 Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous. The Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!  16 The Lord’s right hand is lifted high; the Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!” (Psalm 118:15-16).  The psalmist was expressing great things had been accomplished by that the person seated to the Lord’s right hand.  Three times in two verses we hear great things about the Lord’s right hand.  This is significant because in Psalm 110 we learned that God’s Messiah is seated at God’s right.  God said to the Messiah, “Sit at my right hand” (Psalm 110:1a).  So, the testimony of Psalm 118 is that Messiah had done might things.  Jesus did mighty things.  Jesus healed people.  Jesus fed thousands of people.  Jesus walked on water and calmed the storms.  Jesus raised people from the dead.  Jesus taught with authority like no other.  And, Jesus forgave sins.

          Here is an important point we do not want to miss. Jesus was the perfect one to come to earth.  There is nothing random about Jesus coming.  Jesus’ coming was ordained by God to occur at the right time and for the right reasons.  In Psalm 118 we learn that in Jesus’ coming there would be joy and victory from the tents of the righteous.  Jesus came for you and me.

Now there is need for a word of caution.  We have to avoid the idea that to be received by Jesus that we somehow have to first become acceptable.  We do not first need to become righteous on our own to have joy and shouts of joy. Years ago, I thought I will seek Jesus after I get my act in order and become a better person.  That is not the message of hope and promise Jesus came to deliver.  Jesus said come me now, just as you are, and seek the righteousness that comes from me. It is in the seeking and believing in Jesus that provides the transformation of our life, if you will, it is the presence of Christ that causes us to get our act in order and become a better person. If you have been waiting to accept Jesus until you somehow become a better person, then stop.  There is no need and no point in doing that. Instead, come and accept Jesus just as you are and watch the might work of God’s right hand in your life.

          As we return to Psalm 118, we see that the psalmist understood what was going to happen as God’s Messiah followed the will of God.  “17 I will not die but live and will proclaim what the Lord has done.  18 The Lord has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death” (Psalm 118:17-18).  The psalmist, though he lived hundreds of years before Jesus, understood from God that there would be those people and groups who would seek to destroy God’s Messiah. As Jesus said in his parables, there was a history of beating and killing prophets who had come with a message from God.  The psalmist acknowledged that the Messiah would experience severe treatment at the hands of the leaders and it would appear as though death would end the Messiah. We know this happened to Jesus for what could be more severe than to be flogged and crucified.  While the horrible treatment of Jesus was done in the hopes that Jesus would be forgotten and his followers would become fearful and not speak of Jesus again, it did not work out that way.  Death was not the final state for the Messiah.

          The psalmist described the final scene this way, “19 Open for me the gates of the righteous; I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.  20 This is the gate of the Lord through which the righteous may enter.  21 I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation” (Psalm 118:19-20).  We know the good news was and is that Jesus was resurrected into new life and came out of the tomb.  In doing so, Jesus praised God and the people could see that Jesus was truly the gate through which his followers, you and I, could be made right.  Through Christ we are able to have an abundant and enriched life in the present and life eternal.

          How is it possible for us to be so blessed? The words of the psalmist and the words of Jesus reveal the truth to us.  “22 The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; 23 the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.  24 The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad” (Psalm 118:22-24).  The key here is that God has taken Jesus whom the best and brightest of Israel rejected and made Jesus the cornerstone of God’s revelation of himself and the blessing for all people.

The cornerstone is the foundational block of a building that aligns the whole building and ties it all together.  The cornerstone, if not square and level, will make the whole building unstable. God chose that Jesus would be that cornerstone for the church and all spiritual life even knowing or because he knew Jesus would be rejected by men seeking to create a religion they controlled. Jesus was rejected yet Jesus praised God.  Jesus was rejected yet he was true and straight in his thinking.  Jesus was rejected and yet he gave others the right to become part of the kingdom of God.  Jesus told the Pharisees, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved” (John 10:9a). Jesus was rejected and yet Jesus would reject none who sought him.

You and I will experience rejection, heartache, and putdowns in our life.  But you and I will never be rejected by God.  God sent Jesus to be rejected for us.  In Jesus, in accepting him, and seeking to imitate Jesus will never be rejected by God.  That is truly good news worthy of shouting for joy.  Amen and Amen.

01-15 - Jesus in All of Psalm 22

          Last week, we saw that Jesus quoted the first verse from Psalm 110 to get the religious leaders, the Pharisees, to understand who God’s Messiah was.  In our reading Psalm 110, we saw that the Messiah, God’s anointed one to set things right, was far different from the Messiah the Pharisees imagined.  God’s Messiah came to bring righteousness and to bring people to God.  The Pharisees’ idea of the Messiah was that of a strong man and an able warrior who would conquer Israel’s enemies.

          Sadly, the Pharisees never came to understand the God’s Messiah foretold in Psalm 110.  I say sadly because the Pharisees, together with the other religious leaders, the Sadducees, along with the Herodians, and ultimately the Romans conspired to kill Jesus, without ever realizing Jesus was God’s Messiah. Earlier today, we read the dreadful scene of Jesus’ execution and death from the Gospel of Mark.

          Mark wrote, “25 It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. 26 The written notice of the charge against him read: the king of the jews. 27 They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left.  29 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 come down from the cross and save yourself!’ 31 In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. ‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! 32 Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.’ Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him” (Mark 15:25-32).

33 At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).  35 When some of those standing near heard this, they said, ‘Listen, he’s calling Elijah.’  36 Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. ‘Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,’ he said.  37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last” (Mark 15:33-37).

The scene was gruesome and disturbing on many levels.  The inhumanity of man was on full display in taking the life of a righteous man, who was only guilty of healing the blind, the paralytic, the demon possessed, and the mute.  The man they killed that day was guilty of teaching his followers to turn the other cheek, praying for your enemies, and to love the Lord your God and love your neighbors. And for these crimes, the best and brightest in the land of Israel, beat him, whipped him, spit on him, and then hanged him on a tree.

But perhaps one of the most disturbing thing for many about the execution was what Jesus said.  Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Forsaken.  Forsaken is a terrible word.  To be forsaken is such a terrible state to find oneself in. To be forsaken is to have a sense of complete and utter abandonment.  To be forsaken, there comes a feeling of being isolated and alone, a sense that you have loss something you once had and cherished. 

“My God, my God, why – why have you forsaken me?”, words spoken by Jesus, seem very troubling.  Jesus’ words make us wonder and ask, “How could God abandon Jesus?  Wasn’t Jesus being faithful to God’s will and yet it seems that Jesus expressed a feeling that God had abandoned Jesus at his hour of greatest need?”  That very idea makes us then ask, “If God abandoned Jesus in his need, how can I trust that God will not forsake and abandon me in my times of greatest need?”

Theologians try to explain away Jesus’ lament saying that Jesus had taken the sins of the world upon himself and in that moment on the cross, as sin, God could not bear to look upon Jesus.  And so, Jesus felt God turn his back on him and in desperation and aloneness, cried out to God. 

I struggle with such theological reflections because they seem to set God at war with himself. Such theological reflections imply that God in heaven and Immanuel, God with us, on earth, although one, were somehow now at odds with one another.

I think there is another way to look at this scene that will lead us to a true and encouraging understanding of Jesus’ words from the cross.  I said when we opened that Jesus quoted the first verse from Psalm 110 to encourage the Pharisees to read what had been foretold about the Messiah. Now on the cross, desperate to breath, Jesus spoke in Aramaic, the language of the common people, Jesus’ followers.  And Jesus spoke the first verse from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I would like us to consider the idea that Jesus’ words were not a lament and cry for God at all, but were instead words Jesus intended to speak to encourage for his followers to find comfort in by reading all of Psalm 22.  Psalm 22, a poem, written hundreds of years before Jesus’ death on the cross.  What might Jesus followers, what might we find out about Jesus, if all of Psalm 22 was explored as perhaps Jesus was suggesting from the cross?  Shall we do look at Psalm 22?

“1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?  My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.  Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the one Israel praises.  In you our ancestors put their trust; they trusted, and you delivered them.  To you they cried out and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame” (Psalm 22:1-5).  The psalmist was reviewing the history of the people of Israel with God revealing that time and again God rescued and redeemed the people of Israel. And God did so even though the people had been sinful and had walked away from God.  Perhaps Jesus in bringing his followers to Psalm 22 wanted them to see and be encouraged that God had always been faithful and would be faithful in this dark moment.

          The psalmist continued, “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.  All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.  ‘He trusts in the Lord,’ they say, ‘let the Lord rescue him.  Let him (God) deliver him, since he (God) delights in him’” (Psalm 22:6-8). Right away we see in the psalm the scene Mark described, “29 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 come down from the cross and save yourself!’” (Mark 15:29-30).  Jesus, in turning his followers to Psalm 22, was helping his followers to see that the horrible scene before them had been foretold by God hundreds of years earlier.  If that was so, then maybe the entirety of the psalm would yield more of the story that was unfolding before Jesus’ followers.

          From the psalmist, “Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.  10 From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.  11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.  12 Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.  13 Roaring lions that tear their prey open their mouths wide against me.  14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me.  15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.  16 Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet.  17 All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. 18 They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment” (Psalm 22:9-18). Again, Jesus followers would be, and we are, able to see that the psalmist was describing the crucifixion of man with the elite among men mocking him with open mouths and villains casting lots for his clothing.  Moreover, this man, Jesus’, felt his heart melting within him, his bones were showing against his skin, all in the view of his own mother.  Jesus’ followers and we can see that the crucifixion of Jesus was not just some random act of violence.  The crucifixion of God’s own Messiah was known to God and the Messiah before God sent Messiah to earth and was revealed to the faithful long before the crucifixion occurred.  This must mean to Jesus’ followers and to us that God is present in this horrendous act scene.  He is not absent.

          The psalmist continued, “19 But you, Lord, do not be far from me.  You are my strength; come quickly to help me.  20 Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs.  21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; save me from the horns of the wild oxen” (Psalm 22:19-21).  If the psalmist knew that God was present, then so too did Jesus.  Despite the cruelty of the cross that was killing the body, Jesus’ followers could see through the psalm, and we see, that Jesus’ faith in God as his strength, his rescuer, and savior never faltered.  The ancient and modern readers of Psalm 22 would then have reason to believe that something profound was unfolding in the crucifixion scene that defied the physical appearance.  There was a strength present.  There was an unbreakable bond in play that the faithful could know existed even amid the howls of the tormentors.  What could it be?

          The psalmist began to reveal that to us, writing: “22 I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you.  23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!  All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!  Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!  24 For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help” (Psalm 22:22-24), The psalmist expressed the understanding of the man upon the cross, here Jesus, that despite appearances, God had not despised or scorned him.  God had not hidden his face.  God had not abandoned him.  To the contrary, God had listened and had heard the cries for help.  This is joyous news.  That in the darkest moment from Jesus upon the cross, God was embracing his son.  God had not turned his back on his son.  These two verses are important to us because they reveal that in our darkest hours, God is embracing us as any good father would do.  God does not turn his back on us.  God does not forget us.  God draws near to us to give us strength to bear our cross. 

The psalmist then closed the psalm with insight into what would happen once the ordeal upon the cross was completed.  This ending is perhaps would offer the greatest comfort to Jesus’ followers who saw in Jesus execution that all hoped had ended.  Far from it.  The psalmist wrote this is what will happen now, “26 The poor will eat and be satisfied; those who seek the Lord will praise him—may your hearts live forever! 27 All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, 28 for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations.  29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—those who cannot keep themselves alive.  30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord.  31 They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He (God) has done it!” (Psalm 22:26-31).  The psalmist gave the prophesy that instead of the man on the cross, Jesus, being forgotten and forsaken, generation after generation would turn to him.  That the praises of Jesus’ Christ would ring out across every tribe and every nation of this earth.  That even those who are yet unborn will hear of the Lord and his righteousness.  Those who live and those who die whether believers or not will bow before the man on the cross, Jesus the Messiah, the chosen one of God.

How is all that possible?  Because “He has done it! (Psalm 22:31b).  God has done it.  God has brought glory to the name of Jesus Christ, the man hanging from the cross. God had not abandoned Jesus and Jesus wanted his followers to know that was the case.  Hence, Jesus spoke the first words of Psalm 22 in the hopes that his followers would find peace and reassurance.

We all need peace and reassurance that comes from the knowledge that God does not abandon or forsake those who seek him.  The best and brightest of Israel hoped that Jesus would be forgotten.  Jesus knew better and pointed to Psalm 22 to help his followers, including you and me to know that the name of Jesus shall not perish upon the earth nor shall the joy of knowing Jesus as our savior shall perish.

What cross are you carrying that has become greater than you can carry in your own strength?  Read then Psalm 22 and see Jesus in the entire psalm.  Take from the psalm the confidence that God will give you the strength and see you through the darkest moments of your life.  Do not give up.  Do not believe the lie that God has forsaken or abandoned you.  He has not and will not.  Amen and Amen.

01-01 God's Priorities

      We are all here today by choice.  We have each decided to come here rather than do anything else or be anywhere else.  Our choices represent our use of God’s gift to us of freewill.  God created us in His image and part of that image is the ability to make choices. Giving us freewill was essential to God’s overall plan for humanity, for without freewill we cannot experience God’s love and cannot love one another.  God is love but we cannot love God or anyone else unless we can choose to do so. You cannot force someone to love you or receive your love; it must be a choice.  God’s gift of love comes with the choice to receive it or reject it. You might be sitting there asking yourself, “What is this guy talking about?  Maybe some of you are now saying to yourself, “If I had it to do over again, perhaps I would use that freewill choice and choose to be anywhere but here!” Stay with me a few more moments and let me see if I can connect a couple of the dots together.

          You could have been anywhere else doing anything else today but you are here.  You are not here by accident or chance.  You are here by choice because the Holy Spirit has moved within you nudging some, encouraging a few, and perhaps even pushing one or two to be here because God wants you to know of His love for you and His desire to redeem and revive you.

      How then does God empower, encourage, and equip us for redemption and revival of our love for Him?  God does it by getting us to focus on His priorities, His plans, and His promises.  Let’s take a quick look at just one of countless examples of redemption and revival in the Scriptures.  Let’s look at the Book of Haggai, [Hag-e-i] Chapter 1, verse 1. 

      Haggai was a prophet living in the times of the Jews return from exile to Babylon.  Haggai was one of the twelve Minor Prophets.  Haggai began with these words, “In the second year of King Darius, on first day of the sixth month, the word of the Lord came through of Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel [Zer-rub-a-bull], son of Shealtiel [Shawl-teal], governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jozadak [Ja-hose-a-dak], the high priest.  This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house’”  (Haggai 1:1-2).  Haggai reports here that God is aware of what is in the hearts of the people. Through their words and their lack of action, God observed the people who have returned from exile to Jerusalem had no heart to rebuild the temple of God.  The people claimed the time has not yet come to do that work.  We all have choices to make about our time and we all have a heart for something.  A study from some years ago, showed how the average America would use their time over a 70-year life span. Of those 70 years, we would spend:

 

Sleep................23 years

Work.................16 years

TV....................8 years

Eating................6 years

Travel................6 years

Leisure.............4.5 years

Illness...............4 years

Dressing..............2 years

Religion............0.5 years

Total................70 years

 

We all have a heart for something.  Haggai revealed that the heart of the people was not in rebuilding the temple because they have concluded it is not yet time.  Something else on their list is ahead of working on the temple.

      Scripture continues, “Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: ‘Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?’”  (Haggai 1:3-4).  The question asked by God reveals a contrast between His heart and the hearts of the people.  The people show energy and excitement in making their personal homes looking splendid, while at the same time saying, “It is not yet time to work on the Temple.” The question from God, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house [My Temple] lies in ruins?”  is not a question seeking information.  But, in this cases, God was seeking a confession. “Is it [really] time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house [My Temple] lies in ruins?”  The question was intended to cause the hearers to stop in their tracks and it creates that moment of very uncomfortable silence.  We have all experienced that moment when someone, a person of authority, said to us, “Hey, what are you doing?”  We freeze and become acutely aware of silence created by that question.  The Lord God has created that silence here.

      After a moment in that silence that can seem like an eternity, Haggai speaks again, verse 5, Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways” (Haggai 1:5).  “Give careful thought” comes from the Hebrew word, suwm, which means to turn your heart and mind toward something.  God wanted His people to consider what they have been doing and what had been happening as they sat in their paneled homes adjacent to the ruins of the Temple.  To us it might be as if we have been asked to look at the distribution of life in years spent sleeping, working, eating, watching television, traveling, recreating, dressing, and in practicing our faith.  “Give careful thought!”

      Haggai said in verse 6, “ You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it” (Haggai 1:6)  God was pointing out the people’s priorities, their choices, the things they value in life, were both self-centered and unsatisfying.  Just in case the message Zerubbabel [Zer-rub-a-bull], the governor, and Joshua, the high priest, and the remnant of people did not receive the message, Haggai said in verse 7, “This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways” (Haggai 1:7). 

      God was telling His people that they were not experiencing the type of fellowship He wanted with them because their priorities were misplaced.  God wanted to revive that fellowship.  God wanted to restore relationship with the people.  God wanted the people to renew their trust in Him.  If we want revival, whether it is personal, congregational, of our mission, and our ministries, we must make our fellowship with God our priority. Jesus said, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.” (Jn 6:38)  30 “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” (Jn. 5:30) Jesus set the model for us in setting our priorities.  Trust in God.  Give careful thought to our ways.  God wants His people to come back to Him.

      What did God require of them?  Haggai continued in verse 8, “Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the Lord” (Haggai 1:8).  God had set work out for the people to do and it was God focused.  God gave the people a plan to accompany His priority.  God is an organized God.  God is creative and deliberate.  God has laid out the work that must be done.  The Scriptures are replete with clear direction for the faithful.  Jesus said, “19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”  There is evidence of the plan accompanying the priority.  Yet, God still gives us the choice to love Him and follow His words, or to do otherwise.

      Verse 12, “12 Then Zerubbabel [Zer-rub-a-bull] the son of Shealtiel [Shawl-teal], Joshua son of Jozadak [Ja-hose-a-dak], high priest, with the whole remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the Lord their God, and message of the prophet Haggai, because the Lord their God had sent him. And the people feared the Lord” (Haggai 1:12)  The people chose to set their priority and plans on God; the one true God in whom they revered and in whom they were in awe.  If we want to experience a revival of fellowship with God, we must have Him as our priority and follow through with His plan.  The Pharisees challenged Jesus about the work of God.  “ Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”  Redemption and revival can only happen if we place our priority on God and our plans in the belief in Jesus Christ.

      Now some people might say, “Pastor, I have done those things.  My priority is God and my plans are based on the belief in Jesus, but I do not feel revived, in fact, at times I feel quite dead tired.”  If you feel like that I would suggest you consider two possible reasons.  First, are you tired because God is your priority, but you are working your plans not His? How many times do we pray, “God please bless us as we proceed with our plans to …” You can fill in the blank, we all have done so.  We are asking God to bless our plans and not to bless us as we pursue His plans.  God knows that if we in our own strength attempt to do what we want to do we might bloom for a while and then fade.  We do so because we carry the banner of God’s priority but raise it over the work we want to do.  Give careful thought and make sure you are carrying God’s banner over the plans He wants done.

      Secondly, and this will be my final point, we may feel tired because we are not connected to the power of God.  When the people chose God as their priority and they followed His plan, check out the power they received.  Look at verse 13, “ Then Haggai, the Lord’s messenger, gave this message to the people: ‘I am with you, declares the Lord” (Haggai 1:13).   14 So the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel [Zer-rub-a-bull] son of Shealtiel [Shawl-teal], governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jozadak [Ja-hose-a-dak], the high priest, and the spirit of the whole remnant of the people. They came and began to work on the house of the Lord Almighty, their God” (Haggai 1:13-14).  When we take on God as our priority, follow His plan, then we have the promise that God is with us.  Knowing God is with us, then our spirits soar and we are refreshed and rejuvenated.

       Think about it this way.  Some years ago, there was a certain small rural town.  It was as they say a simpler time.  The electric company was installing power lines through the town – for the first time.  There was a woman in the town that lived alone and known to be quite frugal.  She surprised many when she decided to have electricity connected to her home.  A few months later, a representative from the power company went to the woman’s home to make sure that everything was working properly.  Before he went into the house, he checked the electric meter.  It showed that she had used an exceptional small amount of electricity.  He knocked on the door, the woman answered it, and the representative told her that he was there to make sure the newly installed electricity was working for her. She said it worked beautifully. He said he was glad to hear that but expressed concern that her meter showed she had barely used any electricity. She said she did not see how that was possible since she used it every day.  The representative expressed some surprise to her given the limited use recorded on the meter.  She assured him again, telling him that every day as the sun went down and it got dark, she would turn the lights on in the house and keep them on until she could get around and light the candles.  You see she was connected to power but she was not making use of the promise of light coming from it.

      Give careful thought! For our redemption and revival, we must have God as our priority, we must follow His plan, and we must be overjoyed by the power that comes with the promise from God, “I am with you!”  In Jeremiah, God said, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the Lord.”  To Joshua, God said, “No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you.” I will not leave you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous.”  Jesus said to the apostles to make disciples, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  To Paul, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, 10 for I am with you.”  Let us not forsake the power in the promise of God being with us.

      Who then shall we set our priorities upon?  God’s. Whose plans shall we then follow? God’s.  Whose promises shall empower us?  God’s.  When we choose God, then we are redeemed, restarted, refreshed, renewed, revitalized, recovered, recouped, regained, resuscitated, and ultimate to revived our fellowship with Him.  Amen and Amen.

12-18 - The Silence of the Shepherds

          We have come to the fourth Sunday of Advent, the time of year in which we anticipate celebrating Jesus’ birth.  The birth of Jesus was a dramatic end God’s silence lasting some four hundred years. God had been silent for 400 years, having last spoken through the prophet Malachi.  Through Malachi God said that when He next spoke, it would mark the coming of the Lord.  God would bring forth a prophetic messenger having the power of Elijah to announce the Lord’s arrival.  And so, God spoke through an angel to Zechariah, that Zechariah, son, John, would be that messenger.  God spoke through an angel to Mary that she would bear the Son of God.  God spoke to Joseph reassuring Joseph that Mary’s child was of the Holy Spirit and Joseph must care for Mary and the baby. Moreover, God shared with Joseph that Joseph was to give Mary’s child the name Jesus and that Jesus would save the people from their sins.  Finally, God spoke through a multitude of angels to tell a group of shepherds that Jesus had been born.  God was true to his word.  The Lord had come.

          Jesus’ arrival here on earth was an odd mixture events of the world, of private matters, and of matters that were quite frankly out of this world.  The worldly event surrounding Jesus’ birth came about by a man named Caesar Augustus.  Augustus was unarguably then the most power man on the face of the earth. Augustus had called for a census, a counting of his subjects.  Within Israel, Caesar’s order caused the movement of people to the lands of their ancestorial tribe.  Mary and Joseph were both of the bloodline of David who was of the tribe of Judah. Mary and Joseph were living in Nazareth in the lands of tribe of Manasseh.  And so, Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to their ancestorial home of Bethlehem, of Judah, to be counted.  An inscription from a Roman Temple in Turkey reports that this census determined there were 4.2 million Roman citizens under Caesar Augustus. The census was the worldly event.         

          Amid the chaos of the counting of Augustus’ subjects, a very private event took place.  Luke wrote, “While they [Mary and Joseph] were there [in Bethlehem], the time came for the baby to be born, and she [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She [Mary] wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them” (Luke 2:6-7).  The birth of a child is a private event that combines an odd mixture of personal pain for the mother with corporate joy for many over the promise in each child’s born. The birth of Mary’s son occurred in just that way.  Privately, painfully, and yet joyfully Mary gave birth.  But our Gospel writer, Luke, a physician by trade, reported an odd thing about this birth.  When born, the child was placed in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. Luke said the manger was used because Mary and Joseph could not find a guest room to accommodate them.  There were no vacant rooms for the couple and those who already occupied rooms were unwilling to give them up for Mary and her baby who was ready to be born.  Mary and Joseph were left to find shelter from the elements in a stable.  Casting Crowns, a Christian music group, in the song, While You Were Sleeping, described this private moment this way, “O Bethlehem, you will go down in history, as a city with no room for its king.”  The baby was born and laid in a trough.  It seems likely that Mary and Joseph  would have assumed that with the baby now born, they would soon leave Bethlehem as unnoticed as when they entered.

          Except we know Mary and Joseph’s son was no ordinary baby.  The birth of this baby was an out of this world event.  Mary and Joseph each had been told that this child was of the Holy Spirit and that this child was the Son of God, a savior of the people.  To be born a savior among the people, meant that this baby was born an enemy of those who hold power over the people. This baby was the Son of God, the one true God in heaven born into the lands of Caesar Augustus who had been proclaimed by the Roman Senate as the Son of God and savior of the world.  Caesar, the man, counted people as though he owned them.  For Mary’s baby to be the savior of the world meant Caesar’s similar title was that of an imposter.

This baby of Mary was the Son of God, the one true God in heaven born into the world of Satan, the ruler of this world.  Satan, the fallen angel, who sought to corrupt and poison the spirit and mind of anyone who desired God.  Here in the little town of Bethlehem, a baby lay in the manger, born into enemy territory with one mission, to save the people from Satan.  The birth of Mary’s baby happened in the middle of a worldly, yet private event, and was also an out of this world event.  The birth of Jesus has no parallel in human history.

          Luke then moved us from the baby in the manger within the city of Bethlehem to the night darkness in the hills surrounding Bethlehem.  There among the hills, Luke introduced us to shepherds, themselves living out in the elements, quietly keeping watch over their sheep.  Luke said, “An angel of the Lord appeared to them [the shepherds], and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they [the shepherds] were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them [the shepherds], ‘Do not be afraid’” (Luke 2:9-10).  Luke confronted his readers with a startling scene. Shepherds were quietly settled in for the evening making sure their sheep were protected from predators and thieves.  Then without warning, the small patch of ground around the shepherds lit up as if the noontime sun had suddenly appeared.  The shepherds squinted their eyes and they raised their hands to help peer into the light.  The light terrified the shepherds.  And then in their terror, a voice came from the light piercing the silence of the night. And the voice said, “Do not be afraid” (Luke 2:10a).  I am not sure the encouragement of the voice helped with the shepherds’ fear.  The shepherds were having an out of this world experience.  An angel, God’s messenger, had appeared to again break God’s silence.

          The angel said, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10b-11).  The words the people of Israel had longed to hear had been spoken to this group of shepherds.  God’s Messiah had been born, today, in the city just below them.  Messiah was Israel’s dream of restored glory under God. Israel would vanquish its enemies through the Messiah.  Jews would be free from the pagans and the profane of this world.  Conquest would soon be theirs.  The leader of the rebellion had been born in Bethlehem, the perfect spot.  Hallelujah!

          But.  There is always a but.  But then the angel said something odd and disturbing.  The angel said, “12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).  What?  God’s anointed Messiah, the future warrior king, restorer of Israel’s sacred honor, would be found in an animal’s feeding trough.  That is humiliating.  The Messiah should be exalted not humbled.  The shepherds experience teaches us again that we cannot expect God to act in ways that fit our convention, our way of thinking.  Job expressed to God, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:3). God makes himself known, but there still is much mystery to God and we cannot judge how, when, and where God will speak to us.

          Before the shepherds could fully comprehend the angel’s words about the Messiah in the manger, the sky above the shepherds exploded with many angels praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).  There it was again.  The unexpected phrase appeared, “peace on earth.”  The Messiah was to bring war and conquest, what is this talk about peace? God who had not spoken in nearly 400 years was sharing the essence of His new covenant.  It would be a covenant of peace.

          Luke shared that when the angels left the shepherds and returned to heaven, the shepherds hurried off to Bethlehem to begin their search of the city’s stables.  It was not long after, the shepherds found Mary and Joseph, indeed laying in the manger with a newborn baby boy.  The shepherds had gone from an out of the world experience and entered the very private experience of a couple with its newborn baby.  What was Mary and Joseph to think?  This group of shepherds barged their way into Mary and Joseph’s life looking for their newborn son.  And when the shepherds found the child, Luke said, “17 The shepherds spread the word concerning what [the angel] had been told them [the shepherds] about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them” (Luke 2:17-18). Apparently, the shepherds’ enthusiasm at finding the child attracted the attention of others.  The shepherds shared their out of this world experience to the amazement of those who heard the story. 

Amazed here means to wonder about what had been said or happened.  It is state of excited speculative chatter, sharing with others what could all this mean. 

In contrast to the excitement of speculation of others, Luke said, “19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).  Mary, the baby’s mother, knew the shepherds’ testimony was true and she did not need to speculate about the meaning of the shepherds’ out of the world experience.  Instead, Mary held onto what the shepherds said so that she could be encouraged by their testimony in the days, months, and years ahead.  Mothers are particularly good at treasuring and holding within themselves memories and experiences with their children.  It might be the first smile or giggle of their child, or a secret shared with their mother.  Luke reminds us that as wonderful and exciting as it is for us to hear about the coming Messiah, there was still unfolding the very human story of a mother and her child.

It is not an accident that Luke included this contrasting detail between Mary and the others who heard the shepherds’ testimony.  In doing so, Luke reminds us that every story, even the story of Jesus’ birth, has two dimensions to it.  There is the human story of mortal birth, life, things treasured, words pondered, joy, pain, and grief.  There is also the eternal story of sin, rebirth, salvation, pursuit of righteousness, heaven, hell, and destiny.  Both stories are important.  In living within worldly and private events, we must acknowledge and honor the human story. There is a great temptation for us to ignore the difficulties of the human story of another person and quickly redirect people’s attention toward the eternal story.  We say things like, “Don’t cry, God will bring good out of this situation.”  God did not treat Mary that way and we should not treat others that way.  God used the shepherds to provision Mary with words of encouragement, words to treasure in her heart, words Mary did not know then how much she would need to get her through the pain she would experience in her mortal life as her child fulfilled his destiny upon the cross.  So, when we minister to each other, let’s acknowledge each other’s human stories which are rich in joy and accented by pain.  Let’s first share the human story together. Then, when the time is right, we can help each other remember the full truth of the eternal story that we also live.

Luke concluded that for their part, “20 The shepherds returned [to the hillsides] , glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told” (Luke 2:20).  The shepherds returned to their silence, and we know no more about them.

What more can we learn from this tale of the shepherds?  It is a tale that we have heard many times before and, perhaps, even acted out in a church play.  Today, I would like us to see three things. 

First, we with worldly events occurring all around us.  Some of those events are exciting, others are disturbing.  That was certainly the case in our reading today as Caesar Augustus caused a census to be taken moving Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.  There are many Caesars in the world today, each believing they are the power.  Today’s story reminds us that world events may not always be as they seem because God uses worldly events to further His interests.  God used Caesar’s census to bring about His Messiah.  Caesar’s census may have recorded 4.2 million people, but it did not record that God had invaded Caesar’s kingdom with just one person, a Savior, Jesus Christ.  That Savior, Jesus, would overturn the kingdom of Caesar and will overturn all other kingdoms of this earth.  We need to keep that in mind whenever we are disturbed by worldly events.

Second, we live out our life primarily through private events.  We are born, we learn to walk, we go to school, we get married, we have children, we attend funerals, and we die.  Except for the Caesar’s of the world, these events are private events. Mary and Joseph had a private life into which we have been given a window.  Mary and Joseph become engaged, became married, gave birth to Jesus, watched Jesus grow, and had other children.  Mary and Joseph had no idea of the significance their private lives would have on the world and neither do we concerning our own lives.  We should never diminish anyone’s importance to the work of God’s kingdom, including the work that you and I do.  We are people of a small church living out private lives with each other and yet we do not know how our lives will ultimately impact the kingdom of God.  And so we must be faithful to live that life, in its private moments, as though it matters to God because it does.  That is what Mary and Joseph did and so must we.

Finally, meeting God in the Scriptures, in the baptismal pool, walking along the beach, seated in the park, worshiping in church, or in our dreams is an out of the world experience that is available to us all.  The shepherds experienced God in a place, time, and manner that they never predicted. The same is true for us.  We need to remain open to how and when God will speak to us.  He does not often speak as He did to the shepherds with this searing light at night.  More often, God will speak to us through that still small voice.  And so, we need to listen for God’s voice and not be afraid of it.  I have experienced God breaking the silence and infusing me with hope.  I know he will do the same for you.  I know this because God infused the shepherds with hope and announced His intention to bring us each peace to all who would seek him.

These are the things we can learn from this story of the shepherds.  So, let us then find peace within the worldly events, the private moments we share, and may we find peace with an out of the world experience with God, His Son, Jesus Christ, and His Holy Spirit.  Amen and Amen.

12-11 - The Silence of Joseph

          The last two weeks we have been exploring how God broke His silence and brought the news that He was sending His anointed one into the world to bring salvation to all.  For 400 years God had been silent.  The last words God spoke through the prophet Malachi proclaimed that “I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents” (Malachi 4:5-6).  God then broke his silence by sending the angel Gabriel to an old man, a priest named Zechariah, telling Zechariah that he and his wife, Elizabeth, would have a son, named John, who “will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous” (Luke 1:17).  John was not the anointed one of God.  John’s mission would be to announce God’s Messiah had come.

          After breaking the silence with Zechariah, God broke His silence again sending the angel Gabriel to a young woman named Mary to tell her that through the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary would give birth to the Son of God.  Unknown to Zechariah and Elizabeth, God had acted and even before their son, John, had been born, God was bringing about the Messiah. The news from the angel to Mary was wonderful and terrifying.  Mary’s child brought forth by the Holy Spirit would be the Son of God.  This moment in time was the highest spiritual point for any human being.  And as awesome as the news was from the angel, Mary nevertheless found herself in the little town of Nazareth, in Galilee, in Judea, in Israel, pregnant and engaged to be married to a man named Joseph.  The Hebrew Scriptures were quite strict about women who were pregnant and not married.  With Mary engaged and pregnant, family, friends, neighbors, and the authorities would assume that Mary was no longer a virgin.  The Law of Moses said that such women should be “brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you (Deuteronomy 22:20). It was a difficult moment for Mary as she needed to share her story with Joseph for under the Law of Moses, for Mary’s fate was in Joseph’s hands.

          Mary told her story to her husband to be, Joseph.  Mary shared about the angel and that her child would be a king and would be called the Son of God.  But all Joseph heard from Mary was “I am pregnant.”  Joseph could not accept Mary’s story.  All Joseph knew was that Mary was pregnant and the child was obviously not his child.  Joseph chose to receive Mary’s news with despair and disbelief.  Joseph was reshaping his experience by rejecting Mary’s good news that the Son of God was to be born.  Disbelief in God’s Word always reshapes our life experiences for the worse.

          Mary, needing assurance, remembered that the angel told her that her cousin, Elizabeth, was pregnant.  Elizabeth was old, well beyond bearing children.  No one brought news that Elizabeth was pregnant.  Surely, something as miraculously as Elizabeth’s pregnancy would have been news to share.  But no such news had reached Mary because unknown to Mary, Elizabeth had been in seclusion for the past 5 months.  No one other than Zechariah, Elizabeth, and God knew Mary was pregnant.  Mary hurried to see Elizabeth desperate for confirmation the angel’s news that Elizabeth was pregnant.  Mary needed reassurance.

          Luke shared with us that Mary hurried to find Elizabeth.  When Mary arrived and entered the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary called out to Elizabeth.  “41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her [Elizabeth’s] womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she [Elizabeth] exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you [Mary] among women, and blessed is the child you [Mary] will bear! 43 But why am I [Elizabeth] so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your [Mary] greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she [Mary] who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!’ (Luke 1:41-45).  Mary received the assurance she needed that the Lord’s promises were true.

          This little story of Mary and Elizabeth is a terribly important one. Mary had a mountaintop experience with the angel, a spiritual high.  The angel told Mary she was highly favored and that she, Mary, would bear the Son of God. Then Mary shared her news.  Likely first with Joseph and she experienced a spiritual low.  Joseph rejected Mary.  Joseph’s unbelief was not only shaping Joseph’s experience but was reshaping Mary’s experience. 

Every one of us goes through moments of spiritual highs in which our faith seems so strong and then it seems in an instant that spiritual high can evaporate, and we are in the clutches of a spiritual low.  That was certainly Mary’s experience, but then Mary remembered a small statement made by the angel.  Elizabeth was pregnant.  That small statement was God’s way of letting Mary know that He had made provision for Mary’s renewed spirit.  Mary went to Elizabeth and found God’s Word to be true.  In knowing the truth of God’s Word, Mary’s spirit soared again. The same is true for us.  Even in our spiritual lows, God is making provision our renewal.  God is equipping people through the Holy Spirit to bring comfort, reassurance, and guidance to help lift us from the hole in which we find ourselves.  These people are not likely to knock on our doors and say, “I am here to help.”  They might but it is not likely to happen that way.  But the people God has provisioned for us, to bring us out of the spiritual lows, will always be found in the body of Christ, His church.

The Apostle Paul saw the reality of God’s provision through the church this way.  “27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed [God has provisioned] in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:27-28).  You and I are part of God’s provisioning for each other and for those who are in need but not yet here.  You and I are instruments being empowered by the Holy Spirit to bring reassurance of the truth of God’s Word to those who are experiencing spiritual lows.  We need to let that sink in for a moment.  You and I are empowered by the Holy Spirit to help reshape the spiritual life experience of another person.  That is an awesome thought, responsibility, and blessing.  If people can feel God’s love, a love made incarnate, full and complete, in the caring people of the church, people they see, touch, and hear, then they are assured of God’s presence.  They can know that God hasn’t abandoned them.  In you they see God.

In you those who need reassurance see and experience God’s provision.  Mary found in Elizabeth the reassurance she needed that God’s Word was true.

While Mary sought and was enjoying the presence of Elizabeth, we turn our attention back to Joseph who had rejected Mary at the news of her pregnancy.  Joseph was distraught.  The Jewish tradition of the time was that Joseph’s father, Jacob, and Mary’s father would have arranged Joseph’s and Mary’s marriage.  For girls, needed to be at least 12 years old for marriage.  For boys, needed to be at least 13 years old. We do not know the ages of Mary and Joseph but they could have been very young by our way of living today.  The two fathers would have agreed upon an amount of money Mary’s father would have received for losing a daughter to marriage. Once the agreement was settled, the couple was considered engaged but were not permitted to have sexual relations until after the formal marriage ceremony.

Mary’s news to Joseph of her pregnancy meant the marriage could be terminated.  The Gospel of Matthew said, “19 Because Joseph her [Mary’s] husband was faithful to the law [of Moses], and yet [Joseph] did not want to expose her [Mary] to public disgrace, he [Joseph] had in mind to divorce her [Mary] quietly” (Matthew 1:19).  Joseph was conflicted.  Joseph wanted to follow the Law of Moses and end the marriage but Joseph did not want to expose Mary to the death penalty of the law.  Joseph wanted to follow the command of justice but to temper justice with mercy.

Joseph remained silent about Mary’s pregnancy and the conflict within his own spirit.  In the silence of the night, and in conflict of his mind, Joseph laydown to sleep.  During Joseph’s sleep, “20 An angel of the Lord appeared to him [Joseph] in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She [Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he [Jesus] will save his people from their sins.’  22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’)” (Matthew 1:20-23).  An angel had visited again.  First to Zechariah about the birth of his son John, then to Mary about conceiving Jesus, and now to Joseph concerning the baby within Mary’s womb. Each time, the angel began by addressing fear of those he visited.  The angel invited Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph to each let go of their fear.

Fear is such a powerful emotion. Fear separates us not only from each other.  Think about it for a moment.  If we are afraid of someone, we do everything we can to avoid them.  That is the human level of fear.  But fear also separates us from God.  Fear talks us out of moving forward with God and causes us to believe our best days are behind us.  Fear focuses our attention on our doubts and hurts our self-esteem.  Fear keeps us in bondage until something worse comes along. But we need to remember, we only fear things that have not yet happened.  Because what we fear has not yet happened, we can reshape our experience.  Mary reshaped her experience with fear through the reassurance of Elizabeth and Joseph’s experience with fear was reshaped by God through an angelic messenger.  Both Mary and Joseph, as well as you and I, can remain in our fear or we can accept the encouragement to life that God offers.  What will we choose?

          Matthew shared with us that, “24 When Joseph woke up, he [Joseph] did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus” (Matthew 1:24-25).  Joseph had contemplated divorcing Mary quietly to avoid bringing further shame upon Mary over her pregnancy.  Now, Joseph, assured that he was part of God’s plan, decided to take Mary as his wife and thus take upon himself the shame that would have been given to Mary alone.  The Law of Moses had penalties for men who forced themselves upon virgins.  There is little doubt that family, friends, and neighbors would have heaped shame upon Joseph for breaking the engagement requirement for celibacy.  But Joseph willingly took the shame of wagging tongues and waving fingers because Joseph no longer feared.  The Apostle Paul would later ask, “If God is for us, who can be against us?... 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies” (Romans 8:31b, 33).

          What are we then to do with Mary and Joseph’s story?  Let’s begin with Mary’s part of today’s story, with Mary’s suffering and in need of reassurance.  Mary’s suffered rejection by Joseph who was to be Mary’s source of support and strength in a world that would be hostile to Mary’s pregnancy.  There are people in our lives who are suffering.  People who need reassurance.  When we participate in the sufferings of others as they wrestle with their pain, we are providing the comfort of the Holy Spirit and we model, we imitate, Jesus Christ.  It is a powerful and privileged moment to enter the suffering of another.  When we are invited into someone’s suffering, we should do as Moses did before the burning bush.  Moses removed his shoes for the ground he entered was holy.  When we entered the suffering of another we are entering holy place.  It is a holy place because when you enter another person’s suffering, you find that Jesus is already there ahead of you.  It is a supreme privilege to give to another the provision God placed in you ahead of time.  We must provide with reverence.  For the love you bring to suffering individuals is more than a mere reflection of God’s love.  It is God’s love.

          The season of Advent can be a wonderful and joyous time of year, but it can also be a time of great suffering for those who have been brought low by life’s hardships and difficult circumstances.  If you are suffering, you are not here by accident.  You are here because God led you here and we are glad you are here because God has provisioned this church to be a source of God’s comfort, reassurance, and love.  If you are on a spiritual high, the reason for that is God has equipped you ahead of time to be a provision to others.  You need to extend yourself and share the sense of God’s presence and love within you to others.  Do this not in a smothering sense or in an over-the-top “lovey dovey” sense, but in the sense of communicating to others that they are valued, precious, and loved by God.  You cannot remove the pain from another, but you can reshape their suffering. Elizabeth could not remove the pain Mary would experience from others over Mary being pregnant before marriage, but Elizabeth could remove some of Mary’s suffering.  If you are on a spiritual high, equipped by God for this very moment, then be God’s gift and ease the suffering of others.

          Let’s conclude briefly with Joseph’s part, a conflicted mind.  Joseph was conflicted between a sense of Mary’s betrayal, a desire for justice, and a deep conviction that mercy should be extended. In conflict, Joseph chose to lay down. Joseph did not act while conflicted or emotional about the situation.  Joseph paused and sought rest.  In his rest, God could then speak to Joseph and to help Joseph through his fears. This Advent, we would be wise to do likewise.  We should not exhaust ourselves by overdoing but instead we should find time to rest and allow God to work on us.  People are generally more open to the movement of the Holy Spirit during the seasons of Easter and Christmas.  But if we are in constant motion running from one task to another, we will never be able to receive what God has for us.

          Joseph lay down and rested.  In his rest, Joseph learned that Mary had not betrayed Joseph but had instead honored God. Knowing the truth allowed Joseph to reunite with Mary.  The truth equipped Joseph to face the burdens that lay ahead without concern for what others would think of him.  This Advent season, we should be open to God and take the time and let God reveal to us the truth about whatever conflicts our minds.  Once we are no longer conflicted, then we should act in the truth of God.

          It is my hope that each of us will come to know that God has made provision for us to have abundant life in the present and for all eternity through the child God brought forth through Mary and who was fathered on earth by Joseph. This is the blessing of this season. In our low points, let us receive the story and be assured of God’s love.  In our high points, let us share the story and live it out to relieve the suffering of others.  In our conflict, let the story teach us the truth that we can go forward without fear. Amen and Amen.

12-04 - The Silence of Mary

          Last week, we spoke about the fact that God was silent with the people of Israel for 400 years.  For 400 years, God did not speak through a prophet, priest, king, or angel.  And then God broke his silence and spoke through the angel Gabriel to a priest named Zechariah while Zechariah was refreshing the incense in the holiest place of the Temple in Jerusalem.

          The angel, Gabriel, revealed to Zechariah that the time had come for God to bring into this world the anointed messenger that God had promised.  The anointed messenger was one who would be a servant and would establish a new covenant.  And with that new covenant, God’s salvation plan would be given.

          After 400 years of silence, God spoke to Zechariah.  What a privileged experience for Zechariah.  God, through the angel, said that Zechariah and his wife would have a baby named John, who would come in the power of the prophet Elijah and announce the presence of the anointed one of God on earth. But Zechariah’s unbelief changed that experience.  Zechariah said to the angel, 18 “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years” (Luke 1:18).  Zechariah spoke as though God did not know he and his wife, Elizabeth, and their age. God knew everything about Zechariah and Elizabeth as he does you and me.  Zechariah’s question of God, “How can I be sure of this?” suggests that Zechariah may not know God as well as Zechariah thought he did.  For God is faithful, true, and wise.  Sometimes, when we pray, we may speak to God as though God does not know us, and we do not know God.  I think this is one reason why Jesus would later tell his disciples to pray beginning this way, “Our Father...”  The prayer Jesus taught us to pray reminds us that with God we are in an intimate father and child relationship.  Before one word of adoration or petition is uttered we are acknowledging we know and are known.  The words, “Our Father…” encourage us to fully enjoy and embrace the presence of God and thus shape every experience by sharing what we are going through with our father in heaven.

          Zechariah misplaced his standing with God and the wonderful privilege to have God speak to him.  And so, the angel Gabriel told Zechariah, “20 And now you [Zechariah] will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time” (Luke 1:19-20).  The angel left Zechariah in the silence of the Holy of Holies.  I can imagine Zechariah calling out to the angel, “Wait come back!”  only to be met with silence from his own mouth.  Zechariah could hear just fine but he could no longer give voice to anything he had experienced or felt.

          Luke said, “21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple” (Luke 1:21).  Outside the temple, worshippers were praying and awaiting Zechariah’s return to them.  That must have been quite the reunion.  Luke said, “22 When he [Zechariah] came out, he [Zechariah] could not speak to them [the worshippers]. They [The worshippers] realized he [Zechariah] had seen a vision in the temple, for he [Zechariah] kept making signs to them [the worshippers] but remained unable to speak” (Luke 1:22).  There is little doubt that when Zechariah returned the worshippers, fellow priests, and family knew something dramatic had happened.  Zechariah, was fully able to hear the worshipper’s questions, but he could not tell them of the wonderful news.  How different Zechariah’s reunion with those worshippers would have been had Zechariah believed the good news of the angel.  Oh, how much joy there would have been in those conversations. Instead, Zechariah’s unbelief had brought silence to those hungry for good news.  And so, it is with us.  Our acts of unbelief, when we act contrary to God’s desire, we are then not able to share the good news of our experience with God.  Our voices go silent as well.  Unbelief robs us of what our experiences might have been.

          Luke shared with us, “23 When his [Zechariah’s] time of service was completed, he [Zechariah] returned home. 24 After this his [Zechariah’s] wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months [she] remained in seclusion. 25 ‘The Lord has done this for me,” she [Elizabeth] said. “In these days he [God] has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people’” (Luke 1:23-25).  Zechariah made his way home to be with his wife, Elizabeth, unable to share with her what had happened in the temple.  Sometime later, a month, six months, or year later, we do not know, Elizabeth felt something within her change.  Elizabeth had never felt these sensations before.  Elizabeth felt was life within her.  What she felt was not just life of a developing baby but also the presence of the Holy Spirit.  How joyous a feeling it was to know that God had answered prayer and that the shame heaped upon her by her family and neighbors was lifted.

          But.  There is always a but.  But rather than immediately share what she knew to be true with others, Elizabeth waited. Elizabeth knew what was true but her body would not show that truth for some time to come.  Sharing her news now would only invite the scorn and ridicule of the unbelievers upon Elizabeth.  And so, Elizabeth waited silently in seclusion until the time was right. Elizabeth was wise and showed us that sometimes we need to wait for the right moment to share the work the Holy Spirit is doing within us or through us.  We need to take time of discernment before we speak into the unbelief of family and neighbors.  And so, Elizabeth joined her husband, Zechariah, in the silence.

          Meanwhile, God was prepared again to break His silence. Luke wrote, “26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary” (Luke 1:26-27). The movement of God had shifted dramatically.  God had first sent the angel Gabriel to an old man, Zechariah, to tell Zechariah that his prayer for a son had been answered.  For years, Zechariah and Elizabeth had tried, hoped, and failed to have a child.  The pregnancy of Elizabeth would remove the shame Elizabeth experienced from her family and neighbors. 

Now, God had sent Gabriel to an engaged young woman, named Mary, who had never once had sexual relations. Here, God would announce to Mary she would become pregnant was well.  Only for Mary to be pregnant now would bring shame upon her from her family and friends.  The shift in scenery is breathtaking and shows us that God knows His people thoroughly.

          Luke wrote, “28 The angel went to her [Mary] and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.’  29 Mary was greatly troubled at his [Gabriel’s] words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel [Gabriel] said to her [Mary], ‘Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God’” (Luke 1:28-30).  Gabriel approached Mary who was on her own, in her own silence.  Gabriel began by inviting Mary, as he had with Zechariah, to reshape her experience with God.  Gabriel said to Mary, “You are loved by God.  Let go of your fear.”  I think Gabriel’s words to Mary are words we all need to hear and follow.  “You are loved by God.  Let go of your fear.”  The scene I see here for us is the angel is saying, “Let the presence and knowledge that God loves you overpower the grip you have on whatever is troubling you so that God can remove that fear from you and place His hand within yours.  If we could do that, if we could allow God to remove our fears, God will reshape our life experiences in whys we just could not have imagined.  “You are loved by God.  Let go of your fear.”

          Gabriel continued with Mary.  “31 You [Mary] will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him [Jesus] the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:31-33).  The first bit of news here for Mary was overwhelming.  She would have a child, a boy, who would be a king, seated by God onto the throne of David.  What a wonderful revelation for Mary to consider that someday she and Joseph would have a son who would grow up to be king.  I am sure if we studied historical literature, there are other accounts of women believing they would have a son who would one day grow up to be king.  But there was something troubling and confusing about the way Gabriel had shared this news.  Gabriel’s words and ways made it clear that Mary’s pregnancy was not someday.  Mary’s pregnancy was today, now.  Mary wondered, “How will this be since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34).  Mary had let go of her fears and believed Gabriel’s words, but she did not understand how her pregnancy would come about.

          It was here that Gabriel revealed the news to Mary that the entire world was about to change.  In fact, nothing in the world was ever or will ever be the same because of what Gabriel had to say.  Luke wrote, “35 The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). The Holy Spirit would come to Mary. The Holy Spirit, the same one found in Genesis 1:1-2, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”  The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, that same one at creation was about to act and bring about Mary’s pregnancy.  That same Holy Spirit becomes part of every believer enabling the believer to properly hear God’s Word and moving and empowering the believer to act.  This is the way of God’s Spirit.  He moves and acts through people such as Mary, through you, and through me.

          Gabriel said that the child to be conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit would be more than king.  The child would be holy and called the Son of God.  To be holy is to be set aside and untouched by sin.  No one since the creation of Adam and Eve had been brought into this world sinless and thus holy.  How could this child be and remain holy?  Gabriel answered that question by revealing the boy, Mary’s child, would be the Son of God, that’s how.  The world would never be the same because the Son of God was coming into the world.

          We need to let that news sink Mary heard sink in a little bit. Mary heard the Holy Spirit would cause her to become pregnant with a boy who would be God’s own son.  That is the occasion and the news Mary received when Mary let go of her fears.  That is the news Mary was to celebrate.

          How is this moment celebrated today?  We give gifts and regift some of those gifts to family and friends.  We decorate our homes.  We say, “Merry Christmas,” or are we back to “Happy Holidays,” I forget.  We post on Facebook sayings like, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”  Our stockings are hung by the chimney with care.  We sing songs such as “White Christmas,” or “Feliz Navidad.”  But do we ever speak as directly as Gabriel did? “Celebrate, God Changed Everything.” Or do we greet one another saying, “Rejoice, the Son of God Has Come.”  We do not. But this is what Gabriel said to Mary and the power of God changed everything, not just for Mary, but for you and me.

          How then should we think about these two divergent scenes we witnessed today involving Zechariah and Elizabeth, an old couple who become pregnant with their son, John and this young virgin woman, Mary, who became pregnant through the action of the Holy Spirit with the Son of God?  Let’s remind ourselves that these things all happened because of and through just two words, “Our Father.”  Our Father, God, expressed His will and desire through Gabriel, through the Holy Spirit, through Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary.  What was God’s expressed will?  God’s will was that we would know that He loves us, each and every one of us.  And in that love God wanted to reshape every human experience we have had and will ever have.

          God wants us to see that He sends his Holy Spirit to work through those who are old, those who are young, through new born babies, and even through those who have been conceived but not yet born.  No one is outside the reach of God’s love or outside God’s power to bring good news to the world.

          God wants us to see that unbelief at his message of good news renders us mute unable to be a conduit of peace and joy to others.  We must not let unbelief rob us of what can be.

          God wants us to see that this season is not about packages, bows, and ribbons.  This season is on of rejoicing because God so loved the world that he sent his Son. The Son of God came into the world not to condemn it as some had hoped but instead to save it and thus bring hope.

          God wants us to loosen our grip on fear so he can replace it with peace.  God wants us to discard shame heaped upon us by others and replace that the sensation of the Holy Spirit working within us.  To feel the Holy Spirit within you is knowing life abundant and eternal is growing within you.

          So let us receive then all that God wants us to receive and let God take us wherever He wills.  “Celebrate, God Has Changed Everything.”  “Rejoice, the Son of God Has Come.”  Amen and Amen.

11-27 - The Silence of God

          “4 Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees, and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.  5 See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction” (Malachi 4:4-6). (30 Seconds of Silence)

          Silence.  Today, I was silent for just 30 seconds after I read the passage from Malachi.  I was silent for only 30 seconds, but that silence was beginning to feel a little awkward.  You might have asked, was there something wrong?  Did I miss something?  You might have wondered why is the pastor not speaking?  Thirty seconds of silence can seem like an eternity. We participated in that little social experiment because after God spoke through the prophet Malachi the words “or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction,” God went silent. God went silent not for 30 seconds, 30 days, or even 30 years.  God went silent for 400 years. 

For 400 years, God did not speak through a prophet, priest, king, or angel to the people of Israel.  Four hundred years was also the same amount of time Israel was enslaved in Egypt before God raised up Moses to free the Hebrew people from Egypt.

How might we think about 400 years?  Well, 400 years is the length of time between the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock and today.  A lot has happened in America in the last 400 years.  Consider that our ability to relate to the people the Pilgrims of Plimouth Plantation is marked by a single event, Thanksgiving Day feasts.

For 400 years, Israel was left to mediate on God’s final words, “4 Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees, and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.”  For 400 years, Israel was called to be faithful and wait upon the timing of God. These words from Malachi closed the composition of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we now call the Old Testament.

While all Israel waited, generations were born and died.  Battles were fought and wars lost.  Alexander the Great conquered the lands of Israel bringing with him a Greek language that would become known throughout the known world. The Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek causing the knowledge of God to be known everywhere.  Julius Caesar would later conquer the lands bringing with him Roman roads interconnecting the known world as well the Roman version of law and order.  The Jewish people were in the lands of Israel and now everywhere in the empire were able to worship and travel bringing with them the knowledge of God upon whom they were waiting.

And what were the Israelites waiting for?  Israel was waiting for the person they would call Messiah even though the formal name “Messiah” appeared nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures.  In the days of God’s silence and conquest by one empire after another, the Jews desired that God would anoint, would literally smear with oil, a new king for them.  A king, a ruler, visible and powerful endowed by God with special gifts and powers.  A king at whose coming would mark the end of time for all humanity.  The faithful of Israel would be exalted and enjoy the blessings of God’s anointed king.  And divine judgement, God’s judgement, would be upon the unfaithful, the pagan, and the profane. 

The Israelites believed that God’s Messiah would be born in Bethlehem but that his appearance as the Messiah would be sudden, and that all at once he would be there appearing as a victorious ruler.  From the day of his birth until he appeared, the Messiah would be hidden by God and then brought out of concealment with a suddenness. And so in the silence of God, all Israel waited, refining their concept and construct of the kingly and political Messiah.

God had indeed promised to send His anointed one to bring about God’s will for Israel and the world.  Moses had recorded God’s words concerning the anointed one.  “18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. 19 I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name” (Deuteronomy 18:18-19).  The anointed one would speak the Words of God.

The anointed one of God was revealed to the prophet Jeremiah this way, 31 “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.”  A new covenant, a new commitment from God would be forthcoming and delivered through the person of God’s own choosing.

The prophet Isaiah was perhaps the most profound in sharing with Israel the coming anointed one of God.  1 “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.  2 He will not shout or cry out or raise his voice in the streets.  3 A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.  In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; 4 he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.  In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”  9 See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you” (Isaiah 42:1-4, 9).  The anointed one of God would be a servant.  Humble and obedient to the will and direction of God.  Unyielding in his desire to bring the God of hope into the lives of all.  And God would announce the arrival of His anointed one.  There would be no reason to wonder or guess whether God had acted in accordance with His plan.

          Finally, Isaiah gave a description of the anointed one of God, “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” (Isaiah 9:6).  The humble servant would indeed have divine power and authority for who other than someone anointed by God could be described as counselor, God, Father, and Prince able to bring to the people a renewed sense of wonder, power, eternity, and peace.  That certainly could not come from a king or political leader soaked in the blood of his enemies.  The anointed one of God, the true Messiah that God said would come was vastly different from the Messiah envisioned by the Jews as they sat in the silence of God.

          What can we make of the story of promises and expectations of anointed one of God for our life? Let’s consider just a couple of things. First, let’s deal with the silence. Silence, when silence comes about at our direction, can be very satisfying.  Allow me to illustrate.  I love my youngest grandsons dearly.  When they visit with us for the day, it is a high impact, high noise level occasion. So, when they go home, it is nice for my wife and I to choose to have a few moments of silence just to collect your thoughts.  On the other hand, if you are anxiously waiting for the phone to ring with news that a loved one’s surgery went well, or a loved one has arrived safely to their destination and that phone remains silent against your will, then the silence is deafening and makes us anxious.  We begin to imagine all sorts of unpleasant possibilities amid the silence. From these illustrations concerning silence, we can see that what we experience is not limited to the experience. What we experience or how we experience something depends largely upon what we do with that experience.  In the illustration on silence, we can use the silence to calm ourselves or we can use it to upset ourselves.  This means that God has given us the capacity to reshape our experience by what we do with that experience.

          It was not a surprise to God that God gave all Israel a period of silence.  In preparation for that silence, God said, “4 Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees, and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel” (Malachi 4:4). It would appear that God wanted Israel to use the period of silence to draw in his words of promise and life found in the Hebrew Scriptures.  It was not God’s intention for Israel to anxious or to fill the silence with new words and new thoughts about how God would end His silence in the manner Israel came to desire, with a Messiah king, political leader, and warrior.

          I think everyone of us has experienced silence in our life with God.  Perhaps we have prayed for something specific, and God did not answer our prayer in the manner we desperately wanted.  If this is our experience, it is a profound experience. But our experience is not just what we experience.  Our experience includes what we do with our experience.  For example, we might then conclude from our experience that God is no longer speaking to us, God is silent, and so we reshape our experience by going silent ourselves with God.  Or we might, as the Israelites did, and start filling in the gaps in our experience from our fertile minds.  Either way, we are actively reshaping our experience to be more inwardly upsetting than it started out to be when our prayer seemingly went unanswered.

          What then might we do if we feel God is silent toward us?  Perhaps if we dove into God’s Word, we might see how others reshaped their experiences when faced with similar circumstances.  For example, we might read in 2 Samuel 12 that David had a son by Bathsheba.  David’s child had become gravely ill.  Scripture says, “16 David pleaded with God for the child. He [David] fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground” (2 Samuel 12:16).  But the child died.  When David learned of his son’s death, “20 David got up from the ground. After he had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he [David] went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he [David] went to his own house, and at his request they [David’s servants] served him [David] food, and he ate” (2 Samuel 12:20).  David reshaped his profound experience of silence from God by worshipping God and taking care of his own needs.  There is little doubt that David was hurting at the death of his son, particularly so since David’s own behavior led to the child’s death.  But David, in his grief experience, reshaped that experience by turning ever closer to the God who seemed silent toward him.

          Are you experiencing something that is having a profound effect on your life?  How are you reshaping your experience?  Is God involved in reshaping your experience?  I would encourage you to think this week about how God can and will reshape your experience.  If you are not sure how to involve God, ask a trusted Christian friend or give me a call.  You are not alone in this experience because ultimate through every experience God wants to reveal the hope that He has for each and everyone.

          It was hope itself that caused God to end His silence that began at the end of Malachi.  God promised he would announce His plan before He started it.  We read earlier today the full account of God’s first announcement since Malachi captured for us in the Gospel of Luke.

          In Luke, that first announcement from God came about in the place the Jews believed that God and earth comingled, in the Temple of Jerusalem, in the Holy of Holies.  An old man, a priest named Zechariah, was at the altar of God to refresh the steady burning of incense.  For Zechariah, to burn incense in the altar, was a once in a lifetime experience.  Luke wrote, “11 An angel of the Lord appeared to him [Zechariah], standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him [the angel], he [Zechariah] was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him [Zechariah]: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah” (Luke 1:11-13a). The angel, a messenger from God, was inviting and encouraging Zechariah to reshape his experience with a divine messenger first by letting go of his fear.  That is such an important message for us today and such an important message of the Advent season.  Let go of your fears and let God speak to you.

          The angel continued with Zechariah, “Your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him [your son] John. 14 He [John] will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his [John’s] birth, 15 for he [John] will be great in the sight of the Lord. He [John] is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he [John] will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is [John] born. 16 He [John] will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he [John] will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:14-17).  The angel confirmed to Zechariah that even though God had been silent these past 400 years, God was nevertheless attentive to prayers, including those of Zechariah.  Moreover, the angel assured Zechariah something great was about to happen through Zechariah’s son, John, for the angel repeated God’s last words from Malachi in which God promised, “5 See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.  6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents” (Malachi 4:5-6). God had chosen John to come in the power of Elijah and bring joy, delight, and rejoicing because God’s salvation plan was unfolding in their time.

          What an amazing experience for Zechariah! But.  There is always a but!  But Zechariah chose to ignore the words of the angel to let go of his fear and instead chose to reshape his experience with doubt in God’s plans, timing, and God’s selection of Zechariah and his wife.  “18 Zechariah asked the angel, ‘How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years’” (Luke 1:18). Isn’t it amazing.  God spoke after 400 years of silence and all Zechariah can say is, “Are you sure you have the right guy?”  And so, Zechariah’s unbelief reshaped his experience of this divine announcement.

          “19 The angel said to him [Zechariah], ‘I am Gabriel!  I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you [Zechariah] and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you [Zechariah] will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time” (Luke 1:19-20).  The silence of God broken by the voice of the angel Gabriel would return because of Zechariah’s unbelief.  Unbelief silenced the good news of joy, delight, and rejoicing that was possible.  Unbelief shapes our experience in life, but never for the better.  God designed us to be in fellowship with Him and for us to know that He always hears us and desires ultimately for us to receive good news from Him.  Unbelief changes that experience.

          What then do we do with these scenes that bridge 400 years from the Old Testament to the New Testament and ends one silence and starts another?  I would like us to consider and remember this is the season of Advent.  This is the season in which we read stories about God ending His silence and bringing forth good news.  This is a season of stories of prayers answered and a season of coming joy, delight, and rejoicing in God’s salvation plan.  But here is the question.  Will we allow what God has done to reshape whatever we are experiencing this season?  Or will we be like Zechariah and turn away from God’s announcement by saying, “Are you sure this good news is for me?”  Whatever our choice this Advent, we will reshape whatever we are experiencing by how incorporate or lay aside the good news of God’s unfolding plan.  God’s plan was and is unchanged.  God’s plan is to bring us hope.  Let God’s hope reshape your life so that, “The God of hope may fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13).  Amen and Amen.

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