So, God provides an amazing deliverance for the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt. The Promised Land is not far away…it’s less than two weeks of walking to get to Israel from Egypt. But God leads them another “roundabout” way. Why not just go directly by the shortest route? We are told the reason in Exodus 13:17-18: “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, ‘If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea….” The Lord knew the hearts of the people…and the road ahead. He graciously steered them away from hard conflict because they were not ready. Their faith was weaker than their fear! I wonder how many times we could have experienced swift and powerful victory, but we were too immature and too fearful to walk it out. Fear is a big deal which often “freezes” our faith and makes us go the long way or, even worse, makes us stay right where we are indefinitely. Looking at the Israelites and their journey, we discover characteristics of fear…and how to overcome it. First, we must understand that fear is a mindset which “imagines the worst.” The Israelites, when facing hardships, spoke fear to themselves, saying things such as, “God has abandoned us! We’re all going to die! It would have been better to stay in slavery!” And, just then, we can allow ourselves to dwell on the “worst that could happen.” This mindset leads to a bitter spirit of complaining about our hardships and blaming God. The second crippling effect of fear is how we “shrink” God and make Him less powerful than our problems. Fear says, “God can’t help you…this problem is too big.” So, we magnify our problems and minimize our God. The answer to fear is faith in God! Trusting God, we take steps forward, knowing that He goes before us and has our best in mind. Though we must face spiritual battles on our way to the Promised Land, it beats the “long way” by 40 years!
You would think we would get it right by now. However, the more you know about the world, the more you realize the mess we’re in. I believe it’s important to involve ourselves in making this life a better experience for all. But, let’s face it, we need more than man’s abilities to correct all the problems. The Bible clearly reveals the mission of Jesus as two-fold: (1) to come to earth as a humble servant and die for the sins of the world, and (2) to come back to rule and reign over His creation. As a young believer, I often heard messages about the second coming of Christ. Books and movies about His soon return were also plentiful. But, interestingly, now few people seem to be talking about the return of Jesus—in spite of the fact that so many of His predictions are coming true right in our day. In Matthew 24 Jesus clearly taught us about His return. He did not give dates, but He wants us to focus on being ready for His return by our attitudes and lifestyle. He said, “You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Matthew 24:44). Jesus then goes on to describe the one who is ready as a “faithful and wise servant” (v. 45). This servant occupies her time by investing in helping others. On the other hand, Jesus warns us about a deadly attitude. “But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time, and begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards’” (v. 48). This servant will be judged severely and filled with extreme regret. So, Jesus presents us with two ways to live in light of His coming. We can choose to be faithful and responsible, knowing that we will give an account to Him, the owner of all. Or, we can throw our faith to the wind and live for our own selfish desires, not caring about who we hurt or the consequences. The one will receive honor and promotion, and the other will receive shame and regret. Choose well…Jesus is coming back!
Twelve years is a long time…especially when you’re sick and waiting to get well. In Matthew 9 we read of a woman who “had been subject to bleeding for twelve years” (v. 20). It’s easy to give up when year after year you struggle with the same issue. But then she heard that Jesus was nearby! Faith was born in her heart. What she imagined through faith overcame her depression and inaction. “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed” (v. 21). Without attracting attention to herself, she quietly approached Jesus, reached out and touched His garment. And then it happened! Power went out from the Lord and healed her. Jesus stopped, turned to her and spoke life into her spirit and body. He said, “Take heart, daughter… your faith has healed you” (v. 22). The first need Jesus addressed was inside her heart. In that day an issue of bleeding labeled this woman as “unclean” and kept her isolated from the fellowship of others. When Jesus called her “daughter,” He broke through her despair of loneliness and revealed her true identity with God…as a member of the family! Then, He proclaimed the answer to her prayer and attributed her bodily healing to her faith. This is what we need to remember: Faith is God’s gift to us. Through faith, we can imagine a future different from the present circumstances. Such faith then reaches out to the Lord and receives what He graciously gives. Be careful about some preachers today who teach faith as a type of “grocery list” we give to God (just name your desire and God is somehow obligated to come through). However, true faith, as revealed in the Bible, is based on the Lord helping us to persevere in the vision He has deposited in our heart. His grace enables us to believe that He is able to accomplish His will over our lives. Never stop trusting God! Continue to reach out to Him for the miracle you need—even if you have been waiting for a long time. He is faithful…take heart!
In order to live well in the present, we must learn how to deal with the past. While visiting our daughter and son-in-law (Nicole and Tirus) a few weeks ago, Terry and I heard a wonderful sermon about “Stones of Remembrance” from Joshua 4. I credit Pastor Joel for key thoughts for this article. In Joshua 4 we find the children of Israel crossing the Jordan River after wandering 40 long years in the wilderness. This crossing was no ordinary fording of a river! God miraculously dried the Jordan, allowing the people to pass over to the Promised Land, even during the rainy season when the river was at its peak. During the crossing, God instructed Joshua to have some men gather 12 stones from the middle of the river and bring them to shore (see Joshua 4:3). These stones were to serve as “a sign among you” (v. 4) and “a memorial to the people of Israel forever” (v. 7b). The wonders of God must not be forgotten…especially for the next generation! God proclaimed, “In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord” (vv. 6-7a). So, what does God want us to remember? What has He done in the past year (and years) that we must call to mind and share with others? He is the faithful God who saves us and keeps us! He proves His love and kindness by providing for us and answering our prayers. May we not forget Him by whining and complaining when we experience trials. Do something tangible to remember the Lord. It may not be stones that you set up, but at least write down answers to prayer and blessings that have come your way in 2018. In the sermon next week, during our vision-casting Sunday, I will be sharing some of these “stones of remembrance” so we can remember and rejoice in the Lord and His grace toward us.
I think about “the fear of God” a lot. People have told me, “Fearing God is not healthy or good for us.” That’s not what the Bible says. Don’t get me wrong, I know there’s an “unhealthy fear,” where we try to run from God (think Adam and Eve after sinning). But, the good kind of “the fear of God” is connected with all kinds of blessings. Let’s consider Abraham. His son of promise, Isaac, was the joy of his life. Born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age, Isaac (whose name means laughter), brought praise and laughter to all who knew them. Suddenly, in the very next chapter after the rejoicing over Isaac’s birth, we see Abraham immersed in the greatest test of his life. It came down to this: would Abraham fear the Lord and obey Him—even if it meant giving up his son? What meant the most to him in this earthly life? The intensity of the drama continues to the very moment of Abraham raising his hand to bring the knife down on his son Isaac. Suddenly, the angel of the Lord speaks out, “Do not lay a hand on the boy…do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son” (Genesis 22:12). The “angel of the Lord” is a designation for the Lord himself. Why would the Lord say, “Now I know”? Is this because the Lord did not know of Abraham’s devotion and needed to find out by this test? Not at all. The Lord does not test us for His information but for our revelation. His tests reveal the grace of God working in us and through us. Abraham realized through this experience that God was truly first in his heart and that he feared God more than anything else. So, how do we know if we truly fear God? Can we honestly say that nothing is more important to us than the Lord? When put to the test, will we be willing to release what is near and dear to us? Or, will we say no to God and perhaps turn from Him? His grace is available to us and will carry us through every test. We can come out on the other side of the test and say, “Yes, I fear the Lord because He is first in my life”…and be blessed!
I’m glad God believes in new beginnings. I’m reading in the Book of Genesis about how God created the earth and mankind. It doesn’t take too long before we discover people corrupting themselves and the earth. “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain” (Genesis 6:5-6). God had seen enough. The floods came and destroyed what God created. However, that wasn’t the end of the story. “But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark…” (Genesis 8:1). All life was not extinguished. God’s grace gave us a new beginning through Noah and his family. They were protected from the flood and stayed on the ark for many months. Finally, it was time to leave the ark. “By the first day of the first month of Noah’s six hundred and first year, the water had dried up from the earth” (Genesis 8:13). There’s something in this verse I had not noticed before. God dried the earth for Noah and his family at the beginning of the new year! It’s as if God is saying, “I’m giving you another chance by giving you a brand new year.” While reading about Noah this morning, the Lord put the words of Jesus on my heart: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:37). Yes, we are living in times that resemble the world before the flood. Wickedness is growing. Violence is increasing. Most people live as if there is no God. Be sure that God is the righteous Judge and all evil will be accounted for. His plan, however, is not to simply destroy the earth through judgment, but to provide a new beginning for His people! Be among the faithful—like Noah, who found favor in the sight of God (Genesis 6:8). May the beginning of this new year remind us of Noah. We are given a new opportunity in this new year to follow Jesus, love people, and share hope!
“What I feared has
come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me” (Job 3:25). Job, a
magnificent man of faith, allowed one particular fear pertaining to his
children to consume his thought process. Job was extremely devoted to the Lord,
and his faith (as we would later learn while hearing his story) was steadfast
and solid. However, even with his unwavering faith in God, Job allowed a fear
(the behavior of his children when not in his presence) to fester in his mind
to the point where he thought of the consequence that would be bestowed upon
him by God had these fears been actuality. When calamity struck in his life,
Job conceded that his initial unnecessary fear was what brought tragic turmoil
in his life. The God of the universe never promises that our lives will be
without obstacles and extreme circumstances. The Bible actually states that on
Christ’s behalf we are to “not only
believe in Him, but also to suffer for Him” (Philippians 1:29). All must
understand that there is a distinct difference between suffering and fear.
These two often seem to be confused. Major aspects of suffering for Christ have
to do with sacrifice and denial of our inherited sinful nature as well as
dealing with the rest of the world’s reaction to us as we express our Christian
faith. Fear is derived from either internal or external influences. Fear is the
exact opposite of peace, and peace of mind and spirit is one of the qualities
that Jesus promises for all of His followers. Upon seeing their Savior for the
first time after His resurrection, the disciples were experiencing a mixture of
emotions—awe, confusion and earthly fear. Jesus responded to them (as the angel
said to the women at the tomb), “Do not
be afraid” (Matthew 28:10). Difficulties in life happen. The stance of our mind and spirit before,
during, and after the difficulties should be what separates us as Christians
from the rest of society. Our responsibility is to entice the rest of the world
by how we respond to every situation while rebuking fear. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer
and petitions, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all
understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”
“When the time had fully come, God sent His Son…” (Galatians 4:4).
God kept His promise! The prophets clearly predicted the coming of the Messiah, the One who would do amazing works and save His people from their sins. But much time had passed after the last prophet, Malachi, and many became restless and discouraged. The promise seemed like a distant memory. Will God remember? Will He act? But we must remind ourselves, God is not a man that He should lie or “conveniently” forget His promises. What God says, He will do. It is wise for us to exercise patience and wait for God. He promised to come back. We know it has been a long time since His promise to return. But He is the same God who sent Jesus the first time, and He spoke through the angel, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back…” (Acts 1:11). We live in a world where people lie and easily back out of their promises. Not God! He has great plans for all who put their faith in Him. You can trust Him to be the ultimate promise keeper! He came and He’s coming back. Count on it!
“We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).
“Prone to wander, Lord I feel it….” So wrote the songwriter long ago. In my years of ministry, I have never witnessed someone abandon the faith “instantly.” Usually, the process involves a gradual decline, where love for God and His people seems to cool like room temperature when the heat is turned off. Before we are too critical or self-righteous about this, Isaiah reminds us that we are all guilty. No one has followed the Shepherd perfectly, and we must guard the downward tendencies of our own deceitful heart. But there is good news in the struggle. Jesus is greater than our heart! Because He loves us so much, He is willing to forgive our wanderings…and keep us by His power. His grace is truly amazing toward us! Yet, as followers of Christ, it is not enough to be content in the enjoyment of our relationship with the Shepherd. We have a responsibility to others. This involves helping brothers and sisters who have lost their way to find the path back to Him. In my devotions, I am reading (and re-reading) the Book of James. Here is how James ends: “My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sin” (James 5:19-20). This Christmas season, you will probably meet several people who once lived close to Jesus but are now in “a far country.” Would you pray for them and be available to the Lord to say a word of encouragement or challenge…as the Holy Spirit directs you? If you were in their shoes, you would want someone to reach out to you. Be the one to help turn them from the error of their way, saving them from death and covering over a multitude of sins!
Today marks a special day on the calendar: the midpoint between Thanksgiving and Christmas. What a wonderful opportunity for us to reflect on how much we have to be thankful for!
Two weeks ago, on Thanksgiving Day, we had an opportunity to look back over the year and remember the faithfulness of God’s provision. We gave God thanks, as the pilgrims did on that first Thanksgiving, for the blessings that sustained us throughout the year. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, reminds us that God pours out those blessings on us so that we, in turn, will be able to bless others:
“Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God” (2 Corinthians 9:10-11).
Two weeks from now, on Christmas Day, we can reflect on the fact that God has even greater, eternal blessings in store for us. His greatest gift, the gift of His Son, goes beyond the sustaining provision and grace which we experience in this world, ushering us into an abundant inheritance and life with Him in eternity:
“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4-5).
That’s reason to celebrate! God has given us so many reasons to be grateful. May we never let go of the spirit of gratitude.