Keep on keeping on

Or, God’s timetable isn’t like ours…

Luke Chapter 1 tells the story of an old man named Zecharias. He was married to an old woman named Elizabeth who was a relative of the Virgin Mary. They lived in the hill country of Judah, exact location unknown.

Both were of the priestly line. They had no children – Elizabeth was barren, and in their culture barrenness was considered a punishment for sin. Yet both were righteous in God’s eyes, and to the best of their ability they continued to worship Him, keeping the law.

Zecharias (and no doubt Elizabeth) had long prayed for a son. But, he was old and she was barren, so it was now impossible. So, was he still praying? He was still faithful to do his job, in any case.

One supposedly ordinary day Zecharias was going about his business, doing his ordinary priestly job. This soon became an other than ordinary day for him, however…

“Now it came about, while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.” (Luke 1:8, 9)

It was his turn to minister before the golden altar of incense in the Holy Place, possibly for the first time in his priestly service. With so many priests serving in the Temple, entering the Holy Place and kindling the incense upon the golden altar was possibly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared to Zacharias, standing to the right of the altar of incense. The angel gave him an extraordinary message, on this extraordinary day. His prayers had been answered; he and Elizabeth would have a child. And not just an ordinary child, an extraordinary son. He was to give him the name John. Read the chapter for yourself.

Some thoughts about Zecharias:

  • He was old. So was his wife.
  • He was childless, thought by the culture to be a punishment for sin.
  • He was considered by God to be righteous, however. Blameless.
  • He had prayed for a son, starting in the days when having a child was still possible, biologically speaking.
  • He was faithful to his job, his calling, despite that disappointment.
  • He was granted favor, mercy, compassion; an answer to his prayer.
  • His prayer wasn’t answered in an ordinary way, in an ordinary location – an angel came to his job site, while he was doing his job; being faithful to do his job.
  • He was human; he doubted the angel’s message. Considering his age and the length of time he had been praying, that was a quite understandable response.
  • He was corrected but not condemned for his doubt.
  • He wasn’t removed from his ordinary job, or replaced in his extraordinary new job: being a parent. A very old parent!
  • He was granted a device to help him assuage his doubt: silence until the baby was born.

How long have we prayed the same prayer, over, and over, and over? How often have we decided to give up, quit doing this job, quit worshiping, quit praying, quit believing? Until it will take a supernatural, extraordinary miracle for it to happen?

But those do still happen. Zecharias and Elizabeth were just two of many people who received miraculous answers to prayer.

Never quit being faithful to your current assignment. Never quit praying. Never quit believing.

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It’s tempting…

  • That lovely slice of pecan pie, the last one left in the pan, the one you’re supposed to be saving for somebody else.
  • That gorgeous outfit on sale “One Day Only,” so absolutely right for you but not for your budget, sale or no sale. Or those cute earrings, nobody’s watching, the store can afford it, it’s not all that bad to shoplift those cheap little things, is it?
  • That temper tantrum against your children or your spouse, the one you’ve been resisting but now feel absolutely justified in throwing, “I’ve had it, they’re really going to get it!”
  • Those ugly, fuming thoughts and words, turning into ugly, fuming deeds because after all you’re right and they’re wrong, people who had the audacity to question your – (fill in the blank, your truthfulness, your honesty, your integrity, your motives, your actions. Even your faith.)

We’ve all been tempted to think, say and act in ways (minor and major) we’ll be ashamed of later. Haven’t we? “You know better than that!” my mother would say. “You weren’t raised like that!”

Did you think such temptations would miraculously fade away and vanish as you grew older, more mature, more “Christ-like?” They don’t. They still come, more serious and sometimes more frequent.

Why? What is the purpose of temptations / trials? Think of it like strength training. Spiritual resistance training. Exercising our faith muscles, our trust muscles. Our prayer muscles.

Remember John 10:10? The enemy comes. His goal is to steal, kill and destroy, and one of his primary targets is our faith; to ruin it, nullify our testimony; hinder our prayers.

The enemy uses trials and temptations (same word in the original language, by the way) to discourage and distract us, to prevent us from living by faith or from praying in faith.

But God can and does use them to prove that our faith is real, strong, and supernatural, since it originates with Him. He uses them to make us stronger, more effective.

Matthew 4 and Luke 4 describe the temptation of Jesus in the Judean desert. Most of my life I had a mental image of that desert as being mostly sand dunes, rocks and lizards. One day, out of curiosity I decided to check out that wilderness, where it was, what was in it, what it was like at that time.

I wondered, what was there out there that could tempt Jesus? During the 40 days before Satan showed up, that is. Here’s some of what I learned:

East and south of Jerusalem, it’s one of the smallest deserts in the world, much of it lying adjacent and west of the Dead Sea. Craggy and rough, it’s hilly and mountainous with steep cliffs and deep ravines. It was difficult but not impossible to traverse on the well-used paths and trails that criss-crossed the area.

 

There are streams and many wadis, some containing pools of water in shaded areas; and also beautiful oases. The most famous oasis in the Judean Desert is in Ein Gedi near the northern part of the Dead Sea, called David’s Waterfall.

There are also many fruit trees and other vegetation (see the section on trees below).

Sparsely inhabited but not empty, the desert contained several small villages on its edges. Bethlehem was one, a place where many of Jesus’ relatives lived.

Bedouin encampments the size of small towns (the Bedouin were and still are very hospitable people to visitors) plus camels, sheep, goats, and donkeys.

Leopards and other wild animals also inhabited the area, although leopards are scarce today.

 

Herodium today seen from the side.

The spectacular Herod’s Palace (Herodium) south of Jerusalem may contain his burial site (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herodium and http://allaboutjerusalem.com/attraction/herodion-national-park).

This palace complex was atop an artificial hill built by Herod the Great, the site of several archeological digs through recent years. After his death this opulent summer “resort” was used by many Roman officials.

Also in the desert is the fortress of Masada which overlooks the Dead Sea, captured and built up by Herod the Great as a military base. Both Herodium and Masada were occupied by Roman officials and solders who regularly traveled to and from those sites. Both are Israeli National Parks and popular tourist attractions today.

Many fruit or nut trees occupy wadis and oases, including date palms, pistachios, wild figs, carob and acacia:

Carob / Locust trees bear fruit that is edible green or dried; the dried fruit is used in candy and other foods as a substitute for chocolate. The sweet, soft flesh of the green fruit is called “honey.”

Carob and acacia (below) are legumes, members of the pea and bean family.

Acacia is a “rain tree,” so-called because its leaves fold together in rain or high humidity. Edible and primarily used as animal fodder, it provides helpful gum and has many medical applications also. The Tabernacle and Ark were made of acacia wood.

Considering everything there was for him to see and do in that wilderness, what was Jesus tempted with?

Food, people, animals, a magnificent natural environment and impressive man-made structures — a better question might be, what wasn’t Jesus tempted with?

Anything and everything that human beings today are tempted with, including distractions, tempted Jesus in that desert. Think he doesn’t understand your situation? He does.

I Cor. 10:13 says, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” (NIV)

And Hebrews 4:15, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin.”

Speak the word only

Prayers unanswered?

One reason Christians don’t get answers to their prayers may be that they are only praying and not “speaking the word.”

In Matthew 8, Jesus commended a Roman centurion for his faith. Why? The centurion recognized authority when he saw it.  He acknowledged Jesus’ authority over sickness and disease and he knew the enemy – disease in this case – would also.

He said to Jesus, “speak the word only and my servant will be healed.” So he did – Jesus said “Go, it will be done just as you believed it would.” And it was – “his servant was healed at that very hour.”

James 5:17-18 recounts the story of Elijah, Ahab, drought and rain. These verses talk about prayer and faith. But take look at the original story in I Kings chapters 17 and 18. This shows something unexpected: Elijah didn’t pray for God to stop the rain or to re-start it.

He himself spoke the words that stopped the rain, and three years later re-started it. He said to Ahab “As the Lord God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.” (17:1) And there wasn’t.

Well then, did Elijah pray at all? Obviously he did, but I think his prayer went something like this: “Oh God, what can I do!” (About the evil king Ahab.)

God answered with a set of odd instructions:  Go see  Ahab.  Speak to him about rain…

Odd or not, Elijah obeyed. Now, did it take a lot of faith to go tell King Ahab there would be no rain – or even dew – for several years, unless he himself, Elijah, said so?

I don’t know about a lot of faith, but it would sure take guts!

Yet James 5:17 says Elijah was a man just like us. Human, not superhuman. His faith was demonstrated by his obedience; by the words that he spoke.

Matthew 28:18-20 is the “Great Commission,” Jesus’ instructions to the apostles to make disciples of all nations. Not just converts – disciples. Students. Followers. Obeyers.  And verse 19 is very specific:  “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

What does everything include? Look at Matthew 10, Mark 6 and Luke 9:  (1) Preach the kingdom. (2) Heal the sick. (3) Raise the dead. (4) Cleanse the lepers. (5) Cast out demons.

Okay, how were they supposed to do all that? He had already showed them how. For three years they had been observing him do those things.  Seventy disciples already had practice (Luke 10).

So they obeyed Jesus and followed his example in doing so.

No matter what else they did, when confronted with people in need they “spoke the word.” They did not ask God to do what Jesus had plainly told them to do. See these examples:

  • Acts 3:6 –  Peter spoke to the crippled man,  commanding him to walk, and he did.
  • Acts 9:34 – Peter spoke to the paralyzed man, commanding him to get up, and he did.
  • Acts 9:40 – Peter spoke to the dead girl, commanding her to get up, and she did.
  • Acts 13:11 – Paul spoke to the sorcerer, saying “you are going to be blind,” and he was.
  • Acts 14:10 – Paul spoke to the lame man, commanding him to stand up, and he did.
  • Acts 28:8 – Paul prayed first, then laid hands on the sick man and healed him.

Many extraordinary signs, wonders and miracles were done when the apostles and disciples obeyed Jesus.  (Stephen – Acts 6:4, Paul and Barnabas  – Acts 15:12.)

Now, we are instructed to pray and most of us have no problem with that – we do pray. But sometimes we only pray about situations when we should also “speak the word.”

Awaiting angels…

awaitingangelsAnd there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:8-11)

What is it about shepherds

Photo by Sara Branstetter, April 2008. Used with permission.An angel brought an unusual message to a group of shepherds in the night, somewhere near Bethlehem.  They were watching a flock of sheep who were bedded down in a field, not in a stable or sheep cote.  A little history lesson – sheep were allowed in cultivated fields twice a year, after the fields had been harvested and after the poor of the community had gleaned the fields.  Other times they were elsewhere, either in the hilly uncultivated countryside or in the caves that doubled as stables, where feed and water troughs carved from large stones could be seen (otherwise known as mangers).

In any case, these sheep were in the fields with the shepherds watching them.  One minute they were alone in the darkness, the next minute the night sky lit up with a blast of light.  One minute there were only sheep and shepherds, the next minute an angel was standing beside them.   I don’t know about you, but I would have been terrified too and probably think the world was coming to an end.

Then the angel spoke. The first thing he said, as usual, was “fear not.”  Easier to say than to do!  He delivered his message, a lot of other angels showed up to give a loud and glorious “amen” to the message, and then they all left.

There are several points that struck me about this passage from Luke chapter 2.  One, God has a thing about shepherds.  When he plans a turning point in the history of mankind, you might just find a shepherd in there somewhere.  (Abel, Abraham, Moses, David, etc.)

Second, these shepherds knew what the Messiah coming meant.  No long theological lesson was necessary.  Shepherding might be the lowest position on the economic and social ladders of the day, but these were not ignorant men. Jews for many generations had been waiting for this message.

They weren’t foolish, either.  If the angel said the baby Messiah was somewhere in a Bethlehem feed trough – a stable/cave – wrapped up as newborns always are in swaddling clothes, then he was.  Let’s go see him for ourselves, how many chances do you get like this in a lifetime!

And so they did.  Now, the angel didn’t specifically tell them to go visit, but the hint was pretty broad.  There may have been several babies born in the neighborhood that night but only one would be lying in a feed trough.  That made him a cinch to locate.

The third point has to do with sheep.  Bethlehem is where the sheep for the Temple were raised.  Only sheep raised in Bethlehem could be used for sacrificial animals.  The hillside sheep, the cultivated field sheep, the cave/stable sheep – these were Temple  sheep.  Sheep to be killed and offered as sacrifices for sin fed from that “manger,” the feed trough.  What an appropriate place for the baby Messiah’s first cradle.

In the creation account in Genesis 1, when were the sheep created?  On the 6th day, just just before Adam was created.  Why do you suppose that was?  Well, from what I’ve learned about sheep, they require a shepherd to survive.  Sort of like human beings.

Who was the first shepherd?  I asked that question when teaching Sunday School last week and some said Abel.  After all, Genesis says he kept sheep.  And he sacrificed one of his sheep to God.

But who did God give those sheep to in the first place, to look after? Who taught Abel how to be a shepherd?  Adam and Eve were given that responsibility.  From the very creation, God ordained shepherds.

Jesus, the Lamb of God, slain from the foundation of the world, and Jesus, the Great Shepherd!  There’s a lot about shepherds we can learn from the scriptures.  Father God has a thing about shepherds…

Remember the donkey

DonkeysDiscouraged. Hurt. Angry at God. Disappointed. That’s how I was feeling one morning, after a lot of discouraging things had happened the day before.

And so I had a conversation with the Lord about faith (which I had been studying more about recently).

I told him that it seemed to me faith wasn’t real; that the scriptures about faith weren’t true. The things I had believed in faith when I prayed just were not happening.

I said a lot more than that, of course, but basically I was deciding as I talked that it was pointless for me to pray for anyone or anything, or even go to church any more. What was the point, if what the Bible said would happen when we prayed really DIDN’T happen? If there were no results?

Then Jesus began quietly talking back to me. “Remember the donkey,” he said. “Remember the colt.”

The colt? I began to remember. The week before Passover, on what we call Palm Sunday, Jesus told the disciples to go to a specific place, find a specific donkey and colt, and bring them back to him. (Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 20, John 12.)

I visualized that, could almost see the disciples looking at each other, shrugging their shoulders with unasked questions.

What did the disciples think Jesus was up to? Why did he want a donkey? He and they walked everywhere, didn’t they? We know now why he did it, Matthew 21:5-6 says it was so the prophecies would be fulfilled. But did the disciples know that? Whether or not they knew why, they obeyed him. They went and collected the colt.

“What were the results?” the Lord asked me. That required more thinking on my part. Well, there were several levels of results…

  • Jesus got to his destination. (The Temple in Jerusalem)
  • The crowds began praising Jesus. (Shouting Hosanna)
  • The religious leaders got upset. (Seriously plotting)
  • God kept his timetable. (Crucified on Passover)

This journey on the donkey’s back, the praise from the crowd and the upset Pharisees were necessary steps to instigating the crucifixion by the right date – Passover.

Okay, I said to the Lord. So what does that mean for me, for my prayers, my desire to see you DO something when I pray? What does all that have to do with faith at all? He recapped for me what I had just been thinking:

Immediate results – arrived at destination.
Intermediate results – stirred up opposition necessary to fulfill God’s plan.
Final results – God’s plan fulfilled.

So there are short term results, mid-term results, and long term results. Obviously some answers to prayer, God’s plans, may take a really long time to arrive. But they will arrive.

Then I began to consider that faith question, again.

Faith comes to everybody, but not everybody takes it. (Faith comes by hearing, according to Romans 10:17.) Children have to be told something first, in order to have faith, i.e. trust, just as adults do. A child learning to walk, for example.

“Walk to Mama,” we say. “Come on, you can do it!” We can show him how, help him stand up and get his balance, but we can’t walk for him. The child must obey our words and do something that requires trust in the person speaking. He must take that first, perhaps wobbly step, then another.

He can obey or refuse to obey. If he obeys and experiences positive results, i.e. takes a step or two without being hurt, he acquires trust that this will work. That trust leads to another few steps, i.e. more experience in walking, and more experience becomes stronger trust. Faith that yes, he can do it. He can walk. And pretty soon, he is walking, and running.

That process began with hearing words from someone speaking to him, him trusting the one speaking, accepting those words and obeying them. The faith was actually contained in the words of the trustworthy speaker, but it wasn’t forced on the hearer. The hearer was never forced to accept the words as true or trustworthy, he had to make a choice. Choose to believe the person speaking, or not believe the person speaking. And choose, sometimes really often, to keep on believing.

“Remember the donkey,” the Lord said. That was pretty much the end of my conversation with him that morning, but I’ve been thinking more about it since.

Getting answers to some prayers – certain long term results – seems like too much hard work for many of us. Too much painful trouble. Too much stress. Too much time, too much energy, too much disappointment, too much anguish. Too much waiting.

That’s what I was thinking when that familiar voice interrupted my thoughts with a whisper: “Long term results begin with short term results.” I thought some more.

I began to think about the Olympics. About Usain Bolt winning an Olympic gold medal in running… how did that begin? Well, it began with him hearing those first words, “Go for it, you can do it, you can do it.” It began with him believing those words and accepting them as true. Stepping out to obey, to try, to gain experience. To fail sometimes but not quit. To fail sometimes, and succeed sometimes, and eventually win the gold medal.

How long did that process take? How much experience? And how much reinforcement?

Faith comes by hearing, present tense, not having heard, past tense. How many times did a parent, a coach or a team-mate say those words of encouragement to Usain Bolt, “You can do this, you can do it!” And so he did.

The first thing I did after that conversation was to apologize to the Lord, to repent and ask forgiveness for my attitude, and to ask for his help in reinforcing my faith. What I asked him for is stubborn, determined, persistent, persevering, teeth-clenching, gutsy faith. I think that’s what he wants me to have. What he wants all his children to have.

I want to “Remember the donkey” today, and every day, as many days as it takes.

And is there joy?

RejoicingJesusWars. Rumors of wars.

I was reading the Gospel of Luke and had arrived at Chapter 21.

I looked up from the page, thinking how closely today’s news lines up with those verses.

Jesus spoke those words to his disciples, warning them about the tragedy that would befall the people of Jerusalem in a few years (AD 70).

But he was also prophesying about the tragedy that was going to befall peoples of many nations in the following centuries.

The Holy Spirit’s voice interrupted my thoughts. It’s really dark out there, he said. Yes, it is, I agreed.

“Gloom, despair and agony on me?” he added. I nodded yes, recalling the old Hee Haw skit. (https://youtu.be/ZAAKPJEq1Ew)

He went on. Depression. Worry. Anxiety. Fear. Hopelessness. Agony of soul and body. There is such gross violence covering the earth.

Yes, I said, there is. This conversation was getting really negative. Where was it going? I wondered. There was a brief pause, before he added –

And is there Joy?

Joy?! I wondered. Other scripture passages began to roll through my mind.

There is joy in the presence of the angels when a sinner repents. “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10 NIV)

Count it all joy when you face various temptations. (Temptations to be depressed, anxious, fearful, perhaps). “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” (James 1:2-3 NIV)

Ask and receive answers to your prayers, that His joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. “Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.” (John 16:24)

A man has joy by the response of his lips. “A man hath joy by the answer of his mouth.” (Prov. 15:23)

“The joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Neh. 8:10)

God rejoices! “The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing.” (Zeph. 3:17 KJV)

Jesus rejoiced. “Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.” (Luke 10:21 KJV)

Rejoice! Dance, twirl around in glee and happiness, laugh, clap, shout in delight. That’s what that word means, in the original languages. That’s what Jesus did in his spirit, when he rejoiced.

I could suddenly see him doing that. And he said he only did what he saw his Father doing — “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing…” (John 5:19) So, Father God was doing all that also. Rejoicing. Amazing!

The Holy Spirit continued his comments. Thousands upon thousands are coming into the kingdom, being metamorphosed, changed from darkness to light, spiritual death to life, transformed as they believe my word and are born again. “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” (II Cor. 5:17 KJV)

And There Is Joy!

Don’t just see with human eyes. See with Jesus eyes.