Monday, January 8, 2018

Why Jesus Meant to Be Confusing

In the things that he said, Jesus was often cryptic and mysterious, as though he were telling riddles that his audience had to discern in order to understand what he was saying.  In Luke 8 his disciples ask him about the meaning of a particular parable he told and he says to them in verse 10: "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that 'seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.'"

This statement is shocking on its face.  It seems to imply that God is deliberately hiding knowledge through parables from certain people.  In fact, that's what Jesus not only implies but declares outright in Matthew 11.25: "...you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children."  But why?  Why would God want to hide life-giving information from people?  Is God vindictive and just plain mean?

Rather than God acting unjustly, there are actually numerous reasons why God would only grant understanding to some and not others, and none of them has to do with God wanting certain people to be condemned.  Indeed, God's desire is that all should come to repentance and faith (2 Peter 3.9).  So it is not accurate to say that God is purposely hiding the truth from anyone because he is vindictive or unjust.  Rather, the fact that the truth is hidden to some people tells us more about ourselves than it does about God.  That being said, there are several practical reasons why "the secrets of the kingdom of God" are given to some but not to others.  They include, but are not limited to, the following.

1. Jesus hid the truth for practical reasons.  Throughout the gospels there is what is known as the "Messianic Secret."  This refers to those times when Jesus healed people but told them not to tell anyone that it was him that healed them.  The reason Jesus did this was to control the timing of the events that would lead to his death.  Being the sovereign God of the universe, Jesus controlled even the timing of his own death.  He knew that if word spread too quickly and too far about what he was doing, it would hurry along the process that would lead to his arrest and execution.  So in some cases he insisted on secrecy.  The same could be said of his teachings: Jesus' ultimate message was that he was the Son of God, come to save all those who would believe from the punishment of sin and to bring them back to God.  The sooner that message got out, the sooner the religious leaders would get angry and call for his life.  So in one sense, we could say that Jesus veiled the content of his teaching with parables because he was working on a predetermined time table.

2. Jesus hid the truth because he wasn't going to be anyone's clown.  Another common aspect of Jesus' ministry is that he refused to be a clown.  There were many people who came to him only to see or hear what he would do or say next.  In other words, Jesus' ministry was attention-grabbing and provocative, and many people followed him just to see what miraculous thing he would do next, or what provocative statement he would make that would anger the establishment.  Jesus knew of this tendency, however, and so he refused to perform like a trained animal.  In some instances, he refused to perform miracles because he knew the people regarded him as a sideshow act.  So it makes sense that Jesus would mask his message in parables so as to not be regarded merely as a provocative communicator.  The things he said internalization and deep thought.  Parables don't make good one-liners or soundbites.

3. Jesus hid the truth because he knew that some people don't want to hear the truth.  This, again, is a very practical reason for Jesus veiling the truth of his teaching: why give people the truth when they refuse to hear it?  The notion that some people don't want to hear the truth is a common refrain throughout scripture.  When God commissioned Isaiah to be a prophet, he told Isaiah to go and preach to the people even though God already knew they wouldn't listen (Isaiah 6.9-10).  Jesus' teaching ministry, on the other hand, was veiled in parables so that those who sought understanding would find it, and those who did not, wouldn't.

4. Jesus hid the truth because some people won't believe the truth even if they hear it.  This reason is similar to number three above, but differs in that some people seem open to the truth but refuse to ever acknowledge it or act on it.  This is made evident in Matthew 11 when Jesus cries out in woe against unrepentant cities.  In these particular cities, the works of God had been performed marvelously and miraculously, right out in the open for everyone to see.  But rather than respond to these miraculous works, the people just ignored them and went on about their business, making their ultimate condemnation even more just.  The same is true of Jesus' teaching.  Jesus, knowing that even if these people knew the truth of his words that they wouldn't act on it, hid the truth from them.

5. Jesus hid the truth because understanding comes from a place of humility.  God has a track record of hiding things from the wise and proud and revealing it to the simple.  People can't figure out God on their own, no matter how hard they try.  And if they think all of their knowledge and wisdom will be enough to help them reach God, they're sorely mistaken.  God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4.6).  If you think you've got it all figured out, it's actually proof that you don't.  For this reason, Jesus taught the truth in parables that could be discerned by the humble, but which confounded the wise.

6. Jesus hid the truth because understanding is given to those who want to understand.  In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul says that "Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom..."  The Jews of Jesus' day didn't want to understand the truth that Jesus was teaching - they just wanted to see signs.  And Greeks, Paul says, want wisdom more than truth.  In other words, neither Jews nor Greeks were too interested in understanding the truth.  They had already determined what they wanted, and none of it had to do with Jesus.  But for those who do want to understand the mysteries of God, God is gracious and is willing to give them understanding.  Paul also says that "to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men."  Those who want to see Jesus will find him.  Those who want to know the truth will be given understanding.  Jesus differentiated those who wanted truth and those who wanted something else by veiling his teaching in parables.

7. Jesus hid the truth because understanding comes from God, not from human effort.  Finally, we simply have to come to the somewhat difficult realization that God grants understanding to those whom he will.  In God's sovereign wisdom, he has granted understanding to some and not to others.  So then, regardless of how much they try to puzzle out the truth of Jesus' teaching, they never will, because it has not been granted to them.  This is why some of the smartest biblical scholars in the world are not Christians.  They have monumental intellectual capabilities, but the mysteries of the kingdom of God cannot be discerned naturally, they must be known spiritually.  In this sense, then, when Jesus spoke the truth of God, those to whom God had granted understanding understood, and those to whom God had not granted understanding, were left in confusion.

Regardless of why Jesus was sometimes confusing in his message during his ministry, rather than the reality that Jesus was sometimes intentionally confusing leading us to accuse God of some sort of injustice, it should instead cause us to seek understanding.  It should cause us to ask God to show us the mysteries of his kingdom, and to give us the knowledge we need to be saved.  It should inspire us to study God deeply, to know him, and to rely on him for all wisdom and knowledge.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Joy to the World

In Matthew 2 and Luke 2 we read about two groups of men who were invited to visit the newborn Jesus after his birth: the Wise Men from Matthew 2, and the Shepherds from Luke 2.  Both groups of men learned of the birth place of Jesus and visited his family in Bethlehem, and both groups of men left that encounter overflowing with joy.  In the sermon I preached this week, we learned that the source of the joy of the Wise Men and the Shepherds was not that they got to cuddle a cute baby Jesus, but rather that God was true to his word.  The Wise Men "rejoiced exceedingly with great joy" when the star came to rest over the town of Bethlehem because it was evidence that God was faithful to his promise to send the Messiah, and that he would be born in Bethlehem.  And the Shepherds came away from their encounter with Jesus "glorifying and praise God for all they had seen and heard," because everything they had seen and heard happened exactly the way that God said it would happen.

The source of the joy of the Wise Men and the Shepherds was not anything external, but rather the certain reality that God is true to his word.  When they discovered and believed this truth, all they could do was overflow with joy.

Let's face it: the Christmas season can be difficult.  On the one hand, our culture tells us to be happy and joyful, and to enjoy our friends and family and food and gifts.  But on the other hand, those times and seasons that are supposed to be happy and joyous occasions can be stressful and frustrating, and can be times when we feel our pain and suffering most deeply.  Some people weep through the Christmas season because it is the first time that they have spent the holiday without a loved one who has passed away.  It's hard to have the joy of Christmas when you're grieving loss.  Others wonder how they can have any joy in their lives when they don't agree on anything with their spouse, and they're not even close to seeing eye to eye.  Parents wonder where the joy of Christmas is when their children have wandered so far from their family and so far from God that it seems like they'll never return.  It's common for these supposedly joyful seasons of the year to instead magnify all the things in our lives that aren't going the way we'd like them to.

But like the Wise Men and the Shepherds, our joy in life should not be determined by external circumstances.  This is not to diminish the difficult things that happen in our lives, but rather to declare that the difficult things - and even the positive things - that happen in our lives cannot determine our joy.  The reason for this is that the external circumstances of our lives change.  Marriages do fall apart; families do crumble; unexpected health diagnoses do come; your body will break down over time.  So if your joy is based on the condition of your marriage or your family or your health, then prepare to live in despair.  If your joy in life is derived from circumstances, then prepare to ride a torturous rollercoaster because circumstances change, and sometimes life is downright miserable.  Sure, sometimes things go well, but give it time.

Rather than finding our joy in the circumstances of our lives, we should take our cue from the Wise Men and the Shepherds, and find our ultimate satisfaction in the faithfulness of God.  I don't mean to trivialize any of the deep and difficult troubles that you experience, but even in light of those difficulties we need to remember that God's word is true.

If you can't rejoice this Christmas because you are grieving the fresh loss of a loved one, you can rejoice because God's word is true.

If you can't rejoice this Christmas because your family is in shambles or because your marriage is falling apart or because your children are wayward, you can rejoice because God's word is true.

If you don't know what to do in your specific situation, you should rejoice that God does, and whatever he says about it is right and true.

If you don't feel like you have the strength to make it, you should rejoice in the fact that God does, and that he has promised to give you his own strength, and his promises are always kept.

If you don't feel like you could cry anymore than you have this Christmas, you should rejoice that God's word says that he is close to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit, and his word is true.

Those who trust in the Lord have a joy that is not derived from circumstances, but from an unshakable, indestructible trust that God's word is true.  No matter what comes down the pike in your life, you can "rejoice exceedingly with great joy" because you know that God's word is true; he is faithful to his promises.  That was the joy of the Wise Men and the Shepherds, and let that be your joy this Christmas and beyond: God is faithful; his word is true.

And the wonderful thing about Christmas is that it reminds us that anyone can have this kind of joy in their lives.  When the angel appeared to the shepherds, he said, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people."  The good news of the faithfulness of God is for all people.  Anyone can come to God and experience the joy of his faithfulness.  Through repentance and faith in Christ you can have the joy of knowing for certain that your sins are forgiven and that the punishment your sins deserved was taken by Jesus on the cross.  God has promised to do this for anyone who will call out to him in repentance and faith, and if you will trust in him, you too will find that God's word is true, and that will lead to your joy.  No matter what debilitating circumstances you're in at this very moment, even if your suffering is self-inflicted, this joy is for you.

It's easy to get lost in all of the cares and concerns of life and be overwhelmed by our circumstances.  It's easy to take God's faithfulness for granted.  It's easy to have an entitlement mentality when it comes to God's faithfulness to his promises.  Don't have that mentality.  Instead, allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the glorious truth that God is faithful, and that he will do what he has said he will do: he will be with you, he will strengthen you, he will provide for you, and he will help you.  That's who he is, in truth.  Let that truth wash over you, and then respond like a shepherd: glorify and praise God for all that you have seen and heard.

Joy to the world!  The Lord is come!  Let earth receive her King!  Let ev'ry heart prepare him room, and heav'n and nature sing!


Friday, December 15, 2017

2017 Books

Over my my other blog at the church website, I recently posted my top 10 books of the year that challenged me spiritually.  Of course, I read other books this year that didn't necessarily challenge me spiritually but that I found enjoyable.  I figured I'd do a second top 10 list here.  Some books appear on both lists, but there's a good amount of diversity.  This is a list of the 10 (and a half - more on that in a minute) books I found most enjoyable or most appreciated this year.  Click on the thumbnails to find the books on Amazon.

10.5 - Tyranny of the Urgent by Charles E. Hummel.  The first book on this list doesn't count as a full book (hence, it's #10.5) because it's very short - actually it's only a booklet.  This is an important book.  It was recommended to me just last month, and since it's very short it's very easy to read.  The book(let) is important because most people find themselves too short on time.  And being a pastor, I know firsthand that when people are short on time, the first thing they usually sacrifice is church involvement.  It doesn't have to be that way, though.  And in fact, as this book explains, you don't even have to be short on time at all.  You need to learn to budget and use the time God has given you wisely and well.  This very short book will help you do that.

10. The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart.  When the school year began, my son started reading this book for school.  He loved it, and he recommended that I read it too, so I did.  He kept telling me that it had an unbelievable ending, and it does.  It seems that fiction I read and really enjoy tends to be young adult fiction (go figure).  One of the things I liked about this book was what seemed, to me at least, to be the old fashioned style of writing and dialogue used.  It doesn't shy away from difficult vocabulary.  And although the setting of the book is modern times, it almost feels like it was written 50 years ago.  It's a fun, low-key adventure story (by the way, I'm currently reading through the second installment in this series, and enjoying it).

9. Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi.  We go from the young adult fiction of the entry above, to the horror of a mass murder scene by the infamous and now deceased Charles Manson.  This book was recommended to me by a Facebook friend about how circumstantial evidence is worthwhile evidence and can be used to form conclusions.  That's definitely the case with this book.  The book details the murders of the so-called "Manson Family" and the court case that sent most of them to jail for life.  This book is not for the faint of heart, as it does describe the mass-murders that took place at the end of the 60's, but the process of walking through the trial and hearing how the evidence was presented is fascinating. (Reader beware: this book obviously contains depictions of graphic violence, murder, and contains foul language.)

8. Lucky Bastard by Joe Buck.  Let me start by apologizing for the title, which was, in fact, enough to scare me away from this book for a long time.  It turns out that the title is actually very descriptive of Joe Buck's life.  And like it or not (I, for one, do not), Joe Buck is a mainstay in professional sports, especially Major League Baseball, if for no other reason than that he rides the coattails of his now deceased and legendary father, Jack Buck.  I don't really like Joe Buck.  I think his play-by-play announcing style - especially for baseball - is awful.  As I listen to him, it is obvious to me that he is calling the game in such a way so as to set himself up for a really catchy or observant statement when a big play develops.  It's ridiculous (plus, he's obviously biased for big market teams like the Yankees and Red Sox).  Anyway, none of that has anything to do with the book.  The book tells his story, all the way from being born out of wedlock - the result of an adulterous affair his father had with another woman - to the advancement he received in baseball announcing due to, well, luck.  As I implied earlier, I hesitated to read this book mostly because of the vulgar title, and also because it was Joe Buck's life story.  But I was actually taken in by his descriptions of growing up around the game of baseball, and what it's like to be an announcer. (For some reason, I have a deep fascination with play-by-play baseball announcing.  Most of my childhood baseball memories are narrated in my mind by Herb Carneal and John Gordon.)  If you like baseball - and even if, like me, you don't like Joe Buck very much - you'll enjoy this book. (Reader beware: this book contains plenty of foul language and irreverent humor.)

7. The Great Good Thing by Andrew Klavan.  This book was recommended by a somewhat high profile preacher that I follow on Facebook.  The book is the memoir of Andrew Klavan, who was born and raised a secular Jew.  The book details the account of his spiritual journey and ultimate awakening to the truth of the gospel.  It's a fantastic journey to see how God can intersect the life of anyone he chooses, no matter their circumstances or surroundings, and tear down the most prideful of hearts.  Plus, Klavan is a great writer and narrator, if you decide to get the audiobook.  I definitely had some theological and practical differences with Klavan along the way, but his story is encouraging and a worthwhile read.  


6. The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe.  The Kingdom of Speech is perhaps the most interesting book I read in 2017.  It argues against the evolutionary hypothesis as a legitimate explanation of the origin of life, and it does so in a fascinating and entertaining way.  The basic premise of the book is that evolution cannot account for the creation of human speech.  A layman's look at the field of linguistics simply yet comprehensively demonstrates that the gift of speech could not have evolved.  Plus, it's a rather short read.  (Reader beware: there is some brief foul language.)

5. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.  This book has been on a lot of Top 10 lists across the internet, and created quite a buzz earlier in the year.  It's a gripping true story about a young boy's growth into adulthood in "hillbilly" culture and turbulent relationships he has along the way with his parents, grandparents, and his culture in general.  At times the tale is tragic, and at times, funny.  The book is almost too complex to describe here.  Although not written from a Christian perspective, you will be challenged to think long, hard, and biblically about poverty, justice, social classes and stigmas, human nature, personal responsibility, sin, family relationships, and a host of other issues.  (Reader beware: this book contains plenty of foul language and depictions of drug and alcohol abuse.)

4. Dodge City by Tom Clavin.  I am fascinated by the old west, whether in book, movie, or TV form (I think my favorite fill of all time is "3:10 to Yuma").  Dodge City tells the story of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, the two lawmen who attempted to tame the "wickedest town in the American west."  It was fascinating to be able to separate the fact from legend when it came to Earp, and to learn more about Masterson - someone whom I knew virtually nothing about before the reading of the book.  Much to my delight, the book also contained biographic information about Doc Holliday and even an historical recounting of the gunfight at the OK Corral.  There is a ton of historical information in this book that I ate up, and you will too if you're even remotely interested in the old west. (Reader beware: this historical book contains descriptions of violence, gunfights, prostitution, and other morally suspect activities that were common parts of early American life.)

3. Silence by Shusaku Endo.  Although written in the mid-20th century, earlier this year a movie of the same title was released, and I began to learn about the story of Silence.  I did not see the movie, however, but instead decided to read the novel.  Considered to be one of the best novels of the 20th century, I found it very interesting, very engaging, and a good look at suffering for Christ, albeit from a Roman Catholic perspective.  The novel tells the story of a 16th century young Portuguese priest who goes on a missionary journey to Japan to see the oppression that Catholic missionaries and Japanese Christians have suffered at the hands of Japanese persecutors.  What he finds is the barbaric treatment of priests and Japanese Christians, and even suffers the same himself.  The title of the novel is derived from the central question of the story: "If God can see the evil that happens, why does he remain silent?"  Unfortunately, Endo offers no answer to the question, and perhaps there is not one from the Catholic perspective.  We do have answers, however, and that's what I found frustrating about this book: I wanted to shout out to the characters and encourage them with truth as they struggle with the difficult questions of life.  This book caused me to think a lot, however, which is what good books do.  (Reader beware: this book contains mild depictions of torture and violence.)

2. Here I Stand by Roland H. Bainton.  Also written in the mid-20th century is this biography of Martin Luther.  2017 was the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and so it seemed appropriate to me to read about the principle figure of the Reformation.  Bainton's biography was recommended to me as the standard of Luther biographies, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Martin Luther is a complicated character, and it was an enjoyable and educational process to read more about the man's life, ministry, and role in history and western culture.  As Bainton correctly asserts in the book, Luther remains one of the top-five culture-shaping characters in all of human history.  (Here I Stand is available in the Riverview Library)

1. The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson.  The Wingfeather Saga is yet another young adult fiction entry on this list and is, I think, the best thing I read all year.  To be fair, this is not just one book, but a series of four books, and I was taken in by each one.  So much so that as soon as I finished the books on my own, I began reading them from the beginning to my children.  Currently, we're working our way through the fourth book.  The books tell the story of one family - the Wingfeathers - and particularly the children: Janner, Kalmar, and Leelee, and the adventures they have as they discover their true identities and the implications it has for the world in which they live as they battle against the Fangs of Dang and their master, Gnag the Nameless.  An appreciation for fantasy literature is certainly helpful, but definitely not required.  There are fascinating and excellent examples of good biblical character traits in these books, including heroism, sacrifice, courage, bravery, and countless other noble and biblical virtues.  And Peterson brilliantly creates a whole new world filled with unique creatures and challenges.   It's a great series for kids, and especially for boys, with perhaps one of the best endings I've ever read in a series of novels.  The series begins slowly in On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness and continues with North! Or Be Eaten and then becomes mysterious with Monster in the Hollows and concludes fantastically with The Warden and the Wolf King.  Don't let the fact that this series is young adult fiction discourage you from reading it.  I can't recommend this series highly enough for children and adults alike.  (The Wingfeather Saga is available in the Riverview Library.)

Monday, December 11, 2017

Magnify God, Not Your Problems

During the Christmas season we often focus on Jesus' parents, Mary and Joseph, and the many things that they did in order to prepare for the birth of their divine son.  In many ways, our idea of what they went through is probably inaccurate.  For example, we often think of them traveling to Bethlehem on their own, when in reality, they were most likely with a large group of family members.  And when we conceptualize Jesus' birth, the picture we get in our minds is one of Mary and Joseph alone in a stable, surrounded by animals.  This is almost certainly not the way it happened.  In ancient cultures, fathers had almost nothing to do with the actual birth of a baby.  Instead, midwives carried the mother along through the labor and actual birth.  In our modern context, we simply know of a mother and father going to a hospital for a few days, and then coming home with a baby.  But in first century Israel, it was a process that usually involved the whole extended family and a team of midwives.

I think another thing we misunderstand about the birth of Jesus is the social and cultural implications there would have been for Mary.  After all, she was most likely a teenager when the angel Gabriel announced to her that she would be the mother of Jesus.  And not only that, but she was also betrothed (engaged) to Joseph.  An unexpected pregnancy no doubt brought suspicion of unfaithfulness on Mary's part.  For example, upon learning of her pregnancy, Joseph assumed that she had been unfaithful to him and became pregnant outside of their betrothal, so Joseph actually decided to divorce (annul the engagement) Mary.  If this would have happened, Mary would have found herself an unmarried teenage mother on the verge of destitution and poverty, and probably starvation. In first-century Israel, women relied upon men for their provision and even their daily food and shelter.  Without Joseph, Mary and her baby would almost certainly be doomed to die.

No doubt these potential difficulties were going through Mary's mind when Gabriel told her that she would miraculously conceive in spite of her virginity.  There must have certainly been flashes of fear, doubt, and uncertainty going through her mind.  After all, she had no idea how Joseph would respond to her unexpected pregnancy, no less the news that it was immaculately conceived.  And Mary likewise had no idea what the social and cultural response to her out-of-wedlock pregnancy would be.  Put simply, from all natural indicators, Mary appeared to be staring down the barrel of a very difficult time in her life.

But the fascinating and wonderful thing about Mary is that she does not focus on what could happen as a result of this unexpected pregnancy, but instead she focuses on the faithfulness of what God had done in the past.  Rather than magnify the many uncertain circumstances of her life that could lead to difficulty and even pain and suffering, instead she chooses to magnify the faithfulness of God.  In so doing, she gives us a wonderful example for how we should respond to difficult circumstances in life.

Have you ever looked into a microscope?  I have, but probably not since sophomore year biology in high school.  But if you're familiar with the concept, you'll be able to follow what Mary wants to teach us.  When something is magnified it becomes bigger in appearance.  A microscope "blows up" an image so we can see it larger and in more detail.  The tiny features that were hidden before become obvious and apparent.

Mary's remedy for dealing with the potential problems in her life brought about by her circumstances is to magnify (or "blow up") the truth about God in her mind.  She says in Luke 1.46-47 "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior."  Here Mary makes a conscious decision to focus intentionally on truth about God, and to put that truth into practice in her life by believing it and acting upon it.  In the sermon I preached this past Sunday, we looked at five truths about God that Mary "magnified" instead of magnifying her problems in life.  I'd like to focus on just two of those truths now.

1. First, Mary magnifies the truth that God watches over his people.  In Luke 1.48 Mary says, "...for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant."  God is a God who looks upon and sees his people, and when he looks, he sees them through eyes of compassion.  Sometimes the image that we have of God is that he is sitting up on his throne in heaven, watching us, just waiting for us to mess up and make a mistake.  But this is not at all how God watches over his children.  Instead, he watches over them with eyes of tenderness and compassion (1 Peter 3.12).  He knows where his children are and what is going on in their lives, and he responds to their prayers.  You and I can't even see what's going on in the other room next to us (without a window), but God can.  He can see in every corner of the earth at all times, and that included Mary and her potential problems brought about by this unexpected pregnancy.

Mary also says that not only is God watching, but he is watching here even though she is in not a very important person.  Mary was from the town of Nazareth, which was known at the time as something of a ghetto.  It wasn't a city that had a lot of culture, and the people from Nazareth had a bad reputation of being low-class individuals (John 1.46).  But that didn't matter.  No matter where Mary came from or who she was - even if she was a nobody - God was watching, and he knew exactly what was going on in her life and what she needed.

The same is true for you.  God sees you.  He knows exactly what is happening in your life, and he knows exactly how it's going to play out.  He knows exactly what you need to get through your challenges, and he is faithful to give you what you ask for in prayer.  And he knows all of this because he is watching.  When life gets difficult, as it has the tendency to do, don't magnify your problems.  Instead, magnify the truth that God sees you and he is watching you with eyes of compassion.  Blow this truth up in your mind, and believe it, and then act on it.

2. Second, Mary magnifies the truth that "He who is mighty has done great things for me."  That's what Mary says in Luke 1.49.  One of the biggest temptations that we face when life is difficult is to forget all that God has done in the past.  We can get so caught up in the moment and the difficulty of our circumstances that we can become shortsighted.  It's easy to let the discomfort of "the now" to cloud our memory of all the great things God has done for us in the past.

Scripture teaches that the gift God has given us to fight for faith in the present is remembering what he has done in the past: "I will appeal to this to the years of the right hand of the Most High.  I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old.  I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds" (Psalm 77.10-12).  The remedy for getting caught up in the present difficulty of life is to remember that "he who is mighty has done great things for me."  It's magnifying what God has done rather than magnifying the present discomfort.

This is what Mary must have been saying to herself: "You know, things are pretty hard for me right now, but I can take comfort because he who is mighty has done great things for me.  And if he has done great things in the pasty, he will again in the future."  That, my friends, is hope.  Instead of magnifying your present difficulty, magnify the truth of the mighty things God has done in the past.  That knowledge should give you hope for today, tomorrow, and any time in the future.

Let's be frank: when troubles come, it is very easy to get caught up in the nagging questions about how and why we ever ended up in such a difficult spot in the first place.  It's easy to find ourselves questioning God and even being angry or feeling sorry for ourselves.  It is in those times that we must resist the temptation to magnify our problems, and instead magnify what we know to be true about God: that he looks upon his children and knows their suffering, and that he is faithful to keep his promises.  Make your faith in those promises big, and your problems will begin to seem much smaller.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Fullness of Time

Have you ever wondered why Jesus came 2,000 years ago instead of some more recent time in history?  Why didn't God wait to send his Son after the invention of the printing press?  Imagine how easy it would have been to print his words on a press rather than copying them by hand.  Or, why didn't Jesus come some time after the advent of the internet, or after smart phones became common?  Imagine if we could take videos of Jesus' sermons on our smartphones, or document his miracles on video and share them on our Facebook pages.  Wouldn't that have been more efficient (and convincing to unbelievers) than having Jesus come during a time when there weren't even still images or newspapers to spread the word?  In a lot of ways, it seems like Jesus came into the world too early.

But rather than coming too early, the Bible says that Jesus came at just the right time.  Galatians 4.4 says, "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law..."  What this verse is saying is that God had predetermined a date that Jesus would come into the world to solve the sin problem.  No, the date almost certainly was not December 25, 0 B.C., but there indeed was a date that God had determined would be perfect.  And when that perfect date arrived ("when the fullness of time had come"), God sent his Son into the world.  It was exactly at just the right time, right according to schedule.  God didn't make a mistake by sending Jesus 2,000 years before the 21st century.  It was the perfect time for him to come.

2,000 years ago, for the first time in history, the known world was unified and enjoyed relative peace under the "Pax Romana," or the peace of Rome.  The Roman empire had gone out to virtually every known inhabited nation and had built roads that centralized commerce and communication.  For the first time in human history, messengers could travel by road safely, and sea travel had advanced to the point that it was common and relatively safe.  As Jesus' disciples would take the message of his life and death across the world, they would use these new roads by land and sea to bring their news.  And since Rome ruled the known world, there were no impenetrable borders or places that were off limits to the gospel.

Moreover, since Rome ruled most of the known world, their language also dominated almost every culture.  Practically everyone spoke the predominant language of the time: Greek - a language that is more articulate than even modern English.  This made it easy for essentially all people of the known world to hear and understand the message of the gospel.  No Bible translators were necessary because, in addition to their native languages, almost the whole world knew Greek.

God foresaw this time in human history, and he determined that this was the perfect time into which he would send his Son to solve the sin problem, once and for all.

But from our perspective, the time doesn't seem so right.  Forget about the Roman roads and dangerous sea voyages - we have air travel!  We can fly to the other side of the word in relative safety with the message of the gospel in less than a day.  And for all for he technological and cultural advancements initiated by the Roman empire, the 21st century and all of the technological advancements that we alluded to earlier (smart phones, the internet, television, etc.) would be much more ideal time for the message of Jesus to spread to the whole world.  Wouldn't it?

No, not really, for at least three reasons:

1. Technology becomes irrelevant and obsolete over time.  We think of the technology of the Roman empire as irrelevant and obsolete because we have made amazing advancements over the past centuries.  But at the time, the ancient advancements mentioned earlier were cutting edge.  Similarly, the cutting edge technology we have today will be irrelevant and obsolete 100 years from now (if not sooner).  If Jesus came today, in 100 years people would be lamenting that he came to early, given the technological advancements that will have been made in the next 100 years.  If we judge the appropriate time for Jesus' advent according to humanity's technological advancement, then no matter when Jesus comes, it will have been too early, because technology will always be better at some later date.

2. Additionally, regardless of whatever means there are to propagate the message of the gospel - and no matter how convincing you can make it or how widely you can spread it - people will always find reasons to not believe.  For instance, if Jesus were performing miracles on the earth today and those miracles were captured with a smart phone camera, providing video evidence of his divinity, someone would find a reason to doubt that the video was genuine.  They'd say the footage was doctored, or that the testimony of the witnesses was unreliable.  People will find any number of reasons not to believe the truth.  Furthermore, no matter how clear the evidence might be, it is very possible for two distinct people to examine the same evidence and come away with different conclusions.

Jesus came 2,000 years ago and proved his divinity in a variety of ways.  And despite the witnesses and the wide reports of his power, people did not believe.  They looked the evidence square in the face and refused to believe.  The same thing would happen if a video of Jesus' miracles was the most-viewed video on Facebook.  Technological advancement does not produce faith.  Only God can do that.  Moreover, the scriptures testify to the faithfulness of God's word and the accounts therein that testify to the divinity of Jesus and to the veracity of the story of his life, death, and resurrection, yet people refuse to believe it.  If they don't believe the Bible, why would they believe a Facebook video?

3. In Luke 16 Jesus tells a story about a rich man who dies and goes to hell.  In hell, he asks Abraham, who is in heaven, to resurrect a poor man named Lazarus who had also died, so that Lazarus may go and preach to the rich man's brothers so that they might not suffer a similar fate.  The rich man is convinced that if a dead man goes and preaches to them, then his brothers will surely believe such a miraculous sign.  But Abraham says that the rich man's brothers already have Moses and the prophets preaching to them from God's word, and if they won't believe Moses and the prophets, then they wouldn't believe even a dead man who came back to life.  The same is true of our world today: if people won't believe Moses and the prophets, they also wouldn't believe a miracle caught on camera.  Jesus came when he came.  His life, death, and resurrection were meticulously recorded and preserved to serve as a testimony to all people who came after him about what he has done.  This testimony is enough.  It is sufficient.

The bottom line is that God knew the exact right time to send Jesus into the world, and that's when he came.  God had been waiting thousands of years for the right time to come, and it came roughly 2,000 years ago.  At Christmas we celebrate not only that Jesus came into the world, but also God's perfect timing in sending the Savior.