he weeks leading up to Christmas are one of the rare times when the hearts of complete strangers are softened by music, lights, food, parties, friends, family…and gifts. Softened enough that what Isaiah says to us may touch them as well. There will never be a better time than Advent to “lift up your voice”…and bless someone. I’m asking you to be brave enough to respond to the people that cross your path everyday between now and Christmas with a simple no-cost gift of blessing. Saying God bless You doesn’t come naturally to me so I’ve been sitting here jotting down ideas of ways to fearlessly speak that blessing. Isaiah’s timeless truth, “do not be afraid,” has finally hit home for me. Most of us find it easy to say Thank You but it’s the first three words of this blessing that make it the gift. Have courage — speak because you may be the only person they’ll ever hear these words from — God bless you…
…for your kindness
…for your cheerful greeting
…for ringing that bell
…for opening that door
I’ll practice on you. God bless you — with opportunities to let your voice be a blessing for others in these days leading up to Christmas. God bless you — with courage to speak these unfamiliar words of blessing to a stranger, friend or a family member this Christmas. They may never hear anyone else speak those words to them. Who knows who else nearby may hear them and be blessed too? Who knows…as your ears hear your own voice speak them…they may become a blessing for you too.
8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed.
9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)
These verses reminded me of this screen shot I took last Easter from the live broadcast of Gracepoint Church in Sturgis, Michigan. That empty tomb for those closest to Jesus resulted in fear, not hope. Hindsight has proved God’s plan for the salvation of many, became a reality despite those frightened people caught in desperate circumstances. Jesus’s body had disappeared from that fortress of stone. How could that possibly be anything but bad? “(They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)”
That parenthetic verse 9 has become a modern-day lesson for me. As odd as it is to type this sentence; doubt and fear have always been a part of faith, even for those closest to Jesus. Even the “other” disciple, the one Jesus loved, hesitated. “Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed.”…and
“Thomas felt a surge of shock and unbelief…Then he felt regret for having left. Then he felt isolated. He was the only one who hadn’t seen Jesus. He had seen so many things that would have been unbelievable if he hadn’t seen them. Most haunting right now was Lazarus. And then it happened. Thomas was staring at the floor, sinking again under the fear that maybe Jesus had rejected him because of his stubborn unbelief. If so, he knew he deserved it. Then someone gasped. He looked up and his heart leaped into his throat! Jesus was standing across the room looking at him. “Peace be with you”a
Faith is what gives us the courage to come out of our hiding place, confront our fears and doubts and to believe Jesus’s words are meant to shield us today, too – “peace be with you.” These two verses have become my reminder that recognizing the reality of an empty burial tomb is more than evidence of my faith…it’s evidence of God’s faith in me! “Finally” I “saw and believed” and He turned that stone cave into a fortress of hope that “the LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.”b
a When it’s Hard to Believe
b Psalm 18:2
121 I have done what is righteous and just; do not leave me to my oppressors.
122 Ensure your servant’s well-being; do not let the arrogant oppress me.
123 My eyes fail, looking for your salvation, looking for your righteous promise.
124 Deal with your servant according to your love and teach me your decrees.
125 I am your servant; give me discernment that I may understand your statutes.
126 It is time for you to act, Lord; your law is being broken.
127 Because I love your commands more than gold, more than pure gold,
128 and because I consider all your precepts right, I hate every wrong path.
Right >§§§> Left
Do not leave me to my oppressors; I have done what is righteous and just. Do not let the arrogant oppress me; ensure your servant’s well-being. Looking for your righteous promise my eyes fail, looking for your salvation. According to your love, teach me your decrees, deal with your servant. Give me discernment that I may understand your statutes; I am your servant. Your law is being broken; it is time for you to act, Lord. More than gold, more than pure gold, I love your commands and I hate every wrong path because I consider all your precepts right.
Praying is hard. Emotions are involved and sometimes they actually become a barrier to praying at all. Who wants to admit they think the key to God’s behavior might be getting the wording just right to assure Him of your trust at the same time you’re trying to keep any negative thoughts from Him? That’s the opposite of what the Psalmist’s prayers and this section of Psalm 119 show us. His no-holds-barred method of praying is right there for us to see. He’s learned something about true humility; God does not see the Psalmist’s words or emotions as good or bad. His prayers are his true heart given to God whether they’re words of harsh desperation or high praise. God has given the Psalmist the courage to reveal everything in his heart to the God whose “eye” is always on him anyway. ע Ayin is right there for us to “see” too.
At first glance the word “humble” wouldn’t be how I’d describe the prayers of this Psalmist king. He’s as straightforward with his bold demands of God as he is with his praise. He adds no timid phrases like “thy will be done” to soften what he asks. His prayers combine his own desperate physical and emotional needs along with his fervent praise of the God who continues to be his teacher. God has given the Psalmist the assurance of true humility that recognizes nothing he says can remove God from his heart OR remove his heart from God’s own.
That is the kind of prayer I want to learn.
3:1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. 2 And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” 4 And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
This story seems odd to me. Why was the man with the withered hand there on the Sabbath? Had he just gone to the synagogue because it was the expected thing to attend? Did he know Jesus would be there? Did he want to hear what Jesus had to say? Did he hope for healing? He must have known of the hostility the silent group of Pharisees had toward Jesus. He cetrtainly knew that healing on that day would be breaking the law even before he heard Jesus say “stretch out your hand”
– Lesson 1: It takes faith to even consider there might be answers to your questions but from that faith comes the courage it takes to be willing to reach out to Jesus when you hear him speak.
Healing may have happened in a miraculous moment but the destruction of Jesus required a plan, and thankfully for us, even evil plans require time. The Pharisees chose to leave the synagogue determined to use their spiritual power along with the political power of the Herodians to destroy Jesus…but God had a different plan so Jesus could continue his ministry
– Lesson 2: God can,and will, even use evil men and the time they spend planning destruction. Jesus has the power of God that redeems men and their misspent time. Through Jesus, evil will be overcome with good that accomplishes God’s plan for a future and a hope for us.
Promises from Chapter 6: “I will live in them and walk among them, and I will be their God and they shall be my people.” …I will welcome you and be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters,” says the Lord Almighty.” [NIV]
II Corinthians 7:1 Having such great promises as these, dear friends, let us turn away from everything wrong, whether of body or spirit, and purify ourselves, living in the wholesome fear of God, giving ourselves to him alone. [TLB]
There was a day when we understood those promises of God, turned away from our sin and believed his words: “I will welcome you and be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters.” That first “turning away” brought us the life-changing relief of grace. It was a spectacular beginning but that’s exactly what it was…the first day of the rest of our life.
The relief of grace is God’s gift of courage to look at the challenges of the rest of our life and be willing to confess we still need courage to “turn away from everything wrong, whether of body or spirit, and purify ourselves… giving ourselves to him alone.”
Ephesians 2:3-5 NIV All of us also lived among them [our transgressions and sins] at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.
I’m fascinated with the uniqueness of the Greek language to distinguish subtleties of words and meanings. In this scripture there is one word [hamartia] translated “sin” and another [paraptoma] the NIV translates as “transgressions.” What makes it interesting is not the way we might differentiate between those two words but how the Greeks did. These are my edited notes from William Barlclay’s study of Ephesians.
•Hamartia (Greek #266) is a shooting word that means to miss the target completely.
•Paraptoma (Greek #3900)…means taking the wrong road when we knew enough to take the right one.
Sin is a loaded word even for those of us who believe we are sinners saved by grace. The Greek definitions don’t impact the reality of the scripture but they do influence my courage to recognize and confess the truth of it.
What if I read this Scripture as:
I have also lived with missing the target completely and choosing the wrong road at one time, gratifying the cravings of flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like so many, I was by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for me, God, who is rich in mercy, made me alive with Christ when he saw the road I’d chosen was going nowhere—it is by grace I have been saved.
Read Mark 6:47-52. My focus is v50b “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid,”
Those simple red-letter sentences are the summation of real good news for friends of Jesus that are worn out from fighting the storm. The story ends in Mark 6 with those friends that knew Jesus best being amazed and terrified when he showed up in such an unusual way. They had invested their life completely in following Jesus and even with all their firsthand evidence they didn’t quite understand what to expect from him. Verse 52 says “their hearts were hardened.” How could that possibly be?
I don’t know about you but the thrust of much of what I watch or read about the world today is at best sad and at worst scary. It’s a harsh reality to face the fact that just like those other friends of his, I have to blink twice to recognize that Jesus is more than a ghost in today’s broken world. My heart has been hardened by struggling to understand the evening news instead of that good news. I can’t figure out what to expect from current events but I think there’s a solution. I’m just trying to blink twice so I can see a new reality that Jesus is in the boat with us and take him at his word in this storm. “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid,”
Mark 5:21 – 43 This may not be as familiar story as the others in Mark 5 but it’s a dramatic finale to a desperate story of need. Jesus had crossed to the other side of the lake and from another large crowd one of the synagogue leaders came forward and fell at Jesus’s feet. He pleaded earnestly “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” So Jesus went with him but some from the house of Jairus said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?” Overhearing what they said, Jesus responded: •V36b. “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”
Only Peter, James and John followed him to the home. Jesus’s response to the people crying and wailing was
V39b. “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.”
They laughed at him. He took only the child’s father and mother and the disciples in where the child was. Jesus took her hand and said to her,
•V41b. “Talitha koum!”…“Little girl, I say to you, get up!”
The 12-year old girl astonished them and stood up and began to walk around. Jesus gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.
These stories of the people Mark writes about seem to have a common thread…they all have a great need. They don’t approach Jesus with any claims of faith at all. All they have is their need and a little bit of courage to act. Maybe “need” is the reality of faith.
I remember hearing faith was “OK if that was something you need” and being unable to respond. It felt as if need was a weakness and faith like some kind of treatment that could cure you of that. I was embarrassed by that idea. It turns out that statement was exactly true. It’s the courage of need that drives you to the great physician. You don’t get treatment you need unless you make the appointment and tell the doctor your symptoms.
That’s my growing edge; to let the courage of need become what Jesus builds my faith on.
John 13:12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.
It’s easy to understand the disciples discomfort to see Jesus kneel before them to wash their feet. They were his supporters. Their support, faithfulness and fervor were for him as their Lord and Teacher. Now it was almost like Jesus was purposely switching places with them as he knelt there to show his support for them with his Perfected Love.
Jesus knew they were not yet able to see this truth: their love was going to be perfected too. Everything would depend on their remembering this example Jesus set before them that night. That would be where they would find the courage to face him again. That would be their assurance that only the support of his Perfected Love could begin the perfection of their own love by overcoming the humiliating reality that their fear had triumphed over faithfulness and fervor.