Why Singing at Christ’s Birth?

Today I was reading about the angels singing at the birth of Jesus.  In Luke 2:13-14 it says,

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

Why were the angels singing?  As I studied this I learned some interesting things about the culture at that time that may help to explain the significance of this worship. First, the birth of a baby boy in a Jewish home was recognized as a very special blessing from God.  Howard Vos notes,

In a society that had no social security benefits the sons carried on the family line and name, cared for and occupied the family inheritance, and provided for their parents in old age.[1]

Having a son to ensure the continuation of the family name and knowing this son would also one day provide for his aging parents was a reason for abundant celebration.  In fact, this special event was marked by great joy. William Barclay makes a very helpful observation about that culture when he notes,

When the time of the birth was near at hand, friends and local musicians gathered near the house. When the birth was announced and it was a boy, the musicians broke into music and song, and there was universal congratulation and rejoicing . . . Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem and therefore that ceremony could not be carried out. [2]

Therefore, secondly, the birth of a son was marked by local musicians gathering at the home and singing in celebration!  Could it be that since mankind could not provide the appropriate praise to God at the birth of Jesus, that God made sure his Son was properly announced with singing not of mere men, but the very angels of heaven?

The birth of Jesus has a far greater benefit than mere temporal provision.  Jesus brings eternal life to those who embrace him as their Savior and God.  There has never been a birth worthy of more celebration!

Father, thank you for sending your Son!  You are worthy of praise for his birth which has changed my life and the course of history!  Help me to live out my faith and life in a manner that is in harmony with Christ’s teaching and mission.

Following Jesus with you,

 

[1] Howard Frederic Vos, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Manners & Customs: How the People of the Bible Really Lived (Nashville, TN: T. Nelson Publishers, 1999), 450.

[2] William Barclay, ed., The Gospel of Luke, The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster John Knox Press, 1975), 23.

Simplicity and Humility

When we read Luke 2:1-7, it is easy to gloss over some of the depth of this story because we are so familiar with it.  Have you paused to consider what really happened here?

God had predicted something over 700 years earlier in Micah 5:2. In that passage it says,

“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.”

Since God’s Word is trustworthy and true, God orchestrated kings and all the details necessary to make sure his Son was born in Bethlehem! How easy it is for me to forget that I have a heavenly Father who is intimately aware of the details of my life and fully capable of accomplishing his plan regardless of what my circumstances might imply.

The other big thought that hit me today was the simplicity and humility surrounding the birth of Jesus. Luke 2:7 says,

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn.

After making an 80-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Jesus is born in a humble setting, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger (a place where animals fed).

William Barclay gives clarity as to what “swaddling clothes” were when he notes,

Swaddling clothes consisted of a square of cloth with a long bandage-like strip coming diagonally off from one corner. The child was first wrapped in the square of cloth and then the long strip was wound round and round about him.[1]

Did you notice that the God who orchestrated the events to make sure Jesus was born in Bethlehem did not ensure that his Son was welcomed with plush accommodations befitting his position?  What does this tell us about God?

I think Darrell Bock has great insight when he says,

Importance is not a matter of one’s environment or the supposed status that things bring. Rather, importance is a function of one’s role in God’s work. Jesus is important not because of the setting of his birth, but because of who he is before God[2]

Father, position, power, prestige, etc. are not important to you.  That is so contrary to our culture and approach to life.  What is important is who I am before you because of what Jesus has done for me as my Savior!  I am your son! Help me to remember the wise words of Bock when he said, “Those ‘on whom God’s favor rests’ include those whose claim to fame may be nothing more than that they wake up each day and pursue a living in service to God.”[3]  Help me to live simply and humbly as Jesus has modeled for me.

Following Jesus with you,

 

[1] William Barclay, ed., The Gospel of Luke, The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster John Knox Press, 1975), 21.

[2] Darrell L. Bock, Luke, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 86.

[3] IBID, 87.

Always Teachable

The amazing story of the birth of John the Baptist began with an angel of the Lord who appeared to Zechariah, his father, as he served in the temple.  He was so terrified at the appearance that the first thing the angel said was “do not be afraid.”  After learning that God would answer his lifelong prayer for a son, Zechariah, a devout priest for life, chose to doubt God rather than believe!  God enabling his wife Elizabeth to bear a son past the age of childbearing did not fit Zechariah’s view of God.

Can you imagine if you were Zechariah?  You have been a passionate, committed priest serving God for a lifetime.  You are old and now an angel appears and shakes up your view of God and his plan for your life! How would you respond?

It appears that Zechariah, over time, fell into complacency.  As a believer, I must remember it is never too late to learn and grow.  Darrell Bock summarizes this thought well when he says,

The lesson that pious Zechariah learns is important, especially to those who have a rich spiritual heritage. He is a man of lifelong faith who still needed to grow. It is all too easy to view one’s spiritual life as something that can be mastered rather than something to be maintained[1]

Bock goes on to say,

Often we are tempted, on the basis of past experience, to put our spiritual well-being on cruise control and rest on the laurels of a tradition of activity.[2]

These observations make me want to ask myself, “am I teachable”?  Have I put my spiritual pursuit of God on cruise control without realizes it?  Am I open to God shaking up my world by allowing him to accomplish his will in my life in a way I had not anticipated?

Father, thank you for the captivating story of the birth of John the Baptist who was born at just the right time and in the exact way you wanted it to happen.  His dad, Zechariah did not understand how you could accomplish the great miracle of John’s birth.  I cannot fully understand you or your ways either. Help me to not become complacent by thinking I have you “figured out.” Instead, help me to be like Zechariah, who as a result of your work in his life responded in faith and with words of praise when he said,

“’He asked for a writing tablet and he wrote, ‘his name is John.’ And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God.” (Luke 1:63-64)

May we be teachable and passionate about following God his way. May we be blessed to always be surprised by God and how he works in our lives.

Following Jesus with you,

 

 

 

[1] Darrell L. Bock, Luke, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 79.

[2] IBID, p. 79

The Drama of Disappointment

As I begin to prepare my heart for the birth of our Savior, I was struck by the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth and their drama of disappointment as it is found in Luke 1.

“In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John . . . After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”

Did you see the drama of disappointment in the lives of Zechariah and Elizabeth?  They were childless.  This was especially difficult in Jewish culture. Notice what Barclay observes about this,

The Jewish Rabbis said that seven people were excommunicated from God and the list began, ‘A Jew who has no wife, or a Jew who has a wife and who has no child.’ Childlessness was a valid ground for divorce.[1]

You can see that being childless would have been a great burden and constant source of pain to Zechariah and Elizabeth in their culture.  Their childlessness was not a consequence of sin.  In fact, the text says that they were “righteous and blameless” in God’s eyes. Even so, Zechariah and Elizabeth lived with the constant heartache of not realizing their dreams and yet they were faithful and walked blamelessly in obedience to God.

Did you also notice they are described as “advanced in years”?  This means they were beyond the age in which a person could naturally conceive and have children and, therefore, had been dealing with this pain for years.

In spite of his age, Zechariah is told by the angel that “your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.”  To appreciate the scene we need to understand what had taken place for Zechariah to even be in the temple serving that day.

Zechariah “was a member of one of twenty-four divisions in the first-century priesthood…, one of approximately 18,000 priests. More specifically, he was a member of the eighth order, Abijah (1 Chron. 24:10). A priest only officiated at the sacrifice once in his life, having been selected by lot.[2]

Zechariah had been chosen by lot out of 18,000 priests for a once in a lifetime opportunity to serve in the temple.  This would be the greatest day of his life as a priest! As great as this honor was, he still ended up talking to God in the temple about the personal pain and disappointment that he and Elizabeth shared.

What can we learn from this?

First, we serve a God of the miraculous!  Nothing is too difficult for him, even when there is no human hope for a solution.

Second, God is active in his creation and it is never too late from him to intervene!  He is at work today even when I do not see it.

Third, disappointment can be part of a faithful believer’s life for years and it can be deep!  This does not mean we have done something wrong, but the pain and disappointment can be a normal Christian experience that we may never fully understand.

Fourth, we must be faithful in the disappointment and be honest with God as we endure.  Like Zechariah, we must express ourselves to God and not hide the disappointment we feel as long as it is a burden.

Fifth, as Zechariah heard from God in the temple, I need to intentionally make the effort to hear from God in his Word.  I have to make time for prayer and the study of his Word.

Father, thank you for this amazing story of Zechariah and Elizabeth.  Thank you for being involved in your creation and for providing John who paved the way for Jesus.  Thank you for giving us your Son and our Savior!  Thank you for understanding my heartaches and caring about them.  May you help me to be faithful as I serve you even when there are times of disappointment in that service.  May your will be done in and through me for your glory.

Following Jesus with you,

 

 

[1] William Barclay, ed., The Gospel of Luke, The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster John Knox Press, 1975), 10.

[2] Darrell L. Bock, Luke, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 48.

The Best Life Possible…

Two primary thoughts struck me this morning as I read Matthew 11.  The first is that even the greatest person to be born of a woman can be perplexed and have doubts about God’s plan.  John the Baptist, the first prophet to Israel in 400 years, and who came on the scene with the power of Elijah found himself in prison wondering, “where did I misunderstand God’s plan?” 

In the midst of John’s uncertainty, Jesus mildly rebukes him and yet gives him great praise for his role in preparing the world for the coming King and His Kingdom. John had proclaimed a message of judgment and yet Jesus reminded him that the Kingdom was more than that.  How easy it is to think we know what God is doing and yet God’s plan is often different than ours.  God is in control even when my circumstances do not fit my understanding of His plan!

The second thing that stood out to me this morning is that I live a very privileged life. In fact, it is the best time to live since the Fall because I am living in the dawning of the Kingdom!  The Kingdom is not yet fully realized, but in its present form, the best life possible is the one that is yoked to Jesus in discipleship.  Jesus said,

“My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30)

An alternate translation is “my yoke is pleasant and my burden is easy to carry.”  A yoke was used in the culture to bind two oxen together as they plowed a field.

Why is being yoked to Jesus the best life possible? Because of the character of Jesus.  I am not yoked to a tyrant or an unreasonable uncaring authority, but one whose character is marked by gentle humility.  In fact, Jesus over time is carefully making me like Him as I am yoked to Him in discipleship.

Father, plowing a field and pulling a load is hard work! Nowhere did You promise soft ground for tilling or level paths for bearing my load. What You did promise is a relationship with You as I till and as I pull. The demands are great.  In fact, You expect my very best, but my relationship with You in life makes the path pleasant and my burden easy to carry.  Help me to learn from You and remain faithful.  Thank you for wanting to disciple me!

Following Jesus with you!

The Verdict Is In!

I am fascinated by the apostle Paul.  In his own description of himself, he states that he was a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee, zealous, a persecutor of the church and much more (Phil. 3:5ff).  Then in Acts 9 he encounters Christ and his life is forever changed as he became a follower of Jesus.

As an Apostle spreading the Gospel, he encountered great hardship. He summarizes his challenging life when he says,

“Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” (1 Cor. 11:23-28)

How did Paul press on through extreme physical suffering and even accusations from those within the church (1 Cor. 4)?

I think one of the truths that allowed Paul to maintain his joy, perseverance, and passion is found in Rom. 8:1 which says:

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

What is so striking about that verse?  The word “now.”  Paul realized that the verdict is in on his life even before his life is finished!  When he embraced Jesus Christ as his Savior and God, his sin was forgiven, and he began life as a child of God.  He understood the Gospel freed him from trying to earn his position before God and he wanted the world to know that!

In our culture, our court system weighs the evidence of a person’s actions and then makes a verdict of guilt or innocence.  But, as a Christian, the verdict is in now prior to the weight of all evidence of my life!  As a Christian, I can know now that my sins have been forgiven, even the ones I have not yet committed because I have already been declared righteous in the court of God because of my faith in Christ.

This truth is summarized in Rom. 5:1-2 which says,

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith (past tense), we have peace with God (present tense) through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”

Paul got it!  Through Christ, he was declared righteous (“justified”), had peace with God and stood in a grace relationship with God!  As a result, Paul lived out of his certain position.  His security was found in the promises of God’s Word and his actions were based upon the truth of God’s Word.

Father help me to grasp the amazing truth that the verdict on my life is already in!  You have already determined my standing because of my choice to trust in Jesus as my Savior.  When I make mistakes and doubt myself today, I need not live in fear of your rejection because your grace through Christ has already set me in a permanent loving relationship with you.  You are now my Father and nothing I can do will change that.  Help these truths motivate me to faithfulness and obedience and give me your peace in the midst of a fallen world.

Following Jesus with you!

 

 

Perspective

Have you noticed in life that how we view circumstances impacts our attitude?  When life is good, it is often easy to follow God.  But, how do I respond when I find myself questioning the fairness of God because of my circumstances?

This is an age-old dilemma.  In fact, it is the problem addressed by Asaph in Psalm 73 almost 3,000 years ago. In this passage, Asaph comes to realize he is deeply troubled by his perception of what he feels is God’s lack of fairness due to the prosperity of the wicked.  He realizes that this tension in him has allowed him to become bitter toward God.  Notice how he summarizes this in Ps. 73:21-22,

“When my soul was embittered . . . I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you.”

Asaph describes himself as a person lacking sense as though he were a mere animal in his understandings of God’s ways!  His perspective had made him angry and his life reflected it.  Have you ever felt that way?  I know that I have.

What do we do when we struggle with our perception of the fairness of God?  Asaph gives us insight today for this problem in verses 16-17. It is there that he was able to discern the truth and regain his perspective.  Notice what he said,

“But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.”

Asaph had a change of heart when he went into the Temple.  It was there that he talked with God, meditated and wrestled with his concerns.  He does not answer why the wicked prosper, but he does realize their certain end.  As he ponders this further, he mentions three things for followers of God to remember in life regardless of circumstances to keep life in perspective.  In fact, these three things are critical for living life with a God-centered perspective no matter how hard or seemingly unfair our circumstances might be.  As I live life, I must remember three truths:

  1. “You hold me by the hand” (vs 23). He realizes that in the midst of the challenges of life, God is intimately aware and involved with him. Truth number one is that we will have challenging times, but we will never fall because God is holding our hand!
  2. “You guide me” (vs 24). God is the one who is our Shepherd and cares for us enough to guide us in life through His Word.  The second truth is that I need to remember is that God is guiding me no matter how I “feel” about my circumstances when I live by His Word.
  3. “You will receive me to glory” (vs 24). Asaph remembers his certain destiny!  Truth number three is that upon death, God will receive me into his presence. This realization gives meaning, purpose, and hope in life.

As Asaph regained his perspective in view of God’s truth, it caused him to say:

“Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Psalm 73:25-26

Asaph’s perspective and attitude are once again in line with the truth.  His circumstances did not change, but his perspective did and that changed his attitude. His renewed view on life caused him to recommit himself to God as the number one allegiance of his heart.

Father, thank you for giving us your Word which is the truth and I can find my footing in life by standing upon it.  There are times in life where things do not seem fair, but I can bank on the truth that in the midst of these times: 1) You are with me holding my hand so that I will not fall.  2) You will constantly guide me in life as I live by your Word.  3) I have a great future and hope because You will receive me into your presence at death.  Father help me to “see life” as You do so that my perspective is in line with the truth.  Thank you for loving me so!

 

 

“Do What Is Right!”

King David made a simple statement 3,000 years ago that was easy to understand and apply, but today has become uncertain and controversial.

Psalm 37:3 says,

“Trust in the Lord and do what is right!

As I was reflecting on this passage this morning a number of things stood out to me.  The first is that reliance on, or faith in, God should result in me doing what is right.  My faith needs an appropriate expression.  In this case, David is describing God’s Word as THE truth that I need to embrace and live out. My will and my feelings are to yield to the will of God as laid out in His Word to us…the Bible.

Second, did you notice that to “do what is right” implies that there is a standard of right and wrong that we are to conform to?  Our culture today tells us that we do not need to live up to some imposed external standard of right or wrong because we each have to determine what is right and wrong for us individually.

Timothy Keller profoundly summarizes our Post-Christian culture when he said,

“Throughout history, all cultures believed the truth was something outside (the person). Truth, ‘capital T,’ was something out there (outside the individual). And in here (in us), we had feelings . . . When you found out what the truth was, you brought your feelings in line with it . . . We are the first culture in the history of the world in which we are being told . . . you find the truth inside; you go inside (yourself) to find the truth. And then you come out and you tell everybody you have to accommodate me because I found the truth. This is who I am. This is what’s right or wrong for me. There’s never been a culture in history like that. It’s the complete reverse of all other cultures.”

Today we are being led astray by the false narrative that truth is something I determine for myself. As Christians, we believe truth is something God has given us and we need to understand it and conform to it, no matter how I feel about it.

Father, thank you for caring enough about me that you not only provided your Son to be my Savior, but you also gave me THE TRUTH to live by as one of your children. Help me to better understand your Word and give me the courage to unashamedly live by it.

“Choose Trust”

This morning is was impressed with something David said in Psalm 31:14-15.  This passage says, But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hand…”

The words “but I” are in a place of strong contrast in the Hebrew.  David is making a statement about something.  What he is about to say is in strong contrast to what he had just said in the previous verses.  What did he say earlier?

The context shows that his life is seemingly out of control and there are some who are even plotting to kill him!  He is the anointed king.  How can this be happening?  I have had bad days but never have experienced someone trying to assassinate me.

How would you have responded to that situation?  Would you doubt God’s promises? Would you panic and worry?  I am sure I would have done all of those things.  I am sure David was not passive in the situation, but he mentioned where his heart was in the midst of these extreme circumstances when he said: “But I, trust in you O Lord.” In spite of his circumstances, he chose to trust.

It seems that as David thought about his situation he was able to rest in the truth that God cared for him and would protect him.  Instead of reacting as those around him in panic, he realized that he needed to trust God because he knew God’s promises to him were true and that God had shown him multiple times that He loved him.

Why could David trust God?  He knew God was in control.  He said, “my times are in your hand.”  What does that mean? Gerald Wilson states,

“The use of ‘time/times’ in this sense is more than a remark on the passage of time. Underlying the psalmist’s surrender is an understanding of life as made up of a series of decisive moments in which a person can take either appropriate or inappropriate direction, depending on how he or she responds to the circumstances.”

So what is the appropriate action for you and me as we understand our times are in His hand?  When David faced difficult circumstances in life, he chose to trust God.  In the same way, I need to trust God and live life with a yielded heart to His leadership in my life.  Why? My times are in His hand.  I need to be active in my obedience, but I also need to rest in the knowledge that my very life with all of its details are under His control.  In addition, I need to resist the temptation of trying to help God by “fixing things” I don’t agree with in His leadership of my life.

Father, thank you for loving me so much that you care about me and all the details in my life.  I can trust you like David did.  When life seems hard or out of control, help me to trust you and say, “You are my God.  My times are in your hand.”  Help me live a yielded life so that you can change me and accomplish through me everything you desire.  I want to be a moldable vessel for you use.  Help me to chose to trust you in spite of my circumstances.

With My Whole Heart

Have you ever had a morning that starts out bad?  The more you dwell on something troubling you, the more irritated you become?  Then, before you realize it, you are angry, frustrated or discouraged?

I had one of those mornings recently, and then I read the first two verses of Psalm 9.  This passage changed my perspective and my heart.  Here are some of the observations that changed my feelings from angst to joy:

“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds.  I will be glad and exult in you…” (Ps. 9:1-2)

1.  Notice in the first line, David says he will give thanks to God with a WHOLE heart.  In other words, he chose to praise God with a complete and undivided heart.  He decided to give thanks without any part of his inner soul holding back from such thanksgiving.  There have been times when I can partially praise God, but I am also holding back part of me that is upset about something.  I have to let that go. I have to give thanks to God entirely and without reservation.

2.  How did David move to a whole heart of thanksgiving?  This is line two. He recounted all of God’s WONDERFUL deeds.  This word “wonderful” is interesting because it is describing miraculous works that often are contrary to nature and this word is only used of God, never a man (Ps. 72:18).  David paused to think back and recall each of the miraculous works of God in his life.  He meditated on God’s faithfulness to him.  He thought deeply about the things in his life that only God could have done.  Such meditation can change your feelings of anxiety to joy.

3.  This process of recalling God’s miraculous work in his life personally, allowed him to say the third line.  “I will be GLAD and EXULT IN YOU.”  The word for “glad” is describing the expression of joy while the word “exult” is describing the feelings of joy.  David learned that joy comes from finding it in our relationship with God.  The realization of His unique and miraculous work in each of our lives should want us to express our joy and allow us to experience joy because of our relationship with the God who loves us.

Father, what a great way to start the day.  You have helped me to change my heart this morning.  I have moved from frustration to joy because I have chosen to praise you with a whole heart as I reflect on your miraculous deeds in my life!  This realization has caused me great joy in my relationship with you and makes me want to express it with a whole heart.  May that be true of me today and all days!