Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Thoughts As We Enter Into a New Year

Every December 31 I read Joshua 3.  As you might remember, this is the account of the preparation of the people of Israel for crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land.  After forty long years of wandering in the deserts and wastelands, they were finally nearing the end of the journey.  Few of those who were encamped along the eastern shores of the Jordan River remembered the mighty power of God in bringing their fathers and grandfathers out from Egypt.  Oh, they had heard the stories of the crossing of the Red Sea, but most could not remember that momentous occasion. 

Let me share with you just a few verses from the beginning of Joshua 3: "Early in the morning Joshua and all the Israelites set out from Shittim and went to the Jordan, where they camped before crossing over.  After three days the officers went throughout the camp, giving orders to the people: 'When you see the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, and the priests, who are Levites, carrying it, you are to move out from your positions and follow it. Then you will know which way to go, since you have never been this way before.  But keep a distance of about a thousand yards between you and the ark; do not go near it.'"

Within the camp of Israel, only two individuals had been to the Promised Land before: Caleb and Joshua.  The multitude had only heard stories.  But there were a few things that the people did know: the land was dotted with large, well-fortified cities; the people living in the land were well-prepared to defend their homes; and the land was abundantly prosperous.  To enter into this vast Promised Land would be foolish for Israel to attempt on its own.  But, that is just it: Israel was not entering into the land alone.  God had promised that He would go before them.  God had promised that He would drive the Canaanites and the other inhabitants from the land.  It was true that Israel had never been that way before, but God had. 

Notice the warning in the last part of verse 4: "But keep a distance of about a thousand yards between you and the ark; do not go near it."  There are two inherent dangers described here.  First, there is the danger of running ahead of God's plan and direction.  God knew the excitement among the people.  They had waited a long time for this day to occur.  And there was the danger that, in their excitement, they would simply dash across that river and attempt to gain control of the land in their own strength.  Friends, there is a danger that, as we enter into a new year, we might choose to run ahead of God's plans for our lives, for our families, for our churches.  When one runs ahead of God only bad things can happen.  One loses direction.  One loses a confident hope.  Instead of joy, anxiety crashes in.  God's word to Israel was - "Don't run ahead of Me."  That is also His word to us as we enter into 2015.

But there was a second danger inherent in that verse: It is the danger of lagging too far behind.  Did you get what God said to the people: Stay behind, but not too far behind Me.  Oh the dangers that come when we choose to lag behind.  We lose our way and we struggle to find it once again.  When the way is lost, fears set in.  God's word to Israel was - "Don't lag too far behind.  Keep me in constant view."  That is also His word to us as we enter into 2015.

Friends, we do not know what 2015 will bring, but we do have some ideas.  The world will continue to experience a lack of peace and the sounds of war will echo from many corners of the world.  Natural disasters will abound with ever increasing fury, destroying lives and property with little abandon.  Immorality will continue to become emboldened as nations and peoples abandon those eternal, godly principles upon which Western civilization was founded.  We know these will happen because this world is still under the curse. 

But, here is the great news: God goes before us.  He will show us the way.  He may choose to lead us through those trials, but He may choose not to as well.  I am reminded of those amazing words of faith from the lips of Daniel's three friends to a very angry king: "If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king.  But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up" (Daniel 3:17-18).

As we enter into a new year, I want to be committed to having God lead the way in my life, in my home, in my family, and in my church.  Lord, keep me from running ahead with all my plans and dreams and aspirations.  And keep me from lagging behind because of a lack of faith and trust.  Drive me deeper into Your Word so that I can see more clearly the direction you would have me to go.  Then, Lord, cause me to have the desire to be obedient to that direction. 

Friends, 2015 just might be the year our Messiah returns.  Let's prepare ourselves for His arrival by keeping our eye upon Him and doing His will in this dark, sin-filled world. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Thoughts for Christmas

There is a very interesting statement made about Mary in Luke 2 that we often give little thought to.  Luke records these words: "But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart."  I was fascinated by that little word "pondered."  The verb comes from the Latin word "ponderare" which means "to weigh."    It means "to give serious consideration to a matter; to weigh it carefully."

There is a lot we do not know about Mary: her age (we guess she was in her late teens, but she could have been much younger); her family status (we guess she came from a rather poor family, but we don't know for sure - we do know that Joseph was poor because the offering he provided for Mary's purification after the birth of Jesus was the offering of the poor); her educational background (what she had learned at home).

But, this statement from Luke tells me something special about Mary.  She was reflective.  She pondered things.  She did not accept things at face value.  She probed beneath the surface.  Notice what Mary was pondering: the words of the shepherds.  You see Mary and Joseph had not heard the angelic announcement - they were busy giving birth.  They had not heard that stirring anthem: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

So, what did Mary do?  She took time to reflect.  She took time to ponder.  Ah, that is the problem today - we don't take time to reflect!  We simply charge straight ahead with little thought at all.  "Time is of the essence" we shout as we flail madly about.  "He who hesitates is lost" becomes our anthem for activity.  Our sound-byte world does not help us with reflection.  Instead of sitting and reflecting, we grab our phones or ipads and play games, search the Internet, doing something to occupy our time.  As a result, we have become a people who have lost the ability to be reflective, to ponder.

Mary certainly was a busy mother - and she did not even have the benefit of having her mother there to help.  What about diapers?  Had they packed some when they left Nazareth?   There had been no "baby showers" for Mary before she left - in fact, she was shunned because of her pregnancy out of wedlock.  And where were they to stay - a cattle shelter was no place to raise a child?  And what was Joseph going to do for a job?  A lot for a new mom to think about.

And yet she pondered the words of the shepherds.  And the text tells us that she treasured those words she was hearing and tucked them into her heart.

What is the message for us this Christmas Season?  It is simply this: we need to take time to reflect upon the birthday of the Lord Jesus.  Tis the Season that makes great demands upon our time: programs to attend, parties to show up for, presents to purchase - did we forget anyone on our list?  Mary pondered the birth of her son - and we should do likewise.

I want to wish my Jewish friends a joyous Hanukkah Season.  May you know the light of the presence of G-d in your home and in your life.  And I want to wish all of you a most blessed Christmas Season as we ponder the reason why Jesus came.  May you know His presence, His peace, His joy, and the hope that only He can bring. 

Merry Christmas, and, as Tiny Tim would say, "God bless us, everyone."

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Angels Message of Peace

Does it seem to you that, at this season of the year when our hearts should be drawn to the thoughts of "peace on earth, goodwill toward men" the exact opposite is occurring?  There are the escalating protests around our country against the recent grand jury decisions in Ferguson, MO and in New York.  Traffic was shut down here in Minneapolis on Interstate 35W.  Violence seems to be growing as the protests become more frequent.  As one reporter said yesterday, "We seem to be on the verge of another civil rights war like was seem in the 1960's."  Peace and good will?  Hardly!

Anti-Semitism is growing around the world at an alarming rate - from New York to Chicago to Paris to London to Jerusalem.  Europe seems to be awash in a strong anti-Semitic propaganda, with some seeing parallels to Germany in the 1930's.  Peace and good will?  Hardly!

The slaughter continues in Syria, although it has become so commonplace that it no longer makes our newscasts.  ISIL continues its march toward another Islamic Caliphate, leaving a wake of terror, destruction and death in its path.  The radical Islamic group from Somalia, known as Al Shabab, has terrorized neighboring villages in Kenya in recent weeks, killing all those who were not Muslims.  And the spirit of animosity between Russia and Chechnya was reignited recently with a violent terrorist attack.  Peace and good will?  Hardly!

Certainly the world needs peace.  The United Nations was formed in 1945 to end war and to establish peace.  Its track record has not been good.  If one looks at all the treaties that nations have signed within the past half century, one would think that there would be peace for sure.  But, as you and I know, peace has been very elusive, even though strong leaders supported those initiatives. 

The announcement of the angels to the shepherds that first Christmas night was "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."  The world was searching for peace when Jesus came the first time.  The Jews living in Judea maintained a rather fragile "peace" with their Roman conquerors.  Everyone knew that it would take just the smallest spark to ignite a great conflagration there; that spark would come some six decades after the birth of Jesus.  Peace on earth - certainly that was merely a dream. 

Yet the reality is this: peace cannot be legislated.  Lasting peace cannot be negotiated.  The reason is very simple: the heart of man is not inclined toward peace.  The heart of man is full of self-centeredness.  The heart of man is full of pride.  The heart of man is full of greed and avarice.  The heart of man is full of envy and jealousy for what he does not have.  And, when self-centeredness, pride, greed, avarice, envy, and jealousy are allowed to be expressed, whether in the lives of individuals or nations, the results are expressed in: war, strife, hostility, murder, chaos, destruction, and death.  So, when a treaty of peace is signed, it is signed by individuals whose hearts are not inclined toward peace.  That is why ceasefires seldom are sustained - they are created by hearts inclined toward evil, not peace.

So, what exactly did the message of the angels mean that evening.  They were announcing that One came who would truly cause men to know what peace really was.  Peace is found in a relationship with a holy God.  And that peace can only be found through the acceptance of His Son Jesus Christ.  Yes, Jesus came to earth to bring us peace.  God's peace.  A peace in knowing that our sins can be forgiven.  A peace in knowing that our relationship with God can be re-established.  Truly the Apostle Paul must have had those thoughts in mind when he wrote to the Romans these remarkable and powerful words: "Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1).  That is the peace that Jesus came to offer us that first Christmas.  That will be the peace that will characterize the world when Jesus comes again to reign. 

Until that second coming of Christ happens, the world will continue seeking for peace, but never find it.  For it can only be found at the foot of the cross - and the cross is certainly not what the world is seeking today.  But, you can find that peace you are searching for.  You, too, can experience the truths of that angelic message to the angels, "and on earth peace to men in whom his favor rests."

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

An Introduction to Advent

We are now into the Advent Season - that very special time of the year when, as followers of Jesus Christ, we take time - or, at least we should take time - to remember and to rejoice in the good news the angels announced to some shepherds many years ago: "Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord!" 

Yet, the world tries to drown-out that message today.  Even we as Christians can get so caught up in the hustle and the hurry of the Season that we forget the real reason for Christmas.  In spite of what the world would say, without Christ there is no Christmas.  As one old preacher used to say, "Take Christ out of Christmas and all you are left with is a mess." 

Speaking of Christmas, I need to share with you another story in the category of "you have to be kidding."  It was reported by Todd Starnes on the Fox News website.  You can read the article at:  As Starnes reports, the latest battleground in the fight over Christmas occurred at the Butler Elementary School in Belmont, MA.  There the PTA canceled a field trip to see "The Nutcracker" because there was a Christmas tree on the stage.  Starnes continues, "Television station WHDH did a stellar job reporting this act of lunacy.  They report that a group of parents were alarmed at the 'questionable content' of the popular ballet.  The questionable content had nothing to do with men in tights.  The parents got their tutus in a twist over 'O Tannenbaum.'  The PTA secretly canceled the field trip which got many of the parents to raise a ruckus; the PTA then reversed their decision to cancel the field trip.  Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous in your life?  Fears that the presence of a Christmas tree on a stage during a performance of one of the most popular Christmas ballets might cause someone to get bent out-of-shape.  I still enjoy a beautifully decorated Christmas tree - and, I am happy to say, my wife does a fantastic job of decorating our tree.  I still enjoy watching any of the versions of Charles Dickens' classic, "A Christmas Carol."  I enjoy saying "Merry Christmas" to people I meet.  I want them to know that Christmas happens because Jesus Christ came.  Friends, let's not be silent any longer.  Let's reclaim Christmas for what it is...a time for reflection and celebration because of the salvation Jesus came to give.

I have not spent a lot of time addressing the situation in Ferguson, MO.  But I read an article today that I want to share with you.  It is too long, so I will just share the website, but the article is worth the read.  It shows how biased our news media are and how, instead of reporting news, they often are the creators of news.  The article was written by Arnold Ahlert, who reports for the Patriot Post.  You can find it at:  The article is titled, "Progressivism's Last Gasp." 

Everything that is happening in the world today has many Christians wondering just when Jesus might return.  Well, I came across an interesting article from the Express - a paper published in England.  You can find the article at:  The article begins with this sentence: "The end of the world will happen in the next SEVEN YEARS with a cataclysm of natural disasters, according to a terrifying prophecy.  Floods, earthquakes and deadly plagues will finish all humanity and the civilized world as we know it."  Now, as I have stated on several occasions during these years of blog-writing, I do not espouse the setting of any dates for the return of Jesus Christ.  After all, Jesus said that "no man knows the day or the hour except my Father in heaven."  But, friends, just look at the world today.  We are seeing a convergence of things Jesus talked about in Matthew 24 such as has not been seen in such intensity before.  I have often remarked how awesome it would be if Jesus Christ came the second time at Christmas.  It certainly would be a Christmas we would all long remember - in fact, we would remember it for an eternity.  Those words of Isaac Watts' carol - "Joy to the world, the Lord is come" - would certainly take on a new meaning.  The shepherds were not expecting the song of the angels that first Christmas, but we should be listening for the sounding of the angelic trumpet this Christmas Season.  We just might hear that joyous melody.

I trust that as you enter into this Advent Season, that you will keep your focus in the proper direction - toward Jesus.  Remember: He is the reason for this season. 

P.S. Keep your eyes upon Israel.  The government of Prime Minister Netanyahu is in trouble.  From reports today from Jerusalem, he fired two members of his cabinet, basically for insubordination.  The coalition has dissolved, or at least appears to have dissolved.  Therefore new elections will be called for sometime as early as March.  Stay tuned...the political climate in Israel is always interesting; and this election could be very interesting.