While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. Luke 2:6-7 NIV
God’s son is coming to earth and it would appear that God has not reserved him a room. No beautifully decorated nursery. No mention of a doctor or midwife. Why do Mary and Joseph seem to be scrambling to make do, pounding on doors? Why after years of prophecy and promises would God, who can arrange anything, have Jesus arrive so plainly, with most everyone sound asleep, and in their better beds?
I have been in the habit of thinking that things that “appear perfectly arranged” and “decorated” are a mark of God’s sovereignty, a sure set up for something special to happen, a sign God is present and working, or will show up. If I have small provisions, arrive in a plain space, find closed doors or am feeling left out or squeezed out, my first reaction is to think “God can’t possibly be in this.”
But the Christmas story would prove me wrong. Jesus coming, unnoticed by most, to a city of closed doors, that was sovereignty. No reserved room, no decorations, no warm welcome… these faith stretching circumstances were part of God’s sovereign plan. And how encouraging. Because that is life much of the time, filled with situations that don’t measure up in my mind.
Later, we see God’s wisdom peeking through. Later, we understand how this strange “back door” entrance was purposeful (lowly shepherds could approach) and protective (King Herod would kill any threat to his rule).
God knows exactly what he is doing.
If we can believe that God will show up in a manger, we will believe that he can show up in our meager hearts and at our humble gatherings.
Where are you feeling shut out? What appears to not be turning out? How might God be divinely positioning, and protecting, you? Will you trust his Sovereign plan?
“And so with barely a ripple of notice, God stepped into the warm lake of humanity, Without protocol and without pretension. Where you would have expected angels, there were only flies. Where you would have expected heads of state there were only donkeys, a few haltered cows, a nervous ball of sheep, a tethered camel, and a furtive scurry of curious barn mice.” -Ken Gire, Moments With the Savior
“Do not despise these small beginnings…” Zechariah 4:10 NLT
Recently something surprised me and upset me to tears. It was a small thing, but still “I don’t like surprises,” I told my husband. “Well, I don’t like bad surprises,” I clarified as he was helping me pray about it. I haven’t had many bad surprises in my life, but I go to pieces when I feel ambushed. I sit down and wilt. The Lord began to guide my startled heart and steady me with truth.
Later that day I felt a worthy whisper to my soul, “What about all the good surprises?” I stopped what I was doing and took in the question? I liked it. God was leading me to recollect and recount His goodness.
That evening my husband was giving a live devotional teaching and I sat behind the camera listening. Near the end of his talk he mentioned his mother who recently died and about how God had given him a comforting picture of her. It’s a real picture of her actually. We found it two months ago when we were going through albums. She was younger, looking up and away, her eyes wide, bright and happy. I’ve wondered what caused her such delight in that photo because what she is looking at is out of our view. My husband says this is the picture that God has impressed on his mind. He sees it as his mother’s glad surprise when she arrives in heaven. When my husband uses the word surprise I’m arrested. As he continues to share with his followers, God is speaking to me. “Heaven will be the best good surprise. It will be astonishingly good.”
As I lay in bed that night I have time to recount God’s good surprises. My list begins when I am a young girl with my dad leaving new shoes by my bed during the night, shoes my mom asked him to pick up during his late shift at work. I remember winning a poster contest. I recall a hum drum evening turning on a happy dime with the announcement that we were going to the Dairy Queen. There were many surprising blankets of snow. I remember the day my dad accompanied us ice skating and we arrived home after dark to a cozy supper laid out by mom, a scene etched in my mind. And then, there’s the surprise of Christmas presents. So much kindness wrapped up under our tree… I’ve spent many nights now recounting God’s goodnesses and I’ve yet to make it out of my childhood memories before I fall asleep. I should work the list backwards next time.
As a church we are reading the Bible through. Recently we encountered one of my favorite stories. It’s about David when he was ambushed. David had been through a lot, running for his life from King Saul, living hand to mouth, camping out in enemy territory, trying not to make any mistakes in his conduct. He and his fighting men arrive back at their camp in Ziklag to find it destroyed by fire, their wives and children carried off by the Amalekites. It was awful. The Bible says that “David and his men wept aloud until they had no more strength left to weep.” (1 Sam. 30:4) And that “David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him.” They were so bitter in spirit over their loss.
At this juncture David did two important things. First, the Bible says he “found strength in the Lord his God.” This is a habit that David had cultivated. Second, David did not accuse the Lord, but “inquired” of Him. “Shall I pursue this raiding party? Will I overtake them?” he asked. (1 Sam. 30:8)
“Pursue them,” the Lord answered. “You will certainly overtake them and succeed in the rescue.”
It was an arduous battle but God led David and his men. They fought for and retrieved everyone and everything. Nothing was missing. Plus, there was plunder. So much plunder that David sent some as gifts to those in all the places he and his men had roamed. It’s interesting to note that David did not think, “Surely after all I have been through I deserve this wealth. I will keep it for myself.”
In this story we learn how to handle an ambush, a bad surprise, heartache, despair, betrayal, terrible news, whatever… Here David shows us how true royalty behaves, for we are God’s royal sons and daughters. And with God’s promises and His counsel there is always a way forward when we feel devastated. Strengthening ourselves in God during any trouble, and inquiring of him, these are good things to learn and be practicing.
I think this attack at Ziklag was probably David’s toughest moment on the way to what God had anointed him for and promised him, the kingship. Scripture proves that there is often a great and difficult battle before a breakthrough and a shift in the kingdom.
After this struggle to retrieve their families, King Saul who has hunted David for years dies. And things begin to shift. We see this at the cross of Christ as well. That was a very dark day, a day of betrayal, desertion, abuse, loneliness, suffering… Jesus inquired of the Father and pressed through in obedience, paying for our sins. He rescued us from our enemy. He brought us back home to God. A kingdom shifted. A great and glorious surprise for all mankind.
What has the enemy run off with that belonged to you? Do things appear lost or over? Maybe they’re not. Strengthen yourself in the Lord. Inquire of him. Is he telling you to go after something?
He did me.
Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood… Take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray….Ephesians 6: 10-11, 16-18 NIV
Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm… “Who is this? Even the wind and waves obey him!” Mark 4:38-39, 41 NIV
When the Lord calls you to do something, don’t be surprised if a storm comes up. This is what happened to Jesus disciples. They were doing exactly what Jesus had told them, heading where Jesus wanted them to go when a storm blew in. The disciples weren’t just rattled, they were deeply terrified. “Lord, don’t you care if we die?!” they cried. At this Jesus awoke, rose up, spoke, and all was calm.
When a storm rises in our heart or blows in to our lives, we should cry out to God like the disciples. They didn’t pray a pretty prayer. It wasn’t polished or composed. It was honest, desperate and uncensored. “Lord, don’t you care….?” they cried. Storms will bring these kinds of prayers up and out of us. And that is important.
When we cry out to Jesus, he will take command. Our voices have no authority over wind and waves. But Jesus voice carries authority over all he has made. Everything. And everyone. We should wait for him to speak to whatever assails, “Quiet down!” “Stop that!” “Be still!” He will.
The disciples made it through. They arrived where Jesus wanted them to go. They were tossed about, but they weren’t traumatized. Yes, their clothes were wet and their hair was windblown, but their hearts were awash in wonder. “Who is this, that even the winds and waves obey him?!” they now cried, for they had witnessed things they thought were impossible.
Like these disciples I often think I need to wake Jesus up to what is happening with me; I act like I’m pounding on God’s door, “Help me bail this water! I’m going under!” But the truth is Jesus wants to awaken me to who he truly is, because I don’t know. And storms wash my eyes. Their waves beat up against my doubts and break into my small view of God. Storms shake me up to the fact that Jesus is far more than I ever thought he was. And when I pass through them, I arrive on the other side to find a good chunk of my false beliefs washed away, and my doubts over what God can do dissipated. Like the disciples, I’m wet and windblown yes, but greater still I’m on my knees wonderstruck and worshipping, saying “Jesus, I had no idea you are so powerful! Forgive me. I didn’t know you don’t bail water!”
Where do you need Jesus power and “Peace be still” today? Will you let him awaken you to his command of things?
Pray an honest prayer.
Let Him speak to what threatens.
Prepare to be awestruck.
“Ye fearful saints fresh courage take, the clouds you so much dread, are big with mercy and will break, in blessing on your head.” – William Cowper
One of them when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him- and he was a Samaritan.” Luke 17:15-17 NIV
Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem when 10 lepers cried out to him in loud voices from a distance. They were terminal, contagious, and had to keep away from others. “Jesus, Master, have pity on us.” Jesus heard their cry. “Go, show yourselves to the priests,” he said. And as they went they were healed.
One of the lepers returned to Jesus with praise and thanks. The other nine walked on, why? Were they too excited about the blessing they had received, too busy making plans? “How should we spend this new lease on life? What do we do with this dream come true?” Or, were they just in such a hurry to finally be together with their family and friends? And why would I fault them? Weren’t they obeying what Jesus commanded? Jesus told them “go.” He didn’t tell them to come over and give him praise. He didn’t call after them, “Hey, what do you say?” or “You’re welcome!”
I wonder, if I were one of the lepers, would I be the one who went back?
What made that one different? What entered his mind? What stopped him in his forward rushing tracks, and sent walking back, alone? I think he realized the gravity of the situation. He was a leper. And he was a Samaritan. This made him a double outsider. Maybe the others deep down thought they deserved what they finally got. He knew he didn’t. Jesus had seen and helped, him. There would be no more languishing in utter despair, no longer that life sentence of hopelessness. The weight of that blessing swung him around and swung him hard. Walk alone? Who cares. “I’m healed! I’m free! I’m falling at Jesus feet. Thank you Jesus! What can’t wait for me?”
I want to be swung around.
That one leper has me thinking about the magnitude of what Jesus has done for me. He has made it so that when God sees me he says “Clean! Spotless! Come in!” He’s healed my heart so I can be a life giving part of, an encouragement to, my family and community. I don’t want to rush head long into my blessings or dash ahead with my plans. I want to learn to be the one, the one who stops, and returns, to give thanks.
When we were overwhelmed by sins you forgave our transgressions. Psalm 65:3 NIV
Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Luke 17:17-18 NIV
I am reading about a scene in the garden of Gethsemane. The disciples are sad, confused, and feeling threatened. Nothing is going as they would choose. When the soldiers come to arrest Jesus they don’t know how to handle things, “Lord, shall we strike with our swords?” they ask. Peter doesn’t wait for Jesus to answer, but instead lashes out and cuts off a soldier’s ear.
Maybe you can relate to Peter. Something is going to pieces around you and you don’t like it. You feel threatened and anxious. An injustice is happening and you’re used to drawing your sword. You don’t know what else to do but cut off an ear. Aren’t battles fought with aggressive action? Piercing words? If cutting off an ear isn’t the right response in these moments, what is?
We don’t have to wonder. If we listen in on what Jesus said to Peter, we will hear what he may be telling us. Jesus said, “Put your sword back in its place… Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” Matthew 26:52-54 NIV
Jesus is giving Peter three truths here. First, Peter is to put his sword back in its place. Reacting in his usual and natural way will not work in this situation. Secondly, no matter how things appear Jesus is in authority. John’s gospel reports that when the Roman soldiers arrived on this scene, Jesus did not hide or hang back, but went straight to them and asked, “Who is it you want?” When Jesus told the soldiers who he was, the entire detachment fell to the ground. A strong indication of who was in charge of the moment. Yes, Jesus could call on the angels. But it wouldn’t be right. Why? That brings us to truth three. Jesus came to fulfill the scriptures. He came to prove God’s word true, to fulfill each promise and prophecy God had made through the generations. He was here to bring salvation to people, exactly the way God said it would come. Through the cross.
I don’t know about you, but when I feel threatened and anxious I tend to lash out. I can see now that’s the wrong response. It hurts others and it does not fulfill God’s plan. I love this scene in the garden, because it gives me a blueprint for walking through things. I want to learn to handle hard moments like Jesus did, honoring God and his word. Next time I face a threat and cry, “Lord, shall I strike with my sword?”, I want to remember this scene, listen, and pray. I want to hear Jesus say, “I’m in control.” I want to put away the sword of my flesh, take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, and ask a new question. “Lord, what scripture do you want to see fulfilled in me?” (After all, this is why I read the Bible, to know when and how to apply what is written in it, to find myself and my answers there.) I want to learn to kneel in that garden and like Jesus pray this prayer, “Show me Lord, how to act in a way that proves your word true, your love deep, your redemption real. Show me how to live in a way that brings salvation.”
The character and nature of Jesus is amazing in this scene. Jesus was going through a horrendous trial, more awful than anything we could face. And he could have been gratified that it appeared someone was standing up for him, that they cared enough to cut off an ear. But Jesus wasn’t at all gratified by that. He wasn’t looking for someone to cut off an ear for him. And he doesn’t want us looking for that either. When we are living to make people pay, we have a problem. We’re missing the greater sacrifice. Jesus sacrifice. Jesus came to get us out of the eye for eye and ear for ear system. Jesus didn’t cut off an ear as a badge of his love for us, he suffered in his own self. He did not strike. He was stricken. He did not make another person pay. He paid. His life’s blood is on the purchase agreement of our souls. So let’s not be looking for ears. Jesus alone is worthy of our constant gaze. And highest praise.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. Isaiah 53:4-5 NIV
In John 11, Martha is standing with her sister Mary near the tomb where they recently buried their brother Lazarus. They had sent word to Jesus when Lazarus was sick, but nothing happened. Moments passed. Days went by. Grave clothes were gathered. The funeral attended. The case closed. Lazarus is four days dead, in fact, he is decaying, when Jesus arrives on the scene.
Jesus stands among the mourners and is deeply moved. He is troubled in spirit. And he weeps. Then, he surprises everyone. He puts a hinge in the atmosphere. A door handle on things. “Take away the stone,” Jesus says. He is referring to the stone that is sealing the entrance to Lazarus’s grave.
What? The grievers wonder. That’s crazy, they begin to think. Martha speaks up, saying what’s on many minds. “But Lord, by this time there is a strong odor.” Or in other words, “But Lord, this will not be pleasant.” But Lord, what’s the point? But Lord, too much time has passed. But Lord, we were just getting used to life as it has turned out. But Lord… don’t get our hopes up.
Jesus replies, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” There’s a collective silence. A pause. A possible shift in thinking. The glory of God?Did he say we would see the glory of God? In this situation? The hinge might be used. The door handle reached for…
“So they took away the stone,” the Bible says.
And when they did, Jesus called through the opening they made, and did something miraculous. He did what only he can do. He commanded that dead thing, the dead man, to live.
Who stepped forward and moved that gravestone? Who stepped back and said, “I’m not touching that thing, you do it”? Why didn’t Jesus move the stone himself? And would Jesus have done the miracle, had the people not obeyed? I wonder about these things. And I wonder what this story means for me.
I think it means that what I thought was over, might not be over. I think it means I should be looking for hinges and door handles– listening for that strange and awkward (yet clear and unmistakable) command of God. I think it means I should be ready to move a stone. Because a miracle awaits.
What have you prayed about and grieved over? What grave are you standing near? Are you a stone mover?
Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped in strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” John 11:43-44 NIV
One thing we learn from the story of the prodigal son is that an opportunity for real joy comes when we are broke. Or broken. When we’ve sinned or blown it in something it’s not over. If… we remember and return to our Heavenly Father.
When the prodigal son sat down to that homecoming feast I don’t think he could have been happier. Just imagine the new eyes that he had after all he’d been through, friendless and starving. Imagine the new heart that was his as he pulled up to a table he’d once scorned and blew off. Now it’s everyone else that’s ho humming their food, not him. He’s enraptured. Enraptured like Bob, in the movie What about Bob. Declaring in wonder, “Is this hand shucked corn?!”
What has changed? Him. His heart. His view. He now knows what he’s got. Do you?
His older brother is still in the barn. He’s never hit bottom. Never rebelled. Never goofed up, messed up, wasted a day, or a year. He’s never copped out, or chickened out, or walked away. He has no idea what it’s like to feel… guilty. Guilty of being a poor steward. So he’ll never really see, or love, or be joyful about, all he’s got.
And Jesus said, “He who has been forgiven little loves little…”
When God Almighty runs at you and hugs the stuffing out of you in spite of who you’ve been, you just can never pout in God’s house again. Because you’ve learned the Dorothy lesson. You know, the one from the Wizard of Oz. You’ve learned that….
There is just
Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you. Psalm 84:4 NIV
Would God ever lead you into a desert? Yes, but not without a promise. God was talking about his people Israel when he said:
“I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor (which means “trouble”) a door of hope. There she will sing as in the days of her youth.” Hosea 2:14-15 NIV
Deserts are hard places. The days are extra hot and the nights extra cold. Needs are intensified. “I’m thirsty.” “Where are my friends?” “Am I on the right path?” “I feel confused.” “Is that real or is it a mirage?” If God has led you into the desert it will be tough, but according to the verse above you have four excellent promises.
First, God will speak tenderly to you. So, watch and listen for his tenderness.
Second, God will give you back something you have lost. And He will determine what it is. For Israel it was vineyards. Remember, fruit often comes from plowed up ground, a good seed, watering, and pruning. That means you need, an open heart, God’s word, daily prayer, and the willingness to let go of things that are weighing you down.
Third, God will turn your trouble into a door of hope. Doors lead somewhere, and I love the thought of a hopeful threshold to cross, don’t you? Watch for it.
Lastly, you are promised that you will sing like a child. Children don’t sing about cheap thrills or love gone bad, they sing about hopes fulfilled and dreams coming true. What have you been singing about? Do you need to change your tune?
God never leads his people into the desert to die. He leads them there to carry them through, to a promised place.
Would I recognize a blessing if it showed up on my doorstep?
Before Jesus came, God spoke to people through prophets, and one of those prophets was Elijah. One day God sent Elijah to the town of Zarephath so he would be taken care of, because a great drought had devastated the land.
Elijah arrived at the gate of Zarephath hungry and thirsty (and just in time for a divine appointment). A widow was there and he asked her, “Will you bring me a little water to drink?” The widow went to do as he requested and Elijah called after her. “Bring me a piece of bread too please.”
She stopped, faced Elijah, and cut to the quick of the situation. “I swear by the Lord your God that I don’t have a single piece of bread in the house. I have one drop of oil and a handful of flour and that’s it. I was just going to use it to cook my son and me our last meal before we die.”
Harsh conditions! But Elijah was not taken aback. He did not flinch and say, “Oops sorry, never mind about the bread then.” Instead he said, “Don’t be afraid!” And “Do just as you were going to, but make my bread first. Then make some for the both of you. Because God has said that you will not run out of provisions until the crops return to this land.”
It was a strange sort of blessing God was giving this widow wasn’t it? He didn’t arrange for a strong man to show up with a giant vat of oil and a 50 lb sack of flour. I mean that would have made everything clear from the beginning right? That’s how a blessing looks right? God gives us money, a new job, a new car…
God had something different in mind.
This blessing would not be a giant one-time provision. This widow wouldn’t wake up to see (and fawn over) a full jar of oil. And she wouldn’t have to worry about anyone taking her king-sized bag of flour.
No. This blessing would be daily. And personal. Every day a little fresh flour and oil would appear, enough for her needs. God would never forget. He wouldn’t miss a day. Each morning there would be a new mercy. Each morning a gentle whisper, “Yes, my eye is still upon you little sparrow.” How sweet is that? This would be a special relationship.
I have found myself thinking about how I would have responded had I been in the widow’s situation and Elijah asked me for some bread. I feel pretty sure I would have lost it, snapped, and said something like, “You’re kidding right? My husband has been taken from me. My land has dried up. And now God wants my last meal?”
I wonder how often I have misjudged God. Been insulted by a request he made of me. A request that was meant to bless. I wonder what I have missed out on while trying to guard, what I thought was surely, my last dollar, or my last nerve, or my last bit of energy, my last hope… my last drop of oil.
Are you down to your last drop of oil? Will you be open to receiving a blessing in disguise?
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.Romans 11:33-36 NIV