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Be careful what you see.

If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.  Colossians 3:1-2

When I was small I was taught a song, “Oh be careful little eyes what you see.”  Perhaps you were too.  In our adult lives, we see many things.  We see people in all circumstances at the workplace.  I see a disheveled, tired-looking man waxing the floors when I leave.  I see the president of the firm returning from lunch in a limo.  I see well-dressed professionals with impressive credentials hurrying up and down the hallways. 

Media allows us to see much more.  I can see news from all over the world, and entertainment and documentaries from every part of society and even across history.  I can see people experiencing opulence and those living in abject poverty.

It’s not really a question of what we see though is it?  It’s really about how we let it impact us.  As our verses for today say, it is about where our affections are.

If we see a violent  man and admire him for how he is able to get things done or how no one gives him trouble, our affections have followed our eyes to a dangerous place.  If we see a glamorous media star whose sexualized product makes her popular and we envy the attention she receives, that is when our eyes have led our affections astray. 

What we see can fire our imaginations of how we are to live.  When we see someone exhibiting traits we might know to be sinful but have results we want, that invites us to imitate those people and their undesirable traits. 

Years ago my family and I were staying in a convent in Rome.  Every room had a crucifix on the wall.  My young son was a little freaked out by it but his sisters explained to him that children who grow up in that tradition found it comforting and instructive.  Jesus before our eyes invites Jesus into our affections.

Maybe you need a crucifix on your wall and maybe you don’t.  But the message of the cross is that our way forward is the way of self-sacrifice, love, submission to the will of God, and trust in the Christ who saved us all.  Whatever else we see, let’s keep our eyes fixed on the traits we know are good for us – the traits of Christ. 

How to “Fear Not”

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them, Fear not.  Luke 2:8-10a

There’s a lot to be scared of in 2021.  We can be scared of each other and scared of ourselves.  We can be scared of the coronavirus.  We can be scared of political change and how different parties might react to it.  We can be scared of a new round of recession, layoffs, and evictions.  What’s on your list? 

The Bible gives every indication that the Lord is aware of our fears.  Repeatedly throughout Scripture, God tells his people not to be afraid. 

Perhaps He has to keep saying it because it is easier told than done.  Or perhaps it is because not being afraid requires us to make deeper adjustments. 

Fear results when we realize we do not have control over our circumstances and that there is a realistic chance those circumstances may go negative.  Shepherds, like the ones in our text today, were used to being able to handle anything that threatened their flocks – wolves, snakes, even lions.  When something dangerous showed up that they couldn’t control, the fear ensued. 

It is the same for you and me.  We face challenges of all shapes and sizes every day, but as long as we remain confident we can meet those challenges, we don’t tend to get scared.  It is only when we face something negative that we can’t control that we indulge in fear.

The common element you, me, and all those people in the Bible told to “fear not” possess is that we have strong tendencies to rely on ourselves.  Notice that God never tells Jesus not to fear.  You never hear angels being told to fear not.  Jesus surrendered his omnipotence and the angels are clearly not without their limitations, and yet neither is ever afraid.  It is not because they are always self sufficient.  It is because they have not placed their trust in their own limited ability. 

Any one of us, from the greatest to the smallest, can live without fear.  The trick to it is agreeing up front that you are not in control and are unable to truly protect yourself.  When we do that, we can surrender control over our lives to the Lord, knowing that He is bigger than anything we might face.  Our fearlessness is not a result of our own resources.  It results from our surrender to an omnibenevolent, omnipotent Father. 

Fearlessness awaits us my friends.  Embrace it with all you have. 

Being the One

A voice of one calling:
In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.Isaiah 40:3

My friend Karl just moved to California to pastor a new church.  I am sure that church will welcome him and do everything it can to help his family settle into the area.  I am also confident the Lord has been at work in that church before Karl’s arrival and that he will be encouraged to see the ministry the Lord has been doing through His church there.

I believe He will see great opportunities for the Lord to work through him.  As a representative of the Almighty, he should expect to see the Lord empower his work.  The words that he speaks in humility and compassion should bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit. 

Sadly, I am also sure that, in some very important ways, he will be completely alone. 

Our text for today prophesies about the ministry of John the Baptist.  A few particulars of that ministry are obvious on the surface.  John is one voice.  He’s not part of a collaborative chorus of friends and colleagues.  John is also in the wilderness, a place indicative in the Bible of both loneliness and danger. 

When the Lord moves us into new areas of ministry, we should not expect to find ourselves comfortable or our message well understood and accepted.  A baker does not put his precious yeast in a dough that is already fully alive and proofed.  Bakers refer to un-yeasted dough as “dead dough” because that is what it is and they invest tiny amounts of yeast into that dough to bring it to life.  From the standpoint of the yeast, it starts as a lonely, inhospitable place. 

As our calendar turns and our new year begins, consider the new areas of ministry in which the Lord may want to place you.  Prepare yourself to be alive, active, and full of His power.  But also prepare yourself to be the only one bringing your message in that new work.  You won’t often have to stay that way (although you might reread Jeremiah before you promise yourself a big following) but many of us start as a lone voice. 

The trick is to be so sure of your message and your Master that even if you are the lone voice in the wilderness, you are satisfied to fulfill His calling.  We can be perfectly content to be the one, as long as we are His one. 

The Community of Creation

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.  Genesis 1:26-27

As I write this devotional, a new baby is being born into our family.  The mother and father are at the hospital and my wife and I are staring at our phones waiting for information to pop up telling us what is happening.  We then are charged with distributing that info to an entire network of family – siblings, aunts, uncles, great grandparents, etc.  The physical experience of childbirth is all resting on the mother but everyone in our family is sharing the mental and emotional trauma and drama together. 

God doesn’t create like we do.  He creates, when it suits His purpose, ex nihilo.  He creates with more wisdom, more power, and, I strongly suspect, more confidence than we do.  But a similarity between how we create and how God does it is the communal nature of the act.  The plural pronoun in our text for today is sometimes interpreted as a reference to the Holy Trinity.  God created mankind in the community of the Godhead. 

God does more than create in community.  He then invites us all to join the community of the creation.  God does not create us like a factory turns out widgets, to be dispersed across the earth by market forces.  He wants all of the people He creates to remain with Him, to know Him, to share in His love, and to participate in His redemptive work in the world. 

Our baby being born today will be the same.  We aren’t delivering her into the world to make her own way or be carried off by the winds of fortune.  She will become an important part of the ongoing life of the community.  She will be celebrated, watched over, protected, guided, and loved.  She will be invited to take her place in all the family traditions and swaddled with relationships, just like her cousins who came before her. 

The greatest goal of our family will be to see her join the union of our community and God’s.  Our family is sanctified and blessed by our collective participation in the community of God.  He speaks through us to one another and, sometimes,  to the world.  He cares for us and provides meaning to all our trials and our work.  It is up to each member of our family whether to remain in God’s family.  But it is the purpose of our family to be part of His. 

If that is not part of your own family story, I would invite you to make it so.  Any individual in a family can commit themselves to Christ.  That same individual can then become the conduit by which God calls all member of your family into His own.  With God’s help you can give birth to a new community of Christ. 

Whose Child is This?

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.  Isaiah 9:6a

I remember the anticipation as my wife and I expected each of our children.  There was tremendous curiosity about what they would like, how heavy or tall they would be.  Would they have hair?  What color?  Would they have my wife’s chin (I hoped)? 

But one thing we knew; we were going to love that baby.  Before each of their arrivals my wife prepared their crib, their clothes, and a seemingly endless supply of diapers.  At the end of the day, it made no difference what they looked like.  They were ours and they were perfect, and we were going to make them full-fledged members of our family.

You probably recognize the text for today as Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming Messiah.  Isiah addressed an Israel that was in a desperate condition.  In the previous chapter, the prophet delivered the Lord’s message that the Assyrians would pillage Israel.  Our verse for today marks a turn in the text as the Lord begins to deliver hope that the Assyrian invasion does not represent the end for God’s people.

It’s a strange hope though, isn’t it?  The people listening to Isaiah might have preferred he prophesy that the Egyptians would come to their rescue.  The birth of a baby is awesome but that baby is not much of a leader on day 1.  In hindsight, we know Isaiah is telescoping hundreds of years into the future.  None of his listeners would meet that Messiah in this world.  And yet I am sure they found his words a comfort.  They meant that, whenever they were fulfilled, there would be a future in which the people of God were saved. 

On our side of history we know much more.  There is a Messiah.  He fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah and many others.  The faith challenge we possess is different from that of the people of Isaiah’s day.  We have to decide whether we will accept that Messiah as our own. 

On that pinnacle of all questions I have some encouragement for you.  Jesus the Messiah was given to YOU.  He was delivered into your family just as much as the children my wife delivered into mine.  He was born to us.  He is ours.  To accept Him is as natural as my wife taking our newborn babies into her arms.  To reject Him is as unnatural as parents rejecting their own children.  You don’t have to buy your relationship with Him, earn it, or work for it.  He was born to you.  Accept Him into the fullness of your life today.