A Good Walk Shared

Mark Twain is reported to have said that the game of golf is “a good walk spoiled.” John Feinstein wrote a book about golf and gave it that title. This piece is not about golf. It’s about walking.

Our progress through life is like a journey on foot, a long walk, a pilgrimage. It is one in which we may walk in the company of God himself. This is a word picture that is used frequently in the Bible. “Noah . . . walked faithfully with God” (Genesis 6:9, NIV).

The Old Testament has well over 200 references to walking. Some of these refer literally to walking from one place to another. Most of them, however, are figurative uses of the word “walk” as a metaphor for living life. “Blessed is the one who does not walk in the way of the wicked’ (Psalm 1:1, NIV). Sometimes contemporary versions of the Bible translate the word “walk” as “live” or “behave.” “Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live” (or walk, Exodus 18:20, NIV).

This lifelong walk is seen as a purposeful, resolute trek, with God as a faithful guide and companion on the journey.

For the people of Israel, this was serious business. This meant that they were to walk (live) in accordance with God’s laws. “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules, and keep my statutes, and walk in them. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 18:3-4, ESV).

Living this way was for their protection from tyranny, disease, and moral confusion. Living this way insured civil order, happy homes, and economic justice. This was called “walking in God’s ways.” (This phrase is used repeatedly in the Old Testament to illustrate how the Israelites were to walk in the direction and on the path that the Lord God had chosen for them as his people.)

Living (walking) this (in his) way also insured that the Lord himself would accompany them on their journey. “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 26:12-13, NIV).

In my hikes on the Appalachian Trail, I relied upon white blazes (two inches wide by six inches) painted on trees, rocks, or fence posts to mark the trail. These markers, usually about a quarter mile apart, are for hikers’ guidance and safety, to help them stay on the path. That was the function of God’s law for Israel. His “way” for them to walk was always good. “Teach them the good way in which they should walk” (1 Kings 8:36, ESV).

Like warning signals, the Lord also issued cautionary words to inform his people of the consequences of resisting his will. It was a dangerous thing to oppose the Living God. In Leviticus 26, he gave his people a litany of terrible things that might happen to them if they “walk contrary to” his way.

The worst result would be this: “If you will not listen to me, but walk contrary to me, then I will walk contrary to you in fury, and I will discipline you sevenfold for your sins” (Leviticus 26:27-28, ESV). Those words are more stark and disturbing then a bomb scare or a tornado warning.

It is better to walk with God.

His presence is wisdom. “For wisdom will enter your heart . . . Thus you will walk in the ways of the good and keep to the paths of the righteous” (Proverbs 2:10, 20, NIV).

His presence is guidance. “Whether you turn to the right hand or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it'” (Isaiah 30: 21, NIV).

His presence is peace.  “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4, NIV).

His presence is blessing. “Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in obedience to him” (Psalm 128:1, NIV). 

All these advantages, and more, were true of Abraham, to whom the Lord said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless” (Genesis 17:1, NIV). He was later able to testify of “The Lord, before whom I have walked faithfully” (Genesis 24:40, NIV). This meant that every step Abraham took through life, he was conscious of God’s presence. He experienced the Lord close at hand in personal fellowship.

Is this a possibility for us today? If the Old Testament is foundational to our understanding of the New, then surely the theme of walking with God will be expanded and explained more fully there. In the weeks to come we will examine some New Testament passages that show us how to walk through life in fellowship with God.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Enoch’s Long Walk

“Enoch walked with God; then he was no more because God took him away.” (Genesis 5:24)

Genesis chapter 5 is an historical summary of the generations before God judged the world with the great flood. It is a genealogy of the descendants of Adam down to Noah. The recurrent theme of the chapter is death. It describes a fulfillment of God’s verdict on Adam and Eve: “You shall surely die.” The last enemy, death, was at the end of every life, even those very long lives. Eight times in the chapter we encounter the phrase, “then he died.”

One man, Enoch, stands out. He breaks the pattern.  His story is an exception to the death and ungodliness in his time. He escaped death. That’s right. He didn’t die. The New Testament comments: “By faith Enoch was taken from this life so that he did not experience death; he could not be found because God had taken him away. For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God” (Hebrews 11:5). 

In this respect, Enoch is an illustration of the rapture, or “catching away” of the church before the future tribulation Jesus spoke about in Matthew 24. In that passage, Jesus compared the tribulation judgment of the last days to the flood (Matthew 24:35-39). Enoch’s translation to heaven pictures what will happen to the living believers who will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11).

Enoch pleased God because he walked with God. Or did he walk with God because he pleased God? Either way, he stands out in his generation as one who lived in close fellowship with his Creator. He walked with God for 300 years! That’s consistency. Living for God in this world — living with God — is like a walk. My experience as a long-distance hiker on the Appalachian Trail has taught me the value of steady progress over a long haul. It is not a sprint or a dash, nor is it a casual stroll.

Enoch’s walk with God implies long-term obedience to the will of God. They were moving in the same direction. Enoch and God were on good terms. Abraham was called the friend of God. So was Enoch. I don’t think it an exaggeration to say that they enjoyed each others’ company. Enoch did not allow anything to interfere with his relationship with God.

It was said of Charles Haddon Spurgeon that “he felt perfectly at home with his Heavenly Father.” Perhaps that could describe Enoch’s relationship with God, too. It was based on faith. For us it is living by faith in God’s word, and the guidance of God’s Spirit, not trusting our own understanding. “We live (literally ‘walk’) by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Enoch was commended for his faith in Hebrews 11:5-6. There it tells us that his faith “pleased God,” and that without faith it is impossible for us to please God.

Genesis tells us of three men who walked with God, Enoch, Noah (Genesis 6:9), and Abraham (Genesis 17:1). Scripture also tells us that we, you and I, here and now are invited to walk with God. Listen to the prophet Micah: “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

I want 2023 to be a year in which I walk humbly with God. I am not talking about physical walking. With Parkinson’s disease, I am a little less steady on my feet than I once was. I think my long-distance hiking days are over. But spiritually, in my relationship with the Father in Heaven, I can keep walking in faith and faithfulness. For the next few weeks I will use this space to explore what that looks like.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

Are We Paying Attention?

I read through the Bible in 2022 using the One Year Bible: New Living Translation. In 2023 I intend to do the same thing following the reading plan in the Ryrie Study Bible. This year it will be the New American Standard Bible. (Reading different translations of holy scripture heightens my respect for the inspiration and preservation of God’s Word, and sometimes prompts fresh perspectives and questions as I read.)

Reading though the Bible in a year is not as daunting as it may seem. You can do it in as little as twenty minutes a day. It’s not too late to get started. Do a Google search of Bible reading plans, choose one and go for it!

I was saddened to read in the current issue of Christianity Today a report from the American Bible Society that regular Bible reading declined in 2022. It is unclear why. “That means that amid record inflation, threats of nuclear war in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the ongoing debates about the state of democracy, there were about 26 million Americans who stopped reading the Bible.” Is this one of the indicators that the U.S. has become a post-Christian nation?

There is a wonderful story in the Book of Nehemiah which gives us some of the benefits of Bible reading. The teaching priest Ezra led the people of Judah in a solemn assembly to revive their interest in the written Word of God. In Nehemiah 8-9 the “people came together as one” to hear the reading of the scriptures “which the Lord had commanded for Israel” (Nehemiah 8:1).

A great crowd of men, women and children listened attentively as Ezra read all morning long (8:3). The readings were punctuated by expressions of praise to the Lord (8:6). Then Ezra sent other teachers out among the people to explain the scriptures and give clarity in understanding what was being read (8:7-8).

What followed were outcomes we might expect to see in our own lives when we read the Bible with humility: (1) conviction and confession of sin (9:1-4), (2) worship and praise to God (9:3), (3) remembrance of and thanks for the great works of God (9:5-37), (4) heartfelt surrender to God (9:38-10:39). In other words, their lives were regulated and shaped by the holy Word of God. These are reasons why we should be reading God’s Word every day.

I heard Warren Wiersbe say, “When I open my Bible and read it, God is speaking to me.” The Old Testament prophets thundered, “Thus says the Lord!” They were given the conviction that what they wrote and preached was the very Word of God. God had called them to be his human messengers, conveyors of his Word.

So if God speaks though the scriptures, shouldn’t we be paying attention?

Dr. Bruce Waltke was invited to bring a series of chapel lectures at a leading church-related university. His assigned topic was “What do evangelicals believe?” (This was before the label “evangelical” was hijacked by political opportunists!) He began by saying that “evangelical” is related to the “evangel” or the good news of the gospel. The evangel is based upon the Bible. He noticed that nobody in the room had a Bible.

He said to the president, “I won’t continue to teach until you have Bibles!” Naturally the president got upset. But he dispatched a search party to find Bibles for the members of the audience. The janitor found a quantity of unused pew Bibles in a basement storage room. The next week they brought these Bibles to the chapel for Waltke’s lectures.

Why did he do that? Because the Bible was the basis of authority for his teaching. It is the Word of God written, and the source of any truth we can know about God and his will for us. Maybe your Bible is not gathering dust in a basement storage room. But where is it right now? I suggest that you open it and let God speak to you.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

Freedom and Confidence in Prayer

My parents served in Christian higher education. My mother was on the college music faculty and my dad was in administration. His office as vice president was usually a busy place, with people waiting to see him. As a boy, I knew that if his secretary told me there was no one with him, I could pass through the outer office and go right in. He always welcomed me.

This reminds me of the access to God that Christians have when we pray. We are encouraged to go right in to the throne room of our Heavenly Father with confidence and candor. “In him (Jesus) and through faith in him, we may approach God with freedom and confidence” (Ephesians 3:12).

This year in my morning devotional readings I have been going through a book on prayer by Tim Chester, The Message of Prayer. It is helping to strengthen my prayer life. I was especially encouraged by the author’s reminder of the intercessory ministry of Jesus at the right hand of God. The knowledge that I have an advocate in heaven gives me greater confidence in prayer. Here are three reasons for that, based upon the book of Hebrews.

Jesus feels what I feel.

In his humanity, Jesus identifies with us and sympathizes with us. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He knows my struggles and failures. Though he was and is without sin, he understands how it feels to be tempted. In my weakness, it helps me to know that Jesus experienced human weakness, to the point of death. He understands.

Because of this, I am invited to pray to God. “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

Jesus speaks to the Father on my behalf.

Hebrews 9:24 says that Jesus, our great high priest in heaven “appears for us in God’s presence.” As our representative before God, Jesus defends our interests and pleads our case. John the apostle wrote, “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense — Jesus Christ the righteous one” (1 John 2:1).

Tim Chester, commenting on this fact, wrote, “By his presence he reminds the Father — as if the Father needed reminding —  of the finished work of the cross. Jesus, as it were, says by his presence, ‘I am here in heaven and my people are united with me — they have access to God.’ . . . He is before God with his wounded side and his pierced hands as if to say, ‘These are the reasons why you should hear my people and show them mercy.'”

Jesus opens the way for me.

The New Testament tells us that when Jesus died the curtain or veil in the temple in Jerusalem was torn in two from top to bottom (Mark 15:38). This symbolized how the way into God’s presence was now being opened for believers. Through Jesus we may have access into God’s presence. He bore the judgment for our sin. He shed his blood to cleanse us. Through his perfect sacrifice we may come close to God.

Tim Chester reminds us that this is why we pray in Jesus’ name. “The name of Jesus is not a talisman or invocation. Rather it is a reminder that we have access to God through the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus.” It is not, he says, “because of our goodness, or of the style of our praying or the length of our prayers.” We cannot add anything to the value or sufficiency of Christ’s death and resurrection. We pray in his name and for his glory alone.

“Our only claim before the throne of God is the blood of Jesus,” writes Chester. “But what a claim that is!” In Hebrews we are told that in confident prayer we “enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is his body, . . . Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:19-22).

In 1863 an Irish lady by the name of Charitie Lees Smith wrote a hymn based upon these truths, titled “Within the Veil.” It was a favorite of the famous English preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Shortly before he died, Spurgeon quoted a part of that hymn in his last public address. The song has been popularized in the U.S. in recent years as “Before the Father’s Throne Above” to a new tune by Vikki Cook. It is a great comfort to me at this time in my life. It expresses beautifully the reason why I may have confidence and freedom in prayer.

“Before the Father’s throne above/ I have a strong and perfect plea/ a Great High Priest whose name is love/ who ever lives and pleads for me./ My name is graven on his hands/ my name is written on his heart/ I know that while in heaven he stands/ no tongue can bid me thence depart.

“When Satan tempts me to despair/ and tells me of the guilt within,/ upward I look and see Him there/ who made and end of all my sin./ because the sinless Savior died/ my sinful soul is counted free/ for God the Just is satisfied/ to look on Him and pardon me.

“Behold Him there, the bleeding Lamb/ my perfect, spotless Righteousness/ the great unchangeable ‘I AM’/ the King of glory and of grace./ One with Himself I cannot die/ my soul is purchased by his blood/ My life is hid with Christ on high/ with Christ my Savior and my God.”

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

 

Hope: A Word for the New Year

I hope the war in Ukraine ends soon. I hope my friend recovers from cancer. I hope my flight isn’t cancelled. I hope the economy does not lapse into a recession. I hope the Bengals do well in the playoffs. All these are expressions of the way we use the word “hope.” They imply wishes for positive outcomes. But in our uncertain world those outcomes are not guaranteed.

The New Testament uses the word “hope” in a more confident way. The word is used repeatedly of expectations that are grounded in the certainties of God’s promises. In the words of W.E. Vine, “Hope describes the happy anticipation of good . . .” because of “the object upon which the hope is fixed.” He cites 1 Timothy 1:1 which refers to “Christ Jesus our hope.”

So when Christians speak of the hope of the resurrection they are speaking of the confident expectation of the resurrection. This confidence is rooted in the word of Christ himself. When they refer to gospel hope, it is the assurance that the Lord will fulfill his word to us in all the promises presented in the gospel (such as forgiveness, acceptance, eternal life).

On this threshold of a new year, I ask the question: “What is the Christian hope?” The answer given in the catechism is succinct and accurate: “The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fulness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the world.”

Amen. The catechism further explains, “By the coming of Christ in glory, we mean that Christ will come, not in weakness, but in power, and will make all things new.” When I use the word “hope” in connection with this, it means that I am expecting the return of Christ and looking forward to it. The new Testament calls this a “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13).

Maybe the Lord’s coming will be in the year ahead. The New Testament teaches us to live with the expectation that his coming could be at any time. Read and think deeply about the following examples.

1 Corinthians 1:7 — “. . . as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.”

1 Corinthians 16:22 — “Come, Lord!”

Philippians 3:20 — “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Philippians 4:5 — “The Lord is near.”

1 Thessalonians 1:10 — “. . . and to wait for his Son from heaven”

Titus 2:13 — “. . . while we wait for the blessed hope — the appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ”

Hebrews 9:28 — “So Christ . . . will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”

James 5:7-9 — “Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming . . .  The Lord’s coming is near. . . . The Judge is standing at the door.”

1 Peter 1:13 — “Set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.”

1 John 3:2-3 — “. . . when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”

Jude 1:21 — “. . . as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.”

Revelation 3:11 — “I am coming soon.” (Also Revelation 22:7, 12, 20)

As I read these verses from God’s Word, I am motivated to meditate on the imminent return of Christ and to pray for it. I remind you that every time you pray the Lord’s prayer you say, “Thy kingdom come.” What is that but a prayer for Christ to come and fulfill his promise to bring his peace and justice to our suffering world?

The Christian hope of Christ’s literal return is not wishful thinking or an idle dream. It is a confident expectation based upon his promises. It is hope in the best sense of the word. Let that hope carry you through 2023 as you pray the prayer found on the last page of your Bible: “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Pastor Randy Faulkner

The Christ Candle

Some of the traditions we associate with Christmas were borrowed from pre-Christian nature religions. One is the celebration of the solstice, a festival of lights. This was to ward off the darkness of the longest night of the year, Hence, the Yule log burned brightly to commemorate the one day when the sun was at its lowest point in its apparent path across the sky and to hold at bay the long night’s darkness.

Many people who are dissatisfied with the spiritual emptiness in American culture are turning to observances of revived pagan mysticism. According to some sources, thousands of people will be observing  a secular “Yule” in pagan rituals this week.

In ancient times, these rituals were rooted in fear and superstition. Today, instead of  the fear of evil spirits, neo-pagan worshipers seek answers for pervasive spiritual exhaustion, alienation, depression and sadness. The trouble is they are looking for light in the wrong places.

Spiritual darkness

As an answer to this need, Jesus made the astounding claim: “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness” (John 12:46). “I have come,” Jesus said. His coming to our spiritually dark world from the brightness of heaven was a rescue mission to lead us out of the kingdom of darkness (Colossians 1:13). Three times in John’s gospel, the Lord Jesus said that he is the light of the world (John 8:12, 9:5, 12:46).

The prophet Isaiah wrote that when Messiah (Christ) appeared on the scene, the world would lie in spiritual darkness. “See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you” (Isaiah 60:2). He also prophesied, as if it had already come to pass, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:2). These prophesies were fulfilled in the coming of Jesus.

I once read the account of a cave explorer who got careless and was separated from his companions. He lost his light when he accidently dropped it into a pool of water. He could see nothing, not a reflection, not a shadow, not a pinpoint of light. The absolute darkness was overwhelming and disorienting. He had to stifle an impulse to panic and sit and wait until his friends found him. He said, “That experience in the darkness made me realize that a light source is the most important single tool for a cave crawler.” What a parable of our world’s spiritual darkness and the need for the true light of Jesus Christ!

The light of the world

The apostle John introduced his gospel by affirming that “In him (Jesus, the living Word) was life and the life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). When Jesus offered himself to the people of Israel, he  spoke in these same terms, of light and darkness.

He said (and I paraphrase), “I am with you now. This is your opportunity. I have come to illuminate your darkness. Trust in me, the light. If you do this you will become children of light” (John 12:35-36). He was telling his own people, the beloved Jewish people of his day, “Don’t let the darkness overtake you. I have conquered the darkness. There is no need to stay in the dark.”

Children of light

When Jesus told the people that by believing in him they would be sons and daughters of light, he was saying that his light could shine through them. “You’ll not only have the light, you will be the light!” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “How utterly absurd it would be for these disciples . . . to try to become the light of the world! No, they are already the light, and the call has made them so.”
So what are they to do? As Jesus’ disciples what are we to do? The purpose of light is to shine! In old England lighted lanterns were hung in some of the church steeples at night. Others were hung in front of people’s homes for navigation and safety in the streets. The night watchman on his rounds would call out at dusk, “Hang out your lights!” That is the call of Christ to us this Christmas and every day. “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Advent candles symbolize this for many people. They are a tradition dating back about 1500 years. Four weeks, four candles, representing the themes of the Advent season: the prophecy candle, the Bethlehem candle, the shepherds’ candle, and the angels’ candle. In the center of the wreath is the Christ candle, which is lit on Christmas eve, with the words of John’s gospel, “I am the light of the world.”

If you light a candle this Christmas, let it remind you that you are celebrating, not merely the winter solstice, or the promise of longer days to come, but Christ the true light of all mankind. Remember too, that his light shines through you!

Merry Christmas!

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Mary’s Sword of Sorrow

“Then Simeon blessed them and said  to Mary his mother . . . a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2 :35).

These words cloud the Christmas story. A sword is a symbol of pain, suffering and violence. These prophetic words were spoken in the temple by Simeon at the dedication of the baby Jesus. I wonder if these words hung over Mary as her son was growing to manhood. Doubtless she later heard his repeated predictions of the death he would die.

Maybe this was one of the things she pondered in her heart (Luke 2:19, 51). I think it was a detail she shared with Luke the historian if he interviewed her about the life of Jesus for the writing of his gospel (Luke 1:1-4).

Joseph and Mary brought the infant boy to the temple to be consecrated. This was in accordance with the law of Moses: “You are to give over to the Lord the first offspring of every womb” (Exodus 13:12). Joseph and Mary brought a sacrifice of two doves for the occasion (Luke 2:24, Leviticus 12:8). Simeon and the aged Anna were two eyewitnesses to the naming of the child.

When Simeon recognized who the child was, he uttered his cryptic and disturbing prophecy. “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that  will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your heart also” (Luke 2:34-35).

Simeon’s mysterious words refer to the way Jesus would raise those who believe in him. He will also be the final judge against those who reject his offer of salvation. In the final judgment there will be no place to hide. Everything will be revealed.

We cannot know the effect of these words on Mary. Luke says she and Joseph “marveled” at what was said. We can only imagine the sense of foreboding in her heart as she pondered the prophecy. The reference to a sword meant that Mary was destined to experience deep anguish of soul because of the world’s response to her son.

Simeon’s words about the sword came true at Calvary, where Mary watched her son die. She stood at the foot of the cross. She saw the crown of thorns, the scourge, the nails, the piercing of his side with a spear. She witnessed the cruelty of the soldiers. She heard the mocking insults of the religious leaders. She heard his dying words of loving concern for her as he entrusted her to the care of John the beloved disciple (John 19:26-27).

We honor Mary’s grace, dignity, courage, and obedience. She was found among Jesus’ most faithful disciples. After his resurrection she was associated with them in the prayer gatherings at the beginning of the Christian movement (Acts 1:14). God had used her to be the earthly mother of his son. Then he used her to strengthen the worship and testimony of the early church.

All that Mary witnessed, the ministry, the suffering, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus, was in keeping with God’s sovereign plan. Simeon’s words to Mary at the beginning prove it. Mary’s life magnified Jesus. She knew he was the son of God. She believed in him. Her example teaches us to do the same.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Anna: Every Day Faithfulness

Anna was one of the biblical women who emerge from historical obscurity to be immortalized in the Christmas story. She was present when Simeon spoke his famous prophetic words over the infant Jesus and his mother.

Anna’s life demonstrates an important quality: every day faithfulness. Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:38-40) says she “never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.” This tells us something important. All of her life was lived for God all of the time. Every day.

C.S. Lewis delivered a sermon to students at Oxford University at the beginning of the second world war. He attempted to answer a question that was on the minds of the students and faculty: what is the relevance of pursuing a university education in war-time? Many in the academic community knew that the war would change everything about their way of life. Many of the students would be sent to fight or serve the war effort in other ways.

He preached that there has never been a time in history when the world is free of crises, alarms and emergencies. If we wait until life is absolutely secure to pursue knowledge and beauty, we will never do it at all, he said.

He added that the life we have been given is for us to prepare for eternity. War simply causes us all to be more acutely aware of that fact. So the normal daily activities of our lives are to be offered to God. Lewis quoted Romans 14:23, “Whatever does not come from faith is sin,” and 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Do all for the glory of God.” He said, “All merely natural activities will be accepted if they are offered to God, even the humblest, and all of them, even the noblest will be sinful if they are not.” He said that, yes, we should continue in war-time to study and learn as at any other time.

Anna was part of a movement of the Jewish faithful who were bursting with anticipation. These people “were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). I wonder if they were familiar with the prophecies of Daniel who gave his people a time-line for the coming of Messiah (Daniel 9:25). Those who knew the scriptures believed that the time for his coming was drawing near.

Of course they did not know their Messiah would be born in a stable, grow up in Nazareth of Galilee, and live among the poor. But Anna was also a prophet of God. She was given special insight. When she saw the child Jesus at his dedication in the temple, she gave thanks that she was seeing the holy child who was the salvation of God (Luke 2:30).

Anna was 84 years old. Despite her advanced age, she remained active and faithful in the service of the Jewish temple. It has been suggested that she may have been a caretaker, or servant, or housekeeper for the priests. Every day faithfulness.

Luke includes an interesting detail about Anna. She was of the tribe of Asher. This was one of the tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel who were conquered in 722 B.C. by the Assyrian army and scattered among their provinces, one of the “ten lost tribes” of Israel.

How then could her tribe be identified and why were there descendants of Asher in Jerusalem? The answer is because when Jeroboam led the northern tribes in revolt against the Judeans in the south, “some from every tribe of Israel . . . set their hearts on seeking the Lord” (2 Chronicles 11:13-17). They rejected idol worship and migrated to Judah to live so they could worship the true God in his temple. Their descendants remained in the south, one of whom was Anna. Faithfulness to God was her spiritual heritage.

She was faithful in prayer. She was thinking of others as she prayed. She was thinking of her nation as she prayed. Like devout Simeon, she was “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (the coming of Messiah). Her prayers were for the advent of the Christ!

Her hope was realized. It was not mere happenstance that she appeared “at the very moment” that Joseph and Mary brought the child to be dedicated in the Temple and Simeon gave his prophecy. (Can this be a reminder to us that the events of our lives are not to be attributed to mere luck or coincidence? Is there not a higher purpose behind them?) Luke implies that her coming “at that very moment” was significant. She had been praying expectantly, and now in this defining moment, her prayers were answered. There before her was the infant Messiah, the Redeemer, the Consolation of Israel.

The rest of the New Testament explains this. This dedication of the child to the Lord was also a public naming event. Joseph and Mary named him “Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Simeon said that he was seeing God’s salvation embodied in this redeemer-child.

I read once about a pastor, who, on the Sunday after the tragedies of September 11, 2001, stood before his congregation and said, “I have nothing to say,” and sat down. The effect was dramatic. But his words reflected a failure of Christian hope. What he might have said was, “I have nothing to say. But God has spoken. Hear the word of the Lord,” and then read the consoling words of the scriptures.

Anna lived in a time when there was plenty of bad news. Her nation was under the domination of a ruthless world empire, corrupt rulers and hypocritical spiritual leaders. But she knew there would be people who would welcome the good news of the Christ child. “She gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” She did not keep this to herself. She was faithful to speak about Jesus. That is a good reminder to us.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

Elizabeth: Filled and Favored

During this season I am writing about some of the women of the Christmas story. Elizabeth is remembered as a woman of faith who inspired Mary  and influenced John the Baptist. She was a recipient of God’s grace, and an example of faithful discipleship, and an important witness to the truth.

Luke chapter one mentions Elizabeth at least ten times. She is described as a devout woman living with her husband Zechariah, a priest in Judea. Like Sarah, the wife of Abraham, she was supernaturally destined to become a mother in her old age. Her child would be John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Lord Jesus.

Her world (Luke 1:5-6)

If you sometimes feel that your world is unfriendly to your faith, you have Elizabeth as a kindred spirit. Her world was dominated by rulers and religious leaders who were morally corrupt. King Herod had a reputation for serial adultery and for unspeakable cruelty. He is the ruler who ordered the murder of the male babies around Bethlehem when he learned of the birth of Jesus, the king of the Jews. The religious establishment in Jerusalem was controlled by high priests who were known for political intrigue, spiritual pride, and hypocrisy.

In contrast, Elizabeth and her husband lived lives of quiet devotion and faithfulness to God. They were childless, and this fact added a feeling of shame inflicted by their world (vv. 7, 25). But they did not allow this personal disappointment to make them bitter toward God. It did not stop them from praying, worshipping, or serving him.

Her womanhood (Luke 1:8-17)

When her husband Zechariah was to take his turn to serve as a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, it was at an appointed time in redemptive history. He and Elizabeth would be participants in a cosmic drama. Messiah was coming! God was moving!

The Lord’s angel appeared to Zechariah as he performed his priestly duties. “Your prayers have been heard,” he said. What prayers? we wonder. Were they the prayers he and Elizabeth had prayed many years before for a child? Were they the prayers he now led for the advent of Messiah, for the peace of Jerusalem, and for deliverance for Israel?

The angel told Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth would become a mother. He named her. He stated her destiny in God’s plan. She would fulfill the last prophecy in the Old Testament, the one about the appearance of the forerunner of Messiah (v. 17, Malachi 4:6, 3:1). That prophecy would be fulfilled in her womb. Her son would be “great in the eyes of the Lord.” He would minister in the spirit and power of Elijah and prepare the way for the Lord.

Luke tells us that Zechariah had doubts about all this at first. As a result, he was struck dumb and was unable to speak for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (v. 20). In contrast, Elizabeth believed. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said (v. 25). Her faith shines brightly.

As a mother in Israel, she influenced her son to become the man God wanted him to be. There is a vivid description in these verses of the kind of man John would become. Where did John get his deep conviction, his boldness, his dedication, and his humility? Surely his first teacher, his mother, had something to do with his spiritual formation.

Though she lived in obscurity, her son would turn the hearts of many to the Lord their God (v. 16). It says something great about this woman that she would be a guiding influence in the life of one who would be called the greatest of all the prophets. It has been said that John prepared the way for Jesus; Elizabeth prepared the way for John!

Her witness (Luke 1:39-45)

In the sixth month of her pregnancy, Elizabeth got a visit from a younger relative from up north, in Galilee. Luke tells us that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit when Mary approached (vv. 41-42). She uttered a magnificent song of praise, the words of which are repeated every day all over the world: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you will bear” (v. 42).

Not only did she honor Mary, but she also honored Mary’s Son (v.43). She recognized who Mary’s child would be, the divine Lord, the Son of the Most High (v. 35) who will reign as king forever. This incarnate Son she calls “my Lord,” as an expression of her personal faith.

Applying the word

Several points of application stand out in this story. Zechariah and Elizabeth were saddened and disappointed that they had been childless for so many years. What are we to do with our disappointments? Rather than become bitter, we may learn to respond as they did, with quiet faithfulness and persistent prayer.

Elizabeth illustrates the power of influence. Think of her influence on her son John. Perhaps he was great in the sight of the Lord because his mother instilled qualities that made him great. Think of her influence on Mary. Did the three months Mary spent with her help the mother of our Lord grow into a fuller appreciation for what God was doing in her, for her, and through her?

It is likely that Elizabeth was the first person in history (other than Mary herself) to accept by faith the theologically important doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ!

She expressed her faith in the incarnate Lord in Mary’s womb. “Why am I so favored that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (v. 43). Her faith was focused on what God was doing though the living baby in the womb of the virgin mother. He is the Lord from heaven. Mary believed (v. 45). Elizabeth believed (v.25). Do you believe?

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

Advent Season Is Here

Advent is a time of spiritual preparation for the celebration of the holy child Jesus. Advent, meaning “coming,” or “arrival,” invites us to think deeply about the significance of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. It also reminds us to live in anticipation of his second coming.

Some families observe this season with Advent wreathes and candles. Traditionally these represent the four themes of hope, peace, joy and love. Scripture readings usually emphasize the prophecies of Christ’s coming, as well as the story of the town of Bethlehem, the shepherds, and the angels.

In churches all over the world the next four weeks will be marked by scriptures, songs and liturgies that recall other themes, events, or personalities surrounding the coming of Jesus. This year on this site I wish to honor some of the women who are associated with our Lord’s birth narratives.

Four of these women appear in Jesus’ family history (Matthew chapter 1). This is surprising since Old Testament genealogies did not usually include women. The fact that the apostle Matthew did so, is a reminder of their significance in the plan of God. The genealogy of Jesus also shows us that the entire Old Testament pointed forward to the coming of Messiah the King of the Jews, a theme of Matthew’s gospel.

There is something unusual, unsavory, or scandalous associated with these four women. The same is true, of course, of some of the famous men of the Bible. Abraham lied on more then one occasion. David’s great sins were adultery and murder. Solomon became an idolater, as did many of his kingly descendants. All of them were sinners in need of God’s grace.

The Holy Spirit wants us to remember these four women, not for their failures, scandals, or exclusion, but for what God’s grace did for them. Their lives are evidence of what grace can do for us as well. Grace transforms sinners and outcasts. It operates in all kinds of difficult situations. It reverses tragic outcomes.

Tamar (Matthew 1:1-3)

Tamar’s story is found in one of the strangest chapters in the Bible (Genesis 38). Her story is simply awful, embarrassing to read. She was a victim of treachery who turned around and committed treachery. (How many victims of abuse become abusers? How many children of addicts become addicts themselves?) It is surprising to read such a story in the Bible.

Tamar’s story is a messy tale of hypocrisy, deception, revenge, and sexual sin. Matthew’s brief account says that she became the mother of the twin sons of Judah, who were ancestors of King David and of our Lord Jesus. What he doesn’t say is that they were sons of an incestuous relationship.

We learn from this that God is merciful and he is able to turn human sin into an opportunity for his grace. “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Romans 5:20).

Rahab (Matthew 1:3-5)

Rahab was an outsider, a Canaanite woman, who was a prostitute. Her civilization was under God’s judgment (Joshua 2 and 6). The scriptures tell us that despite her unsavory reputation, she chose to be identified with the covenant people of God. When the Hebrew spies made their way into her city of Jericho, she protected them. As a result, she and her family were spared when Jericho was conquered.

She is identified in the New Testament as an example of saving faith in the living God (Hebrews 11:31, James 2:25-26, Joshua 2:8-11). So here she is, a converted prostitute, in the Christmas story, a part of the ancestral heritage of Jesus, the king of the Jews!

Ruth (Matthew 1:5-6)

Ruth’s story is found in the Old Testament book that bears her name. It occurred in the days of the Judges in Israel. She was a Gentile, like Tamar and Rahab before her. This fact reminds us that God’s grace was not limited to the people of Israel, but that he intended to save Gentiles too.

Ruth’s husband was a Hebrew from Bethlehem, living in Moab. When he died, she and her mother-in-law Naomi were destitute. Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem. Ruth was determined to leave Moab and go with her, surrendering her life to the God of the Hebrews. She thus wanted to be identified with the people of God in the land of Israel.

Through the providence of God, she was maneuvered into the recognition of a wealthy landowner named Boaz. What followed was a beautiful love story. Her story is also an example of how God’s laws provided for economic justice for the poor.

Boaz married Ruth and they became great-grandparents of king David and members of the genealogy of king Jesus, who would be born in Bethlehem, the hometown of Boaz and Naomi. Ruth’s story is another example of God’s grace in operation. It was activated by her obedient surrender to the Lord.

Bathsheba (Matthew 1:6)

The fourth woman’s behavior was so shameful that Matthew does not name her. She is the woman who committed adultery with King David (2 Samuel 11-12). It is the tragic story of how David abused his power as king to steal Uriah’s wife, devalue Uriah’s loyalty, and authorize his murder. She cooperated with David in this sin.

The prophet Nathan confronted the king with these words: “Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil?” When David repented, apparently Bathsheba did too because, in his grace, God blessed them with a son, Solomon. Solomon was given the name “Jedediah” by God’s prophet, which means “loved by the Lord.” Surely this was an indication that God had forgiven them and was promising a new beginning.

Applying this Advent Lesson

Three of these women were Gentiles. Their stories are not interruptions in the outworking of God’s plan. God would have his gospel to go to people of all nations. Matthew, writing as a Jew for Jewish readers, about the coming of the king of the Jews presents Jesus as savior of Gentiles too.

Our Lord’s genealogy is more than a list of names. It is a testimony to God’s grace in redeeming sinners. Elsewhere Matthew reminds us that Jesus did not come for the righteous, but “to call sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:13).

There is hope for all of us, no matter what we may have done. We all have things in our lives we would be ashamed to have displayed for all the world to see. We are all sinners in need of God’s grace. Jesus invites us to come to him for forgiveness and mercy.

Pastor Randy Faulkner