I remember the moment so vividly. Away from home to attend a weekend-long retreat with more then-strangers than friends, surprises were coming at us left and right. We all felt a bit blindsided at times, but almost always in the best way.
Then there was the moment we were told that some people in our midst were not exactly who they seemed. There were "spies" among us, individuals throughout the group planted to help us navigate so many unexepected experiences. We were asked to identify the undercover agents, and that's when it happened.
A good friend, himself a first-time attender, looked at the group with genuine innocence and blurted out the question: "Is it me?" His honest, puzzled look was met with raucous laughter and a chorus of nos. We all understood it couldn't be him; he was the "new guy," not an insider posing as an outsider. Confused, relief immediately washed over his face, and my friend smiled -- congratulating himself on not being the "spy" in the midst.
I chuckle every time I recall this moment. And though sometimes this is one of those You had to be there! stories, today this is one of those I've been there stories.
Now ankle-deep into Advent, waiting, dreaming, hoping, praying, seeking... I hear the question coming from my own lips: "Is it me? Am I the one?"
This week, we've been talking about the angel of the Lord in the Christmas story, the one sent by God to deliver the Good News that the Messiah, the Savior of the people was finally coming. Truthfully, I've not paid enough attention to this individual in the story, though the angel appears individually at least 3 times to deliver a word about what's coming. I've concentrated way more on Mary, Joseph and the baby than I ever have on the angel.
It is, in fact, why God used an angel to share the news about Jesus that makes this story more important for me -- for all of us -- in this new Advent. To help understand the reason the angel means something, consider this history lesson:
Even though this long-expected Jesus was at one time eagerly anticipated by God's people, hundreds of years of waiting in what seemed to be a now deafening silence from the voice of God resulted in a people who'd become deaf to His promises. Some might say God turned the volume down and stopped speaking; others might argue Israel had cotton in their ears. Regardless, a storied history of leaders with strong connections to hearing voice of God -- Moses and Joshua, the judges, King David and the prophets -- wasn't enough to keep people listening and living in ways that honored God. By the time Jesus makes the scene, God's people have "made a scene" themselves -- turning the priesthood into a political campaign, demanding some war hero come and overthrow an oppressive government, continuing to live their version of God's rules with a few hundred of their own thrown in.
So maybe God sent an angel, because His people weren't listening to anyone else. Prophets' warnings fell on ignorant ears; their promises were covered under the dust of centuries of exile, rubble and war. But when God sent an angel, it wasn't to all the people. At least not in the beginning. Just a few.
Why? When we make announcements... really big ones... we make them big and loud and public. That's not how this went down. God sent word to a priest in the privacy of the Temple, sent word to a teenager in the privacy of her home (we assume), sent word to a fiance in a dream. Private. Obscure. Nearly unannounced. The most important announcement of all time came behind the scenes in a very personal way.
And that's when it struck me. As I was reading this 2000 year old story, I realized... God's still doing it that way. He is still giving the message of the Good News of Jesus in personal ways, an important message delivered via special messenger. The angel of the Lord in the story of Christmas shows US what our job is right now: WE ARE THE MESSENGERS. Don't believe me? Consider this: the word "angel" in Greek is angelos, which means messenger!
There's no doubt God is tapping His people on the shoulder one by one to share the message of the Gospel -- the grace gift of God come to us in Jesus. Paul explained it this way: "[A]nyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” (2 Cor 5:17-20, NLT). God made us His ambassadors -- His messengers of Good News -- to the rest of the world.
Cue the startling question: "Is it me?" We believe God sends messengers; we just can't wrap our head around the fact that it might be us! Yet He's made clear we're each called to represent Him by delivering a personal message of hope and peace and joy and love that will change lives: Jesus is coming again!
Yes, in my own way, I'm wrestling with the question. Not so much with whether I'm a messenger than with WHERE I'm supposed to deliver the message. But the best news is this: I don't have to know WHERE yet in order to know WHAT the answer to the question is! It is ME. It is YOU.
Will you take the challenge? Share the promises of God as a faithful messenger and then watch God work. This Advent there are just as many heartbroken, anxious, worried people looking for a Savior, a hero, someone to save the day. If you "Go Tell" this news, perhaps you'll be the way God intervenes and saves their day.
'Twas the day before Advent
and all through the land,
the shopping and football
got quite out of hand.
Thanksgiving behind us,
the New Year to come.
With Christmas now looming
too much to be done.
Unpacking the lights
and trimming the tree
are the next things to do:
When all of a sudden
we realize it's missing --
of our reason for giving.
The twinkle and sparkle,
the commerce and trade
cannot hold a candle
to the gift that God gave.
We've traded our joy
and all of our wonder
for a few simple hours
of Black Friday plunder.
But what if our
wandering eyes paused to see
the promise of Hope
in our blind reverie?
With breathless excitement
and curious searching,
we discovered a Peace
that's worth our unearthing?
Among infighting, prejudice,
warring and pain,
this beckoning Advent
gives our deep need a name:
It's Jesus. He came,
and His coming again
has been promised to us --
this great love without end.
Yes the angels declared,
though now gone from our sight,
"Your salvation has come
on the most Holy Night."
So instead of our planning,
our busyness doing,
let's be still and wait
for the glory that's brewing.
Yes! The once infant Savior
who became all-time King,
He is coming again
and His praises we'll sing.
First He came sent from Heav'n
in a woman-child's womb.
Second Advent is nearing:
how will we make Him room?
Empty hearts, minds and hands.
Give Him space all around,
so we'll truly receive
this Great Love that's come down.
Yes, it's time to start watching
like a young child, wide-eyed,
and experience Advent,
with its mystery abide.
on Advent Eve
for those looking for Hope
Joy L. Sherman
I've been convicted. No crime has been committed, but the conviction sticks. I'm guilty of letting prayer look and sound like it's second-rate in a relationship I say is first in my life. Something's got to change.
Here's where it started. This weekend's message was about dealing with uncertainty, when life's circumstances are up in the air. The truth of the message is still ringing with me: Do what you know to do until you know what else to do.
For the disciples, as Jesus was preparing to return to the Father, they were uncertain about the next part of the kingdom plan; Jesus' instruction was to return to Jerusalem and wait for the promised Holy Spirit. (You can read the story at the end of Luke 24 and the beginning of Acts 1.) Stuck looking up into the sky as Jesus ascended into heaven, they got caught in their place of wondering until two angelic figures snapped them out of it. So the disciples did what they knew to do -- they went back to Jerusalem and waited for the Spirit. The results were as Jesus forecast; the Spirit broke through, and because the disciples waited on what was promised, they had what they needed for what came next -- an explosion of church growth in a very short time.
Left to their own devices, or armed with the knowledge this first-century mega church was about to blossom, the likely response would have been to sort out a plan based on their own strengths and weaknesses. Divide and conquer according to their natural talents. But none of what happened could have taken place without the infilling of the Holy Spirit -- who enabled Peter to preach to thousands gathered speaking in many different languages, who enabled the disciples to begin managing the exponential growth in a fraction of time, who enabled the listeners to hear a life-changing Gospel message all in their native tongues, but through one speaker (see Acts 2 for the details).
The secret of this story, though, is where the conviction comes for me. It's embedded in Luke's explanation in Acts 1; what the disciples did in their waiting. After returning to the city, the disciples and women who were followers of Jesus gathered together, all with one mind, "continually devoting themselves to prayer" (v 14). Even though the future was uncertain -- they didn't know when the Spirit would come, how it would come, or what would happen after the promise came -- as they began to do what they knew to do (go back and wait), they discovered they knew something else to do: PRAY.
In fact, it was the natural response for the disciples. There was no long waiting before the idea to pray broke through; it was an immediate response from those who were taught by Jesus himself how to pray. Luke doesn't tell us what they said specifically, if they were honest about their uncertainty or if they were boldly confident in God's promise. We just know they prayed. A lot. Continually. And it was their FIRST RESPONSE.
And here's the rub: why is prayer not always my first response? Why do I panic, wonder, doubt, question, lose my mind, make a list of all the things I can do in the situation? Do I not trust One who knows the plans He has for me, who orders my steps, who directs my paths? I once heard a preacher ask a group of people if God had seen them through rough waters before, and many hands raised in agreement. Then he posed the question, "How many of you panicked the next time crisis came?" Nods of affirmation replaced raised hands. He challenged his listeners (my paraphrase): "Isn't God the same God with the same ability as before? Why do we fret? Why don't we trust Him first?"
Why don't I? What keeps me from leaning back into the Strong Tower that God has been and continues to be? Better yet, when I talk about the challenges I'm facing, why don't I talk to Him first instead of after I've talked to my friends? Why does prayer become an afterthought? Why do I say to people, "Well, I'm praying, but what can I do? Isn't prayer exactly the only thing I can really do that makes the most impact? I might be able to give the gift of presence, or make a meal to relieve some responsibility, or a host of other things, but I can only do those things in the power of the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit the disciples prayed to receive from the Father. Perhaps this is why Jesus wants to be our first response, not our last resort.
So the Spirit convicted me, in preparation for the message, and continually afterward. Why only choose to pray first in a time of crisis? Why not pray first all the time? I'm not naturally a morning person, but I see value in why Jesus got away early in the morning to meet with the Father. What better way to start a day than by talking to the One I say means more to me than anything? He already knows what I need for my day, how I need to handle it. When I don't have answers, I can go to the One who does. That my prayer life needs to look like the disciples, continually devoting myself to prayer.
I've witnessed the life of people who live this way. My grandmother, though her mind is failing, can still commune with the Lord and speak affirmation as others pray. My mom and dad, my go-to people for immediate intercession. My husband, whose ability to talk to his Heavenly Father was the way God confirmed that he was the one with whom I would partner and walk in the way God leads. So many precious friends and faithful believers who pray as though life depends on it... because it does. These lives reflect that prayer is not the next step, but the first step in living a life that pleases God.
The result for the disciples: the promised Holy Spirit. Exactly what they needed for what was next. The result for me: whatever it is, it will be worth the wait. And until I know what it is... I'll be praying if you need me.
It doesn't take much anymore to imagine yourself as the victim of identity theft. Our lives have been reduced to series of numbers: social security, birth date, checking account, bank routing, credit score, cell phone, etc. It doesn't seem far-fetched to believe that someone in possession of those numbers could totally rearrange your life. Scariest of all, with identity theft, it's all about the numbers, and nothing about the name.
Names don't seem to matter much to people anymore. Can't say that's surprising. What do most people loathe doing at events where they may not know everyone? Putting on a name tag. I still can't decide whether it's because they don't want to be "known" or just don't want to stick out like a sore thumb, but either way, it's just one more way we are stripped of our identity.
The thing that strikes me this week (I started this post in November of last year, and have been mulling it over ever since) is that I think every time we see people as nameless faces and don't pursue the intentional act of "knowing" each other, we grieve the heart of the One who knows us all by name.
Because there are no nameless faces to God.
This past Sunday's message was about Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), the chief tax collector who has a life-changing encounter with Jesus. One of the things I value most in this text is that Jesus calls this man by name. It's likely that Zacchaeus's reputation in Jericho (and surrounding communities) is poor enough that people don't speak to him, let alone call his name. In fact, we probably don't want to know what they do call him behind his back (let alone to his face)! We do know they call him one thing: sinner. As Jesus engages Zacchaeus and expresses the necessity to "abide" with him at his house, the crowd goes crazy. Didn't Jesus see the Hester Prynne styled "scarlet S" sewn to the opulent tunic Zaccaheus wore? He'd been labeled. Renamed. Stripped of his identity. Zacchaeus was now just that "sinner" guy.
I'm so grateful we don't have to walk around wearing signs that name all we've done wrong. Not only would they be big and heavy, but who we are today would be masked by who we once were. Sadly, many of us are still carrying these weights. We may be unable to let go of our own shame for the wrong we've done or that has been done to us. Maybe it is because we've worn labels so long that we've lost our own sense of identity and started to believe the lies the enemy speaks to us. We've reduced ourselves to sequences of numbers and letters that represent our sins, and forsaken being known for who we are and have the potential to become.
But... the story doesn't have to go that way. The script can be different. Because we are known to God by our names and our value to Him, not our past and its pitfalls, we can live with the freedom that comes from being identified... as loved. When Zacchaeus is called by name and invited to spend time with Jesus at his own house, who knows how long it's been since Zacchaeus heard his name spoken. It doesn't matter. Jesus knows, and He knows the man and what he's done and Jesus loves Zacchaeus in spite of himself. Jesus speaks and restores Zacchaeus's identity and while helping to shape who he can become.
This isn't the only place in Scripture where we see this happen. There's the woman with the issue of blood (Mark 5:25-34) who is alone and penniless and broken. She wears the label of "unclean." Jesus not only brings healing by His power, and salvation because of her faith, but restores her dignity and value when He calls her "Daughter." This is her rightful name. Stolen identity recovered!
John's gospel records these important words from Jesus: "[The shepherd] calls His own sheep by name" (10:3). The Good Shepherd knows your name, and He calls you by that name -- ransomed, precious, valuable, son, daughter, redeemed. In Christ, there is NO identity crisis. Whatever theft has occurred at the hands of the enemy is reclaimed by the power of the One who knows and loves you.
Consider who you know that is living a nameless, stolen existence. Are they lonely, broken, labeled? Perhaps they, like Zacchaeus, need Jesus to call their names. Let Him use your voice to do so.
You don't have to like Disney or ever have watched a Disney movie to quote the current conventional wisdom from the mouse monopoly. It's all over the radio, in department stores and tattooed on brains ages 0-99: Let it go!
While the "Frozen" dynasty is somewhat past (premiering in 2013, its merchandise is still selling everywhere!), with features like "Inside Out" and "The Good Dinosaur" having made the big screen at the end of last year, the message from Disney's now 3-year-old animated feature is still quoted and sung by the masses.
Ironically, it's a message that the church has been preaching for a long time, too. We spin it a little differently -- "Let go, and let God" -- but the message is similar. Don't cling to things so tightly. Whether a secret that keeps us bound or a character we're trying to play, letting go is an act of stepping into freedom that can change us for the better.
This week, I'm working on a message about Jesus' encounter with the guy we call the "rich young ruler," since context clues from the Gospels tell us these things about him. Here's a man who, in his current social context, has everything going for him financially and positionally, and certainly everything he physically needs. Yet there's an awareness on his part that something is missing, if not now, in a time to come. It's in this frame of mind the man comes to Jesus and asks the big question: "What good thing should I do to inherit [some texts read: obtain or possess] eternal life?"
Jesus' ultimate message to the man proves that God had the corner on this message looooong before Disney: "Let it go!" While the young man has done well (in his own eyes, at least) of keeping the Commandments -- you know, the biggies from the finger of God Himself on Mt. Sinai -- Jesus points out that maybe this young man missed something. Something in the details, but also something he can't even seen.
After all, doesn't one of those commandments say something about coveting your neighbor's stuff? OK, maybe that doesn't apply, since this guy likely has the financial means to buy whatever he wants. But one of them says something about stealing. And I'm pretty sure that if this guy has amassed enough wealth that he doesn't want for anything, someone else is wanting for a lot because he's got enough for several people.
Regardless, Jesus challenges this rich young guy to relinquish all of his earthly possessions and take the profits from the sale to make sure that the poor have what they need, and then come and follow Him. It seems that just keeping commandments isn't enough. Jesus even promises that real treasure in heaven awaits those who follow Him. Still, when it all comes out in the wash, the rich young man walks away sad (the text describes him as deeply grieved and gloomy) because he just can't "let it go."
I wonder how much I've held on to, unaware that it could be keeping me from authentic, deep fellowship (or should I say "follow-ship") with Jesus? During this season of Lent, of reflection and repentance, I'm not only wrestling with this question, but confessing to the Lord my inadequate answer: too much.
Are you brave enough to consider the question with me? What are you so attached to that you can't seem to let go to take hold of something greater?
Someone forgot to remind the weather it's November in Ohio. High of 70 degrees yesterday and 75 degrees today with the meteorologists' promises (We know how that goes!) of more to come throughout the week.
While blissful in its deferring of cold temperatures and bone-chilling winds, the uncharacteristic warm air creates havoc with plans to dress a fifth grader. Early morning cold gives way to unnatural heat quickly, so long sleeves, gloves and coats can seem right at 6:30 am and ridiculous at 2 pm.
Nonetheless, I'm grateful for the blessing. This morning it even made national news; the ticker tape across the bottom of the screen identified "unseasonably warm" weather and its impending effects on the rest of the month. That phrase captured my attention: unseasonably warm. It had already been on my mind before I saw the news, but when the television screen started replaying my own thoughts, I stopped and gave pause. Why does that speak so loudly to me?
The only connection I could make at the time -- and still am -- is the familiar rhythm of that phrase with another "warm front" I read about in Scripture: "They began telling each other how their hearts had felt strangely warm as He [Jesus] talked with them and explained the Scriptures during the walk down the road" (Luke 24:32, The Living Bible). When the weather is warm outside, and it shouldn't be, based on the season of the year and typical weather patterns, any deviation from the norm is "strange." This is the same word that two of Jesus' followers used to describe how they felt when Jesus was walking with them on the road to Emmaus, yet they did not recognize who He was.
I don't remember the first time I read or heard this story in Luke's gospel; it was many years ago in my childhood, I'm sure. However, in my adult years, I've always come away from the Emmaus story with a particular prayer on my heart, one that I pray regularly. It goes something like this: Lord, help me know you "on the road" to wherever I'm going, and not just when I get there.
I cannot imagine what it must have been like to walk and talk with Jesus, to literally follow Him as He went about preaching and teaching and healing and turning the Kingdom of God upside down for people. But even as I try to imagine that, I can't fathom what it was to have known Him before His death, and not to know Him after. These followers were intimately familiar with Jesus, the same one who they thought was the Messiah, and yet not able to recognize Him when He was with them again.
They're not the only ones. Mary didn't know Him in the garden, at least not immediately. She thought He was a gardener until He spoke to her. Luke tells us these men were even "prevented" from realizing it was Jesus. At least until the breaking of the bread. Now that's what I call "holy hindsight."
If I'm honest, I have holy hindsight a lot. I can look back on a journey often and see the signposts that show evidence of the Lord's presence. I can often reflect on a challenging season I've been through and see where God was working for my good. But I believe there are times when I may miss Him in the midst of my circumstances, and I so desperately want to see Him then too.
I can feel the disappointment of these men as the bread is broken and they finally see it's Jesus, only for Him to disappear in the same moment. They're looking at each other in astonishment -- Did you see what I saw? -- and then wracking their brains trying to figure out how they missed it: :“Weren’t our hearts ablaze within us while He was talking with us on the road...?" (HCSB). I know I've felt the same things -- a stirring, a wondering, an unseasonably warm moment in my heart -- and still failed to see Jesus on the road.
So I'm praying more fervently these days. Lord, help me know you "on the road" to wherever I'm going. Don't let me miss the warm front when it comes. (Maybe, at my age, I could start calling them "holy hot flashes"?) I understand that sometimes the revelation comes at the end of the journey because God chooses it to be so, but oftentimes my oblivion is driven by my own ignorance and self-centeredness. I don't want to be so focused on myself that I miss the Messiah moment.
Don't get me wrong. Any time I get a glimpse of the holy in the mundane, I'm thankful. If anything, not thankful enough, but I'm exceedingly grateful to acknowledge that God is with me, whether I sense Him with me or not. Still, my prayer is that I'm not so wrapped up in my situation that I miss the times He is literally as close as my next breath and speaking to me. I welcome the "strange warmth" and hope I'll relish it as much as I am right now.
Jesus follower. Wife. Mom. Daughter. Friend. Pastor. Learner.