New Morning, New Mercies

Background Passage: Lamentations 3:1-25

You’ve seen them in magazines at the grocery store checkout line. Heard them listed in television newscasts. It’s that time when we look back upon the preceding 12 months and remember the major news events of the year. Depending on the organization creating the list, you’ll find celebrity marriages and deaths, natural disasters and human tragedies highlighting the lists.

The Associated Press ranked the following among its top 10 world news events this year:

• U.S. Election
• Brexit
• Black Lives Matter
• Worldwide Terror Events
• Attacks on Police
• Democratic Party Email Leaks
• Syrian Civil War
• Supreme Court Vacancy
• Hillary Clinton’s Emails

The thread of turmoil runs within all of these news stories. It’s difficult to determine whether the upheaval these events caused will eventually bring about something good. So, we look with promise of a new year to settle things down again, hoping that any negative consequences of these events do not touch us or our families.

But what about your personal year in review? If you had to list the top news events in your life for 2016, what would they be? Here’s my list (in chronological order).

• Our 40th wedding anniversary
• Retirement from full-time work
• An uncle’s stroke
• A cruise with friends in the Baltic
• Signing with a new book publisher
• Teaching part-time at the university
• Father diagnosed with cancer
• Death of several friends
• Birth of Amelia, our 2nd granddaughter
• Mother-in-law’s stroke

When I thought about this list, the first events I recalled were the bad news events…the diagnoses and the deaths. That’s human nature I suppose. It’s comforting to know that our days are filled with moments of joy amid the personal turmoil created by some life events. Yet, in those times when trouble falls like rain from a thunderstorm, life feels oppressive and overwhelming.

The writer of Lamentations in the Old Testament probably felt much the same way. The crushing nature of life events left him mourning for the nation of Israel and crying out on behalf of the people who faced the consequences of their own rebellion against God. He counted himself among them. Chapter 3 reads like a “Top 10” list of the devastating physical and emotional conditions in which the writer found himself…

• “…I am a man of affliction…”
• “…driven me away…”
• “…besieged and surrounded me with bitterness and hardship…”
• “…dwell in darkness…”
• “…weighed me down in chains…”
• “…made me a target…”
• “…pierced my heart…”
• “…became the laughingstock…”
• “…deprived of peace…”
• “…mocked me in song…”

Yet, the writer of Lamentations refused to abide in the circumstances. Refused to let life events control his spiritual condition. The crux of his faith centers on a confession he makes in Lamentations 3:21-23.

“Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope. Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to him, ‘The Lord is my portion. Therefore, I will wait for him.”

As we must deal at times with events of life that suck the breath from our lungs and threatened to stop our hearts from beating, we must understand what this writer knows. Though the issues bubble never far from our thoughts, we still have hope. How is this possible?

God loves us. Pure and simply. His compassion and mercy flows always in abundance and prevents us from being eaten up or overwhelmed by that which we face. He proved it so in the past and continues to this day. His love never fails. Never.

Here’s the part that I really like. His mercies, his compassions, come new every morning. Fresh. Sustaining. We don’t have to rely on grace remembered that came once and never comes again. The dawn of each new day brings with it God’s abiding and unfailing love. Each day. Every day. God’s faithfulness is sufficient for our needs. So, as the writer declares, “I will wait for him” to carry me through the day…I will rest my hope in him.

Our ability to wait for him is built upon our history with God. Our knowledge of God and who he is strengthens our faith in difficult and uncertain times. For when we know what kind of God it is we trust…one whose mercies arise new each morning…we can remove the baffling and troubling aspects of life from our shoulders and place them instead in his hands.

This is my challenge to you. Reflect upon your year and remember that God’s love never fails. His compassions arise new every morning. Despite the difficulties you’ve experienced and those that are sure to come in 2017, let God be your portion. Wait for him.

May you enjoy a blessed new year.

Mary Did You Know

Background Passages: Luke 1:26-38; Luke 2:8-20, 25-33 and John 3:16

It was not so long ago that a slight, little girl dragged through the dirt of her village a ragged bundle of old cloth shaped roughly like a swaddled child. Motherhood little more than a child’s fantasy, innocently oblivious of the hardships she would one day endure.

In what seemed like a blink of an eye, Mary, now a teenager, gently cradled her tiny baby in her arms, keenly aware of the pain of labor and blessed exhaustion that inevitably follows. As the little hands grasped her thumb, I wonder if Mary could ever look upon her child without thinking about the circumstances that brought Jesus into her life.

The Bible tells us that she often…

“Wondered.”

Felt at a loss to explain her experiences. Struggled to make the pieces fit into what she knew of life as it was to unfold.

“Pondered.”

Thought deeply about the implications that which she was told. Opened her heart to the possibilities.

“Treasured.”

Held in her heart as precious and valuable all she learned about her first-born son as she watched him grow into the man he was to become.

It must have been overwhelming at times as this young woman came to grips over time about her son’s role in God’s plan to bring salvation of the world. It must have been disturbing the more she listened as he grew to clearly understand and articulate his purpose and what God required of him.

Later as he faced the cross, all those images must have flashed before her, trying to find a way to deny the reality of what she knew to be true. Trying to figure out a way for him to avoid the suffering they both knew was coming.

As she stood at the foot of the cross, her tear-filled eyes watched her son die an agonizing death. At the end, did she remember how it all began.

I think that’s why words written in 1984 by Mark Lowry and set to music in 1991 by Buddy Greene has become one of Christmas’ most beloved songs. When he wrote Mary Did You Know, Lowry said he wondered if Mary understood the “power, authority and majesty” of the child she bore that first Christmas. He said, “I tried to put into words the unfathomable and thinking of the questions I would have for her if I were to sit down and have coffee with Mary…’What was it like raising God?’ ‘What did you know?’ ‘What didn’t you know?’ Over time, the song just happened.”

Today, more than 400 artists have recorded this beautiful song. Setting the song against the backdrop of Jesus’ ministry drives home the message of the lyrics. The questions asked of Mary could just as easily be asked of you and me. “Did you know?”

Mary, did you know…? Mary had a front row seat to the miracle of Christmas…not just the birth of God’s son, but the meaning behind it revealed through his ministry and his message. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

We read or hear the Christmas story every year. As Christians, it is deeply etched into our hearts. Yet we too often fail to treasure its meaning as Mary did.

The song asks, “Mary did you know?” But, it begs a greater question for you and me 2,000 years later. Did you know? And, if you know…will it make a difference in what you believe, what you say and how you live your life?

 

 

Let Us Go To Bethlehem

Background Passage: Luke 2:1-20

Surely the black of night darkened the shadows as much that night as any night. To the shepherds who lived in the hills outside of Bethlehem, the night began as every night began. Ordinary piled upon ordinary. Armed only with a short sword, a sling and a shepherd’s staff, the men guarded their sheep against man and beast, predators which threatened their flock. They herded the sheep they tended into a rocky enclosure and sat at the entrance, ensuring that the sheep within their care did not get lost in the night. Careful to let nothing in; nothing out.

These were unlearned, solitary men, spending days and weeks alone in the countryside tending their sheep. They worked under the temple authority, contracted to supply the temple with sacrificial lambs for important feasts and ceremonies. Their chosen profession among the animals and far removed from the temple rendered them unclean under Jewish doctrine and seldom granted the time needed to seek repentance and atonement through the sacrifice of the very animals they raised. By virtue of their lifestyle, faith became far more practical and personal than priestly.

Can you imagine their feelings when the night to which they were accustomed, yielded its darkness to the power and glory of God in the form of an angel clothed in radiance, reflecting the majesty of the Father.

These men, who willingly faced lions, bears and thieves to protect their sheep, cowered in fright. Hid their faces in the folds of their robes, trembling at the feet of God’s messenger. The chill of the evening heightened by their anxious hearts, left them shivering as they backed slowly away.

Imagine the calm command of the messenger’s voice, whose words tempered even the startling light that surrounded them, slowing the furious pounding within their chests and quieting their troubled minds.

“Do not be afraid,” he said. With those simple words, their hearts, which had grown faint, found a breath of serenity. They stopped retreating, bent a knee, and listened to the one who carried the greatest news God ever passed down to his creation.

“I bring you good news for all the people. For this night in the City of David, a Savior is born to you. Let this be a sign for you. You will find a baby, wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger.”

Imagine the wonder that filled their eyes as suddenly legions of angels appeared above them singing praises to God and shouting, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Imagine their eyes overflowing with tears as joy overwhelmed them. They were caught up in a moment in time like no other…and it ended, as quickly as it began. The light shining around them faded in an instant, leaving them alone again in the dark of night.

Their mouths once open in amazement slowly closed. They waited, hoping that the angels would return and that they could again experience the rapture of the moment. As they waited, the shepherds sat in the darkness and the silence pondering all they had seen and heard.

Then one shepherd whispered in a voice so timid it seemed to hover on the cool night air, “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

One by one they rose to their feet and hurried off, searching the tiny village until they found Mary and Joseph and the baby.

Imagine that night…not as a pristine performance where cherubic children act out the biblical story with stilted lines and short songs sung cutely off key. Instead, imagine that night…as the turning point it was for a world lost in its own selfishness. Imagine that night…as the greatest gift ever offered to humankind.

Imagine that night…and sit among the shepherds. For, despite living centuries ago, they are not that much different than you and I. Their need for a Savior was no more and no less than our own. They could do nothing to earn salvation, no matter how hard they tried. They lived as much in need of the gift God offered as we do today.

Imagine that night…realize it was part of God’s plan for the world since the dawn of time. Unchanged since creation. It marked the fulfillment of his desire to enter into a redemptive relationship with his creation; a way for him to reach out to each of us by sending a part of himself into a tumultuous world in desperate need of his touch.

The Bible passage shares what we need to know. “Do not be afraid.” The gift God offers is not a curse of narrowly defined parameters, rules and regulations that suck the joy out of life. Rather, it is freedom to live the life God lays before us regardless of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. That is true freedom. In a life lived for him, there is nothing we need fear.

The messenger also said, “I bring good news for all people.” The Savior born in Bethlehem is not the Savior of the few, but the Savior of all people. That is indeed good news. No one is left out. His gift is available to everyone. God’s gift has a global reach.

The messenger heralded the good news to all, but, he added, “A Savior is born to you.” Salvation is not universal by virtue of living in a “Christian nation.” It’s personal. He is born to you. We become a Christian nation only when enough of us, as individuals, make it personal.

Sit among the shepherds and sing praises to God above. For when we live a life without fear, reveling in the good news he shares with everyone and recognize that for us to experience all that God has planned for us since the beginning of time we alone must make that personal choice…only then will we experience the peace the angels promised.

We can never fully grasp the miracle of God’s grace, love and gift of his son Jesus Christ until we first go to Bethlehem. That’s the wonderful thing about Christmas. It is hopefully a time for those who have never placed their faith and trust in Christ to make the journey to Bethlehem where it all started.

Those of us who have committed life to Christ, need to use this time to remind us to live the life he called us to live. Christmas offers no better time or place to rededicate our lives to him and in genuine love and service to each other. So…why do we delay?

Let us go to Bethlehem.