THE SILENT YEARS

It had been four hundred years, four hundred silent years.  Four hundred years with no word from God.  We think of it as the intertestamentary period, that time between the Old and New Testaments.  In the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi, we leave the remnant of Israel trying to restore Jerusalem, still under Persian domination and in a fallen spiritual condition.  For all practical purposes, Israel remained in exile.  The book of Malachi is an exhortation to return to the Covenant, with severe warnings for failure to do so.  And then, God quit speaking until the events surrounding the birth of Christ.  

Those were years with no fresh word from God.  It is hard for us to even imagine how that would be, with our access to so many different translations of the Bible and the presence of the Holy Spirit to breathe them alive to us.  But as we enter this season of Advent, let us try to put ourselves in the place of the ordinary Jew at this time in history.  In fact, my Advent challenge is to put myself in the place of all the characters in the Christmas story.  

Advent is a word I don’t hear very much in my Baptist church, but it is something I try to observe personally.  Oh I don’t do the wreath and the candles, but I do Advent readings in my quiet time.  For me, Advent is a time of preparing the manger of my heart for the coming of the Messiah.  Advent covers the four weeks leading up to Christmas, and this year, in 2020, Advent begins today, November 29.  We think 2020 has been a long and difficult year, and it has.  But try 400 long and difficult years!  And we have had the blessing of the Holy Spirit with us to help us navigate this year, to comfort us in our grief and to encourage us when we are afraid.  As we close this weekend of Thanksgiving, I am thanking God for access to His word and for the presence of the Holy Spirit, for the privilege of knowing Him.

Like many believers around the world, I have spent more time in prayer this year than ever before. And like many, I have clung to the words of 2 Chronicles 7:14:  

“if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

We tend to hold on to the promise while glossing over the condition: if my people, who are called by my name.  We want God to heal our land, but surely it is those other people who need to repent.  This year I have repeatedly asked God to show me my wicked ways.  Don’t ask unless you are serious.  He has pulled off layer after layer of wicked ways.  It is a part of making room for Christ.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Christmas sermons tells us that Advent “is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.”   I know I am poor and imperfect! 

So I put myself in the place of those post-exilic Jews who were waiting, because this has been a year of waiting.  Waiting for the virus to go away, waiting for a vaccine or a cure, waiting for schools to open, for jobs to return, for things to go back to normal.  But more than these things, like Bonhoeffer I am waiting for something greater to come.  I am waiting for a time when there will be no more death, nor more wars, no more hatred in our streets, no more broken families, no more children going hungry.  Though we strive to make these things happen (and we should), I don’t think we will see the complete realization until the Messiah returns.  While Israel waited for His first coming, we wait for Him to return in glory to establish His eternal kingdom.  Advent looks both back in time and forward.  We remember His first coming to earth as we celebrate Christmas.  But oh how we look forward to His second coming as we sing these familiar words:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,

And ransom captive Israel, 

That mourns in lonely exile here,

Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

GIVE THANKS

I have been doing a little reading about the first Thanksgiving, and I am once again in awe of the Pilgrims.  They endured a harrowing crossing of the Atlantic and after 65 miserable days, two deaths, and being blown about 250 miles off course, they landed in Massachusetts.  The first thing they did was to read Psalm 100 and give thanks to God.  It quickly became clear to them that they needed to establish some type of law in this wild new land.  The Mayflower Compact was written and signed by 41 men (women were not allowed to sign).  There were nine who did not sign and their number included hired sailors and those too sick to sign.  

I encourage every American to read the brief text of the document.  There are two points that stand out to me.  First is the affirmation that the venture was undertaken to advance the kingdom of God and to bring Him glory.  The second was the idea that law is made by the people, not by a king.  

I can’t even imagine the sacrifices the Pilgrims made.  Arriving in a wild and untamed land, they were led by divine providence to a village that had been deserted by a tribe of Native Americans who had been wiped out by a plague.  Here the Pilgrims found buried corn that sustained them during that first winter.  I may be getting lost in the weeds of history, but I am trying to make a point.  Life that first year was incredibly hard.  But still they set aside a day to give thanks.  

This has been a hard year for us, this 2020.  For some of us heartbreakingly hard.  But today we give thanks.  We look for the good in the midst of the bad, and we give thanks to the God who sustains us. We have hope for the future because we know God to be a good God, all the time.  He is good even when we don’t understand, even when our tears temporarily blind us to His great love for us.  We will give thanks today because He is worthy of our praise.  But we give thanks for another reason…because it is good for us.  It is good for us to be mindful of our blessings and to express gratitude to the Source of those blessings.  Psalm 92 tells us that it is a good thing to give thanks to the Lord and to sing praises to His name. 

Give thanks even though there is an empty chair at your table.  Give thanks if you are out of a job, even if the bills are piling up.  Give thanks if you can’t be with those you love this year.  Even if you don’t know what tomorrow will bring, give thanks today.  When you have no words, pray His word back to him with all the gratitude you can muster.  Today is a day for giving thanks.

1Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
    Worship the Lord with gladness;
    come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
    It is he who made us, and we are his[a];
    we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
    and his courts with praise;
    give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
    his faithfulness continues through all generations.  Psalm 100

Oh No! More Waiting!

Every year at about this time, I begin to ask the Lord to give me a verse or a word for the next year. Last year I got a very clear word: “Wait. On. God.” It was very emphatic, like three distinct sentences. It was puzzling to get that word at the beginning of 2020.  “Wait on what, Lord,” I wondered.  I had no idea what was coming.  But it wasn’t too long until we were all waiting.  Waiting for the lockdown to be over, waiting for the virus to go away, waiting to go back to work, for the children to go back to school.  Waiting for life to return to normal.  Waiting, waiting, waiting.

I have to confess that I am not very good at waiting.  I hate waiting in line, waiting in traffic, waiting for almost anything.  I don’t even enjoy getting my nails done because it takes too long.  So 2020 has been a real opportunity for me to learn lessons in waiting.  But I still don’t like it.

So as I have begun to pray for my 2021 word, I was hoping for something like, “The wait is over!” Instead the Lord has taken me to Lamentations.  Lamentations???  Really, Lord?  It’s such a dreary book and haven’t we lamented enough?  But the Lord wanted to give me a hopeful reminder In Lamentations 3:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; 
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.  ESV

This is a familiar, often quoted passage of Scripture.  In fact we even sing hymns with those words.  Think about it.  He pours out fresh blessings on us every morning and those blessings never come to an end.  Those mercies are specific to the day that lies ahead, and then tomorrow we get new ones.  I am reminded of the children of Israel wandering in the desert.  God provided fresh manna every morning, enough for the day.  

But then in the next verse, there is that word again.  Wait.

I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” NIV

I believe God is telling me that the time of waiting is not over, but I can have hope because His love never comes to an end, and His mercies are new every morning.  When we seem stuck in this sameness, God is declaring that because of His great compassion and love for us, He is doing something new every morning!  The word mercies in Hebrew is derived from the word that is used for womb, the place of the strongest love connection, that between mother and child.  Neuroscience studies have demonstrated that there are changes that occur in the brain of a pregnant woman that get her ready to respond to the cries of her baby.  Within just a few hours of becoming a mother, she can not only distinguish the cry of her baby from the cry of other babies, she can recognize what the different cries mean and respond accordingly.  She knows what her baby needs when it cries.  In the same way, our Father recognizes the cries of His children.  When we cry out to Him, He hears us.  He knows what we need and He responds.  God loves us, wants good for us, and even when it seems as if nothing ever changes, He declares that he gives us goodness every morning.

I have watched my friends this year, friends who have much to lament.  But they keep on going in the face of tragedy and adversity.  (You dear ones know who you are.)  Friends who have lost beloved family members, friends who are facing great hardships and uncertain futures, friends who have received devastating diagnoses from their physicians, and those who are waiting for an adult child to return from the far country.  They keep pressing on in their assignments from God.  I have friends who have been waiting for answers to prayers for years and they remain faithful.  The only way they can do this is because of God’s fresh mercies every morning.  We wait for God to move, but we wait with hope, with expectancy.  That is called faith.

In spite of all the hardships of 2020, I know that there were mercies as well, mercies we might not have received any other way but in our waiting.  As we come to the final weeks of this year, we are still waiting.  Waiting for a vaccine, a cure.  We wait for our country to heal, we wait for God to hear our prayers and send a Great Awakening to America.  We wait for a time when we can be with family and friends with no concern about a virus, when we can go about our lives without masks.  A time when we can return to school and work.  

We lament the losses of 2020 and recognize that the time of loss is not over.  But we can have hope because the God who loves us with great mercy and compassion is still in control.  We can face whatever comes in 2021 because of His great faithfulness.       

WE NEED A LITTLE CHRISTMAS

If there has ever been a year when we need a little Christmas, 2020 is it!  We have dealt with COVID and all the fear, sickness, and death that come with it.  The unleashing of this virus then set off a cascade of events that have left us reeling: the lockdown, jobs furloughed and lost, schools in and out of the classroom, racial tension, riots and looting, fires and hurricanes, a chaotic election season, and oh!  Murder hornets!  Did I leave anything out?  So as soon as the calendar turned from October to November I began thinking about Christmas decorations.  We are always early, but this year is the earliest we have ever had ours up.  Last night we even turned on the outdoor lights.  Because we need a little Christmas.

I suppose it is the lights that I love the most.  In addition to our tree we have lots of lighted garlands and wreaths.  Oh how we enjoy drinking our morning coffee in the glow of the Christmas lights.  

I’ve been thinking about light quite a bit lately.  Our Community Bible Study groups are studying the Book of John this year.  I have read and studied John many times, but the verses have leapt off the pages as if they are brand new to me.  And in the first few verses John describes Jesus as the light.  Of course I have long been familiar with the concept of Jesus as the Light of the World, but it has grabbed me anew and I keep coming back to it.  Why is that title so important?  

Light itself is essential.  Without it we cannot have life.  The very first thing God did in the beginning was to create light (Gen. 1:3) because the rest of creation was going to need it.  I know next to nothing about physics, but I started thinking about the properties of light.  Light travels.  It has the ability to pierce the darkness; but darkness cannot dim light.  Light attracts; it has a gravitational pull.  It causes growth and produces energy. Light changes the materials it shines on.  Light heals and purifies.  And Jesus does all those things.  He attracts us, and when we search for Him, we find Him.  He moves into willing lives and shines light on our sins.  He changes and purifies us.  He doesn’t leave us the same.  He heals us and causes us to grow in righteousness.

We so need the Light of the World to penetrate our dark world right now.  There is so much hatred and anger, so much polarization.  And so much corruption.  Light exposes those things that are concealed in darkness.  Mark 4:22 tells us that things that are hidden in the darkness will be brought into the light.

Next month we will celebrate Christmas.  When Jesus was born into the world as a baby, He came in an explosion of light that lit up the night sky.  The shepherds saw it, and after their initial fear, they were filled with such joy and hope.  The Magi were drawn to it and worshipped the new King.  That is why I need my Christmas lights.  They remind me that God is still on His throne and He still has a plan, that the Light of the World still changes hearts, and that the darkness will never overcome that Light.