How Can I Be Sure?

By Scott Armstrong

We have made our way out of Advent and are now officially in the season of Christmas (that’s right: according to the Christian calendar Christmas is just beginning!).  Our Savior has been born in Bethlehem! What greater joy is there than that?!

Since early December many passages have proven meaningful in my times of devotions and preaching and reflection.  However, there is one odd phrase that keeps resonating in my mind and heart that at first seems to have little to do with Advent or the Christmas story:

“How can I be sure?” (Luke 1:18).

Maybe a little context will help.

Zechariah and Elizabeth are closer to retirement than they would like, and they have all but given up hope of having a baby.  In spite of their unmatched integrity (v. 6), they have remained barren, and the comments of their neighbors and so-called friends have made even them wonder if there is something wrong with them spiritually.  They have prayed and wept and trusted in God time and again only to be disappointed month after month and year after year.  Serving God is still their unwavering commitment, but it used to be their passion and joy.

Why not for us, Lord? Why for everyone else?

A priest (this time, Zechariah) is selected to enter the inner temple and burn incense to the Lord.  Worshipers are outside.  This happens every year.

Except this year the ritual doesn’t go as planned.  An angel appears and almost gives old Zechariah a heart attack.  And his message was more astonishing than his appearance: “Don’t fear.   Your prayer has been heard.  You’ll have a son.  Give him the name John.”

All of Zechariah’s peers were already grandpas, some great-grandpas.  Now he is supposed to believe he will be a first-time dad?! It’s more than any of us could have handled.

And that’s when we hear his gasping, faltering response to the angel:

How. Can. I. Be. Sure.

There was no one more upright in Israel than Zechariah.  No one else had access to the very presence of God like he did (literally, this year).  And for decades no one had had more faith than Zechariah.  And yet the question stammers off his lips in disbelief.  It’s haunting, really.

It’s one thing to believe God is able to do the impossible.  But it’s another thing to believe he will do it.

And it’s one thing to believe God will do the impossible in someone else’s life.  But it’s another thing to know he will break in in the midst of your impossibility.

“I hear your voice, Lord.  I understand the message.  It’s just that, deep-down, I have to be honest: how can I be absolutely certain that you will come through?”

The best cure for a lack of faith that betrays us in moments like these is often silence.  Well, geriatric Zechariah got a heavy dose of that.  During his wife’s pregnancy, he could write down messages, but not everyone could read at that time.  He got pretty decent at charades, but most people lost patience with him or just started laughing at his hand signals.  So he ended up having a whole lot of time to just listen.

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And in those nine months of forced silence, he heard God’s voice clearer than he had ever heard it before.

“Elizabeth has morning sickness. Or did you think it was the bread and figs she ate?”

“Her belly’s growing, Zechariah.  I can tell you’re starting to believe after all…”

“Feel that kick? Haha! This baby will be a world-changer for sure!”

Until, finally…

“Zechariah, this is it!  The baby’s ready!  Elizabeth is pushing.  Are you sure now?”

Listening, listening, listening.

And on the eighth day after the birth, when he scurried to write on the tablet: HIS NAME IS JOHN, his faith had grown as big as the joy he had as he held that little boy.  His tongue was loosed and there was nothing else to do but to belt out praises to the God who had astonishingly done – and was still doing – the impossible.

Now he was sure of it.

Waiting on the World to Change – Part 2 of 2

*This is part two of the previous article.

To everything, there is a season (turn, turn, turn)

Human beings are “time-bound” creatures by Divine design. We naturally tend to organize our lives around rhythms that play out in time. Depending upon our vocation, different seasons bring different expectations and demands.

I come from a line of farmers on one side of my family and pastors on the other. I have observed that with pastors and farmers alike, the changing seasons determined much of the way we lived our lives.

Accountants have to deal with the tax season. Politicians and civil servants have election cycles. The semesters and breaks of the school year measure time for students and teachers. And sometimes our recreation, rather than our vocation, determines which seasons matter most: when we get to hunt or fish, which sports we get to follow, whether we’re able to get out the boat or the motorcycle or the snow skis.

Growing up as a pastor’s kid in the Church of the Nazarene, I didn’t rigorously follow the Christian year; but without fail, we did observe Advent. Every year, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving we would enter a sanctuary decorated for Christmas: trees and garland alongside nativities and the wreath of Advent candles, the popular traditions intermingled with the sacred. For each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, we lit the candles, usually punctuated by readings from Old Testament prophecy, and we sang songs like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.”

Sometimes we would lose the plot a bit, and sing “Away in a Manger” or “We Three Kings of Orient Are” during Advent. It’s hard to resist the urge to fast-forward to the climax of Christmas Day, just as it’s difficult during Holy Week to dwell in the despair of Good Friday and Holy Saturday when we know “Sunday’s coming!”

But Advent is about waiting.

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Patience and hope are oft-neglected virtues in our day and age, but this is precisely what Advent seeks to cultivate in us: patient, hopeful anticipation that our God is trustworthy and does not make empty promises.

Looking forward while looking back

During Advent, not only do we anticipate an event that has already taken place—Jesus’ first coming—but we also look forward to and anticipate His second coming! The next time you sing “Joy to the World,” pay attention to the explicit references to Christmas. Guess what? You won’t find any! Isaac Watts’ hymn actually looks forward to Christ’s second coming, made clear in the third stanza (which, ironically, is the verse most often omitted): “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.”

The reign of Christ over heaven and earth is inaugurated in His nativity, to be sure, but “Joy to the World” is a vision of its future fulfillment, the reversal of the Fall, and the restoration of all creation.

This Advent, as we prepare to welcome the God who comes to us, I wish us all a “Happy New Year,” and invite us to begin a journey through God’s salvation history as told through the rhythms of the Christian calendar. In so doing, we join with countless Christians across space and time who have ordered their lives and their worship according to this pattern, all to the glory of God.

This article was originally published at: Holiness Today

Hope in the Shipwreck

By Rev. Ken Childress

“No one had eaten for a long time. Finally, Paul called the crew together and said, Men, you should have listened to me in the first place and not left Crete. You would have avoided all this damage and loss. But take courage! None of you will lose your lives, even though the ship will go down. For last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me, and he said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Paul, for you will surely stand trial before Caesar! What’s more, God in His goodness has granted safety to everyone sailing with you.’ So take courage! For I believe God. It will be just as He said. But we will be shipwrecked on an island.” (Acts 27:21-26)

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Paul’s response was, “You should have listened to me…BUT.”  Paul was sure enough of what he had heard from God that he was willing to put himself in the position of reminding them of what he said. But he did not dwell on that. Instead, he immediately brought them hope. The same God who told him of the shipwreck was the same God who promised life and safety. The Word is consistent in its message – God is a God of hope. Paul even encourages them to eat in the middle of the storm.

The next point is very interesting to me: “But we will be shipwrecked on an island.” We tend to think because God brings hope everything will be comfortable. Nowhere in His Word do I find that statement. I find promises of provision, comfort, peace, salvation, and forgiveness. But nowhere do I find that we may not end up shipwrecked. God told these men, through Paul, that they would live. He also told them they would be shipwrecked.

I have always believed there to be a price to pay for ignoring the will and direction of God.

When we choose to sin against our body – we get shipwrecked.

When we sin financially – we get shipwrecked.

When we sin in relationships – we get shipwrecked.

There is a price to pay for disobedience. But even then there is HOPE. After the storm the sailors realized they still had life and there was dry land within reach.

God gives us His direction for our lives in His Word. When we ignore those directions, there are some things that follow: darkness, depression, hopelessness. But even in the darkness there is a light. And though we will find ourselves in a shipwreck, His love is big enough to find us, spare our lives and get us to dry land. Once we are on dry land He provides us with sustenance and the hand of others who help us get back on our feet.

Yes, with God we learn the lessons of disobedience and we learn that, no matter how far we roam, His unconditional love is able to reach us and save us.

Part of the Gift

By Charles W. Christian

One of my favorite Advent stories is about a missionary couple on the eastern coast of Africa. They were waiting to go back to the United States, their home country, after having served for over twenty years and impacting two generations of people in the village where they were assigned.

They were temporarily waiting in a location many miles inland from the coast until their arrangements were finalized for them to return to the U.S. for Christmas and for retirement.

One morning during the season of Advent, a few days before they were to fly out, there was a knock at the door.  A young man, the son of a family they had known during their entire time on the African coast, greeted them.  He was holding a small box that contained a gift that he told them could decorate their tree as a reminder of his family’s love for them.

“Did your family travel with you?” asked the missionary.  He knew they were one of the very few families in the small village that had a vehicle.  “No,” said the young man. “I walked.  I got rides when I could, but mostly I walked.  I left my village shortly after you took the train here a couple of weeks ago.”

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The couple was shocked.  “You didn’t have to walk all this way to give us this gift!” they said.  As much as we appreciate the ornament, we would have treasured it just as much if you had mailed it.”  The young man then replied, “The long journey is part of the gift!”

As we make the long journey through Advent toward the celebration of the birth of our Savior, we are reminded of an even longer journey: the journey of the Incarnation, when “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message).

May our hearts be filled with anticipation and gratitude as we walk together toward the Savior and the new kingdom He brings.

Prayer for the Week:

God of hope and promise, be with us throughout this Advent season, and draw us ever closer as we journey together toward the stable and the birth of your Son, our Savior. Amen. (From John Birch at Faith and Worship)

This article was originally posted at: Holiness Today

Lessons From a Tightrope And a Wheelbarrow

By Scott Armstrong

“Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised (Romans 4:20-21).”

(Read Romans 4:13-25)

I have heard the story of a famous tightrope walker who decided to cross Niagara Falls on a rope he had tied from one bank to another. He publicized the huge event and thousands came to watch this impressive feat. Balancing himself high above the raging waters, he inched his way across while the hushed crowd watched in awe.

After he reached the other side, the crowd roared in approval. They had never seen anything like this amazing display of courage and skill. However, the acrobat was not finished.  He put on a blindfold and made his way slowly across again.  Successful, and hearing the crowd’s thunderous applause, the man made his way across another time, except this third time he was wearing the blindfold and pushing a wheelbarrow bit by bit over the thin rope.  The ovation this time was the loudest he had ever heard.

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Now this tightrope walker had never fallen during a public exhibition, and so he shouted down to the throng of onlookers, “Do you believe I can cross this tightrope blindfolded with this wheelbarrow once more?”

“Yes!!  We believe you can do it!!” the audience shouted back.

“If you really believe,” the man on the high wire replied, “then which one of you will get in the wheelbarrow?”

Romans 4:13-25 tells us that Abraham lived a life of faith.  He didn’t just talk the talk; he walked the walk.  He believed against all odds that he would have a kid at the ripe old age of 100, and it happened. He believed in the God who could raise the dead to life, so he nearly sacrificed his own son before God rescued him and commended Abraham for his faith. This is earth-shaking, mind-boggling stuff.  But Abraham remained “fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (v.21).

When was the last time you truly stepped out on faith? We serve a God who “gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were” (v.17).  Will you trust him today in spite of the circumstances around you? Is it time to stop only saying you believe in him and time to get in the wheelbarrow and live it?

An Essential Sign

By Rev. Ken Childress

1 Corinthians 15:17, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.”

The Resurrection validates everything we believe in. Without it, the Bible is bold enough to say, our faith is worthless. Those who think Christianity is worthwhile for life in this world alone are disagreeing with Paul; he thought we were pitiful creatures indeed if our faith is only a this-world faith (See verse 19).

No, God gave us the Resurrection – Jesus’ and ours – for a reason. It’s a PROMISE, a PLEDGE, a VALIDATION that our life on this fallen planet is but a tiny fraction of the life we were meant to live. While the rest of the world goes about living for the here and now, we live for eternity. While they make investments hoping for good returns in a matter of years or decades, we make investments hoping for good returns in a matter of timeless “ages.” While they interpret their trials as things that will make or break the quality of their lives, we interpret out trials as events that are shaping us to understand God and inherit His riches. The Resurrection makes all the difference in the world. And beyond.

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This, in fact, was the point of creation from day one. Genesis is the account of God’s creation, but the cross of Christ and the empty tomb are the account of the recreation. The early church was suddenly aware that they were living in the regenesis, the fulfillment of all God had promised, the Kingdom that does not pass away. And that knowledge guided everything they did.

We often think of the Resurrection as an Eastertime phenomenon – a past miracle that gives us faint hope for the future. It is SO MUCH MORE.

The Resurrection validates our faith in the redeeming work of our High Priest, who has taken away our sins. It allows us to live with a sense of risk and adventure, because it makes us part of a new order of creation that ultimately cannot fail. Our lives are grounded in Someone who regins in eternal VICTORY!

He is Risen…He is Risen Indeed. No Resurrection, no Christianity!