Reformed and Always Reforming

Five hundred years ago, the Protestant Reformation sought to change the church, to bring the focus back upon God. The Reformation had no intention of breaking free from the church in Rome but instead saw that the message of grace and mercy had been replaced with penance and indulgences. Due to these circumstances, Martin Luther spoke up and sought to bring the church back to God’s intended purpose, to spread the Gospel message to the world. 

God used an imperfect person to bring change to the church. Those that seek to change the world must understand that they are imperfect and not worthy of praise, but rather deflect all of that praise to the Almighty God. The church, however, often looks to its leaders and seeks their elevation rather than focusing on the message. Thus, on this Reformation Sunday, we need to focus on God’s desire to constantly re-form us into His image and carry out the mission of the Gospel in our community and the world.

Saul is an example of an imperfect person, carrying out the mission of God. After Ananias had been with Saul, with sight restored, Saul was released to do the work of God in the world. Sharing the Gospel, proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Savior, and doing ministry work in Damascus caused Saul to develop some enemies. The people that were content with the status quo, those that said this is the way we have always done things, and those that were uncomfortable with Saul’s new message fought to destroy Saul and protect the status quo. This story invites us to look at Acts and see how Saul first interacts with the church.

Acts 9:23-31

23 After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him, 24 but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. 25 But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.

26 When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. 28 So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He talked and debated with the Hellenistic Jews,[a] but they tried to kill him. 30 When the believers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.

31 Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.

The examples of Luther, Saul, and countless others remind the church that we need people in our midst willing to challenge the status quo and fight for reforms within the body. Often these reforms start within our own lives. What sin is still unresolved? The reformer’s perspective begins by recognizing the need to be transformed and renewed by the Holy Spirit, and with that renewal comes a desire to change the world. This desire recognizes that God holds the ultimate authority over us and not any organization or group found on Earth. 

When we grant the ultimate authority over our lives to God, we relinquish all other pretenses through which we speak and instead ask the Holy Spirit to speak through us and for us. The Holy Spirit will always speak the truth and demand the same of each of God’s disciples. This orientation puts the reformer in a situation where they must immediately and wholly confront anything that runs contrary to the Message of the Cross and God’s love for the world.

God established the church to carry out the Almighty’s mission on Earth, to bring all of the created order back to God. The reformer’s voice calls the church to heed the call and get our hearts right with God. The reformer’s problems result from tribalism and looking at the world through only one particular lens.

Martin Luther never sought to break away from the Catholic Church but saw something that did not align with scripture and discussed it. This challenge made Rome nervous and resulted in his excommunication. When speaking to the Jews about Jesus, Saul challenged the notion that the Christ had yet to come, but instead of it resulting in a discussion, the Jews plotted to kill him. Challenges and reforms don’t often come easy, and they usually result in a great deal of animosity from the leaders and status quo.

However, our allegiance must lie with God and not with political or even religious leaders. This temptation plagues the church in America. Quickly the church aligns itself with charismatic leaders and politicians, and regardless of substance, many quickly fall prey to the trap. Instead of speaking the truth of God boldly to power, they usurp God’s mission in the path toward human ambition, which is why we need reformers in our midst.

The reformer can come from anyone led by the Holy Spirit, even those that once were enemies of the church. Saul was an enemy, and through the transformation of God, Saul became an evangelist and spoke the truth at his peril. We cannot fear this type of person in our midst, but instead, we must be willing to stand in Barnabas’ shoes in this passage as he vouched for Saul and provided testimony to Saul’s transformation. This testimony paved the way for the reformation of the church from just for Jews toward reaching out toward the Gentiles as well. 

The church must keep its eyes open and its ears listening, as the Holy Spirit can speak through anyone at any time. This way, the church will be open to the necessary reforms. Thus the church operates as a reformed and always reforming congregation.

Saint Patrick as a Model for Modern Evangelism

Many of us have long thought of St. Patrick’s Day as a day to wear green and eat corned beef and cabbage. However, we should examine what our friend Patrick did and how we can use it as a beautiful example of how we can bring God’s grace to a world that is often devoid of hope. Today, the supposed anniversary of his death should serve to remind Christians everywhere that our God is powerful and can use us no matter where we come from or what stratus of life from which we come. 

Although recognized as Ireland’s patron saint, Patrick was not Irish but came to Ireland as a slave when he was only a teen. He was captive for about six years and worked primarily as a shepherd. During his captivity, Patrick, buoyed by his faith in Christ, found comfort in the promises that God would never leave him or forsake him in his circumstances. During captivity, God also gave Patrick a sense of call, similar to the sense of call God puts on our hearts.

After returning to Britain, escaping his captors, God called Patrick into ordination as a Priest. After becoming a Priest, he petitioned to go back to Ireland to bring God’s Gospel message to Ireland’s Celtic people. Instead of casting aside the people’s traditions and denouncing their pagan roots, Patrick sought to share the Gospel as it is working in their lives already. Through his actions, and practices he translated the Gospel into a language that they would understand. In much the same way, Paul was able to explain the Gospel to those at the Areopagus.

Today, we must follow the Saints’ example and share the Gospel with people, not in judgment, but with grace, just as Christ came to us with a Spirit of Love. We must seek to understand the culture. Learn the language, speak with humility, and bring hope, justice, peace, and love. Speak truth to power, but you must first speak the culture’s language to be heard and understood. Saint Patrick understood and embodied this and integrated notably Irish items into the worship of God. 

It is not the job of evangelism to wash over and eradicate culture. Instead, through our understanding of culture, we translate the Gospel into the language of culture. Instead of appropriating and colonizing, we see where God is already at work and join into God’s Kingdom work right where we live and play.

Look At God’s Hands and Worship

No matter what we find ourselves afflicted by, God reminds us that we must respond with worship. Even during war, persecution, plagues, and separation, God reminds us that we are not forgotten and belong to the Almighty and called us to worship him with all of our heart. Worship is engrained into our very core, and that circumstance tries to cover up that calling upon our hearts by distracting us with any number of problems in our lives. 

The danger we face is the same danger that faced the people of Israel and Judah. When we focus upon the affliction, we tend toward thinking that God has abandoned us or is absent from us, but that is contrary to the truth. God has written our names upon His hands. Jesus reminded the apostles to look upon him and the sacrifice Jesus made. God calls the people to look upon God’s hands and remember that the work of salvation is complete; therefore, we must look at God’s hands and worship, casting aside any afflictions, as they are not worthy of our focus.

Isaiah 49:13-18 (NIV)

13Shout for joy, you heavens; rejoice, you earth; burst into song, you mountains! For the Lord comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.

14But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.”

15“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!

16See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me.

17Your children hasten back, and those who laid you waste depart from you.18Lift up your eyes and look around; all your children gather and come to you. As surely as I live,” declares the Lord, “you will wear them all as ornaments; you will put them on, like a bride.

In God Alone: Everything Else Is An Imitation

None of us belong, and all of us belong. We all have done wrong, treated each other improperly, and allowed sinful thoughts to affect our actions and lives. However, we have all been called to the foot of the cross, welcomed by the Almighty, to salvation. Our previous shortcomings, our current sins, nor our future problems do not withhold the grace found at the cross. Before we proceed with anything involving the church, we must affirm that our faith and salvation comes from no other place than the Almighty God, which did not consider sending Christ Jesus to Earth an act beneath the Creator. Therefore, because Christ pulls us out of sin, we cannot think that any of us is too perfect or too far gone for God’s salvation.

The church can never become a gatekeeper for salvation but must embody the sacrificial love that God has for followers of Christ. We must let go of our notions about who belongs and who doesn’t belong because we must all recognize that we are all lawbreakers and deserve death, but because of God’s mercy, we are saved by grace. The church gathers rule breakers and fugitives. For God calls us all to put down all of our idols and names and come before the cross, laying EVERYTHING down before Christ. Any idea that we carry any other identity other than a child of the Almighty God is foolish and idolatrous.

Isaiah 45:20-25 (NIV)

20“Gather together and come; assemble, you fugitives from the nations. Ignorant are those who carry about idols of wood, who pray to gods that cannot save.

21Declare what is to be, present it— let them take counsel together. Who foretold this long ago, who declared it from the distant past? Was it not I, the Lord ? And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me.

22“Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.

23By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear.

24They will say of me, ‘In the Lord alone are deliverance and strength.’ ” All who have raged against him will come to him and be put to shame.

25But all the descendants of Israel will find deliverance in the Lord and will make their boast in him.

God Is Our Guide: Respond With Faith Over Fear

Fear often grasps ahold of our hearts, especially in uncertainty. However, God has established that our trust should be completely given over to Him at all times. The enticement of fear that calls out to us in the midst of any disorder or chaos is paralyzing and leads us toward destruction. The antidote to inaction and fear is faith in God. We must firmly place our eyes upon God, even when the floodwaters rise or when the flames look like they will consume us. God does not allow the world to consume us, but rather he will go to the greatest lengths to save us. He even sent Jesus, His only Son, to guide us into faith and away from fear. Jesus went to the cross to defeat death and bring hope, peace, and grace to us. Therefore, we must place our faith in Christ to carry us out of our current troubles.

ISAIAH 43:1-7

But now, this is what the Lord says— he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. 3 For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead. 4 Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give people in exchange for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5 Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west. 6 I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’ Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth— 7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

No, It Isn’t.

I have been approached by more than a few asking about the vaccine and the mark of the beast. I want to just say, “No, it isn’t.” Part of me thinks it is a fear tactic, and another ploy by many Christians to undermine the medical community. However, we must address these matters with sincerity and a desire to understand and adequately discern the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures. We must guard against the mindless chatter and indulging of things meant to divide us from one another. God knows his children, and we should put on the clothing that shows the fruits of the Spirit.

Some may think that I am granting too much credence to the conspiracy theories, and I may be doing just that, but I feel compelled to give at least my thoughts on the matter.

In the second chapter of 2 Timothy, it states:

14Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. 15Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and correctly handles the word of truth. 16Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. 17Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18who have departed from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some. 19Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.”  

How do you feel about vaccines in general? This vaccine is no different than any other vaccine in many respects. 

We should be careful when making some broad proclamations about this situation. Many conspiracy theorists will exacerbate our fears and point to the imagery contained within John’s Revelation. The Revelation of John is apocalyptic literature. We need to look at the reason for this type of literature and what we can understand about what God is instructing us through this scripture. John called pointed out the mark of the beast as something that people did to proclaim allegiance to the world in opposition to our devotion to Christ.

The mark of the beast has been claimed about many things throughout the history of the world. In the last several decades, it has been attributed to identification (driver’s licenses and such), credit cards, cell phones, or anything broadly used in society. In each of these interpretations, they interpreted the mark of the beast as something that you need to interact with commerce in society, and without it, you cannot engage in trade. However, none of these things are asking us to pledge our allegiance to human institutions; they are used to keep order in society. None of them ask you to renounce your devotion to Christ to receive them; therefore, they do not pass the mark of the beast test.

Similarly, many things have been said about this vaccine, many of which are untrue. Two of the vaccines that have been approved are mRNA vaccines; therefore, people have stated that they change your DNA, which is patently false, and a 101 level of biology would help understand how messenger RNA works. They give the instructions to the body, which help promote an immune response without ever having the SARS-Cov-2 virus in our bodies. The development of such a vaccine is quite a marvel about how God creates humans to understand and figure this out and help destroy the virus’s effects on our society, which is a reason to give thanks to God and not for fear. 

Another aspect of the anti-vaccine is the worry of a tracking microchip. While they do have microchips as small as 3 nanometers, it would simply be impractical to place a chip in anything like this. Further, since many of the vaccines are being transported in vials that contain multiple doses, it would require the ability to ensure that there was a chip in each dose. This is an absurd assertion, especially since many people carry a device with a camera and a microphone that tracks our location and internet history. There is absolutely no reason for any need for a tracking microchip.

The vaccine has undergone extensive testing that has was verified through peer review and the FDA. These are of course human institutions and are thus fallible, so ultimately it would require you to prayerfully consider if you trust those institutions.

With all of the reasons above, I have zero qualms about taking the vaccine, and will proudly recommend that any person that is healthy and not allergic to the vaccine ingredients to get the vaccine, as no one is asking you to renounce your faith to take it. Further, my faith instructs me God has created and guided the people that have developed this vaccine. Lastly, God has called us to care for others, and my willingness to take the vaccine protects the people I come across from contracting this disease that has killed many people throughout the world, and that God calls us to love one another and that the best way we can love one another at this time is to protect each other from a deadly illness.

In short, the vaccine is not the mark of the beast, and if you can take it I would recommend it, and I will take it as soon as I can.

Our Praise Needs To Be New, and Our Loyalty Needs To Be Undivided

Isaiah 42:10-17

God’s entrance into the world is a reason for rejoicing and proclaiming His wondrous deeds. God will triumph, and we must give Him the praise and honor, and all things of this world will pass away, but God and His Kingdom are eternal; therefore, we must keep ourselves from putting anything above God in our hearts and minds.

New Year, New Praise

Just as we talked about New Years’ and New Resolutions last week, the Epiphany of the Lord reminds us that our praise and devotion must be made new daily, even in the cycle of life. Often, we allow our praises and prayer to become routine and rote. However, we must remember that the God we serve is worthy of our prayers, and just as we have new experiences and new reasons for prayer and praise, we must incorporate that into our worship life and not hold anything back. The purpose of worship and praise is to honor God and not only check items off the to-do list. Therefore worship must be an expression of our utmost devotion, and we must have undivided loyalty to God. Isaiah warns Judah of the results of divided loyalty and that the people must always serve God far above and beyond any other objects or items clamoring for our devotion.

Isaiah 42:10-17

10 Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you islands, and all who live in them. 11 Let the wilderness and its towns raise their voices; let the settlements where Kedar lives rejoice. Let the people of Sela sing for joy; let them shout from the mountaintops. 12 Let them give glory to the Lord and proclaim his praise in the islands. 13 The Lord will march out like a champion, like a warrior he will stir up his zeal; with a shout, he will raise the battle cry and will triumph over his enemies. 14 “For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant. 15 I will lay waste the mountains and hills and dry up all their vegetation; I will turn rivers into islands and dry up the pools. 16 I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them. 17 But those who trust in idols, who say to images, ‘You are our gods,’ will be turned back in utter shame.

Bring Praise Everywhere We Go

Just as God goes everywhere with us, we must bring our praises for God everywhere. These cannot merely be the same prayers that we have said repeatedly, but rather these praises must be authentic, bringing our experiences, thoughts, and feelings to God in worship. Many things are pulling us to veer our gaze away from what the Almighty is doing in our hearts. Still, the faith we have in God, the praise we bring to God must be new and continually being renewed in the face of the hurts and fears and in the presence of all the things that grab our attention and pull us away from God.

As we look at the world’s events, temptation leads us to react out of an abundance of hurt and pain, but it depends on us to remain focused upon God. We must rededicate our hearts to worship and praise of God and a renewed spirit of prayer that lead us to where God would have our hearts, our minds, and our focus. If we trust in God and praise God new, then we understand that God wants our hearts even in our pain. We cannot condone the ways of this world that depend on hurting and violent acts, but instead, we must ask God to leads us in teaching the world to love people, give hope to all people, and be the peacemakers that Jesus calls blessed.

God Conquers All

We do not need to focus on being the traditional warrior because God is the warrior. God calls us to serve, and our Service to God must be our paramount focus. Service is antithetical to a call to pick up arms and is preferably a call to place our faith in God. We must firmly believe that God can conquer anything in this world or outside of this world. Trust in God renews our faith, and we must continuously act toward renewing our faith in God daily. When we live with a renewed confidence that God conquers all of His enemies, then we can focus more fervently on how God wants us to act and behave in our world. If we live our lives in such a way that speaks anything other than serving an all-conquering God, then we must re-devote our hearts to God.

However, we should sit back and ignore what is going on, but instead, it is an opportunity for Christians to stand up for God’s truth in the world. That truth calls the church to bring God’s love in all we say and do, to embody God’s hope and share it with others, and to ensure all people are made whole, and that we strive after peace. Otherwise, we follow the world into destructive practices that God will ultimately conquer and destroy.

Be Led By God and Not Idols

If we listen and pray and read scripture with a mind toward renewal, God promises to lead us, even if we are blind. This type of renewal is like you are reading scripture for the first time. Many people look upon the Word of God and have the audacity to think that they don’t have anything more to learn from a particular passage. In reality, our arrogance and previous readings blind us to God’s light. We must look to God when we read any scripture and ask God to show us and lead us to the truth, and if we are faithful, God will lead us, bringing light where our previous knowledge may have left us in the dark.

Anything can become an idol. Previous teachers, pastors, church leaders, political figures, sports figures, celebrities, kings and queens, ideologies, and countries all become idols and threaten to pull us away from God. None from the previous list will be able to save you. Many of the people at the time of Christ looked for their salvation in things of the world. They looked to politicians, to warriors seeking to throw out Rome, to kings with false lineage, teachers, and even the church for salvation, but God brought salvation in an unorthodox way. Jesus came, and people called him by many of the names shown above. However, God brought Christ to lead the people through sacrificial love and through the Holy Spirit’s power that is far above the power of this world.

Devotion to anything or anybody other than God is idolatry, and we must be careful in all that we say and do to give our allegiance to God and God alone. Our lead must come from God and not from man. Only then can our praise and our faith be made new.

The Promise Fulfilled, A Hope Realized, and Love Expressed

A Reflection on Luke 2:1-20

Advent is the beginning of the calendar, and every year, although different, is a cycle that does not end, and the wreath before us is a circle with no beginning and no end. Just as the calendar comes around every year, there are changes throughout the year, and there are differences around the wreath, but God is the same, and God is present with us at all times. As we turn to the wreath this Christmas Eve, we turn our gaze upon the light brought into the world through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Hope

Several weeks ago, we began with a reflection upon focusing our hearts, our minds, and our bodies for the coming of the King. With our hearts and minds, we recall the prophets speaking about the coming Messiah, which would liberate and free His people, the incarnate Holy God that would usher in His Kingdom, and a new age for God’s people. The prophet Isaiah instructs us through his prophecy, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned. For to us, a child is born, to us, a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isa 9:2,6) With this perspective, we see that God has embodied hope through the sending of His Son.

Preparation

In response to the hope, we prepare for the coming of Jesus. In our hearts, we work for the cause of justice and peace in our world, preparing for Christ’s return, when he will establish justice and PEACE for all the world. God sent His messengers to invite us to prepare for Christ’s coming by working for God’s Peace for everyone. The prophet Micah was one of those that foretold of the coming PEACE that Jesus Christ would bring, “He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.” (Micah 5:4) We are invited to join with the prophets of the past and participate in preparation for the future coming of the Lord.

Joy

With our eager anticipation of God’s advent, we embrace the JOY we have been given and respond with worship. Even in our hard times, we rest in the knowledge that Christ came to the Earth, bringing Joy to all humankind. “And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on, all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name’” (Luke 1:46-49). Today we follow Mary’s lead and allow our hearts to be filled with JOY and wonder as we contemplate what our loving God has done for us.

Love

We love God, but it is because God first loved us. We have been called to follow the example of God’s LOVE, demonstrated through the self-sacrificial example of Jesus Christ embodying God’s merciful grace. May we remember that God calls us to show one another LOVE through kind acts, compassionate giving, and abundant grace this season. This LOVE puts others above self and reflects the LOVE of God shown upon this world. John reminds us, “Let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” (1 John 4:7-11). Today, we seek to demonstrate God’s love for the world, and we look to the story of how Jesus was born.

The Birth of Jesus as told in Luke

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.

4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Jesus Has Come to Earth

Advent has led up to this moment, this time and place. A place dictated by the government, fulfilling the prophecy, and carried out by two obedient servants. Bethlehem, a town meaning the house of bread, would become the place where God would bring his nourishing grace into the world. However, this place was not a place where the world would recognize as a seat of honor, but rather the accommodations were lowly and underwhelming.

However, Jesus was given the care of a mother, wrapped in cloths, swaddled, given security, even in the conditions where they had only a modest place to stay. They used what they had, a manger, to help give Jesus a safe place to sleep. Mary and Joseph’s love for Jesus was apparent even if they did not have the room they required on that night more than 2000 years ago.

This was not a night just for this small family; it was a night for the world. The angels announced to the world that the Savior of all humanity was born in Bethlehem. This night is a night for singing, for rejoicing, for proclaiming the embodied love of God for all humanity. The shepherds came to witness what the angels had declared, and their hearts were changed because God’s love for humanity was expressed clearly with the birth of His Son.

Tonight, we come, gathering around an Advent Wreath, lighting candles, and singing God’s praise. May our hearts and lives be changed because Jesus Christ, Savior of humanity, and Son of God, has fulfilled the promise of God, as a realization of the Hope we have waited for and an expression of the loving grace of God.

Instead of Anger or Fear, We Respond With Prayer

We survived another election. Our newspapers, social media sites, and televisions displayed messages based on our greatest fears in the lead-up to the election. Election advertising relies heavily upon frightening us into voting one way or another. We are familiar with the screen that turns black and white and displays something that we should really be afraid of happening. The sight of boarded-up buildings prepares our minds for violence and invokes fear in our hearts. With division, we turn to fear, and these are divided and frightening times.

With all elections, there are winners and losers. You may be pleased with the results, you may be displeased with the results, or you may be in a wait-and-see position with what might still happen. Still, no matter how you feel about the victors or the victors-to-be, your trust must be firmly planted in the Lord, and not in our worldly leaders, because only God can bring us peace and deliver us from our fears.

The Fear In Jerusalem

Turning to Isaiah and how they responded to their circumstances, they had a rationale for their fright. The enemy was literally at the gates of Jerusalem, and Isaiah is telling us about a threatening letter sent from the Assyrian leader to Hezekiah, Judah’s king. This letter taunted Hezekiah and reminded him of the Assyrians’ great military successes, and resistance was futile. They can either comply or face destruction. Sennacherib, Assyria’s king, even went as far as telling the people of Judah that the gods of the surrounding nations could not put down the assaults of their nation. In the eyes of this Assyrian king, faith was futile and powerless to stand up to their great military might.

Isaiah 37:14-20 (NIV)

14Hezekiah received the letter from the messengers and read it. Then he went up to the temple of the Lord and spread it out before the Lord. 15And Hezekiah prayed to the Lord: 

16“Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. 17Give ear, Lord, and hear; open your eyes, Lord, and see; listen to all the words Sennacherib has sent to ridicule the living God. 18“It is true, Lord, that the Assyrian kings have laid waste all these peoples and their lands. 19They have thrown their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by human hands. 20Now, Lord our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, Lord, are the only God.”

Hezekiah’s Response To Sennacherib

Sennacherib sends his message to Hezekiah, that Judah must bend to his will or else Jerusalem will suffer the consequences. Specifically, Sennacherib claims that their God will not save them, but that Jerusalem will fall just like all the other nations that have been conquered around them. This is a direct challenge to God’s power and integrity. Hezekiah spreads this letter out as if before God to read as he bows in prayer. The action symbolizes his need for God’s guidance and his willingness to do God’s will. In contrast with his first prayer of fear, the king now bows in the presence of God with a trust that gives us a model for prayer.

Our Response to Fear

Naturally, we may want to lash out or get angry at the ways of the world, but without first relenting to being the person that God wants us to be in all situations, then we mistake the dangers of the world as being equal to or greater than God. This is how fear encourages us to act. However, when things look menacing or attempting to bring you to a place where you are just going to yield to fear, our first reaction must be to look to God and pray. As Hezekiah’s response guides us, lay everything out before God, and allow God to instruct us on our behavior, let God calm our hearts, and let God bring peace in response to the turmoil. 

1. All news: good, bad, or indifferent; must be presented to God in prayer.

Sennacherib sends his message to Hezekiah, that Judah must bend to his will or else Jerusalem will suffer the consequences. Specifically, Sennacherib claims that their God will not save them, but that Jerusalem will fall just like all the other nations that have been conquered around them. This is a direct challenge to God’s power and integrity. Hezekiah spreads this letter out as if before God to read as he bows in prayer. The action symbolizes his need for God’s guidance and his willingness to do God’s will. In contrast with his first prayer of fear, the king now bows in the presence of God with a trust that gives us a model for prayer.

Hezekiah’s example reminds us that when we encounter any news, instead of being overly jubilant or worried, we must take all news before the Lord in prayer. We are taught by his example that, when pressured, God calls us to cast our burdens upon Him. Any other response will be less than effective and any other methods of relief will be fruitless. God doesn’t require our prayers, nor tears, nor complaints to know what we need; for he “knows our wants and needs before we ask anything from him.” (Matt. 6:8.) By laying out our burdens before God, we acknowledge that God knows what we need and we allow the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts and give us what we need at this time.

In our divided state right now, there is a lot of trepidation and fear about what will happen in our country and the world based on our election results. Worry and fear will drive us to react in unpredictable ways; it will trigger fight or flight mechanisms in our brains. God, instead of reacting to the situation with our own response, asks us to lay them down before Him and let go of the fear and allow the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts. Instead of grumbling at the state of the world, we respond with thanksgiving in our hearts that God has given us this opportunity to serve His Kingdom at this point in history. The world has been filled with good leaders and bad leaders, but none of them has taken control away from the Lord.

2. Recognize that God is greater than anything we encounter.

As Hezekiah begins this prayer, he proclaims God’s greatness and details the character of the one to whom he prays. Instead of starting his prayer with his problems, Hezekiah acknowledges that God is greater than his current circumstance and places his confidence in God instead of merely whining at God. His prayer begins with worship. Hezekiah proclaims the following: God Almighty, Lord over all Israel, the enthroned King over all the Earth, and the Creator of All. With this opening to prayer, Hezekiah acknowledges that God can change this based on God’s character. From that point, Hezekiah can then turn his prayer to acknowledging that this God can hear and see the predicament in which Israel finds itself. That the threats of Assyria threaten and insult Israel, which is a direct affront to God. Hezekiah’s heart and mind become affixed upon worship and not simple pleading for aid, which serves as a guide to how we ought to pray; not with simple pleading, but with worship filled hearts.

When we start our prayers with worship, we set our minds upon the one to whom we pray instead of focusing upon ourselves and our problems. Oftentimes we look to our concerns, and the enormity of God could swallow them up. Christians for ages have been praying The Lord’s Prayer, and it too starts with, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name…” This prayer also starts with the focus upon God. There is nothing that we encounter in this life that is greater than God. Disease, violence, war, pestilence, poverty, and strife all plague our world, but God is greater than all those problems. Even if we look at our current mood, no matter how any election results may lead us to dismay or rejoicing, God is still greater than any leader in any country, including the United States. Therefore, as we pray, we need to remember to whom we pray and that God will hear our prayers, and God will see us; therefore, we must place our trust and hope solely upon the Almighty God.

3. Acknowledge the circumstances and ask God to guide our thoughts and behavior.

Hezekiah did not turn a blind eye to the dangers posed by the Assyrians; instead, he gave them over to God. You look at the path of destruction that Assyria had followed, and there is reason to hear the words of Sennacherib and be afraid. However, as he prays out the path of destruction, the words out of his mouth turn their path of destruction showed that the Assyrians had conquered gods made by man and not the one true God. When looking at the circumstances of attackers at their gates, breathing threats against him, Hezekiah is turning to God that cannot be defeated by this force, no matter the results of any battle. However, Hezekiah asks for God’s aid, not for the people’s sake, but for the sake of God’s mission in the world.

There are people and things in our world that are scary and have damaged lives, and when we encounter them, we cannot ignore them or diminish the dangers. How many people have died from cancer? How many people have succumbed to COVID? How many people have died from the results of any of the world’s wars? The world is a dangerous place, and many things are sending their letters of threats to our lives. Hezekiah’s prayer shows us that instead of ignoring the dangers, we must acknowledge them and put them before God in our prayers. It isn’t because God doesn’t understand that there is danger, but rather God wants us to trust that He will take care of all of these concerns. Acknowledgment of the danger, allows our hearts to let God’s voice speak to the source of our fear, and redirect our minds to the power of God in our world. 

Our response to the election could lead us toward fear or rallying behind the topics we support, but as we read Isaiah, we are shown that Hezekiah gives a great example of how we are to pray about our nation and our world. We must lay out the results before God and pray. God knows more than we know about the result of our elections, but we need to let go of our feelings and allow God to instruct our hearts. As we lay down the results before God, we then acknowledge that God is the true King of the world and that we are called to pray that our leaders acknowledge God’s power to heal the pain in our world. We then acknowledge that no matter the threats our world faces, God is in control and has the power to bring grace into our circumstances. There are good leaders, and there are bad leaders, but God is always in control, and we need to humble ourselves to ask God to guide us no matter what.

God’s Kingdom Prevails Over All

In a few days roughly half the population will rejoice, while the other half will feel some sort of dismay about the results of the election in the United States. However, no matter the results of the election God’s Kingdom will prevail, because God cannot be thwarted by the acts of man. Israel in the face of humiliation and conquering would have to understand that God would prevail over the conquering nations, and that God’s grace would provide relief in the face of despair.

When we look to the world for help, we will not find what we need, or even what we want. Help from the world often falls short, and at best is only temporary. Our politicians, no matter their party, Republican, Democrat, or even Birthday, are evidence of empty promises that fulfill their purposes, but when we place our faith in God, we are not disappointed, but rather we find fulfillment, and grace. God’s grace will prevail over any circumstance, and we are called to embrace it by placing our faith FIRMLY in God.

As we turn to Isaiah 33, we see God warning the nations that even though they think they have control and superior to those that they had vanquished, but God reminds them that He is in control, and will conquer them.

Lord, be gracious to us; we long for you. Be our strength every morning, our salvation in time of distress. 3 At the uproar of your army, the peoples flee; when you rise up, the nations scatter. 4 Your plunder, O nations, is harvested as by young locusts; like a swarm of locusts people pounce on it. 5 The Lord is exalted, for he dwells on high; he will fill Zion with his justice and righteousness. 6 He will be the sure foundation for your times, a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge; the fear of the Lord is the key to this treasure.

Isaiah 33:2-6 (NIV)

To ask for grace is to confess that all human effort has proven futile and no human merit can warrant salvation. From foolish trust in tribute to Assyria, the king and his people put total trust in the Lord of hosts. Like a convicted criminal, they throw themselves on the mercy of the highest court. In this is the confession that they hold no alternative except total dependence on the power of God to save them. Trust then opens their eyes to see the Lord plundering the plunderer and tricking the treacherous into utter confusion and shameful flight. By waiting upon the Lord with penitent spirit, Hezekiah and his people got a confirming glimpse into the vision of God that Isaiah had already seen. God is exalted in His majesty, His justice, and His righteousness. His ways and the knowledge of His Word are acknowledged as the only source of stability and strength for the nation. As for the future, the “fear of the Lord” will be a treasure of hope.

Our sin leads to judgment, separation, and destruction.

Over and over again in Isaiah and in our lives, we repeat the sequence of judgment and comfort. God provides for us an expression of justice and peace, and our sin needs to be dealt with and God’s judgment took care of that for Israel, but Jesus takes care of it in ours, stepping into history to break the cycle. When we sin, when we fall short of God’s glory, we allow our hearts to be guided and instructed by something other than the Gospel. This has an adverse reaction in our lives, we separate ourselves from God, and from each other. Because of this separation, we are vulnerable to attacks and destruction. If we look at our life, if we find ourselves separating from one another, we need to ensure that we are not causing division, but rather ask God to come close to us and bring us closer to His Kingdom and mission in the world.

We cannot allow our faith to rely upon our circumstances.

Judah sought peace with their invaders through bribes and tributes, but the invaders took the tribute, and scoffed at it, and continued to march against Jerusalem. They put their faith in objects to keep the peace, but they failed. We need to make sure that we don’t put our faith in things to lead us to peace, because only God is able to bring peace to the world. God’s peace overwhelms the world. God’s justice fills the temple and churches. Therefore, our faith must be in the Almighty, no matter what is happening all around us.

God is ready to use us, by calling us out of sin and into faith.

Worship provides Judah with stability in the midst of trouble. For God uses chaotic events are understood to serve God’s purposes. They will promote justice and righteousness which are not adequately served in our world. If we are able to step out of the chaos and trust God wants us to let go of all allegiances and follow Him, then we will rise above the conquerors and bring forth God’s Kingdom into the world. We are God’s treasure, there is no election result, no circumstance in life, nothing that separates us from God’s love. God is calling to us to be his servant in this world. 

God’s fulfilling mission is never a random act, but rather God enacting justice and grace in the world. This is executing the purpose of God into a world that is moving counter God’s mission and Kingdom. But the episode turns from the scene of chaotic defeat and plunder to celebrate Yahweh’s place in and above it all. God is in history. He determines its critical changes. There is even purpose in apparent chaos. Beyond that, God provides his most precious treasures in the sanctuary where one celebrates “the abundance of salvation, wisdom, knowledge, and fear of Yahweh,” that is, the total spiritual and worship benefits which faith makes possible for those who know themselves to belong to him.

The fact that we continue to sin reminds us that we still are products of the world. This Sunday is known as Reformation Sunday, which points to the divisions within the church. Our lives must work toward remembering that our faith must guide us away from the powers of this world into the power of the Holy Spirit. If we focus upon the power of the Holy Spirit, God uses us to bring peace, righteousness, wholeness, and grace to the world.