Friday, December 23, 2011

HOPE Floats into the New Year...

Happy New Year to one and all!
It seems like every year there are those who look forward to the beginning of a new year, because it’s like a fresh start. Maybe you are anxious to say “goodbye” to the year past-with whatever trials and tribulation, heart-breaks and struggles you may have experienced. Then there are those who can hardly bear the thought of letting the past year go because  time seems to be going so fast. Or possibly because it has been a wonderfully life-changing year or maybe it has a lot to do with fear of change or fear of the unknown and the uncertainty of what the coming year might hold.

Whatever the case may be, time marches on and we have little control over that. What we can determine, though, is how we choose to face the unknown and the challenges and struggles that will surely come our way in the year before us.

In my favorite picture of this summer past, eight of my grandchildren are featured with various expressions and emotion. Even though I took the picture, the humor of it didn’t strike me until I saw it in print. I immediately thought, “They are expressing almost every emotion that I have experienced this year!” Seriously, it makes me laugh every time I look at it.

The two youngest, Mary and Nuriah are not happy! They were tired and weary and each wanted her mommy, not more pictures. (Life, at the moment, was overwhelming them and they needed the comfort of safe arms). Two of them, Jacob and Josie, are scratching their chins with a sense of perplexity…pondering something or the other! Aiden is simply contemplating the universe as he knows it. (Personally, I spend a lot of time in contemplation, pondering life situations and trying to make sense of it and find answers that make sense! I know each of these expressions well. And “I just don’t get it” is a phrase that is not foreign to me.) 

Anna (bottom corner right) is totally in a place we affectionately refer to as “Annaland” (My children call my kindred state “Debbyland.” I think they are right next door to each other.) Ian looks like he just whacked Nuriah on the top of the head and is watching the aftermath and waiting for the consequences and his brother Ricki is laughing about the whole situation!

Laughter, wonder, frustration, consternation and ornery delight about sums it up! Well, actually I could add a few more. This year I have known anger and total bewilderment and great joy and monumental excitement and untold grief. But I have also seen miracles of the most miraculous kind! Through it all, the good, the bad and the ugly, my hope remains fully and steadfast on my Father God. I know, beyond any shadow of doubt that He loves me. He is available to me and His promises to give me HOPE for whatever this New Year holds. 

My family already knows that, the LORD willing, in May of this year we will be celebrating and rejoicing in the birth of Eli. At the same time, we are daily expecting to hear a diagnosis about another child that is already causing us to cling harder to our God. I am glad that He has given me the blessed assurance that I can bring all of my “stuff” to Him and rest easy...with HOPE!

One of my favorite songs is sung by Twila Paris. She says so well what my heart cries.

The Warrior is a Child
Lately I've been winning battles left and right 
But even winners can get wounded in the fight 
People say that I'm amazing
Strong beyond my years
But they don't see inside of me
I'm hiding all the tears

They don't know that I go running home when I fall down
They don't know who picks me up when no one is around 
I drop my sword and cry for just a while
'Cause deep inside this armor
The warrior is a child

Unafraid because His armor is the best
But even soldiers need a quiet place to rest
People say that I'm amazing
Never face retreat
But they don't see the enemies
That lay me at His feet

I know that the same hope I held onto through this last year, in my Awesome God, will float right on in to 2012 with me and I remain, as always Blessed and Highly Favored.

I don’t think it’s ever to early to begin to consider, and have a plan in mind-we plan for almost everything, don’t we? So, how will you face the coming year and whatever comes with it? I hope it will be with trust, with faith and with HOPE in Christ Jesus.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Women of Christmas...

Many years ago I read something that I have never forgotten. It was a comparison between the families of a man named Max Jukes and the family of Jonathan Edwards.
It is said...
Max Jukes lived in the state of New York. 
  • He did not believe in Christian training. 
  • He married a girl of like character. 
  • From this union men have studied 1,026 descendants. 
  • 300 of them died prematurely. 
  • 100 were sent to the penitentiary for an average of 13 years each. 
  • 190 were public prostitutes. 
  • There were 100 drunkards. 
  • The family cost the state $1,200,000. 
  • They made no helpful contribution to society.
Jonathan Edwards, one of the greatest minds God gave to America, lived in the same state. 
  • He believed in Christian training. 
  • He married a girl of like character. 
  • From this union men have studied 729 descendants. 
  • Of this number came 300 preachers 
  • 65 college professors
  • 13 university presidents 
  • 60 authors of good books
  • 3 United States Congressmen 
  • 1 vice president of the U.S., and barring one grandson, who married a questionable character, the family has not cost the state a single dollar. 
The point the author wanted to make was this...
“The difference in these two families was caused by Christian training in the home and heart conversion.”
But, is that always true? 
  • Or do you find that some good Christian parents have really troubled kids?
  • And some really dedicated servants of Christ were born into really horrific situations and to parents who probably shouldn’t have had children.
I find it really interesting and disturbing that...
  • The Old Testament gives us the reigns of good kings and bad kings. 
  • And among them, some good kings had bad sons and some bad kings had good sons.
It makes you stop to think how important and intriguing our “family tree” is.
About the same time I read the other article I also came across this poem...
Darwin’s Mistake
Three monkeys sat in a cocoanut tree
Discussing things as they’re said to be.
Said one to the others, “Now listen, you two,
There’s a certain rumor that can’t be true,
That man descended from our noble race.
That very idea is such a disgrace!”
“No monkey ever deserted his wife,
Starved her babies or ruined her life.
And another thing you will never see,
A monkey build a fence around a cocoanut tree, 
And let the cocoanuts go to waste, 
Forbidding all other monkeys from having a taste.”
“If I put a fence around this tree,
Starvation would force you to steal from me. 
And there’s another thing a monk won’t do,
Go out at night and get in a stew, 
And use a gun or club or knife,
To take some other monkey’s life.”
“So, man descended, the ornery cuss-
But, Brother, he didn’t descend from us!” 
Not even the monkeys want to climb into our family trees!
It might surprise some of you to know that even Jesus had some “skeletons” in his “family closet!”
Now, I am well aware that almost every time I preach there is discussion about the fact that I like to preach about women. And I think God kind of confirmed that for me when some one showed up in the Pastoral Offices and gave me this… (A basket FULL of dolls dressed like Biblical Women. By-the-way, my response to this observation is that I have listened to men preach about men my whole life and there is a lot we can learn from the women in the Bible!)
Now, if you were me what would you think?
We’re going to take a look at one aspect of the “family tree” of Jesus Himself...the human side of his family, that is. We’re going to look at an unusual and startling characteristic of Matthew’s genealogy. 
You see, Matthew included five women in his genealogy of Christ.                                                     
This is astonishing because...
  1. Jews did not make a habit of including women in their genealogical records. 
Not only that, but....
  1. Four of the five women had questionable if not disreputable histories. 
Four of them were women with “stuff” like you and me...
I quickly realized last week that I bit off far more than I could give justice to in trying to tell all of these women’s stories adequately. They each deserve a sermon of their own!

The first of the five women is Tamar…
1. Tamar was the daughter-in-law of Judah, one of the 12 sons of Jacob. 
I have ALWAYS considered that what she did is far from incredulous…it was scandalous. Every time I get to the point, in ministry where I think nothing could surprise me, something does! And Tamar’s story always has.
It seems as though…it appears to be that it was her very foolish attempt to…
  • Get what she wanted  
  • Maybe even to be spiteful and vindictive 
  • And certainly to make a fool out of her father-in-law
  • On the surface you might even consider it to be incredibly rebellious
Anyway, it is beyond my ability to understand the lengths she went to in order to conceive and bear a child, but there is so much more involved in her story that I will be studying it some more!
Her story is found in Genesis 38. 
  • Again, she was the daughter-in-law of Judah. Her husband, Judah’s son,  was described as a wicked man, had died and left her a childless widow 
  • As was the custom, Judah then gave her to her brother-in-law, but whatever children she would have from him would be considered her first husband’s
  • He, too, was a wicked man, and though he took his pleasure in their relationship, he  refused to get her pregnant. 
  • Then, he too died and she was widowed again. 
  • Judah wasn’t real anxious to lose yet another son, but he did promise her if she would wait until son number three grew up he could marry her. 
  • I don’t think she was crazy about that idea, so Tamar disguised herself as a harlot and placed herself in a position where Judah would “run across her in his travels!”
  • He propositioned her, she made a deal with him, she got pregnant and she became the mother of twins; one of whom was Perez. 
  • But, if she hadn’t been as smart as she was when she made the deal with Judah, he could have had her stoned to death when he found out she was pregnant!
  • Only he got caught in his own sin! 
Like I said I have always considered her to be totally scandalous…until, upon further research I discovered that there was far more to this story than what meets the eye and it would take a WHOLE sermon to even begin to explore why she did what she did and why Judah winds up declaring that she was “more righteous then he.” 
2. Rahab didn’t pose as a harlot, she was a harlot.  She lived in an enemy city: Jericho. 
I love the story of Rahab. I recount what we know about her at women’s retreats, when I am teaching on the issue of fear. You can read about Rahab in Chapters 2 and 6 of Joshua. (Some believe she may have been an innkeeper, but the Bible refers to her as a “Harlot.”
She was the woman who hid the spies who came to Jericho to scope it out before the Children of Israel overtook it. The spies promised to spare her life and the lives of her family if they were all in her home and if she had a red cord hanging from her window.
If you know the story of the Battle of Jericho, you know that the “walls came tumbling down” and Rahab and all of her family was spared. From there they joined the children of Israel where she remained for the rest of her life, marrying one of the Israelites and bearing him a son.
I use Rahab’s story to illustrate three aspects of fear that you and I don’t need to deal with!
  • First: We don’t need to fear the future
God had a plan for the woman who believed in the God of the Israelites. She was secure because of her faith in the Israelite God.
  • Secondly: We don’t need to fear the present
While everyone else in Jericho was melting in fear because of the Children of Israel and their God, she was obedient and God was faithful to provide a way for her to escape the coming destruction. Rahab could rest secure.
  • Thirdly: We don’t need to fear our past
Rahab was a woman who had a very colorful past.                                                            
She was known by her job description... 
  • “Rahab the harlot” or 
  • “Rahab the prostitute” 
  • She was actually known by her sin! Ouch. 
How many of us would want to be identified by our sin. 
  • Adam the alcoholic
  • Ralph the cheater
  • Tom the deceiver
  • Patty the gossip
Yet, Rahab’s story reminds us that, because of Christ and His work in our life,  we can walk into our future and leave the past behind. 
When Rahab took up residence and married an Israelite, she was no longer a prostitute. 
  • She was a wife, a mother and she became a part of a community. 
  • She no longer needed to fear her past. 
  • She was FREE! I like to think the children of Israel allowed her the freedom among them to be the faith filled woman God called her to be.
  • Rahab is a reminder of the transforming power of a life defined by Christ and not our sin. 
He also had a future hope for her. 
  • One that would eventually bring us Jesus! 
  • Her story reminds us that with Jesus comes freedom and life transformation!
3. Ruth’s story is, not surprisingly, found in the book of Ruth. 
Her story actually begins with her father-in-law, his wife Naomi and her two sons. They left Bethlehem during a time of great famine and went to the land of Moab where both of their sons married Moabite women, one of them being Ruth. 
Then all three of the men had the nerve to up and die and leave the three women as widows...not good! 
So here was Naomi…
  • Widowed
  • In a strange land
  • With no relatives and no source of income and 
  • Two Moabite daughter-in-laws. 
  • She decided to take a chance and return to Bethlehem in hopes that friends or family would help provide for her. 
  • Even though she suggested that both of her daughters-in-law should return to their own families, Ruth refused. 
She chose to go with her mother-in-law with the well-know words, Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”
Back in Israel Naomi was welcomed home and she and Ruth found favor with one of Naomi’s late husband’s relatives...a wealthy land owner. One night, in another custom that we do not understand, Naomi sent Ruth to lie at the feet of Boaz; an act which, eventually, led to their marriage and the birth of the son Obed...
Who continues the geneoalogy of Jesus....
Obed would become the grandfather of King David who leads to the next woman in the family tree....
4. Bathsheba
  • Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, who was a soldier in the army of King David. 
It was the spring of the year when King David should have been out waging war with his armies. Instead, he is hanging out on the palace roof and discovers Bathsheba, Uriah the Hittite’s beautiful wife, taking a bath. He summons her to the palace, seduces her and guess who becomes pregnant? 
So David, desperate for a solution to his indiscretion, attempts to cover up his sin by calling Uriah home and sending him to his wife hoping that it will appear to everyone that Uriah is the father of Bathsheba’s child. 
But Uriah is an honorable and loyal man. He refuses to go to his wife and spends the night sleeping outside of the palace. So then David sends him back into battle with instructions to his captain to put Uriah in the front of the line where he is promptly killed by the enemy.
Well, of course, that solves David’s problem and he is now free to marry Bathsheba and all seems to have worked out, but not really. David is confronted with his sin and cover up by the Prophet Nathan and the result is that the child dies. 
It’s hard to know how much responsibility Bathsheba held in this sordid situation. Was she a willing participant or an obedient subject to the king? We don’t know.
Whatever the case, I can’t help but believe that she suffered the consequences to a greater degree than David. First she lost her husband and then she lost her child. David seems to always maintain his reputation as “a man after God’s own heart” regardless of his poor choices or foolish indiscretions, but I doubt if Bathsheba was ever viewed favorable. Even in the genealogy she is referred to as Uriah’s wife! 
Four women whose stories bring us some incredible truths and are helpful for us to remember...

Tamar, who was overlooked and shamed for years before she conceived, reminds us that Jesus would restore personal equality and the dignity to those who are His own.

Rahab reminds me of those who know they are spiritually and emotionally sick and need a Savior. 
  • Those who know there is something better than what they are living. 
  • Those who have frightful pasts that leave them feeling worthless and hopeless and helpless
  • Those who feel trapped in difficult or ugly situations
  • Those who have made poor life choices and are living the consequences
  • Those who carry deep seeded wounds and regrets
                                        Jesus came to save women like this.
Ruth: a Gentile, a Moabitess no less, Ruth's presence also indicates something Matthew will be emphasizing, Jesus came to save every ethnic group
The presence of non-Jewish women in Jesus' genealogy was God's way of showing that, while the law required Jesus' male ancestors be Jewish, the Gentile women did not taint Jesus. Matthew makes a point here about God's inclusive plan by using Gentile women. Jesus was for all people. 
Bathsheba proves that God can use even the worse possible situations and our poorest decisions to bring blessing on earth.
  • God can turn our hopeless situations into victories
  • He can redeem our mistakes
  • He can even redeem the things done to us by others!
  • He can...if we let Him
Then there is woman number FIVE...

5. Mary the mother of Jesus. Who must have experienced misunderstanding for her entire life, but who was the first human participant in the incarnation.
Mary is an enigma to me. 
I find her to be, in some ways,
  • Mysterious
  • Puzzling 
  • Difficult to understand...
Neither Matthew the Ex-Tax Collector or Luke the Physician give us anywhere enough information about least for my liking! There is so much more I would like to know about her. 
Here’s what we need to know…
  • What had led up to her full acceptance? 
  • In other words, what might she have known or experienced, up to this point, that would have caused her to be able to say...
                  “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.” 
Wouldn’t that have taken....
  • Great courage 
  • Colossal faith
  • And either Exceeding boldness or humble strength
  • It would have required a very special young woman...
  • Not one who seems as sullen and possessed by attitude as the one in The Nativity movie!
In order for God to have chosen Mary to be the mother of Jesus, I believe, she had to possess at least three redeeming qualities...
1. She had to have been a young woman of faith. It may have been a young faith, but even young faith can move mountains!
2. She must have had the ability to trust God wholeheartedly
3. She knew obedience. She knew how to obey. 
As far as we know she...
  • Asked a couple of questions to satisfy her curiosity. 
  • She wanted to know how this all was going to come about.
  • She didn’t protest
  • She didn’t argue
  • She didn’t make excuses
  • She didn’t attempt to escape what was about to happen to her
  • She didn’t offer her own suggestions for a better way to accomplish God’s goal
How many of us would have quickly tried to come up with an alternate plan...
  • One that suited us better than this one? 
  • One that was less costly to us personally?
Or how many of us would have responded with an... 
“Okay, but...!”
  • “Have you thought about this?”
  • “Have you considered that?”
  • “Couldn’t we do it this way, or that way, or any other way, but this way?”
  • “God, have you really thoroughly thought this out?” 
  • “Do you know what you’re asking me to do?” 
  • “Hello??? Is anyone listening to me?”
But Mary simply said, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.” 
I think we can learn a whole lot from a young, simple woman in a small Jewish community.
Beginning with, but not limited to...
  • Faith
  • Trust 
  • Obedience
And not just simple obedience...
I’m going to call Mary’s kind of obedience “Hard Core Obedience!”
  • She wasn’t being told to perform just any simple act of obedience!
She was being asked to risk EVERYTHING
  • The ire and disbelief of her parents
  • Public humiliation
  • Her own and her families and Joseph’s reputation
  • Her future and the plans that had been made for her life as the wife of Joseph
  • Her very life itself!  (Joseph had every right to demand that she be stoned to death.)
Everything this young woman knew and who she was in her community were going to be on the line. 

And she said...
  • “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.” 
What if Mary had used the...
  • “I’m not good enough” card?
  • Or the one that says, “I’m not worthy.” 
  • “I’m too bad to ever be chosen by God.” 
  • “This has to be a mistake!”
Instead, Mary lays aside
  • Fear or 
  • Anxiety 
  • Or anxiousness, 
  • With her perplexity and her questions...
  • She takes her little foot and grinds it all into dust and throws it to the wind and she says...“I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.” 
And, rather than OPTING OUT, she chooses to ELECT TO RECEIVE!                                                              And she considers herself to be “blessed and highly favored.”
After all…
  • He heard it from the angel of God
  • Elizabeth confirmed it
  • And you know the spirit of God within her testified to it too, she was indeed “blessed and highly favored”
Each situation reminds us of the faith of someone in the face of the many Jews who lacked faith
  • Tamar's faith to fulfill the law, even when her father-in-law denied her another husband
  • Rahab's faith in contrast to Israel's desert skeptics 
  • Uriah's faith, a Hittite, to go to battle and refuse to sleep with his wife, Bathsheba, even through the King David commanded him to do so (to cover up his sexual liaison with her and the new pregnancy)
  • Ruth's faith to return with Naomi to learn a new God and a new people. Ruth, the foreigner, worked for food and found provision during the time of the Judges when most of Israel was faithless.
  • Mary's faith that God would give her a son who would be Messiah, even while most religious teachers and leaders never acknowledged him or gave him with their approval.
Next time you’re feeling...
  • Marginalized
  • Ignored
  • Unacceptable
  • Useless
  • Like you will never outlive your past
Next time you’re feeling...
  • Like a failure
  • Like you’ll never overcome your situation   
  • Like life is too hard
  • And you’re incapable, unworthy and not good enough
  • Fill in your own blank…
Take a few moments to remember...
  • Tamar the Canaanite
  • Rahab the ex-prostitute from Jericho
  • Ruth the Moabitiess
  • Bathsheba the Hittite
For we know that in Christ…
“...there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” 
And He is the reason we celebrate...
  • The Christ for All Seasons
  • He is the Christ for All Nations
  • For All Peoples
  • All Generations...And can I add all ages?
There were two more very important people who must be added to the list of “blessed and highly favored” by God and very much a part of the Christmas story…
  • Elizabeth: Mary’s cousin who, as a woman advanced in age, would yet give birth to the man who would be known as John the Baptist and had her own incredible experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit and recognizing that the child Mary carried was the Christ Child.
  • Anna: The 84 year old prophetess who spent her life in prayer and fasting waiting for the Messiah. And she wasn’t disappointed. 
For those of you who just aren’t FEELING blessed and highly favored I want to share something with you. I wrote this two years ago about my grandchildren.
It’s called… Pondering Favorites
I was talking with a friend a couple of years ago while we waited for our swim class to begin at the YMCA. Somehow the conversation came to the point where she said, "I don't know about God. I am NOT one of His favorites." I was stunned. You see the One she so coldly and  impersonally referred to as "God," is the One I most often refer to as "Father God." He is my Heavenly Father and I had never considered, to that point anyway, whether or not He had favorites or "played" favorites. 
Okay, so this week I began to ponder this question again. The stirrings began after I left three of my grandchildren last Saturday. My daughter Lolly is the mother of Jacob who will be seven at the end of September and Anna who will be two in November and then in July she gave birth to baby Mary. Trust me...I am crazy about these kids...I love them to pieces and they are only three of a total of eight. At this point in my life I feel truly blessed in the "grandmother" area.

So I love these kids, but the question is, "Do I have a favorite?"
Well, it would certainly appear as if I do. You know that Mary, at just a few weeks old, has simple needs and is only now beginning to smile and respond to those around her. I love to snuggle with her, care for her and, every week, I am anxious to see how much she has grown. But really, Mary doesn't yet know that I will one day be her favorite grandma.

And then there is Jacob, nearing 7, ready to start full day, all day school. He is busy. He is preoccupied. He barely has time to tell his grandma hello before he is off and running or caught up in whatever it is that has captured his attention for the moment. And, if there are any of his "others" around, like cousin Julia or Lil' Ricki, well forcing a hug and a moment of attention is stretching his patience considerably.

And then there is Anna. When this grandma walks in the door she can't get to me quick enough. She throws herself in my arms and begins a steady stream of conversation. She is learning quickly to know that, she may be "daddy's angel" but she's "Grandma Deb's girl." She wants all of my time and all of my attention. She hasn't necessarily expressed jealousy when I am holding Mary, but she certainly wants me to make room on my lap for her. When I am around even "the momma" (who is probably her favorite person in the whole world) seems to take second place, and she is not above brushing off her other favorites for me, either.

I suppose you can guess how I respond to Anna's overtures of love and affection. And, I suppose, to some, it would appear that Anna is my favorite. But think about it for a moment and ponder why it might just be that someone who feels like, "I am NOT one of His favorites" would come to that conclusion. Consider the responses I receive from these three grandchildren and relate it to how we respond to God. 
There are those of us who, like Mary, are infantile in our relationship with Him. It’s about our basic needs and not much more. Or we can be like Jacob, busy and preoccupied with other people or other things. Our world teaches self-reliance and all the other "self" stuff.

Now consider Anna's response. Doesn't it make sense that those of us who run into "Father God's" arms, who long to spend time with Him, who are persistent in communication with Him, who express love and affection in numerous ways....well, no wonder someone would think "I am one of His favorites!" Aren't I? Or does it just appear that way?

I think the bottom line here is this. I believe He loves us all equally, but doesn't it make sense that, if we are responding to God like Anna responds to me, our relationship with Him will be more delightful, more fulfilling and more satisfying...and it might even appear as if we are His favorite? 
Seven Women...the “women of Christmas”  
Saints and sinners...were, in one way or another chosen by God to be a part of the greatest miracle of all time. 
I believe each one of them was Blessed and Highly Favored by God for a purpose...
  • For a reason
  • Each one had a significant part to play
I believe what every chosen child of God is also “blessed and highly favored.”
  • God’s blessing and His favor are not reserved for just a few
  • But for everyone who chooses to believe and lives accordingly. 
Mary the Mother of Jesus considered herself to be blessed and highly favored because she was chosen to carry the Christ child.
  • Every believer in Jesus Christ is blessed and highly favored, as well.
  • Each of us has been chosen to bear the image of Jesus Christ in Christlikeness.
  • We have been chosen to be the Temple of the Holy Spirit...He should reside in you moment by moment...not just for nine months!
  • You have been chosen to exude his sweet aroma and to carry His love letter to the world.
  • Each one of us, as Children of the Most High God are Blessed and Highly Favored.
Look at the person next to you and say, 
"I am blessed and highly favored, are you?"