December 19, 2014

Luke 1:45 “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”

Solid faith is a huge blessing, for the one who believes and for those around them as well. (The Japanese translates this, “What a blessed thing it is when a person firmly believes that what God has said will absolutely come to pass.”) God doesn’t tell us to believe because it somehow boosts Him; He doesn’t need our faith. However, when we believe, we step into the flow of His grace and blessings and power, and they not only affect us, they flow through us to those around us. Mary’s faith, so beautifully displayed in yesterday’s passage, brought blessing to all mankind! When we refuse to believe – and that happens more often than we care to admit – we step out of the flow, and the results are the opposite of blessing, not because God is mean but because we have chosen it. Faith is an interesting thing. Little children haven’t yet learned to doubt, which is why they are so utterly charming. That’s why Jesus said we have to become as little children if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3) Betraying a child’s trust is a very serious thing. At the same time, faith is a gift from God. (Ephesians 2:8-9) We can never rightly be proud of our faith! However, we do have to choose to receive the faith that God offers us; this isn’t some fatalistic thing. Because God sees the end from the beginning He already knows what we are going to do, but that doesn’t mean He forces us to do it. We are all free to choose to believe, if we will, and the benefits are incalculable.

Following my parents’ lead, I have always held to never telling a child an untruth, unless the context was clear that I was playing a game. People have accused me of all sorts of things for not getting on the Santa bandwagon, for example, but why set children up for the inevitable sense of betrayal? The real story of Christmas is marvelous enough! When I was growing up, I can honestly say I got as much or more delight from seeing my family members opening the gifts I had chosen for them as I got from what I received. That in itself was a wonderful gift my parents gave me. Christmas can and should be a time of wonder and delight for adults and children alike. We don’t need falsehood to build up to a letdown.

Father, thank You for Your truth that is more wonderful than any fairy tale. I’ll have another opportunity today to tell the true story of Christmas to a group of people who probably don’t know it at all. I pray that many would choose to believe what You say through me, for their own blessing and ultimately the blessing of all with whom they come in contact. They are student nurses, so the potential is absolutely enormous. But then, the potential with You is always huge! Help me be fully yielded and obedient to You, so that Your works may be manifested through me, for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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December 18, 2014

Luke 1:37-38 “For nothing is impossible with God.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

Whatever else you say about it, the Christmas story is a story of faith, in every aspect. Yesterday we had Zechariah’s unbelief, and here we have Mary’s magnificent faith and submission. Gabriel’s words here echo throughout the ages: “Nothing is impossible for God.” After all, almost every part of the story seems completely preposterous on the face of it. Virgin birth indeed! I think one facet of God’s plan was precisely to do things so that the human intellect alone couldn’t explain them, forcing us to choose to believe. If we could figure things out on our own we would in a sense still be in control, but salvation calls for yielding all control and authority to God. It is when we not only accept what Gabriel said but also its corollary, that many things are impossible for us, that we arrive at the peace of resting in Christ. That peace is not passive, because it includes instant obedience to whatever God directs, but it is rock solid, unmoved by circumstances and events. Everyone who is honest will testify that they aren’t fully there yet, even as Paul did, (Philippians 3:12-14) but those with maturity will, like him, commit themselves to that goal. The Christmas story is so familiar to most Americans, at least, that we forget how utterly miraculous it is. It should be a call to faith to everyone, because if God could do that, He can indeed do anything.

This is a strong reminder to me. A week ago I was dreading all that was coming up on my calendar, not feeling like I had the energy or ability to do it all. That was much more like Zechariah than like Mary! In His grace the Lord has renewed my faith and with it my energy, but I shouldn’t need strong measures. God is doing wonderful things all around me, if I will only open my eyes to see them. However full my schedule might be, each thing is just another opportunity for God to show Himself powerful by using even such a one as I am. I’ve got several things happening at once today, and tomorrow it’s one thing after another. That’s no big deal for God! I am to look forward joyfully to what God is going to accomplish through all of it, and give Him the glory and praise even before I see it with my physical eyes.

Father, thank You, indeed, for this reminder. I do pray for my nursing school students as they take my exam today. Thank You for their home room teacher who has been coaching them and who has such a good attitude about it all. I pray that each student would do their honest best, and that everyone would pass. Even the school would accept that as a miracle! I pray for clarity and accuracy as I do the grading, that it would all go quickly, in time to give them the results at their Christmas party tomorrow. I pray that with all that is going on that I would be fully focused on each thing in turn, because I am focused first on You. Thank You. Praise God!

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December 17, 2014

Luke 1:18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years.”

It never struck me before, but Zechariah and Elizabeth had to be under 50, because Numbers 4 states clearly that priests and Levites were to serve from age 30 to age 50. With current medicine and life expectancies that’s not old at all! It is probable that Elizabeth was younger than Zechariah, which means that she was still in the “surprise baby” bracket, of women who think they are in menopause and so stop using birth control. In other words, the only miraculous thing about John’s conception was the healing of Elizabeth’s previous infertility, and the angelic announcement. That makes Zechariah’s skepticism all the more pronounced. In this case God was gracious enough to override that skepticism, but so often we cut ourselves off from untold blessings by failing to believe and trust God. Because John was so important to God’s plan, Zechariah got off with being struck mute for nine months, but I think God often just uses someone else, or even delays what He had planned. I see people all the time who disqualify themselves in their own minds from being used by God, somehow feeling that their weaknesses are too great for God to overcome. We forget things like Moses being 80 when he had the encounter with God at the burning bush, and having a severe stutter on top of that, and he was pretty resistant to boot! God can and will use any yielded vessel, if we will only trust Him.

Wow! I had never seen this in this passage before. Right now I am 66, more than two years older than my father was at his death and at least 16 years older than Zechariah was in this story, but not “old” by current standards. By God’s grace I have never been particularly self-limiting, being ready to try my hand at almost anything, but recently I have been using age as an excuse more and more. I am not to be presumptuous, but neither am I to draw back from anything God directs me to do. I have been quick to see how others have excluded themselves from the flow of God’s grace and power, but blind to the fact that I have the same tendency. The focus has got to be on Him, now and always. I’ve got to praise Him for what He is going to do even before I can see how it could possibly come to pass. His plans are indeed greater than I could imagine, and I’ve got to trust Him enough to be fully available to Him, however He wants to use me.

Father, thank You for this powerful Word! I really don’t know what You are going to do, but I’m getting excited! Help me approach each day, each moment, with an anticipation of Your power, Your love and grace, being manifested in, around, and even through me. May Your Name be hallowed indeed as Your kingdom comes and Your will is done, right here on this earth, for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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December 16, 2014

Isaiah 9:7 The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.

This has always been an interesting phrase to me. It’s translated pretty consistently, with the variations being between “LORD Almighty” and the more literal “LORD of Hosts,” but they all say “zeal.” Just what is zeal, anyway? The Japanese expression is literally “hot heart.” Some philosophers and theologians get all up in arms over what they call “anthropomorphism,” attributing human characteristics to God, but let’s face it: the Bible does it all the time. It may seem illogical that the Creator of the universe would have emotions, for example, but this is only one of many passages that would seem to make it very clear that He does. When we insist on thinking of Him as an old man in the sky, that is very limiting to our grasp of who and what He is. That’s indeed anthropomorphism, imagining Him to be as we are, instead of understanding what it means that He made us in His image. (Genesis 9:6) We are rational, creative, and emotional beings because He is. If He weren’t, how could He be love? (1 John 4:8) Coming back to this phrase in this verse, I feel it says that God is passionate about salvation; He really cares. Some deists posit Him as a heavenly watchmaker, winding up the universe and then leaving it alone, but that completely ignores verses like this. We need to understand that God really cares; He’s not dispassionate. That’s why Peter could say so famously, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7) “Cares” there of course includes the meaning of “takes care of,” but it certainly means that we matter to God. I think that’s what Psalm 116:15 is all about: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” God is passionate about His creation and especially about us, so much so that He sent Himself, in the Person of His Son, to take the penalty for our sin and make it possible for us to live with Him eternally. (John 3:16)

This is of course what Christmas is all about, as He has had me say repeatedly in recent days. When familiarity has dulled the wonder of Christmas I need to get a fresh vision of His passion for us that brought it all about. I will have several more opportunities to share publicly this Christmas season, and I need to let His passion infect and motivate me. After all, “enthused” means “filled with God!” Not just before groups but in personal encounters as well, I need to let God’s love bubble over through me, drawing others to Him. I’ll have at least one such opportunity today, and I must make the most of it. I need to let God’s zeal operate in and through me, to accomplish His will for His glory.

Father, thank You for the genuinely refreshing day yesterday, and for the “attitude adjustment” You’ve been doing on me. Help me meet each day throughout the rest of the season, and throughout the rest of my life, with Your zeal, Your love, Your grace, Your wisdom, so that all of Your purposes for me may be fulfilled, on Your schedule and for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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December 15, 2014

Isaiah 7:2 Now the house of David was told, “Aram has allied itself with Ephraim”; so the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.

I don’t know that I’ve ever underlined this verse, as many times as I’ve read it, but it really struck me now as a comment on the weakness and foolishness of mankind. The king and his people were emotionally completely shaken by the news they heard – as expressed in a very descriptive metaphor. Exactly the same sort of thing happens today all the time when people hear certain news. The problem with it is that it completely leaves God out of the equation. For one thing, the disaster is extrapolated: it hasn’t happened yet, but certain news convinces people it’s going to happen. As a result, people act as though the disaster were happening, or had already happened. It’s like the old saying says: “A coward dies a thousand deaths, but a brave man dies but once.” We borrow trouble that hasn’t happened yet, and suffer completely needlessly. As played out in this particular instance, God often has a better idea. The devil is out to steal, kill, and destroy, (John 10:10) and our peace is one of his prime targets. If he can get us to fantasize about horrible things, he’s pretty well done his job. That’s why the Bible tells us so many times not to be anxious: our anxiety is the opposite of faith, and it yields territory to the devil. It’s not that bad things don’t happen; Jesus was very clear on that score. (John 16:33) However, when our hearts are anchored in Him, we can rejoice regardless of the circumstances.

A very recent example came to mind as I wrote that. A lady was told that her father had maybe two months to live, and she was devastated. As it turned out he only had about two weeks, but in that interval he made a clear-cut commitment to Jesus Christ and was baptized, which is certainly rare for an 88 year old Japanese man. It wasn’t that everything was as the lady might have wanted, but her father had far less suffering from his cancer than might have been, and he gained entry into the family of God. Even closer to home, I’m in the middle of training in this area right now myself. With a packed schedule, I have stressed out to the point of digestive problems. That’s so foolish! If bad things happen, they happen, but God can use even those for good, (Romans 8:28) and He is more than capable of carrying me successfully through any schedule. You’d think I would have absorbed this lesson more thoroughly by now, but I’m still growing! I have no business “shaking like the trees in a forest in a strong wind.” Rather, I am to rest, relax, and rejoice, just as He has told me, looking forward eagerly to what He is going to do.

Father, thank You for carrying me through the day yesterday, and that everything went so smoothly. Thank You for who was present when, and for taking care of such little details as when and what to have for lunch, and having a cable to connect the keyboard to the amp for the carol sing. Thank You for having everything in the week ahead equally under control. May all Your plans be fulfilled in every detail, and may I trust You for it ahead of time, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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December 14, 2014

Isaiah 53:6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

This is perhaps the first verse I can remember having to memorize as a Royal Ambassador (a Southern Baptist boys group/club). However familiar it might be, it is vitally important. The image of a bunch of sheep wandering off in every direction is easy for most people to grasp, even if they’ve never seen an actual sheep. These days the term “sheeple” (combining “sheep” and “people”) is used for people who blindly follow whatever they are told, instead of exercising any sort of critical thinking. That too isn’t much wrong. Few animals make as many, and as important, metaphors for the human condition as sheep, so we’ve got a lot of them in the language. At least one – lambs to the slaughter – comes directly from this chapter. Comparing people to sheep makes it very clear that we need a Savior, and God provided what we need, out of His great love for us. Not only that, He told us about it centuries before Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection, so that we would have it very clearly that it was His plan, and not some coincidence. Isaiah wrote so much about the coming Messiah that his book has been called, not unreasonably, the Gospel According to Isaiah, with this chapter being one of the clearest examples of that. It all comes back to the fact that God loves us, as weak and as foolish as we are. We have such trouble grasping the magnificence of God’s plan, because it is so beyond anything we could have come up with. God never says that sin is OK; He requires payment, absolution for it. However, He knew that we could never atone for our own sin, so He provided His Son to do that for us. Getting that into our minds and hearts is the essence of salvation, but it is so huge that we spend a lifetime applying it to all the details of our lives.

On the human scale I am considered intelligent,and it took decades for me to really grasp that God’s smart and I’m not. A sheep is as good an analogy for me as it is for anyone else. I have made so many absolutely boneheaded errors, wandering off from God and refusing to listen to Him, but He in His incredible love and grace has drawn me back each time. You would think that by this time I would trust Him absolutely, but as we used to say in my family, “That’s what you get for thinking.” I get stressed out over all sorts of things, as though my Shepherd were not capable of taking care of every detail. He has told me in so many words to rest, relax, and rejoice, but I so often deviate from that. He’s got more patience with me than I do!

Father, thank You for Your overwhelming grace. Thank You for all that You brought me through, all You have enabled me to do, and that You will bring me through each future event as well, enabling me to do Your will in Your way for Your glory. I do pray for this morning’s service and for the City Carol Sing this afternoon. I pray that many would be drawn to participate and that Your Spirit would be in complete control of every detail. Help me be available enough to You to not get in Your way, even – and especially – when You want to use me to accomplish Your will. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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December 13, 2014

Isaiah 49:6 He says:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”

It is interesting that it was such a huge deal to take the Gospel to the Gentiles in the 1st Century when Isaiah had recorded this hundreds of years before. Human beings love to make “in crowds” by excluding others. Actually, our perception of ourselves and of God’s love is zero-sum, that is, for someone to be greater and receive more of God’s blessings, someone else must be lesser and receive less. The thing is, that’s not the way it is! God and His love are infinite, and one person receiving more in no way diminishes what another person can receive. God indeed chose Abraham and his descendants through whom to express His love to mankind, but for much of their history they have thought that meant everyone else was out of luck. Pointing out the fallacy in that way of thinking just about got Paul lynched, and did put him into prison for most of the rest of his life. (Acts 21 and following) Even Christians today are too prone to get into zero-sum thinking, and that is tragic. At the very least we tend to fall into I-my-me-mine thinking, concerned only for the salvation of our immediate circle. That cuts us off from more than we can imagine, because the greatest blessings come from being conduits of God’s blessings and grace to others. Jesus was commissioned as God’s Light to the nations. We will experience Him fully only when we allow Him to shine through us to the nations. This doesn’t mean that every Christian must leave their native land, but it does mean that our hearts must be open to the whole world, available for God to use us however He sees fit.

I am obviously an American ministering in Japan, but since I was born here of missionary parents, it’s debatable whether I’m a “foreign missionary.” I naturally grew up with a clear awareness of God’s love for the whole world, but I face a major challenge in leading Japanese believers into that awareness. Japanese have an ethnic identity that is comparable, in my opinion, only to the Jews. It is a major obstacle to their accepting the Gospel in the first place, because they fear becoming Christian would make them somehow less Japanese. That is lessening with succeeding generations, but its roots are very deep and strong. Actually, it is like Jews feeling that acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah will make them less Jewish. I don’t know that anyone not of that ethnicity can really grasp the depth of that feeling. It can only be overcome by a revelation of God’s love, so that is what I am to pray and work toward. It all comes back to our thinking it is a “zero-sum” game, when God is infinite. I cannot correct anyone’s thinking, even my own, by myself, so I’ve got to depend on God.

Father, this is a perennial problem. Help me keep growing, becoming more effective as Your agent, because it’s obvious that my wisdom and strength can’t get the job done. I do pray for the salvation of the Japanese people, to whom You have assigned me. May I be an unclouded glass through which the light of Christ may shine, drawing many to You for their salvation. Thank You. Praise God!

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