Commentary


Noël, our 2-year-old, loves her princess flip-flops – as did her two older sisters. Most of the princesses’ faces have long since been worn off, but there are enough remnants of sparkles and dresses to make them her favorite shoes. The only problem is that they decrease here walking capabilities by about 50%. So as we were doing a bit of walking out and about this past Saturday, I made sure I was always holding her hand. She tripped what felt like every tenth step times, but nothing drastic happened because I was able to hold her up.

I thought of that immediately as I read Psalm 37:23-24 this morning:

The steps of a man are established by the Lord,
when he delights in his way;
though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong,
for the Lord upholds his hand.”

What a beautiful truth for us as we clumsily walk through life, tripping on roots, cracks, and our own feet: that no matter how often we fall, if we would delight in his way, then God holds our hands and keeps us from utter destruction. If earthly fathers hold the hands of their children, then surely our good and loving heavenly Father has a good grip on ours.

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“One thing I have asked of the Lord,
That I will seek after:
That I may dwell in the house of the Lord
All the days of my life,
To gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
And to inquire in his temple.”

Psalm 27:4

Asking the Lord for something we desire does not eliminate the need to seek after what we desire, especially if our request is for a deeper walk with the Father. In fact, if we truly desire what we are asking for, then we will seek hard after it. Making a request of God and then not putting any feet to that request is not necessarily a sign of deep faith; it could be a sign of laziness and apathy or a revelation that what we say we truly desire is not really that deep of a longing.

Of course, that is not to reinforce the adage that, “God helps those who help themselves.” Certainly God can fulfill our desires without any help from us. But in an age where most things can be acquired with the click of button, it is good to remember that while growth in godliness, “dwelling in the house of Lord,” and understanding the radiance of his beauty are gifts of God’s gracious self-revelation, they are also things that must be sought after with unyielding tenacity. Intimacy with God and Christlikeness in word and deed are not items on Amazon that simply need to be placed in a cart and shipped overnight. Which is why it is good to talk of the fight of faith, because we must fight every day to find God as more satisfying and more to be sought after than anything else. It is good to talk of the fruit of the Spirit, because fruit takes effort to cultivate and time to blossom and ripen. And in both illustrations, our efforts, our seeking, simply yield God’s power; God fights the battle and God produces the fruit in the mysterious mixing of divine sovereignty and human responsibility.

If we long to know God and walk in his ways, we will pray fervently for his help, and we will also actively press on hard to know him. It is not one or the other: we must pray that God would allow us to know more of who he is and make us more like himself, and then we must seek after him with all our heart, banking on the encouragement and the promise of Proverbs 8:17: “I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me.”

The Magi seem to have always been a mystery to me. Ironically, I think some of the mystery stems from all of the conjecture that surrounds them. The classic example is that while they rub shoulders with the shepherds in most nativities, it’s easy to see from Matthew 2 that they didn’t arrive in Bethlehem until Jesus was almost 2 years old (Matthew 2:16). And the idea that there were three stems only from the mention of three gifts (2:11) – I assume there could have been two to 200 of these travelers. I’m not vying for their removal from nativities or the manufacturing of magi armies to put on display – we have three kings set up in our house and I find them to be a great reminder of the worship the magi brought Jesus. My point is simply that knowing so little about them from Scripture but so much about them from conjecture seems to make them more of an enigma than they should be.

One way the magi are often portrayed is that they were fully cognizant of what their journey to visit this newborn King meant. But did they understand that this was the Messiah? Or in their minds was He simply another monarch? Because they were experts in astronomy, astrology, and natural science (so says my Bible’s footnote), they had easily recognized a new star, marking the birth of a king they identified as the King of the Jews (v. 2). In response to this discovery, they set off to honor the new monarch. Had they done this in response to other stars marking the arrival of other kings in other nations? I’m not sure, but it seems possible.

They initial looked for the new King at Herod’s palace, which was the logical place to go, only to be met with confusion by Herod – confusion that led to anger. The mix-up was resolved when the magi were informed by the scribes that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, to which they went. The star they were following eventually rested over a home in Bethlehem where they found Jesus with Mary. They rejoiced and they worshipped. They offered gifts to the child in the presence of His mother, who, judging by her previous reactions, was probably equally astounded and understanding.

These magi from a far away land, non-Jews surrounded by God’s chosen people, were some of the first worshippers of Jesus. Jesus had come to His own people, but they didn’t recognize Him. Yet these gentiles were led to the Messiah by a supernatural star, and they rejoiced in a city oblivious to the royalty in its midst. Not so unlike the shepherds the magi were unlikely and unworthy worshippers of this King.

My confusion about the magi and the mystery that surrounds them in my mind begins to clear when I remember that so much about the Christmas story is not as I would expect. Why would God come to the earth He created as a baby, born of a virgin? Why would He be born in such a mean and lowly way? And why would he reveal Himself first to shepherds and magi from the east? While I ask the questions, hindsight helps me see that this was right in line with the God of grace and mercy revealed in Scripture, whose ways are not at all like mine. So I guess that’s what I’m learning from the magi this year – that with God, things are often not as we expect them. That God chooses unlikely and surprising people to reveal Himself to, but that all respond with rejoicing and worship. That Bethlehem and a manger and poverty and shepherds and magi make perfect sense for our great God.

With the amount of upheaval and change occurring in the book of Acts, you’d expect major division. There is, of course, a huge rift between Jews and believers in Jesus which is evident throughout the book. But as I have been reading lately, I am struck by the agreement amongst those who have come to faith in Christ – both former Jews and the Gentiles.

For instance, after Peter’s vision of the sheet and encounter with Cornelius, the Gentile convert, in chapter 10, Peter reports at Jerusalem that God has granted that the Gentiles, and therefore all people, should receive salvation by faith in Jesus just like many Jews had. The magnitude of that shift in salvation history is amazing! While such worldwide salvation had been hinted at even to Abraham, to see the promised Messiah as Savior for all humanity, not just the Jews, would have been quite a shock. But Luke records that, “When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, ‘Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.'” While I’m sure there were those who dissented, and we see in the epistles that this issue would continue to be a sticking point for some, Luke emphasizes an amazing, Spirit-led unity. Peter was showing himself to be the rock Jesus had said he would be, and the church was of one mind.

Such unity is seen in Acts 15 as well. Some in Antioch began teaching the necessity of circumcision for salvation, contrary to the teachings of Paul and Barnabas. So a council gets together in Jerusalem, and with the help of Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and James, they sent a letter stipulating what new believers should and should not be doing, rejecting the notion that circumcision was part of a person’s salvation. So when this letter got to Antioch, you would expect some kind of rebellion, or people splitting off to form the “First Church of Circumcision is Necessary for Salvation.” But Acts 15:31 says that the Christians in Antioch, “when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.” Again, people probably dissented and left, but Luke emphasizes a Spirit-led, miraculous unity.

With all of that said, this is the way I pray our churches function. Much of it is surely tied to leadership – Peter, Paul, and others spoke with authority because it was obvious to the people that they were seeking God’s glory and the church’s good. Also, much of it had to be tied to the people as well – they were focused on what God was doing, not what they wanted. They trusted their leaders while discerning whether or not their words were from God. So, grounded in the authority of God’s word, submitted to His Spirit, this is the way I desire to lead and follow. May my church and other churches be known, not for blind adherence to whatever people say or by a rebellious spirit that rejects thoughts contrary to my status quo, but by Spirit-led unity that rejoices whenever and however God is glorified.

In Isaiah 30, Israel was seeking refuge in the Egyptians rather than God. After rebuking them and pronouncing judgment, God says in verse 18,

Therefore, the Lord longs to be gracious to you, And therefore He waits to have compassion on you, For the Lord is a God of justice; How blessed are all those who long for Him.

 So, what keeps God from showing me grace and compassion? Verse 15 says,

For thus the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, has said, “In repentance and rest you will be saved, In quietness and trust is your strength.” But you were not willing.  

I miss His love because I am not willing to receive it – I don’t long for Him, as verse 18 says to. I don’t seek Him through repentance, rest, quietness, and trust. I hide my sin, restlessly look for satisfaction in things besides God, and trust in “Egypt” for protection and joy rather than the Holy One of Israel. Sure sounds easier to admit my sin and need, rest in Him, quiet down, and trust a God who longs to show me grace and waits to have compassion on me.

Last night, Andrea and I, along with another couple, went out for dinner and a little bowling (classy!) in honor of Mother’s Day, leaving the kids behind. It was great to interact with friends without the distraction of kids, though it did strike me as odd that we celebrated Mother’s Day by leaving behind the two little people that made them mothers in the first place.

As we were driving home, fatigue set in. We’d had a busy weekend, starting with Elaine’s birthday party, complete with both sets of grandparents and a good representation of aunts. Sundays are also busy days for us, so my drooping eyes were no surprise. Have you ever had that “All-I-want-right-now-is-my-bed” feeling? Where you know you could fall asleep in a nanosecond if given the opportunity, but something (like driving) keeps you from letting yourself go? That’s how I felt. And you can never get that feeling back, especially after dragging a pack-and-play and diaper bag upstairs. And then about 15 minutes ago I had that similar “I’m-typing-at-my-computer-but could-put-my-head-on-this-keyboard-and-be-out-like-a-light” feeling.

At the risk of making a cheesy transition, it made me think of Psalm 121:1-4:

I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; From where shall my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, Who made heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to slip; He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

It’s a simple thought, but God never tires. He never has those feelings of extreme fatigue. He is always alert and awake. And the psalmist uses this truth to encourage us that this is the God who watches over us. In the midst of difficulty or life in general, God never nods off. It’s hard to imagine, given how much sleep I need. But it sure helps me to rest, and even sleep, easy, knowing He doesn’t.

In Isaiah 3:1-4, God declares that he will take away the leaders from Israel, such that the people will make children their rulers. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that God later gives the sign of a virgin having a child to be named Immanuel as the sign of the destruction of the Aram-Israel alliance (7:1). Even more ironic are Isaiah’s words in 9:6-7, stating that God himself would make a child their leader. Yet, unlike the children chosen in 3:9, this Child would accomplish everything the leaders of Israel and Judah could not. He would be a wonderful counselor to the people, their mighty God, their eternal Father, and a bringer of ultimate peace. Also unlike previous kings, even the greatly revered David, this Child’s rule would never end – this peaceful and perfect kingdom was going to last forever. Surely this promise was a comfort to the faithful remnant as they watched kings rise and fall along with their kingdoms. They had hope that One was coming to finally bring peace, justice, and righteousness forever.

My take-aways:

  1. God is the master of turning apparently horrible and foolish things into good. In the incarnation of Christ, He would take a child born amidst scandal and make Him the ruler all had been waiting for. The world, of course, rejected Him and only mocked Him as a king, but God would use even His death to accomplish salvation for His children. I can trust Him when things are ugly or just confusing, knowing that he makes all things new and good.
  2. Peace, justice, and righteousness will never come through an earthly government. We may get glimpses of such things in current kingdoms, but until Christ returns, we will never know them fully and for all eternity. And when such a kingdom does arise, it will not be through our own working (politics, grassroots campaigns, democracy, etc.); Isaiah says, “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.” In other words, the promise of this perfect rule is completely contingent upon God Himself, so when it happens, He alone will receive the glory. Such thoughts should bring comfort, confidence, peace, and joy to my life, as it surely did to the faithful of Isaiah’s day. When those attitudes are part of my life, I am living out kingdom principles until the ultimate establishment of the kingdom. Surely more could be said about how peace, justice, and righteousness have been brought about through Jesus’ first advent, and will be seen worldwide in His second, but I’m getting in over my head now…. I need to think some more. Help is welcomed.