Many of you might remember the Biosphere project near Tucson. It was an experiment in living in a contained and close to perfect environment. It was an amazing idea and there is still work that goes on there, but the scientists have learned some interesting things. They grew trees in this near perfect environment, but the trees fell over before they fully matured. It made no sense because the environment was so close to perfect. And then they realized this near perfect environment was lacking something…wind. Wind provides the stress trees need to ensure they grow strong enough to support themselves. You see, many of us would love to have lives without storms, stress, and challenges. It would just make things so much easier. But that is not what we have been given because like the trees in the biosphere we need the storms, wind, and challenges so we can put down deep roots. That is what having a relationship with Jesus does for us. We grow stronger when we are in Him and in His word. I saw a sign once that said, “A Bible that is falling apart belongs to someone who isn’t.”
Here is a quote from a book you don’t often hear of…Zephaniah! “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you by His love; He will exult over you with loud singing.” Zephaniah 3:17. God is speaking to the residents of the Southern Kingdom of Judea. They have strayed from God and His covenant promises to them. They have seen the destruction that occurred when the Assyrians overran the Northern Kingdom, scattering the people. But they are hardened and pay no attention. Judah is weakened because of storms, winds of fighting and now they are in the presence of Mighty God. But instead of fleeing in the face of danger, God will save His people. And when He does it is time for celebration…singing and great joy. God will be with us in the middle of the storm.
We see pictures of God’s presence in the storms of our lives in many places in scripture. In Matthew 23:37 Jesus laments over the upcoming storm that will strike Jerusalem. “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” It is a picture of shelter in a storm. This does not mean there will not be storms. There will, sometimes just squalls and other times the storms will roll over us like a hurricane. But Jesus is good in storms. In Matthew 8:26 we find Jesus and the disciples in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is exhausted and lies down for a nap in the boat. A fierce storm blows up and the disciples are terrified, certain they will drown. They wake Jesus and he stands up in the boat and rebukes the wind and the waves and immediately there is calm. Our storms do not always pass that quickly, but Jesus is in the middle of them nevertheless.
The psalmist reminds us in Psalm 107:29, “He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed.” It is interesting that many of the pictures of Jesus in the midst of a storm involve water. Perhaps because when we have troubles, challenges, struggles, wind, it feels like waves are crashing over us and sometimes it feels like we can’t even come up for air. Jesus is in the midst of all that…always.
Jesus warned us that even life in Him would not be smooth sailing. “I have said these things to you that you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble but take heart, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33. When the winds blow in our lives, when waves crash and storms engulf us, we long for peace and connection. We need to know, to feel, like we are not alone. We want to know we are not walking in the darkness alone. Jesus went out of His way to pay the debt of our sin and make a way for us to spend eternity with Him in heaven. But He also taught and preached and showed us that in Him we have a place of refuge. This year in particular there have been a variety of storms. And just like the Atlantic hurricane season with its 30 named storms, we have felt buffeted by storms that seemed to come from every which way. Jesus was and still is in the middle of all of them.
Storms are never fun, and they can be destructive. But they give us a chance to rebuild our lives stronger than they were before. They cause us to move even closer to Jesus because He is our safe place. Storms and wind and challenges make us strong. We learn to face into the wind knowing that everything in our lives to that point has made us stronger.
Paul says this about storms and wind. “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Most of us would find it peculiar to rejoice in suffering but not Paul. For him that meant he was worthy to endure some of what Jesus did while on earth. I don’t know anyone who has suffering, storms, challenges, or wind on their bucket lists. But they come anyway. The good news is that God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble.
The wind will blow. We will know challenges. And they will make us strong, not in our own strength, but in the strength Jesus gives us. That is the best strength there is.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W
There is a story told about two angels who were visiting on earth. They stopped to spend the night with a wealthy family, but the family treated them shabbily and instead of offering the guest room they showed the angels to the basement. As they prepared to sleep for the night the older angel noticed a hole in the wall, so he repaired it. When the younger angel asked why, the older angel said, ’things aren't always what they seem.’ The next night they arrived at the home of a very poor family. The family shared what little they had and gave them their bed for the night. The next morning the angels found the farmer and his wife in tears. Their only cow, their source of income was dead in the field. The younger angel was angry, asking how the older angel could have let this horrible thing happen. Again, the older angel said, ’things aren't always what they seem.’
And then the older angel explained. When we were in the basement of the mansion, I noticed there was gold stored in the wall where the hole was. But since the owner of the mansion could think only of money, I covered the hole in the wall so he wouldn't find it. Last night as we slept in the farmers bed the angel of death came for his wife. I gave him the cow instead. Things aren't always what they seem. That is true in our lives as well. How many of us have come into a room to hear only part of a conversation and based on what we have heard, we jump to conclusions. We do not know the entire story. And that affects many things in our lives, relationships in particular. Sometimes we hear an entire story, but we misunderstand the meaning.
Take for instance the story of David and Goliath. For most of us this is a story about a giant bully and a puny shepherd. But when we look closer that isn't what the story is about at all. When we read this story the first thing we see is that Goliath was so big and intimidating people wanted nothing to do with him. David was the youngest of Jesse’s sons and a shepherd. He had gone to the battle front to bring food and supplies to his older brothers who were fighting, and he heard Goliath bellow his threats. For forty days Goliath had come forward and taunted the Israelites. The curious thing is that Goliath calls David to come to him rather than going to meet him. Even though scripture tells us Goliath sees David is a youth he may not have seen well enough to be the right distance from David to attack.
But there is more. We look at David as going into battle with Goliath with ’only’ a sling, like David is carrying the kind of slingshot we used when we were kids. But this is not the case at all. Goliath may have thought the same thing. But things are not always what they seem. There were armies that used a sling as a very effective weapon and many if not all shepherds carried them to help protect their flocks. David had had a lot of practice with a sling, taking care of his father's sheep. And he was good with a sling.
When we see David offer to fight Goliath the first thing king Saul did was doubt his abilities because of his age. But shepherds began their training early and they were tough. Having David face Goliath was a long shot at best and Saul wanted nothing more than to defeat the Philistines. Saul offered David his armor. There was a helmet of bronze for his head which would have been heavy. Next came a coat of mail which was intended to help ward off arrows and swords. Meat cutters today wear gloves of mail to protect their hands from knife cuts. And then came Saul’s sword which also was heavy. All of this was foreign to David and it weighed him down. He knew he could not fight in this armor, so he politely gave them back to Saul. Instead, he took his sling and he picked up five smooth stones and headed off to meet Goliath.
We know how the story ends. David takes one stone, puts it in his sling and launches it at Goliath's head. The stone sank deep into his forehead and Goliath fell on his face to the ground, dead. What happened in this story was not a good battle plan, putting your youngest and least experienced fighter on the front line. But things are not always what they seem. Great leaders know that the real key to success is knowing who they have and what they are capable of. That makes all the difference. Misconceptions often cloud our decision making. So does not hearing or understanding the whole story. We judge by looks, stature, and perhaps even reputation. We make decisions based on someone else's experiences. But things are not always what they seem.
When Jesus was born, he didn't look like the Savior of the world. When Saul was persecuting Christians, he didn't look like one of the most powerful instruments for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. David out in the field tending his father's flocks didn't look like the next king of Israel. A young Mary didn't look like the one who would bear and raise the Son of God. And Abraham and Sarah didn't look like parents when Isaac was born. But with God some things aren't what they seem. In fact, I think God likes to surprise us.
Christmas is this week. I pray for you joy in the birth of the Christ child, peace in the love of Jesus and hope in the promises of God. But be on the lookout. Things aren't always what they seem!
In His Grip Pastor
Pastor Matt W
Over the years I have had occasion to take many trips. Some of them were short weekend trips and others stretched blissfully for two weeks. But regardless of where I was going, I had to pack. If the trip was to camp or on a retreat, I have a certain bag that I use. It is just the right size for everything I need for the weekend. If I was going to F.R.O.G. Camp I had a different bag. LOTS more things went to that camp. Things like one set of clothes specifically for messy games. And we always needed something specific for the skits the last night. If we go to Wisconsin to visit family in the winter it is a totally different packing experience than if we go in the summer. And depending where our adventures take us, we pack accordingly. There is a sense of excitement when the suitcases come out because it means the time has come to start the adventure, whatever that might be. It might mean going places we have never been before, eating food we have only heard about, and meeting people from all over the world.
Travel is a bit dicey right now and many have put plans on hold for the time being. The suitcase has gone back in the closet and the dreams will have to wait. But sometimes we have no choice but to go. Work beckons or there is a family emergency.
There are 90 miles between Nazareth and Bethlehem. Depending on the route Mary and Joseph took, the trip may have taken up to seven days. Their life together had already faced stiff challenges. They were betrothed to be married...engaged we would say. But betrothal was just as binding as marriage and if the groom died before they married, the woman was considered a widow. Both Mary and Joseph had been visited by the angel Gabriel. He announced to Mary that God had chosen her to bear His Son. And Gabriel had come to let Joseph know that Mary was in fact telling him the truth about how she became pregnant. No doubt they had endured the gossip, finger pointing and even shunning that had occurred since those events nearly nine months prior. And now it was time to pack for a journey. They didn't have fancy suitcases and they had few things to pack. But they were pretty sure Mary would give birth before that could get back to Nazareth. We read in Luke's gospel, ”And while they were the time came for her to be delivered and she gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped Him in Swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger.” Travel was more than a bit dicey for them.Rome had called for a census so they knew how much tax they could collect.
The trip would have been fairly grueling, the terrain going uphill and down. Sometimes people would travel up to 20 miles in a day but with Mary's pregnancy they may have only covered ten. They were poor and probably couldn't afford to stay in Bethlehem long. One scholar wrote “the trip through the Judean desert would have taken place during the winter, when it is in the 30’s during the day and its often rains like crazy. It is nasty, and miserable and at night it would have been freezing.” And to make the journey even more of an adventure the forested valley of the Jordan River found lions and bears living there. No tigers though. Often there were also wild boars that had to be fended off. Bandits and pirates of the desert were also major hazards. They would have traveled with their own provisions, which would have been far from gourmet food. And if they could have found a group that was going their speed, they would have joined it just for safety's sake.
In addition to packing food, they would have had to pack things for the baby soon to be born. No doubt there was a fair amount of worry that this child would be born while they were on the road. It was bad enough they had to travel at all. And it was even worse that there would be no family to help or to celebrate. It isn't like the baby would have had much. Babies were wrapped in bands or strips of cloth...swaddled in fact. And He would have needed a warm blanket.
As I think about Jesus birth there was not much ordinary there. The traveling and the census, having no room but a stable for His birth, his first visitors unclean shepherds and later Wise Men from the East. And yet, it was very ordinary. Like so many others in Judaea at that time, Mary and Joseph were poor. Jesus was swaddled just like every other child. In Judaea at that time musicians from the town or village would gather at the house of a family who was having a baby. If the child was a boy, they would play, and dance and a street party would ensue. Mary and Joseph missed out on that as well, but the shepherds didn't. Little did Mary and Joseph know a time was coming when they would be packing up to travel farther South...all the way to Egypt. But that is a different story!
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W
Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian who lived in Haarlem, near Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Her Father was a watchmaker, a craft he taught her. Together with the rest of the family they lived a good life there. But WWII intervened and many of the businesspeople and friends who lived and worked on their street were Jewish. As fear spread through Europe, some of the ten Boom’s neighbors came to them and asked to hide in their home. They lived above the watch shop. Over the course of the war not only did Corrie and her family hide people, but they also helped them escape. She believed what she and her family were doing was the will of God. They not only opened their home to Jews but also to members who were part of the resistance movement. They had a special room built in the family’s quarters that became known as the ‘Hiding Place’. She has written a book by this name and if you haven’t read it, check it out. It is estimated that over 800 Jews were saved by the ten Boom’s efforts.
The ten Booms were eventually betrayed and Corrie, her sister and their father were ultimately taken to Ravensbruck concentration camp. It was there that Corrie led Bible studies with a small testament she had managed to smuggle past many different guards, through searches and moves. Both Corrie’s father and sister died in prison. After the war Corrie returned to Amsterdam and once again began helping people. After she wrote ‘The Hiding Place’ she toured the world speaking about not only WWII but the hope she has in Jesus Christ. She even had an encounter at a speaking event in Germany with one of the cruel guards from the concentration camp. God gave her the strength to forgive this man. But she writes it was only with God’s help that she was able to forgive.
I came across another quote of hers the other day. And it is a good reminder for us. She wrote, “Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength…carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength.” It is so easy to get caught up in worry. Some of us figure if we worry enough, the very thing we are worrying about will not happen. But many more of us just worry. We worry about health, relationships, work, family, the state of the country and world, how we will pay our bills. People use meditation, yoga, psychotherapy, and meds to calm their anxiety. And they all have their place but there is another place for us to go and that is the Bible. The very place Corrie and her sister went every day.
Think about the worry for the Israelites as they stood on the bank of the Red Sea watching the Egyptian army closing in. But God provided a way for them. And the early disciples who preached and lived-in worry over what the Roman authorities might do to them. God provided a way for them to continue serving Him as well. Members of the early church faced persecution on a daily basis and God made a way for them. Today is no different in some parts of the world. Those who follow Jesus and share with others live in great danger in 51 countries around the world. But God is still making a way for people to live and move and have their very being…in Him.
The message of the Bible to the worriers both then and now is this: God is our rock. He is our refuge and strength. He will make a way for us to move forward in His strength. Look at Matthew 6:27-28. “And which of you by worrying can add a single hour to their span of life? And why are you worrying about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” If God takes care of the lilies in the field who many never see, how much more will He care for us? Or these words from John 14:27. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” This is the peace that passes all human understanding, the peace only Jesus can give. When we rest in Him, when we let Him carry the burdens of our days, we will know that peace. And in that peace, we have no need to worry. God knows our needs and He has promised to never leave us or forsake us. That does not mean we will have smooth sailing for our lives just because we believe. It means we will have a place to turn when life gets challenging. And again, from Matthew: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own troubles.” The thing is, we cannot do anything about what happened yesterday. That is why it is called the past. And we cannot do anything about tomorrow, the future. We live today. It is a gift which is why it is called the present. This is the day that the Lord has made. We have new mercies and another opportunity to draw closer to God…every day.
Please allow me to leave you with Paul’s words. “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W
Today's writing will be a bit different than some of the others. As we move closer to the end of this year and the beginning of the next, I want to share our family journey for the year 2021. Beginning January 1,2021, we will be reading the Bible all the way through, one day at a time. From Genesis to Revelation we will journey, beginning to the end. Our Sunday morning preaching/teaching will be based on the reading from the previous week. So, on the first Sunday in January, the third, we will preach from the readings on January 1 and 2. This Sunday we will have several study Bibles available for purchase if you need a study Bible. And for those of you who want to use your current Bible, we will attach the reading plan to several of the daily writings. Having said that let me share some things about the book that is always on the best seller list.
The Bible is a book of books. It is the Word of God. It is comprised of 66 books divided into the Old and New Testaments. There are 39 books in the Old and 27 in the New. It was written over a period of 1,500 years by 40 different authors, in three languages...Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. The Bible was written in the wilderness, in dungeons and prisons, palaces, on the battlefield and while traveling. David wrote during war and Solomon during peace. Some of the Bible was written amid great joy and others of it during deep sorrow, despair, and pain.
Moses was a political leader trained in the universities of Egypt. Peter was a fisherman. Amos was a herdsman. Joshua was a general and Nehemiah a cup bearer for the king. Paul was a rabbi and Daniel a prime minister. Luke was a doctor and Solomon a king. And God used all of them. Everything in the Old Testament points forward to the coming of the Messiah. Everything in the New Testament points backwards at what Jesus did for us on the cross. Everything in scripture points towards Jesus. Over 100 million Bibles are sold every year and 20 million are sold in the U.S. every year. The full Bible has been translated into 700 languages and the New Testament into another 1,548 additional languages. It was copied by hand for centuries, first onto highly perishable papyrus.
We read in 1 Peter 3:15, ”But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” We have great hope in our faith in Jesus Christ and what He has done for us. And that is for us to share with those who do not know. But in order to be able to share our hope, we need to know Jesus. Reading scripture is most often where we meet Him. We also read in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All scripture is God breathed and useful for teaching, for reproof, correction and for training in righteousness.” When we read scripture, we can find all manner of things. We find hope, peace, grace and love. Sometimes we find ourselves convicted of something we need to work out.
Reading the Bible helps ground us in faith and helps us to grow in spiritual maturity. Reading the Bible through requires discipline. When we read it is helpful to begin our reading by asking God to open our hearts and minds to what He has for us that day. And it is helpful to read at the same time every day. Not only that but it helps to find a quiet place to read. If you have questions as you read It is helpful to keep a notebook or notepad next to you as you read. If you have questions, feel free to ask. You can text, call or email me.
This is going to be an amazing journey. In fact, it will be the journey of a lifetime. I can't wait to join you as we journey through the Bible.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W
Hi everybody it's me Casper again and I have some things to share with you. My dad talks about this guy named Pastor Dick. I don't know him, but he seems like a pretty special guy and my dad says it was a privilege to serve God with him. Anyway, one of the things Pastor Dick used to say was we don't have it all together but together we have it all. And that started me thinking. I have lots of time to do that while my mom and dad are at work. My dad says God gives all of us gifts, maybe even me. But nobody gets all the gifts or skills or talents. So that means if we are going to do everything that God wants us to, we have to work together. And it means that everybody is important. From everything I have heard this has been a really hard year so it must mean that working together is even more important than ever.
My dad keeps talking about how so many people are afraid to go out of their houses and how they are watching church on their computers and televisions. That means it is hard for everybody to get together. So then there must be ways to work together even though we are not in the same place. Like everybody can pray at the same time for the same things. And everybody can make phone calls to check up on somebody else. The post office is still delivering mail even if they are sort of slow right now. Because like it or not, we are all in this world together and we are all we got.
I think life is messy and people are messy and sometimes people make mistakes, and they say things or do things that they shouldn't. Or they say things that hurt somebody else. My dad has a picture on the wall above his desk that is from a book called Psalms. The picture says, ”Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity.” Psalm 133:1. I think that means we are supposed to figure out how to work out our differences and help people rather than make fun of them because they look different or believe different things than we do. And people are already stressed out because of that virus so it would be good if people worked together. Because like Pastor Dick said, together we have it all. Maybe instead of fighting with people we should fight for them.
The man named Paul wrote “I appeal to you brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly United in mind and thought.” 1 Corinthians 1:10. And then he reminded everybody later in a book called Galatians that we are all one in Jesus. That means everybody has a place with Jesus where they fit. There are lots of places in the Bible that talk about everybody working together. I don't know how God can get everybody to work together but if anybody can, it's Him!
I think it is really hard to work together because sometimes we just want to be right and sometimes, we just want to win. That is what it was like when Yoda was still around. He was stubborn just like me and even though I am way bigger and faster, he stood his ground and then I had to show him who the boss was. But it turned out the real boss is mom. Then we had to figure out how to get along because dad said he would open the front door and let us both out. I don't think that would have been a very good thing. Everybody has to figure out how to get along and nobody gets to have their way all the time. Because we don't have it all together but together, we have it all. I think that is what God wants anyway. He probably gets tired of everybody fighting and I bet He doesn't like it when we say mean stuff about other people either. Because God doesn't do mean. He loves all of us, even when we don't get along.
Pastor Dick sounds like a pretty smart man. I think he knew God pretty good and he knew how to say what God wants us to do in ways that are easy to understand. My dad says God broke the mold when He made Pastor Dick. I don’t really know what that means but I think that it's a good thing. The important thing to remember is that we can't do life by ourselves. We need other people, and they need us. Because we don't have it all together but together, we have it all.
In His Grip
As we near the end of the year and I reflect back on what a year it has been, I am reminded that God has been with us in this journey every step of the way. Even when it didn’t seem like He was present. Those thoughts led me to think about all the different names of God. God has been given many names simply because His name was too holy to pronounce. So, people gave Him names based on what He had done for them or who He was to them. Let me give you a few examples.
His personal name is Yahweh. This name is most frequently used in scripture but is often not spoken, just written using four letters…YHWH. This is called the Tetragrammaton which simply mean… 4 letters. This is the Ineffable or Unutterable name of the God of Israel. In fact, Jewish tradition is not to pronounce this name at all but to substitute Adonai, My Lord, in its place. So, when you read the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, you would substitute Adonai for YHWH.
We find others using the name Elohim. This is the traditional name for God as creator and judge. We see this name first used in the creation story. But it is modified and used to describe God in different ways. In Exodus 3:15 we see it used for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And in 2 Samuel 22:33, Psalm 31:5 and 43:2 we see Elohim used in conjunction with God of my strength. Elohim is changed to Eloheynu and used as “Our God”. This is common in many prayers and blessings Many times on the Old Testament we see Elohim combined with the word “Chayim” the Hebrew word for life. This is the living God. And Elohim is shortened to El and combined with the word Shaddai we have God Almighty.
There are a number of instances in scripture where no name of God is used at all. Instead, scripture simply says “The Name”. Abraham called on the name of the Lord. Genesis 12:8, 13:4. Israel was warned against profaning the name of the Lord. Leviticus 13:21. In the ten commandments we are told not to take the name of the Lord in vain. Exodus 21:7. Priests ministered in the name of the Lord. Deuteronomy 18:5. But this doesn’t just occur in the Old Testament. We read in John 1:12 that salvation is through His name. Matthew 18:21 tells us believers are to gather in His name. And in Philippians 2:10-11 we find that it is at the name of Jesus that every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess That Jesus is Christ is Lord.
In Revelation 22:13 we are told that Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega. Those are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. First here means the beginning or origin. It means that He has always been. And Omega is the last letter, and it means the goal. It is like we read in 2 Timothy 4:7, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. That is our goal…to live and serve the Lord until we take our last breath.
Another name that you may have heard is Jehovah. This name of God is the Latinization of the name YHWH, the proper name of the God of Israel. It is often used in conjunction with descriptions of what God has done for people. When added to Adonai we see The Lord our Sovereign. This is a reminder that our God is over all other rulers. In fact, He is over everything. When combined with Elohim we have the eternal creator. God continues to knit people together in their Mother’s wombs. Jehovah Jireh is the Lord our God who provides. And Jehovah Rohi is the Lord our Shepherd.
We see God as the Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, Almighty God, Prince of Peace, Lamb of God, and Savior. Jesus gave us seven names for Himself. The Good Shepherd, The Bread of the Life, The Resurrection and the Life, The Gate, The Light of the World, The true Vine, and The Way, Truth, and the Life. And both Jesus and God the Father use the name I AM. We see it first when Moses stands in front of the burning bush and God speaks to him. When Moses asks God His name God says I AM. Which can be translated I AM who I AM, or I AM what I AM becoming. Each of the seven descriptions Jesus gives us about Himself begins with I AM. If there were doubts about whether or not Jesus was the Messiah, using His formal name should have left no doubts.
We call Him father, precious Lord, Holy, gracious God, and any number of other names. It depends on who God is for us at that point in time. But regardless what we call God, it is important to keep calling on Him. Because it is in Hm that we find peace in these tumultuous times. In Him we will find mercy and forgiveness. And we find grace. None of us is even close to perfect but God wants us to come to Him and seek Him out. He wants to give us good things. He wants us to come to Him so that He can lavish His love on us. And then there is Hope. We cannot hope in things of the world, things that we hold up to be something akin to God. Every one of those things will fail. God is all we have that will always be true and just.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W
The neighbors across the street are fairly new. Both parents are doctors, and they have three kids, two girls and a boy. They are the perfect age for Santa. Christmas decorations started to go up outside three weeks ago with one string of lights. Then came the unicorn and the nutcracker, both life size! Next the tree out front got a significant trimming so that the next batch of lights could be wrapped around the trunk. Every set of lights is a different color. Last night icicle lights were added, the kind that looks like they are dripping. Who knows what else might appear?! When a new decoration or string of lights goes up, I can hear the kids carrying on. It is fun to watch the excitement. But what I really like is the way the neighborhood is lit up. Not every house but enough so that when you drive or walk down the street the lights are spaced out and the whole street is full of light.
We have our share of lights though not as many as usual. We are approaching the shortest day of the year, one week from today. It is dark quite late in the morning and it gets dark early. And for us, it is a bit chilly. This year for the first time in centuries Jupiter and Saturn will align to make what scientists are calling star the Wise Men followed in their quest to find Jesus. In the northern hemisphere it is winter, a time of more darkness than in the spring and summer.
So, at a time when the world knows darkness, there is light...bright lights, white lights, colored lights and all sorts of figures and inflatables that also give off light. Isaiah the prophet tells us, ”The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” Isaiah 9:2. Even a tiny bit of light can dispel darkness. I think of Christmas Eve and candles. We begin with the five candles on the advent wreath. Two tapers are lit from the Christ candle in the middle and there is a bit more light. Once we begin to light each individual candle there is light all over the sanctuary. I can see the faces of people from different congregations I have had the privilege to serve, illuminated by the candlelight from Christmas Eve. While the light from the candles are small lights, the light Isaiah is prophesying is a great light.
The dark is often tied to difficult events. Some of us are afraid of the dark or at least the things that go bump in the night. We do not move as quickly in the dark because it is harder to see where we are going. In some places there are bad things that happen in the dark. There is more crime, more opportunities to get in trouble in the dark. But there is other darkness as well. Isaiah's people have lived in darkness for a long time. They have walked away from God and as a result they are buried in sin. More sin leads to more darkness and eventually they cannot see God or the things of God. The darkness gets thicker and deeper all the time. It happens not only in Isaiah’s day but today as well.
Imagine now God's people who have lived in this darkness for a very long time, suddenly blinking in the bright light of the Lord. Picture the shepherds, unclean and outcast, out in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night. Many times, when the light of God breaks into our world, we are just going about our business, doing what we usually do. And then God appears. The angel of the Lord came upon the shepherds and the glory of the Lord shone round about them and they were sore afraid...terrified even. Have you ever noticed that when the Lord breaks through people get scared? “And the angel said to them, fear not for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be for all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
One angel wasn't enough however, because suddenly the whole sky was lit up by the heavenly host...a multitude in fact. And all of them joined in singing songs of praise to God. Later in His public ministry Jesus told a gathered crowd that He was the light of the world and whoever believed in Him would never walk in darkness. We know that there will be no need for sun, moon, or stars in heaven because the light from Jesus will be all that is needed.
Saul was on his way to Damascus to search for new Christians. He would arrest them and throw them in prison for believing in Jesus. Some would be tortured and killed for their faith. But about noon as Saul and his group were approaching Damascus there was a bright light from heaven that shone around Saul. He heard the voice of Jesus, asking why Saul was persecuting Him. And then Jesus told Saul what the cost of following Him would be. From that point on, Saul became Paul and spent the rest of his life preaching the good news of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen victorious from the dead.
We read in 1 John 1:5, ”God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all.” Darkness implies there is sin, and we know that God does not sin. There is light so bright Peter, James, and John must cover their eyes because Jesus is transfigured. Jesus appearance was like lightening and His clothes white like snow. We see this in Matthew 28:3.
This year, of all years, it seems fitting that the light in the sky the Wise Men followed will once again appear. It feels like a message that everything will turn out alright, reassurance that God is still sovereign and in control. And maybe, just maybe, people will follow that light and find the hope, peace, love and joy that comes from knowing Jesus.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W
One of the things that sits on my desk at home is an eight-inch-long nail. It sits next to a pair of dice. They are there to remind me of the price that Jesus paid for my salvation. After all it would take a sizable nail to hold a person to a wooden cross. And the dice...the Roman soldiers gambled for Jesus clothing as they waited for Jesus and the two criminals to die so they could finish their workday and go home.
This nail is fairly smooth, with a sharp, pointed end. But the nails that were used to hold Jesus to the cross had been used countless times before. They were not smooth nor very pointed. They probably still had blood on them from the last few people they had been used on to hold them to a cross. Their condition didn't make any difference to the Roman guards. As long as the nails worked it didn't matter what shape they were in. The people the nails were used on were just going to die anyway. There was little respect for those who were to be crucified, many of whom had no family to stand watch or claim their bodies after they died.
When I look at the dice, I can hear them rattling as they are shaken and then thrown. Part of a Roman soldiers pay, if they had crucifixion duty was to gamble for the guilty persons goods. It was one of the perks if you could call it that. Especially if the one being crucified had no family who would claim them. We know the soldiers gambled for Jesus possessions, but they cast lots for Jesus tunic because it was one piece of fabric and there were no seams. That would have had considerable value in those days.
All of this seems quite barbaric, and really it is. Crucifixion is really death by suffocation. The guards knew just where to put the nails to cause the most pain and discomfort. It was thankless work and you truly had to be cut out of special fabric to be able to perform this detail and not go mad. It must have gotten old, listening to people yelling and screaming in pain and agony. It must have been difficult to listen to the weeping of family members and friends as the soldiers waited to finish their jobs. You needed a calloused heart and iron constitution for this duty.
Perhaps you think I have gone round the bend writing about this so close to Christmas, but the reality is, this is why Jesus came. Jesus didn't leave the splendor and majesty of heaven just for a 33-year tour of the earth. He was there for creation and He knew what was on the earth. Jesus came to earth to live as we live, temptation and all. There was no wall of protection around Him. Jesus spent countless hours in prayer, staying connected to the father, and living in His will. That is an example He has set for us as well. Jesus came to pay the ransom for our sins. He came to pay the price so that we have the opportunity to spend all of eternity with Him in heaven. There was no sugar coating what would happen to Jesus. He came anyway.
As He wrestled in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus had a choice. He asked the Father if there was another way. If what He was about to endure could happen differently. But there was a point when the battle was won...for us. Jesus reached the point where He could say, not my will Father, but yours. Had Jesus walked away from the garden that night there would have been no payment for our sins. Jesus would have gone back into heaven and we would still be in bondage to sin that we can't extricate ourselves from. Instead, Jesus chose the nails, one holding His feet and one in each wrist.
Jesus set an example for us to the very end of His life. He spoke seven times as He hung on the cross. Everything from asking God to forgive those who had convicted Him and sentenced Him to crucifixion,
all the way to telling everyone within earshot He was finished...done. He had done every single thing that had been asked of Him. And he had not sinned, not even once. It would have been easy to focus on the nails. The pain had to be excruciating. He chose the nails anyway. Because He loved us then and He loves us now and will always. He chose the nails instead of comfort. He chose the nails because He knew we could not save ourselves.
As I sit writing, right now, I can see the nail. I try to imagine what it must have been like, but I have no reference point for that sort of pain or suffering. I only know that because Jesus chose the nails, I don't have to. Because Jesus chose the nails, there is abundant life now and eternal life waiting after this life is over. All because Jesus chose the nails.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W
Some of us are of the right vintage that we have picture albums sitting on our bookshelves or maybe a table top. These albums contain the pictures of family gatherings...weddings, baptisms, holiday gatherings, graduations and more. Some contain vacation pictures, both exotic places and trips closer to home. There is one album on our shelf that is full of wedding photos and another, photos from the wedding trip. Some days it is just fun to take one of the many albums and sit down and look at pictures. It is a chance to reminisce and ponder. Yes, many of us also carry hundreds of photos on our phones but somehow that isn’t the same. It is the pondering and remembering that is so special.
We are not the only ones who ponder however. Scripture tells us that Mary kept things and pondered them in her heart. The first time we see her pondering, the shepherds had just left the stable after their visit to baby Jesus. God had announced Jesus birth to them and they went running to Bethlehem to see what the angels were talking about. Their visit was no doubt a surprise to Mary and Joseph and she didn’t know quite what to make of it. It was perhaps the first indication that their journey as Jesus parents would be neither common or ordinary. We read in Luke 2:19, “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Keeping things in her heart was like a scrapbook of sorts for her. There would be many more things and events to ponder as Jesus grew.
Not too much later, after Jesus had grown some, Wise Men came from the east bearing gifts. Again, their visit was a surprise and the gifts they brought were unexpected and peculiar. No doubt after they headed home Mary had more to store up in her heart and ponder. We read in Luke 2:49-51 about a journey to Jerusalem for Passover when Jesus was twelve. When everybody packed up to head back home to Nazareth, Jesus stayed behind in the temple to talk with the learned men. Mary and Joseph traveled a full day's journey towards home before they realized Jesus was not with them. Can you imagine the horror of losing the Son of God??!! They returned to Jerusalem and searched for three days before they found Him. They did not understand His reasons for staying, but He was obedient to them and they all returned to Nazareth together. And Mary kept these things in heart and pondered.
No doubt she pondered when they went to the wedding in Cana and Jesus turned water into wine. Perhaps she heard about Lazarus being raised from the dead. She was no doubt in the synagogue the sabbath Jesus read from Isaiah 61:1, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the captive...” And then Jesus proceeded to declare He was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. She had known Jesus was the Son of God but she had no idea exactly what that meant. Now she was beginning to get some glimpses. And it may have been overwhelming. What would you think? There was more to ponder...lots more.
When you think about it, Mary was the memory of Jesus for the early church. She spent more time with Jesus than anyone else, including the disciples. Jewish boys and girls were under the care and teaching of their mothers until they were twelve. At that time the boys were considered adults and they then fell under the care and teaching of their fathers. It is quite possible Jesus lived at home until He began His public ministry. Mary would have seen Him every day. We do not know what happened to Joseph but it is clear from scripture that he was no longer alive when Jesus began His public ministry.
Mary knew all the details about Jesus, from the angel Gabriel’s visit to her conversation with Joseph after that. She knew all about the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the details of Jesus birth. She watched Him grow up, play with HIs siblings and become a man. If anyone knew Jesus heart, Mary did. Who knows how many hours they spent talking. Perhaps she was the only one who understood that He was different.
I would guess God gave Mary a great memory so that she could remember all Jesus said and did in the first 30 years of His life. And then she passed those memories on to the leaders of the early church. You see, in order to have faith we have to have a memory of all the experiences, events, and people who have helped form our faith. When things look bleak, when we are troubled, if there is hopelessness, we can rely on those memories to remind us that God has been with us in the past, is with us now and always will be with us. Having memories to fall back on means the assurance that God will continue to act in our lives.
No doubt many of us have things we ponder, and that is a good thing. It will keep us grounded and focused. What has God done in your life that makes you ponder?
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W