Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Ever-changing Times, Unchanging God

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As we stand on the threshold of another year one thing is for sure—we cannot be sure what another year will bring. For example, while doing some research I wondered about the things people faced 100-years ago as they looked forward to a new year in 1919. Here’s what I found:  

In 1919 the world was ready for peace and quiet. The “War to End All Wars” (WWI) finally ended on Nov. 11, 1918, after 16 million people lost their lives in conflict. The world was also recovering from a devastating influenza pandemic that affected about 500 million people, or one-third of the global population at the time.

On January 15, a large storage container burst at the Purity Distilling Company in Boston, sending a tidal wave of molten molasses through the streets at 35 miles per hour, killing 21 people and injuring 150. On January 16, the eighteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, prohibiting the sale of alcohol. Thus, the days of prohibition had begun.

In June another amendment passed, giving women the right to vote. Also that month, the Grand Canyon became a national park and the first trans-Atlantic air travel occurred when Jon Alcock and Arthur Brown flew from Newfoundland to Ireland. In September, the Florida Keys hurricane slammed the islands and killed more than 600. The next month president Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke, but the First Lady hid the news and began running the country herself. And in the sports world, the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series in one of the greatest scandals in baseball history.

Amid all the trials and triumphs of 1919, a lot of notable people passed away and important babies were born. Among the obituaries were Theodore Roosevelt, who died in his sleep at age 60 on Jan. 6, 1919, and wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who passed at 83 leaving behind his vast empire. That year some world-changers were born too including—Nat King Cole, Jackie Robinson and Edmund Hillary.

As I studied those headlines from a century ago, I was reminded of the old saying, “All new news is old news happening to new people.” Aren’t our times filled with some of the same stuff? Disasters, war and peace, sickness and death, scandal and technological innovation.

Like those folks in 1919, we don’t know what 2019 holds, but we do know the One who holds time in His hands. Psalm 33:11 says, “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart are to all generations.” Even though the calendar changes our Lord changes not (Mal. 3:6) and “Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).  

We ought to take comfort in the unchanging nature of God (called by theologians “God’s immutability”). When you have some time, look up these verses and note the following truths—God’s promises are unchanging (Num. 23:19), God’s purposes are unchanging (Pro. 19:21), God’s provisions are unchanging (James 1:17) and God’s prophecies are unchanging (Acts 1:11).

In a world full of change, where it seems like the ground beneath our feet is quicksand, I’m glad I can anchor my faith in a God of consistency. God cannot change for the better, because He’s already perfect; and being perfect, He cannot change for the worse.

Maybe, A.W. Tozer said it best, “What peace it brings to the Christian’s heart to realize that our Heavenly Father never differs from Himself . . . Today at this moment, He feels toward His creatures, toward babies, toward the sick, the fallen, the sinful, exactly as He did when He sent His only-begotten Son into the world to die for mankind. His attitude toward sin is now the same as it was when He drove Adam and Eve from the Garden and His attitude towards the sinner the same as when He stretched forth His hands on the Cross and cried, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”[1]    -DM

[1] A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1961), 53.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Come Let Us Adore Him

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            It was just a few days before the big Christmas pageant and one of the boys who was going to play a wise man became sick with the flu. The frazzled play director not knowing what else to do conscripted one of the extra shepherds to fill in. The newly minted wise man was given his lines and directions, “Now Johnny, you will go last. After the first two wise men present baby Jesus with their gifts, it will be your turn. Give Joseph your gift and say, ‘I bring to baby Jesus, frankincense.” Johnny was nervous, but it was only one line.
He practiced and practiced for two days and inevitably the big moment arrived. The wise men took to the stage. The first one bowed before Jesus and said, “I bring to the King of kings gold!” The next wise man stepped forward and right on cue he knelt and said, “I bring to the Christ child a precious gift of myrrh!” Johnny was sweating bullets. He nervously stepped up and extended his hands and offered a small box. Poor Johnny got tongue tied, “Uh . . . umm . . . here baby Jesus, Frank sent these!”

How often do we hear gold, frankincense and myrrh as part of a Christmas pageant, without ever asking, what in the world are these things? I think we all understand the value and importance of gold, but what about frankincense and myrrh?

Frankincense comes from the sappy resin of the Boswellia tree, a gnarly plant that grows in the harsh desert environments of Somalia, Ethiopia, and Yemen. Harvesters slash the bark and let the resin bleed out and harden. These hardened drips are called “tears.” The tears are graded by color and aroma, and could be as valuable as gold during ancient times. Frankincense was an important part of ancient Jewish rituals in the Temple in Jerusalem. In various forms, it acted as incense, perfume, and an ingredient in meal offerings.

Similar to frankincense, myrrh is a resin that comes from another unique plant growing in the same harsh area of the world. In this case, it’s the thorny, scraggly Commiphora tree. Much of the ancient myrrh made its way to Egypt, where it was used as an ingredient for embalming mummies.

Some time after the birth of Jesus, Magi from the east came for a visit (Matt. 2:1-11). Known popularly as the “Wise Men,” these Magi were probably the latest in the line of a pagan priests, mystics and astrologers from Medo-Persian lineage. Historians such as Herodotus tell us that the Magi were considered “king-makers” in the ancient world.

Nothing in the Gospel accounts says there were only three wise men, but that tradition might have come from the list of their three specific gifts. We can’t be sure if the Magi understood the prophetic significance behind their gifts, but the Holy Spirit certainly did. Each of these gifts corresponds to a unique aspect of Christ’s ministry. The gold—a gift fit for a king—pictured His sovereign royalty. The frankincense and its use as incense portrayed Christ’s sinless deity. The myrrh was a forecast of Jesus sacrificial death and burial (Mark 15:22-23; John 19:38-40). In AD 248, the Christian apologist Origen made this connection writing: “Gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God.”

Suppose you could give a gift to Christ, what would it be? How could you possibly select a gift for the One who not only has everything, but who made everything? The Wise Men did. They can be an example to us. In addition to the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they gave the Savior some gifts we can give him today: their witness and their worship. -DM

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Trouble at the Inn

Guideposts: An artist's rendering of children portraying Joseph, Mary and the innkeeper

During this busy Christmas season, you will probably be attending or maybe participating in a pageant. One thing that I remember about all the plays that I was a part of as a kid is that nothing goes quite as you practiced it when it’s time to perform. Years ago, a subscriber to Guideposts magazine submitted one such story and it has been republished several times.   

Nine-year-old Wally Purling was going to be the innkeeper in a church’s Christmas pageant. Most people in the church knew that Wally had difficulty keeping up. He was big, awkward and a slow learner. But what Wally lacked he made up for with a big heart.    
The time finally came when Joseph appeared, slowly, tenderly guiding Mary to the door of the inn. Joseph knocked hard on the door and out came Wally. “What do you want?” he said, swinging the door open with a brusque gesture. “We seek lodging.” “Seek it elsewhere,” Wally spoke harshly. “The inn is full!”
Joseph pled, “Please, good innkeeper, this is my wife, Mary. She is heavy with child and needs a place to rest. Surely you must have some small corner for her. She is so tired.” Wally, true to his character, looked down at Mary with a long pause, long enough to make the audience a bit tense with embarrassment. “No! Begone!” the prompter whispered from offstage. Wally struggled with the moral dilemma, but said his lines anyway, “No! Begone!”
Joseph sadly placed his arm around Mary and the two of them started to move away. However, the innkeeper did not return inside his lodging as scripted. Wally stood there in the doorway, watching the forlorn couple. His mouth was open, his brow creased with concern, his eyes filling with tears.
And suddenly this Christmas pageant became different from all others. Wally surprised everyone. “Don't go, Joseph,” he called out. “Bring Mary back.” Wally’s face grew into a bright smile. “You can have my room.” Some people in the church thought that the pageant had been ruined. Yet there were others who considered it the most Christmas of all Christmas pageants they had ever seen.[1]

Like I said earlier, things don’t always go as scripted. It didn’t that night of the Christmas play and it didn’t go the way Mary and Joseph planned either that first Christmas in Bethlehem.

After a long and difficult journey from Nazareth, the last thing they expected was to be turned away into the cold, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7)

But, we can’t be too harsh to judge the innkeeper. Most folks in Bethlehem were ignorant of the fact that God was invading their small town that night. Not to mention that the little shepherding town was bulging with travelers who were there to be counted in the census.

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Jesus’ rejection at birth became a paradigm for his whole life and ministry. John makes the statement in the prologue of his gospel that, “He came unto his own and his own received Him not (John 1:11).” Moreover, the prophet Isaiah predicted some 700 years BC that the Christ would be, “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (53:3).

The rejection that began at the cradle followed Jesus to the Cross. The ultimate loneliness came when the Father turned his back on the Son as the sin-debt of the world on him. Jesus cried out those gut-wrenching words, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).

At Christmas, God sent a message of love to the uncaring world. We would not afford him so much as a cramped closet; no time to stop and worship; no interest in this peasant child.  But Bethlehem’s babe came to find room for us. He would one day reserve accommodations for each of his children at the Father’s house that awaits in eternity (John 14:1-3).

Homeless no more, Jesus throws open the doors of heaven, so that no one might be left in the cold. But He awaits us to make our RSVP with Him, by repenting of our sin, and trusting in His life, death and resurrection alone for salvation. Have you made room for Christ? -DM

[1] Dina Donohue, “Trouble at the Inn,” Guideposts, 27 October 2014 <>

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Obedience of Christmas

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            Sid Gilbreath was on his way home from work one cold Christmas Eve. His family was waiting on him to arrive so they could eat dinner and start their holiday traditions. As he weaved his way through rush hour traffic Sid saw something that changed his plans:

             As I rode behind a city bus I thought, “Everyone else is home waiting to enjoy a holiday dinner.” Until I noticed the two people up ahead by the side of the road. A woman with a small child. She waved anxiously as the bus got near, but the driver didn’t stop. Just passed them right by in a cloud of exhaust. Why didn’t he stop for them? Express bus? Out of service?
The air cleared, and I saw the woman and her child closely. No, the bus wasn’t out of service. The driver hadn’t stopped because they were black. That was the way it was in 1957, even on a cold winter’s night. What could I do? I had potatoes, carrots and pot roast waiting for me at home—not to mention a mother-in-law. But that woman and her son sure looked desperate. I felt the Lord promoting me to do something. How could I just drive past? I slowed to a crawl by the bus stop and rolled down the window. “Is there some way I can help you?”
The woman pulled her coat closer around her, shivering. The little boy looked about seven. He wiped away tears with the back of his hand. “Two buses passed us by,” the woman said, clearly trying to control her frustration. “My son, Michael, here is supposed to play the Angel of the Lord in our church Christmas pageant tonight. It starts in less than an hour. I don’t know when another bus will come by.”
I pushed the passenger door open. “Climb in,” I said. “I’ll drive you to the church.”  Michael clambered into the back seat and the mother introduced herself, “I’m Mrs. Johnson,” she said and gave me the address of her church about 20 minutes away. “If you don’t mind,” she said, “I need to help Michael go over his lines.”
Mrs. Johnson prompted her son, “For unto you is born…” “Jesus the Lord!” Michael said. I gave him a thumbs-up in the rearview mirror. “Now say it just like the Bible does,” Mrs. Johnson said. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior…” “Who is Christ the Lord,” Michael said solemnly. “Now the very last part,” Mrs. Johnson said. “And this shall be a sign unto you…” Michael picked up his cue right away. “Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
Over and over Michael practiced his lines. By the time we arrived at the church, he was letter-perfect. Mrs. Johnson and Michael stepped out of the car. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” she said. “It was no trouble,” I said. “Sharing Christmas Eve with you and Michael is a gift I’ll never forget.”[1]

Think of it—Sid was faced with a Christmas choice that presented itself as an interruption—obey the Lord’s inner prompting or go about his business. Of course, only after he obeyed did, he receive understanding and an unforgettable blessing.  

While studying the original Christmas story again, I was reminded how the theme of divine interruptions and obedience is played out in the lives of Mary and Joseph. Their lives were rocked by the unexpected news that Mary would carry the Christ child. Yet, each one of them responded with obedience. Mary answered the angel Gabriel, “38 Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Likewise, we read of Joseph’s quiet obedience, “Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him . . .” (Matt. 1:24).

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One of the hidden lessons of Christmas is the blessing of obedience. Mary and Joseph did not understand God’s complete plan. Even after they had experienced His miraculous conception and birth, they still marveled at the things said about Jesus. Was their obedience easy? Not at all! Just think of traveling 80 miles by donkey through the desert with a wife in her third-trimester! But, despite the unknowns and hardships, Scripture never indicates that any of these people regretted or second-guessed their willing participation in this turning point of history.

We marvel at the obedience of Jesus’ earthly parents, but what’s even more amazing is His obedience to the Father’s will. Philippians 2 reminds us of Jesus’ surrender “5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, 7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.”

Never has One been so high and stooped so low. As we think about obedience, we must look at Jesus—our Lord was willing to obey, are we any better? Perhaps, this Christmas the greatest gift we can give our Lord is our complete obedience. -DM  

[1] Sid Gilbreath, “Blessed by a Christmas Angel,” Guideposts, 24 October 2018 <>