Where Was God?

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“Where was God?” the atheist demanded. “Where was God?” the frightened widow cried. “Where was God?” the shocked nation asked. Even Christians looked to heaven and said,  “God, where are You?” It was the most tragic and horrific day in American history and twenty years later it still makes us weep. I imagine the same question was going through the minds of the Jews when Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem. The event even sounds very similar:  “[The Babylonians] set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem, burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there.” (2 Chronicles 36:19).

A memorial sits at the very spot in New York City where the buildings fell. People come every year to remember and pay their respects to the thousands who lost their lives that day.  Every year religious Jews come to Jerusalem to pray and fast in remembrance of the destruction of their Temple, first by the Babylonians in 587/586 BCE, and again in 70 CE at the hands of the Roman legions led by Titus.

Where was God when the Twin Towers fell? The same place He was when Jerusalem fell. In His heaven, ruling over human history. How can that be? I wish I could give you a simple answer, but this is the age-old “problem of evil” that men have pondered for thousands of years. It has been used to deny the existence of God and His goodness and sovereignty and quite honestly, I cannot answer it. But I can tell you that evil may have claimed a few battles throughout human history, but it has already lost the war.

Oh, satan thought he was victorious when Jesus drew His last breath and cried out, “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). But he was trembling when the ground rumbled as the stone rolled away. He was dumbfounded when the angel told the women, “He is not here; He has risen!” (Matthew 28:6). He was horrified as Mary Magdalene ran back to the disciples with the amazing news, “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18).

So today I will remember the lives lost twenty years ago and pray for the still grieving. But I will not fear evil. I will keep my eyes on heaven and celebrate the risen Lord who dealt evil a fatal blow. No, the war is not yet over, but Satan has already lost. God has already won. God always wins.

Not a Princess

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I stood next to a table filled with t-shirts at a woman’s conference and a pink one caught my eye. It had a sparkly crown on it and the words: “I’m a princess!” My Daddy is the King of the Universe” The woman next to me picked it up and handed over her credit card. “Don’t you just love this?” she asked me. “It’s very cute,” I answered. In my head, though, I said, “But I don’t want to be a princess.” Princesses are fluffy, and I’m not the fluffy sort.

I want to be a queen. Like Esther, who wore her very best dress and crown to go to battle for her people. She could have let Haman slaughter the Jews because she was safe and well-kept in her palace in Susa. But when her uncle Mordecai told her, “Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14), she waged war against her people’s enemy with feminine wisdom and godly courage.

I want to be a warrior. Like Deborah, who was the only female judge of Israel mentioned in Scripture. When the commander of Israel’s army refused to go into battle without her, Deborah accompanied Barak and ten thousand men to a great victory, singing, “March on, my soul; be strong!” (Judges 5:21). I want to be like Jael, who lured the enemy Sisera into her tent and drove a tent pet into his temple as he slept (Judges 4:21).

I want to be the Lord’s handmaiden, like Mary, the mother of Jesus, who, when told she would endure a scandalous pregnancy, said “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” (Luke 1:38). I want to tell everyone about Jesus like Anna (Luke 2:36-38) and the Samaritan Woman (John 4:39) and Mary Magdalene (John 20:18). I want to be like Dorcas, who was full of good works which she did (Acts 9:36).

No, I don’t want to be a fluffy princess. Crowns are for heaven – to be cast at the feet of Jesus. Right now you and I need the helmet of salvation. There’s a war on and the Kingdom of God is calling us into battle. Are you ready? “March on my soul; be strong!”

All Tangled Up

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It’s almost that time! Thanksgiving is only two days away and many people are already decorating for Christmas.  In this year from . . . well you know – lots of folks are making ready for the holidays early to lift their spirits and bring some much-needed Joy to their homes. You know what that means, don’t you? The annual untangling of the Christmas lights. How many hours have we spent trying to turn that snarl of wires and bulbs into a smooth strand? “Pull that end through this loop. No! THIS loop! Wait, the bulb is stuck. Why didn’t you put them away right last year?” How many times did we chunk them and go out and buy new lights?  More than I want to confess.

Tangled lights are frustrating.  Tangled lives are heartbreaking. You didn’t mean to get so deep into that sin, that relationship, that dark situation, that addiction, but here you are and you can’t figure out how to get free.  I know of a few people in the Bible that would understand. Like the man in Mark 5 who lived in the tombs in the Gerasenes. He was possed by multiple demons – so many that they called themselves “Legion.” The townspeople tried to chain him, but he broke free of them every time. Yet he could not free himself from the demons. Or a woman named Mary (probably) from Magdala who was also possessed by seven demons (Luke 8:2). Or an unnamed woman from Samaria who had been entangled in sin with multiple men (John 4). Or a little man named Zacchaeus who was tangled up in greed with the Roman rulers (Luke 19). Or a very religious man named Saul who was so caught up in self-righteousness that he set out to persecute Jesus’ followers (Acts 9). Jesus set each one of them free from the things that bound them.

Or if you need a more recent example, look at the one who is writing these words right now.  Oh, the chains that Christ has broken in my life! He has set me free from a life tangled up in sin, selfishness, depression, fear, self-hatred, unforgiveness, abuse, anxiety, foolishness, and so much more. Beloved, whatever you’ve gotten yourself tangled up in – God can unravel your mess. It’s why Jesus came. So that you might know the truth – that God loves you – and be set free (John 3:16, 8:32).

Heroes of the Faith

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The Bible gives us so many people to admire and try to emulate.  I have a few favorites:

God called me to ministry through Ezra.  A scribe and teacher whom God blessed and used powerfully, “Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). He has inspired me to devote my life to study the Word, live the Word, and teach the Word.

I love Daniel because he stood firm for the Lord in the face of pressure and oppression.

I love Habakkuk who, despite having bare fields and empty stalls, chose to be “joyful in God my Savior” (Hab. 3:18). He speaks to my heart in this season.

Like many, I love Peter because his rash, impulsive nature means that God can use even a goof-ball like me.

Several women have touched my heart deeply:

I love Ruth for her sweet, humble manner with her bitter mother-in-law. Ruth loved Noami and was willing to work hard to care for her. Her life speaks volumes to me right now.

Dorcas is another one of my heroes, for obvious reasons – we share a name –  but also because Dorcas was a woman who “was full of good works which she did” (Acts 9:36). She inspires me to get up off of my intentions and put them into fruitful action.

Mary, Jesus’ mother, who received Gabriel’s astonishing message with a humble, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38).

Anna – the first to proclaim the coming of God’s redemption (Luke 2:36-18).

Mary of Bethany – who chose sitting at Jesus’ feet over duty (Luke 10:38-42) – then anointed His feet for burial (John 12:3).

Lydia – the first European convert to Christianity (Acts 16:13-15).

Priscilla – along with her husband Aquila, mentored the young preacher Apollos in the faith (Acts 18:24-26).

Phoebe – a fruitful servant alongside Paul, and a deacon in the early church (Rom. 16: 1-2).

And the woman I admire the most: Mary Magdalene who was the first to see the resurrected Jesus and the first evangelist who proclaimed that the Lord had risen from the dead. A woman who preached the resurrection.

They are all part of that “great cloud of witnesses” who are cheering me – and you – on to perseverance and faithfulness. Beloved, who are your heroes of the faith?

He is Risen!

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Happy Resurrection Day! It’s Easter Sunday and Jesus is alive! Death could not hold Him. Satan lost and Jesus won! It’s a day to shout the news from the mountaintops – or, for Easter 2020 – across the airwaves. Because of COVID 19, the Easter story will be more widely available today than ever before. The whole world will have the chance to hear: “Jesus Christ is Risen!”

There is one part of the Easter story that I hold dear to my heart. It’s in John’s account of the resurrection in chapter 20. Mary Magdalene had gone to the tomb to grieve her Lord. She saw it was open and looked inside to discover that His body was not there. I imagine her stumbling backward in confusion and fresh waves of grief. Through her tear-filled eyes, she sees a man, probably the gardener. He approaches and asks her the reason for her sorrow and whom she is seeking. She pleads for the body of the one she loved. He speaks one word: “Mary.” And she knows. It is Jesus. He is alive! Heart pounding. Thoughts racing. Hands shaking. She speaks one word: “Rabonni!” And all her grief turns to Joy.

Easter is celebrated around the world – and rightly so. It is the most important event in human history. The day the Son of God rose from the dead and assured eternal life for all who would believe on Him. But in that quiet morning, Easter was very personal for one woman. Before the rest of the world would hear that Jesus had risen, Mary saw Him with her own eyes.

As you gather around screens and radios and phones today to hear the glorious Easter story, imagine yourself all alone in the garden early on that Sunday morning. Listen closely as the Lord calls out your name. Easter is for all the world, and it is just for you. May the Joy of the resurrection fill your heart today Beloved. He is risen! He is risen indeed!

 

Just the Mention of Your Name

“Let the morning bring me word of Your unfailing love.” Psalm 143:8.

One of my favorite hymns as a child was In the Garden; I can still hear my Mother singing it while she and I made beds together in the mornings.  It has a beautiful melody, but the lyrics bring forth such a wonderful image:

I come to the garden alone; while the dew is still on the roses,

and the voice I hear falling on my ear, the Son of God discloses.

Refrain:

And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own;

and the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.

This is written around the account of Mary Magdalene’s early morning encounter with the risen Jesus in the garden.  (The Story behind the hymn: In the Garden)  I have loved this beautiful story as long as I can remember, and recently, while taking a seminary course on the Gospel of John, this story came to life for me.  It is my habit, when I am studying a particular book of the Bible, to write out each verse as I study.  That’s how I learn best.  While writing the 20th chapter of John, of the account of Jesus’ resurrection, I found my heart racing in anticipation as I wrote John 20:10-18.  I knew what was coming, but it was as if I were there, in the garden watching it all unfold before me.  When I came to verse 16, my heart exploded in delight as I wrote: “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’”. Such a powerful moment should not be overlooked, but savored.  Sit with me here in the garden for a moment and soak it in.

Consider with me too, that Jesus had spoken to her just before this saying, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” (v. 15). So we know it wasn’t the sound of His voice that caused her to recognize the risen Lord.  It was when He spoke her name.  You see, Mary Magdalene had been an outcast before she first encountered Jesus.  Luke tells us that Jesus has cured Mary of demon possession, seven demons in fact had been cast out of her (Luke 8:2) .  A demon possessed person was feared and loathed, an outcast in the community, and often cast out of the community altogether (see Luke 8:26-29).  Maybe, if they were lucky, their family might keep them locked up in a room at home, but no one went near them, no one sat with them, and certainly no one tenderly called their name.  This was Mary’s story before she met Jesus.

I wonder if you, like me, sometimes feel insignificant in this vast sea of humanity, and think “Does anyone notice me?  Does anyone know or care about me.”  “Does anyone know my name?” God does.

Psalm 147:4 says “He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name,” and Isaiah 40:26 says “He [brings] out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name”. If He knows a billion stars by name, is it too difficult to believe that He knows you by name too?  His Word assures us that He does: “But now, this is what the Lord says— he who created you . . . ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.’” (Isaiah 43:1). He knows your name and my name because He is our Creator.

I love this very intimate promise from God: “I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name” (Isaiah 45:3).

Jesus knew Mary’s name, but more than that, He knew her life, her loneliness and brokenness.  He knew her heart.  He knows you as well – every struggle, every tear, every time you fall and every sin you’ve ever committed.  Maybe you don’t have seven demons; maybe you have heartaches or failures.  Perhaps your life is marked with rejection or grief or self-inflicted wounds.  Know this: Jesus took on Himself all your sin and sorrow and shame and guilt, bore it on the cross where He died and buried it with him in the grave.  And when He rose again, he left it all behind – you don’t have to carry it any longer.

Jesus described Himself as “The Good Shepherd” who “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3).  Jesus wants to lead you out of bondage to sin and brokenness and loneliness.  He wants to give you freedom from whatever keeps you from living in His peace and joy and hope.  Surely, if He can free a lonely women from seven demons, He can set you free as well.

My friend, hear the voice of the One who loves you with an everlasting love – He’s calling you by name.

He speaks, and the sound of his voice, is so sweet the birds hush their singing,

and the melody that he gave to me, within my heart is ringing.[1]

Turn to the sound of that precious voice and run to your Savior.

Sweet Jesus, no other sound is a dear as my name on Your divine lips. Oh that everyone could have ears to hear your voice calling us by name.  Amen

Take a listen: In the Garden – Brad Paisley

[1] C. Austin Mile, In the Garden, (Hall-Mack Music, 1912).