Optical Illusions

“Things are not always what they seem,” the magician said. He launched into several tricks that amazed the children at the park. They were all simple – done by sleight of hand and most of the adults – myself included – could see through them. But the kids were mesmerized. My son talked about them for several weeks afterward. But the illusionist’s words stuck with me: “Things are not always what they seem.”

The Bible is filled with stories when things seemed bad, difficult, even impossible. The Israelites seemed to be stuck in a death trap – between an impassible body of water and an angry Egyptian army. But things are not always what they seem. The sea parted and they crossed over on the dry ground (Ex. 14). Three Hebrew youths were thrown in a fiery furnace for refusing to bow before the king’s statue of gold. Daniel defied a royal order not to pray to his God and was thrown into a pit with hungry lions. But things are not always what they seem. A fourth Man kept the flames away from Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – the only thing that burned was the ropes they were bound with. God’s angels shut the mouths of the lions and Daniel emerged from the pit without a scratch on him (Daniel 3, 6). A young girl lies dead and her family grieves. Jesus knows that things are not always what they seem. He tells the mourners: “She is not dead, only sleeping” then takes her by the hands and raises her back to life (Mark 5:21-43). Their lord and teacher was dead and his body was missing – ah, but things are not always what they seem. You know the rest of this story.

Beloved, things may seem bleak right now. Hard times are upon you. Life is difficult and it doesn’t seem like it will ever get better. You’re facing an impossible situation, a mountain you can’t climb, a pit you can’t get out of, a roadblock you can’t get around. But things are not always what they seem – especially when God is with you. Trust Him to get you over that mountain, out of that pit, and past that roadblock. He is light in the darkness. He is hope when life seems hopeless. He is the God of the impossible-made-possible. When God is in the picture, things are not always what they seem.

Dry Ground

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“O God, You are my God, earnestly I seek You; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for You, in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).

“Lord, I just feel so dry, like the cracked ground of a desert,” I wrote in my prayer one day.  It was the best description of my life. My soul felt dry and my body was weary.  My spirit longed for Living Water.  In my parched state, I pleaded with God to send relief.

As He so often does, the Holy Spirit sent me on a “Biblical scavenger-hunt” to see what the Word has to say.  He took me to Exodus 14 where Moses, through the power of the Lord, caused the sea to part and the people crossed over “on dry ground.”  He took me to Joshua 3 where again the Israelites crossed the Jordan (at flood stage, mind you) by way of a divinely dried-up riverbed. They didn’t slug through mud and muck but walked on firm, dry land.  Then He took me to Ezekiel 37, where the prophet spoke the Word of the Lord and dry bones came to life again, with tendons and flesh and the breath of Life.  Finally, He took me to Isaiah 53 and reminded me that Jesus was called “a tender shoot, like a root out of dry ground,” (v. 2).

In all of these, He reminded me that dry seasons can be the gateway to the Promised Land.  They can precede a time of awakening and renewal, and they can actually become a place of growth.  I learned through these examples that surviving dry seasons requires perseverance, listening to the Word of God, and being humble and submissive before Him.  These are lifelines during these times when our hearts and our spirits are like a cracked desert.

Beloved, if you are in Christ, God will use even the dry seasons of your life to fulfill His plan and purpose.  You need not be afraid, but press in and press on.  There is Living Water in His Word and His Spirit.  He will send the refreshing you need.  Then “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.  It will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for Joy” (Isaiah 35:1). God will bring beauty to the desert, the wilderness, and your dry heart.

He Can Still Part the Sea

“I just feel trapped.” “This situation is so unfair and so hard, but I don’t know how to untangle myself from it.” She looked at me with tears in her weary eyes. I knew her story, knew the mess that had sucked her in. She felt helpless. The conventional wisdom – which she’d heard plenty of times – was to stand up for herself but she had no peace from God to do so. All she heard from the Lord was, “Take care of the innocent ones.” But, Lord, she was tired and so overwhelmed.

Her words “I feel trapped” kept ringing in my mind. There are people in the Scriptures that she could relate to. Like the Israelites trapped in the desert. The sea blocked their way forward and Pharaoh and his army hemmed them in from behind. They couldn’t move. They faced either drowning or defeat. The Lord had called them out of Egypt, now, it seemed He had abandoned them right here where the going got tough. Did He even realize the situation they were in?  

Yes, He knew right where they were and exactly what was happening. In fact, He put them there. He purposefully led them “around by the desert road toward the Red Sea” (Exodus 13:18). Why on earth? Because there He could show Himself mighty – so the Israelites and the Egyptians would “know that I am the Lord” (14:4). The pillar of cloud that had been leading them from the front moved to the rear of the company, “coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel” (14:19). It brought light to the Israelites and darkness to the Egyptians. Then the mighty breath of God blew across the sea and made a clearing between walls of water – a path of “dry ground” (14:22). And you know the rest of the story.

Are you standing between the sea and the enemy? Does it feel like you’re trapped with no way out? Beloved, God sees and knows. He either brought you here or allowed you to run to this place so that He can rescue you. Trust Him. He can still part the sea. Others will think you’re confused and crazy, but God will make a way for you and the world will know that He is the Lord.

Advent Devotional Day 14 – Mighty God!

“The Lord will fight for you, you need only be still” (Exodus 14:14)

The Israelite people were fleeing Egypt, with Pharaoh and the Egyptian army close on their heals.  Imagine being part of the crowd of two-million plus slaves being pursued by elite military horsemen and six hundred chariots armed with deadly spears and arrows.  You stand at the edge of a vast, impassable sea knowing that Pharaoh’s army will come sweeping in on you any minute.  You look to your leader Moses for a battle plan and all he tells you is “be still.” How’s your confidence now?

The prophet declared that this Child who was born to save the world would be called “Mighty God” (Isaiah 9:6).  He would be a Warrior who would fight for His people.  Only the enemy is not a human army; the enemy is death – that is, eternal separation from God.  And He would not do battle with arrows or spears or any man-made weapon.  He would use a wooden cross to gain for us eternal life.  Paul well proclaimed “Death has been swallowed up in victory!” (1 Corinthians 15:54).

We like to keep the Christmas story all light and sweet – a baby in a manger, angels singing, shepherds kneeling, star shining – but the truth is, this Baby came to fight a fearsome foe.  He came with a battle plan in hand – a plan that would mean His death.

Why? Because you and I are unable to save ourselves.  When it comes to this enemy, we are as helpless as the Israelites standing at the edge of the sea.  We cannot defeat death.  This morning our church and community is mourning for a beautiful teenage girl who fought hard against this enemy but lost the battle.  Too soon sometimes, death comes for everyone.  But the blessing in this young lady’s passing is that she belonged to Jesus Christ.  While we have lost her lovely smile and her sweet spirit here, she is not lost forever.  Jesus won the victory for her and she has eternal life with Him in heaven.

Can you confidently say “I am not afraid of death!”?  Are you assured of the same victory as this precious girl?  He came to fight for you, to give you victory over your fiercest enemy.  He came to win eternal life for you.  More than a mere Baby in the manger, Jesus is indeed our Mighty God – our Warrior and our Victor.

“Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory though our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57).

Read I Corinthians 15:50-58

This devotional is dedicated to the memory of Anna K.

Will Your Faith Stand?

“Do everything without complaining or arguing.” Philippians 2:14

Three days. That’s all it took for the complaining to start. Three days from blessing to grumbling. Three days from rejoicing to grousing.

The Israelites were three days out from crossing the Red Sea in miraculous fashion, and they were already complaining. They had witnessed God’s power and might in rescuing them from slavery and defeating the Egyptian army. They had fled Egypt, carrying the wealth of their captives with them, and the Lord had guided them in a pillar of cloud and fire to the edge of the sea. They watched as the presence of the Lord moved to form an impenetrable wall between them and their enemy. They saw the waters part, felt the dry ground beneath their feet as they moved between two walls of water and then watched the walls collapse onto the Egyptian army.

They sang and danced and rejoiced, proclaiming “The Lord is my strength and my song; He has become my salvation; Who among the gods is like You, O Lord-majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” They sang of their trust in Him, “In your unfailing love You will lead the people You have redeemed…You will bring them in and plant them on the mountain of Your inheritance.” (Ref. Exodus 15:2, 11, 13, 17.)

And everything changed. They found themselves in a desert with no drinkable water, the one spring poured forth bitter water. Now that’s not a little problem, mind you. Water in a desert is a big deal. Water for as many as two million people or more is an even bigger deal. They were in a serious situation. So they turned on their God-appointed leader and “grumbled against Moses, saying ‘What are we to drink?’” (Ex. 15:24). We might think, “Are these the same people that crossed the sea on dry ground and witnessed the power and might of the Lord?” Well, yes, actually they were.

And so are we. The truth is, I can very often turn from praising to grumbling in thirty minutes. At least it took them three days. Are we really any different than the Israelites? Like them, we have often forgotten God’s faithfulness and goodness in the past and complained about the circumstances of the present. It is a pattern that shows up over and over again in their wilderness journey. We see it again in Exodus 16, as they grumble about the lack of food, saying “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted” (Ex. 16:3). In chapter 17 they are grumbling about water again, and so it goes, until they stand at the edge of the Promised Land. Rather than rejoice in God’s faithfulness thus far and move ahead with confidence they grumble and cry and moan, until finally that generation lost the Promised Land altogether.

If you and I are honest, wouldn’t we admit that the same pattern shows up in our own lives as well? Why do we fail to believe that the God who sent His Son to die on the cross for us will also provide for, protect and bless us? Paul asks the same question in Romans 8:31-32, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all – how will He not also, along with Him, gracious give us all things?” Why do we, like the Israelites, fail to trust the Lord who has proven Himself faithful again and again and again?

In a word: unbelief. The very same unbelief that demoralized the faith of the Hebrew nation undermines our faith and confidence in God today. The exodus from Egypt was the great expression of Yahweh’s love to the Israelites. But because they had grumbled all along the way; at would should have been their defining moment of faith, they stood at the edge of the Promised Land and balked. “All the Israelites grumbled…and the whole assembly said, ‘Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?’” (Numbers 14:2,3)

Are you believing God today? The cross of Jesus Christ is God’s ultimate expression of love to you and me. Every day we are surrounded by reminders of His care and devotion to His people. Yet still, when we are faced with a challenge, we grumble. Rather than believe God, we doubt. We question. We whine and complain. And God asks, as He asked of Israel, “How long will these people refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them?” (Num. 14:11).

There is a day coming when Christians will be faced with their defining moment of faith. We need only to read the Scriptures and look at the world around us to know it is not far away. Have you and I walked in faith, believing God? Will our faith stand?

Jesus posed a question, “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth” (Luke 18:8)? What if He comes today?

Holy Father, my faith is often so small. I cry out like the father in Mark’s Gospel – “I believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).