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Leaving the Manger: Trusting God

Matthew 2:13-15  Now when they (the magi) had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise and take the Child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.” 14 And he arose and took the Child and His mother by night, and departed for Egypt; 15 and was there until the death of Herod, that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “Out of Egypt did I call My Son.”

When I read this passage of scripture, two thoughts immediately come to mind:

  • When God wants to tell us something, He can figure out a way to get it done.
  • I am so glad that God sees the beginning, the end, and everything in between.

It was essential for Joseph to hear God’s voice. We may feel a little jealous if we have never had an angelic encounter. God used the readiness of the mind during sleep to accept the message of the heavenly messenger. Did you notice that? The “angel of the Lord appeared…in a dream!” But unlike many dreams, Joseph could remember with startling clarity what message was conveyed: “Get out of town!”

Herod would soon be furious over the slight of the magi. By God’s divine instruction, they headed home by a different route in order to bypass the Judean king. God knew the events that were about to transpire. He always does. And always, God has a plan for us in whatever is headed our way. If we’re listening and ready to comply with God’s design, we will always remain in the center of His will, even if life gets really ugly.

A new season of time stands before us. There are so many unknowns about it. Will I still have my job at the end of the year? Will I lose anyone close to me in the months ahead? What tragedies await me just around the corner? What school-of-hard-knocks does God have planned for me now? What disease is lurking in my body that will show itself in the days ahead? Yes—there are so many unknowns. But not one of them is a surprise to God!

Psalm 139:3-4, 16

3 Thou dost scrutinize my path and my lying down,

And art intimately acquainted with all my ways.

4 Even before there is a word on my tongue,

Behold, O LORD, Thou dost know it all.

16 Thine eyes have seen my unformed substance;

And in Thy book they were all written,

The days that were ordained for me,

When as yet there was not one of them.

Joseph and Mary understood the omniscient nature of God. They understood that God’s knowledge supersedes all time. He is in the past, present and future all at once! The Almighty is not bound by this arena of time in which we live. So—with absolute trust in the command of God, they scurried out of town in the dark of night to avoid any witnesses to their departure. Joseph’s obedience was immediate and complete, even though it brought them even farther from their home in Nazareth.

Egypt.

This is a place of pain, humiliation, despair, helplessness, enslavement, bondage, lostness…

Egypt was not a positive place for an Israelite. Their forefathers and families were debased in this despicable land. Four hundred and thirty years of slavery was cruelly etched into the fabric of these chosen people. By the way, did you know that they also spent four hundred and thirty years in the Promised Land…and then four hundred and thirty years in Babylonian and Persian exile? They returned to Jerusalem in 430BC…that’s right! Four hundred and thirty years after returning to their land of promise, the Savior comes, only to be sent back into exile again!

So when God tells Joseph and Mary to flee into Egypt, it required a special faith in the knowledge, wisdom and trustworthiness of God.

But they go.

They go into exile. In Egypt. Because God told them to go.

I’m quite sure that God will sneak up on you some day soon and say, “I want you to do this ridiculous thing that looks like sheer lunacy. Will you do it?” What will you answer?

It all depends upon how well you know God…how much you can trust in His infinite wisdom and undying love.

Will you go?

ACTION: What two or three things could you do or implement in your life that will help you know God better in this coming year? Talk to God about these today.

Leaving the MANGER: Deep Reflection

“But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart,” Luke 2:19.

I have fond memories of each of our children being born. That moment of looking into the face of our first child brought chills to my body and fireworks to my brain! I looked at that cute little bundle of mess as they lifted our daughter out of Susan’s womb and whispered a question, “Who is this little person?” I remember being overwhelmed with the creative ability of God to make someone out of virtually nothing.

Of course, pictures were taken so that the memories could be secured for a lifetime.

Not so for Mary and Joseph. With Jesus arrival, as spectacular as it was, there was no way to secure a clear memory of the sacred event. But as only a mother would do, the details of Jesus wondrous arrival were safely secured in the mind of Mary. The Greek word used here for “treasured” is the word suntereo, meaning to carefully preserve something of significant value. The word is used only four times in the entire New Testament. Twice it is used of wine being placed in new wineskins so that both are “preserved”.

Mary thought of these amazing experiences often. She reflected regularly on the intervention of God in their lives. She thought often of God’s amazing grace demonstrated through the Gift of God in infant form. The details of the shepherds’ arrival, their testimony to the angelic declaration, the voice of God in their own lives, the visit of the magi, all were holy moments that would affect her forever. Many of these memorable experiences, I’m sure, are not recorded in scripture. They are reserved for the Holy Family alone. Jesus’ first cry, the moment He smiled, the first time He turned over in His crib were all precious in ways that extend beyond that of every other child. These were displays of the Almighty’s humility, strength wrapped in helpless form, an infinite God bowing to the struggles of common humanity. They spoke volumes to Mary about the nature of God. And she never loved Him more.

Yes—she treasured up all these things. They were preserved carefully for ongoing reflection. These God-moments brought her regularly into the presence of God.

The verse above also states that Mary pondered them in her heart. The word “ponder” in the original language gives the idea of reflecting deeply. It emphasizes the practice of mulling something over and over until you understand the full meaning and significance of something. Scripture sometimes presents this practice as meditation.

The Bible declares numerous impressive things about meditating on the things of God. Just listen to this!

Psalm 4:4 Tremble, and do not sin; meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still.

Joshua 1:8 This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.

Psalm 119:99 I have more insight than all my teachers, for Thy testimonies are my meditation.

Do you see the power of deep reflection? Freedom from sin, the promise of success, and the seeds of deep insight become ours through the practice of meditating upon the things of God.

Mary was a master at this. She treasured up all these things and she reflected deeply upon them. No wonder that she is viewed with such dignity and respect. She lived to know and experience God in all of His fullness!

What about you? Do you ever ponder the things of God? Meditation is definitely a practice worth pursuing. The rewards are great, the affects significant, the joy unparalleled.

Here’s the truth of the matter: You and I will always be shallow Christians until we learn to reflect deeply and regularly upon the things of God. He is so infinite! His ways are so beyond us! His plans so incredible! His blessings so complete! But these only become ours as we are consumed to treasure and ponder these great things of God.

“For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.”

ACTION: A great way to meditate on the things of God is to take one verse of scripture a day or week. Learn it and think about it over and over. Ask God to show you truths about this verse. Let Him show you how precious every morsel of His word is for your life…and the power it has to unleash transformation as well.

Will you choose to reflect deeply and regularly on God-things in this coming year? Tell God about your decision…

Leaving the Manger: Obedience

Luke 2:21-25 And when eight days were completed before His circumcision, His name was then called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.

22 And when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every first-born male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”

These few verses are riddled with expressions of obedience by Joseph and Mary.

Just the other day, while driving on a long trip through inclement weather, I came upon a police officer who was going way too slow. I had a choice to make. Would I fall back and slow my pace to avoid a confrontation with the law, or would I carefully pass the officer’s vehicle and risk a ticket? Been there? Of course, there were lots of questions in my mind like, “I wonder how fast is too fast in these particular conditions?” and “I wonder if this is a happy cop or an angry cop?” and “Is there some law I don’t know about when it comes to passing police officers?” After a little consultation with my son (who has had more experience with the law than me the last while), I took the risk. My breathing turned shallow as I inched my way past. I exercised the limits of my peripheral vision to see if there was any kind of reaction by the driver of the enforcement vehicle—so it wasn’t too obvious I was nervous. Know what happened next? Nothing. After easing ahead for a couple of miles, I ramped up to my original speed and put the car back on cruise, which was maybe a little too fast for the current highway conditions.

Here’s the point. When someone who is in charge of the law is present, we tend to obey it a little more carefully.

Now—just think of Joseph and Mary. They had God living in their home. No secrets. No pretense of any kind. The law-giver and law-enforcer had dropped in…for the rest of their lives!

When I look at the above passage, I have to chuckle just a little. For those that like to smidge on the rules, the arrival of Jesus in your home would have been a little intimidating. I’m quite sure, though, that this was not the case with Joseph and Mary. From our first glimpse of this couple, we see that they were authentically godly, radically obedient, and sold-out on following hard after God. I suspect that these are some of the very reasons God had chosen them for this role in the first place.

Eight days after Jesus’ birth, they arrive at the temple for the Jewish ritual of circumcision. This was the covenant action required for all of God’s men to be identified as God’s chosen. But wait! Think of taking the blade to the Creator. What would it feel like to inflict pain on the Holy Infant? Don’t kid yourself–as the process of circumcision took place, little Jesus was not passively lying there cooing with a coy smile on His face. Just like any other child, He cried out with searing pain. The created Creator was receiving the first wounds of humanity. And ironically, to demonstrate that He uniquely belonged to God! Did he really need this? Wouldn’t it have been easy for the parent-couple to reason away the need for this particular ritual? But they didn’t. They simply did what the law required: “And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations,” (Genesis 17:12). It’s pretty clear, isn’t it?

By the way, it was tradition in Israel that the newborn’s name was pronounced at the ceremony of circumcision. It was also tradition that the father gave a family name…something that identified the child as being his own son. Not so here. With complete and selfless obedience to the spoken word of God, Joseph declared that His name would be Jesus, meaning “savior”.

Verse 22-24 describe the next sacred event for the chosen family. After fulfilling the regulations for purification after the birth of a son, they returned to the temple to dedicate Jesus to Yahweh as the first-born male in their household. Leviticus 12:4 reads, “Then she (the birth mother) shall remain in the blood of her purification for thirty-three days; she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed.” Yes—they knew and obeyed the law in every detail.  But that’s not all! The Old Testament Law also declared some laws concerning the first-born son!

Exodus 13:1-2, 15-16

13:1 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Sanctify to Me every first-born, the first offspring of every womb among the sons of Israel, both of man and beast; it belongs to Me.”

15’And it came about, when Pharaoh was stubborn about letting us go, that the LORD killed every first-born in the land of Egypt, both the first-born of man and the first-born of beast. Therefore, I sacrifice to the LORD the males, the first offspring of every womb, but every first-born of my sons I redeem.’ 16 “So it shall serve as a sign on your hand, and as phylacteries on your forehead, for with a powerful hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt.”

The first-borns were to be given to God as a joyous celebration of God’s saving grace to the people of Israel! This was to remind them that this God of grace is able to save…and able to destroy. He required the first son as an offering to the Lord. Yes—God was given to God here! The Redeemer was first redeemed.

Mom also needed to be purified. That’s what the sacrifice of turtledoves is all about. As a sign of completion for her thirty three days of purification, she was to have offered, on her behalf, a lamb. If the worshippers could not afford a lamb, however, two turtledoves would suffice. And so it is here. Those commissioned to raise the Lamb of God could not afford to bring a lamb for sacrifice. With humble obedience, they purchased the required turtledoves and the offering was presented to honor the Lord in all these things.

What precious obedience we see in this godly and humble couple. They were intent on obeying every nuance of God’s requirements. They knew that God deserved everything He requested. They knew that better now than ever before!

It is so common to downplay obedience. After-all, God understands. God forgives. God cleanses. And so with sloppy theology and carnal motives, we often do what we want rather than what we are told. Unfortunately, if this is our mode of operation, we will miss out on the greater things that God entrusts to those whose heart is wholly devoted to Him. Remember what Jesus said in later years? “If you love me, you will keep My commandments.” The same God who said it then, declared it in Old Testament writ as well:

2 Chronicles 16:9 For the eyes of the LORD move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His.

The God who entrusted this couple with Jesus is the One who still seeks for those whose heart is completely His…and who demonstrate that with radical obedience.

ACTION: What action of obedience is God requiring of you right now? Write it down…and then talk to God about this area of your life.

Saul’s Fall

I’m intrigued by the life of Saul, first king of Israel. Though not God’s best plan, since Israel demanded a king in their rejection of God, he chose Saul and anointed him to be the ruler of Israel. He was filled with the Spirit and promised a great future IF he would obey all that the Lord told him to do. His first act as King was a raving success as he freed the city of Jabesh-gilead from the ruthless Ammonites. Scripture says, “The Spirit of God came powerfully upon Saul” (1Samuel 11:6) enabling him to succeed in his first act as king.

Things took a turn quite soon, however. Saul began to rest on human wisdom rather than God’s declarations, to reason away sin by deceiving himself, to fear people more than God, and to “fudge” on practicing complete obedience to God’s demands.

1Samuel 15:22-23 record the prophet Samuel’s words clarifying Saul’s sin:

“What is more pleasing to the LORD: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice?
Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams.
Rebellion is as sinful as witchcraft, and stubbornness as bad as worshiping idols.
So because you have rejected the command of the LORD, he has rejected you as King.”

What a sobering reminder of what God expects of his servants:
1. Obedience–so much more than religious activity that can often give us a false sense of spirituality.
2. Compliance–the opposite of rebellion and stubbornness, powerfully destructive fruits of the flesh.
3. Loyalty–the antidote to rejection.

I never want to live a life of regrets like Saul.

Lord, by your grace, help me to obey, comply and practice God-honoring loyalty to you.

At the Top of the World

Church planters in training, all from one congregation.
Church planters in training, all from just one congregation.

The church is growing faster in Nepal than in any other country in the world right now. Don’t get me wrong, there is so much that still needs to be done. With approximately 2% Christian in the country, most have still never heard of Jesus. However, true multiplication is happening with astounding effectiveness among believers there. Three primary reasons account for this phenomenon:

  1. God has chosen to bless this nation and work in rare ways in these days.
  2. Believers are reading the Word and doing what it says. In contrast to a predominantly knowledge-based discipleship in the US, the churches in Nepal function under an obedience-based discipleship model. By the way, so did Jesus.
  3. Good and godly leaders are setting the pace. Apostolic-type leaders are committed, intentional and focused to get done what Jesus told us to get done–make disciples.

It’s a tremendous privilege for Converge to be deeply engaged in the movement among these amazing people. Within our network, 856 house churches have been started in the past 18 months. I’m confident the numbers will only get bigger and harvest greater. To God be the glory!

Priority

Priorities slip. The things that we should always highly value have a way of getting lost in the fray.

ivansusancruise2013I recently looked at my wife’s calendar and was humbly reminded of how easily this happens. There in her calendar, on every Tuesday night, was a notation, “Date with Ivan.” Oh wow! This was a commitment I had made some time ago because my relationship with Susan needed time and commitment. Somewhere in the busy schedules and demanding responsibilities, I lost sight of that priority. It’s time for a recommitment.

When Jesus said, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority, but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses…”, He was giving us a clear priority.

  • Holy Spirit power trumps end times information.
  • Doing is more important than knowing.
  • Our curiosity must be held in check by Jesus command.
  • God does His part and we need to do ours.

In essence, Jesus was telling His disciples that nothing matters more than being His witnesses. Our active involvement in His plan of redemption for all mankind is to be an ultimate priority in our daily lives. Our love for Jesus is not best expressed by determining the time of His return, but by engaging in the command He has delivered.

Hold on–you may not be an eschatological wiz. You’re not enamored by end times puzzles. But, you may have let something else creep in and crop out God’s directive. It’s all the same. If we’re not doing what He desires, it doesn’t really matter why. The fact is, we’re missing in action. That’s what matters.

So here’s a important priority to embrace. Take Jesus’ words to heart. Are you involved in spreading the word about what Jesus has done for you? The priority is simply this–be His witness. Tell what you have seen heard and experienced. Again and again and again…

Perspective

Our paradigm of understanding is a box. We usually see things from our perspective with little or no thought about how others may understand the same thing.

Kolkata slum womanTake world events, for instance. So many well intentioned believers, seeing the evil and chaos everywhere, are sure that Christ must be returning soon. This “conviction” is often driven by a desire to avoid suffering rather than having been derived out of the pages of Scripture.

Jesus made it clear that “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations (ethne’), and then the end will come,” Matthew 24:14. J. Oswald Smith declared, “We talk of the Second Coming; half of the world has never heard of the first.” Yes,  there are still over six thousand unreached people groups (ethne’) in the world. The task has not been accomplished.

Don’t get me wrong. Jesus could come any day, but from the view of Scripture, it looks like we have some serious work still to do.

In the days ahead, I would like you to join me in a search to understand our part, beginning with a very familiar, but vaguely understood statement of Jesus: “It’s not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority, But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth,” Acts 1:7-8.

I’m convinced that every person and every church is to play an irreplaceable role in God’s big plan. Let’s go for it!

It’s a Beautiful Thing

Herschbergers in Guadalajara 2013
Glenn and Susan Herschberger at a recent gathering in Guadalajara, Mexico.

I recently had a wonderful Skype session with a couple of our sharp missionaries in Panama City, Glenn and Susan Herschberger. We had an opportunity to catch up just a little, talk through a few tweaks we need to work on in the Home Office, threw around a few possibilities for future ministry, and just had a nice time chatting together. I love how technology brings us to close to one another even though we are thousands of miles apart.

For me, the highlight came when I asked Glenn, “What do you love most about what you’re doing in Panama?” Without a moment’s hesitation, and with a grin on his face, Glenn declared, “I love the diversity, the color. It’s the heart of God. It’s a beautiful thing.” I saw the passion of a true missionary coming through with startling clarity. When God’s heart-beat becomes our heart-beat, we’re in the bull’s-eye of God’s plan for ministry.

Scripture declares,

  Who will not fear, O Lord,
and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
 All nations (ethnos, meaning race, tribe, or people group) will come
and worship you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed.”  Revelation 15:4 ESV

God longs for all the people groups of the earth to worship Him. When people of diverse cultures, races, and traditions gather to worship, a profound beauty emerges. People sacrifice personal preferences, give up traditions, grasp new ways and practices for the sake of others, live out selfless community life, and greatly honor the God who longs for all people to worship Him together.

  • This is God’s desire, not only in glory, but right here on planet earth. After all, Jesus prayed, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”
  • This is God’s desire, not only for Panama City, or other A2:5 English-speaking church plants around the world, but for your church, your city, and your community.

It’s a beautiful thing!

Five Cheers for Cameroon!

Susan and I recently returned home from a 9-day trip to Cameroon. Our goal was to meet 10 of our Converge Worldwide missionaries there, see what their ministries are like, be of encouragement to them, listen and learn. All of these things were accomplished and more. Here’s the “more” part…

We were so blessed by the faithful service of our missionaries in some difficult places, such as:

  1. A couple teaching in a seminary in northern Cameroon. In a fairly remote region, with very few modern conveniences, they faithfully train pastors to start and strengthen churches. Learning the culture, dealing with the challenges of the differing leadership motif, and experiencing loss at the complete life-change they’ve endured, they continue to effectively multiply themselves by trainining and sending leaders to grow the Kingdom in Cameroon. I am humbled by their sacrifice and perseverance.

    pic1
    A team of missionaries in remote Cameroon.
  2. One couple has been ministering among a very hard to reach Muslim people group — about .01% Christian. With few conversions to speak of, they continue to help the herders in that region be successful in their farming endeavors. They simply love on the people in the name of Jesus as they meet some very real and urgent needs for survival. I am amazed at their unrelenting spirit to press on no matter what.
  3. A surgeon and his wife are helping to train surgeons for the Cameroon people — there are so few. While addressing the daunting needs of health care in this African nation, they are multiplying themselves to meet a pressing need among these people — all in the name of Jesus. Their lives are quite simple compared to what a doctor could have in the US, inconvenienced for the sake of Christ. They are the presence of Jesus in a region where Christ desperately needs to be experienced. I’m thankful for their sacrifice and excited about the difference they are making in Cameroon.
  4. You don’t often think of a contractor being a missionary, but this one is making a profound impact in Cameroon. His leadership, creativity, hard work, vision and ingenuity have been major ingredients in seeing a small hospital become a national center of health care. His wife is constantly teaching, building relationships with the lost, and loving on people in very practical ways. They remind me of how God’s unique giftings can be used to make a profound impact for God’s glory.
  5. On a hike with three Doctors in beautiful Cameroon!
    On a hike with three doctors in beautiful Cameroon!

    And then there is the hardship post, inhabited by a doctor and his wife who arrived on the scene 13 years ago intending to stay just two years. They’ve taken a small clinic and turned it into a full-fledged hospital in a very needy region of remote Cameroon. They partner with a church planting team there, as well as a Christian radio station that daily spreads the gospel to people who have never heard the Truth before. They are now 75 years old. When asked how long they intend to keep doing this, Doc replied, “If our health holds, 10 to 12 more years.” Is that amazing or what?! I am inspired by their sacrifice, Christ-like love for lost people, and godly leadership which is transforming a region of the world for Christ.

So when we say we came with our agenda, we also left with God’s. Susan and I are humbled, grateful, inspired, challenged, and energized to be in the unique role of leading these amazing servants of Christ. To God be the glory.