...a weekly devotional

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Mighty Shepherd

10 Behold, the Lord God will come with might, with His arm ruling for Him. Behold His reward is with Him, and His recompense is before Him. 11 Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, in His arm He will gather the lambs, and carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes.
Isaiah 40:10-11

Last Sunday afternoon I celebrated my annual tradition of participating in a performance of Handel's "Messiah." Shortly after moving to Hawaii I was googling like crazy to see if there was a concert or sing-along of this beloved oratorio. To my excitement I found one sing-along, just one, on the whole island! It was at a small Presbyterian church and the choir just about outnumbered the audience. The soloists were not like the professionals I heard the year before when I attended "Messiah" at the Disney Concert Hall in LA, but their voices lifted the melody in a way that still lifted my heart to heaven. Afterwards someone commented that I was the only woman in the choir not wearing a floral hawaiian muumuu! Nonetheless, I plan to be there each year as long as I live in Hawaii. 

My favorite number from Handel's "Messiah" is the duet "And He Shall Feed His Flock." This beautiful tune is an alto soloist singing the words of Isaiah 40:11, followed by a soprano melodically declaring "come unto Him all ye that labor and He will give you rest; take His yoke upon you and ye shall find rest unto your souls" (Matthew 11:29).

This duet grabs my heart because Isaiah 40 is such a rich text of Scripture. This chapter places the promises of God and the character of God side-by-side. Verse one opens with the words “Comfort, O comfort my people!” (another familiar solo from "The Messiah"). God promises forgiveness of sins, redemption, and His coming Messiah. Following the first few verses, the chapter list characteristic after characteristic of God: His power, sovereignty, superiority, wisdom, and the list goes on and on. Our Father never asks us to trust Him blindly, He gives reasons to trust Him. Verse 10 and 11 particularly stand out because they seem to be such an opposite juxtaposition- The Mighty Warrior (v. 10) and The Tender Shepherd (v. 11).

These verses are beautifully and intentionally woven together to form one amazing promise. Verse 10 speaks of God’s power and strength as a mighty warrior while verse 11 describes Him as a tender, compassionate shepherd. The description of the sheep are the youngest, weakest ewe lambs that are utterly dependent on their Master for protection and provision. God will powerfully fight our battles and lovingly care for us. He is both powerful and compassionate.

These qualities are purposefully placed side-by-side because they are two aspects of God that we naturally tend to separate. In times of discouragement we certainly believe that God is able and powerful enough to help, but we question that He actually will help.  We don’t doubt God’s power but we doubt His compassion. How many times have you prayed for the salvation of an unbelieving friend or family member, or the healing of a loved-one—hoping desperately for a miracle but secretly doubting that anything will actually happen? God promises that He is not only one-hundred percent willing, but one-hundred percent able.

God is powerful enough to help you and He is filled with compassionate so that He will help you. Relish and rest in that truth this season! Let the easy yoke of that promise rest on your shoulders. Also, make sure to get out and see a performance of Handel's "Messiah," attend a sing-along, or, at least, listen to a recording. This musical masterpiece captures the full extent of all we celebrate at Christmas in a way that is unparalleled.

1 Image taken from rain.org. This is a piece of Handel's Messiah written in Beethoven's hand. Beethoven so admired Handel's work that he wrote it out so as to get the "feeling of its intricacies" and "to unravel its complexities." On another occasion Beethoven is said to have remarked, "Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived."The music of Messiah so permeated Beethoven's being that on his deathbed he is reputed to have quoted from The Messiah stating that if there were a physician that could help him "His name shall be called Wonderful."

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thank You Jar

"You shall celebrate the Feast of Booths seven days after you have gathered in from your threshing floor and your wine vat; and you shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter and your male and female servants and the Levite and the stranger and the orphan the the widow who are in your towns. Seven days you shall celebrate a feast to the LORD your God in the place which the LORD chooses, because the LORD your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful."
Deuteronomy 16:13-15

Thanksgiving, in my opinion, is a holiday that most resembles some of the Feasts of Old Testament Israel. God was all about annual celebrations and giant feasts to commemorate the good things He had done for His people. One of my favorite feasts was the Feast of Booths or Tents. It was essentially a glorified camping trip! It celebrated both the end of the harvest and the gathering of the last crops, as well as the wanderings in the wilderness. The people did not work for eight days and they spent that time feasting nonstop, offering thanksgiving and freewill offerings, and they built temporary shelters out of branches and leaves to stay in during that time. It was a glorious celebration! Just imagine if Thanksgiving was eight days long!

I love camping, but whenever the camping trip is over some of my favorite things to do include taking a long, hot shower, and sleeping in my comfy bed. In the same way God designed the Feast of Tents to help the people "appreciate their homes and realize how thankful they should be for their comforts (Deut. 6:10-11)."1 This feast combined both the gathering of the harvest and the reminder of wandering in the wilderness because "when the people dwelled in the land and enjoyed God's bounty, they could not forget the hardships of the temporary dwellings in the wilderness."2 It is a reminder that everything the people possessed came from God- in the same way He provided food, water, and shelter for them in the wilderness, He continued to provide food, water, and shelter for them now. 

It is only by remembering what God has done that we can step out in faith for the year to come. God never asks us to trust Him blindly, He always says "look back, remember, see what I have done...now trust Me." He was constantly reminding Israel of how He brought them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and preserved them in the wilderness. Usually these reminders came at a time when they were facing a great battle, hardship, or famine. God is always telling us "Remember how I took care of you in the past, you can trust Me to do the same for you in the future." That is why we are commanded, not encouraged, but commanded to give thanks. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says, "in everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." So often people say they want to know and do God's will for their lives, well, there you have it, give thanks!

When I was a child my mother had a big glass jar that she kept in the pantry. This was our "Thank You Jar" and whenever we felt thankful for something we could write in on a piece of paper and slip it into the jar. Then, at the end of every year we would pass the jar around, pull out the slips of paper, and read them one by one. Over time, as we grew older, the jar was replaced by a "Thank You Journal." Then as we moved away from home, my mother gave each of us a notebook to keep track of our blessings. Each year during the holiday season when we gather as a family we go month by month and share the various blessings that we recorded in our notebooks. It has become a special way to reflect on the year and be reminded on some of the huge blessings. 

In our attempt to keep the tradition alive, my husband and I each have a notebook in which we have been recording our blessings. I usually pull it out each night and jot down the blessings of the day. Some days are easier than others, but every day I write something. I always put a star next to the big highlights that I intend to share at the end of the year. It has always been overwhelming to look back over the year and reflect on all that God has done.

God is all about tangible reminders to help us reflect on the things He has done and offer Him thanksgiving. He knows that a heart of gratitude produces trust, and trust produces peace. Thanksgiving is the root that determines our mindset, and it is a habit that we must foster daily, not just once a year. Even the holiday of Thanksgiving is often no more than food, family, football, and more food. Take some time to make this Thanksgiving an opportunity to reflect on God's provision and praise Him for His many blessings. Consider setting the timer for an hour and using that time to write out a "thankful list." Take some time as a family to reflect and share month by month over the blessings of the year. More than anything, brainstorm ways to develop a daily habit that will cultivate a heart of thanksgiving.  

1 A. P. Ross, Holiness to the LORD, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002, pg. 437.
2 Ibid, pg. 435.
3 Image taken from crunchycatholicmomma.blogspot.com

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Where is your hope?

"Praise the LORD!
Praise the LORD, O my soul!
I will praise the LORD while I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
Do not trust in princes,
In mortal man, in whom there is no salvation.
His spirit departs, he returns to the earth;
In that very day his thoughts perish.
How blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
Whose hope is in the LORD his God;
Who made heaven and earth,
The sea and all that is in them;
Who keeps truth forever;
Who executes justice for the oppressed;
Who gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
The LORD opens the eyes of the blind;
The LORD raises up those who are bowed down;
The LORD loves the righteous;
The LORD protects the strangers;
He supports the fatherless and the widow;
But He thwarts the way of the wicked.
The LORD will reign forever,
Thy God, O Zion, to all generations.
Praise the LORD!"
- Psalm 146

I was determined not to post something related to politics, but if you are anything like me, it is something that has been on your mind over the last couple of days. Whether you are thrilled at the outcome of the election or pessimistically bemoaning the results, one thing remains true, God is ultimately in control.

Israel was a nation that knew war, natural disaster, political upheaval, and poverty. The author and time period of this particular psalm is unknown, but some speculate that it could have been Ezra or Nehemiah, meaning it could be as far into Israel's history as during the exile or shortly after a remnant returned to the land. I cannot help but think that no matter what the context was, this psalm was written during a time of great transition, unrest, and political uncertainty. It could have been written during the reign of a wonderful king, a horrible king, or likely no king at all! This psalm was written as a reminder that no matter what the political circumstances the nation was currently facing, God was the one in charge.

It did not matter who the leader was, because every leader was mortal. It is rather explicit, but verses 3 and 4 essentially say, do not trust in princes because they die, they are not permanent, they cannot give salvation. Only God is eternal. He is the possessor of full sovereignty and provider of our salvation.

Just look at the actions of God in this psalm: He made, keeps, executes, gives, sets free, heals, raises up, loves, protects, supports, and reigns. He helps the helpless and executes justice. None of His children are overlooked- the oppressed, hungry, prisoner, blind, lowly, stranger, orphan, and widow. Are you in financial peril, in need of physical healing, isolated, alone, stuck, discouraged? Every need is covered with His provision, protection, healing, and love.

Finally, notice that the psalm begins and ends with praise and carries a tone of relief that no matter what the circumstances God can be depended on to provide and protect. He is on the throne- He was then, He is now, and He will be forever. So where is your hope? Are you depending on a certain political leader? Are you clawing for that next paycheck to make ends meet? Are you clinging to a human relationship or hoping for a change in circumstances to make you complete and satisfied? Or have you started to give up altogether? Be reminded that God is Creator and Sustainer. He has not forgotten about you or lost control. He can be trusted and He deserves our hope and praise.