Luke 1:68-79 – A Peaceful Life

Praise the Lord,
    the God of Israel!
He has come
    to save his people.
Our God has given us
    a mighty Savior
from the family
    of David his servant.
Long ago the Lord promised
by the words
    of his holy prophets
to save us from our enemies
and from everyone
    who hates us.
God said he would be kind
to our people
and keep
    his sacred promise.
He told our ancestor Abraham
that he would rescue us
    from our enemies.
Then we could serve him
    without fear,
by being holy and good
    as long as we live.

You, my son, will be called
a prophet of God
    in heaven above.
You will go ahead of the Lord
to get everything ready
    for him.
You will tell his people
    that they can be saved
when their sins
    are forgiven.
God’s love and kindness
    will shine upon us
like the sun that rises
    in the sky.
On us who live
in the dark shadow
    of death
this light will shine
to guide us
    into a life of peace. (Contemporary English Version)

This beautiful psalm and prophecy came from the old priest Zechariah. It is a praise to God for the Christ about to be born; and, a prediction of Zechariah’s own son, newly born, as one who will prepare the way for Jesus.  This benediction speaks of better days to come, pointing forward to peace (shalom) spiritually, politically, and relationally.

Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were old and well past the childbearing years. In fact, Zechariah is portrayed earlier in Luke’s Gospel as something of a stereotypical grump. After being taken up to the temple in a golf cart because he could walk so well anymore, Zechariah was confronted by an angel and nearly lost his dentures out of fear.

The angel Gabriel told old Zechariah that his wife would bear a son who will prepare the way of Messiah.  Zechariah then gave a sort of “Hmpff!  That’s not likely, Sonny. Look at me and my wife. Are you sure you have the right couple, and the orders in heaven didn’t get screwed up?”

Zechariah the Priest and the Archangel Gabriel by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov (1806-1858)

Gabriel was not very keen on being doubted, and it earned Zechariah losing his voice until John the Baptist was born. It was after Zechariah had nine months to think about that encounter, and experience watching a child grow in his wife’s womb that, after John’s birth, Zechariah was a changed man. 

Zechariah went from just one of many old priests in Israel, to being inspired by the Spirit and singing the praises of God. We can almost imagine him as an ancient version of Fred Astaire, picking up his cane and dancing with joy.

Our lives are not so different than Zechariah in this respect: We are a complex concoction of both fear and joy that could combust at any time in either direction.

We sway back and forth from fear and anxiety to joy and gratitude. Certain words can swing us to one extreme or the other: finances, pandemic, politics, religion, the future. They can create in us either immediate tension or smiling happiness; tomorrow they might do just the opposite. Zechariah went from anxious to elated, fearful to joyful.

We live in a toxic world filled with polarizing opposites and entrenched stereotypes of others. People vacillate between love and hate, pursed lips of anger and dispositions of peace. So, how do we rise above the heated rhetoric that exists in our world? How are we going to deal with all the disharmony and vitriol? By possessing the peace given to us in the prophecy and promise of Jesus. Our feet need to be guided in the path of peace.

Jesus came to give peace. All the words of Zechariah’s inspiration point toward the harmonious peace of salvation, rescue, and forgiveness. The time was finally coming when there would be peace in its fullest sense – wholeness and thriving in life which was unprecedented and unthinkable before Jesus. 

“True peace is not merely the absence of some negative force, tension or war – it is the presence of some positive force, justice, good will, brotherhood.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

We are to live the Christian life and have a ministry in the church and the world without fear. Instead, we are to focus on what we are called to be and to do. Jesus rescues and delivers so that we will have forgiveness of sins which enables us to serve the Lord in holiness and righteousness, without fear.

Peace does not just magically appear out of thin air. Peace was bought at an agonizing price – the blood of Jesus. Peace must be pursued. Practices of peace must be engrafted into our lives if we are going to experience it on the daily practical level. Yes, obtaining peace is difficult.  Yet, we instinctively know it is worth it.

Spiritual health comes through cultivating the peace of God in our lives through:

  • Avoiding chronic negativity and embracing the positive.
  • Making things right with others and embracing a reconciling spirit.
  • Pursuing Jesus with heart, soul, mind, and strength.
  • Reframing our situations to a fresh vision of peace, wholeness, integrity, spiritual growth, and relational health, instead of focusing solely on problem-solving.

Zechariah, by means of the Holy Spirit, gave us a vision of a future full of peace, joy, and thriving. The name “Zechariah” means in Hebrew “God remembered.” God has not forgotten divine promises. The time has come to take hold of the vision God had from the very beginning to walk with humanity in continual fellowship and happiness in the garden, a place of abundant growth, beauty, and health.

Beginning ten years ago, a new kind of study has come from a task force put together by professionals across a wide spectrum of disciplines known as the World Happiness Report.  Every country in the world is ranked according to criteria such as the gross domestic product, social support, healthy lifestyles, freedom to make choices, lack of corruption, and both negative and positive outlooks on life. 

The United States has yet to make the top ten list on happiness. Even with America’s vast resources, we are, collectively speaking, a very unhappy people. I believe the most interesting finding from the World Happiness Report was their conclusion as to what makes one country happier than another. The Report consistently concludes that citizens of the happiest nations on earth continually find a steady stream of peace and joy in three sources: their families, their rituals/traditions, and their religion.

It will be hard to find joy in our lives through our Christianity if we are not experiencing the peace of Jesus Christ. Christian liturgical rituals and observances of seasons like Advent help remind us we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

The birth of Jesus turned Zechariah’s world upside-down. Forgiveness of sins, spiritual peace, and human well-being can be found in Christ. Here are several practical ways we can implement the peace we have in Jesus Christ today:

  • Slow down, pause, breathe, and pray.

Do not worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7, NLT)

  • Exchange fear for the presence of God.

For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, “Do not fear, I will help you.” (Isaiah 41:13, NRSV)

  • Listen to music, sing, or make music yourself.

Encourage each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your hearts to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:19, ERV)

  • Have a “go to” word, phrase, or Scripture verse.

The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing. (Psalm 23:1, CEB)

  • Unplug for a time from electronics and close your eyes.

We live by what we believe, not by what we can see. (2 Corinthians 5:7, NCV)

  • Try aromatherapy and activate your sense of smell.

Through us, God brings knowledge of Christ. Everywhere we go, people breathe in the exquisite fragrance. Because of Christ, we give off a sweet scent rising to God, which is recognized by those on the way of salvation—an aroma redolent with life. (2 Corinthians 2:14-15, MSG)

  • Set healthy boundaries.

Jesus went into a village. A woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary. Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to him talk. But Martha was upset about all the work she had to do. So, she asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work all by myself? Tell her to help me.” The Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha! You worry and fuss about a lot of things. There is only one thing you need. Mary has made the right choice, and that one thing will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42, GW)

May the peace of Christ guide you into the path of peace in this Advent season and be with you, now and forever. Amen.

Luke 11:29-32 – Going Against the Crowd

As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here. (New International Version)

Just when we think we might have a handle on Jesus as the meek and gentle Savior we get a picture of Jesus behaving badly. When the crowds begin increasing we might expect Jesus to be pleased. After all, we might reason, Jesus can reach more people, have a wider influence, and greater impact with a crowd. It’s good for kingdom business. 

But Jesus isn’t down for all the people following him around. He opens his mouth and tells them they are an evil generation. 

“The crowds” continually get a bad rap throughout the New Testament Gospels. That’s because Jesus isn’t much of a crowd kind of guy. Although he loved people deeply, the Lord Jesus typically had some hard words for the masses.

“It’s better to walk alone than with a crowd going in the wrong direction.” 

Mahatma Gandhi

Maybe it would help if we used the word “mob.” This is likely the more nuanced understanding of “crowds.” It’s the herd mentality which tends to rub Jesus the wrong way, that is, doing something without understanding why you’re doing it, just because other people are doing it. A mob of people acting in concert never ends well, which is why Christ confronts the crowd.

Jesus chided the people who were looking for a cool miracle, a clear sign of his power, and nice clean lines of spiritual authority. Christ didn’t give it to them. Instead, Jesus let the mob know they have ample opportunity to accept him – yet they aren’t doing a dang thing to move in that direction.

Sometimes, we might so desperately want to make Jesus as Joe Cool so that others will follow him. If only Jesus will heal this person in a big audacious miraculous way, we wrongheadedly think, lots of people will believe. 

Or, if only Jesus will compassionately and powerfully perform some grand universal sign that nobody can miss, we believe, the world will have to take notice and put their trust in God. 

However, that’s not how Jesus rolls. Christ simply pointed people back to characters in the Old Testament. Jesus insists that if people won’t take notice of what they already have, they are not going to be swayed with a shiny new miraculous sign from heaven.

Jesus defies any stereotype we might try and corral him with. And that’s as it ought to be – since Jesus is the rightful and sovereign King. 

So, this is why we need a steady daily stream of God’s Word to help ground us into the ways of Jesus. The more we allow the Scriptures to shape our spirituality, the more our lives will be formed into the likeness of Jesus. 

Spiritual growth and maturity is a process. It is often slow. There are not a lot of bells and whistles to it. On most days, there is not a lot of drama – just the pedantic plodding of a faithful believer trying to make sense of living the Christian life. 

And those are the people I think Jesus most likes to hang-out with.

“A man who wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back on the crowd.” 

Max Lucado

The popular thing isn’t always the right or best thing. Rather than being a lemming which ends up running off a cliff, we have other options, especially when it comes to thinking spiritually and theologically about things:

  1. Stop and think. It’s easy to go through a typical day on autopilot and do things out of habit. The best way to avoid this is to consciously stop and think about why you’re doing something or holding tightly to a particular belief. Does what I’m doing jive with the words and ways of Jesus? Why am I believing or living in this way? What is my purpose?
  2. Take the necessary time to make sound decisions. Avoid copying other people and taking shortcuts. Instead, pray, consult, collaborate, seek wisdom, and make a deliberate and well-thought decision based in the ethics of God’s kingdom. Am I doing my due diligence with properly searching the Scriptures and praying before I act? Have I interacted with some trusted and sage people?
  3. Be willing to stand out from the crowd. If what you believe and the way you need to live your life makes you stick out, well then, it makes you stick out. Giving up your power by letting others make decisions for you isn’t going to end well. To be a faithful followers of Jesus, we will likely have to go against some social norms and stand out as individual believers.

Astounding God, you sometimes shake us out our pre-conceived notions about you and invite us to see Jesus from a different viewpoint. Help me to see Jesus so that I might more fully embrace him and walk in his ways and in the strength of the Spirit. Amen.

2 Samuel 7:18-29 – A Model Prayer

King David by Marc Chagall, 1962

Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and he said:

“Who am I, Sovereign Lord, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? And as if this were not enough in your sight, Sovereign Lord, you have also spoken about the future of the house of your servant—and this decree, Sovereign Lord, is for a mere human!

“What more can David say to you? For you know your servant, Sovereign Lord. For the sake of your word and according to your will, you have done this great thing and made it known to your servant.

“How great you are, Sovereign Lord! There is no one like you, and there is no God but you, as we have heard with our own ears. And who is like your people Israel—the one nation on earth that God went out to redeem as a people for himself, and to make a name for himself, and to perform great and awesome wonders by driving out nations and their gods from before your people, whom you redeemed from Egypt? You have established your people Israel as your very own forever, and you, Lord, have become their God.

“And now, Lord God, keep forever the promise you have made concerning your servant and his house. Do as you promised, so that your name will be great forever. Then people will say, ‘The Lord Almighty is God over Israel!’ And the house of your servant David will be established in your sight.

“Lord Almighty, God of Israel, you have revealed this to your servant, saying, ‘I will build a house for you.’ So, your servant has found courage to pray this prayer to you. Sovereign Lord, you are God! Your covenant is trustworthy, and you have promised these good things to your servant. Now be pleased to bless the house of your servant, that it may continue forever in your sight; for you, Sovereign Lord, have spoken, and with your blessing the house of your servant will be blessed forever.” (New International Version)

“The whole reason why we pray is to be united into the vision and contemplation of God to whom we pray.”

Julian of Norwich (1343-1416)

Perhaps you wish you had a better prayer life. To pray, as with most things in life, requires both motivation and how to do it. So, it’s appropriate to find answers about prayer by observing the biblical models of prayer contained in Holy Scripture.

Today’s Old Testament lesson is King David’s prayer in response to God’s revelation to him about fulfilling covenant promises. Looking at David’s prayer, there is a three-fold division which models for us a good way to approach God.

The Present: Gratitude for God’s Grace

David began his prayer with an attitude, posture, and words of humility, recognizing and affirming the relationship between himself and God. Although David is the king over all Israel and Judah, he repeatedly refers to himself as a servant (10 times).

God didn’t have to communicate anything to David about the future. Yet, the Lord graciously made known that it would be through David’s descendants that all of God’s good promises will be fulfilled. And David is overwhelmed with such gracious words. It comes tumbling out of him in a heartfelt prayer of gratitude and thanksgiving.

It is good for us to think about the spiritual blessings we have received from God. Not only can prayers of thanksgiving be uttered at any time to the Lord, but we can also write our gratitude in a journal as a prayer offering to God.

It’s also good to be specific about the circumstances and the praises. In the future, whenever there are discouraging situations, we can look back to what we wrote and remember the ways in which God showed up and encouraged us with very great and precious promises.

The Past: Praise for God’s Actions

David affirms there is no one and no god which can compare to Yahweh, the great I Am. It is the Lord God almighty who displayed divine power and presence in redeeming the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery and into the Promised Land.

Any greatness which arises from humans is the direct result of God’s greatness. Apart from God, there is no distinctive way of living. God’s presence makes all the difference:

Then Moses said to him [Yahweh], “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:15-16, NIV)

The Lord specializes in bending hopeless situations to divine purposes, transforming people to new life, and turning systemic evil on its head so that the humble, meek, and penitent will be first, not last.

The Future: Prayer for God to Fulfill Divine Promises

King David already knew God’s promises to the Israelites. Now, however, David understands how he personally fits into the Lord’s plan.

Courage arises whenever God’s people know God’s promises and then discern how to fit into God’s plan. Confident assurance and settled peace cannot simply be ginned-up through positive thinking; bold faith needs a foundation of truth – a rock solid base which cannot be moved and is always there.

King David found his ultimate motivation in life in God’s revelation. His basis of prayer was God’s Word. Biblical prayers, like David’s, are there for us to model our own prayers.

Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love. We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for the loving care which surrounds us on every side. We thank you for setting us at tasks that demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments that satisfy and delight us. We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying, through which he conquered death; and for his rising to life again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom. Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know Christ and make him known; and through him, at all times and in all places, may give thanks to you in all things. Amen.

Psalm 90 – Of God and Humanity

Lord, you have been our help,
    generation after generation.
Before the mountains were born,
    before you birthed the earth and the inhabited world—
    from forever in the past
    to forever in the future, you are God.

You return people to dust,
    saying, “Go back, humans,”
    because in your perspective a thousand years
    are like yesterday past,
    like a short period during the night watch.
You sweep humans away like a dream,
    like grass that is renewed in the morning.
True, in the morning it thrives, renewed,
    but come evening it withers, all dried up.
Yes, we are wasting away because of your wrath;
    we are paralyzed with fear on account of your rage.
You put our sins right in front of you,
    set our hidden faults in the light from your face.
Yes, all our days slip away because of your fury;
    we finish up our years with a whimper.
We live at best to be seventy years old,
    maybe eighty, if we’re strong.
But their duration brings hard work and trouble
    because they go by so quickly.
    And then we fly off.
Who can comprehend the power of your anger?
    The honor that is due you corresponds to your wrath.
Teach us to number our days
    so we can have a wise heart.

Come back to us, Lord!
    Please, quick!
    Have some compassion for your servants!
Fill us full every morning with your faithful love
    so we can rejoice and celebrate our whole life long.
Make us happy for the same amount of time that you afflicted us—
    for the same number of years that we saw only trouble.
Let your acts be seen by your servants;
    let your glory be seen by their children.
Let the kindness of the Lord our God be over us.
    Make the work of our hands last.
    Make the work of our hands last! (Common English Bible)

The Bible is first and foremost a collection of books about God. Even though Scripture’s pages are filled with the fame and foibles of humans, nevertheless, the biblical drama unfolds because of the Lord. Holy Scripture is, indeed, a self-revelation of God.

There are times we get too focused on ourselves – our fears, inadequacies, weaknesses, failures – and lose sight of just how huge God really is. Today’s psalm helps reorient us back toward the grand Sovereign of the universe. There is a decidedly theistic worldview espoused and embedded in the psalm. It is a cosmology dominated by the immensity and largeness of a Creator God who is pictured as completely in control of all creation.

Let’s face it: Our lives are a weird and complex concoction of fear and joy that can combust at any time. We swing from high to low, and low to high. If we are on an even keel, its only because we are currently in the middle of swaying to one extreme or the other. Even introverts are familiar with this – it just happens to take place mostly inside their vast inner world, instead of on the outside for all to see.

So, we all need the grand vision of God in this psalm to anchor us through the unpredictable vicissitudes of life. Before the mountains were brought forth, or the earth was formed, from everlasting to everlasting the Lord is God. 

The transcendent God, although high and above everything in all creation, is not at all aloof from humanity; the Lord of the universe is also imminently close. God is near enough to know both our outward iniquities as well as our secret sins. Nothing gets by God. The Lord always knows the score.

The proper and appropriate response to such a God is to exclaim along with the psalmist to teach us to number our days so that we may get a heart of wisdom. Whenever we appropriate a biblical worldview, we learn to measure our days and live consistently moral lives with wholeness and integrity. 

This is why a regular regimen of the psalms is important to us, so that we will continually have before us the basic nature and character of God. And, as we do so, we cannot help but reflect God’s glory and contribute to human flourishing on this earth and the care of all creation.

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, we rejoice in your greatness and power, your gentleness and love, your mercy and justice. Enable us by your Spirit to honor you in our thoughts, words, and actions, and to serve you in every aspect of our lives, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.