Madagascar’s National Road 5 offers the beauty of a white sand coastline, palm forests, and the Indian Ocean. Its 125 miles of two-track road, bare rock, sand, and mud, however, have given it a reputation for being one of the worst roads in the world. Tourists looking for breathtaking views are advised to have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, an experienced driver, and an onboard mechanic.
John the Baptist came to announce the good news of the coming Messiah to those traveling on rough roads and through barren landscape. Repeating the words of the prophet Isaiah written centuries earlier, he urged curious crowds to “prepare the way for the Lord” and to “make straight paths for him” (Luke 3:4–5; Isa. 40:3)
John knew that if the people of Jerusalem were going to be ready to welcome their long-awaited Messiah their hearts needed to change. Mountains of religious pride would need to come down. Those in the valley of despair because of their broken lives would need to be lifted up.
Neither could be done by human effort alone. Those who refused to respond to the Spirit of God by accepting John’s baptism of repentance failed to recognize their Messiah when He came (Luke 7:29–30). Yet those who saw their need for change discovered in Jesus the goodness and wonder of God.
When my friend Elaine was recovering after a bad fall, a hospital worker placed a bright yellow bracelet on her wrist. It read: Fall Risk. That phrase meant: Watch this person carefully. She may be unsteady on her feet. Help her get from place to place.
First Corinthians 10 contains something like a “Fall Risk” warning for believers. With a glance back at his ancestors, Paul noted the human potential to fall into sin. The Israelites complained, worshiped idols, and had immoral relationships. God grew unhappy with them and allowed them to experience consequences for their wrongdoing. However, Paul said, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us . . . . So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (vv. 11–12).
It’s easy to trick ourselves into believing that we’re done with a particular sort of sin. Even when we’ve struggled through the worst of it—admitting our problem, repenting, and recommitting ourselves to following God’s ways—temptation may come calling. God makes it possible for us to avoid falling back into the same patterns. He does this by providing a way out of the sinful act we’re considering. Our part is to respond to His offer of escape.
A friend’s baby was suffering seizures, so they sped to the hospital in an ambulance, her heart racing as she prayed for her daughter. Her fierce love for this child hit her afresh as she held her tiny fingers, recalling too how much more the Lord loves us and how we are “the apple of His eye.”
The prophet Zechariah employs this phrase in his word to God’s people who had returned to Jerusalem after their captivity in Babylon. He calls them to repent, to rebuild the temple, and to renew their hearts of love for the true God. For the Lord loves His people greatly; they are the apple of His eye.
Hebrew scholars suggest this phrase from Zechariah 2 denotes one’s reflection in the pupil of another’s eye, with the word “apple” emerging because it’s a common spherical object. So with eyes being precious and fragile, they need protecting, and that’s how the Lord wants to love and protect His people—by holding them close to His heart.
The Lord who dwells in our midst pours out His love on us—even, amazingly, far more than a loving mother who does all she can for her ailing child. We are the apple of His eye, His beloved.
“He thinks he’s really something!” That was my friend’s assessment of a fellow Christian we knew. We thought we saw in him a spirit of pride. We were saddened when we learned that he soon was caught in some serious misdeeds. By elevating himself, he had found nothing but trouble. We realized that could happen to us as well.
It can be easy to minimize the terrible sin of pride in our own hearts. The more we learn and the more success we enjoy, the more likely we are to think we’re “really something.” Pride is at the core of our nature.
In Scripture, Ezra is described as “a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6). King Artaxerxes appointed him to lead an expedition of Hebrew exiles back to Jerusalem. Ezra could have been a prime candidate to succumb to the sin of pride. Yet he didn’t. Ezra didn’t only know God’s law; he lived it.
After his arrival in Jerusalem, Ezra learned that Jewish men had married women who served other gods, defying God’s express directions (9:1-2). He tore his clothes in grief and prayed in heartfelt repentance (vv. 5-15). A higher purpose guided Ezra’s knowledge and position: his love for God and for His people. He prayed, “Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence” (v. 15).
Ezra understood the scope of their sins. But in humility he repented and trusted in the goodness of our forgiving God.
In 1879, archaeologists discovered a remarkable little item in an area now known as Iraq (biblical Babylon). Just 9 inches long, the Cyrus Cylinder records something that King Cyrus of Persia did 2,500 years ago. It says that Cyrus allowed a group of people to return to their homeland and rebuild their “holy cities.”
It’s the same story told in Ezra 1. There we read that “the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia” to make a proclamation (v. 1). And in that proclamation, Cyrus said he was releasing the captives in Babylon to go home to Jerusalem, re-establish their homes, and rebuild their temple (vv. 2-5).
But there’s more to the story. Daniel confessed his sins and his people’s sins and pleaded with God to end the Babylonian captivity (Dan. 9). In response to Daniel’s prayer, God sent an angel to speak to Daniel (v. 21). Later He moved Cyrus to release the Hebrews. (See also Jer. 25:11-12; 39:10.)
Together, the Cyrus Cylinder and God’s Word combine to show us that the king’s heart was changed and he allowed the exiled Hebrews to go home and worship.
This story has great implications for us today. In a world that seems out of control, we can rest assured that God can move the hearts of leaders. We read in Proverbs 21:1 that “the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord.” And Romans 13:1 says that “there is no authority except from God.”
The Lord, who is able to change our own hearts as well as the hearts of our leaders, can be trusted for He is in control. Let’s ask Him to work.
When a defendant stands before a judge, he or she is at the mercy of the court. If the defendant is innocent, the court should be a refuge. But if the defendant is guilty, we expect the court to exact punishment.
A pastor told this story on himself in his local newspaper. He was chatting with an older man to whom he had just been introduced. “So, you used to work for a utility company,” the pastor said, naming the organization. “Sure did,” the man responded. The pastor remarked that when he was a kid the cables from that company ran across his parents’ property. “Where did you live?” the man asked. When the pastor told him, the man said, “I remember that property. I had a tough time keeping the cable warning signs up. Kids were always shooting them down.” When the pastor’s face flushed with embarrassment, the man said, “You were one of the shooters, weren’t you?” And indeed he was.
It used to bother me that the closer I drew to God in my walk with Him, the more sinful I felt. Then a phenomenon I observed in my room enlightened me. A tiny gap in the curtain covering my window threw a ray of light into the room. As I looked, I saw particles of dirt drifting in the beam. Without the ray of light, the room seemed clean, but the light revealed the dirty particles.
In many countries, health laws prohibit reselling or reusing old mattresses. Only landfills will take them. Tim Keenan tackled the problem and today his business employs a dozen people to extract the individual components of metal, fabric, and foam in old mattresses for recycling. But that’s only part of the story. Journalist Bill Vogrin wrote, “Of all the items Keenan recycles . . . it’s the people that may be his biggest success” (The Gazette, Colorado Springs). Keenan hires men from halfway houses and homeless shelters, giving them a job and a second chance. He says, “We take guys nobody else wants.”