Nearly every time an angel appears in the Bible, the first words he says are “Do not be afraid!” (Dan. 10:12, 19; Matt. 28:5; Rev. 1:17). Little wonder. When the supernatural makes contact with planet Earth, it usually leaves the human observers flat on their faces in catatonic fear. But Luke tells of God making an appearance on earth in a form that does not frighten. In Jesus, born in a barn and laid in a feeding trough, God finds at last a mode of approach that we need not fear. What could be less scary than a newborn baby?
Puzzled skeptics stalked Jesus throughout His ministry. How could a baby in Bethlehem, a carpenter’s son, be the Messiah from God? But a group of shepherds in a field had no doubt about who He was, for they heard the message of good news straight from a choir of angels (2:8-14).
Why did God take on human form? The Bible gives many reasons, some densely theological and some quite practical; but the scene of Jesus as an adolescent lecturing rabbis in the temple gives one clue (v. 46). For the first time, ordinary people could hold a conversation, a debate, with God in visible form. Jesus could talk to anyone—His parents, a rabbi, a poor widow—without first having to announce, “Don’t be afraid!”
In Jesus, God comes close to us.
It’s tempting to think of faith as a kind of magic formula. If you muster up enough of it, you’ll get rich, stay healthy, and live a contented life with automatic answers to all your prayers. But life does not work according to such neat formulas. As proof, the author of Hebrews presents a stirring reminder of what constitutes “true faith” by reviewing the lives of some Old Testament giants of faith (Heb. 11).
“Without faith,” the author says bluntly, “it is impossible to please God” (11:6). In describing faith he uses words such as “persevere” and “endure.” As a result of their faith, some heroes triumphed: They routed armies, escaped the sword, survived lions. But others met less happy ends: They were flogged, stoned, sawed in two. The chapter concludes, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised” (v. 39).
The picture of faith that emerges does not fit into an easy formula. Sometimes it leads to victory and triumph. Sometimes it requires a gritty determination to “hang on at any cost.” Of such people, “God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (v. 16).
What our faith rests on is the belief that God is in ultimate control and will indeed keep His promises—whether that happens in this life or the next.
For years I thought of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7) as a blueprint for human behavior, a standard no one could possibly meet. How could I have missed the true meaning? Jesus spoke these words not to encumber us, but to tell us what God is like.
Why should we love our enemies? Because our merciful Father causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good. Why store up treasures in heaven? Because the Father lives there and will lavishly reward us. Why live without fear and worry? Because the same God who clothes the lilies and the grass of the field has promised to take care of us. Why pray? If an earthly father gives his son bread or fish, how much more will the Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask?
Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7) not only to explain God’s ideal toward which we should never stop striving but also to show that in this life none of us will ever reach that ideal.
Before God, we all stand on level ground: murderers and tantrum-throwers, adulterers and lusters, thieves and coveters. We are all desperate, and that is the only state appropriate to a human being who wants to know God. Having fallen from the absolute ideal, we have nowhere to land but in the safety net of absolute grace.
One detail in the Easter story has always intrigued me. Why did Jesus keep the scars from His crucifixion? Presumably He could have had any resurrected body He wanted, and yet He chose one identifiable mainly by scars that could be seen and touched. Why?
I believe the story of Easter would be incomplete without those scars on the hands, the feet, and the side of Jesus (John 20:27). Human beings dream of pearly straight teeth and wrinkle-free skin and ideal body shapes. We dream of an unnatural state: the perfect body. But for Jesus, being confined in a skeleton and human skin was the unnatural state. The scars are a permanent reminder of His days of confinement and suffering on our planet.
From the perspective of heaven, those scars represent the most horrible event that has ever happened in the history of the universe. Even that event, though, turned into a memory. Because of Easter, we can hope that the tears we shed, the struggles we endure, the emotional pain, the heartache over lost friends and loved ones—all these will become memories, like Jesus’ scars. Scars never completely go away, but neither do they hurt any longer. Someday we will have re-created bodies and a re-created heaven and earth (Rev. 21:4). We will have a new start, an Easter start.
Years ago I responded to letters within a couple of weeks and kept my correspondents happy. Then came the fax machine, and they seemed content with receiving a response within a couple of days. Today, with email, instant messaging, and mobile phones, a response is expected the same day!
“Be still, and know that I am God.” In this familiar verse from Psalm 46 I read two commands of equal importance. First, we must be still, something that modern life conspires against. In this hectic, buzzing world, even a few moments of quiet do not come naturally to us. And stillness prepares us for the second command: “Know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” In the midst of a world that colludes to suppress, not exalt, God, how do I carve out time and allow Him to nourish my inner life?
“Prayer,” writes Patricia Hampl, “is a habit of attention brought to bear on all that is.” Ah, prayer . . . a habit of attention. Be still and know. The first step in prayer is to acknowledge or to “know” that God is God. And in that attention, that focus, all else comes into focus. Prayer allows us to admit our failures, weaknesses, and limitations to the One who responds to human vulnerability with infinite mercy.
My home sits along a creek in a canyon in the shadow of a large mountain. During the spring snowmelt and after heavy rains this stream swells and acts more like a river than a creek. People have drowned in it. One day I traced the origin of the creek to its very source, a snowfield atop the mountain. From there the melted snow begins the long journey down the mountain, joining other rivulets to take shape as the creek below my house.
It occurs to me, thinking about prayer, that most of the time I get the direction wrong. I start downstream with my own concerns and bring them to God. I inform God, as if God did not already know. I plead with God, as if hoping to change God’s mind and overcome divine reluctance. Instead, I should start upstream where the flow begins.
When we shift direction, we realize that God already cares about our concerns—a loved one’s cancer, a broken family, a rebellious teenager—more than we do. Our Father knows what we need (Matt. 6:8).
Grace, like water, descends to the lowest part. Streams of mercy flow. We begin with God and ask what part we can play in His work on earth. With this new starting point for prayer, our perceptions change. We look at nature and see the signature of the grand Artist. We look at human beings and see individuals of eternal destiny made in God’s image. Thanksgiving and praise surge up to Him as a natural response.
A friend stopped me the other day with some exciting news and then spent 10 minutes describing for me the first steps of her 1-year-old nephew. He could walk! Later I realized how bizarre we might have sounded to an eavesdropper. Most people can walk. What was the big deal?
It struck me that childhood provides a quality of specialness that nearly vanishes for the rest of life. Thinking about our treatment of children gave me further appreciation for the fact that God chooses the word picture of “children” to describe our relationship with Him. The New Testament announces that we are God’s children, with all the rights and privileges of worthy heirs (Rom. 8:16-17). Jesus (the “one and only” Son of God) came, we’re told, to make possible our adoption as sons and daughters in God’s family.
I imagine God views each halting step forward in my spiritual “walk” with the eagerness of a parent watching a child take that very first step.
Perhaps when the secrets of the universe are finally revealed, we will learn an underlying purpose of watching children grow. It may be that God has granted us these times of specialness to awaken us to His infinite love. Of the fullness of that love, our experiences here on earth are mere glimpses.
In high school I took pride in my ability to play chess. I joined the chess club, and during lunch hour I could be found sitting at a table with other nerds, poring over books with titles like Classic King Pawn Openings. I studied techniques, won most of my matches, and put the game aside for 20 years. Then I met a truly fine chess player who had been perfecting his skills long since high school, and I learned what it is like to play against a master. Although I had complete freedom to make any move I wished, none of my strategies mattered very much. His superior skill guaranteed that my purposes inevitably ended up serving his own.
Perhaps there is a spiritual picture for us here. God grants us freedom to rebel against His original design, but even as we do so we end up serving His eventual goal of restoration (Rom. 8:21; 2 Peter 3:13; Rev. 21:1). This transformed the way I view both good and bad things. Good things—such as health, talent, and money—I can present to God as offerings to serve His purposes. And bad things—disability, poverty, family dysfunction, failure—can be “redeemed” as the very instruments that drive me to God.
With the Grand Master, victory is assured, no matter how the board of life may look at any given moment.
In the late 19th century, William Carey felt a call to travel to India as a missionary to share the good news of Jesus. Pastors around him scoffed: “Young man, if God wants to save [anyone] in India, He will do it without your help or mine!” They missed the point of partnership. God does very little on earth without the likes of us.
As partners in God’s work on earth, we insist that God’s will be done while at the same time committing ourselves to whatever that may require of us. “Your kingdom come. Your will be done,” Jesus taught us to pray (Matt. 6:10). These words are not calm requests but holy demands. Give us justice! Set the world aright!
We have different roles to play, we and God. It is our role to follow in Jesus’ steps by doing the work of the kingdom both by our deeds and by our prayers.
We are Christ’s body on earth, to borrow Paul’s metaphor in Colossians 1:24. Those we serve, Christ serves. When we extend mercy to the broken, we reach out with the hands of Christ Himself.