It’s a quiet riverside park on a Saturday afternoon. Joggers pass by, fishing rods whirl, seagulls fight over fish and chip wrappers, and my wife and I sit watching the couple. They are dark-skinned, maybe in their late 40s. She sits gazing into his eyes while he, without a hint of self-consciousness, sings to her a love song in his own tongue, carried on the breeze for us all to hear.
This delightful act got me thinking about the book of Zephaniah. At first you might wonder why. In Zephaniah’s day God’s people had become corrupt by bowing to false gods (1:4–5), and Israel’s prophets and priests were now arrogant and profane (3:4). For much of the book, Zephaniah declares God’s coming judgment on not just Israel, but all the nations of the earth (3:8).
Yet Zephaniah foresees something else. Out of that dark day will emerge a people who wholeheartedly love God (vv. 9–13). To these people God will be like a bridegroom who delights in His beloved: “In his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing” (v. 17)
Creator, Father, Warrior, Judge. Scripture uses many titles for God. But how many of us see God as a Singer with a love song for us on His lips?
Avoid the Door
The dormouse’s nose twitched. Something tasty was nearby. Sure enough, the scent led to a birdfeeder full of delicious seed. The dormouse climbed down the chain to the feeder, slipped through the door, and ate and ate all night. Only in the morning did he realize the trouble he was in. Birds now pecked at him through the feeder’s door, but having gorged on the seed, he was now twice his size and unable to escape.
Doors can lead us to wonderful places—or dangerous ones. A door features prominently in Solomon’s advice on avoiding sexual temptation in Proverbs 5. While sexual sin may be enticing, he says, trouble awaits if it’s pursued (5:3–6). Best to stay far from it, for if you walk through that door you’ll be trapped, your honor lost, your wealth pecked away by strangers (vv. 7–11). Solomon counsels us to enjoy the intimacy of our own spouse instead (vv. 15–20). His advice can apply to sin more broadly too (vv. 21–23). Whether it’s the temptation to overeat, overspend, or something else, God can help us to avoid the door that leads to entrapment.
The dormouse must’ve been happy when the homeowner found him in her garden birdfeeder and freed him. Thankfully, God’s hand is ready to free us when we’re trapped too. But let’s call on His strength to avoid the door of entrapment in the first place.
When the roof of Paris’ Notre-Dame Cathedral caught fire in April 2019, its ancient wood beams and lead sheeting created a furnace so hot it couldn’t be contained. After the cathedral’s spire dramatically fell, attention turned to its bell towers. If the giant steel bells’ wooden frames also burned, their collapse would bring both towers down, leaving the cathedral in ruins.
Pulling his firefighters back for safety, General Gallet, commander of Paris’ Fire Department, pondered what to do next. A firefighter named Remi nervously approached. “Respectfully, General,” he said, “I propose that we run hoses up the exterior of the towers.” Given the building’s fragility the commander dismissed the idea, but Remi spoke on. Soon General Gallet faced a decision: follow the junior firefighter’s advice, or leave the cathedral to fall.
Scripture has much to say about taking advice. While this is sometimes in the context of youth respecting elders (Proverbs 6:20–23), most is not. Proverbs says “the wise listen to advice” (15:22), wars are won with it (24:6), and only a fool fails to heed it (12:15). Wise people listen to good advice, whatever the age or rank of those giving it.
General Gallet listened to Remi. The burning bell frames were hosed just in time, and the cathedral was saved. What problem do you need godly advice on today? Sometimes God guides the humble through a junior’s lips.
In the tenth century, Abd al-Rahman was the ruler of Cordoba, in Spain. After fifty years of successful reign (“beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies”), al-Rahman took a deeper look at his life. “Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call,” he said of his privileges. But when he counted how many days of genuine happiness he’d had during that time, they amounted to just fourteen. How sobering.
The writer of Ecclesiastes was also a man of riches and honor (Ecclesiastes 2:7–9), power and pleasure (1:12; 2:1–3). And his own life evaluation was equally sobering. Riches, he realized, just led to a desire for more (5:10–11), while pleasures accomplished little (2:1–2), and success could be due to chance as much as ability (9:11). But his assessment didn’t end as bleakly as al-Rahman’s. Believing God was his ultimate source of happiness, he saw that eating, working, and doing good could all be enjoyed when done with Him (2:25; 3:12–13).
“O man!” al-Rahman concluded his reflections, “place not thy confidence in this present world!” The writer of Ecclesiastes would agree. Since we have been made for eternity (3:11), earthly pleasures and achievements won’t satisfy by themselves. But with Him in our lives, genuine happiness is possible in our eating, working, and living.
Fresh Start Effect
When Bryony turned thirty, she was sad to still be in a sales job she’d never liked. She decided it was time to stop procrastinating and find a new career. For David, New Year’s Eve had him looking in the mirror vowing this would be the year he lost weight. And for James, it was watching another month pass without his angry outbursts decreasing. Next month, he promised himself, he would try harder.
If you’ve ever vowed to change at the start of a new month, new year, or a major birthday, you’re not alone. Researchers even have a name for it: the fresh start effect. They suggest that at calendar points like these we are more prone to assess our lives and try putting our failures behind us to start over. Wanting to be better people, we long for a fresh start.
Faith in Jesus speaks powerfully to this longing, offering a vision of what our best selves can be (Colossians 3:12–14), and calling us to leave our past selves behind (vv. 5–8). It offers this change not by decisions and vows alone, but by divine power. When we choose to follow Jesus, we become new people; and God’s Spirit works in us to make us whole (vv. 9–10; Titus 3:5).
Receiving salvation in Jesus is the ultimate fresh start. And it doesn’t need to wait for a special calendar date. Your new life can start right now.
Imagine the One who made cedars spring from seeds starting life over as an embryo, the One who made the stars submitting Himself to a womb, the One who fills the heavens becoming what would be in our day a mere dot on an ultrasound. Jesus, in very nature God, making Himself nothing (Philippians 2:6–7). What an astonishing thought!
Imagine the scene as He is born in a plain peasant village, among farmers and angels and bright lights in the sky, with the bleating of animals His first lullabies. Watch as He grows in favor and stature: as a youngster astounding teachers with answers to grand questions; as a young man at the Jordan getting His Father’s approval from heaven; and in the wilderness as He wrestles in hunger and prayer.
Watch next as He launches His world-changing mission—healing the sick, touching lepers, forgiving the impure. Watch as He kneels in a garden in anguish, and as they arrest Him while His closest friends flee. Watch as He is spat on and nailed to two wooden posts, the world’s sins on His shoulders. But watch, yes watch, as the stone rolls away, an empty tomb ringing hollow, because He is alive!
Watch as He is lifted to the highest place (v. 9). Watch as His name fills heaven and earth (vv. 10–11).
This Maker of the stars who became a dot on an ultrasound. This, our Christmas child.
I Am His Hands
Jia Haixia lost his sight in the year 2000. His friend Jia Wenqi lost his arms as a child. But they’ve found a way around their disabilities. “I am his hands and he is my eyes,” Jia Haixia says. Together, they’re transforming their village in China.
Since 2002 the friends have been on a mission to regenerate a wasteland near their home. Each day Jia Haixia climbs on Jia Wenqi’s back to cross a river to the site. Jia Wenqi then “hands” Jia Haixia a shovel with his foot, before Jia Haixia places a pail on a pole between Jia Wenqi’s cheek and shoulder. And as one digs and the other waters, the two plant trees—over 10,000 so far. “Working together, we don’t feel disabled at all,” Jia Haixia says. “We’re a team.”
The apostle Paul likens the church to a body, each part needing the other to function. If the church was all eyes, there’d be no hearing; if all ears, there’d be no sense of smell (1 Corinthians 12:14–17). “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’” Paul says (v. 21). Each of us plays a role in the church based on our spiritual gifts (vv. 7–11, 18). Like Jia Haixia and Jia Wenqi, when we combine our strengths, we can bring change to the world.
Two men combining their abilities to regenerate a wasteland. What a picture of the church in action!
In 1941, as Hitler’s reign was expanding across Europe, novelist John Steinbeck was asked to help with the war effort. He wasn’t asked to fight or visit troops on the frontline, but to instead write a story. The result was The Moon Is Down, a novel about a peaceful land that gets invaded by an evil regime. Printed on underground presses and secretly distributed throughout occupied countries, the novel sent a message: the Allies were coming, and by imitating the novel’s characters readers could help secure their freedom. Through The Moon Is Down, Steinbeck brought good news to people under Nazi rule—their liberation was near.
Like the characters in Steinbeck’s story, Jews in the first century were an occupied people under brutal Roman rule. But centuries before, God had promised to send an Ally to liberate them and bring peace to the world (Isaiah 11). Joy erupted when that Ally arrived! “We tell you the good news,” Paul said, “What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us . . . by raising up Jesus” (Acts 13:32–33). Through Jesus’s resurrection and offer of forgiveness, the world’s restoration had begun (vv. 38–39; Romans 8:21).
Since then, this story has spread throughout the globe, bringing peace and freedom wherever it’s embraced. Jesus has been raised from dead. Our liberation from sin and evil has begun. In Him we’re free!
A Purpose in Suffering
“So what you’re saying is, it may not be my fault.” The woman’s words took me by surprise. Having been a guest speaker at her church, we were now discussing what I’d shared that morning. “I have a chronic illness,” she explained, “and I have prayed, fasted, confessed my sins, and done everything else I was told to do to be healed. But I’m still sick, so I thought I was to blame.”
I felt sad at the woman’s confession. Having been given a spiritual “formula” to fix her problem, she had blamed herself when the formula hadn’t worked. Even worse, this formulaic approach to suffering was disproved generations ago.
Simply put, this old formula says that if you’re suffering, you must have sinned. When Job tragically lost his livestock, children, and health, his friends used the formula on him. “Who, being innocent, has ever perished?” Eliphaz said, suspecting Job’s guilt (Job 4:7). Bildad even told Job that his children only died because they had sinned (8:4). Ignorant of the real cause of Job’s calamities (1:6–2:10), they tormented him with simplistic reasons for his pain, later receiving God’s rebuke (42:7).
Suffering is a part of living in a fallen world. Like Job, it can happen for reasons we may never know. But God has a purpose for you that goes beyond the pain you endure. Don’t get discouraged by falling for simplistic formulas.