The Last Call

After serving his country for two decades as a helicopter pilot, James returned home to serve his community as a teacher. But he missed helicopters, so he took a job flying medical evacuations for a local hospital. He flew until late in his life.

Now it was time to say goodbye to him. As friends, family, and uniformed co-workers stood vigil at the cemetery a colleague called in one last mission over the radio. Soon the distinctive sound of rotors beating the air could be heard. A helicopter circled over the memorial garden, hovered briefly to pay its respects, then headed back to the hospital. Not even the military personnel who were present could hold back the tears.

When King Saul and his son Jonathan were killed in battle, David wrote an elegy for the ages called “the lament of the bow” (2 Samuel 1:17). “A gazelle lies slain on your heights,” he sang. “How the mighty have fallen!” (v. 19). Jonathan was David’s closest friend and brother-in-arms. And although David and Saul had been enemies, David honored them both. “Weep for Saul,” he wrote. “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother” (vv. 24, 26).

Even the best goodbyes are oh-so-difficult. But for those who trust in the Lord, the memory is much more sweet than bitter, for it is never forever. How good it is when we can honor those who have served others!

Not What It Seems

“Listen!” my wife said to me over the phone. “There’s a monkey in our yard!” She held up the phone so I could hear. And yes, it sounded just like a monkey. Which is weird, because the nearest wild monkey was 2,000 miles away.

Later, my father-in-law burst our bubble. “That’s a barred owl,” he explained. Reality was not what it had seemed.

            When King Sennacherib’s armies had Judah’s King Hezekiah trapped inside Jerusalem’s walls, the Assyrians thought victory was theirs. Reality proved different. Although the Assyrian field commander used smooth words and pretended to speak for God, the Lord had His hand on His people.

“Have I come to attack and destroy this place without word from the Lord?” the commander asked (2 Kings 18:25). As he tried to entice Jerusalem to surrender, he even said, “Choose life and not death!” (v. 32).

That sounds like something God would say. But the prophet Isaiah told them the true words of the Lord. “[Sennacherib] will not enter this city or shoot an arrow here,” God said. “I will defend this city and save it” (19:32–34; Isaiah 37:35). That very night “the angel of the Lord” destroyed the Assyrians (v. 35).

From time to time, we’ll encounter smooth-talking people who “advise” us while denying God’s power. That isn’t God’s voice. He speaks to us through His Word. He guides us with His Spirit. His hand is on those who follow Him, and He will never abandon us.

Judging Origins

“Where are you from?” We often use that question to get to know someone better. But for many of us, the answer is complicated. Sometimes we don’t want to share all the details.

In the book of Judges, Jephthah might not have wanted to answer that question at all. His half-brothers had chased him out of his hometown of Gilead for his “questionable” origins. “You are the son of another woman,” they declared (Judges 11:2). The text says starkly, “His mother was a prostitute” (v. 1).

But Jephthah was a natural leader, and when a hostile tribe picked a fight with Gilead, the people who had sent him packing suddenly wanted him back. “Be our commander,” they said (v. 6). Jephthah asked, “Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house?” (v. 7). After getting assurances that things would be different, he agreed to lead them. The Scripture tells us, “Then the Spirit of the Lord came on Jephthah” (v. 29). Through faith, he led them to a great victory. The New Testament mentions him in its list of heroes of the faith (Hebrews 11:32).

He so often seems to choose the unlikeliest people to do His work, doesn’t He? It doesn’t matter where we’re from, how we got here, or what we’ve done. What matters is that we respond in faith to God’s love.

Despised for All of This

Susannah Cibber gained fame in the eighteenth-century for her talent as a singer. However, she was equally well known for her scandalous marital problems. That’s why when Handel’s Messiah was first performed in Dublin in April 1742, many in the audience did not approve of her role as a featured soloist.

During that inaugural performance, Cibber sang of the Messiah: “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). Those words so moved Rev. Patrick Delany that he jumped to his feet and said, “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”

The connection between Susannah Cibber and the theme of Handel’s Messiah is evident. The “man of sorrows”—Jesus the Messiah—was “despised and rejected” because of sin. The prophet Isaiah said, “My righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities” (v. 11).

The connection between Messiah and us is no less apparent. Whether we stand with the judgmental audience members, with Susannah Cibber, or somewhere in between, we all need to repent and receive God’s forgiveness. Jesus, by His life, death, and resurrection, restored our relationship with God our Father.

For this—for all Jesus did—be all our sins forgiven.

Letters Home

Far from home and training for World War II, American recruits in basic training turned to humor and correspondence to cope with the challenges they faced. In one letter home a young man described the vaccination process with wonderful exaggeration: “Two medical officers chased us with harpoons. They grabbed us and pinned us to the floor and stuck one in each arm.”

Yet one soldier began to realize that humor could only take him so far. Then he received a Bible. “I enjoy it very much and I read it every night,” he wrote. “I never realized you could learn so much from a Bible.”

Long ago, the Jewish exiles returned home after years of slavery in Babylon to find their problems came with them. As they struggled to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls, they faced opposition from enemies, famine, and their own sin. Amid their trouble, they turned to God’s Word. They were surprised at what they learned. When the priests read from the Book of the Law of God, the people were moved to tears (Nehemiah 8:9). But they also found comfort. Nehemiah the governor told them, “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (v. 10).

We don’t need to wait for trouble to hear from God. The Bible is where we learn about His character, His forgiveness, and His comfort. As we read it, we’ll be surprised at what God’s Spirit will show us in its pages.

Blooming in the Right Spot

“A weed is any plant that grows where you don’t want it,” my father said, handing me the hoe. I wanted to leave the corn plant that had “volunteered” among the peas. But Dad, who had grown up on a farm, instructed me to pull it out. That lone cornstalk would do nothing but choke the peas and rob them of nutrients.

Human beings aren’t plants—we have minds of our own and God-given free will. But sometimes we try to bloom where God doesn’t intend us to be.

King Saul’s son, the warrior-prince Jonathan, could have done that. He had every reason to expect to be king. But he saw God’s blessing on David, and he recognized the envy and pride of his own father (1 Samuel 18:12–15). So rather than grasping for a throne that would never be his, Jonathan became David’s closest friend, even saving his life (19:1–6; 20:1–4).

Some would say that Jonathan gave up too much. But how would we prefer to be remembered? Like the ambitious Saul, who clung to his kingdom and lost it? Or like Jonathan, who protected the life of a man who would become an honored ancestor of Jesus?

God’s plan is always better than our own. We can fight against it and resemble a misplaced weed. Or we can accept His direction and become flourishing, fruitful plants in His garden. He leaves the choice with us.

Fault Lines

An influx of refugees to our community has led to new growth in area churches. That growth brings challenges. Church members must learn how to welcome these newcomers as they adjust to a strange culture, new language, and different worship styles. All this change can create some awkward situations.

Misunderstandings and disagreements occur everywhere we find people. Church is no exception. If we don’t handle our differences in a healthy way, they can harden into divisions.

The early church in Jerusalem was growing when a dispute arose that broke along a cultural fault line. The Greek-speaking Jews (the Hellenists) had a complaint against those Jews who spoke Aramaic. The Hellenist widows “were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1). So the apostles said, “Choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (v. 3). The seven chosen all had Greek names (v. 5). In other words, they were Hellenists, members of the group being neglected. They best understood the problem. The apostles prayed over them and the church thrived (vv. 6–7).

Growth brings challenges, in part because it increases interactions across traditional barriers. But as we seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we’ll find creative solutions as potential problems turn into opportunities for more growth.

What Do the Experts Say?

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby writes of the “uncanny ability of experts to get things hopelessly, cataclysmically wrong.” A quick glance at recent history shows he's right. The great inventor Thomas Edison, for instance, once declared that talking movies would never replace silent films. And in 1928, Henry Ford declared, “People are becoming too intelligent ever to have another war.” Countless other predictions by “experts” have missed the mark badly. Genius obviously has its limits.

Only one Person is completely reliable, and He had strong words for some so-called experts. The religious leaders of Jesus’s day claimed to have the Truth. These scholars and theologians thought they knew what the promised Messiah would be like when He arrived.

Jesus cautioned them, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life.” Then He pointed out how they were missing the heart of the matter. “These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39–40).

As another new year gets underway, we’ll hear predictions ranging from the terrifying to the wildly optimistic. Many of them will be stated with a great deal of confidence and authority. Don’t be alarmed. Our confidence remains in the One at the very heart of the Scriptures. He has a firm grip on us and on our future.

What on Earth?

When Andrew Cheatle lost his cellphone at the beach, he thought it was gone forever. About a week later, however, fisherman Glen Kerley called him. He had pulled Cheatle’s phone, still functional after it dried, out of a 25-pound cod.

Life is full of odd stories, and we find more than a few of them in the Bible. One day tax collectors came to Peter demanding to know, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” (Matt. 17:24). Jesus turned the situation into a teaching moment. He wanted Peter to understand His role as king. Taxes weren’t collected from the children of the king, and the Lord made it clear that neither He nor His children owed any temple tax (vv. 25–26).

Yet Jesus wanted to be careful not to “cause offense” (v. 27), so He told Peter to go fishing. (This is the odd part of the story.) Peter found a coin in the mouth of the first fish he caught.

What on earth is Jesus doing here? A better question is, “What in God’s kingdom is Jesus doing?” He is the rightful King—even when many do not recognize Him as such. When we accept His role as Lord in our lives, we become His children.

Life will still throw its various demands at us, but Jesus will provide for us. As former pastor David Pompo put it, “When we’re fishing for our Father, we can depend on Him for all we need.”

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