Advent Day Nineteen:The Plumb Line

“See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. . . The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.” (Amos 7:8; 8:11)

A plumb line is a string with a weight attached to one end. When it dangles freely, an exact vertical can be determined.  Without adjusting for the vertical, the wall becomes increasingly off-centre and unstable.  This allegory was applied to Israel by the prophet Amos as a warning against apostasy.  The interesting fact about a crooked wall is that it starts small, but by the time it gets to the top, even the untrained eye can see that it’s leaning.

When we measure our behaviour against our own standards, it’s easy to be just a “little bit off.”  We make allowances for conduct that is in the “gray zone” because we trust ourselves not to cross the line.  It’s similar to the indictment against the Israelites during the time of the Judges:  “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”  After a few generations, no one remembers the original cultural norms.  Sexual taboos or the use of four letter words are obvious casualties, but even church going has devolved to the point where few see it as important.

When the bar is so low, we can all declare, “I’m a good person.”  Yet, God has a far-higher standard, and his plumb line is the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.  We no longer have any excuse for “fudging” when we measure against his words.  Once we recognize that “there is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10) , the sooner we will understand the magnificent grace of God in sending Jesus as atonement for our sins.  Before the plumb line of the cross, no one can stand.

“LORD, forgive us for excusing our own actions.  We know what is right because you made it clear in your word.  You know our secret thoughts and actions; nothing surprises you.  We cannot justify ourselves.  Thank you that by confessing our sins, we can receive forgiveness.  Give us the power to overcome the weights that hold us back.”  Amen.

Mindi Oaten’s painting “Measures Injustice” is from God’s Garden of Grace collection.

Advent Day Eighteen: The Victory Parade

“I have returned to Jerusalem with compassion; my house shall be built in it, and the measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem. . . Here is a man whose name is Branch; for he shall branch out in his place, and he shall build the temple of the LORD. . . Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion.  Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey .” (Zechariah 1:16, 6:12; 9:9)

Inauguration day is a celebration of a change of regime in the United States.  It is filled with ceremony, pomp, and celebration.  The new leaders are paraded through the streets to cheers and applause.  Everyone hopes that life will be better as all their expectations are realized.  But 100 days into the mandate, the political pundits are once again arguing about the failings of the government.

No one can ever grant everyone’s wishes, not even Jesus.  When he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, the crowd believed that he would assume the throne as the Messiah prophesied in Zechariah.   Some saw an overthrow of Roman domination; others looked to a return of David’s throne.  None believed that he would submit to crucifixion by the end of the week.  We are reminded in Isaiah 55:8-9: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so My ways are higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.”  It’s no wonder that Jesus is disappointing to those who want to control God like Aladdin and the magic lamp.

Mary’s response in the Magnificat summarizes it this way:  “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52)

“LORD, we like to control the outcome of our life, but you don’t always give us victory in the way we imagine.  Humiliation and disappointment often set us on the way to the cross before you raise us up to a transformed life.  Give us the grace to trust in your wisdom and love.”  Amen.

Mindi Oaten’s painting “The Suffering Servant:  Healing Touch”is from God’s Garden of Grace collection. Dandelions represent humility.

Advent Day Seventeen: The Temple Not Made With Hands

“My spirit abides among you; do not fear.  For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the LORD of hosts.  . . The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts and in this place I will give .” (Haggai 2:5-7)

When the twin towers were destroyed in New York City, the world watched in horror.  As the rubble was cleared, stories of heroism and sacrifice emerged that changed a building site into a monument.  Now, almost twenty years later, we see the ghost of the towers in movies and pictures taken before and after.  Even the memorial constructed at ground zero conjures memories of  “the former glory”, and some weep.

When the Jews returned to Jerusalem after seventy years of exile, they set to work rebuilding the walls and the temple.  For those born after the destruction of Jerusalem, it was a bittersweet moment.  While the youth rejoiced, the aged wept because they remembered how things “used to be” and the new temple paled in comparison.

God’s glory was never meant to be contained in a building.  Even the temple constructed by Ezra was rebuilt by Herod the Great just twenty years before the time of Jesus.  Jesus knew that it would ultimately be destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., never to be rebuilt again.  Only the “wailing wall” remains today of the former temple. He said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will build it up again” (John 2:19). The original site was destroyed, only to be reconstituted in the hearts of believers everywhere, unbounded by time or place.  In this case, the present glory exceeds the former things.

“LORD, we are stones in a living temple with Christ as our foundation.  Sometimes the old has to be torn down to make way for the new.  Help us to be open to areas of our life that need to be renewed by your Spirit.”  Amen.

Mindi Oaten’s painting “Restores Our Worship”is from God’s Garden of Grace collection.

Advent Day Sixteen: Waiting for the Cure

“Therefore, wait for me, says the LORD, for the day when I arise as a witness.  For my decision is to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, . . I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD and serve him with one accord. . . .The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.  I will save the lame and gather the outcast and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.” (Zephaniah 3:ff)

Our world has become very small during this pandemic.  It has the impact of a world war.  Millions are experiencing fear and death on every continent, and when the vaccine or cure becomes available, we will all celebrate.  In the meantime, we wait.

Jesus changed the composition of the “chosen people” from a select group of Hebrews to people of every tribe and nation.  He preserved his covenant through a few faithful followers until the time of his first coming.  But the angels proclaimed peace to the whole earth, not just Israel.

Jesus is the antidote for original sin that entered through Adam and Eve.  He is the long-awaited cure to a disease that isolated us from the presence of God.  It was almost two millennia from the time of Abraham to Jesus, and we have waited over two millennia for his expected return.  God is not in a hurry.

It is ironic that access to the LORD came through rejection.  The gospel scattered throughout the whole world because followers of Jesus were excluded from the synagogues and persecuted by religious leaders.  The Holy Spirit did the rest through the work of Paul and the apostles.  They crossed over from sharing the message exclusively with the Jews to including the Gentiles.  Access to the throne of God was made available to “whosoever will” the moment the veil in the temple was shred in two by Jesus’s resurrection.  We do not choose the means by which God’s message is spread; we are merely carriers.

“LORD, we are inheritors of the gospel, preserved through the centuries in scripture and tradition.  We celebrate with the angels that the good news is to all nations.  Your children are found in every tribe and race, and in Jesus, we speak the same language.  Expand our circle of love to include the whole world.”  Amen.

Mindi Oaten’s painting “Our Unity”is from God’s Garden of Grace collection.

Advent Day 15:Prepare the Way of the Lord

“See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.  The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, indeed, he is coming.  But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?  For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. . . But for you who fear my name, the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in his wings. And you will go free, leaping with joy like calves let out to pasture.” (Malachi 3:1-2; 4:2)

Your anticipation of an upcoming event is dependent on the purpose, the person, and the participants.  A doctor’s appointment, where she’s sharing results of tests, evokes a far different response than a coffee date with your best friend, or Christmas with the family.

The exiles were given the promise that Elijah would return before the Messiah came to the temple.  Centuries later, Jesus referred to his cousin,  John the Baptist, as Elijah.   John was known as the “voice in the wilderness” crying out, “repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  When Jesus appeared before him, asking him to be baptized, John replied, “You should baptize me!”  But Jesus knew that it was in his baptism that God would reveal himself in the voice and the dove—“This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Those in right relationship with God longed for the Messiah.  They believed that the Son would rise with healing in his wings, and they would be set free like young calves in the spring.  But for those who were not ready to receive him, his appearance would be like a purifying fire.

The second coming of Jesus is viewed with fear and skepticism by those who have wandered away from the LORD.  For those who have a personal relationship with him, his coming is mixed with excitement, nervousness, and uncertainty. If we consider the glory of his birth and what he showed us about the love of God, we can wait with hope just like a child before Christmas.  For those who are afraid or don’t believe it will ever happen, there is still time to prepare.  Repent.

“LORD Jesus, just as you came the first time to a world asleep, you will appear again to gather your people home.  We believe that you will complete the work began on Christmas morning—prepare our hearts to be ready to receive you with joy.”  Amen.

Mindi Oaten’s painting “The Returning King”is from God’s Garden of Grace collection.

Advent Day Fourteen: O Little Town of Bethlehem

“O Bethlehem, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. . . And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. . . He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 5:2, 4, 8)

History is replete with strong leaders who have fallen under the weight of their own power.  Given enough time, they begin to believe in their invincibility and often exert autocratic decrees that victimize the poor and weak.  Even Christian leaders succumb to scandal and disgrace when their personality becomes the focus rather than the gospel.

Israel was shattered by poor leadership from their kings.  The peace was continually disturbed by coups and infighting.  Prosperity was interrupted by invading armies from without and moral corruption from within. 

Jesus was a different kind of leader.  He was a shepherd rather than a general.  He came from Bethlehem, a tiny rural town in Judah, far from the centre of power in Jerusalem.  His parents were ordinary, working class, pious Jews.  His followers were fishermen, tax collectors, and women.  He spoke not of economic prosperity but of justice and peace.  His battlefield was the spiritual realm where the hosts of heaven overcame the forces of darkness.  Righteousness triumphed, and the power of sin and death was broken by the lamb. 

Two thousand years later, the impact of this humble shepherd is seen in every corner of the world.  His influence is witnessed in hearts transformed by love.  Hatred is defeated by  mutual submission and love for the neighbour, even if the neighbour is an enemy.  He calls world changers to take up the cross and lead as servants. Bethlehem, the seat of world transformation.

“O LORD we are tempted to look for strong leaders to take up our cause and conquer our enemies.  You chose to lead by love and servanthood.  The way of the shepherd leads to the cross. Let us not grow weary in well doing.”  Amen.

Mindi Oaten’s painting “Son of God: The I AM”is from God’s Garden of Grace collection.

Advent Day Thirteen:Gone But Not Forgotten

“I have found David my servant; with my sacred oil I have anointed him. . . . My faithful love will be with him, and through my name his horn will be exalted. . . I will also appoint him my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth.  I will maintain my love to him forever, and my covenant with him will never fail.  I will establish his line forever, his throne as long as the heavens endure.”  (Psalm 89:20-29). 

When a loved one is laid to rest, the family gathers together and recounts stories of happier times and proud moments. It’s not uncommon to speak of unfulfilled dreams and regrets of what might have been.

The Jews were in mourning for their nation.  After centuries of rebellion and warnings from their prophets, the time for repentance was over.  God sent King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon to destroy Jerusalem and the temple.  What happened?  God had promised to establish David’s line forever, making Jerusalem the throne of the King of Kings. In the end, his descendant, King Zedekiah, watched the murder of his sons before being blinded, chained, and carried off into exile.  He was the last king of Judah.

But, God is faithful to his covenant.  By preserving a remnant, he maintained David’s line, and 580 years later Jesus came into the world.  He described the Kingdom of God in the Sermon on the Mount and assured his followers that his Kingdom was not of this world.  When he was crucified, he wore a crown of thorns, and the charge against him stated: “INRI” meaning ”Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”.

When the exiles pleaded with God to remember his promise, they would never have foreseen that a carpenter from David’s line would rule as King of Kings and Lord of Lords forever.  We await his second coming, when we will be received into his kingdom forever.

“God your ways are higher than our ways, your plans exceed our understanding.  The birth of Jesus fulfilled a promise to establish your kingdom forever, not only for the Jews, but for the Gentiles also.  We await the final coronation when every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”  Amen.

Mindi Oaten’s painting “The Builder who Restores” is from God’s Garden of Grace collection.

Advent Day Twelve: Shepherd King

“I took you from the pasture and from following the flock to be ruler over my people Israel.  I have been with you wherever you have gone. . . Now I will make your name great, like the names of the greatest men of the earth. . . the LORD himself will establish a house for you. . . Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.”  (2 Samuel 7:8-16)

Children love a good Cinderella story.  Watching her rise from ashes to a palace is a theme repeated endlessly in our collective narrative.  It is best seen in the David story.

His rise to power began in the pastures as he filled his days with poetry and music while protecting his sheep.  He had a heart for God that overflowed with Psalms. There was no challenge too great for David because he had learned that “The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” (1 Samuel 17:37) He was the giant killer, the LORD’s anointed from the root of Jesse.

Jesus also came from humble circumstances—just a carpenter from the remote regions of Judah; far from the centre of political or religious power.  He was a friend of fishermen and farmers, but he was God’s anointed King, the promised seed that would rule on the eternal throne forever.  His kingdom consists of the poor, weak, and persecuted.  Rather than ruling with authority and fear, he steps down and carries us on his shoulders as a shepherd caring for his sheep.  In the end, he becomes a lamb and offers himself as the ultimate sacrifice.  Our shepherd sits at God’s right hand, interceding for us, his human brothers and sisters. 

“Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” (1 Cor. 1:26-27)  The eternal King was greeted by shepherds, his royal retinue. 

“God thank you for looking at our hearts rather than our status in choosing us for your kingdom.  Use our humble efforts to further your work and guide us, as the great shepherd, in paths of righteousness to green pastures.”  Amen.

Mindi Oaten’s painting “The Glory of the LORD”is from God’s Garden of Grace collection.

Advent Day Eleven: Kinsmen Redeemer

Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” (Ruth 1:16-17)

Ruth is an important matriarch in my family.  My grandmother, daughter and granddaughter all carry that name along with numerous members of the extended family.  It has always been popular with both Jews and Gentiles who are drawn to her story of love and redemption.  It is also a Christmas story. 

Ruth was a Moabite, a descendant of Esau, a follower of the Semitic religion.  When her husband died, she left her people and religion behind, choosing to follow her Jewish mother-in-law back to Bethlehem in Judah.  It was not an easy decision, but her sacrifice did not go unnoticed.  A wealthy bachelor noticed Ruth gleaning in his wheat fields and instructed his farmhands to leave extra grain behind for her to gather.  When she returned home with the bounty, her mother-in-law, Naomi, saw an opportunity.  If she could make a match between Ruth and Boaz, their financial worries would be over.  In a bold move, she instructed Ruth to make her intentions known.  “ When Boaz is finished eating and drinking and is in good spirits, approach him quietly, uncover his feet and lay down.” In the middle of the night Boaz was startled for find a woman in his bed.  “Who are you?” he asked. “I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer of our family.”

Rather than scolding her for her audacity, he was overwhelmed with gratitude, because she had chosen him.  Although he was not her closest relative, he quickly negotiated a land swap that allowed him to take Ruth as his wife.  From their union, Jesse was born, the father of David, and from David’s line, Jesus.

Centuries later,” Joseph went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child (Luke 2:4-5).”  Jesus is our kinsman-redeemer.  He is no respecter of gender, nationality or creed in accepting all who chose to love him.

“Lord, thank you for accepting anyone who calls on your name.  In a world that easily discriminates against the “other”, you model a heart of love that embraces and redeems all people.”  Amen.

Mindi Oaten’s painting “The Kinsmen Redeemer”is from God’s Garden of Grace collection.

Advent Day Ten: The Family Legacy

The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them. (Exodus:2:23-25)

The child who complains about being forced to go to church may not return for decades, but the seed that’s been planted incubates, watered by prayer and grace.  God is patient and reluctant to let his people go.  Successful families often trace their roots back to pious grandparents who pursued a better life in the face of adversity.  Our history bears witness to their faithfulness.

For forty-two generations God prepared the world for his coming.  Beginning with Abraham, he lead an insignificant tribe from obscurity to world prominence.  They were inheritors of the promise that God would bless all nations through Abraham’s seed.  How impossible that must have seemed during nearly 1800 years of captivity, wars, and exile.

“Though the mills of God grind slowly; Yet they grind exceeding small; Though with patience He stands waiting, With exactness grinds He all.” (“Retribution”, Poetic Aphorisms, 1846 translated into English by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

Ten of the original twelve tribes of Israel were lost to history, but two remained in Judah.  Jesus came through this line.  The heroes of the faith are singular, often standing against the tide of apathy, sin, and disbelief.  They chose to believe that God is trustworthy and deserving of praise even in the long silence.  They are witnesses to God’s involvement in the world.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1)

“Lord, please don’t give up on your family.  Give us hearts that are sensitive to your voice even in the silence.  In times when our faith grows cold, keep us in your hand.  Keep our children close.”  Amen.

Mindi Oaten’s painting “The Royal Throne”is from God’s Garden of Grace collection. The two eggs in the nest represent the tribes of Benjamin and Judah.