Advent Day Twenty-Four: The Messiah

Every November I revisit the Book of Isaiah.  It is beautifully written prose and poetry that refers to the coming Messiah.  It is frequently referenced in the New Testament, particularly as it relates to Jesus.  Many of the phrases are familiar to us because they are read at Christmas.  Let the words encourage you this Christmas.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  The Spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. (11:1-3)

A highway will be there, a roadway, And it will be called the Highway of Holiness. . . the redeemed will walk there, And the ransomed of the LORD will return And come with joyful shouting to Zion, With everlasting joy upon their heads They will find gladness and joy, And sorrow and sighing will flee away. (35:8, 10)

The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. (53:11)

“Comfort, o comfort my people,” says your God. . . A voice cries out:  “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”. . . Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (40:1, 3, 5, 28-31)

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. . . (43:1-2)

Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (40:31)

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! . . . See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy one of Israel, for he has glorified you. (55:1, 5)

“LORD, comfort us with these words.”  Amen

Mindi Oaten’s painting “Perfect Truth” is from God’s Garden of Grace collection.

Advent Day Twenty-Two: There is Coming a Day

“As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames. . . As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven.  And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.  To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.  His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (Daniel 1:9, 13-14)

Before Jesus was born, prophets used images and allegory such as “branch”, “seed”,  “shepherd”,  or “king” to describe the coming Messiah.  Once we met him in the flesh, all these allusions made sense. When he ascended to heaven, 40 days after his resurrection, the angels told his followers: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way  as you saw him go into heaven.”  (Acts 1:11)

The church has expected Jesus to return again since that time.  In fact, the earliest believers expected it to happen in their lifetime.  As the years went on, the promise dimmed and believers resumed their lives.  But the promise still stands.  Daniel and Revelation use apocalyptic language to describe his second coming.  It is a coronation of the King of Kings; the marriage feast of the lamb to the church, his bride.  A time when all will be made right, the devil will be defeated, and  justice will reign.  “There shall be no more tears” and “no more death”.  Heaven and earth shall be made one.  The dead in Christ shall rise and we will live with him forever. 

How exactly this will happen is not clear to us, but just as surely as he came in the flesh to Bethlehem two thousand years ago, he will return to us on the final day.  Noone expected him on that quiet night in Bethlehem.  The event went unnoticed for decades until it was revealed during his ministry, death and resurrection.  God fulfills his purposes in his time and his way.  What we do know is that there is an end to this cosmic struggle between good and evil.  Sin and death will be destroyed, and Jesus will be declared the one true God.  What a day it will be when “every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is LORD.” 

“LORD, we know that our minds and imagination are limited by our experience.  We cannot conceive of a time when there will be no more pain, evil or death.  We desire to be reunited with our loved ones, but the only time resurrection happened was 2,000 years ago.  Help us not to lose heart as we wait for that final day.  It will come as surely as it did the first time.  We wait in hope.”  Amen

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

Advent Day Twenty-One: Return to the LORD

“Come, let us return to the LORD; for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up. . . Let us know, let us press on to know the LORD; his appearing is as sure as the dawn; he will come to us like the showers, like the spring rains that water the earth.” (Hosea 6:1-3)

I have heard young people disavow any affiliation with the God of their parents or grandparents.  They have decided that God does not exist and they are free agents to do as they choose.  While this seems reasonable, just because we do not “believe” a fact does not make it untrue.  God exists, whether you believe in him or not, and there will come a day of accountability.

Hosea was given the unenviable task of marrying a woman who did not love him.  God used his marriage as an allegory of his relationship with Israel.  Though she chased after other gods, he remained faithful to her.

We are given free will and autonomy, but those who have been part of a Christian community through baptism, conversion, or affiliation have received God’s mark on their lives.  “This is a trustworthy saying: If we died with Him, we will also live with Him; if we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He will also deny us; if we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.” (2 Timothy 2:11-13)

“The Hound of Heaven” is a 182-line poem written by English poet Francis Thompson (1859–1907). The meaning is understood. As the hound follows the hare, never ceasing in its running, ever drawing nearer in the chase, with unhurrying and imperturbed pace, so does God follow the fleeing soul by His Divine grace. And though in sin or in human love, away from God it seeks to hide itself, Divine grace follows after, unwearyingly follows ever after, till the soul feels its pressure forcing it to turn to Him alone in that never ending pursuit.” — The Neumann Press Book of Verse, 1988.

All which I took from thee I did but take,

Not for thy harms.

But just that thou might’st seek it in my arms.

All which thy child’s mistake

Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home;

Rise, clasp My hand, and come!”

“LORD, thank you for your unrelenting love.  From the day we left the Garden, you have pursued us.  Never give up.”  Amen

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

Advent Day Twenty: The Coming of the Spirit

“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. . . I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten. . .” (Joel 2: 25, 28))

As a high spirited child I often found myself in trouble with teachers who had a difficult time getting me to sit quietly in my seat and do the work.  While I was never rebellious, I dreaded parent interviews when my mother would inevitably come home crying.  I would vow to do better, but I had a reputation that was difficult to shake as I moved from one grade to the next.  Then we moved to a new city.  Noone knew my reputation.  I was more mature and self-disciplined.  Suddenly my high energy was seen in a positive light and I was able to soar.

It’s not easy to get through life without any regrets.  We would like to erase poor choices or flagrant hurts we have inflicted on ourselves or others.  Some people spend a lifetime under the heavy load of guilt, never able to move on.

Israel lived under a cloud of judgement.  Natural disasters and threats of invasion were prophesied as “the Day of the Lord”.  It was something to be feared.  But the prophet saw beyond the immediate, far into the future when the Day of the Lord would come down like a refining fire on the people of God.

Joel’s prophesy was repeated in the book of Acts on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell on devout Jews waiting in Jerusalem fifty days after Jesus’s resurrection.  It was God’s divine fire that erased the sins of the past and anointed believers with power and forgiveness.  What a burden was lifted!  The days of shame and alienation were ended.  They were reborn into a living hope.   

Jesus transformed the “Day of LORD” from judgement to anointing; from shame to exultation. He came to settle the account between God and humanity.  Across our lives is written:  “Debt paid in full.”

“LORD, we hold on to regrets that we can never erase.  You came to set us from that curse and to give us power to live.  We confess our sins and seek your forgiveness and grace.  Pour out your Spirit in our hearts.  Thank you for your transformative love.”  Amen.

Mindi Oaten’s painting “Pours Out His Spirit” is from God’s Garden of Grace collection.

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.