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.

Advent Day Nine:Victory Belongs to the Lord

“Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. . . Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:7-9)

A short time after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, they arrived at the border of Canaan.  This had been the homeland of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob 400 years before, but none of them had seen it, nor did they have any memory of its potential.  Moses sent twelve men to spy out the land. They were intimidated by the size of the challenge.  While the land “flowed with milk and honey” there were people living there and they seemed like giants to the spies.  Only Joshua and Caleb saw beyond the obstacles to the possibilities.  If the LORD was guiding them, He would be responsible for the victory. 

When the report was delivered to the Israelites, they took the cautious approach.  It was better to stay in the wilderness than be annihilated by the inhabitants of Canaan.  God gave them their wish—they were condemned to forty more years of wandering.  Only Jacob and Caleb would be allowed in, along with the children of those who had originally crossed through the Red Sea.  Changing their mind, the Israelites mounted an attack, but without the help of the LORD, they were quickly defeated, confirming their original fears.

Jesus was sent to lead the whole world out of the wilderness into the promised land.  Unlike the Israelites, he was obedient and accepted God’s way to victory, even though it led from Bethlehem to the cross. He spent time with the Father, meditating on scripture and praying for wisdom and guidance.  He trusted not in his own strength, but  in the love of the Father.

None of us chose the challenges of 2020.  For some it has resulted in death and loss, others have found new ways of living.  We slowed down, spent time with family, reevaluated priorities, and looked for creative ways to connect.  The church has exploded out of its four walls; isolation has forced us to look at new ways of communicating the gospel and maintaining community.  By keeping our eyes on the LORD, we know that the church will emerge stronger as a witness to the faithfulness of God. 

“Dear LORD, visions may inspire our actions, but without your blessing, we can become mired in distractions.  Lead us “through” the difficulties, even if it may involve detours or suffering.  We trust your love will triumph.” Amen 

Mindi Oaten’s painting “The Rock in the Wilderness” is from God’s Garden of Grace collection.

Advent Day Eight:The Law of the Heart

“The word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. . . I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.  For the LORD is your life.” (Deuteronomy 30:14-20)

Moses delivered the commandments from Mount Sinai.  The Israelites spent forty years led by the pillars of fire and cloud, learning to live as people of God.  They witnessed the plagues of Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the provision of quail and Manna, and the issuing of water from a rock.  “He dwelt among them” and provided a prophet to reveal and interpret his will. 

When they came to the edge of Canaan, it would seem that they had sufficient time to mature and develop self-discipline.  But, just like middle school students who can quickly generate classroom rules for “others” to follow–knowing what to do and doing it are two different things.  Human impulses are strong, and the moment self-interest is threatened, or opportunities for advancement and power emerge, the rules are easily forgotten or “bent.”  Unless the “law” is written on the heart, compliance is unpredictable.

The promise of blessing or the threat of curse is never enough.  By the time Jesus was born, the Pharisees had made the law so complicated that ordinary Jews had difficulty pleasing God.  Jesus revealed the futility of self-righteousness by shining a light on attitudes and corrupted thoughts.  Adultery was a lustful thought, murder was anger, Sabbath laws were redefined.  It was impossible to reach God by keeping the law.  That was why he had to reach out to us.

 “In the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.  And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” (Galatians 4:4-7)

“LORD, it is impossible to keep the law on our own.  We fall under the curse because of our own failings.  Thank you for reaching out to us when we were incapable of reaching out to you.  Write your law on our hearts and help us to love.”  Amen.

Mindi Oaten’s painting “Our Just Judge” is from God’s Garden of Grace collection. Feathers represent the Holy Spirit.

Advent Day 7: Remember My Name

“I AM WHO I AM.  This is what you are to say to the Israelites:  ‘I AM’ has sent me to you.’. . . I will be with you.  And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you:  When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”  (Exodus 3:12, 14)

“Go tell it on the mountain.  Over the hills and everywhere.
Go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.”

The mountain became a meeting place between God and humanity.  It was at the base of Mount Sinai that Moses saw the burning bush and received the call to lead the Israelites out of Egypt to the promised land.  God identified himself as  Yahweh (YHWH)—“I AM”.  It signifies that he is eternal, self-sufficient, and self-sustaining.  The name was so holy that His people would not speak it.  When they encountered it in the written form, they pronounced it as LORD—Almighty God, (Adonai).  The Law and Prophets (Old Testament) use this 6,828 times. 

It was on this mountain that Moses received the Ten Commandments, and Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James and John just before his crucifixion.  In a moment of revelation, the disciples stepped into the spiritual realm and saw Jesus, not merely as their earthly rabbi, but as the great “I AM”.   As he conversed with Moses (the Law) and Elijah (the Prophet), God confirmed him as the promised Messiah.  The voice in the burning bush had become man.  “We beheld his glory.  The glory as of the only begotten of the Father.  Full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)  It is significant that John wrote this prologue—after all, he was an eyewitness to the revelation on the mountain.  The Prophet Nahum proclaimed: “Look! On the mountains the feet of one who brings good tidings, who proclaims peace!” (Nahum 1:15)

Without the link between YWHW and Jesus, Christmas is just a children’s story.  It has no meaning or effect.  But taken as God in flesh among us, it becomes the greatest event in human history.  Just think!  God lived here!

“LORD, it is beyond comprehension that you would love the world so much that you took on flesh and visited us.  Thank you for this amazing gift.”  Amen.

Mindi Oaten’s paintings “Our Living Hope” and “Master of Truth” are from God’s Garden of Grace collection.

Advent Day Six: Crossing the Red Sea

“I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.  The LORD is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.”  (Exodus 15:1-2).

There are events that change the course of history.  Time has been divided into B.C. and A.D. because of the birth of Jesus.  Regardless of nation, faith or politics, we all live in 2020. 

For the Jews, the exodus out of Egypt is just as significant.  It was the birth of the nation.  The crossing of the Red Sea is mentioned 87 times in scripture.  It is used as a rallying cry for God’s people when they are facing insurmountable odds. 

To be released from captivity only to be trapped against the Red Sea must have been terrifying.  They couldn’t swim across, there were too many of them to take a boat, and they couldn’t turn back.  The Egyptians were in hot pursuit. 

Moses was instructed to stretch out his hand over the sea and the waters parted, giving a temporary dry path for over a million people to cross.  They were instructed to take twelve rocks from the bottom of the sea to the other side. 

Jesus showed his divinity when he spoke a word and calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee. Then Jesus got up and rebuked the wind and the sea. “Silence!He commanded. “Be still!” And the wind died down, and it was perfectly calm. “Why are you so afraid?” He asked the disciples. “Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4:39-40) .

When the Israelites were safely through the waters, they built an altar from the 12 stones they had gathered as a reminder of God’s act of deliverance.  For Christians, the cross is our symbol of remembrance.  The angels proclaimed: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11). 

“Holy God, we cannot rescue ourselves from death.  You alone have the power to take us through those waters.  Keeping the cross before us, we rely on your promise to lead us to the other side.”  Amen

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

Advent Day Five: The Egypt Effect

Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid.  Am I in the place of God?  You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.  So then, don’t be afraid, I will provide for you and your children.” (Genesis 50:19-21)

God can be at work in our greatest tragedies.  These defining moments get our attention and cause us to realign our priorities.  People of faith look for the deeper meaning.  Sometimes the explanation is never found this side of heaven, but often, when we look back, God’s involvement is evident.

Joseph spent decades in Egypt, having been sold by his brothers into slavery. To an outsider, it may have seemed like he had been abandoned,  yet his captivity proved to be the means by which  the children of Israel were saved from starvation and annihilation.  God blessed Joseph and raised him to prominence in Pharaoh’s court, placing him charge of filling the granaries with wheat in the time of abundance.  Because Joseph was in the right place at the right time,  provisions were available for his family during the famine.

Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to hide Jesus from Herod after the visitation of the wisemen.  Following the pattern of his ancestors, he was called out of Egypt, back to Israel at just the right time.  There he grew up safely in Nazareth as God prepared him for his epic mission. 

If you are in a situation that seems far from perfect, be certain that God can use circumstances to further his plan.  “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. “ (Romans 8:28).  Wisdom teaches us not to second guess the providence of God—in his time it will all make sense.

“Lord, I don’t always see you the circumstances of my life.  Rather than panicing and trying to figure it out, help me to trust in your guidance.  Give me patience to persevere, knowing that you are working out your own good purpose.”  Amen

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

Advent Day Four: The Prodigal

But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him.  And they wept. . . Jacob said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me.  For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably.” (Genesis 33:4, 10)

The story of the prodigal son is a picture of God’s unconditional love.  It offers comfort not only to the repentant, but also to those waiting for their loved ones to return.  The original prodigal was Jacob.

As a young man, he had tricked his brother Esau into giving away both his birthright and the blessing of the first born.  The rift caused by this deception forced Jacob to flee the country.  Years later, when life in his father-in-law’s home became intolerable, Jacob was faced with a decision:  Do I stay here or return home to Canaan? He wrestled with God before plotting his return.  He hoped to win his brother’s favor with gifts.  But Esau met his brother with open arms, choosing reconciliation over retribution.  The prodigal had returned.

From the moment Adam and Eve walked away from God, he began planning the reunion.  But rather than waiting for the sinner to return, God took the initiative, offering himself as the gift:

 And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is thirsty come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” (Revelation 22:17)

Alienation from God has never been his choice; it is ours.  Advent is a reminder that “God so loved the world” that he came. . .   pursuing us as a grieving father searching for his child.  The light of the Christmas star is God’s invitation to come back to him.  The throne room of heaven has become a barn.  Nobles are exchanged for shepherds.  Sinners are transformed into saints.

“Lord, we have an ache that reminds us when we are far from home.  Open our eyes and ears to your grace so freely extended in the manger.  Let this be a time of reconciliation and forgiveness.”  Amen

Mindi Oaten’s painting “Brings down the Proud” is from God’s Garden of Grace collection. Two flowers from one bulb represent Jacob and Esau.