Saturday, December 20, 2008

Advent Devotional for Dec. 20

Saturday, December 20 Mark 3:1-6
Healing is God’s first priority.
We often underrate laws. As modern Christians, we celebrate the triumph of grace over the law, that reconciliation with God is not achieved by perfectly keeping a series of ceremonial rules, but by God’s gracious action in Jesus. But the law was deeply important in Jewish culture, mostly because of its divine origin. Think of it this way: the law might seem a burden to us today because we have not considered the alternatives. The Israelites had just been released from Egypt after 430 years as slaves. Few if any of them were scholars or even educated people; who could possibly come up with a way for these new people to organize their society? Even the most advanced civilizations of that day had ruthless legal codes which mandated death for things like simple thievery or false witness. How could this fledgling people begin to organize themselves in the middle of the wilderness? The law was God’s answer to this; though “an eye for an eye” seems harsh today, it was a humane punishment at the time when there were many capital offenses. Jews revered the law because it was a sure way in which God had intervened in history for their benefit.
Jesus was a scandalous figure at times, in part because of his apparent disregard for the rules. But we should not read our modern rebellious tendencies onto him: Jesus did not set aside the law lightly. In fact, most often, he intensified rather than relaxed the laws. But here, he recognizes that the laws—or perhaps human interpretation of the laws—must be bent in order to heal. Because they revered the law so much, observant Jews not only sought to keep the law, but to “build a fence around it,” to prohibit all sorts of related activities so one would not accidentally break the law. So the Sabbath regulations were intensified from their original intent so that one could not even accidentally break a Sabbath law. Jesus recognizes that to silently acquiesce to this level of strictness is a decision with its own consequences; he asks, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” One could not look the other way in the interest of maintaining ritual purity when to do so mean that someone would die. In this story we get a glimpse of the one who went to a criminal’s death, becoming unclean on our behalf so that we could be reconciled to God.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Advent Devotional for Dec. 19

Friday, December 19 Luke 4:31-37
Even sicknesses testify to Jesus.
Jesus was a stunning teacher; his listeners were amazed listening to him, because he did not speak like other teachers, but “as one having authority.” By this, Luke means that the scribes and other teachers spoke like ones having second-hand knowledge of God, but Jesus spoke with a sort of first-hand power, a power borne of intimate knowledge of God and communion with the Father. This authority was further demonstrated in his healing. A demon-possessed man was listening to him teach, and during the sermon, the demon begins to cry out, “Let us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth! Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Jesus rebukes the demon and makes him leave the man, a feat which only cemented his reputation as “one having authority.”
The interesting thing about this story, though, is that even the demon testifies to who God really is. The demon gets it, sees clearly who this Jesus is and what his design is—the destruction of evil and sicknesses of all sorts. Even the demons testify to Jesus—and this demon testified while he was still in the man, before he was cast out, which must have been shocking to all who saw it. Now the flip side to Jesus having authority over demons and sicknesses is that there apparently must be times where he allows them to exist. After all, we all die, don’t we? If Jesus has authority to cast them out, then it is only by his authority that they remain.
What sicknesses remain in you? All of us are sick in some ways. None of us are in perfect physical health, much less mental or emotional health. Whether you are healed of your sickness or not (and I pray you are), allow me to introduce the idea that even if you are not healed, your sickness can still bring glory to God and point people to Jesus. Even your handicap, even your shortcoming can cry out about the goodness of Jesus, and point to that great day when all God’s children will be healed because we will know him fully.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Advent Devotional for Dec. 18

Thursday, December 18 Luke 7:11-17
Healing reminds us of God’s love.

As modern Christians, we often don’t know what to do with Jesus’ healings exactly. Why exactly does Scripture record Jesus’ healings and what are we supposed to make of them? His death and resurrection we more or less understand—in some mystical way, they reconcile us to God when we believe in him and make him our Lord. While his teachings are often cryptic, we basically understand why they are in the Scripture: to detail more fully for us the way to follow Him in our lives. But what do his healings mean? Are they examples for us to follow? Are they nice stories that prove Jesus’ good character? Are they meant to demonstrate Jesus’ power?
This story gives a bit of insight into what Jesus’ healings meant to the people who saw them. Jesus sees a woman weeping; she was a widow, and now her only son had died. Emotionally and economically, she was now alone in the world and did not know how she could go on. Moved, Jesus touches the bier on which the corpse lay, and the man regains his life. He begins to speak and Jesus gave him to her mother, a sign that she would have the one she loved back, who was also the one who provided for her. The response of the people is telling: they are afraid, and then they remark that Jesus is a prophet, and a sign that “God has looked favorably on his people!”
The eyewitnesses to Jesus (and the gospel writers who wrote and arranged these biographies) evidently understood that healing was a reminder that God has not forgotten us, that God still loves us. In one fell swoop, Jesus has given a man his life back, fixed a woman’s broken heart, and saved her from poverty. People see this and recognize that Jesus is a sign from God—a sign that God has kept his promise to his people. In the same way, so we should give thanks for the healings we see, because they keep alive the awareness that God still loves and watches over his people today.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Advent Devotional for Dec. 17

Wednesday, December 17 Acts 28:1-6
Our healing serves as a testimony to others.
Often we Christians do not get to the end of the book of Acts; our comfort level in the New Testament is in the gospels or the theology of the epistles. This is a shame, because this gem of a story is often missed. Paul is bound for Rome as a prisoner to plead his case before the emperor when the ship wrecks. All reach shore safely on an unknown island, which they find out from the natives is named Malta. The natives show kindness to the strangers, building a fire for them. As Paul helps to gather wood for the fire, he is attacked by a viper, and the natives naturally presume that Paul is a murderer who is suffering divine punishment for his evil deeds. Remarkably, though, Paul flicks the viper off right into the fire, and doesn’t swell up or drop dead as the natives expected. Then the natives change their mind and decide that Paul is not a murderer, but instead a god.
“The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God,” wrote that same Paul some years earlier when he wrote to the church at Rome. I wonder if his own words flashed through his mind as he heard the natives talk. All creation is in bondage to decay and darkness, and waits for someone who is not in bondage to those things, someone who is truly free. All creation is hurting, he may have written, and waits for someone who knows how to be healed. All creation is sick and desperately seeking medicine. All creation is slowly dying and desperately seeking the secret to new life. When Paul shook that viper off into the fire, the natives knew they had met someone with that secret; they knew they had met a child of God. Just so, when we display healing in our lives, we testify to the reality of God. When we live whole lives in a fragmented world, when we demonstrate emotional wholeness in our spirits and share that with others, when we take our satisfaction not in our achievements but in who God has made us to be, then we show the world something of God’s character.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Advent Devotional for Dec. 16

Tuesday, December 16 Acts 16:25-34
Sometimes we heal by laying down our rights.
To be a jailor was to take your life into your own hands in those days; if your prisoners escaped, especially high-level prisoners, you usually paid with your life. So imagine the jailor’s concern when an earthquake occurs and Paul and Silas, public enemies #1 and #1a, are your prisoners. In fact, when the jailor sees the prison doors wide open, he draws his sword and prepares to save the executioner some time and money when Paul yells out, “Stop! Don’t do it! We’re all here!” And they are. Paul and Silas had such an impact on their fellow prisoners that they managed to convince them not to escape when they had a chance to return to their homes, families and livelihoods. The jailor is moved beyond description, falling down before Paul and Silas and saying, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
What sort of power must a person have to willingly remain in prison, knowing that their inner freedom means that their outward captivity is immaterial? This is real power which cannot be touched by the false political constructs of the day. And the jailor wants that power, wants to be saved and touched by the same power which has overcome Paul and Silas, and so he begs the men for their secret. They tell him, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” And he does, and he is.
We live in a culture obsessed with rights. Sometimes this is a very good thing, as Western civilization’s recognition of intrinsic human rights is the foundation of our society. But like all good desires, this can be warped, and we can become obsessed with maintaining, protecting and exercising our rights. Sometimes, though, the Gospel is best served by laying our rights down: maybe by moving into a neighborhood below your economic level to learn from folks the culture says are beneath you. Maybe by spending a week of rare and precious vacation building a home for someone who needs a home. Maybe by involving yourself in your church or community work when you want to be caring for yourself in some way. Often, we heal people when we willingly lay down that which is our right.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Advent Devotional for Dec. 15

Monday, December 15 Acts 14:8-20
The world does not always understand Christian healing.
This passage perfectly illustrates what a confused world may do when a Christian acts boldly to touch the world with God’s love. In Lystra, Paul healed a man who had been crippled since birth. The crowds see this and are stunned at Paul’s amazing work. The town, which heretofore had believed in many gods, looked at Paul and Barnabas and declared that in them “The gods have come down to us in human form!” They went so far as to label Barnabas as Zeus incarnate, and Paul as Hermes, since Paul did all the talking. Paul and Barnabas will have none of it, of course, tearing their clothes and telling people to turn from their idle idols and worship the true God, but even so the crowds almost can’t restrain themselves from worshiping these two men and offering sacrifices to them. But, we read, naysayers come and win over the crowds, convincing them that Paul and Barnabas were not gods in the flesh, not even good people, but wicked people. And then the crowds who had just been worshiping Paul start to stone him, and he barely escapes with his life.
The world does not know what to make of a Christian acting boldly to heal the world. At times, the world will understand you, even laud you for the work you do. At times, the world will seek your end as surely as it sought your Savior’s end. Ask Dr. King. Largely forgotten now is his diminished popularity toward the end of his life, when he realized that in the grand scheme of things, getting laws passed was easy but changing people’s intransigent hearts was difficult. He mentioned this and literally got killed. As a Christian, you will at times have the good favor of the crowd and at times will be an outcast; but take heart, Christ has overcome the world.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Audio from Sunday, Dec. 14

Based on Matthew 1:1-17 (yes, the boring genealogies!)

Advent Devotional for Dec. 14

Sunday, December 14 Acts 9:36-43
Jesus’ disciples are healers too.
A beloved figure in the church in Joppa had just passed away, Tabitha (the unfortunate Greek translation of her name was Dorcas—you would probably go by Tabitha too). Tabitha was beloved because of her good works on behalf of the poor widows in Joppa. After she died, in fact, those poor widows surrounded her and showed off all the clothing that Tabitha had made for them when she was alive.
Peter came into the room and politely asked the women to leave, and then raised Tabitha up from the dead. A clever word play is seen here; when Jesus raises up Jairus’ daughter from the dead in Mark 5 (devotion from Dec. 3), he says to her “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up.” Peter says, “Tabitha cum,” meaning “Tabitha, get up.” From the similarities between the passages, the inference is obvious: Jesus’ disciples can heal in exactly the same way Jesus did.
I wish I could say with confidence what this means for us. Perhaps the ability to heal died with the disciples. Perhaps it means that we as Christians today do not know an ounce of the power that God has enabled us to live with. Perhaps the truth is, as usual, somewhere in the middle: we as Christians are capable of far more than we know, far more than we dare to believe we are capable of.
I say this because there is a certain convenience in not being a healer. It gives us the right to throw up our hands in frustration at the world, to claim incompetence and enjoy the catharsis of a good old-fashioned complaint. If we are truly powerless, then we can gripe about the powers that be all we want, because we have no genuine power. If, though, on the other hand, God does gift his children to heal the world in some way (if not exactly the same as Peter), then we have no business complaining as though we had no power at all. If the Holy Spirit lends his strength to us and wants to use us to change the world, then we dare not complain about our inability to change it.
Peter spent long enough swinging his sword and blustering about the problems unbelievers caused in the world. Then he discovered that God gave him the power to heal, and it changed his life, from angry Peter to proactive Peter. Christian, what will happen when you discover you have that power too?