chirstmas on the sidelines: elizabeth

Elizabeth 1There are those who witnessed the birth of Jesus firsthand. They were there at the very beginning. I’m not going to talk about them. It’s common to focus on the center-stage, first string characters. Instead, I’m going to take a look at the perspectives of those who were off stage for most of the story, those who were on the sidelines.

Elizabeth is probably the first in the string of characters in the Christmas story who was on the sidelines. Elizabeth, even though she wasn’t present at the actual birth of Jesus, has a unique and valuable perspective on the arrival of God in the flesh.

I’m not going to type out the Zechariah/Elizabeth story, so I need you to (1) stop reading, and (2) open your bible to Luke 1 and read verses 1 through 45. If you don’t have a bible, read the story HERE.

Really, go read it, it’s worth it.

You read it, right? Good. Here are some thoughts I had recently about this story…

(1) The narrator tells us that Zechariah and Elizabeth were both “righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of The Lord” (v. 6). This is hugely important. Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and in that day, this would have pointed to a problem between the couple and God. It would be a moral or ethical failure, a problem of sin, or some other reason why God would be displeased with them. However, the detail found in verse 6 tells us this isn’t the case. They were in a right relationship with God.

Imagine what Elizabeth would be feeling. She’s old, and her entire life she has remained childless. I imagine she routinely cried out “Why God?” Her prayers may have sounded like Psalm 13, expressing sorrow and pain. But, like in the psalm, she probably always ended her prayers with trust and faith that God is in control. While she couldn’t see God at work in her life in this area, she and her husband remained faithful and remained in a right relationship with their Father. Talk about faith!

(2) Gabriel, the angel who appeared to Zechariah in the temple, said “your petition [or prayer] has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son” (v. 13). Wow. Elizabeth and Zechariah probably spent years before God, praying and asking God to give them a child. Even though God seemed absent and silent, they had not stopped remaining faithful in prayer.

That’s huge! Often, when we don’t hear from God, we say, “Forget this!” Elizabeth and Zechariah had spent most their lives not hearing from God, but they kept praying. And now the angel says, “God heard your prayers. God IS present. God DOES see you.”

(3) After so many years of waiting, so many years of wondering where God was, yet remaining faithful to God’s ways and God’s instruction, Elizabeth became pregnant, just like the angel said. And her first reaction to this is key: “This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace among men” (v. 25).

She is filled with joy and rightfully attributes this blessing to God, knowing that God has provided. God saw her and her husband and had a plan for them all along. In verse 43, she exclaims, “And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me.” She realizes her and Mary’s parts in God’s story of bringing a savior, Jesus. God had not ignored her, and had plans to use her for His purposes, for His story.

There’s Elizabeth’s perspective. Most of her life was marked with barrenness and emptiness. But she was faithful in the midst of that hardship, joyful for God’s provision, and thankful that she was able to be used in God’s big story of redeeming His people.

Something to think about:

  • Where are you in this story? Are you experiencing hardship, wondering where God is? Are you able to remain faithful in these times?
  • Elizabeth’s initial response was joy and thankfulness as she rightfully attributed her child’s conception to God. What is your response to God’s blessings?
  • Does your obedience to God ever depend on what you receive from Him?
  • Are you able to notice how God wants to use you in His story of redemption?

My prayer for you:

Father, as we continue through this Christmas season, help us to look to you and find you, notice your blessings in our lives, and respond with joy and thankfulness when you work in our lives. Amen.

(All scripture references taken from the New American Standard Version.)

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he prayed

Three Lessons

Prayer.

Rather than focus on what Jesus said about prayer, let’s focus on what Jesus did in prayer.  The popular phrase (at least when I was in junior high) says, “What Would Jesus Do?”  Fortunately, we don’t have to speculate about what Jesus would do about anything, since we have four accounts of what he actually did.

So, prayer… what did Jesus do?

3 Lessons from Jesus on Prayer

1.  Get away.  Jesus prayed… away from distractions.

Throughout the Gospels, it is recorded that Jesus got away to pray.  Early in the morning (Mark 1), on a mountain (Matthew 14), alone (Luke 6).  Jesus often needed to be by himself while praying so he could connect with his Father free of distractions.

There are innumerable distractions in our lives.  Notifications on the iPhone, MacBook, iPad (bias showing), text messages, phone calls, emails, that burning desire to see how many likes that one Instagram photo received before finally turning in for the night.

Jesus knew the same distractions.  Ok, maybe he didn’t have an iPhone (though I bet he wanted one!), he knew demands on his attention, time, and energy.  People wanted to connect with him, wanted to be near him, and he needed to get away.

In the busyness of life, it often seems difficult to find a mountain or venture into the wilderness to spend time with God.  However, it may simply look like turning the push notifications off, leaving our phones in the other room, taking an afternoon walk outside of the office.

The Creator wants to spend time with His creation.  Let’s follow Jesus’ example and get away from the distractions, which vie for our attention and ultimately keep us from hearing God.

2.  Get ready.  Jesus prayed… in different ways and in different positions.

He got ready in a posture of prayer.  Matthew writes that Jesus prayed with his hands on others (Matthew 19:13) and while his face was on the ground (Matthew 26).  Luke points out that he was known to kneel before God in prayer (Luke 22).  And John recorded that Jesus even prayed with his eyes open, looking up toward heaven (John 17).

Jesus used his body in prayer.  Different positions evoke different emotions.  Arms wide and face up is a vulnerable place to be, causing ourselves to be exposed before God.  Head down and kneeling allow us to be humble before our Savior.

Get your body ready, in a posture of prayer.  There’s no special formula, no hand motions, and no impossible positions to attain before we can connect with our Father.  But we can learn from Jesus that prayer can, and should, be more than just closing eyes and bowing heads.  By positioning ourselves [kneeling, lying face down, arms spread wide, hands up, eyes open] we put ourselves into a place where we can surrender, be vulnerable, be ready to receive what God has for us.

3.  Get comfortable.  Jesus prayed…  A lot.

Luke records that Jesus “went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12 ESV).  All night he continued in prayer.  All night he continued.  All night.

Both Mark and Matthew’s accounts of Jesus’ experience in the Garden of Gethsemane show us that Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39 ESV).  And he prayed this multiple times during his time in the garden that night.

Sometimes prayer looks like returning to God over and over again, abiding in Him and His promises.  Sometimes prayer looks like getting comfortable and sitting down for a while, allowing God to speak in the silence.

Get away, if just for a moment.

Get ready, maybe opening your hands to receive from God.

Get comfortable, as you will always be coming before God in prayer.

i am jesus (7 deadly sins of youth ministry)

7 deadly sins titleI’m not Jesus.

I know, I know, I just burst your image of me.  I am not Jesus now, I have never been Jesus, and no matter how hard I try, I will never be Jesus.  Then why, when it comes to youth ministry, do I strive so hard to be Jesus to the middle school and high school students I spend time with every week?

And I know I’m not alone in this.  A myriad of youth pastors across the country are currently trying to figure out how to communicate the Gospel in a way that will engage every heart at every level.  They are trying to meet with every student who has a need.  They (or should I say we) become discouraged when students do not respond to our message the way we envisioned in our perfectly laid out plans.  Maybe it’s because we think that we’re our students only hope.  Maybe it’s because we’ve blurred the line between being Christ’s reflection and being Christ to others.

7 deadly sins contentThe bad news — Youth pastors often fall victim to the popular misconception that they are, in fact, Jesus, known as the Messiah Complex.  Whether this is a subconscious feeling or a conscious choice, the Messiah Complex can lead to feelings of failure, because it’s impossible to measure up.  There will always be words we should have said to communicate God’s truth more effectively; there will always be words we shouldn’t have said to help others know God’s grace; there will always be students who don’t show up when we’ve crafted that night’s message specifically with them in mind.

The good news — Men and women are not perfect in their communication of the Gospel, and this Good News about Christ has survived, no, has grown exponentially over the past 2,000 years.  While Christ does call us to be ministers of His Gospel to His people, He does not call us to be Jesus.  The good news is that God’s message will be carried on in spite of our imperfections.

The better news — We worship an amazing God who gets His way.  Ever since Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden, humans have been on a path to reconciliation, reconciliation with God and with others.  And humans have been messing up and miscommunicating from the beginning.

We get the amazing privilege to partner with God in this journey of reconciliation, and are called to be salt and light in this world.  We are invited to point others to God, by God.  So, as we go forth to continue spreading this Good News, know that God is God and we are not.  Know that it is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict hearts, not ours.  Know that Christ came to break the barrier between God and humans, not us.

We cannot be Jesus.  We just get to shine His light.

[to explore this idea further, and to find more thoughts about living a healthy life by protecting your heart, marriage, and family from the demands of youth ministry, check out As for Me and My Crazy House, by Brian Berry]

Fully God, Fully Man… So What?

Christ.  What do adolescents need to know about Christ?  Start at the beginning, I guess.  Jesus is diving, fully God.  He is known throughout the world as a man who walked the earth and taught about following God.  He’s the reason we celebrate Christmas and give presents to our loved ones.  He was the dividing event in our calendaring system and is quoted by many influential scholars and philosophers.  And he is God.   He’s the God who said “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).

Jesus is also human, fully man.  The process of God becoming man is known as the incarnation.  The incarnation is where God wrapped himself in flesh and took on a human nature in the form of Jesus.  God took on the body, soul, and spirit of a human–just like us.  Leading up to the events of Jesus’ brutal crucifixion and death, Jesus was humiliated.  He felt shame and degradation as people mocked him, beat him, and even spit on him.  Just like us, Jesus knows what it means to feel humiliated.

On Thursday, while creating this lesson for middle and high school students for Sunday, I found out that my dad had just resigned from his position as Senior Pastor of the church he has been at for ten years.  He gave his resignation and the following Sunday, two days away, would be his last day at his church.  This obviously didn’t come without emotion from both me and my family.  It was tough to know that my dad would be giving his last sermon at the church I went to throughout high school and the church that both he and my mom had called home for the last 10 years, while I was 90 miles away wishing I was there with them.  I needed to be there to support my family.  I needed to be there to help my parents through this difficult weekend.

By the power of God and the support of amazing volunteers, I was able to get all of my responsibilities covered for Sunday, so I quickly wrapped up a bunch of loose ends and headed to my parents’ house.  As I was driving, I thought through the lesson plan I had given one of my volunteers to lead on Sunday morning: Fully God, Fully Man.  While I was reflecting on the content, I was reminded the importance of knowing these truths:

Fully God, fully human… so what?  This is the God of the universe, the God that created us with his breath, is the God who tells us that his followers shall never perish and no one will snatch us out of his hand.  This is the God who experienced humanity. This is the God who knows first-hand what it means to be humiliated, stabbed in the back, beaten and betrayed, not listened to, spit at, and mocked.  The God who comforts is the God who knows exactly how we feel.  And he still tells us to come to him and he will give us rest (Matthew 11:28-30).  That is the God I want to worship, the one I need to cling to through times of uncertainty and crisis.  This weekend, all kinds of people felt a sense of hurt, loss, confusion, and possibly betrayal and shame.  He’s been there, experienced that, and has been and always will be victorious over it all.  This is our God.