Monday, December 21, 2020

The Nativity in Context: The Before and After

The Before

It’s 430 bc. The prophet Malachi has finished his series of prophecies. Israel had went through cycles of rebellion—in the wilderness after leaving Egypt, during the period of the judges when “every man did that which was right in his own eyes,” and during the monarchies that led to a split into two kingdoms, ultimately culminating in the exiles into Assyria and Babylon. God had promised that a remnant would return to Israel, and they did. Now, that remnant was also rebelling, and God, through Malachi, calls them on it and tells them to return to the Lord.

And then, silence.

For over 400 years, there are no prophets. God does not speak to His people. There was never a period before like it. A lot happens in this time, as kingdoms rise and fall as Daniel predicted. But one thing that does not happen is a word from God meant for all to hear. Years turn to decades, and decades to centuries. Traditions continued, but nothing new.

While the silence continued, a nation waited for something promised in the future, as more people likely forgot or doubted it would ever occur. God had told the ancestors of a coming King that a King would come from Judah and be the rightful heir to David’s throne. The prophet Isaiah said He would be God among us, born from a virgin. The prophet Micah said He would be born in a small town outside of Jerusalem called Bethlehem. These words hung over all humanity as the years went by.

Could we understand the weight of this silence felt by the world who might have thought God had finally given up on them? We cannot, because that silence was forever shattered by what came next.

The unraveling of this plan had really begun all the way back after the fall of man, when a Conqueror was promised who would come as a man and crush the head of Satan and suffer harm in the process. But this began to pick up speed when God spoke on an individual level.

One man named Simeon knew of the prophecies about a Messiah and had complete confidence that God would fulfill His promises. The Holy Spirit told Simeon that he would not die until he met this Messiah. His entire life began to center around this hope. When he is finally introduced, he is ready to die.

Then God sends the angel Gabriel to a priest named Zechariah, who tells him that he and his wife, both elderly and never able to have children, were going to have a son to prepare the way for the Messiah. Gabriel appears next to a young virgin named Mary and tells her that she is pregnant with the Messiah, and when Mary’s fiancĂ©, Joseph, fears infidelity, Gabriel goes to Joseph and confirms what has happened. Joseph is a direct descendant of King David.

These experiences would be rare enough, but must have been overwhelming in light of the centuries before. These individuals grew up in a time when God had not been heard from for hundreds of years. They knew the scriptures, so you might imagine them asking their parents about the stories contained in them when God moved in clear ways.

Artist rendering of the prophet Malachi

“Today I studied when God struck an entire army with blindness because His prophet was surrounded and prayed for deliverance. Have you ever seen God do something like that?”

No, the parents would have to admit.

“What about my grandparents, or great-grandparents? Have they even seen a prophet?”

“I am afraid not. You see, God does not move or speak like that anymore. There is an old family story that your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother heard the prophet Malachi preach about the Day of the Lord and Elijah coming again. But that is the last we heard.”

Perhaps Joseph was told about how he was the rightful heir to David’s throne, but how Judah had not had a king since King Zedekiah was captured by the Babylonians almost 600 years ago, and now the family lived in poverty. There was a promise that a King would again come from their family, but that was said a long time ago in a different era.

To see the full glory of God Himself coming in humility to be a personal God with us, we need to understand the deafening silence that was destroyed by it, never again to return. Seemingly out of nowhere, God begins to move in tangible ways again. The door was blown off the hinges when this long-promised Messiah was born and angels filled the sky proclaiming it (in Bethlehem), scaring the robes off the shepherds who had obviously never experienced it, if they thought it even possible. Thirty years later, the Messiah Himself burnt the house down when He walked into the temple and said He was the fulfillment of prophecy.

The Messiah came and filled four books in the New Testament with the things He said and did. Then He sent the Holy Spirit to inspire twenty-three more and to continue speaking to us to this day. For the record, we’re still pretty rebellious, but that nature hasn’t stopped God from speaking and giving of Himself—giving everything.

The After

The scriptures were very clear about the purpose of God’s dwelling among us. The full meaning of Christmas is found in Good Friday and Easter.

Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would have the sin of the world placed on Him and be killed as the atoning sacrifice, attaining forgiveness and freedom for those who couldn’t attain it themselves. The psalmist said He would be pierced, thirsty, scorned, and abandoned. The psalms also said He would be delivered to the Gentiles for execution, and those executioners would cast lots for his robe. That Messiah who came to Bethlehem carried a cross to Calvary, facing a brutal physical death, but much worse, facing God’s wrath for the sin of all mankind.

And in that moment, Jesus became the final Passover lamb. He became the bronze serpent lifted up so that others could look on Him and live. All the Old Testament imagery and prophecies found their meaning in Him. And three days later, His resurrection became every bit the miracle His birth was. The journey of securing righteousness and eternal life for mankind had begun when the virgin conceived, and it finished in a miraculous breath.

Up until the period of silence, God had been speaking throughout all of history without taking on human flesh. Jesus’s incarnation was more than just His way to teach us on a personal level. He was born to be a sacrifice. This was not lost on the people involved in the nativity story.

When Simeon prophecies after meeting the Messiah, he says that Jesus is born for the “fall and rising of many in Jerusalem,” will be a sign opposed, and that in the future this birth would cause a sword to pierce Mary’s soul. The prophetess Anna prophesied of His redemption of mankind. Zecheriah prophesied of His salvation. Mary and Joseph were told He would save people from their sin, and Mary in praise acknowledged the prophecy that had come before Him. The magi, when they arrived later, brought Jesus gifts that foreshadowed the crucifixion.

I have at times looked past the nativity, seeing the crucifixion and resurrection as most important. It is true, Jesus coming to Earth in and of itself does not accomplish salvation, and the crucifixion and resurrection accomplish the purpose of it. But let’s not look past the incomprehensible miracle that a God who watched countless cycles of rebellion saw fit, from the very first rebellion, to not just put up with us, but come down to the middle of our mess and walk among us as one of us, without ever giving up His deity. The God of Creation experienced the pain, heartbreak, and day-to-day struggles that we do. The King of Glory came as a helpless baby, and even as a baby was worshipped because some people just got it—He wasn’t ordinary. He was the only one who could do what He did, and He did it. His coming broke a silence we will never experience because what He accomplished while He was here among us made Him our personal God not just for those thirty-some years, but forever. Understanding the buildup to the Christmas miracle and the purpose for which it was done gives it full meaning, and should reignite the wonder of the nativity.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Beach Reach 2020: "So Much Better Your Way"

This was spring break #7 for me, and each one has been used as a mission trip. I sometimes hear that we are “giving up our spring breaks” for ministry, but there is nothing I would rather do with it. This was my fourth spring break on Beach Reach, where we go to Panama City Beach to share the gospel with spring breakers—our peers—through running a van service, serving a pancake brunch, and hitting the streets of the city at night.

One might consider it laudable to spend every spring break on mission, but I know it’s a story of grace. I was continuously humbled by the thought of God using me in this capacity when I knew I’d be on the other side of it if He hadn’t taken hold on me. Who am I to be placed in this position? (More on that later.) I am also humbled by, and want to express my gratitude to, the BCM for allowing me on the trip and covering most of my costs, and to Living Church for covering the remaining costs.

This particular trip was preceded by a minor internal crisis. The other non-student leaders on the trip included a full-time associate campus minister, a house church pastor, a full-time pastor, and a full-time student pastor. Then there’s me, a third-year law student. Of the other leaders, one is in his 40s, one in his 30s, and two are in their late 20s. Then there’s me, the 24-year-old. I wondered what had possessed them to make me a leader when I seemed to be the odd one of the group. In reality, I knew that God doesn’t use us based on our status and he equips us for what He calls us to. I spent a lot of time in prayer (as I did generally for the trip) and talked to Seanna who made some good points as well.

While I didn’t need any certain status to validate me, it turned out that later that week I was asked to serve as the logistical coordinator for the trip, which is something I’m good with and enjoy, and it turned into a really cool role for the week.

As often happens on these trips, it was a slower start for me in terms of ministry. It left me wondering whether it was something wrong with me or bad luck, but those thoughts didn’t affect to the extent they did in the early part of last year. But a handful of good conversations came out of those nights.

The first night in the vans, I was driving and we had the opportunity to minister to a group of six girls. Several were Christians and we were able to encourage them in sharing the gospel with others they knew down there that week and pray over them. One revealed her grandfather had just been diagnosed with cancer. (It amazes me how open people are with us during our ministry time.)

The second night I was on the streets and our creativity and outgoingness opened up some conversations. The fun one was hanging out outside an ice cream parlor. I figured I’d check out the flavors but found it had just closed. I sat back down and called over to a table of people, asking them whether it was worth coming back later. Our conversation about ice cream eventually turned to a conversation about God.

Later that night I was called out to by someone in a minivan, a rapper and his manager asking me to buy a t-shirt. I bought his mixtape to have a conversation and was able to share about what we were doing down there and prayed for him. Later I was able to have a similar interaction with a random person walking by because I recognized the Kansas State logo on his shirt (thank you college sports).

Another thing I worked on early in the week was listening to God and speaking over people what He gave me. Another aspect of the ministry time (which runs 9 pm to 2 am, and often later) is that a quarter of the entire group (which had about a dozen groups from various campuses and ministries) is in the prayer room at any one time, praying for requests from people on the streets and spending time in God’s presence. It is some of our favorite times. For some in the group, receiving a word from God was a new thing, which it would have been at that stage of life for me as well. God used me to minister to several people in our group during those prayer times and pray over them.
There were definitely some odd moments during the week. My first night driving, I had someone vomit for the first time in my van while I was driving. It was not the only time. Thankfully, Sarah from our group had put together kits for such instances, so thanks to her because it worked well. My other night on the street, my group was outside Waffle House and were approached by a man who was clearly high, and eventually made the girl with us uncomfortable. When he approached a couple other people, offering to give them his pants, we took the opportunity to make a discreet exit. As we walked past the corner of Waffle House, there was a knock on the window, and when we looked over a girl in the corner booth flashed us. There was also the feeling that we were living in a bubble, because it was a normal Beach Reach but in the world around us there were schools and universities closing and shifting to online classes, stores facing stockouts, and coronavirus spreading around the world. We also realized that, since we were having contact with hundreds of people from around the country who were also having contact with hundreds of people from around the country, we were prime suspects to contract the virus ourselves.

I share these experiences to give a full picture of the things we encounter on Beach Reach, but know that the things God did make whatever weird things happen like nothing. And, honestly, my last two night of ministry were a lot of fun and we saw some crazy moves of God.

I had Sara, Wyatt, and Colt with me on Wednesday and we were on the streets for about six hours. Things were slow early on; we got into a handful of conversations that didn't go very far. I did have the opportunity to encourage another group we ran into who were also not having much luck. But even though there wasn't a lot happening, the group was a riot. We laughed and danced to music we’d hear and yelled greetings to people we’d pass. Wyatt kept yelling at motorcyclists to do a wheelie. The way we were dressed and had fun made us unsuspecting Beach Reachers and made us approachable.

At about 1:15 am, we knew we still had at least 45 minutes left. I had the group sit on the porch of a closed restaurant and was just honest with them about our tiredness. We walked about six miles that night over six hours, and it was late in the week. Some of us had spent more than two hours cooking for the group dinner we’d had earlier. But we all took turns praying, and I said something along the lines of, “God, we’re really physically and socially tired, but our time isn’t up, so please guide us. And it’s really hard to start conversations right now, so please bring us one if you want us to have one.”

We agreed that God was pointing us in the direction of a road that was a bit dark, but eventually led to a busier area. I was thinking we’d encounter someone in the deserted part and I could tell them God brought us to them, but we got to the busier area without seeing anyone. We walked past the ice cream parlor that was closed, then by Club LaVela. Club LaVela used to be the biggest club in Panama City Beach (and the country) and maybe the most popular spot. However, after Hurricane Michael the club has been closed the last two spring breaks.

As we were walking by LaVela, we spotted a man face-down on the ground. Someone from another group tried to talk to him, and he barely responded and said he was just sleeping. My group stayed, and when I tried to talk to him he didn’t respond. Wyatt flagged down a sheriff’s deputy, who woke him up and told him to find a ride. I started talking to the man, and learned he had been drinking with a friend and when he refused to get in the car since his friend was planning to drive, his friend left him. He decided to just lay down and pass out. He wasn’t too interested in talking right away; I asked if he needed a ride or had anything he wanted us to pray with him about, and he said no to both. I told him we’d be over within eyeshot waiting for our own ride (it was now after 2 am) if he ended up needing a van.

Providentially, there were delays in picking up the street teams. After standing there maybe five or ten minutes, the man called me over and asked if he could get a ride. I said that when we were picked up he could come with us and we’d drop him off. Then he began to open up about his life. He said he didn’t even know how he ended up “here,” speaking of his physical location and his spot in life. He repeated that several times. He had kids about our age, his marriage was in a bad spot, and while he drank it had never ended up like this.

I asked him if he had considered that Providence had brought him here so he could have this conversation with us. We believe God uses situations that aren’t ideal to bring people to Him and remind them that He pursues us in our messes, even if we create them. He told us he made a lot of money but it was completely meaningless. And maybe the most striking thing and one of the most seamless transitions to the gospel I’d heard, “You know, I believe in God, and I pray, but I am so lost.”

During our talk with him, I had explained the work that Jesus did, and I said, “There is nothing that has happened to you or that you had done…” My intent was to say, “…That Jesus didn’t already know when He went to the cross, and He went anyway.” Instead, he filled it in with, “…That he can’t forgive.” My response was, “…Yes.” Then I told him that the resurrection gives the power to have victory over those things. Once we were eventually in the vans (close to 3 am), Nick was also able to talk to him some. In four years, that was a pretty unique experience to me.

The last night was a whirlwind. I got our van together—consisting of Caleb, Paul, Emma, and Wyatt—at the beginning and started praying. We made the vow we’d made last year and should have made earlier in the week: no one leaves the van without hearing the gospel. Not holding them hostage, but on our end we had the determination to get there before they left. I’m praying and we haven’t even gone online yet when someone knocks on the window, asking for a ride. He had been left at the club by his friends and wanted to get back to his hotel. This made him open, and we quickly got to the gospel on what was a pretty long ride. He shared with us how he goes to church and would consider himself a believer but his life doesn’t show it. He was familiar with what Jesus has done but I was able to explain to him the purpose of the cross and the freedom that should come with a relationship with Him. We continued talking for a while after we got to his hotel, and I asked him if he wanted to settle that and surrender right there, and he said he did. I don’t know exactly where his heart is still, but I’ve been in contact with him and can hopefully continue that conversation.

The next group was two very drunk men who were rather crass in their conversation. When they got in the van, door man Paul had them sit next to him, because I would have thrown them out if they turned their attention to Emma. I knew we had a short ride and needed to cut through the noise. Emma boldly asked what they knew about the gospel. One mentioned a Bible verse he likes from Isaiah, “Here I am, send me.” I told him that’s why we were here, sent to them to carry God’s message.

After a couple conversations I was able to jump in, I was content to listen to the others. They absolutely went for it. Every single group that got in the van, I’d hear three people talking and explaining the same gospel in their own way. And this wasn’t just a monologue; they were answering questions and finding out where people were in their lives. I heard Paul explaining at one point that Jesus was either right, a liar, or a lunatic. We took one group to Waffle House and sat there 20 minutes continuing conversations. Then we took a group to a hotel and sat there 40 minutes continuing conversations. God gave favor in all of this in that no one told us to move. Four of the six at the hotel got out at some point but the other two kept talking. Then two more people approached me and asked for a ride, and I said they could hop on in and we’d leave once the others left. Wyatt, who had been left without anyone to talk to for a few minutes, immediately started talking to them. All of them are underclassmen, and I was so proud of them and so encouraged to hear their conversations.

It really amazed me to be in that place. Late on that last night I was telling Ashleigh that when I met her almost three years ago neither of us would have thought we’d be having a hand in this week. But even looking farther back, and I say it every year to the group, I know I’d be on the other side of this were it not for God’s grace. I was in tears the last night of worship with that idea weighing on me. Jesus changed our lives and we want to see that in others’ lives.

This song was not even played at Beach Reach, but it’s a good summary of what we see and how we respond:

Hallelujah, You have saved me
So much better Your way
Hallelujah, great Defender
So much better Your way

I saw people seeking satisfaction in alcohol, drugs, and sex, and thought, “So much better Your way.” I saw people searching for and not finding hope in fleeting things and thought, “So much better Your way.” I look at people around me seeking satisfaction in personal ambition, progressive ideals, social justice, alcohol, and temporary pleasures, and think, “So much better Your way.” I know that this could just as easily be me, and say, “So much better Your way.”

See, it’s not that we’re better. It’s not that we give up our spring breaks for mission trips. It’s not that we serve our peers. It’s not even that we look out for people that aren’t looking out or can’t look out for themselves. We aren’t saved by our works and they don’t suddenly become part of our identity after salvation. It’s all God, every step of the way, in every work done in His name, in every person that passes from death to life, in every life devoted to Him, throughout our lives and ringing through eternity. From Him are all things and to Him are all things, and everything was created for Him. Our lives point to Him, and all that we do is through Him and for Him and finds meaning in Him. And we carry His name to the people He sends us to.