Fully Engaged

“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed. For the Mighty One is holy, and he has done great things for me. He shows mercy from generation to generation to all who fear him. His mighty arm has done tremendous things…” – Luke 1:46-51. 

Some years ago, I was invited to a Christmas party. The invitation had one request: “Please don’t bring a gift. Your presence is gift enough.” It sounds easy. Just be present and be engaged. We all have the ability to focus our attention on the present moment and what is before us. But we don’t often do it. We have slowly but surely given up or been conditioned out of full engagement. Who hasn’t sat at their desk working on the computer while their mind wanders off, perhaps planning a summer vacation, or considering restaurant options for dinner, or worrying about the kids, the remodel, the doctor bills—the list is endless. It is difficult to be fully engaged with others and God.

Consider Paul’s advice in his Epistle to the Colossians: “Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. Remember that the Lord will give you an inheritance as your reward and that the Master you are serving is Christ.” (Colossians 3:23-24)  Joseph is an example of someone who was fully engaged. He readily obeyed the angel’s command to take Mary as his wife. A further example of Joseph’s obedience is seen in Matthew 2:13-14. After Jesus’ birth, he was told by an angel to take his family to Egypt–quickly. That was still quite an undertaking. To travel by donkey with Mary and young Jesus to an unfamiliar country at least 300 miles away over wilderness terrain was not a Sunday stroll. But Joseph obeyed–promptly (2:14). After they were settled in Egypt, however, Joseph was told to move again–back to Israel. Again Joseph obeyed without raising any questions about practicalities or God’s timetable.

When you are fully engaged with God, it means that you have the faith to obey Him even when things don’t make sense. It means when we are uncertain about our future, worried or afraid, God’s power will come into our lives and give us peace. And unlike our tendencies, God’s engagement is not dependent on our circumstances or how much we are distracted. God does not disengage, we do. God remains fully engaged in our lives at all times . 

Discussion questions:

  1. How can we take responsibility for our engagement with God?  
  2. What can we do this week to become more engaged with God? 

Not That Joseph Either

Joseph of Arimathea took a risk and went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. (Joseph was an honored member of the high council, and he was waiting for the Kingdom of God to come.) Pilate couldn’t believe that Jesus was already dead, so he called for the Roman officer and asked if he had died yet. The officer confirmed that Jesus was dead, so Pilate told Joseph he could have the body. Joseph bought a long sheet of linen cloth. Then he took Jesus’ body down from the cross, wrapped it in the cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been carved out of the rock. Then he rolled a stone in front of the entrance.” – Mark 15:43-46. 

There are three men in Scripture who share the name, Joseph. There’s the Old Testament Joseph, whose amazing story from abandoned brother to Egyptian lord is chronicled in Genesis. Then there’s the New Testament Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, and a third Joseph, who took a risk on faith. 

Jesus had just been crucified. The disciples of Christ were left wondering if the signs and wonders they had seen and the amazing teaching they had heard were not so wonderful and amazing after all. If Jesus truly was the Son of God, how could He die? If Christ really possessed the divine power He claimed to possess, why didn’t He use it. None of it made any sense. 

Joseph of Arimathea probably had these same questions, doubts, and fears. Like everyone else, he had no idea what was going on. He didn’t have the ability to see the future, so he had no way of knowing that the worst thing that had just happened – the death of the Messiah – would become the best thing to ever happen?  He had no way of knowing that this defeat was actually the ultimate victory. At that moment it was not a good time to be associated with Jesus. But Joseph of Arimathea loved his Lord too much to let His body rot on the cross or be ignominiously thrown with other criminals into some shallow public grave. So at great risk to himself and his reputation, he went to the Roman governor Pilate to request Jesus’ body. He gave the crucified Christ a tomb and buried his Lord with honor without knowing that it would all make sense in the long run. 

It’s tempting for us to believe that we would have a lot more peace, obedience, and courage in life if we could only see what God was doing. If only we knew why we had to lose that job; if only we knew why we had to experience that trial; if only we knew why we had to endure that unfaithful spouse. If only we knew then we would live more obediently like Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus and act more courageously like Joseph of Arimathea.

We all experience those moments when life doesn’t make any sense. In these moments, it’s very tempting to question God’s power, goodness, wisdom, and love. When we allow ourselves to doubt the character and commitment of God, we need to trust God.  The tomb that Joseph offered was not a final resting place, but rather the ultimate symbol of God’s complete and final victory over sin and death and His delivery of the forgiveness and new life to all who put their trust in Him. Joseph’s tomb is a sign that points to the grace and redemptive work of God.

Discussion questions:

  1. Why was Joseph of Arimathea taking a risk to ask for the body of Jesus? 
  2. Sometimes we struggle to understand the events of our lives. When life is difficult, how can we make sense of what doesn’t seem to make sense?

Not that Joseph

“When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife.” ― Matthew1:24. 

There are three distinct Josephs in the Bible; the first and probably most well-known is Joseph the son of Jacob. This is the Joseph who is sold into slavery by his brothers, spends years in prison and eventually becomes the prime minister of Egypt. His story is told in the book of Genesis 37-50 and is mentioned in John 4:5: Acts 7:9-18; Hebrews 11:21-22  and Revelation 7:8. The second Joseph was the husband of Mary and the surrogate father of Jesus. The third was Joseph of Arimathea in whose tomb Jesus was laid to rest.

Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus is somewhat of the silent, passive voice in the Christmas event. He doesn’t have a line in the Christmas narrative. In fact, there are no words of Joseph recorded in Scripture. Yet the Gospel accounts remind us that God’s plan for the Incarnation, and Jesus’ birth, included Joseph from the beginning. Joseph is a faithful husband and a caring father. He is a man of faith who listens to God’s messages and then obeys God’s commands, trusting in God’s promises.

He was not passive but focused and intentional in his actions. The quietness of people like Joseph can be overwhelmed by the noise of Christmas music, concerts, television specials, parties, celebrations, and endless advertising. Through all the clamor and sounds of this season, Joseph reminds us of how important it is to hear God’s voice. Through the harried pace of life in this season of the year, Joseph reminds us to be focused, intentional and obedient to Christ in our actions. The example of Joseph’s life also reminds us to trust God even when things don’t make sense.  

Joseph not only listened carefully but acted on God’s instructions. Joseph did exactly what God asked him to do. He didn’t wait until morning. He didn’t wait for better weather. He took immediate action. “Jesus replied, “But even more blessed are all who hear the word of God and put it into practice.” (Luke 11:28) In another place, He said, “Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them.” (John 13:17) It was obedience motivated out of faith and love of God that moved Joseph to action.

God is still expecting our faithful response through obedient action. Joseph’s example should inspire and guide us to find hope and direction for living by taking time this Christmas to be quiet enough to listen to God’s voice and responding with faithful obedience.

 Discussion Questions:

  1. What impressed you most about Joseph’s character? 
  2. What makes it hard for you to obey God consistently? What reasons do we give for not obeying God? What does our unwillingness to obey say about our heart condition? 

The Trouble With Temptation

“Christ, because He was the only Man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only Man who knows to the full what temptation means.”C. S. Lewis.

Temptation comes in many forms. It can come as an enticement to break the law, cheating, flirting with what you know is wrong, bending the rules, listening to those invisible urges to do what you want to do rather than doing what is right, ignoring values and wondering why you should not take the easy way out to name a few.  We will face temptations every day, some ordinary some not so ordinary. James 1:12 tells us, “God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” 

It would be nice if our struggle with temptation ended when we became a Christian. Unfortunately, we are not that lucky.  God never promised to remove temptation from us, for even Christ was subject to it. The Bible says that He was “has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin.” (Hebrews 4:15) We will experience temptation skirmishes until the day we are home with our Savior. Yes, we may triumph over specific temptations, but that doesn’t mean they will not come back. And when we experience victory over one, there are many other things the enemy can tempt us with. 

There is light at the end of the tunnel of temptation. There is hope in the midst of each new trial. God’s word offers an unfathomable gift to the tempted. “Stand firm against him [the devil], and be strong in your faith. Remember that your family of believers all over the world is going through the same kind of suffering you are. In his kindness God called you to share in his eternal glory by means of Christ Jesus. So after you have suffered a little while, he will restore, support, and strengthen you, and he will place you on a firm foundation.” (1 Peter 5:9-10) Life will bring you many challenges and trials but stay strong with your trust in God and do not worry. No matter what tests, temptations, and trials are thrown at you, God is far more powerful than any evil. 

The Bible says, “The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.” (1 Corinthians 10:13) Leaning on God, you are fully equipped to take on anything thrown at you.  Jude 24 (ESV) adds, “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy,”

Discussion Questions:

  1. How would you define “temptation” in your own words? What is the difference between temptation and sin?
  2. What are some things that you could do or strategies you could use to resist temptation?

My Peace I Give You

Like a shepherd taking care of his sheep, this ruler will lead and care for his people by the power and glorious name of the Lord his God. His people will live securely, and the whole earth will know his true greatness, because he will bring peace.” – Micah 5:4-5.

Take a look at your life. How would you describe it? Contented? Rushed? Exciting? Stressful? Moving forward? Holding back? “Peace on earth” is a phrase you see everywhere around Christmas time. But how many of us would use peace to describe their life? Finding real peace can be just as elusive at Christmas as finding a gift for Uncle Ted who has everything.   

The problem is typically we can’t find peace with ourselves. We regret past mistakes, struggle with our present weaknesses, and worry about the future. We seek and long for peace in our relationships with others. We struggle with the uncertainty of tomorrow and the turmoil going on in the world around us to the point we wonder if “peace on earth” is even a possibility.

Fortunately, it is possible. Having peace at Christmas comes down to focusing on the reason for the season.  Focusing on God rather than what’s happening around us will give us peace. Philippians 4:6-7 reminds us, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” Jesus is our source of peace. So spend time on things that bring Jesus to the forefront of your celebrations and challenges. Talk to Jesus and read His Word. Keep Isaiah 26:3 in mind: “You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you!

The prophecy in Micah is a promise to us. Christ will be great, His kingdom shall rule over all – and His dominion will stretch to the ends of the earth. He will guard, care and direct his people like a shepherd looking after his sheep. We will live securely and in peace. God has the capacity to say this because He is in charge of all future circumstances and He is responsible for all outcomes, therefore, He can guarantee the safety of those who trust in Him. We can have peace in that sure hope now and in the future.   

We, too, can enjoy the peace Jesus offers. He offers us peace in any season of our lives. “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) 

Discussion questions:

  1. Is it difficult for you to believe that peace with God is possible? Why or why not? 
  2. What is something that stands in the way of your peace with God? What is one thing you can do this week to begin to surrender that area of your life? 

Joy To The World

“But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.” – Psalm 13:5-6.

Joy is a central theme woven throughout the Christmas story. John the Baptist jumped for joy even in his mother’s womb: “When I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy.”(Luke 1:44) The angel announced joy to the shepherds. “…I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people.”( Luke 2:10) The wise men were filled with joy: ”When they saw the star, they were filled with joy!” ( Matthew 2:10)

But there is often little joy in a season where there should be joy. The Christmas season arrives right after Thanksgiving when everyone pulls out their iPhones and electronic calendars to schedule family Christmas activities and festivities. Misgivings are starting early this year. When will I get all my Christmas shopping done? How many school programs do I need to attend this year? I have to get a Christmas tree and string the lights outside. Where is the joy in that? Every year, we place a losing bet on the world to supply a truly joyful holiday season.

The famous Christmas song “Joy to the World,” praises the coming of Jesus into the world: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come…Joy to the world, the Savior reigns.” This song not only celebrates the birth of Jesus but is a reminder when joy was brought into the world. The song continues, “Let earth receive her King.” This is a reminder that we have the responsibility for receiving this gift of Jesus and to pursue and experience joy in our lives. By letting “every heart prepare Him room,” we are able to embrace joy every day.  

When faced with day-to-day distractions, it can be easy to forget to seek out peace and find joy in the circumstances we are in. Creating joy in our lives can be difficult to do, but when we remember that joy was something that came—that entered into our world and promises to never leave us, we can take comfort in this fact.

This holiday season, I encourage you to embrace the spirit of joy. Remember that by keeping Christ at the center of all of your celebrations, you can experience true joy and understand the reason for the season. So will you join me in praying that God would help us experience the joy of the season when Jesus came into the world as a baby that very first Christmas?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you think is the basis for Christian joy?
  2. How does the message of Christmas contribute to your sense of joy? 

Mary’s Song

“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed. For the Mighty One is holy, and he has done great things for me. He shows mercy from generation to generation to all who fear him. His mighty arm has done tremendous things…” – Luke 1:46-51. 

There were many things that Mary could not plan for or even imagined. The first was the visit from Gabriel announcing that she would give birth to the Son of God. She could not have imagined the journey to Bethlehem and the birth in a manger. She probably never envisioned shepherds and wise men coming to see the newborn king. She probably didn’t expect to have to flee to Egypt. And she probably did not imagine the cross either. Yet, Mary trusted God’s plan.

As a result of this news from the meeting with Gabriel and Elizabeth, Mary writes a song, which Luke records. It’s commonly called the “Magnificat.” I wonder if we would sing the same tune given those circumstances. Or would we have questioned why things had to happen this way? After all, why should Joseph and I have to make that arduous journey to Bethlehem? And deliver my child, the Son of God – in a manger? Really. Instead of those questions, Mary sings, “Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” Mary’s entire attitude was one of praise and trust, in effect she was saying, “I do not understand all the whys, and it is not exactly enjoyable, and certainly if I had my druthers, I would have done it differently: But I will trust that God knows what He’s doing and I will glorify Him.” 

There’s a huge difference between resigned acceptance and doing it joyfully. Mary was willing to take God at His word and believe in His promises. She was willing to acknowledge that God has a purpose and that purpose is much bigger than we can usually imagine. Mary goes on to sing, “For the Mighty One is holy, and he has done great things for me.” We get so busy at Christmas and in just about everything else in our lives. We make things a whole lot more hectic and complicated than they need to be; we’re all caught up in our planning, working and worrying. There’s a simplicity about Mary’s song, about her attitude of total trust and reliance on the Lord that jumps out at you.  

We too can look beyond the packaging, the wrapping, and the parties and focus on the Holy, Almighty and Loving God who cares incredibly, deeply about each of us. Remember Mary and put first things first and say, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” (Luke 1:38)

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are your thoughts on Mary’s song?  
  2. Did you have any takeaways from Mary’s song that you apply in your life? 

The Strength Of Destiny

“Mary responded, “Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!” ― Luke 1:46-47. 

Mary was probably having a simple, fairly normal day. And then the extraordinary happens. But it not only happened, but it also entered her world in the form of an extraordinary encounter with the angel, Gabriel. We don’t know where Mary was or what she was doing when Gabriel came to visit her, but we can probably imagine what it must have been like to have her relatively uncomplicated life change instantly by someone with wings. Mary is naturally afraid at first. After all, this is not an everyday occurrence. And obviously this was before Candid Camera.

Mary calms down and Gabriel wastes no time telling her the news: ”Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!”…you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David.  And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!” (Luke 1:28, 30-33)

Can you imagine receiving that message? Remember, Mary was only a teenager, probably between 13 to 16 years old. We think things get convoluted and complicated, busy and stressful in our lives. Imagine this is suddenly given to you in the middle of some weekday afternoon while you’re packing the kids lunches for school, waiting in the check out line at Publix. or waiting for your appointment at the doctor’s office.  

The wonderful part of the story is Mary’s response to the angel’s announcement. “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” (Luke 1:38) “ That’s it. No other questions, comments, apprehensions or concerns. Mary consents. Nothing complicated. No need to fully understand, or see the whole program, or get a handle on it. Just a simple, total trust in God on her part.

What about us? Have you ever heard God calling out your name, telling you that He wants you to do something? Do you trust God enough to be faithful to Him? The truth is that your life will never be fulfilling until you allow God to use you. Ephesians 2:10 (ESV) is clear that you were “created in Christ Jesus for good works.” You won’t find fulfillment in anything besides the work of God because it’s not what you were made for. God’s destiny is our destiny. If you want to live an abundant life you have to allow God to use you.

God doesn’t need our help, but He wants your life to matter. He wants you to have an eternal reward for the things you do here on earth. Many people go through life feeling discouraged about themselves and thinking they don’t have a purpose in life. But that’s not true. Whoever you are—whatever your life experiences, talents, physical ability, or role—you have a purpose and a destiny.  You just have to accept it as Mary did.

 Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you think God’s destiny for your life is?  
  2. What can you do this week to get more in line with God’s destiny for your life?  

Being Thankful

Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good. His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation.” – Psalm 100: 4-5.             

What emotions do you feel as you mull over the approaching holiday season? Peace, joy, and thankfulness? Or does the Thanksgiving and Christmas season equate to exhausting travel, hectic schedules, and wondering where to hide the Elf on a Shelf.  It starts with Thanksgiving where people who are preparing the Thanksgiving feast hope that everything will turn out good and that there will be enough food for everybody. As a result, we can forget that it is a time to give thanks; to cultivate a spirit of thankfulness to God in our life.  

When we give thanks, we bring to mind God’s gifts to us. This, in turn, reminds us of God’s gracious nature. We think, not just of what God has done, but also of who God is. Thus, giving thanks is a beginning, not an end in itself. In the language of Psalm 100, we enter God’s gates with thanksgiving so that we might go into His courts with praise. There’s no biblical rule that states that thanks must always come before praise. But, for many of us, thanksgiving for what God has done leads us to praise God for who He is.

Thanksgiving is a season of being grateful. Thanksgiving reminds us of all the things to be grateful for. One reason that we fail to thank God now for what we have is that we want more – we want the next step. We fool ourselves into thinking that when we get more or when we get to the next step that then we will stop to thank Him. But that suggests we should not be grateful for what God is doing in our lives as part of His plan for each of us. And that means being thankful even when we are facing setbacks.

We should be thankful because God is worthy of our thanksgiving. It is only right to credit Him because “Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father,”  (James 1:17). Expressing thankfulness helps us remember that God is in control. Thankfulness, then, is not only appropriate; it is actually healthy and beneficial to us. It reminds us of the bigger picture, that we belong to God, and that we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing. “All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). 

All of us have a lot to be thankful for this time of year. But not only should we give thanks during the holidays, but we should also give thanks to God every day of the year.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How is it possible to give thanks even in hard times?
  2. Does thanking God lead to praising God in your life?
  3. For what are you most grateful today?

Telling Your Story

“Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ. ”  – 1 Peter 3:15-16. 

We all love stories, especially ones that give us an “inside look” into someone else’s life. As a child of God, you have a powerful story to tell. Sharing how you came to Jesus and the difference he’s made in your life can help others discover how they too, can know God personally.

Your story — regardless of how “spectacular” or “ordinary” you think it is — is a story about God’s character. It is your eyewitness account of how God rescued you from sin and death through Christ and changed your life as a result. When we share our story with others we help them get to know what God is like and what He can do.

Being used by God to share His love and see someone receiving Him as their Savior is one of the greatest blessings you will encounter in this life. And although it’s the prompting of the Holy Spirit that draws man to Christ, believers often play a critical role in sharing God’s word: in most cases, the catalyst for their spiritual transformation was honest conversations with a believer.

Acts 1:8 reminds us of our responsibility to tell others the Good News: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere-in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” He told us to be witnesses. He wants us to tell people what happened to change our lives. He wants us to tell our story of what Jesus did for us. Telling our story is a far cry from preaching to people. Preaching is telling people what to do and that will typically be a turnoff. In contrast, telling your personal story connects with people because we all share many of the same goals, desires, challenges, etc. We all want to be loved. We all want to love. 

Your story about when you received the love of God, you knew for the first time in your life what it means to be loved and to love. But it didn’t stop there. He gave your life meaning and a purpose. Your story is how God changed your life. So look for opportunities to tell people your story. Even if it’s just bits and pieces. People are interested. God will use your story to change their lives, just like He changed your life.

Also, remember that a testimony should never be preaching: Stay humble; never talk down, argue or use high-pressure methods to persuade people to make decisions for Christ. But do look for openings. Ask God to give you opportunities to tell your story. People you meet may say that there’s something different about you or even ask you why you’re such a “religious” person. Such situations are windows of opportunity to tell your story of faith.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Crafting your story: What were the final struggles that went through your mind just before you accepted Him? Why did you finally decide to accept Christ (or give Him complete control of your life)?
  2. How is my life different now? List some specific changes in your character, attitude, and perspective on life.