The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. (Isaiah 61:1 NIV)
Most of us await Christmas with high expectations. We love getting together with family, remembering great times, and for those of us who live in Guatemala, waiting for the fireworks at midnight. We love the Christmas carols, the church service, and many other things. All of that is fun and beautiful. No wonder the expectation of this time of the year is so high.
Simultaneously, the holidays are also a time of mourning and remembering. In many cases, we remember loved ones who have passed and have left an empty place in our lives. Those who come from dysfunctional families may not look forward to being with relatives. Even more so, Christmas can be a time of the year when many people feel extremely lonely.
When we look at Scripture, the coming of Christmas occurs during one of the worst times in the history of the people of Israel. Christmas starts to approach after four hundred years of silence, after God has kept apparent distance from Israel. Christmas approaches slowly as people grow desperate. Israel is under oppression. They have fallen in the hands of the almighty Roman Empire. Right before the birth of Jesus there are rebellions, social unrest, and violence. Does that sound familiar?
This year has been quite strange. In many cases, we have been quite isolated. Some of us have not seen our families. Some of us have lost people we loved either to the pandemic or other causes. Funds that were to help the poor amid the pandemic are often delayed, misused, or not seen as sufficient. It is amidst strange and turbulent times that Christmas approaches.
The second week of Advent, which we started on Sunday, is a week of preparation. We hear the voice of John the Baptist preparing the way for the arrival of the Son of Man. This preparation, however, is not the triumphant arrival of a king, but of one who would fulfill Isaiah 61:1. As we await the celebration of the birth of Jesus, we are reminded that when Jesus came, he shared in our pain, mourning, and suffering. God became Immanuel, God with us, with the purpose of bringing good news to the oppressed, healing our brokenness, freeing the captives, and releasing the prisoners.
Yes, 2020 has been a hard year for many. However, our hope lies in the coming of Jesus to be God with us.
Growing up, my family held the tradition of following our Thanksgiving feast with the official kickoff of the Christmas season: decorating gingerbread houses. My 20 cousins would cram into someone’s basement, tear into candy bags, and create our masterpieces. I remember frosting fights, broken houses, and major sugar crashes. Those memories of Thanksgiving merging into Christmas are the sweetest, quite literally, of my childhood.
Similarly, I’ve always valued the years when the calendar aligns and US Thanksgiving coincides with the first Sunday of Advent like it did this year. It seems natural that the gratitude of Thanksgiving would overflow into the hope of Advent.
Advent is observed on the four Sundays leading into Christmas. Traditionally, a candle is lit each Sunday, while the fifth candle, the Christ candle, is lit on Christmas. Advent creates space for both waiting and hoping. We wait for the second coming of Christ, but our wait is rooted in the hope that came through Jesus’s birth and the Incarnation.
The First Sunday of Advent (November 29 this year) is traditionally referred to as “Prophets Sunday.” We hear the voice of the prophets who called for repentance and previewed Jesus’ birth in the Old Testament; we honor John the Baptist and how he prepared the way for the Lord.
One passage often read on Prophets Sunday is Jeremiah 33:14-16 (NIV):
14 ‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.
15 “ ‘In those days and at that time
I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
he will do what is just and right in the land.
16 In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it will be called:
The Lord Our Righteous Savior.’
When I read passages like this, I like to write out key words from the prophecy. Sometimes, I even create a collage using the words. Fulfill. Good promise. Just. Right. Saved. Safety. The Lord Our Righteous Savior.
This year, more than ever, these words and this prophecy fill me with gratitude and hope. I am reminded that my every need and our world’s collective need is met in the person of Jesus Christ. The prophets knew this and held hope for the day when Jesus would come; I know this and live in gratitude for the gift that is Jesus.
As I move forward through Advent this year, I want to cultivate a spirit of gratitude and hope that points those around me to Jesus. Will you join me?
Annette Aguilar loves to read and write about a lot of things, including scriptures that provide hope. She is a wife, mother, and middle school Language Arts teacher who has lived in Guatemala for 10 years. Pre COVID, you could find her playing basketball and running, but now she’s happy with a masked walk around her neighborhood with her family.
It is easy for me to be filled with joy and be thankful to the Lord when I get a new job, a healing, an unexpected gift or an award for meritorious service. Even in these cases, I may simply offer a quick prayer of thanks and then fall back into daily routines. But what about thankfulness in difficult times? What about situations when I have lost a job, become ill, am grossly insulted or suffer unjust punishment? How can I be thankful in those instances?
Many times, God’s wisdom seems to totally contradict human rational thinking. God tells us to be thankful in those times too. James 1: 2-4 tells us, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” Those words are easy to memorize. But believing them in the heart is not simple. It can be a real test of faith.
I recently heard the testimony of an upper-class businessman from El Salvador. He had been actively antagonistic towards God. He had been immersed in running his prosperous business when he was falsely accused of an illicit activity. He was unjustly imprisoned for over two years in a grimy, filthy El Salvadorian jail while the guilty accusers went scot-free, stealing most of his business from him. You can imagine the bitterness, anger and resentment you would think he must have felt.
However, his real reaction was vastly different. In his testimony the businessman told his story and then he said, “I sincerely thank God from the bottom of my heart that all this happened to me. In the midst of the terrible jail I was brought to Christ. I was so arrogant, greedy, materialistic and proud that I would never have found Jesus and accepted him as my Lord and Savior had I not had to go through something of this extreme magnitude. Now I know that nothing else has any importance whatsoever in comparison with my salvation”.
In the midst of the anguish and suffering caused by the pandemic, or when confronting a job loss, illness, bankruptcy, unjust treatment, ridicule, scorn and worse, we can easily let angry human rationality based on temporal existence take over. We can fall into bitterness and resentment towards God instead of giving thanks. In these situations, we may focus on the problems we face instead of on the opportunity for growth, learning, maturity and completeness that James mentions.
We may lose sight of what our priorities really should be in an eternal context. We may ignore that God is always with us and that He loves us boundlessly. We must never forget that Jesus – though completely innocent – suffered far more than we will ever know on the cross in atonement for our sins. Thus, we can have joyful eternal salvation with Him.
When we focus on Jesus, God’s love, and our eternal salvation, we realize that all that happens in life is God’s preparation of us for this priceless gift. Then we can be truly thankful no matter what the surrounding circumstances are, even though we might not fully comprehend why things occur as they do at the time.
“And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17 NIV)
November is here, the month when many of us stop and take an extra look at reasons to be thankful. My recent experience with health issues has shown me how important gratitude is. Last November, out of nowhere, a strange lump appeared on my side. Two months later, after an x-ray and some doctors’ appointments, it was time for a biopsy.
A rash had also been bothering me. Was it from nervousness? Buried nervousness? I didn’t feel nervous, most of the time. Mostly I felt calm, but under the surface, anxiety had been growing, and lately it seemed to be rising up more frequently. I would wake up at night with all the frightening prospects and consequences of a malignant tumor playing over and over in my mind.
An amusing cartoon I had seen a few months earlier came to mind during one of those anxious nights. It showed a view from behind of a very large lady who is seated on a very small stool. Her little dog lies calmly under the stool. You look at it and wonder how such a small stool could even hold up under the weight of that oversized rear end. But the dog underneath is unconcerned. The caption reads, “In 2020 may we have the strength of this stool and the faith of this dog.”
I decided I would be like that little dog. I would trust the Lord as fully as he trusted that stool and not be concerned. The Lord would care for me. How had I lost that trust and become so fearful?
Sixteen months before, I had had a heart attack. A stent had been inserted into an important artery that had been 95 percent blocked. Miraculously, my heart had not been damaged. A lot of people had been praying. God had preserved my heart. I was delighted, so grateful, full of thanks, and I trusted God like never before.
So why, now, was I letting doubt creep in? Was it from too much thinking about the possibilities and reading about procedures and likely outcomes? Or was it also because I’d forgotten to look back and thank the Lord for all he had done?
During those anxious days in January, Philippians 4:6-7 kept coming to my attention:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with
thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends
all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (NIV, emphasis
We tend to remember the parts about prayer, petition, not being anxious, and the promised peace of God, but often, we forget the thanksgiving. Remembering what God has done in the past and thanking him for those things, causes faith for the present petition to grow.
I remembered how thankful I’d been for the healthy heart despite everyone’s expectations, and for so many other times God had defended and protected me. “No!” I thought. “I will not fear. Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. He will care for me. Of course! He always does! How many times has he made that clear to me? This will not be different.”
That night, I slept all night without waking. The first thing in the morning, the words of a hymn came to mind:
What have I to dread, what have I to fear
Leaning on the everlasting arms?
I have blessed peace with my Lord so near
Leaning on the everlasting arms.
Jesus must have been sitting watching people in the Temple treasury for a while. He saw a widow.
Jesus started teaching and said that the scribes liked “places of honor at feasts.” In a typical home, a Jewish family would sit cross-legged on the floor and dip into a common bowl for the meal. However, a feast would require a “U” shaped table about six inches in height where guests would recline, lying down around the outside of the table. This is significant because each position at the table indicated a person’s social ranking. The closer to the host on the left leg as you face the open “U” the higher your ranking as you went around the “U.” As Jesus continued, notice that the scribes were not called gluttons but they “devoured” the houses of widows.
Widows would be entirely dependent on charity since they had no husband to provide for them. They were part of the lowest class in society and this particular widow was described as “poor.” Perhaps this included being without a family as well. She “threw two small, thin copper coins” into the chest. These Roman “lepta” were the lowest denomination coin in the region of Judea. Two lepta made a penny. In verse 44, Jesus shared with his disciples that this woman “threw the whole of her living” into the treasury chest. Jesus compared the others who did the same. But he noted that all the rest cast into the chest from their abundance. Was she constrained to give by some legalistic requirement? I do not know. Scribes (and Pharisees) would tithe from their tiny herb gardens according to Mat 23:23 and may have required something from this woman for the Temple.
As we head into the month where we celebrate Thanksgiving I would like to apply the account of the widow’s offering to this season. Ever wonder about the attitude of the widow? The rest of the Jews may not have thought much about what they gave. It may have been a duty or just a family tradition. It was just the “cost of doing business.” Giving was just what everyone had to do to keep the Temple operational. For some it may have been “good business” if others were impressed with what they threw into the chest. Coins can make a lot of noise. My guess is that the widow gave a lot of thought to her gift. With two half-pennies she could have thrown in one and kept the other. She didn’t. All she had went to the Temple. Let’s think about this a bit more.
There was no thought of a percentage; she “cast, threw, put” it in.
No hesitant hand dropping it in.
She would have to trust God for tomorrow’s food.
No, actually she would be trusting God for her next meal.
This Thanksgiving let us express “thanks-giving.”
Have a thankful spirit for what you have.
Have a thankful spirit for what you may give to family and those in need.
You, too, may have the Lord’s commendation.
The first couple of years that we lived here I would run on the median along the boulevard Avenida Las Americas. It was mostly unpaved footpaths at the time and often I would trip (sometimes fall) on the tree roots and rocks along the way. Eventually, I learned how to maneuver the paths and run with more sure footing. I had to change my ways to fit the bumpy path, and it became a much more enjoyable venture. I find a parallel here with the unsure footing of navigating through a pandemic.
The verse that has given me encouragement to maneuver more easily in this time of restrictions, disappointments, and fears is Habakkuk 3:19, “The Sovereign Lord is my strength; He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, He enables me to go on the heights.” Like God designed the deers’ feet to be stable on uneven terrain, He designed us to be able to have solid footing in the roughest of circumstances. He enables us to walk in places we could not go without His help. We can go to the heights when we trust God to lift us up, when our thoughts become more aligned with His thoughts. It isn’t God who gives thoughts of fear or worry or “what ifs.” What He does give are higher thoughts backed by His power and His strength living and dwelling within us.
So, when the worry comes about when I will feel safe to travel to see family again, I climb higher to more solid footing. I stand firmer and align my thoughts more with His thoughts. I tell myself this worry isn’t from God. With thanksgiving I praise Him for the friends here in Guatemala who have become more like family. I ask for help in trusting His plan. I know He will not abandon me. He has strengthened my footing at other times and He will do so again. I will remind myself of His truths and walk with more confidence, trust, and gratitude.
1 Corinthians 6:17 states, “But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with Him in spirit.” When we consciously come into union with the One who made us by thinking and responding and moving through the trials, it is life giving.
So, when our journeys take us down into a valley of doubt and fear, may we call on Him as Psalm 61:2 declares, “ From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint, lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” It is here that we find our place of refuge and our place of sound footing where we can more assuredly seek help in situations that can otherwise be overwhelming.
With the Covid and its many related problems, I find that it is easy to get depressed, dismayed, fearful and worried about my own situation. Too often, I disregard the priceless blessing of eternal salvation I have through Jesus that relegates my worldly problems to relative nothingness. I forget about how many people do not know Jesus and therefore confront the only problematic consequences that really matter. They too are eternal.
An all-important responsibility of being a Christian – that means us – is rescuing those who do not know or who have turned away from God. Jesus likened it to the task of seeking lost sheep. Then he extolled the joy of rescuing them. In Luke 15: 4-6 (NIV) he said, “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home.”
Tending sheep in a wilderness setting in the times of Jesus and the Old Testament was not an easy job. A shepherd had to be strong and brave. David describes his experience as a shepherd in I Samuel 17:34-35, “When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it.”
Rescuing a lost sheep was an especially arduous and dangerous task. Normally, sheep blindly followed their leader along the path. But when a predator came, they could panic, scatter and become lost. Once lost, they had no sense of direction and could helplessly wander deep into the wilderness. They could penetrate into the depths of dense thickets and briars. Their rescuer had to brave the wild beasts and go into the thorny thickets after them. After finally grabbing it, the rescuer had to hoist the struggling animal (weighing 100 pounds or even much more) on his shoulders and head homeward.
In today’s spiritual world, the number and danger of predators are increasing rapidly as is the number of lost sheep. The thickets, thorns and spines of the natural wilderness have been replaced by the barbs, sharp insults, scorn and violent threats in the spiritual wilderness of urban slums, universities, entertainment centers, bars and even luxury resorts towards where the lost sheep now tend to flee. They are prevalent in the red zones not a dozen blocks from where we live, and the rescue can be very dangerous.
The need to save lost sheep is greater than ever and the task of saving them is increasingly formidable. They cannot be rescued by remaining hidden in the sheep pen of church walls. We must have strong faith and know that the Lord is with us. We must be brave, determined, persistent and prepared like David to go out to the midst of the wilderness, fend off the predators and save the sheep before they are devoured. When we seek to serve and achieve our goal, our problems dissipate. We can follow Jesus’ words, call our friends and neighbors together and say, “Rejoice with me; I have found a lost sheep.”
25 I know that my redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
26 And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God; Job 19:25-26 NIV
If anyone ever had a list of legitimate complaints, it is the venerable Job of the Old Testament. When we first meet him, he has lived a charmed life – nice home, great income, good health, healthy kids. His future was secure. But that all changed in the blink of an eye. He lost it all. It was agony.
Reading through Job can be a chore at times, slogging through the conversations Job has with his “friends.” (“With friends like these, who needs enemies?” applies here.) But for those who persevere to the end of the book, we can gain insight about going through hard times.
When Job finds himself at an all-time low, he doesn’t curse God and die – a suggestion from his wife. He decides to deal with life the way it is. In Job 1:21 he has already declared, “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised." Then his physical pain and suffering increase. His sores are legendary. He complains that he wishes he’d never been born, and more words of distress were recorded than words of praise.
Job clearly discerns the truth of his situation. He doesn’t deny that his life is beyond awful. A case of bad breath that makes his dear wife avoid him (19:17) is one of his many laments. Lamenting has its place in a balanced life. It gives us a chance to work through grief. It is not an indictment about our spirituality or lack thereof. To lament is to recognize what we have lost, and gives us a space for coming to grips with it. Job doesn’t cut short the grieving time by plastering on a fake smile and claiming victory over disaster.
In addition to the physical distress, Job has the emotional stress (6:14-15,16:1-4) from his friends’ accusations. They are nice to Job at the outset, by not saying anything for a week. However, on day eight, the gloves come off, and the friends start verbally punching away. The attacks are often cruel. In Job’s case, people – even friends – could not be counted on to be his source of encouragement at a time when he desperately wanted some.
Job lashes out in anger against God, but God doesn’t abandon Job to his boiling emotions. He assures Job that He is all-knowing and all-powerful (chapters 38–41). Job comes to realize that he was wrong to question God’s motives, that he should show humility, so he asks to take back all he said against God. Then the blessing comes.
While the biblical text points out the physical and material blessings Job received at God’s hand, I have to wonder if peace with God was not the greater reward. I’m glad to know that my redeemer-vindicater lives, and doesn’t abandon me when I take issue with Him for what he allows in my life.
"TRUST GOD," THEY SAY
(A Missionary Wife Thinks It Over)
By Ralph and Helen Porter
Helen wrote this when we lived in Guatemala, in the heat of the guerrilla movement.
We have recently updated it in the light of current conditions.
"Trust God," they say.
"I trust," I answer. For I am young and strong.
I can go alone, far from friends and home,
and eat the beans and rice and goat,
and sleep on a narrow church bench.
"I trust Him," I say. For I am young and strong.
And if I get sick (or a stray bullet comes my way), it's only me.
Yes, I trust Him.
"Trust God," they say.
"We trust," we answer. For two are one – and young and strong.
Together we can go,
and eat the beans and rice and goat,
and sleep wherever.
"We trust Him," we say. For we are young and strong.
And if we get sick (or a stray bullet comes our way), we are together.
Yes, we trust Him.
"Trust God," they say.
"We are learning," we answer. For now we are four and
two are very young – and not so strong.
And the beans and rice are tiresome and there isn't any goat,
and the youngest cries out at night so no one sleeps.
"We are learning to trust Him," we say. But we sometimes wonder!
what if the younger ones get sick (or a stray bullet . . . .)?
Yes, we are learning to trust Him.
"Trust God," they say.
"We are still learning," we answer. For now we are five!
and two no longer feel so young nor strong.
And the younger ones love rice and beans,
and we wake at night, wondering about some not-so-distant sounds.
"We are still learning," we say. But that fear returns
when young ones run to play (and we think about stray bullets).
Yes, we are still learning to trust Him.
"Trust God," they say.
"Are we still learning?" we wonder.
For now our five are concerned about their own families!
And two in their "third-third" are neither young nor strong.
And the whole crew loves rice and beans,
And we wonder about pandemics
and what the future may bring.
"We are still learning," we say.
But that fear returns
when we consider our grandchildren
(and we think about the world they will face).
Yes, we are still learning to trust Him.
"Trust God," they say.
Sometimes we wonder if they know what they are saying.
And even more, we wonder if they know what we mean when we say
"YES, LORD, WE TRUST YOU!"
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart;
do not depend on your own understanding.
Seek his will in all you do,
and he will show you which path to take.”
Prov. 3:5-6 (NLT)
© 1983, 2020, Helen L. Porter. Used by permission.
Psalm 137: 1-4
1By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
2There on the poplars we hung our harps,
3for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
Psalm 137 has always brought me a unique sense of comfort and hope. It is a captivity psalm, a psalm rooted in despair, in longing, and in unfulfilled desires. The Israelites find themselves in captivity, and their captors are requiring them to sing the songs of Zion. They can't. How could they sing the songs of Zion, the songs of home, while in a foreign land? Instead, they weep, they hang their harps, and later in the psalm, they even express desire for vengeance against their captors.
The Israelites, the people who knew God and his promises, who knew they were his chosen people, who were led out of Egypt by Moses, found themselves sinking into despair while in captivity.
I can identify with the feeling of captivity and with the despair that accompanies it. Five years ago in September, at the height of the rainy season, we lost a dear friend, Rudy. He was a guajero working in the city garbage dump when the rains provoked a trash slide. Rudy was buried in the trash, and we were left devastated. We were lost in captivity to grief, devastated both because of the loss of a friend, and because of the systems that allowed for that tragic loss.
We found it difficult to sing songs of joy. For a while, we hung up our harps.
I found myself turning to this psalm for comfort and hope. At times it’s hard for humans to be honest and raw with their emotions, especially Christians. There is an internalized fear that if we express this level of grief, then people will question our trust in the Lord.
Yet this passage, along with passages like Ecclesiastes 3 (there is a time for everything), the Beatitudes of Matthew 5 (blessed are those who mourn), and John 11 (Jesus wept), affirms that there is a place for our complex range of emotions. In both the Old and New Testament, that place is at God’s feet.
Psalm 55:22 “Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you.”
1 Peter 5:7 “Cast all your anxiety on the Lord for he cares for you.”
I find it both comforting and hopeful that God welcomes my grief, despair, and tears and that he cares for me and sustains me in them.
*All Biblical references are taken from the NIV.