The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit, Psalm 34:18 (NIV). He heals up the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds, Psalm 147:3. The intimate comfort and heartfelt truth of these verses revived me one cold winter night many years ago.
My husband and I had traveled back home to South Dakota and were gathering with family. It was the first time we had seen this group of family since our baby died six months earlier. It felt like a normal gathering with laughter and food and wine. The loss of our baby was not brought up. It was safer to keep the conversations lighter and I understood that. As the evening went on though, I started feeling suffocated with sadness and loneliness. I didn’t want to spoil everyone else’s night so I quietly stepped outside for a while to be alone. There was no blanket of clouds that night so the stars were so bright and beautiful. I will always remember looking up at that brilliantly lit sky and pleading for Jesus to help me with the pain and loss and void in my heart. Despite the sub zero temperatures that night (plus not taking time to dig through a pile of coats to find mine), a warmth and comfort came over me that was indescribable. Nothing had ever calmed and brought me peace like this. It was like this big hug that enveloped me. My grief lifted more in that moment than it had in any other.
What was it about this night that was different than any other time I had prayed for relief from my sadness? I think it was that I was alone and vulnerable and completely dependent upon Jesus. What I needed most in my grief was God Himself. He met me there and He filled the void that others and the words of others couldn’t fill. He lifted a wound that at times I thought I could not keep bearing. As 2 Corinthians 3:17 states, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Jesus did help break me free and provided an escape from my heavy burdened heart into a sweet fellowship with His Spirit. Just as John 14:16 states, “And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever.” I had a new understanding of how the Holy Spirit helper, comforter, intercessor lives in us and walks in our journey with us.
My love for Jesus grew and my desire to know Him and call on His strength grew. I don’t know if I would have gone on a quest for a deeper relationship with Jesus had I not called on Him at such a low point in my life. With gratitude, I know now that we aren't left alone to handle our suffering. Even when we don’t have the words, Romans 8:26 reminds us, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”
My prayer for the new year for all is that we make space for the Holy Spirit to breathe new life and hope and truth into whatever challenges and trials we may be facing.
Not long ago we were anticipating the end of the twentieth century! People were anxious about Y2K and what it might bring. Those days passed without incident. That was an incredible century! More inventions and technological advances than in all the rest of history combined. At the same time, moral values degenerated on a scale never before witnessed.
Where will the world be at the close of this century? Where will our church, and we as individuals, be at the end of this year? Nobody imagined what the past year would hold. While we can’t know what to expect, it is a relief to know that our times are in the Lord's hand (Ps. 31:15). We can trust Him, no matter how frightening events seem.
There has been no shortage of people with ideas about what to expect during our lifetime. Prophecies have come and gone without incident. I have a long list of “prophecies” concerning catastrophic events and the Lord’s coming. Many of God’s people have suffered disillusionment when prophecies didn’t happen as predicted.
That shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus told His followers, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). Evidence abounds that our Lord could come at any time. It’s appropriate for us to expect what God has announced, but God hasn’t announced the schedule of coming events. What God has announced is His purpose for His church: that we should be His witnesses (Acts 1:8).
In the light of that purpose, we should be setting goals for ourselves. While I do not like New Years "resolutions," two thoughts impress me. Hopefully these personal goals mark my life. 2 Chronicles 16:9 affirms: "The eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him." Israel's leaders displayed less than total commitment to the Lord. That's a danger for all of us. I want Him to look at my life and find a heart totally committed to Him.
A similar purpose is expressed in song: "May all who come behind us find us faithful." 1 Corinthians 4:2 asserts that our priority as God's stewards is to be found faithful. May those who come behind us find us faithful.
Finally, I have some goals for our church. Most obvious is identifying the person God has chosen to become our next pastor. My spiritual "wish list" starts with the desire to see each person growing spiritually and thirsty to know Him better. Finally, I want to see each participant committed to ministry, using the gifts God has given us.
Total commitment. Faithfulness. A new pastor. Individual spiritual growth, thirst for the Lord, and
participation in ministry. That’s plenty to work on during the coming year, or a lifetime! If the Lord chooses not to return during the coming year, I pray these traits will mark each of our lives and authenticate God's work in us. If He does come, it's all the more urgent! "Even so, come, Lord Jesus!"
It is New Year’s Resolution time. As the new year approaches, we have the tradition of resolving to put our bad habits, repellant deeds and vile behaviors in the past and do something new, better and more commendable. We seek to have a new beginning.
In the past when I tried to put my resolutions into practice, I found that it was not easy. Those declarations I had proclaimed with great determination soon started slipping towards the sidelines and eventually they faded away unfulfilled. I fell back into my old routines until I passionately proclaimed another set of eventually-unachieved resolutions as the next New Year drew near. Perhaps others are like me.
I had the wrong focus. I was directing my attention to a haphazard calendar date. I learned that when we try to do things our way through our own efforts we are bound to fail. The only way we can truly have a new beginning is through Jesus Christ. He provides us with the only regeneration that really matters.
Jesus has given us a new covenant through his death on the cross in atonement for our sins and resurrection on the third day. Through Jesus we enter a new creation as is mentioned in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”.
By accepting Jesus as our Lord and Savior with our mouths and with our heart, we receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. We are reborn. That is a new beginning indeed! In John 3: 5-6 (NIV): Jesus says “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit”.
Romans 8: 1-2 describes the immense importance of this rebirth: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus, the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death”. We leave the realm of the flesh and enter into the realm of the Spirit. We are set free from being slaves to sin. What a glorious new beginning that is.
Fortunately, we do not have to wait until the New Year to make the resolution to accept Jesus. He is waiting for us patiently and lovingly for us to do that at any moment. Once we accept him the reward is eternal.
Being humans, our minds wander and lose their focus on God. Personally, I tend to get distracted. It is easy to become enticed by the temptations that surround me. My human resolve is weak. So, it is useful for me to try to strengthen my relationship with Jesus, to build my trust in him and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit not only each New Year but starting each new day. Each morning, in a sense, is a new beginning. When I do this faithfully, and let the Spirit take charge, it is my need to make New Year’s resolutions that tends to fade away.
Secular Christmas songs and greetings often urge us to be happy or merry: We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Happy Holidays. We look forward to the pretty lights and upbeat music every year, but tire of it after a month or two. It delights us for a while, but it can't sustain the level of contentment that we seek. When we understand the true meaning of Christmas, however, our focus changes from happiness to joy- true, lasting joy.
Jesus talked about full or complete joy, the kind that endures. To those who belong to him he says, “Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete (John 16:24),” and prays, “that they may have the full measure of my joy within them (John 17:13).” Apparently, he was talking about a kind of joy that is so deep and permanent and all-encompassing that, come what may, we will never be without it. In John 16:22 he said, “…and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.”
Joy is a characteristic that makes Christians different from those who have no hope. What about adverse circumstances? Paul sang in jail. If we have the Spirit of Christ, and we do if we belong to him, then joy is one of the fruits that comes with the presence of that Spirit. Perhaps it falls to us then to choose to rejoice. Paul said we should always rejoice in the Lord, because the Lord is near (Phil. 4:4,5). The nearness of the Lord is the reason we can rejoice. Not that we don’t get sad, and weep and grieve. A sickness, a disappointment, a frustration, an injustice, or a loss descends on us and we are affected, sometimes crushed, but the Lord taught that we need not succumb to it. He speaks of an underlying joy that will see us through it, and this comes from being near Him.
In praying for believers, Jesus talked about our unity, with each other, with him, and with the Father that we should all be one in complete unity. Wouldn’t that, then, make available to us the kind of joy in question? The ultimate complete joy is truly knowing the Father and the love that he and the Son share. In the last recorded prayer of Jesus, before he went to the cross, the last thing he said was, “ I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them (John 17:26).” Real joy, then, must depend on getting to know the Father and on being one with the Lord.
We rejoice because the Lord is near. For the prophets, it was on the way. They were looking and waiting for it. For us, it is here. He is here, his Spirit living in us. We commune with him. We still look for, wait for the day when we will see him as he is, but in the meantime, we have his presence within us, a deposit, guaranteeing what will be ours when he comes the next time. So, whatever our circumstances, because of his presence, we can still choose joy.
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.