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“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”  Matthew 5:5

Let me be a little kinder; Let me be a little blinder,

To the faults of those about me; Let me praise a little more.

Let me be when I am weary, Just a little bit more cheery;

Think a little more of others, And a little less of me.

Above are just a few lines from a youth song I remember being song when I was a boy. It was titled Less Of Me and it sings like a prayer for God to make us less focused on ourselves and more focused on the needs and the considerations of others. 

Today’s focus text stands as a sobering warning for those who would set out to follow in the footsteps of Christ. You will in this journey face many who would oppose your forward progress. What you have chosen stands in direct contradiction to their long established goals and expectations, and they will resist and fight against any change the Holy Spirit will bring into your life. But the greatest, the most cunning, the most difficult for you to resist and overcome of all these enemies is yourself. 

We’ve all heard people say, “I’m my own worst enemy.” In the spiritual life this is doubly true. 

The apostle John warns us in his first epistle that Satan, when he tempts us, will tempt us with what we already desire. 

I’ve observed that most of the time when a person commits or recommits their life to God that for a few days, perhaps even a few weeks, Satan will appear to leave them alone. He’ll let them grow and begin to become confident in their new found faith, and then he’ll begin to subtly undermine their reliance on God. Bible study time shifts from being a time for deepening their connection to our Heavenly Father and mostly about learning truth. Prayer time stops being about having a personal, intimate conversation with God and becomes mostly about presenting their list of needs and requests. Mixed in with this diluting of their connection to God is a spirit of rejoicing in the knowledge and strength they’ve gained. All this is carefully calculated to blind the seeker to their own vulnerability, to make them over confident in their own ability to stand in their place as a Christian, and to set them up for a fall.

This is why Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

When we first came to Christ it was with the knowledge that we are nothing without him. He is the giver of our value, he is the author of our success, he is the originator of our praise, and he is the source of our strength. It’s only as we in meekness continue to remember these realities everyday that we will be able to continue to be blessed and to grow in the grace of Christ. 

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  Matthew 5:4

I could see the hurt in her eyes and I knew that I had been the one to inflict the pain that had pierced her heart. I heard her sniffles and muffled sobs as she cried out her brokenness and I knew that I had been the one to cause her wounds. I was the author of every tear that ran down her face. 

How I wished that I could take back those minutes and those words that I had spoken. It’s scary how quickly and how deeply we can hurt our friends and family members. It’s frightening how few words are required to drive an arrow home. And it’s sobering to know that those words will echo and reecho making it take far longer to heal those wounds, if healing is even possible. By God’s grace healing is possible. 

Every day, sometimes in big ways and often in little ways, our actions harm someone. The sins we do always cause harm to ourselves, they always cause pain to the heart of God, and they usually hurt someone else close to us. 

Our focus text reveals to us that one of the first fruits born by our admitting our poverty and accepting the riches of the kingdom of heaven is a sense of grief and an active mourning for our sin. And I’m not talking about a casual or shallow acknowledgement of our wrongdoings. The sadness, grief, and regret we feel for the harm and hurt we’ve caused is profound and sincere. In our hearts there’s a genuine yearning to make things right and to seek forgiveness, and we make every effort to secure both of those objectives. 

But you know, sometimes restoration isn’t possible. Sometimes too much time has past and it’s too late to say, “I’m sorry,” and then hear the words, “I forgive you.” 

In those times the promise of our focus text stands up as a mountain of assurance, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

O friend don’t hold yourself back from entering into the truth of your condition and what you’ve done. Don’t be afraid to open the chest of your hidden sin. When you grieve over and confess your sin you’ll only find one response from our Savior; forgiveness, acceptance, and comfort. 

Jesus can heal your heart like nothing else can. Time may let wounds close up and allow us to forget, but Jesus can soothe our hurts, wipe away our tears, heal our scars and infuse comfort and joy into our souls. 

New beginnings are his. Open your sinful heart to him and let his comfort usher in a new beginning this morning. 

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The miracles Jesus performed comprised the bulk of our Savior’s ministry to the people of Galilee and Judah but in many ways the affect of those actions were transitory, the impact was only immediate and short lived. The same cannot be said about the words of his teaching. What our Savior said when he taught echoes down through the generations and still touches hearts and shapes lives today. 

Matthew chapter five begins what is perhaps the most complete account of one of Jesus’ sermons. He begins with a poem of his own making. At first it appears to be a series of proverbial statements but closer consideration reveals that it’s actually a summary each person’s experience as God work’s his salvation in their life. 

The first part of that statement, “Blessed are the poor in spirit … ,”tells us that spiritually we’re bankrupt, we have nothing to offer God, nothing within ourselves to rely on, or trust in, to merit or purchase acceptance before God. The statement also tells us that we’re blessed if we realize this fact. 

Far too often and for far too long we work to prove our worth to ourselves and to God. The truth is that whatever innate value we may have is totally eclipsed by the mountain of debt our sin has accumulated for us. Spiritually we’re so bankrupt we’ll never be able to even come close to digging ourselves out of the hole we’re in. 

So how are we blessed? 

Realizing this truth about ourselves has the potential of setting us up to stop trying to earn our way into God’s good graces and to simply accept the grace his love for us is already freely offering.  As soon as we do this, wretched, poor, blind and naked though we may be, the kingdom of heaven is now ours to claim. Sonship to the God of the universe is not something we have to earn it’s a standing that’s ours to accept. Citizenship in the Kingdom of God isn’t ours to qualify for it’s ours to embrace. 

Rest assured you’ll never be the same if you acknowledge your poverty, stop trying to become worthy of God’s favor and accept all that he’s offering, but the change cannot come before the acceptance it can only come after. We must become citizens of heaven and see that as our true home before we’ll ever let ourselves abandon the treasures of this world and our place in it.

That’s why the journey to grace begins with our accepting the fact that we’ve got nothin.  

Are you ready to acknowledge your poverty? Are you ready to let go of those worthless pebbles you’ve been clutching so that you can accept the diamonds Jesus is offering?

“And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people.”  Matthew 4:23

Nearly fifteen years ago I went to India with a group of forty volunteers to conduct evangelistic efforts. The main focus of our labors was meeting with the people and praying with them during the day and in the evenings presenting an evangelistic sermon, but it was a handful of events that happened peripherally to this work that standout in my memory like a lighthouse beacon on a dark night. 

The first is the night a little girl was brought to the meetings with lungs so congested she must have had bronchial pneumonia. She could hardly get a breath and in her desperation for air her crying could not be calmed. Then Karen, the presenter for that night, stepped over to her and began to pray. What happened next took only about a minute. As Karen prayed I saw that child calm, relax, lay her head on her mother’s shoulder, and then peacefully go to sleep. Seeing that child healed created an excitement that nearly disrupted the meeting. 

The second event was not one I personally witnessed; it happened in connection with one of the other teams meetings. One day a large number of people were committing their lives to Christ in baptism and one of them was a little old lady. Everything was going just as you’d expect until she came up out of the water. As she open her eyes she began to exclaim and call out excitedly. When she had entered the water she had been blind but as she had come up out of it she could see.

Matthew tells us that healing was an important part of Jesus’ ministry. Ellen White commenting on this fact wrote that Jesus spent much more time tending to the physical needs of the people he served than in preaching to them. The book of Acts tells us that healing the sick, casting out demons, even raising the dead were also part of the disciples ministries. Somehow as the centuries have past, at least in the north western part of the planet, we’ve lost our confidence in God’s willingness, even desire, to meet our needs and heal our diseases. 

As I read today’s focus text a thought came into my mind that God wants to continue demonstrating his loving presence by the healing he can bring. Healing ought to be an important part of the ministry of God’s church. Jesus became famous because of the healing he performed and as a result of his fame those same people also were able to hear the Savior speak to them about eternal life. 

I know that it’s not fame we’re looking for, however, we should be known as a people that possess spiritual strength and power. Power to live holy lives. Power to heal. Power to cast out demons. Power, even, to raise the dead. It should also be known that we’re willing to freely share these blessings with anyone. Perhaps then more would be attracted to listen to that infinitely more precious gift Jesus has given us to share. Perhaps then the way would be prepared for more people to hear the gospel of Jesus’ love and prepare to be with him when he returns. 

“Then He said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ They immediately left their nets and followed Him.”  Matthew 4:19–20

Much of the work Christ was to do during his years of ministry was not his work alone. Part of his purpose was to draw men and women to himself so that they could join him in his labors. By the words of instruction he gave and by the example of his life they were prepared to become co-laborers with the Savior of the world. 

Many people live never feeling that their lives really matter or that they’re achieving any real purpose in the lives they live. I confess that many times I’ve felt that sense of meaninglessness and purposelessness in my own life as I’ve looked back at the end of the day and wondered if what I’ve accomplished really mattered or made any real difference. 

This morning as I consider today’s focus text I see within it our Savior inviting us to have a share in the most important work that’s ever been done on this sin torn planet. In Jesus’ invitation to his disciples, as it echoes down through the centuries, I hear Christ offering to us the highest purpose any person could ever possess. Jesus is calling us to closeness and companionship with himself, and he’s commissioning us to be his partners in the reconciling of the world to himself. 

The words “follow me” tell us that what we need is to alter our course. Perhaps our lives are directionless or maybe we’ve fixed our sights on the wrong goal. Jesus doesn’t leave anything to the vagaries of chance, the limitations of our perceptions, or the dubiousness of our sense of direction. Follow me is the call. Stay close to me. Look to me. Place your feet in my footsteps. Join me in this journey and I will lead you home. 

Following him also gives us responsibility and purpose. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

Whenever a fisherman casts his net or line he does so with a single purpose. The action he takes also qualifies him to the title of fisherman.

So it is with the Christian. A Christian is one that follows Christ and joins him in his work. Christ’s every effort, his single purpose, is the saving of men and women.  If we’re not joining him in this work we are unqualified to the title of Christian. If our lives don’t contribute positively to the churches responsibility of advancing the cause of the gospel in the world we cannot say that we are truly following Jesus. 

I’m not saying you have to become a missionary and travel to the ends of the world. Jesus never traveled more that one hundred miles from the place he grew up. It’s people that need Jesus that need to be our passion and there are tens of thousands of them within just a few miles of where we live. 

Jesus’ call is follow me. Follow me as I give myself to the world. Follow me as I call the people I love to me. “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”

“Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ ” Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’ ”  Matthew 4:5–7 

I’ve known people that exploit the affection and compassionate instincts of their parents, and sometimes siblings, by carelessly, and sometimes intentionally, getting themselves into trouble. They’d engage in underage drinking, shop lift, create a public nuisance by their loud and inappropriate behavior, pick fights, and vandalize other people’s property. These are just several examples of the things they’d do, and when they were caught, right away, they’d turn to mom, dad, or a brother or sister and beg them to bail them out just one more time. Many times their families would step in and shelter them from the consequences of their poor choices. 

Most of us when we see this kind of behavior happening know that it’s not a healthy situation. We can clearly see that these people is presumptuously taking advantage of the people who love them and that their loved ones are rewarding them for their disrespect and selfishness. 

In our focus text, Satan, having failed in his attempt to lead Christ to doubt and disbelief of this Father due to appetite, now tries to tempt him to doubt by enticing him to needlessly engage in behavior that would require God to intervene to save him. 

“If you’re the Son of God throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple. The Bible says that the angels will save you and you’ll prove that you really are who you say you are.”

Had Jesus done as Satan told him to do his behavior would have been no better than that of a weak or rebellious adolescent. He would not have been acting on faith. Rather, he would have been presuming on the promise of God for his own selfish satisfaction. 

The promises of God are not given so that we can be confident in our carelessness and disobedience. God has given us his “exceeding great and precious promises” so that we can have confidence and boldness as we step out to do the work he’s called us to do. Sometimes going to the places God calls us to go and doing the work he’s directed to do does entail significant risk. God’s promises are given so that we can know that we don’t need to be hesitant, anxious or afraid to follow God’s call. Our Heavenly Father is always with us providing for all our needs. 

Had Christ done as Satan suggested he would not have been doing what God had called him to do. Instead he would have been following Satan’s plans and his own doubts. 

God’s faithfulness doesn’t need to be proven, rather it needs to be trusted in and relied on. Genuine trust doesn’t require meaningless demonstrations of ability. Rather it trusts that our Heavenly Father, who has already proven himself capable, will, when a genuine need arises, be there to provide the support and care we need. 

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, ‘If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.’ ”  Matthew 4:1–3

As a teenager I remember many times doing things as a result of peer pressure, or out of a desire to be with people that I thought were cool, in spite of the fact that there was an alarm sounding in my head telling me that I’d be better off holding my distance. In many cases there wasn’t anything wrong with the initial plans the group was making and this fact served to convince me that I was justified in ignoring that “still small voice.”  It would only be later that I would be confronted with temptation I wasn’t ready to face and often I’d fall victim to it.  I’ve learned that that voice of warning is the Holy Spirit trying to guide and protect me. 

Think about the times you were in a place where you were subjected to temptation. Why were you there?  Was it because of a choice you made in spite of the Holy Spirit’s leading?  Or were you there because the Holy Spirit led you there?

In this world we can’t completely avoid temptation. Sources of temptation are everywhere and one of those places is located within our own hearts. However, there are temptations we’re ready to face and there are temptations we’re not ready for. On our own we’re generally unable to anticipate when and where overwhelming sources of temptation will come but the Holy Spirit can and he will guide us if we’ll listen to him. 

Our focus text tells us that Jesus had been led into the wilderness for an extended period of fasting and prayer prior to the starting of his years of ministry. Now after nearly six weeks of not eating Jesus is very hungry, his body is demanding food, and the tempter decides that now is the time to attack. 

Satan’s primary goal is to lead Jesus to doubt the Father. This same temptation was used effectively against Adam and Eve, and once again Satan uses appetite to camouflage his real objective, “If you are the Son of God turn these rocks into bread.”

Where Eve alone was unprepared to face the tempter Jesus, lead by the Spirit, was able to see the danger and meet it victoriously.  Satan was trying to lead Jesus to doubt the last words his Father had said to him right after his baptism, “This is my beloved Son.”

No miraculous sign could be greater proof than the word of God, and Jesus declared this to Satan with the words, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ”

Jesus was ready to meet the temptation. God’s word had been hidden in his heart. His heart had been tuned to remember and trust his Father’s word. And the Holy Spirit had been faithful to lead him only to a place of difficulty he was prepared for. 

All this is available to us as well if we will avail ourselves of the gifts God has given. 

“Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?’ But Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he allowed Him.”  Matthew 3:13–15

As parents, there are many things we do that are wholly for the benefit of our children. I can’t recall the number of times I’ve made trips to stores so that one or more of my children could buy something they just had to have. For most of those outings I would have preferred to stay home but the needs and desires of my child won the day and I went. Not all of those trips have been brief runs across town either. Sometimes travel of an hour our more, one way, was required to reach the store with the desired item. I’m sure every parent reading this post can recall their own set of outings solely for the benefit of their children. The truth is, while at the moment we might have wanted to stay home, we’re glad we were able to be with our kids and give them this gift of our love for them. 

Nearly everything Jesus did while he was on this earth was for our benefit rather than his. The entire purpose of the incarnation was to fulfill God’s twofold desire for a sinless universe and the salvation of sinners. However, once Jesus entered this world virtually every action he took, either individually or in combination with other actions, served to fulfill a need you and I have and not one he had. 

Entrance into heaven requires a sinless life. On our own we’ll never have one so Jesus came and lived a perfect life so that we could present his as a substitute for ours. 

Take for example our baptism. When Christians are baptized we do this to show the world that we want our lives to be washed clean of sin, that we want to die to sin, and that we want to have the life of Christ reigning in our lives. But the truth is that the message we send in our baptism is only part of what we want. Yes, part of us does want to clean of sin with Jesus guiding every step we take, but there’s also a part of us that wants to keep doing some of the sinful things we’ve been doing. Our baptismal witness isn’t the perfect witness we wish it was. 

So our sinless Savior was baptized as our substitute. His perfect submission takes the place of our half hearted submission, which isn’t really submission at all. His perfect obedience replaces our waywardness. His perfect surrender to the Holy Spirit stands as a substitute for our faulty one. 

Far more selflessly than any earthly parent ever loved their children Jesus has loved us. 

As parents we like to think that we’d do anything for our children, and when it comes to the big things I think we would; it’s the little things that betray the selfishness in the hearts we have. 

Christ has demonstrated his love for us in all the big things and all little things and in so doing has fulfilled the requirement of righteousness for us. 

Thank you Jesus for loving us the way you do. 

“Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.”  Matthew 3:8–9

Not everyone who came to hear John the Baptist preach came because they were sincerely interested is experiencing the change of heart and life he proclaimed. Some came because it was the popular thing to do among religious people, and others came simply because they were curious to see what all the fuss was about. For the first group their motive was to maintain the appearance of spiritual respectability they’d been cultivating for themselves, while for the second group their motive was merely to be entertained

It was primarily to the first group that John addressed his comments in Matthew chapter three verses seven through twelve. This group felt no genuine need for personal repentance. For generations their families had been among the faithful, they’d grown up attending the synagogue every sabbath, they’d read the scriptures and recited their prayers every day. They felt secure that the reward of the righteous was theirs.  

“You brood of vipers,” John exclaims, “who told you to flee from the wrath to come?”

I’m not certain he could have characterized their true spiritual condition more plainly. They may have convinced themselves and one another that they had it all together but nothing short of true repentance will ever satisfy the requirement God places on earning the forgiveness he offers. 

Many believe that salvation is free but the truth is that salvation will cost you everything and on top of that it cost our Savior everything to purchase it for you. 

Most of us don’t need me to elaborate of the enormity of the sacrifice Christ made to win our redemption so I’ll explain what a I mean when I say that salvation will cost you everything. 

First, the sacrifices we make for salvation are not a price paid to purchase admittance into heaven. Jesus’ sacrifice was all that required for that. However, if we’re to benefit from his gift we must accept the changes receiving that gift brings. You see, salvation changes us and we must be willing to be changed, if we’re not we’ll ultimately reject the salvation Christ bought for us with his life. 

The scribes and Pharisees who came to Jesus weren’t looking for a change; they thought they had it all together and that no change was necessary. But John made it clear that radical change was required even for them. They needed to have the fruit of sincere repentance growing in their hearts. Pretense and make believe righteousness would never do. True repentance begins with humility because the humbled heart realizes that it’s not merely empty but full of rebellion and sin as well. 

John speaks to people like me today. People that have all their lives cultivated habits of morality and religiosity. There’s a danger in this. The danger of depending on ourselves and our understanding to fulfill the requirement of righteousness. “All our righteousness is like filthy rags.”  Only Christ and his righteous, living and radically changing our lives, will ever satisfy our need. 

“In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’. For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying: ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord;

Make His paths straight.’ ”  Matthew 3:1–3

The message God has given his people to proclaim to this poor, sin soaked world has never been more unpopular. 

Repentance is a call to leave the sinful life you’ve been living, to turn from it, and to turn to a life of righteousness and obedience to God. Inherent within this message is the pointing out to, and the identification of sin as sin. People have always preferred to be left alone to wallow in their sin. Guilt has never been a pleasurable burden to bear and if you can forget you carry it it’s believed that you’re a happy person indeed. Some countries and communities have even granted legal protections to some behaviors God has identified as sin and any proclamation against those behaviors is decried as hate speech and punishable under the law. Were John the Baptist living today I fear he would not have received nearly the following he received when he began his ministry two thousand years ago. 

To be a John the Baptist in this world requires faith and courage. Faith in God that he is leading and will give you wisdom and strength, and courage to face whatever backlash you will experience as a result of your obedience to God’s call. 

Never has it been more urgent for this world to hear a call to repentance. John when he preached was working to prepare a nation to receive the Messiah when he would come to purchase our salvation, but we are called to alert a world to the nearness of the coming of Lord to gather his saints to himself and begin the work of judging those that have rejected him, his love, his law, and his governance. John was announcing the beginning of God’s atonement we proclaim its end. 

But the repentance we are called to proclaim isn’t bad news. The heart of repentance is that God loves us even though we are wretched, sinful, rebellious, and poor. He loves us more that he loves his own life and he wants us to choose to love him in return. 

The call to repentance also has at its heart the assurance that God will accept us if we will turn to him. We’re not capable of actually repenting on our own. We can choose repentance but we don’t have the strength or ability to act on the choice. It’s God who gives us his Spirit so we can actually begin to live a life free from sin. 

It’s probable that we won’t have the popular acceptance that John experienced, Matthew records that the people of the whole region were coming out to hear him and to repent. But some, today, are waiting to hear the message of repentance God’s given us. Some will turn to God and repent, and it’s for these, and our Heavenly Father who yearns for them, that we make our call. God’s love is too good to not be shared. And even if we must risk all to share Him it’s worth it to see a heart reborn and a soul set free.

“When he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’ ”  Matthew 2:22–23

Matthew and Luke describe very different motivations for Joseph and Mary settling in Nazareth following Jesus’ birth. Luke, who makes no mention of Herod’s attempt to murder Jesus, lets us know that Nazareth was already Joseph and Mary’s hometown and makes it appear that returning there was always part of the plan. Matthew, on the other hand, definitely gives us reason to think that Joseph was seriously considering locating in Judea after their return from Egypt but that the presence of Herod’s son Archelaus as ruler there convinced him that they should return to Galilee. 

Matthew also makes it very clear that in choosing to settle in Nazareth of Galilee Joseph was fulfilling a somewhat obscure prophecy about the Messiah. 

To be clear, Old Testament, Messianic prophecy does not mention the village of Nazareth. It didn’t exist even when the last of the Old Testament prophets was writing.

So how does Jesus growing up in Nazareth fulfill prophecy?

Here’s how. At least three prophets: Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Zechariah, refer to the Messiah as “a branch” or “the branch”.  What does this have to do with the Messiah being from Nazareth?  Simply this. The name Nazareth means “branch” in hebrew. So while the village Nazareth may have never been mentioned in the Old Testament the fact that the Messiah was referred to as “the branch” several times does find a striking fulfillment in Jesus. 

Nathanael, later considering these prophecies about “the branch” must have felt a little foolish for having asked, “Can anything good come out of ‘the branch’?”  The apostle John must have appreciated the irony of the question, which was why, decades after the question was asked, he included it in his gospel. 

In truth, everything good comes to us from Jesus.  Forgiveness, restoration, the Holy Spirit and all the fruit he brings, these all come from him. Even those blessings of a practical nature are ours only because of his creative power still at work in this world thousands of years after he spoke it all into existence. 

We’ll find, if we let Jesus live and reign in our hearts, that he has the ability to do much more than fulfill prophecy. He can fulfill us as well. He can infuse today with all the purpose it has the potential of possessing for us, and he can give our whole live more fulfillment than we could have ever dreamed.

“Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.”  Matthew 2:16

A big part of me very much wanted to just skip over this part of Matthew’s gospel. I think this is for me the worst verse in all the Bible. Whenever I think about it my heart aches and I mourn for the desperate fear and grief their parents must have experienced. There’s so much evil communicated in those few lines. 

Part of me also cry’s out, “Why God?  Why did that have to happen?  Why couldn’t you stop it? Why did it need to be recorded for me to have to read about it?”

Over the years I’ve wrestled with those four questions and I’d like to share with you part of the answers I’ve found. 

First. “Why God?”  Because sin has brought evil into this world, and that evil is bent on destruction and death. We may deceive ourselves enough to become convinced that this isn’t true but events like this remind us of this ugly truth. 

Second. “Why did it have to happen?”  It didn’t HAVE to happen. Everyone involved in making it happen had a choice. Herod chose to defend his paranoid delusions, his peers chose to allow him to, and his officers chosen to obey him. 

Third. “Why couldn’t you stop it, God?”  God was capable of stopping the event. However, merely stopping evil actions from happening doesn’t make an end of evil. God is working out a plan to make an eternal end of evil and part of that plan is that some of the horrific things people choose to do are allowed to be done. God does, however, promise that he will make things right in the end but for now evil is permitted to demonstrate just how evil it is. 

And fourth. “Why did it have to be recorded?”  Two reasons. First, because God wanted us to know that his Son was the focus of deliberate efforts to destroy him from the moment he was born. The Messiah would not have a peaceful life leading him to the cross. And second, because we’re forgetful. We forget how unjust and violent this sinful world is. In truth, we want to forget. At times we work hard to forget. Maybe our forgetfulness is one reason we don’t take more seriously the work of evangelizing this world so that Jesus can return and finally make an end of the violence. Because of our forgetfulness God included this reminder as part of the good news of our Saviors birth. 

The gospel is such very good news because of all the very bad news we can get. Lest we be tempted to devalue the gift God has given us our Heavenly Father includes verses like today’s focus text. 

Thank you God for the wonder of your Gospel. 

“Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.’ ” Matthew 2:13

Throughout most of my life I’ve read many stories of Christian men and women that have exerted great amounts of effort and energy to live the lives they believed God was calling them to live. Some of them were what we would call missionaries who had planned to go into difficult and challenging situations in the service of God. Others were just ordinary men, women, and sometimes children, living ordinary lives, until some extraordinary circumstance was thrust upon them and they were called on do things they’d never dreamed they’d have to do. In each of these stories were described events in which these people demonstrated tremendous faith as they did what God had called them to do.

In some of these stories the people took great risks, often repeatedly endangering their own lives, as they did the work God had called them to do. In other stories the people appeared to be doing nothing more than running and hiding as they depended on God to shelter and protect them.

And I’ve asked myself, as I’ve read these stories, “Which of these exhibits true faith?”

Somehow today’s focus text brings me closer to answering that question.

Our text tells us that once again Joseph’s sleep is disturbed by an angel coming to him in a dream with a message. This time the message is that they are to run away and hide in Egypt because King Herod wants to harm Jesus.

Joseph’s faith is demonstrated by his obedience to the angels command, in this case the call to run and hide. Later in the gospels Jesus will be called to walk into the face of trials, heartache and death, but not this time.

So what is faith? Faith is listening to the messages God has for us and obeying him. Sometimes those messages may be asking us to do something that matches our natural inclinations and at other times God may ask us to do something that cuts against the grain. Regardless, our faith is demonstrated by our obedience to God’s call.

This is why it’s so important that we connect ourselves personally to God through prayer. We need to learn to listen to God, confirm ourselves of his leading, and then obey.

“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.’ ”  Matthew 2:1–2

What are you looking for in life?  Chances are that if we took an inventory of how you spend your time those activities would reveal what your plans and dreams really are. Some may even be surprised by the results of such an activity because they’ve convinced themselves that they have one set of priorities when subconsciously they’re actually intent on pursuing a different set. 

Take the Jewish leaders at the time of Jesus’ birth. If you’d asked, most of them would have said that they were pursuing God’s will for their lives and seeking to cooperate with his plans, but their lack of awareness and disinterest in the events that had happened in Bethlehem tell a very different story. 

For a sincere seeker there was plenty of opportunity to know that God had sent his Messiah. From a great distance the wisemen had seen an unusual light in the western sky that had a short time later coalesced into the light of a single fixed star. On the basis of the emergence of this star alone they had searched through the scriptures to find answers to their questions, and what they found had sent them on a journey to welcome the Christ child. 

The Jewish leaders, and all the people, had had the same opportunity. One could even reasonably suppose that they might have had additional indications of Christ’s birth given that Bethlehem is only a short distance from Jerusalem and you’d expect that some report would have reached Jerusalem of the experience of the shepherds on the night Jesus was born. Yet when the wisemen arrived in Jerusalem the Jewish leadership, and all the people, were ignorant and this ignorance reveals their lack of interest in truly keeping up with and cooperating the work of God in this world. 

One could say the same thing about the professed followers of God in this world today. Many are continuing to pursue routines and practices that have been in place for centuries and flattering themselves that they’re working with God. Others have made changes to the routines to adapt them to contemporary culture and they also tell themselves that they’re keeping up with God’s work of saving the world. But this focus on the routine reveals that there is an ignorance of the time we’re living in and the work God’s calling us to do. 

The wisemen completely interrupted their priorities, routine and work on the basis of their knowledge and faith. The book of Acts tells us that believers in the New Testament Church, led by the Holy Spirit, did this as well.  We living in these last days, knowing what we know, and believing what we profess to believe, ought to, as we seek God’s will, be doing the same. 

Wisemen, two thousand years ago, left everything and traveled far so that they might seen our Saviors face. Wisemen, and women, will do the same today. 

“But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.’ ”  Matthew 1:20–21

Joseph was afraid. 

Earlier that day Mary, his betrothed, had come to him and given him the news that she was pregnant. Under the best of circumstances that would have been sobering news to hear. If he had been the father that would have been potentially embarrassing because he’d always been known in the community as a responsible and righteous man, and this would have been a departure from the moral integrity he’d always tried to adhere to. But it would have been recoverable. They were, after all betrothed. They could just get married and everything would be all right. But Joseph was not the father. 

Mary, his betrothed, was pregnant with someone else’s child!

Now running through Joseph’s mind are thoughts of confusion, anger, grief and betrayal. “How could she do this to me? How could she give herself to another man? How could she throw away the future they’d had together? How could she ever think he’d believe that ridiculous explanation she’d tried to tell him? With child by the Holy Spirit? Give me a break. Does she think I’m a fool?” 

Finally his thoughts and emotions settle enough for him to decide what he’s going to do. He’ll call off the marriage, as quietly as he can, and let her go. With those thoughts he drifts off  fitfully to sleep. 

But his sleep isn’t peaceful like we’d normally expect it to be. An angel comes to him in a dream and says, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife. She’s told you the truth. She really is pregnant by the Holy Ghost. She will bear a son. You will name him Jesus, and he will save his people from their sins.”

Matthew doesn’t say that Joseph’s fears had all gone away. I imagine that some were probably still lingering even as he chooses to believe the angel and take Mary as his wife. What’s important is that Joseph chose to act in accordance to faith and not in accordance to fear. Because of his decision to choose faith, and not fear, Joseph had the blessing and privilege to be husband to Mary and father to the Son of God. 

When we choose faith over fear it opens doors for us as well. The question is, are we willing to listen to God, turn a deaf ear to our fears, and live by faith?

“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham: Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers. Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Perez begot Hezron, and Hezron begot Ram.”  Matthew 1:1–3

I begin today with an apology for suddenly shifting from the gospel of Mark to Matthew. A few days ago when I began Mark I’d forgotten that more than a year and a half ago I’d already covered this gospel and not wanting to duplicate books already covered I made the switch. I’m sorry if this disappoints any of you. 

Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy listing ancestors of Jesus from Abraham through Joseph. The main reason for this is to establish that Jesus had fulfilled prophecy and come into this world through the line of Judah. Matthew’s mistake in doing this was to track that line through Joseph who was not actually Jesus’ father. Luke makes it very clear that Christ was conceived of the Holy Spirit and not Joseph which is why he includes Jesus’ genealogy tracking his ancestry through Mary. 

Notwithstanding the technical error, Matthew’s list of ancestors does demonstrate one powerful reality regarding Christ. He was not just a Jewish Savior he’s Savior to the world. 

Five women are listed in Matthew’s genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. Many commentators have discussed the actual and apparent moral failings of these four ladies demonstrating that God wasn’t cherry picking antecedents for Christ when he selected the family his Son would call his own. However, given the presence of Manasseh, the son of Hezekiah, in the line up I don’t think Matthew needed these ladies to establish that fact; after all he did apostatize, worship idols, and kill the prophet Isaiah by having him stuffed into a log and then sawn in half. I think there’s a more significant reason for the inclusion of these women. 

Consideration of the first four women reveals a definite un-Jewish connection. We don’t know who Tamar’s father was but it’s possible, perhaps even probable, that he was Canaanite. Rahab was definitely Canaanite. We know that Ruth was Moabite. Bathsheba is believed to have been Jewish but her legitimate husband was a Hittite.

Matthew’s intentional association of Jesus with nonJewish ancestors firmly establishes Jesus’ connection to those who cannot claim to have descended from Abraham, of whom I am one. 

Jesus, the son of Mary, the Son of God, was truly the Son of Man. As Savior to the world no wonder that his favorite way of referring to himself was by the title Son of Man. He hadn’t come to this earth to save one single family line. He’d come for all. As creator he claims every son and daughter of Adam as his own and as Messiah his chosen pedigree demonstrates that he’s not ashamed to connect himself to anyone

“Then a voice came from heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ ”  Mark 1:11

The time is at hand for Jesus to begin his public labors. For the past thirty years he’s done what no other person has ever done, he has lived a sinless life. He’s never been disobedient, rebellious, impatient, unkind, or unloving. One can imagine that there have been times when his  righteous inclinations came into conflict with the unrighteous expectations of others but even in these instances a way has been found to respectfully refrain from what he’s been asked to do. God’s will is always first for Jesus. 

Following his earthly father Joseph’s death Jesus has worked as a carpenter to provide for his mother Mary. Now the carpenter’s tools are set aside and the shop door closed. Now his feet carry him south from his home in Galilee to the banks of the Jordan River in Judea where his cousin John is preaching to the people and baptizing those who repent. 

Jesus has come to be baptized. He has never sinned so he has no need to repent for himself but he’s not doing this for himself. Everything he does he does for us. 

We’re all sinners, and our sinfulness is so deeply engrained that it affects and contaminates every thing we do and every thought we have. Our sinfulness even taints our most sincere repentance. It’s for this reason that Jesus is baptized. He is our substitute. His perfect repentance and submission replace our faulty attempts and fulfills our need. 

Mark records that as Jesus comes out of the water a voice is heard from heaven saying, “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

I’m not sure what part of this statement I love the most: the words “My Son”, the word “beloved”, or the phrase “in whom I’m well pleased.”  Each of these elements in this brief pronouncement has a significance and weight that is to me profound. The first confirms identity and affirms kinship, the second assures that the one affirmed is valued and loved, and the third communicates approval of the beloved and what he’s done.

My love language is words of affirmation, which means that more than anything else, it’s what people say to me about myself and what I’ve done that tells me that they value and care for me. Gifts, quality time, and a helping hand are all appreciated but more than anything it’s words that leave a mark either for good or ill. And my heart thrills to imagine my Heavenly Father proclaiming those words over me. 

And he does. Because of Jesus’ perfect sacrifice God does claim me as his son. Because of Jesus I am beloved of my Heavenly Father.  Because the Holy Spirit is working in me and through me I’m learning to live a life that pleases God. Jesus has made a way for me, and anyone else who will accept him, to hear the words, “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the Prophets: ‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You. The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; Make His paths straight.’ ”  Mark 1:1–3

Two of the gospels begin the account of Jesus’ life and ministry with a record of his conception and birth, and two begin their account with the ministry of John the Baptist. John, the last to write his gospel, makes it clear, without actually stating it, that his gospel account isn’t intended to be a retelling of that which others have told. Rather he intends to emphasize elements of the Saviors earthly ministry not covered by the earlier written accounts.  This may explain John’s exclusion of the birth of Christ from his narrative but what of Mark’s.  The Gospel of Mark is believed to have been written first, and even used as a reference for Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts, but no reason is obvious for his beginning with the work of John the Baptist rather than the nativity. 

While we don’t know Mark’s exact reason for beginning his gospel the way he did there are a few plausible answers to the question of which I believe the most compelling is found in the Old Testament prophetic record. 

Mark has not set out to do as Matthew did and cite as many prophetic fulfillment’s as he could find. Yet it appears he may have taken as his starting point those events pointed to by the time prophecies of Daniel. When God revealed the time of the Messiah to Daniel his time table pointed to Messiah’s anointing at the time of his baptism, when Christ was thirty years old, not the time of his incarnation and birth. 

In truth, the world new very little, and understood even less, when it came to the monumental actions being taken by heaven for the salvation of souls at that time. Christ had lived unrecognized for decades and it was the promised forerunner, John the Baptist, come in garb reminiscent of the prophet Elijah, who first brought the time and person of the Messiah forcefully to the people’s attention.  

“Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight,” was John’s call. The time of Messiah was at hand the people must be prepared to receive him. 

Hundreds and thousands came to hear the prophet preach and to be baptized by him. Perhaps some even speculated that he might be the promised Messiah but John set those people right. “There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Many spend their lives pursuing greatness in this world. Jesus’ testimony was that there was none, born of woman, greater than John, and he lived and worked to point others to Jesus. This is our privilege as well. Only lifting up Jesus will produce for us anything that lasts. Only this can bring us any true greatness in this world. 

“ ‘In that day,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will take you, Zerubbabel My servant, the son of Shealtiel,’ says the Lord, ‘and will make you like a signet ring; for I have chosen you,’ says the Lord of hosts.”  Haggai 2:23

The last three verses of the book of Haggai contain one final message for Zerubbabel, and the message comes in two parts. The first part is a declaration of what God is going to do among the nations, and the second part is what he is going to do with Zerubbabel.

The first part reads this way, “I will shake heaven and earth. I will overthrow the throne of kingdoms; l will destroy the strength of the Gentile kingdoms. I will overthrow the chariots and those who ride in them; the horses and their riders shall come down, every one by the sword of his brother.”

Israel and Judah had suffered much at the hands of the gentile nations. Her cities had been destroyed, the temple had been leveled, and many of their family members had been either killed or dispersed across a vast empire, and they had been powerless to prevent any of it. 

Now God is promising that he will be the one doing the shaking and that it will be the gentiles that will be being shaken. What’s more his message indicates that he won’t be requiring the man power any Jewish men and boys to accomplish the shaking of the armies of the gentile nations. No the gentile horsemen and charioteers will be brought down by the swords of their own brothers. 

Then God promises Zerubbabel, “In that day … I will take you … and will make you like a signet ring; for I have chosen you.”

A signet or signet ring is a sign or seal of the authenticity of a message or messenger. Any person or communication bearing that seal would be understood to be possessing the full authority of the person to whom the seal belonged. In this promise God doesn’t merely say that he will place his seal on Zerubbabel. He promises to make Zerubbabel like a signet or seal. What does that mean.  It means that Zerubbel will be so associated with God that anyone possessing the seal or sign of Zerubbabel would be recognized as also representing or being connected to God; it was that evident that God had chosen Zerubbabel. 

Friends, God wants to chose you and me as well, and, if we will be obedient to him, we too will become a signet for God. People will recognize that when we speak or act we speak and act for God. Our faithfulness to him will shine out from all we do. His love, his kindness, his faithfulness, his righteousness and holiness his Spirit will be demonstrated in all we do. Everything about us will declare that we have been chosen by God. 

“‘Yet now be strong, Zerubbabel,’ says the Lord; ‘and be strong, Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; and be strong, all you people of the land,’ says the Lord, ‘and work; for I am with you,’ says the Lord of hosts.”  Haggai 2:4

My mother-in-law is a very talented artist, capable of working in a wide variety of mediums. She can draw, paint, sculpt, carve, tool leather, and upholster furniture, though she would probably claim the last as a skill more than an art. 

I believe that her favorite art forms are drawing and painting. 

More than twenty years ago, when Cheryl and I had been married less than five years, Mom was visiting our home and we were playing with rubber stamps, creating greeting cards using a variety of stamps and then coloring the pictures with markers.

I was pretty pleased with the way the card I was working on was turning out and I started to show it to Mom when I got a look at what she was working on. Wow! Compared to her work mine looked like a kindergartener’s coloring book. Any pride I had in my work was humbled in that moment. I still thought I’d done well but I now knew better what really good looked like. 

Under Zerubbabel’s and Joshua’s leadership the people are rebuilding the Temple. The work is going well but there are those in the community that remember the beauty of the Temple Solomon built and this does not compare favorably. And no doubt added to this diminishment in beauty is the knowledge that the Ark of the Covenant is absent as well, having been hidden and then lost at the time when Nebuchadnezzar had the Temple destroyed. 

As Haggai chapter two begins God speaks to the inferiority of the temple’s beauty and seeks to reassure the people as they go about their work. His assurance to them is that notwithstanding the poor comparison of the beauty of this temple with the former he accepts their work and he is with them. 

He knows they haven’t had years to collect materials like David and Solomon did. He knows they couldn’t recruit and train the best craftsman to do the work. He knows that they’re doing the best they can with the talent and material available.  God doesn’t look at the surface and compare our gifts with the gifts of others. He looks at our hearts and receives the gifts and service we give according to the spirit in which we given them, and when it is in our hearts to give to him our best he honors that gift with the acceptance of his presence. 

Before the work is complete, they’ve actually been working less than a full month, God sends the message, “Be strong … I am with you.”

The same assurance comes to us when we, like Zerubbabel and Joshua, give God the best we have to offer. God doesn’t compare our best to our neighbor’s. We are precious to him, and he values the efforts we make to love and serve him. Never hesitate to give you best to God.