Going forward without fear

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In an old comic strip Non Sequitur, three men are on a jungle journey and they come upon two skulls on top of poles. Also on the poles are arrows that point deeper into the jungle. One of the men cheerfully says, “Well, my guess is, it means, ‘Welcome Stranger!’” The caption to the strip is: “Why cynics outlive optimists.”

To some, being optimistic may seem rather foolish. Some think you live longer if you’re cynical and cautious. They believe the way to keep safe is to watch for danger and worry a lot. They enter the new year fearful, expecting trouble is lurking around the corner.

God doesn’t want us to be naïve and think every sign is welcoming. But He does invite us to live full of hope and free from fear being the cruel dictator ruling our lives. He wants us to go forward into the new year, expecting that good things await.

Some approach the new year as a student about to take a test for which they don’t think they’ve studied enough. They worry they are not prepared. They’re fearful about how difficult the test might be. “How will I ever be able to pass?”

The new year will undoubtedly involve some trials and testing, but the ultimate test has already been given. Jesus passed. He took the test for us. He achieved a perfect score. He lived the perfect life and presented His life as the perfect sacrifice that made complete and sufficient payment for all of our sins. Our hope and our salvation does not depend on whether we can pass the tests that will come our way in this new year. Our hope is based on the good news that Jesus passed the test for us.

Because of what Christ has done and because of God’s grace, we approach the new year not as a student fearfully taking a test, but as a child opening a gift. We are full of eager anticipation that the gift is going to be good. It comes from our loving Father. In Matthew 7:11 Jesus speaks of how earthly fathers know how to give good gifts to their children. “… how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

The world isn’t always welcoming and the signs the world puts up are scary. But the Lord welcomes us into the new year with comforting and encouraging promises. He invites us to unwrap the new year and find the good gifts He has for us and the good things He wants to do in us and through us.

We don’t need to worry so much about whether we are ready for the new year. Instead we humbly admit we aren’t ready. We don’t know what is coming. We can’t interpret signs correctly. But we rest in the promise that Jesus is ready. “For I am the Lord, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you” (Isaiah 41:13). The Lord invites you to hold on to Him and enter the new year full of hope in His abundant grace.

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God is with us when Christmas isn’t merry

Recently as I went by a building that used to be a hospital in Astoria I remembered being there 40 years ago this month. My mom had fallen and thought she ought to go to the emergency room to get checked out. We found out she had a broken hip.

My dad was battling cancer at the time; a battle that took his life a few months later. A few days after my mom broke her hip I came down with chicken pox. During that time even our cat got sick. It wasn’t the best December ever for our family.

I’ve also been remembering December 20 years ago. The first Christmas since my brother, sister and mother had died was coming, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. One of my favorite musicians, Michael Card, was doing a concert in Portland and I went. He sang the song, Immanuel. “Immanuel, our God is with us. And if God is with us, who can stand against us? Our God is with us, Immanuel.”

Those were just the words I needed to hear. I needed to be reminded of the promise: “… they will call him Immanuel – which means ‘God with us'” (Matthew 1:23). I felt pretty alone when I went to that concert. It was so good to hear the wonderful good news that I wasn’t alone. God is with us, even when others aren’t any longer. He is with us during the tough times. He is with us to give strength and encouragement when the trials of life are too much for us to handle. He has moved into our neighborhood and “made His dwelling among us” (John 1:14).

Maybe for you this Christmas isn’t feeling all that merry. Maybe your life right now doesn’t exactly resemble a cheerful Hallmark Christmas card. Just because your days don’t feel “merry and bright” it doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It’s a reminder you’re like the rest of us: a human being who needs a Savior. The Savior has come. He didn’t come to reward those who have it all together. He came to save those who humble themselves and admit their sin and need. He came to help those who are honest about their struggles and weaknesses. He came to walk through the hard times with us. He came to be Immanuel – God with us.

Jesus’ compassion and gentleness for a hurting woman

The tragic and disgusting stories keep coming of men harassing and abusing women. I’ve been reminded of what a stark contrast it is the way Jesus treats women.

In the Gospel of John, chapter eight, we read of a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. She wasn’t totally innocent, but it does appear she was being used and abused by powerful men. The religious leaders and the teachers of the law were trying to catch Jesus in a trap. The Jewish law of that day said a woman caught in adultery was to be stoned. The leaders thought if they brought a guilty woman before Jesus He would either look weak on the law if He said not to stone her, or He would look cruel and heartless if He said go ahead and throw the rocks. Jesus saw through their scheme and had the perfect, wise response. “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). The leaders had to walk away, and Jesus was left alone with the woman. Jesus told her He didn’t condemn her and He invited her to envision new possibilities and live a new life: “Go now and leave your life of sin” (v. 11).

The man who was also guilty of adultery is not mentioned in the story. You wonder if he was maybe one of the leaders, or at least was probably a friend of theirs. They didn’t make a big deal about his guilt, just the woman’s. It was all very likely a set up. The woman was probably being taken advantage of and just being used by powerful men who protected their own. Sadly it sounds like how things often go today.

As the story concludes Jesus is with the abused, mistreated, ashamed, humiliated and powerless woman. The seemingly powerful, hypocritical, judgmental men are furious with Jesus and trying to figure out how to get Him out of the picture.

Today Jesus’ followers should still be attracting, welcoming, building up and encouraging the kind of people that were drawn to Jesus. Those who were impressed with their own morality and goodness and craved earthly power and wealth were not comfortable around Jesus. A church that clearly presents God’s law and gospel will make those same kind of people uncomfortable today as well.

Jesus drew to Himself those who knew their own sin and had been humbled and beaten down by the trials of life. They were desperately searching for hope and love. I pray it would be similar today. May those who have been abused by the powerful and harassed by the hypocritical find congregations that love them the way Jesus does and treat them with Christlike compassion and gentleness.

Jesus certainly did not seek cozy relations with the powerful in an effort to advance some political agenda. He sought to gently encourage the hurting and the humble. In this world where we see so much of the ugliness of sin, it is so refreshing and life-giving to be able to look to the beauty of Jesus.