Persecution and Growth

While the opening chapters of Acts empower and equip the apostles and other believers, the following chapters demonstrate why that was necessary.

The first recognizable theme of chapters 5-8 is suffering. At every turn, it seems, the apostles are told to stop preaching the Gospel, to stop speaking in the name of Jesus. These weren’t idle irritations as they were arrested and stood before councils. They were flogged, which served as a consolation for the elders and authorities who wanted to kill them.

The authorities’ irritation at the apostles was due to how much they disliked Jesus, but their persecution was justified under Roman rule not because of their beliefs but because they didn’t want an uprising from the believers.

Because despite the public pursuit and persecution of the apostles, the Church was growing rapidly.

This is the context in which we are introduced to Stephen. There is an ongoing paradox here of persecution and growth, and Stephen proves to be the highest point of tension within that paradox.

Stephen was wonderful. He was full of grace and power. He was eager to do for God. He had charisma and his face was like an angel’s.

Not everyone was smitten with Stephen, though. Some people plotted against him and said he was speaking blasphemy. Stephen faced a council, and his case was damaged by false witnesses. They asked Stephen what he had to say for himself, and he went into what can be considered both a defense of the faith and a history of it. He ends by calling the council “stiff-necked” and “uncircumcised in hearts and ears,” and he said they “received the law as ordained by angels, and yet [they had] not kept it” (Acts 7:51-53, NRSV).

You would think that Stephen would take this time to make himself a more sympathetic, non-threatening character. Instead, Stephen uses this time to insult the people who are already wanting loud-mouth Christ-followers dead. Stephen believed what he said to be true, and we have no proof in scripture that the last minutes of his life were plagued with regret for what he said. The fact remains, though, that this did lead to the end of Stephen’s life because they stoned him.

While Stephen was being stoned to death, an ambitious and devoted man called Saul stood by monitoring the situation as everyone’s coats laid at his feet. Saul approved of them killing Stephen.

Then the floodgates opened.

The first three verses of Acts 8 are chaotic and disheartening. The persecution spread from the apostles to all believers, and people were dragged out of their homes to be thrown in prison.

But the story doesn’t stop there.

The rest of Acts 8 shows the growth and preserverance of the Church despite the danger of proclaiming the faith. Believers preached everywhere they went. Word of mouth was incredible. People came to listen and believe in groups. And believers were eager enough to share that they would go out of their way to witness to even one person, as Philip did when he left thriving Samaria to meet who turned out to be the treasurer of Ethiopia.

The point of all this summarizing and what we learn from this chunk of scripture is that God is always at work. Even in our suffering. Even when the world around us is crumbling and makes no sense. When we’re scattered. When we’re hurting. God is always working for our good.

It doesn’t make it easier. It doesn’t make our issues or troubles go away. It doesn’t even increase our understanding. But I refuse to believe that I’m the only one comforted by this.

The God who made you is pulling for you. He loves you. He believes in you. And He’s doing everything He can for you. All we have to do is ask and believe. I know that’s not always easy, but God will never leave us disappointed if we keep our eyes on Him.

The early Church was not perfect. It experienced new ground, new people, and a new era, and they had to learn how to navigate all that. As relentless as the persecution was, had the Church not been focused on God and the message of Jesus, they would have been easily snuffed out. But because they focused on God, they survived and prospered.

If you’re in a difficult season or if you’re spiritually weak or frustrated or confused, I hope you can find the same hope that I find in Acts 8. The Church’s story wasn’t over, and neither is yours.

By Carrie Prevette

Waiting

I don’t think there’s anyone who enjoys waiting. Some people may not mind it, others may be good at it, but no one has ever said, “You know what I really want to do today? I’d love to wait.”

I do think a small part of our issue with waiting these days is that we hardly ever have to be patient. Regardless, the phrase “waiting room” makes me exhausted. When I think of standing in line, I can almost hear the sighs and complaints, my own voice among them. I say, “I can’t wait!” a lot when I’m excited about something, not because I can’t but because I really hate that I have to.

But this is what Jesus wanted the apostles to do after His resurrection. He came to them multiple times and ways over 40 days to prove to them that He was, in fact, alive. “Once when he was eating with them, he commanded them, ‘Do not leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you the gift he promised, as I told you before. John baptized with water, but in just a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit'” (Acts 1:4-5, NLT).

The apostles are told to wait. They know the Holy Spirit is coming, but they don’t really know what that means, and they don’t exactly know when it’ll happen. All they know is that they have to wait.

In Psalm 27, David is rejoicing in his salvation, declaring God’s power and love, and he ends with saying in verse 14 (NLT), “Wait patiently for the Lord. Be brave and courageous. Yes, wait patiently for the Lord.” In a Psalm that is ultimately about trusting in God, David advises to wait.

This is similar to Isaiah 40:31. The KJV translation of this verse says “they that wait upon the Lord” will have renewed strength, rise, not tire. The NRSV says “those who wait for the Lord….” The NIV reads “those who hope in the Lord….” And the NLT reads “those who trust in the Lord….” This demonstrates that waiting on God is interchangeable with hoping in Him and trusting in Him.

So that is what we must do. God wants us to be ready for our blessings or our next steps, so until we are, we have to wait. Our hope for our lives and futures are not misplaced if they are in Him, who renews who our hope and makes it a gift and a reality.

We are to trust in Him because there is none more worthy of our trust. No one loves us more, and in loving us the most, God gives us the best. We may not be ready for it when we want it, but if we continue to grow in Him and pursue what He wants of us and for us, we will be waiting actively, and the best that He wants for us will eventually be ours.

The next step for the apostles and the Church was the Holy Spirit. But the time for it was not while Jesus was here on Earth with them.

I’ve always felt bad for the apostles because they’re the only ones who had the truest pleasure of knowing Jesus and had to live without Him between His ascension and the Holy Spirit’s arrival. But those few days of waiting prepared them for the Holy Spirit. The waiting made them ready.

I don’t know what your next step is. I don’t know what blessing you’re looking for. I do know, though, that waiting is both difficult and worthwhile. Your better days are coming. Your rescue is coming. New mercies are coming. A new season is coming. Deeper faith is coming. You’ll be ready when it comes if you continue to strengthen your relationship with God in the meantime. His love will see to it. You just have to wait.

By Carrie Prevette

Looking Forward

Hope is a light in the dark. It guides us. It motivates us. Without it, we wouldn’t care to go on because what would be the point? How would we see to go if we even wanted to?

We put a lot of emphasis on love, I more than anyone. Paul would agree with me, I think, since he wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:13 that “faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (NRSV). So if the doctrine had a Big Three like some sports teams do, it’d be faith, hope, and love. All extremely important. It’s just that love is the one that stands front and center on all the magazine covers.

Hope deserves far more recognition than I think it gets. It’s what keeps us moving forward instead of stopping in our tracks.

Israel had a large, elaborate history of going to war, and the Jewish people have a long, sorrowful history of being oppressed. These were the circumstances and eyes that looked for the initial coming of Jesus. They were looking for liberation. They sought a new King who would usher in a new way of life.

Jesus wasn’t what people expected. They were watching for a mighty ruler to send the Romans running. They got a baby born in a manger.

So there is hope in the history leading up to the birth of Jesus. Prophecies and promises on the path to fulfillment. The earth tingling silently from contact with its Creator. People patiently waiting for change.

There is also hope for us in the birth of Jesus. 1 Corinthians 15:22 (NRSV) reads, “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” This is echoed in verse 45 of that same chapter when Paul writes, “Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.”

Humanity failed. We distanced ourselves from God, and we’ve been getting lost within that distance ever since. We were dark stains before the purest Lord, and He couldn’t stand it to the point that He gave His son so that we could be cleansed.

And it came in the most ordinary package. A baby. Born to a family who was by no means wealthy or well-known far and wide. They couldn’t even get a room. Born to a family who was just figuring it out as they went along, if we’re being honest, and trusting in what God had told them. Isn’t that just like God, to give us hope in the most average of places, in the most normal ways?

I don’t know what you’re hoping for as this Christmas season arrives, but my hope is that your hope is in the right place. That it aligns with God and His will and that it’s for only what will glorify Him. And as we look forward that we would find ways to find hope again and again in the Christmas story, in our current and living relationships with God, and in each other.

By Carrie Prevette

Hope in the Caverns

If you want to see my sister and me argue, bring up James Franco.

I love the man. Talented, smart, funny, weird, attractive – what’s not to love? I watch his movies and I’ve seen Freaks and Geeks (the lovely one season it was). I own and have read Actors Anonymous. I even had a Pineapple Express poster hanging up in my room for a while.

My sister, on the other hand, will watch a movie with him in it despite the fact that he is in it. She theorizes that he bought his degrees instead of earning them. She doesn’t even think he’s a little bit cute. (“He’s always squinting! He never opens his eyes!”) She’s who gifted me Actors Anonymous for either my birthday or Christmas one year, and it almost physically pained her to buy the book.

Going into it, the main reason I watched 127 Hours was that James Franco was in it. While I love and appreciate and try to do my part to preserve nature, I’m not an outdoorsy person, so that didn’t appeal to me. Gore sometimes makes me cringe and curl up in a ball in terror, so that didn’t appeal to me. But I found it at Walmart for, like, five bucks a few years ago, and it’s one of those movies that people seem to refer to in passing more than you’d think, like they’re operating under the assumption that most people have seen that movie, so I wanted to see what all of the fuss was about.

Aron Ralston, played by Franco in the film, is basically an uber human (the term I stole from one of my college professors for someone who’s good at everything). And in his free time, he explores canyons, among other things. He’s off doing this one day when he falls into a crevice/cavern and a boulder falls with him pinning his arm and leaving him stuck for 127 hours.

Aron can see the sky from where he is, so it’s not entirely dark. In fact, he gets about 15 minutes of direct sunlight every day. Aron gets out his camera a few different times and starts recording, so it was at least enough light to make a video. I think if it’d been pure darkness, Aron probably would’ve had a heart attack or had such a problem breathing that he would’ve never caught his breath and would have passed out entirely.

There’s a very tiny part about caverns in Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Billy Pilgrim is 12 and is on a trip with his family out west. They’re in Carlsbad Caverns and the ranger warns everyone that he’s going to turn the lights off and that they’ll be in total darkness. When the ranger does as he said, “Billy didn’t even know whether he was still alive or not.”

Scott’s sermon on Sunday made me think of both of these scenarios. It also spawned the working theory my brother and I developed that, in addition to being captivated by the One Ring to Rule Them All, Gollum was what Scott would call “cave crazy.”

But what do Franco, Vonnegut, and Tolkien have to do with a twisted Bible verse?

When we read Jeremiah 29:11-13, we read it correctly and often perceive it wrong, and that disconnect has everything to do with dark and light.

“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me.’” (Jeremiah 29:11-13, NLT)

So beautiful. Such a bright image of tranquility that you almost feel like you’re looking at the sun. The words “good,” “future,” “hope,” “I will listen,” and “you will find me,” give us this idea and promise of peace and joy that is absolutely real. That is what this scripture means.

But when we zoom out a little and read just one verse before and one verse after, the entirety of the truth is seen.

“This is what the Lord says: ‘You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,’ says the Lord. ‘I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes. I will gather you out of the nations where I sent you and will bring you home again to your own land.’” (Jeremiah 29:10-14, NLT)

A darker picture than before by far. One that demonstrates that we will have adversity. It’ll get better, sure. There is some light. But it won’t always be a great time. There will be some darkness in our lives.

It’s a truth that many don’t realize until they experience it: it’s not that our lives contain no darkness; it’s that we have light to make our way through it. Hope doesn’t come from never having problems. Hope comes from knowing fear, stress, failure and knowing that none of those are where you end. The greatest hope comes from knowing it doesn’t come from your own merit but the merit of an all-powerful God with a perfect record.

We’re not Gollum, victim of the darkness. We’re not Billy Pilgrim, unsure of our very lives.

We are like Aron Ralston. We have light to guide us, to see us through. We may be stuck in an immovable situation. Everything we try may fail. Our faith may wane, but God’s faithfulness won’t. We may not know how, but He’ll get us out. That’s enough. We may not have enough light to see every detail, but we’ll have enough light to see a way out.

There’s a song by Switchfoot called “The Shadow Proves the Sunshine.” The chorus goes:

We are crooked souls trying to stay up straight,
Dry eyes in the pouring rain.
The shadow proves the sunshine.
The shadow proves the sunshine.
Two scared little runaways
Hold fast to the break of daylight were
The shadow proves the sunshine.
The shadow proves the sunshine.

It’s a testament to the fact that there is good and bad, light and dark, and we often can’t know one without the other. Were it not for the shadows, we wouldn’t perceive the depth we need to navigate. And if there was no sunshine, we wouldn’t be able to see the area we need to navigate and how we need to move. God is the truest light, and He will fulfill His promises and give us hope, joy, and peace. But it won’t always be easy. We just have to remember that we have access to the Light, and all we need to do is keep reaching for it.

By Carrie Prevette

Psalms: Thirteen

If you’ve ever heard me talk about the book of Psalms, you’ve heard me say that I love the honesty of the psalms, particularly those of David since I’m familiar with his story. David is so transparent in what he writes and how he speaks to God. If he’s happy or mad or worried, it’s as clear as the words on the page.

People often say that it’s bad or even sinful to question God, but I disagree, and evidently, so would David, a man after God’s own heart. Seeking answers, David often petitioned God. And knowing that God knew what was in his heart anyway, why wouldn’t he?

This honesty and need for answers is where we find David in Psalm 13. “O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way? How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand? Turn and answer me, O Lord my God! Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die. Don’t let my enemies gloat, saying, ‘We have defeated him!’ Don’t let them rejoice at my downfall. But I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice because you have rescued me. I will sing to the Lord because he is good to me” (NLT).

The next time you feel bad about feeling bad, revisit this psalm and know that it’s okay. I don’t believe David really believed God had forgotten him, but we can tell from the scripture that he did feel that way.

Last week, we discussed Psalm 11, in which David writes, “But the Lord is in his holy Temple; the Lord still rules from heaven. He watches everyone closely, examining every person on earth” (verse 4, NLT). So David goes from “God knows because He actively watches us” to “God has intentionally turned His back on me” pretty quick. This is the same man but a different mindset.

But that’s so relatable, right? How many times do I flip-flop between God being great and God leaving me to fend for myself? How easy is it to get pulled from one end of the spectrum to the other, from feeling His presence and love to feeling like He just doesn’t care anymore? It’s no fault of God’s. Really, it’s on our end with how we perceive whatever we’re going through, but it happens.

In the next part, David asks for God to answer him and says in verse 3, “Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die.” This tells us a lot about where David’s at when he writes this. He doesn’t just have an issue with God or something like that. He isn’t finding joy like he did before. He’s not just displeased or upset. He’s probably depressed.

The word “depressed” sort of gets thrown around a lot, so I want to clarify what I mean. David is beyond sad or mad; he’s deeply upset. So upset that there is seemingly no way to change how he feels. This is relatively common. Everyone gets depressed. When someone feels this way for more than two or three consecutive weeks, that person is considered clinically depressed (or so I was told in my psychology class a few years ago). From what I know of David and from how this psalm ends, I doubt David was clinically depressed, but I do think he was depressed when he wrote Psalm 13.

But let’s look at how David ends this psalm. “But I will trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice because you have rescued me. I will sing to the Lord because he is good to me” (verses 5-6).

No, you didn’t miss anything. This is actually the same psalm, and this section is exactly how I know David is going through something temporary.

A man resigned to doubt and a man who would’ve seen his current situation as his lasting one would not write what David wrote. He wouldn’t boast of God’s unfailing love or recall his rescue by God’s hand if he truly believed God didn’t care about him. He certainly wouldn’t proclaim God’s goodness through song if he didn’t expect Him to restore his joy. No, David knew how he felt, but he knew who God is just as well. David knew his circumstances wouldn’t last but that the love and provision of God would.

I find David to be one of the most relatable and inspiring people in the Bible, and Psalm 13 is a good example of why that is. He struggled just like us. He felt how we felt and maybe took it out on God like we sometimes do. His spiritual life affected his decisions and emotions. But through it all, David kept his faith. He never gave up on God or God’s plan, even if he felt like he wanted to. So let’s find the hope that David did where David did: in God. And when we struggle as David did, let’s return to his words in Psalm 13 and find comfort there. If misery loves company, it couldn’t find better company than with one you know makes it better days.

By Carrie Prevette

Psalms: Eleven

To be so simple, hope is sort of complex. It’s simple in that we all want and need hope and that we can all experience it. It’s complex in that it isn’t always constant and consistent.

I’ll give you an example. Every year, Western Carolina University holds the Spring Literary Festival, which is when a lot of writers come to the campus to speak and read some of their work. It’s basically Christmas for English majors. Most English professors cancel class so students can go to an event instead. It also means that students are exposed to a wealth of talent and experience for four days, which is completely invaluable, especially to aspiring writers. Plus, the local (and lovely) bookstore, City Lights, sets up a few tables outside of the theater or auditorium so you can buy the authors’ books if you like what you hear. It’s a phenomenal time, especially if you’re a literary nerd.

Nick Flynn came to speak my sophomore year. Flynn is an incredible writer and a kind, interesting person. After he read and spoke, he signed autographs, and when I went to get my book signed, he talked to me a little bit about what I studied and what my aspirations were. When I told him that I wanted to be a writer, he encouraged me, and he said to remember that a lot of writers aren’t published and distinguished until their late thirties or forties.

So there stood Nick Flynn – a man who, as far as I’m concerned, is living the dream – telling me – a 20-year-old girl who’s only really good at writing and loves it – that it could be 20 more years before my stories and words could reach the world.

I wasn’t hurt by his words at all, but I was a little bummed out. Call it innocence or call it optimism, but I felt a little underestimated. Regardless, I didn’t feel hopeful.

Now at age 24, I find Flynn’s words extremely hopeful and comforting. In fact, of all the things anyone’s ever told me in regards to writing, Flynn’s words sound out the loudest and the clearest. I’ve grown to treasure them and the pleasant exchange they’re encased in.

As I said, hope is both simple and complex, and I believe that to be shown plainly in Psalm 11.

David starts in verses 1-3 (NLT), “I trust in the Lord for protection. So why do you say to me, ‘Fly like a bird to the mountains for safety! The wicked are stringing their bows and fitting their arrows on the bowstings. They shoot from the shadows at those whose hearts are right. The foundations of law and order have collapsed. What can the righteous do?’”

I don’t know the circumstances behind this psalm, but the situation doesn’t sound too good. Maybe it was a wave of persecution that was set to fall on David or a personal vendetta or something else altogether. Whatever the case may be, David seems to be sticking around when other people would not. They’re telling him to bail, to get out before it gets worse, but David doesn’t. He plans to stay because he firmly trusts in God.

David goes on to explain in verses 4-7, “But the Lord is in his holy Temple; the Lord still rules from heaven. He watches everyone closely, examining every person on earth. The Lord examines both the righteous and the wicked. He hates those who love violence. He will rain down blazing coals and burning sulfur on the wicked, punishing them with scorching winds. For the righteous Lord loves justice. The virtuous will see his face.”

This is David’s rebuttal to all of the people telling him to head out of whatever this bad situation is. He says that God’s still watching over everyone, no matter how bad things have gotten. His point is that God sees and God knows, and He’s going to fight by David’s side because David is in the right. David has hope where others do not because He’s putting his faith in something that everyone else isn’t. Where their lack of faith has left them hopeless, David’s faith has made him hopeful because he knows the outcome doesn’t rest in his hands.

It seems so easy, doesn’t it? God has been there for him before, so He’ll be there again and again. After all, God is faithful even when we’re not, constant even when we’re erratic.

But doesn’t applying this to our own lives complicate things?

When it comes to our faith, it’s easy to lose sight of hope and forget the times God’s brought us through. And even if we don’t forget, it’s easy to feel like this time’s different or maybe our luck is running out. But God is greater than luck, and He isn’t some meter or allotment that can be depleted. And even if this time is different, God is not. He’s the same, His abilities are the same, and His love for you is the same.

Wherever you find your hope, hold onto it. Hope is a jewel, especially in the state the world is in today. But know that whatever gives you hope, it cannot and does not compare to the hope found in God. David stuck to his beliefs, and made it out of that troublesome time and the next and the next. It wasn’t easy, but it happened because of who he was placing his trust in. It was the same God that wants to help you now. And isn’t that at least worth a shot?

By Carrie Prevette

Seek and Find

Our guest preacher, Peter, spoke very nicely on Sunday about looking for God. If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you may remember that I’ve discussed this a few times before. But I want to speak a little on it here for the newcomers and because it’s sometimes helpful to revisit things. This post won’t be long by any means, but I want to leave you with something to read or think about. And I thought it’d be nice to end 2015, which was a very lovely year for me, with a blog post.

I took a class on Eastern religions my senior year in college to complete my Philosophy and religion minor. One of the religions we covered in that class was Hinduism. “Hinduism” is basically a large umbrella term the incoming British use to categorize everyone who wasn’t a Christian when they arrived in India. So Hinduism isn’t monotheistic because one can worship more than one god as a Hindu and it slams together different people who worship different gods. Some Hindus worship gods who are huge and helped create the world according to their theology. Others worship very intimate gods who inhabit food or drink and are in someone once the substance is consumed.

People probably think I’m crazy when I say that this class helped me grow in my Christian faith, but it’s the absolute truth. That class made me marvel at God in such unique ways. For example, where Hindus pick and choose if they want to love a huge, universe-making god or a god who knows them personally and can be alive within them or both, I don’t have to decide because I worship one God who is both big and personal. I worship a God who is everything.

Maybe it’s because I’m such a spiritual person, but I believe we can find God in everything. I always tell people there’s a silver lining in everything if you look hard enough.

Truth be told, I’ve lived a pretty fortunate life. I won’t deny that for a moment. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t suffered or struggled. I’ve been through things that I thought would end me, but I’m still here because I found God even when it was hardest.

In Jeremiah 29:13 (NIV), God says, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

Maybe you’re at a point in your life where you want that to be true, but you just don’t know. Maybe you can’t wait for the new year because you need some kind of new beginning to start over or give you hope. Maybe you don’t want to look for God because you’re scared that you won’t find Him and that you’ll be left disappointed once again.

What do you have to lose?

I can’t promise you many things, but I can guarantee that God is always going to be there. God will always show up, whether it’s in a monumental way or a surprising way. So if you think that finding God is a gamble, I’m here to tell you it’s the safest bet you’ll ever make. If you truly want to find Him, He’ll be there. He’s always there. We just don’t always realize it.

If you put your heart into God and put God into your heart, if you seek Him, you’ll find Him every time, without fail. It’s a matter of where your focus is, where your eyes are. If you’re at the bottom and you’re looking down or beside of you, you won’t find hope. You’ll just see misery. But if you look up, you’ll see where you want to go and you’ll be driven. If you look up, you’ll find God and every blessing He wants to bestow upon you. If you look to Him, you’ll rise to where He wants you to be. It may not happen immediately, but it’ll happen. The saying goes that the heart wants what the heart wants, and if your heart wants God, it’ll find Him.

By Carrie Prevette

Advent with Abstract: Christ

Jesus came the way we all do. Rumor has it that the manger scene was quiet, and perhaps it was, but I imagine Jesus came into the world screaming and crying just like you and I did. Sure, He met the world surrounded by animals instead of doctors, but His entrance was just the same. He traded His place in the womb for His place in the world. He was just like every other baby, but there was something different about Him.

Fast forward several years, and the boy couldn’t be found. Mary and Joseph went back into town and searched for Him. Maybe Mary mumbled about how she’d just seen Him when they loaded up their belongings to go home. Perhaps Joseph stopped a group of kids who looked to be Jesus’s age and asked if they’d seen Him. Regardless, they found Him in the Temple. He wasn’t sitting in the back with His arms crossed. He wasn’t sitting at the teacher’s feet, looking up in admiration. He was the teacher. All eyes were on Him as He spoke, and I can picture them with their jaws dropped. Teacher or not, Mary scolded Him, told Him how they’d looked everywhere for Him. He said, whether out of sass or genuine confusion, that they should’ve started at the Temple knowing He would be about His Father’s business. He was just like every other kid, but there was something different about Him.

Skip ahead many years. Jesus goes to His cousin John, who was baptizing people, and He went prepared to officially accept His calling and ministry. When He went under the water and arose, a dove flew by and a voice said, “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased.” He was like every other believer, but there was something different about Him.

He searched for disciples. He wanted people to teach. He knew they would learn one day and lead the next. People who would ask questions one day and answer them the next. People to grow the Kingdom He was building. But He didn’t look to the upper crust or the spiritual leaders or those of good repute. He looked on fishing boats and in tax collection agencies. He looked for the rough and the zealous. And He didn’t coerce them. He simply said, “Follow me,” and they did. He was like every other leader, but there was something different about Him.

He hung on the cross. The miracles, the traveling, the people He helped, the people He forgave, the parables, the Pharisees – it all led to a bloody display on a hill. Some only saw the blood; it’d been in their eyes from the start. His wounds were big and dirty. His feet, hands, and head bowed as much as they could under the weight. The sky darkened and suspense blew across the onlookers. He said, “It is finished,” and He died. He died as we all will (although in a far worse fashion), but there was something different about Him.

The difference? He never faltered. He gave out hope, peace, joy, and love perfectly. He was the Son of God, and He knew it. In 33 and a half years, He changed the entire world. And when He died, He came back to life, scarred but not defeated.

He came back for you. His resurrected life gives us life. He came back for the times that we verge on death and need to be brought back ourselves.

He did it all for you. Everything all the way back to leaving His throne and walking among precious, imperfect humanity. That baby in the manger? He looks cute and innocent. But He’s all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving. He was there when Earth was formed. He alone has what it takes to rescue you completely. Humanity’s hope laid in a manger, and He changed everything.

By Carrie Prevette

Advent with Abstract: Hope

I imagine her sitting and praying quietly, her hands folded together in her lap. I imagine her thanking God for the day and for all of her days. I imagine her praying for those in the Temple and the community.

Her stomach growls, but she ignores it. It comes with the territory of fasting. Done praying, she gets up and moves around. At her age, she counts it a blessing every time she’s able to stand. She’s been doing this for years, and she feels it in her joints but not her heart. She sees the Temple is sort of busy today, and it makes her smile. She notices Simeon talking with a young couple and is compelled to walk towards them. She is both curious and obedient. She smiles at the parents but is quickly overjoyed by the child.

She knew in an instant. It could’ve been the softness of the baby’s face or the way he smiled. Maybe it was how he looked at her because she knew someone had looked at her out of love like that before. Somehow, she knew.

Anna knew she was looking at the Messiah.

Out of the whole Bible, we only have three verses with Anna, Luke 2:36-39. In those verses, we find out she’s the widowed prophet daughter of Phanuel from the tribe of Asher who fasted, prayed, and never left the Temple.

I want to give Anna her moment in the spotlight here (although I feel sure she’d ask me not to) because I don’t think Anna gets enough credit or recognition. She was widowed for most of her life, and she was completely fine with it. All she wanted or needed was God; she didn’t even leave the Temple anymore by the time we meet her. She was always seeking God more and more. She was a prophet, which would’ve been remarkable for a woman in a Greco-Roman society. Evidently her family was so well known that Luke felt the need to sort of say, “Phanuel, tribe of Asher? That’s his daughter.”

Anna was so distinguished and devout, but she was also hopeful. The last we see or hear of Anna, she’s telling everyone who was eagerly waiting for God to save Jerusalem that she’d seen the face of their salvation. No one would do that if he or she weren’t also expectant and hopeful.

God’s people found themselves oppressed (again) and looking for a savior. They knew the prophecies, and they were ready for someone to come and fulfill the old words and free them. Anna was blessed enough to look the rescue squad in the eyes as he yawned and cooed.

As I see it, we’re also held down, although not like the Jewish people were. We’re enslaved by our flesh and thoughts, oppressed by our addictions and habits, under the thumb of our desires. It’s captivity masquerading as freedom.

Our true hope and freedom lay in the same place as the Jews’ did: Jesus.

No matter what sort of destruction you’re in, Jesus can remove it from you. The history you have with it, the pain it causes you, the grip it has on you as it tries to pull you back down – none of that stands up to Jesus and wins. It doesn’t even compare. He’s the freedom to walk away from bitterness. He’s the hope that it really will get better. He’s the promise that the future is brighter and better than we could imagine. He’s the hope that all former things pass away.

When Anna saw Jesus, she saw her years of praying and fasting, years of hearing skeptics and comforting believers paying off. She saw what she’d been hoping for.

What does hope look like to you? A reconciled family or a new addition to the family? Maybe it’s a date on the calendar marked “one year clean today” or a check with your name on it made out for just the amount you need to get by. It could be an acceptance letter or a call for an interview. What do you see when you think of hope?

Whatever you see, it’s just the surface. It’s the form hope takes, not the hope itself. If we look harder, we’ll see the hope is Jesus. Anna didn’t see just any baby. She saw who the baby was. She saw hope manifested as a baby. Don’t look at your hope as just any blessing or gift. Look at it as where your longing and expectancy meets Jesus’ love.

By Carrie Prevette

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