Swaddled in His Sovereignty

This will mean the world to you if you have suffered through this year of 2020. It will mean the world to you if you lost someone you loved, or if you are facing sickness or disability, or if things have just taken a bad turn for you during this past year.

And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” Luke 2:12

I am sure you recognize the verse and perhaps can picture a baby wrapped securely, swaddled lovingly, and lying peacefully in a manger bed, hovered over by the watchful eye of Mary and Joseph, and providentially by God the Father. He was not only swaddled in cloths, His whole existence was swaddled in the Sovereignty of God, and would be from that day forward until his death on the cross. But even then, He would be swaddled in that same sovereignty,although despised and rejected by men.

Sometime ago, I read an interesting verse during my devotional time. I was reading from the gospel of Matthew from the NIV and I read Matthew 10:29.Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of the will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. (Matthew 10:29 NIV)

That verse hit me rather hard! I know you see nothing unusual about it. Nor had I, up until that day. I had to look at it twice to make sure it said what it said. I knew that the Bible said that God knows whenever a sparrow falls to the ground! That part didn’t surprise me. But what did is what the verse so obviously said that I had never seen!

It says…”not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.

Now, what does that mean? Does it mean that when a sparrow falls that God wills it to be so? No. It means that even though a sparrow falls in an apparent accident, it does not fall outside of the Father’s will. So what’s the difference?

Let me say here that the difference will mean the world to you if you have suffered through this year of 2020. It will mean the world to you if you lost someone you loved or if you are facing sickness or disability or if things have just taken a bad turn for you during this past year.

What this verse means is that what appears suddenly, or tragically, or that brings disappointment, has not happened apart from God’s sovereignty. He remains in control. The fallen sparrow is under His jurisdiction. Even a baby bird that falls from its nest is swaddled in His sovereignty. 

That the Father knows this is one thing. You can know something and feel no responsibility for it. This verse says that not one sparrow falls apart from His will. What that means is this: It is His business. It calls for His attention. It is a matter of His concern.

I remember a time when I saw a that illustrated. I was driving down a rural road in Alabama with a friend. As we were traveling slowly down the road, we noticed a tiny bird sitting right in the middle of the road. It was the oddest sight. Here was this tiny bird, facing a two-thousand pound automobile, sitting helpless in the middle of that road. It had obviously fallen out ot its nest. That little bird’s head was turned straight up, in the posture it would assume in the nest, waiting to be fed by its mother. It was as if that tiny bird, in its absolute helplessness, was lifting its head toward heaven to say, “God, here I am.”

Now based on the Scripture I referenced earlier, what did God know about that bird? First, He knew it had fallen. He knew where it was. He knew what it needed. But did God bear any responsibility for that bird? Did He make it fall? Was He allowing it to suffer? Had He forgotten about the plight of this little bird?

Are those silly questions? Well, not in light of what Jesus said. I assume that Jesus knows the heart and mind of God, and He said that not one sparrow falls to the ground apart from the will of the Father.

We stopped the car. My friend got out, scooped up the baby bird, looked around a minute, spotted its nest, and returned it safely to where it belonged. Now, was that a miracle? It was for that baby bird! That little bird had not fallen to the ground apart from God’s sovereignty. Just as the baby Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes and lay in a nest of straw swaddled by God’s sovereignty, this little bird in its nest of straw was also somehow swaddled by God’s sovereignty. 

I share that story, raising those questions, because as you listen, some of you are in some desperate place. You are sitting in the middle of some set of circumstances. Your head is turned upward toward heaven. You are wondering if God knows where you are and what you need, and If He sees that giant problem rolling your way that will surely be the end of you.

Does God know? Does God see? Does He care? Do you and your problems matter to God? Have the sorrows and struggles of 2020 happened to you apart from His will? Lets go back and look at the verse in its context.

29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from the will of your Father. 30 But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31 NIV)

I have to tell you that I am amazed at God. I looked at these verses, that I thought I knew so well, and I saw things I had never seen before. The more I looked, the more I knew that God was showing me these things so that you could see them. I knew that God wanted to speak to your circumstances—to the unsettling of your nest—to the anxiety in your heart

What message was it that Jesus was delivering at this moment? He was speaking to those who would find themselves in threatening circumstances—perhaps even life-threatening circumstances. He wanted them to know that nothing could come into their lives that would fall outside the Father’s jurisdiction. He wanted them to know that they would also be swaddled in His sovereignty!

What does God know? Well, He knows when one sparrow falls. And not one of them falls apart from His will. You are worth more than many sparrows. So God must also know about you. What does He know? He knows everything. He knows the intimate details of your situation. He knows the minutia, the microscopic, the things that no one else would even bother knowing. Even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Those who know you and love you most here on earth don’t know that, and you don’t know it about yourself! Affirming this to be so, Jesus said: So don’t be afraid! What is news to you is not news to the Father. He is saying to you, “I know this. I have it.”

In baseball, the person playing in the outfield has a zone of responsibility. A ball hit into certerfield is not the responsibility of the shortstop or of the second baseman. It is the responsibility of the centerfielder. Out there in that grassy area, is zone of responsibility that is his alone. Sometimes players cross itno another players zone of responsibility, as they both attempt to catch a fly ball. W:hen that occurs, a collision can result, and the ball may be dropped. Tht is why the outfielder will often wave the others away and call out, “Mine!”. The incoming ball is falling into his field of play. It is his responsibility. He knows it is coming, but he also indicates that he isn’t standing still. He has hs eye on the ball. He knows what to do. As that ball falls into his jurisdiction, he closes his glove around it. That ball is swaddled in His sovereignty.

What is God saying to you as you fearfully survey your circumstances? You feel as helpless as a little bird in the path of an automobile. Yet God is saying, “This has not happened apart from my will. Don’t be afraid. I have this. It is mine!”

When I read those verses and I remembered that little bird sitting in the middle of that road—head turned upward as if to say, “God, I am crying out to you. Do you hear me? Do you care? Do you know where I am? Do you know what I face?” All the while, there was a God in heaven who had already said, “Not one of your kind falls to the ground apart from my will—outside of my jurisdiction—apart from my sovereignty.

But right now it is not a bird is it. It is you. You don’t know what to do! You are the one with the questions! What about your circumstances? What about your need? What about your sickness? What about your sorrow? 

How would we know an answer to that if Jesus had not come down from heaven to lie in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes? He was helpless, weak, and needy, but He was also swaddled in God’s sovereignty. He came so that He might remind us that we are also swaddled in His sovereignty. Nothing will ever come into your life apart from His will, outside of His jurisdiction—outside of His sovereignty.

The message to the shepherds was don’t be afraid. Go look for the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. When you find Him, go tell the world there is a loving God who wants to swaddle all people in the loving embrace of His sovereignty. Tell them not to be afraid. God has this.

As another Christmas season nears, and 2020 comes to a close, I pray that you will have a special sense of the Lord’s intimate concern for you. I pray that He will rescue you from your circumstances, just as He rescued a little bird from the middle of the road. But if He should choose to allow those circumstances to remain, I pray that you will have the confidence that you are, nonetheless, swaddled in His sovereignty!

I See Jesus Standing

Do you know what this year has done? It has captured our attention. We have fixed our gaze on a virus so intently that we have lost sight of Jesus. We have fixed our gaze on an election so intently that we have lost sight of Jesus. We have fixed our gaze on some sinful thing so intently that we have lost sight of Jesus.

It’s been a tough year. It’s not the kind of year you planned and certainly not what you needed. In a year like 2020, a person needs perspective. However, the perspective needed is the perspective of heaven. In an effort to help you see your circumstances with a bit more clarity, I would like to tell you about a man in the New Testament whose name was Stephen. On the worst day of his life, and on what seemed to the the worst day in the history of the church up to that point, Stephen saw his circumstances from the perspective of heaven.

Stephen was a great servant of God. He was one of the first deacons. He was said to be full of wisdom, full of the Spirit, full of faith, full of grace and power. In fact, through the hands of Stephen God worked signs and wonders among the people. His wisdom and handling of the Scripture was such that his enemies were unable to cope with the wisdom  and the Spirit with which he was speaking.

They secretly induced men to say that Stephen blasphemed both Moses and God Acts 6:11. They spread misinformation about Stephen in the community, stirring up the people against him Acts 6:12. The brought forward false witnesses who accused him of speaking against the temple and against the law Acts 6:13. And yet, through it all, Stephen’s countenance was like that of an angel Acts 6:15.

Things went from bad to worse that day. I’m sure Stephen had an idea of what would happen when the day began. Stephen’s powerful sermon is recorded in Acts 7:2-53. That sermon condemned his hearers, who were also his accusers, as lawbreakers themselves. That sermon pierced their hearts like a knife. But rather than convicting them and bringing them to repentance, it only deepened their hatred for Stephen and all he stood for. While his face was like that of an angel, they looked like angry demons, gnashing their teeth in murderous fury.

Suddenly, Stephen stopped preaching. It was as if had been interrupted. It was as if he no longer was the communicator, but as if someone was communicating with him. He turned away from the angry crowd, not in cowardice, but with an even greater confidence and conviction than that with which he was preaching. It was as if someone was there—as if someone was with him.

Consider the State of Stephen’s Relationship with God:

He was full of the Holy Spirit. Do you remember those moments when the Spirit of God came mightily upon men in the Old Testament. When the Spirit came mightily upon Saul, he was turned into another man. His life was changed from timid to confident, from a man of weakness to a man of power.

When the Spirit of God came mightily upon Samson, he performed feats of great strength.  Stephen had been preaching in the power of the Spirit, but now that Spirit filled him for a new purpose. He was filled with the Spirit to face death. God empowered him for that journey and whatever it brought. 

Here is a picture of a saved man dying. He is a man filled with the Holy Spirit. He has been empowered to live and serve, and now, full of faith, full of grace, full of wisdom, he is full of the Spirit given power to face the moment of his death.

His countenance that day was like that of an angel. There was a beam about Him. There was a presence that settled on him and around him. That day, as Stephen faced his accusers and as he faced death, he was not alone. You are not alone should you be facing your last days. If you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, a disciple whose life is characterized by the same traits as Stephen, you will not be alone when it comes your time to die.

Many times I have heard the story of someone very ill who had been talking with family, but just at the point of death, that person turned their face away, fixing their gaze elsewhere.

Second, Notice Stephen’s Focus.

But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.

This is the focus of a believer in trouble. This is the focus of a believer facing death. His gaze was not fixed on his problem. His gaze was not fixed on the trouble. His gaze was not fixed on the crowd or on his accusers. Instead, he gazed intently into heaven. 

Where is your focus in your circumstances? Do you know what this year has done? It has captured our attention. We have fixed our gaze on a virus so intently that we have lost sight of Jesus. We have fixed our gaze on an election so intently that we have lost sight of Jesus. We have fixed our gaze on some sinful thing so intently that we have lost sight of Jesus.

But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed intently into heaven and saw something you and I can never see without our focus so fixed. He saw behind the scenes of his circumstances. He saw a prevailing providence overshadowing his life. He saw God’s glory!

Do you remember what Jesus told Mary and Martha at the tomb of Lazarus—distraught as they were by their circumstances—discouraged as they were by their grief? He said, “Did I not say to you that if you believed you would see the glory of God.” They would see the glory of God in their circumstances. Stephen saw the glory of God in his circumstances, and you can see the glory of God in your circumstances, whatever they might be, if you will gaze intently into heaven.

First, I asked you to consider Stephen’s State. He was filled with the Holy Spirit. Second, I asked you to consider Stephen’s focus. He gazed intently into heaven.

Third, Consider Stephen’s Vision

And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”He said, “I see Jesus standing….”

Jesus said in Luke 22:69:But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the Power of God. ” 

But Stephen said, “I see Jesus standing…” He saw Jesus standing sovereign over the affairs of earth and heaven. That is what we have lost sight of in 2020. We must regain our confidence in the fact that Jesus rules and reigns in heaven, and He stands victoriously triumphant in spite of our circumstances. In spite of Covid. In spite of the election. In spite of what is going on in my life or yours. 

That was a statement of Stephen’s faith. He saw Jesus standing!! On one level it was that and nothing more. We can make that same statement by faith in whatever circumstances we face. But we have to know that it is more than a statement of faith. 

For Stephen it was also a statement of fact. He saw heaven opened. Heaven was opened in anticipation of his arrival. But even more, it was open so that he could clearly see the response of Jesus to his injustice. He was standing. Jesus who said that after his crucifixion he would be seated at the right hand of God was standing!

He was standing as a witness to Stephens faithfulness and as his Advocate with the Father. But He was also standing as a swift witness against his adversaries.  He was standing with Stephen in his circumstances. he was standing ready to answer. He was standing ready to help. 

But Jesus was also standing because it was the end of Stephens life. Jesus was standing to welcome Stephen upon his entrance to heaven. Jesus promised His disciples in John14:3 “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you unto Myself that where I am, you may be also.” Jesus was standing in Stephen’s honor, in recognition of his service, and as sovereign over his circumstances.

Finally, Consider  Stephen’s Last Prayer.

But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord Jesus and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Then, falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep. Acts 7:56-60

What do we see here in his final prayer? We see a man praying in trouble.  We hear a man praying in acceptance of his trouble.  We find a man knowing he is about to die in his trouble. He dies with his hope in Jesus.  He dies with the name of the Lord on his tongue. He sees Jesus in heaven, and he prays that Jesus might receive his spirit upon arrival in heaven. 

This man was confident. This man was courageous. This man was in communication with heaven from before the trouble began and through the time of his trouble. He knew a presence and a power that some men simply will not know come their time to die.

Stephen died calling on the name of the Lord, humbly asking for a reception in heaven. Stephen died praying for the forgiveness of those who sinned against God, by sinning against him. He embodied the spirit of his Savior in his trouble. He embodied the spirit of His Savior toward those who brought him trouble. He died with bitterness toward no one in his heart. 

Is that how you will die?  Will you die filled with the Holy Spirit? Will you die with your gaze fixed intently on heaven or on some set of earthly circumstances.? Will your vision be one of Jesus reigning victorious over all your problems even when he chooses not to remove them or remove you from them?  Will you die having forgiven every man remembering that Jesus has also forgiven you?

Finally, what is it that you and I need to see today? What do we need to see as we near the end of 2020, looking into an uncertain beginning of this third decade of the 21st century? We need to see Jesus Standing! We need to see Jesus Reigning! We need to know that Jesus is in Control! He is at the right hand of God, but He is also with me. I challenge you to join me in releasing your future to Him, trusting Him as did Stephen on this darkest day of his life!

Comfort in Crisis

Some of you have lost loved ones over the course of the last year. It makes things very hard. It brings a loneliness and an emptiness that makes it even harder to pass through this particular time of difficulty.

I think all of us are experiencing a general gloom in this climate of uncertainty. And that is all it is. It is uncertainty. It is uncertainty no different than that we face every day. The present situation just brings our uncertainty to the surface. I told someone the other day I felt a little like Pig-Pen, the character off Charlie Brown, who walks around with the dust cloud hovering all around him. I feel like I have a cloud of gloom following me through these days of contagion and economic calamity. But just the other day, I read back through the 27th Psalm. I hope it will help you like it helped me. Let me walk you through it, giving you the outline I penciled for myself on a notepad.

The Lord is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear? (Psalm 27:1)

The Lord is My Light in My Darkness.

His presence alone can banish my gloom. That is not only true for me, it is true for all of us as we pass through this season of uncertainty. Remember, there is no uncertainty with God! He is the same yesterday, today and forever.

When I was a small boy, I came to know Jesus as my personal Savior. From that moment, many of the things that made me afraid, caused me fear no longer. The Lord was my light in whatever darkness that surrounded me. Still today, I have to remind myself of verses like these when darkness threatens to close in around me.  The Lord is my light in my darkness.

The Lord is the defense of my life; Whom shall I dread?   When evildoers came upon me to devour my flesh, My adversaries and my enemies, they stumbled and fell.( Psalm 27:1b-2)

The Lord is My Defender in Difficulty

This present crisis is causing difficulty for many people. But that may not be your only difficulty. As a result, your situation might be compounded by what is happening in our world. For many of you, it couldn’t have come at a worse time. But here it is. Difficulty added to difficulty. 

Do you think God is surprised by what is happening? Did He know your situation before COVID-19? Does He know your deadlines and the despair they bring to your life? I am convinced that God knows everything about my life! I have experienced His defense and His deliverance in difficulty. The word, defense, or strength, as it is is written in some translations, means a place of safety. In other words, there is no safer place to be amid the COVID-19 outbreak than simply trusting God for His protection. That is true in the midst of any other problemThe Lord is my defender in difficulty. 

Though a host encamp against me,My heart will not fear; Though war arise against me,In spite of this I shall be confident.  (Psalm 27:3)

The Lord is my Confidence in Calamity. 

Some years ago, Jeremiah 29:11 became a precious verse to me. I want to assure you that verses become precious to you when you read them for yourself from the pages of Scripture and God speaks them to your heart. This one became so special to me that I had it affixed to my office door where I worked for almost twenty years.  For I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not calamity to give you a future and a hope.That has always been God’s plans for His people. Yes, calamity does come. We face it from time to time. But in that calamity, the Lord remains our confidence.

David looked at his calamity and said: In spite of this I shall be confident.

One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek:That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,To behold the beauty of the LordAnd to meditate in His temple. (Psalm 27:4)

As more and more time passes off the calendar of a person’s life, it becomes clear that we are very frail creatures. Our strength is so limited. But here, David reminds us: 

The Lord is My Focus in My Frailty.

I choose to keep my eyes on Him. When I see how Strong He is and how Glorious He is, it helps me not to focus so much on me and my weakness.

I realize that some of you are more afraid than others during this crisis. Try to keep your focus on the Lord and not on the news, and not on the slender thread of life itself. Life is fragile when we are at the zenith of our strength. Go back to that previous verse where David said: The Lord is the strength of my life. He has always been, and He will always be.

This is so because of this next verse:

For in the day of trouble He will conceal me in His tabernacle;In the secret place of His tent He will hide me;He will lift me up on a rock. Psalm 27:5

The Lord is My Shelter in the Storm. 

This is true because He is Lord of the Storm. In the New Testament Jesus proved to be able to calm the storm on the sea of Galilee and the storm in the hearts of His disciples. He got out of the boat that day and met a man filled with a legion of demons. He conquered the storm that raged in Him. He got back in the boat and crossed a calm sea to the other side, finding a man whose daughter was at the point of death. On his way to that man’s house, he was stopped by a woman who had a hemorrhage for twelve years and no one could help her. He healed her, calming the storm of sickness. In the meantime, the little girl died. But Jesus went to her room and raised her up, displaying his power over the storm of death. What, do you think He is not Lord over Covid-19 and whatever other storm might enter our lives? He is our Shelter in the Storm because He is Lord of every storm.

And now my head will be lifted up above my enemies around me,And I will offer in His tent sacrifices with shouts of joy;I will sing, yes, I will sing praises to the Lord. (Psalm 27:6)

What circumstances join Covid-19 in becoming the enemy of your life. David said: 

The Lord is My Praise in the Press of My Circumstances

I don’t fear any enemy because my Lord is greater than any enemy who can come against me. I love to tell the story of my friend Greg Hardin, a deacon at a previous church, who one day made a discovery about God that shaped my life from that day to this. It is something you also need to remember. Greg said: “Now I know that God is not God. Almost. He is God Almighty.” That is the God we serve. He is our praise in the press of our circumstances.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice,And be gracious to me and answer me.  When You said, “Seek My face,” my heart said to You,Your face, O Lord, I shall seek.” (Psalm 27:7b-8)

Because the Lord is my light in my darkness, my defense in my difficulty, my confidence in calamity, my focus in frailty, my shelter in the storm, my praise in the press of my circumstances, 

The Lord Will Also Be My Passion in My Peril.

Now is the time to seek His face. If you have needs, seek God. Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given unto you, seek and you will find, knock and it shall be opened unto you.” Ask the Lord, seek the Lord, and knock on the door of heaven. He should be your passion in your peril.

Some of you have lost loved ones over the course of the last year. It makes things very hard. It brings a loneliness and an emptiness that makes it even harder to pass through this particular time of difficulty. David even had something to say about that in this Psalm.

Do not hide Your face from me,Do not turn Your servant away in anger;You have been my help;Do not abandon me nor forsake me,O God of my salvation! For my father and my mother have forsaken me,But the Lord will take me up. (Psalm 27:9-10)

We lose people we love. But we do not lose the Lord. He will never leave us or forsake us. That is His promise. Therefore, David said, 

He Is My Lord in My Lonliness

The Lord will be present with you in your home tonight. Invite Him to sit at your table. As you drink your coffee, open your Bible. Talk to Him and let Him talk to you. He will be with you in trouble, now and always.

Finally, down in the last part of this psalm David said: 

I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LordIn the land of the living.Wait for the Lord;Be strong and let your heart take courage;Yes, wait for the Lord. (Psalm 27:13-14)

In other words, there were times when he would have just given up had it not been for the knowledge of God’s Presence and love. Therefore, I want to leave you with one final point that David makes about God. In doing so, I use a word that has become very special to me over the course of the last couple of months: It is the word HOPE.

The Lord Is My Hope in My Hopelessness.

The Bible says that those who put their hope in the Lord will never be disappointed. Waiting on the Lord is an expression of Hope. Because of the Lord, we should never be hopeless. Even if we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, He is with us. He is with you right now in the midst of this present crisis. Who does David say the Lord is to Him through the words of this Psalm?

The Lord is my light in my darkness, my defense in my difficulty, my confidence in calamity, my focus in frailty, my shelter in the storm, my praise in the press of my circumstances, my passion in my peril, my Lord in my loneliness, and my hope in my hopelessness. He is not God Almost. He is God Almighty! I will trust and not be afraid!

Photo by Brian McGowan

Where is Jesus in Our Grief?

Most of us have been pierced by one of the painful arrows of grief. Can you and I find Jesus in the face of our grief?

But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying. And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” John 20:11-13

This is part of John’s account of how some of Jesus followers reacted to the empty tomb of Jesus. John chooses to tell the story from the perspective of Mary Magdalene.Mark also records Mary Magdalene’s visit to the tomb. Both Mark and Luke tell us that she had at one time been possessed of seven demons before she met Jesus. This trip to the tomb was very personal for her. Was she the sinful woman in Luke chapter seven of whom Jesus said, “She loves much because her sins which are many are all forgiven?” I think she was.

If so, her deliverance from demons and her wonderful experience of forgiveness resulted in a deep personal commitment to the Lord Jesus.  That is revealed at the cross, when she was one of the only disciples left with Mary. The rest ran away. Her presence at the tomb was prompted by her love for Jesus and the grief she experienced following His death. Her initial experience at the tomb was confusing. She ran to Peter saying, “They have taken away the Lord, out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” John 20:2b  

Imagine the agony she endured watching Jesus die! Sudden, tragic death often leaves loved ones in some degree of shock. Overwhelmed by the events of recent days, as well as by her own emotions, Mary Magdalene made the pre-dawn trip to the tomb in the grip of grief. I want to examine her grief and relate it to the experience of grief that comes to us all. In a recent search for definitions of grief, I found the following explanations.

Grief is the normal and natural emotional reaction to loss or change of any kind. Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior. It is defined as keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss. It is described as sharp sorrow or painful regret. I’m sure you understand. Most of us have been pierced by one of the painful arrows of grief. Grief comes as a result of losing someone you love. Sometimes we grieve the passage of a stage of our life—unrecoverable days that we wasted or lost. We can grieve a disability that comes into our lives or grieve over a great disappointment or personal loss. Grief comes in many ways.

My purpose will be to examine the grief of Mary. In the midst of her grief, Mary was looking for Jesus. Can you and I find Jesus in the face of our grief?

Mary Was Weeping at What She Knew to Be True.

At first, to Peter she said, they have taken away the Lord and we… Later she said to the angels, “They have taken away my Lord and I…” John 20:13b   This was deeply personal for Mary. She was grieving over the basic facts of what she knew to be true. This is the first way we approach grief. We deal with the heart-breaking facts. We face the hard and cold fact of death, of loss, of pain, of sorrow, of suffering that accompanies grief.

Mary Was Weeping on the Basis of Things She Assumed to Be True. 

I have heard many people state the truth of how they feel in the midst of their grief. Many of those feelings are based on assumptions made in the pain of the moment. From the personal perspective of sorrow, both the present and the future are clouded by the fog of grief.

“They have taken away my Lord.” Was that true? No, but in that moment, it appeared to be true to Mary, and it deepened the grief of the moment. Be careful about assumptions you make in the midst of your grief. Be careful about decisions you make while in the throes of grief. Be especially careful concerning conclusions you make about God in your sorrow. 

God often sends us comfort in the midst of our grief. Thankfully, most of us have friends or family or a minister who will help us walk through our personal sorrow. Have you ever noticed how hollow such comfort sounds when coming from someone not standing in your shoes? The words are often true and sincere. If you will notice, not even the testimony of angels countered the faulty assumptions Mary Magdalene made by Mary in her grief.

In Her Grief, She Failed to Recognize the Presence of Her Lord.

Have you found it to be true that it is hard to see the Lord through your tears? As we read the story, we raise all kinds of questions about why it was that she failed to recognize Jesus. But mainly, it was her grief and the resulting shock and despair that followed the recent loss of someone she loved. Those of you who have walked the road of grief know that this period of grief can last a long time.  There seems to be no sense of God’s presence. There seems to be no word from God. There is an overwhelming emptiness and sense of being abandoned, not only by the person you lost but also by God. Mary, for a brief moment, experienced a dark night of the soul when, although her Lord was there, she was not able to know it.

Jesus Was Present in the Midst of Her Grief.

But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying. And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking? ”Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.” John 20:11-15

He was right there in the midst of her grief, even though she did not recognize His presence. Do you suppose that in spite of how you feel, that He might also be present in the midst of yours? In the loss of someone you love, you might have no sense of Him, but He is there!

Passing through some particularly difficult season of change, you might  have no sense of Him, but He is there! Maybe you lost your job or your sense of purpose, and you have no sense of Him, but He is there! Jesus is present in the midst of your grief.

Jesus Spoke to Her in the Midst of Her Grief.

Jesus said to her, “Mary!” John 20:16a   He called her name. He spoke to her. He asked her the same question asked by the angels. “Why are you weeping.” I wonder if He was helping her process her grief. Processing your grief doesn’t make it go away. But it causes you to grapple with what happened and what must happen next. Why was she weeping? Who was she seeking? She was weeping because she lost Jesus. But in her grief, Mary came there to look for Jesus. Yet, He was right in front of her and she failed to recognize His presence.

Is Jesus speaking to you in the midst of your grief, in the midst of your loss, in the midst of your change? Is He saying something to you that you need to hear! Yes, but to hear it you must recognize who He is.

His first question was, “Why are you weeping?” What is your loss? What is your disappointment? What is the sorrow that brings you to this point in your life. But His next question is key. “Whom are you seeking?” Who was Mary looking for? She came there looking for Jesus. Have you looked for Jesus in your grief, or have you looked for relief in other people or in other places? A person with grief over an illness might be seeking a physician, as did the woman with the issue of blood, until she sought Jesus. Who are you seeking?

A person who lost their sense of purpose might be seeking for something to fill that void? So Jesus asks you—Who or what are you seeking?  What did Jesus offer Mary? He offered her Himself. Is He speaking to you in the midst of your grief? Is He calling your name? Is He offering you the strength of His presence and the comfort of His love? Is He reminding you that you have not been abandoned by your Lord? He revealed Himself differently to various of His disciples after His resurrection. He will choose the time and place to make you aware of His Presence. 

In The Midst of Her Grief, Mary Was Afraid.

Why was she afraid? Maybe she was afraid of the same things you are. She was afraid of being hurt again. She didn’t want to lose Him again. Perhaps she was afraid of the future, or even afraid of the past, fearing that the demons who once tormented her might return. She was afraid to go on, and because of her grief her life was without purpose.

In the Midst of Her Grief, Mary Called Jesus Teacher.

She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means, Teacher). Most of us, who have been so unfortunate as to experience grief, have learned something along the way. We learn things about ourselves. We also learn things about the Lord. Do you suppose there is something the Lord is trying to teach you in the midst of your circumstances?

Jesus Gave Her a New Sense of Mission as a Result of Her Grief.

Jesus said to her, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.’”  Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and that He had said these things to her. John 20:17-18

I am often amazed at the people who come through some tragic loss with a vision of something God wants them to do. How many times have you heard of a parent who lost a child to some rare illness, who out of that pain, becomes an advocate for other families in similar circumstances. How many cancer survivors have taken up the cause of making sure other cancer victims have adequate support? What about you? What grief changed your life? How did God use that moment to teach you and redirect you and re-purpose your life?

Some of you can identify with Mary. On the other hand, some of you are still looking for answers. You are still looking for Jesus in the midst of your grief. I pray that you will experience His presence in the midst of your grief. I pray that He will speak to you in the midst of your grief. I pray that He will be your teacher as you as you walk through the grief process. I also pray that out of the heartache of your grief, He will lead you to discover a new sense of mission and direction for your life.

Photo by Ksenia Makagonova

Facing Sorrow With Faith

Face the future, trusting that God, who foreknew your sorrow, walks with you in your sorrow, and has a plan to sanctify this this painful season of your life.

Sorrow is a fact of life. It comes uninvited and sometimes, unexpected. When it comes, it leaves life in pieces. If you are walking in the midst of sorrow, or in its aftermath, you understand what I mean. There are times when the sorrow we face is a loss so great, so completely overwhelming, it seems like a bad dream. Ultimately, reality sets in, leaving us broken.

With two brief verses, we are told of such a heart crushing moment in the life of the Old Testament character, Abraham. Now Sarah lived one hundred and twenty-seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. Sarah died in Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan; and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her. Genesis 23:1-2

The only time the Bible mentions Abraham weeping was when he wept over the loss of his dear wife Sara. Where I live, the lines are longer at the funeral home when a young wife loses her husband or a young man his wife.  But the grief is deeper and the loss is greater for that aged couple who spent their lives together, raised their children together, buried their parents together, each having invested a lifetime of hopes and dreams in the life of the other.  Then, all at once, life falls to pieces when the one who shared their deepest joys and sorrows closes his or her eyes in death.

The Bible says in Roman’s 8:28 that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose.  But what could possibly sanctify sorrow?

The sorrow in your life today. may be very different from that which entered the life of Abraham.  It may be from a fractured marriage, or from some disappointment that invaded your life and rocked your world.  How can your sorrow and my sorrow be so sanctified, that God might use it to impact eternity and advance His Kingdom? Abraham’s sorrow was sanctified sorrow. It was sanctified by the way he faced it. It was also sanctified by the One who shared it with him and carried it for him.

When sorrow invades our lives, life seems to come to a stand-still. But life can’t stop. It goes on. The Bible tells how Abraham went through the process of acquiring a burial site for his wife Sarah. He did just what you and I have to do when we face sorrow. We have to face reality. In the depths of his sorrow, Abraham got up and took one step forward, and it was a step of faith. That one step may be the only step you are able to make but make it in faith! Do the one thing that must be done, depending on God to give you the strength to do it. Face the future, trusting that God, who foreknew your sorrow, walks with you in your sorrow, and has a plan to sanctify this this painful season of your life.

David, the great king of Israel, faced an incredible sorrow in his own life. He had a little child who lay dying. David did what any parent would do. He prayed! He grieved over this illness in the life of his child! He fasted! He refused to eat! He lay all night on the ground praying that the child would live! David lived like that for seven days. When the child died, his servants were afraid to tell him. His grief was so great over the child’s illness, they were afraid that when he learned of the child’s death, he would take his own life. As they were coming with the news, he perceived the child was dead. Do you know what he did in the midst of his grief? He got up off the ground. He bathed. He changed his clothes. He anointed himself with oil. He went to the house of the Lord, and he worshipped! The servants couldn’t understand the change in David. They asked him why he was acting so different now that the child was dead. This is what he said. “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, the Lord may be gracious to me, that the child may live.’ But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”2 Samuel 12:22-23

 In his grief, David found a way to express his faith in God and in the life to come. Just like Abraham, he got up from the ashes of his grief and turned his face and his faith toward God. That is sanctified sorrow!

When we recognize we don’t walk alone in our sorrow, when we step forward by one step of faith to face the future, that sorrow becomes a sanctified sorrow. Sanctified sorrow is a sorrow God can use to touch the lives of others.

In 2013, Rick Warren, the author of The Purpose Driven Life, faced the suicide of his son. As he stood in the midst of his sorrow, a skeptical public waited to see if he would fall apart and his faith would fail. But like Abraham and David, Rick Warren was able to take a step forward and express his faith to a watching world, even in the midst of his sorrow.

Rick Burgess, (of Rick and Bubba radio show) did the same thing when his two-year old son drowned. God enabled him to speak at his son’s funeral and express his family’s faith, even in the midst of their incredible sorrow.  Steven Curtis Chapman, Christian Musician, did the same thing when his own son accidentally backed over and killed their five-year old daughter in the driveway of their home.

Out of those seasons of incredible sorrow, God gave them the incredible strength to express their faith, as an unbelieving world watched and listened. Your audience may not be as large, and the immediate impact may not seem as great, but there will be those who watch your life to see how you face the sorrow that God allowed into your life. Their lives will be impacted by it. God will use your sanctified sorrow in such a way that it has a ripple effect from here to eternity.

Sanctified sorrow is sorrow surrendered to God.It is committing yourself to God amidst unbearable heartache and trusting Him to help you go on.

Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse once related the story of a young woman whose husband had been killed on the battlefield. When the telegram came, she was at home with her parents. She read it, and without explaining what she read, she said to her Mother, “I am going up to my room. Please don’t disturb me.” Her mother, realizing the news, sent for the father at work and told him to come home. He went upstairs intending to comfort his daughter. He opened the door quietly. As he looked inside, he found her kneeling by her bedside. The telegram was spread open on the bed before her. She was praying, “Oh my Heavenly Father, oh my Heavenly Father.” Without a word, he went back down the stairs and said to his wife, “She is in better hands than mine.”

That is how a person of faith responds in the hour of grief. When we commit our deepest hurts to our Heavenly Father, trusting them to His care, our sorrow is sanctified.

Are you dealing with some deep brokenness in your life? Someone is waiting to see how you respond to that sorrow. The way you handle it is going to impact the lives of many people. In your hurt, others can be hurt, if you handle it the wrong way.  But if you surrender your sorrow into the hands of God, He can take it, sanctify it, and use it to touch the lives of people from here to eternity.

I, too, have faced sorrow. There were moments when the heartache seemed inconsolable. However, God was always one step ahead of me. He had a plan that would sanctify my sorrow, teaching me incredible truths about his love and mercy. It is my prayer that God would guide you through your season of sorrow, to the place of His presence, where He will wipe every tear from your eyes.

You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book. Psalm 56:8 NLT

Photo by Andrea Bertozzini