In the Face of the Impossible

Scripture Focus: Luke 1.18, 34, 37
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this?”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
“…no word from God will ever fail.”

Reflection: In the Face of the Impossible
By John Tillman

Luke plunges into visionary tales of the impossible and people who, to one degree or another, expressed doubts, reservations, and fears, and felt themselves unqualified for the task.
Madeleine L’Engle, in her book, Walking on Water marvels at how often God gave glorious visions and impossible tasks to those who were ill equipped.

“We are all asked to do more than we can do. Every hero and heroine of the Bible does more than he would have thought it possible to do, from Gideon, to Esther, to Mary. Jacob, one of my favorite characters, certainly wasn’t qualified. He was a liar and a cheat; and yet he was given the extraordinary vision of angels and archangels ascending and descending a ladder which reached from earth to heaven.

In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, Nathanael is given a glimpse of what Jacob saw, or a promise of it, and he wasn’t qualified, either. He was narrow-minded and unimaginative, and when Philip told him that Jesus of Nazareth was the one they sought, his rather cynical response was, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And yet it was to Nathanael that Jesus promised the vision of angels and archangels ascending and descending upon the son of man.”

God chooses to do the impossible with the unqualified, to frustrate the wise with the foolish, and to overthrow the strong with the weak. He subverts the systems we rely on and reminds us that our competence is an illusion and his grace shown through us comprises all that is good in the world.

We face the impossible, like Zechariah, when the world sees us as cursed and broken.
We face the impossible, like Mary, when the world strives to keep us powerless and vulnerable.
In the face of the impossible we are forced to keep our faith where it always should have been—on God. We are not qualified, but, L’Engle concludes, God will be glorified.

“In a very real sense, not one of us is qualified, but it seems that God continually chooses the most unqualified to do his work, to bear his glory. If we are qualified, we tend to think that we have done the job ourselves. If we are forced to accept our evident lack of qualification, then there’s no danger that we will confuse God’s work with our own, or God’s glory with our own.“

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your Name give glory; because of your love and because of your faithfulness. — Psalm 115.1

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Reading
Exodus 18 (Listen 3:54)
Luke 1.1-38 (Listen 9:26)

Read more about Angelic Visions Require Childlike Faith
Madeleine L’Engle was often perplexed at the tendency of scholarly Christians to hold at arm’s length the angels and miracles of the Bible.

Read The Bible With Us
Our Bible reading plan is immersive with a sustainable, two-year pace. Walk with us through God’s Word and reflect on the beauty revealed by a slower pace.

Humility and Joy — Joy of Advent

Scripture Focus: Ezra 8:22-23
22 I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.” 23 So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer.

Luke 1:46-48
46 And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.

Reflection: Humility and Joy—Joy of Advent
By Erin Newton

Before the group of families began the journey from Babylon to Jerusalem, Ezra called them to prayer and fasting. They sought God’s protection for the perilous road ahead.

Ezra knew that he could trust God. He had studied all the great acts of God in history. He knew God watched over him and prepared the way. But he also knew of the stories of danger and tragedy in the past. It is one thing to know that God is trustworthy and another thing to step out into the wild world.

Ezra felt the depths of his need for God’s provision. He fasted. He prayed. He denied himself the comfort of food so he could seek God with humility.

Four and a half centuries later, a young girl would begin a journey that would change the course of the world. Mary was chosen to carry the world’s greatest gift. With each step, she walked along a path of faithfulness to her call.

Ezra’s journey was a path back to worship at the newly built temple. Mary’s journey was the unpretentious path from one trimester to another. But Mary did not travel to worship God, he tabernacled within her.

Ezra and Mary sought a spirit of humility as they spoke to God. Both were blessed by the hand of God through miraculous protection.

Humility involves emptying oneself. It requires letting go of our plans and self-confidence. It requires the ability to be misunderstood and uncomfortable.

Ezra and his companions arrived in Jerusalem overloaded with treasures and offerings. For decades in captivity, they had been unable to present sacrifices to God. Nearly 200 animals were sacrificed upon their return. A joyous return to the house of worship.

Mary faithfully carried the incarnate deity within her womb. She laid aside her own plans and became the Lord’s servant. She knew that whatever God said would come to pass and she trusted in that promise.

The joy of Advent requires humility.

The road ahead of us is difficult. There are scars of past trauma and reminders of grief yet healed. We stop every few steps and question the journey itself. Why us? Why this path? We need his eye and hand upon us. 

God’s humble servant, Mary, prayed to God in her womb, “My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” May we seek God this Advent with humble hearts. 

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
I will call upon God, and the Lord will deliver me.
In the evening, in the morning, and at noonday, I will complain and lament, and he will hear my voice.
He will bring me safely back…God, who is enthroned of old, will hear me. — Psalm 55.17

Today’s Readings
Ezra 8 (Listen 5:40
Revelation 7 (Listen 2:56)

This Weekend’s Readings
Ezra 9 (Listen 3:19)  Revelation 8 (Listen 2:15)
Ezra 10 (Listen 6:19)  Revelation 9 (Listen 3:30)

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Read more about Saccharine Joy — Joy of Advent
Artificial sweeteners don’t destroy our ability to taste sugar or honey, but our addiction to ecstasy and luxury makes us insensitive to and unsatisfied by true joy.

Devotion and Joy — Joy of Advent

Scripture Focus: Ezra 7:10
10 For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.

Luke 1:42-44
42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.

Reflection: Devotion and Joy — Joy of Advent
By Erin Newton

The blessing of God continued as the second round of exiles returned to Jerusalem. Leading them was Ezra, a trained priest and scribe. Ezra was well-versed in the Law and trusted to deliver more gold and silver to the Israelites. Under his leadership, they carried their gifts to present before God.

Ezra was not only born into the lineage of the High Priest but devoted himself to learning about God. He committed time and effort. In an age when literacy rates were low, Ezra was among a privileged class who could read and write. His heritage granted him the ability to do what others could not.

This gift of circumstance was shared among his community. As instructed by the king, he taught others about the laws of God.

Each year at Advent, neglected Bibles are opened. Artwork depicting the manger scene covers a few shop windows or appears in yard decorations around town. As a scientific anomaly, the virgin birth is the most well-known aspect of the story. Is that all there is to know?

The story of Jesus is not just about his miraculous conception and mediocre place of birth. Everything about Jesus defies common sense. He is weak when people expect him to be strong. He is friendly when the religious think he should shun. He dies when the disciples expect him to wage war.

The complexity of who God is and how he intervenes in human history has been a subject of study long before Luke wrote his gospel or Ezra returned to Jerusalem.

I imagine Ezra, as he sat in Babylon, studying about the Red Sea crossing. Maybe with the letter from Artaxerxes in one hand and the song of the sea (Exodus 15) in the other, he was about to embark on a similar journey. Both blessed by foreign kings, he too would bring gold and silver to worship God. A joyous journey ahead.

Luke also devoted himself to the study of God. He begins his Gospel with the story of John in utero. Separated by wombs, John leapt for joy at the mere proximity of Jesus.

These stories are known by those who spend time learning about God. It is a story worth more than a highlight reel on major holidays. 

The joy of Advent is knowing him. Devote yourself to know more than his birth. Leap for joy as you draw near.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. — Psalm 85.9

Today’s Readings
Ezra 7 (Listen 4:39
Revelation 6 (Listen 3:12)

Read more about Supporting Our Work
God works through the Bible to change Christians and change the world. Help us provide free biblical content throughout the year to this end.

Read more about Consolation and Patience — Joy of Advent
The very reason for Christ’s delay is that more may be saved. The greater number of people we bring with us, the greater our joy will be.

Banners, Trumpets, Repentance

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 18.2b-3
2 … Go, swift messengers,
to a people tall and smooth-skinned,
to a people feared far and wide,
an aggressive nation of strange speech,
whose land is divided by rivers.
3 All you people of the world,
you who live on the earth,
when a banner is raised on the mountains,
you will see it,
and when a trumpet sounds,
you will hear it. 

Luke 1.76-79
76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; 
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, 
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation 
through the forgiveness of their sins, 
78 because of the tender mercy of our God, 
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven 
79 to shine on those living in darkness 
and in the shadow of death, 
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Reflection: Banners, Trumpets, Repentance
By John Tillman

All nations will see God’s banner.
All people will hear God’s trumpet.

To us, a banner might seem festive. A trumpet might play a melody or a song. This is not Isaiah’s meaning. The “banner” is not about celebration but confrontation. It is a military symbol, a standard that would be borne into battle or before a king’s processional. It announces a conquering army, not a celebrative party. 

The trumpet denotes not the melodies of a tune but the movements of war. Trumpets of war signal attack. Trumpets preceded the tumbling of Jericho’s walls and Gideon’s triumph over the Midianites. Trumpets also signal coronations. Trumpets announce the enthronement of a new ultimate authority. The trumpet and banner mean that a battle has been won, a coronation is occurring, and a new king and his kingdom are being announced.

Zechariah saw in his son, John, a proclaimer of God’s coming kingdom. John’s banner had one word and his trumpet one note, “repent.” Whether kings, soldiers, tax collectors, or regular citizens, John told the powerful to stop abusing their power. (Luke 3.10-14) Ultimate power was coming and all would be called to submit to him—even John himself.

Isaiah saw victory in the future, and all people streaming to worship under the banner of God, the king of kings. People who were feared would peacefully worship God. People who were aggressive and violent would bring gifts to God’s temple. People of strange, intimidating speech would open their mouths in worship.

Before Christ conquers the world, we must allow him to conquer our hearts. May our walls crumble at his trumpet. May our kingdoms fall under his banner. May our aggression be turned to compassion and our violent speech to virtuous worship.

This is what we work towards. This coming kingdom that John announced, we still announce. Sometimes we do so with abounding hope. Other times, like John languishing in prison or Isaiah, disturbed by his visions, we may despair, wondering how far off this kingdom truly is. But even in doubt, Christ points us to his finished work. (Matthew 11.4-6) To John, he pointed out healings and signs but Jesus points us to his cross and the empty tomb.

May we, like John, point the powerful toward repentance.
May we lower our flags of allegiance under his banner of love.
May we declare the ultimate victory of Jesus, freeing all people from the kingdoms of sin and darkness.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Deliverance belongs to the Lord. Your blessing be upon your people! — Psalm 3.8

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 17-18 (Listen -3:44)
Luke 1,39-80 (Listen -9:26)

Read more about No Such Thing as God Forsaken
May we resist the urge to apply judgmental texts to others before we have humbly examined our own hearts.

Read more about Jesus with Axe and Fire
May we ask him regularly to cut down our idols. May he burn out of our souls impurity and selfish desires.

How to Cope with Barren Seasons

Scripture Focus: Luke 1.5-7
5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. 7 But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.

From John: This month, on Tuesdays, we welcome guest writer, Dena Dyer. Dena graciously has donated her talents to our ministry in many ways, including sharing her wisdom about writing with our student writers in online sessions. I know you will be blessed by her series this month on weary women of the Bible.

Reflection: How to Cope with Barren Seasons
By Dena Dyer

Imagine with me: Elizabeth, a barren older woman married to the priest Zechariah, prepares a simple supper of fish, bread, and figs for her husband. Perhaps she hears children playing, and her heart grows heavy with the sound. 

Suddenly, Zechariah bursts through the door, motioning for his wife to sit. He rushes around the room, finding first a tablet and then a writing instrument. Elizabeth’s brow furrows as she sits down. Her hand flutters towards her chest, as if to quell the furious beating in her heart. Has he become gravely ill? Is that why he isn’t speaking? Or has something happened in the temple?

As her worries mount, Zechariah reveals on the tablet the astounding news the angel Gabriel told him. 

At first, she laughs in disbelief, just like her ancestor Sarah did. Then she sees Zechariah’s face. “You’re serious!” she exclaims, as her husband takes her in his arms. They embrace for a long time as tears stream down their faces. Their God has blessed them, more than they could have ever imagined. 

Luke 1:25 notes that Elizabeth said, ‘Look what the Lord has done for me! My people were ashamed of me, but now the Lord has taken away that shame.” In biblical times, infertility was seen as a curse. Husbands with barren wives could even divorce them and find another woman to bear their children.

Elizabeth’s name means “God is my oath” or “My God is good fortune.” God took note of the elderly couple’s obedience to keep their oaths to Him, and they experienced the good fortune God showered down on them. Elizabeth gave birth to the baby who would grow up to be John the Baptist. He paved the way for, and baptized, the Savior of the world. Indeed, God overwhelmed her with mercy. 

Later in the first chapter of Luke, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit when her cousin Mary, pregnant with the promised Messiah, visited the older woman. Elizabeth says to Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear…Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!’”

We all have barren places in our lives, areas which are littered with broken dreams and unanswered prayers. God’s ways are mysterious, which means we don’t often get to see the big picture or realize why He allows us to suffer. Yet, He challenges us to draw near to Him and pour out our souls, trusting in His character instead of shutting Him out or running from Him.

If we’re to have a heart that honors Him, let’s model our faith after Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s and not allow unanswered prayers to determine whether we’ll be obedient or not. Because we know He is rich in mercy and extravagant in grace, let’s pray in confident expectation that God is working ALL things, even barren seasons, for His purposes and glory.

Whether we see our prayers answered here or in our future heavenly home, we will be blessed when we believe that God will fulfill His promises to us.

About Dena: Dena Dyer is an author of eleven books, including Wounded Women of the Bible: Finding Hope When Life Hurts with Tina Samples. She’s also a speaker, worship leader, Anglophile, and movie lover who lives with her husband, youngest son, and rescue pup near Fort Worth, Texas. In her day job, she serves as Executive Assistant to Jamie Aten, founder of Wheaton’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute. Find out more about Dena’s books and resources at her website or follow her on Instagram or Facebook.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
I will thank you, O Lord my God, with all my heart, and glorify your Name forevermore. — Psalm 86.12

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
2 Samuel 1 (Listen – 3:54) 
1 Corinthians 12 (Listen – 4:25)

Read more about From the Belly of the Beast
Prayer and thankfulness seem natural around a table of friends and family. But prayer can be even more powerful in the dark places of our lives.

Read more about Under His Covering
She trusted him to provide for her in a myriad ways and leaned on him to give her strength throughout Jesus’ birth and life.