I'd like to tell you a Christmas story. My Christmas story doesn't begin with angels, or shepherds, or a star. It begins with an old man.
I imagine Malachi as a seasoned old man who'd shared the word of the Lord with Israel for decades. But I could be wrong about that. Whatever his age, Malachi wrote these poignant words:
See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.
Then, there was silence. The prophets, who weren't so popular in Israel (check Hebrews 11:36-38 to see how they were treated), didn't speak again, and the voice of the Lord wasn't heard in Israel.
For over four hundred years.
These were dark times in Israel's history. There was a military victory, which they celebrated for centuries afterward, but no proceeding word from God. Roman occupation began, and the Caesars ruled with an iron fist. More and more Israel began to cry out for deliverance, and to long for her Messiah.
But then, after centuries of silence from heaven, there came a sound.
It was a sound full of paradox: both ordinary and extraordinary, both human and divine. Fragile yet powerful, tiny yet the most significant sound ever heard in human history to date.
A four-century silence was shattered by the cry of a baby, and within a few minutes angels were seen and heard in the skies above the hills around Bethlehem, saying, "I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord... Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests."
God's voice changes everything!
Do you have a moment when you heard God's voice and it changed something for you?
His voice has brought me immeasurable comfort. His voice has filled me with holy fear. His voice has warned me, and his voice has made me laugh. I'm so thankful for the voice of God, a thread of grace that has sustained me throughout my life with him.
As we celebrate Emmanuel this year--God with us, let's cherish the joy of hearing his voice. Because ever since that baby grew into a man who paid for our sins and reunited us with the Father through his precious blood, we no longer need prophets to hear his voice on our behalf. What a treasure, to hear his voice!
In 2009, my friends Mingo and Lucy Barron wrote a song whose bridge captivated me. It's been part of my devotional life, and a mini-chorus I've often led in corporate worship, ever since. This August, when ideas started echoing in my head around these four lines, Pastor Mingo gave me permission to recraft a new song around it.
The best part? Charis collaborated with me. So amazing to worship Jesus with my baby girl!
What name could I breathe to make darkness flee
Who else can I call to see giants fall
Whose feet can melt the highest peaks
Whose glory makes the heavens sing
It’s a name like no other
It’s a love like no other
It’s a grace like no other
What love gives its life for an enemy
Who crawls in this ditch just to rescue me
What love would pursue me across the sea
What grace carries me through all my grief
It’s a name like no other
It’s a love like no other
It’s a grace like no other
You’re a name like no other
You’re a love like no other
You’re a grace like no other
©2009, 2020 Christian City Music by Mingo Barron, Lucy Barron, Mike Noviskie, & Charis Noviskie
Guitar strings, silent, strung
Across an empty floor.
Stopped with cobwebs.
All locked, all empty.
Bibles stowed away.
Spiderwebs in the pulpit,
And floors forgotten
By human feet.
Dirt on the windows.
Dust on the shelves.
Silence rings, not bells
And only insects hear.
Unless our hearts are shut and locked,
And our voices are silent,
Unless our lights are snuffed out,
And our eyes are shut with fear,
The inner sanctums of our hearts have gone cold,
And we’ve clogged the valves of kindness,
There is church today.
Instead of making excuses,
We make a way in the desert
Instead of stockpiling,
We give of God’s heart
And we wash our hands of bacteria,
But we don’t wash our hands of our neighbours.
And we might wear our masks,
But our eyes are wide open.
Church is now.
© 2020 Charis Noviskie. All rights reserved
Well, we’re stuck inside our houses
With the people we claim to know and love best
And now, with televisions, laptops or radios tuned in
We discover something called worship, online.
And it’s not the same
Weird without the coloured lights
The sound of a hundred speakers
And people—hundreds or more—just beside
There’re no dimmed lights
Instead we have dizzy sunlight,
Gleaming through familiar frames
And tinny sounds from only one speaker
A couple of people—family
And nowhere else to go
The sounds of family nearby
We can hear every breath
And the exact way that they might sing
And the sound of clothes rustling
No more big, dark, comfy spaces to throw loud voices into
No more forests of raised arms to secure our own hands
No more dimmed lights to hide expression
My soul is vulnerable
In a different way than before
Can I still worship in such a way?
When the world,
The people around me
Refuse to fade away?
When even closing my eyes seems wrong
And engaging is suddenly so much harder
Because I can hear the kids next door playing
And construction down the street
Somebody laughing too loud
I can hear cars and sirens and neighbours
And I can hear dishes clanging in the kitchen
I can smell the spices of home food
I am too distracted to worship!
But all these distractions
Aren’t they just the simple things that were always there?
That we’ve forgotten in spectacle—lights, crowds, stages
Maybe I am learning to appreciate
The copious aroma of life
Spicy, sweet, tangy
Salty, savoury, tender flavour
The taste and touch and feel of life--
In everyday moments
I can no longer block out
That the people around me are more precious than spectacles
And that God can be worshipped by us too
Together, in a way that doesn’t deny
This rich aroma
Of our everyday lives
Now I share with God
The kitchen cooking, dishwashing, couch-sitting, pillow-fighting,
Debating, laughing, crying, smiling,
Pet projects, pet peeves
The smell of home-cooked food
My everyday life
Because God loves to see life
© 2020 Charis Noviskie. All rights reserved.
It was October 2017, and the Houston Astros were in Boston playing the Red Sox for a chance to advance to the American League Championship Series. They were down 3-2, and the Red Sox had brought in Chris Sale, a feared veteran pitcher who may one day enter the Hall of Fame, to secure the win.
Alex Bregman, a rookie third baseman, stepped to the plate against Sale, and grinned at him. I thought for sure he would get a fastball in the ribs. But he hit a game-tying home run, and the Astros won the game in the end, advancing to the ALCS for the first time (and ultimately winning their first ever World Series title; I was beside myself with joy--but I digress...).
Bregman's confidence surely made a difference in that pivotal, pressure-filled at-bat.
Trust me entirely
That’s when doubt comes in: when we fail to trust God entirely. Pulled away from pure devotion, looking at the stuff around us, we forget that our help comes from Him. So we look to ourselves and our own resources, and we find them lacking, every time. In that lack we become overwhelmed, and we begin to doubt.
Faith through the storm
Peter made the right decision, though. He didn't try to run back to the boat; he didn't try to remember those breaststroke lessons from the third grade; he cried out to Jesus. And Jesus pulled him up immediately. That's the key to dealing with doubt: not turning to self-effort and abandoning faith, but turning our eyes back to Jesus.
We don't know how far Peter had walked from the boat--was it only a few steps? ten yards?--but he walked back with Jesus, hand-in-hand, through the raging wind and waves. Only when they got into the boat did the storm subside.
The difference between doubting in a storm and having faith through a storm lies in who I'm looking at and where my confidence lies.
I am persuaded
Imagine having watched Jesus walk on the surface of a wind-tossed lake, then step into the boat--and the wind and waves stop the instant his sandal touches the boat's floor. What a moment! Peter and the rest of the disciples responded appropriately: they worshiped Jesus, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God." What a recovery: Peter went from drowning in doubt, afraid for his life, to being fully convinced that Jesus is the Son of God.
This conviction appears in Paul's writings, too: I am persuaded... I am convinced...
In Romans 8, Paul is speaking of experiences like "trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword", when he says,
I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We can follow Paul's example. In the middle of any adversity, we can say, "I am convinced". Not in our own ability, but in God's goodness and God's faithfulness.
You're going to outlive it
When we make these faith statements that are in line with God's word, we set our minds and hearts on "things above"—on God, on an eternal perspective.
If you are a believer, that eternal perspective is the only appropriate perspective for you: because you are an eternal being! Your life is already "hidden in Christ with God" (Colossians 3:3). As someone who will live forever with Christ in his kingdom, you will outlive every problem you're facing now.
Every storm. Every adversity. Every struggle.
You'll outlive it.
When we find our hearts wandering away from God because of doubt, it's time for a reset: we cry out to him if we're sinking like Peter, and we fix our minds and hearts back on him, making those "I am persuaded" statements of what we know to be true of him and his faithful character.
He'll carry us through. I'm convinced.
What’s the first thing you’re going to do after the shelter-at-home ends? As South Africa's strict lockdown enters its fifth week, I find myself thinking more and more about things I want to do.
The first two verses of Colossians 3 tell us that since we’re no longer who we used to be, we must set our hearts and minds on things above. And what I do is one of those things "below" that my heart and mind get distracted by—I can be preoccupied by my occupation.
An awkward visit
Note that Jesus didn’t say not to do the work: he said not to be preoccupied with it. When we’re worried and upset and distracted with our work, we’ve forgotten the point, or the purpose. In Martha’s case, the point was to honor her guest. But honor is empty when relationship is neglected.
Relationship comes first, and work must be motivated by relationship.
Don't forget the point!
In Revelation 2, Jesus addresses a church in Ephesus with a very similar struggle. He commends their amazing work, their values, and their perseverance. But they've forgotten the point: they're all about their work and have forgotten their first love. Jesus instructs them to repent and return to “the former things”.
It’s easy for me to get lost in the things in my calendar and forget my “One Thing”.
Like Martha, I find myself preoccupied with the details and missing intimate times at Jesus’ feet. Or like the church in Ephesus, I'm busy with all the good work and perseverance, but neglecting my relationship with Him—my first love.
When Jesus called his disciples, he gave each of them the same calling: “Follow me.” We are called first to relationship, not to tasks, work, or some office.
So, what do I want to do when the lockdown is over? I want to follow Jesus, more focused than ever before. I want to remain focused on him as my One Thing, my First Love.
I don't want my heart to wander away from him, lost in the weeds of my calendar or task list.
Some helpful tools
They say there's an app for everything. While we can't ask our smartphones to take care of our devotion to Christ for us, there are some tools that can help us with our personal pursuit of him.
So if you're serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don't shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that's where the action is. See things from his perspective.
Ever seen a worried bird?
Jesus famously said, "Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?" (Luke 12:25, NIV) You may remember this parable: it's the one where the birds enjoy gourmet cuisine and the flowers have Armani suits, all without a care in the world, because of the goodness of the Father. If they don't worry, how much less should we worry, who are worth more to the Father than birds and flowers?
Years ago Loren Cunningham, in teaching this parable, asked, "Have you ever seen a worried bird?"
Well... have you?
We've all heard that we shouldn't fear or worry. But beyond all the well-documented physical and emotional problems brought on by anxiety, why is fear such a spiritual problem in our lives?
It's a problem because our hearts and minds have wandered away from God and fixated on the thing we're fearful of or the thing or person we're worried for.
Redirecting our hearts
David knew how to redirect his anxious heart back to heaven. He said, "The LORD is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?" (Psalm 27:1, NIV)
Paul gives us what I believe is the best way to return our hearts to God if we've wandered away with fear or anxiety:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
Present your requests to God. The focus is now back on God. What happens when we surrender our cares to God, and in doing so focus our hearts and minds on him? "And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (verse 7).
That Sunday morning, when Pastor Kotzé stated that fear pulls our hearts away from God, the Lord immediately showed me a situation in which I had allowed fear to creep in. My heart had indeed wandered away from God; my thoughts were consumed with it, "absorbed with the things right in front of [me]".
So, as soon as I got home, I got alone. Remembering Philippians 4:6, I presented the issue to God. I made requests. I asked for help. Then I repented: for worrying, for allowing fear into my heart, and for being preoccupied with this thing at the expense of my devotion to God.
And, you know what? His peace came. Instantly. It flooded my mind and emotions (check out Psalm 23:3). Logically, the situation remained unresolved so there are things to worry about. But this peace passes understanding. It's the stuff of heaven, it's transcendent beyond the stuff of earth. Even the big stuff.
I didn't stop there. Every day for the next week I "practiced" by presenting that thing to God all over again. I acknowledged His love for me. I made my requests. And then I said to the Lord, "I'm looking at you, God. My eyes are on you. My heart is yours. Don't let my heart wander away from you again."
And the peace remains, guarding my heart and mind: exactly as he promised he would.
When new or resurfacing worries arise in future, I hope to remember to practice Philippians 4:6 immediately rather than discovering a far-away heart after weeks of anxiety. I pray the same for you, too.
In this day, as in every day, it is true of you and me: the Spirit of God is upon us, because he has anointed us. In this season, as in every season, our hearts burn for the kingdom of God to break out among us, bringing hope, freedom, and justice everywhere it goes!
The sun rose over Pretoria West on August 5, and BK arose wearily. He grabbed his backpack and started walking. East, towards the rising sun. Why he was walking, and why east, he didn't know. He was just delaying things.
The Sunday morning traffic was light as he left the Church Street bridge behind. He'd been sleeping there for a while, because the ditch nearby had running water where one can wash his clothes. Work is hard for anybody to find in South Africa, much less for someone with his record.
Two and a half hours later, he was still walking. East, the sun climbing higher and chasing the overnight chill of late winter. He saw the multi-peaked roof of Menlyn Park Shopping Centre. He had walked twelve kilometers. Walking past Menlyn, he remembered his aunt who'd passed away last year. Back when he stayed with her, she attended a church near Menlyn. Near where he was now. Why not? He'd walk a little further east, to his aunt's old church. He would swallow those pills later that night.
Sitting in Hatfield Christian Church, BK was moved by the pastor's message. The warm rays of hope reaching for his heart, he chose to wait at the altar. Hopefully in the busy altar, someone would be able to speak with him. To pray with him. Could he dare to hope again?
He saw Chandra entertaining one of the pastor's children. All the other leaders were busy in the altar. When the children left, he called out to her.
God left glorious, perfect heaven to come to this sin-wrecked planet and live among violent, hateful people, and to die to pay for our sins. Why? To win something back for Himself: you. You. You are worth the very life of God Himself, according to His own actions.
Do you understand how valuable you are to him?
We prayed with BK. He eagerly surrendered his life to Christ. His posture and disposition shifted noticeably. We invited him for lunch at the church's coffee shop and shared more about Christ's life in us. We offered to connect him with a local rehabilitation ministry that provides housing and meals while offering work and skills training. He asked to speak to them immediately. He interviewed over the phone and arranged to meet with them at Hatfield the next morning.
Walking out to our car, BK said to us, "I feel so light!" When I think of his smile, I think of that sunrise he was walking toward that morning. Towards hope.
The next morning, Chandra was waiting at Hatfield Christian Church when BK arrived, having gathered some possessions from nearby the Church Street bridge and walked all the way back: embracing his opportunity with both hands and a lighter soul.
Will you join us in praying for BK? The journey of discipleship requires the same thing as that initial surrender of salvation: complete cooperation with God as He works in us. Pray that he is not sidetracked, distracted, or discouraged. Pray that he stays the course and enters into everything God has for his future.
We celebrate BK's new life in Christ and his discovery of his value to God.
Do you understand how valuable you are to him?
Update: as of October 2018, we've lost touch with BK. While our hearts are sad to not be connected with him, we trust the Lord to continue what He began in BK's heart, and we continue to pray for him.