Advent Devotions (Week 4): Love and a Prostitute

Text: Hosea 14:1-9

“Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.” —Hosea 6:1 ESV

On the last Sunday of Advent, we reflect on scriptures from the Old and New Testaments about God’s love for us. God’s love undergirds the whole story of the Bible: creation, fall, redemption, and the ongoing process of restoration.

Hosea is an Old Testament love story—just not the kind of romance you might be familiar with. Essentially, God told the prophet Hosea to pursue and marry a prostitute (“wife of whoredom”), and then go and take her back again after she proved to be unfaithful in marriage. The same Hebrew term indicating illicit sexual behavior in this passage (Hosea 1:2) is the one Moses uses in Genesis 38:24 to refer to Tamar’s posing as a shrine prostitute in order to entice Judah. Hosea’s wife, Gomer, bears this label, as she becomes a woman characterized by sexual infidelity.

Gomer’s adulteress ways are prophetic symbolism of a people who have committed “great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” This is the first of a series of expressions in Hosea where God puts himself in the place of a forsaken human lover.

In this story, Israel had become a “luxuriant vine that yields its fruit.” The more God’s chosen people prospered, the more their altars were defiled. Their heart was “false” (Hosea 10:1-2). Instead of shepherding the people, their priests had plunged into full-fledged idolatry (10:5). Their worship had become vain words and empty oaths. They had forgotten their God (Hosea 13:6). God said, “The more they were called, the more they went away” (11:2), and “My people are bent on turning away from me” (11:7). The coldness of their spiritual apathy and the callousness of their infidelity were necessitating judgment. “I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs,” the Lord pronounced (13:8). Soon after Hosea prophesied, Israel was ravaged, destroyed, and carried off to Assyria (2 Kings 18:9–12). But this was not to be the end for God’s people in the land, as a return is promised (Hosea 3:5), which was fulfilled when exiled Judah returned from Babylonian captivity.

Hosea culminates with a plea for unfaithful Israel to abandon its idols and return to the Lord. “Break up your fallow ground, for it is the time to seek the Lord, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you” (Hosea 10:12, 14:1-2). God assures them that He is greater than their idols, and He is greater than their failures. His love overshadows their infidelity. His compassion breaks through the darkness of sin and shame, exposing their guilt while promising them a restored future—“They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow” (Hosea 14:7).

It’s ironic that such a depiction of adultery and infidelity ends up contrasting the greatest love story ever known to man—“This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). This love has chased after you throughout your entire life, even in your most unlovable moments and most deplorable seasons. This love took the punishment of your sins so that you can be free.

Advent is a time to recognize that the Lord Jesus Christ is coming to rescue us from all of our personal idols. He intends to shatter our altars of hedonism and self-indulgence. He wants to free us from our spiritual apathy and lukewarmness. He wants to break up the fallow ground of our hearts and annihilate our narcissism. No matter how unfaithful you have been—the depth of your shame, or the guilt you bear—God is rewriting your story. It’s a story about His redemptive love, and a story so much bigger than your failures. As He pursues you and reminds you that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross has obliterated your sin and paid your ransom in full, make room for His love this Christmas. Let Jesus liberate you from every infidelity and every idol—every trapping of the world that promises fulfillment while delivering vanity. Make room for your heart to be recaptured by the passion of your first love.

Are you making room for Jesus this Christmas? Think about that as you seek to abide in His love this week.

PRAYER

Dear Lord, my life would look so different apart from your love. Thank you for the advent of your love. This week, help me to reflect more intentionally over how my life has benefitted from of your love and to consider how I can be more practical in sharing that love with others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. What qualities do you cherish about the person who loves you most?
  2. How is God’s faithfulness to us an example of the way we should treat others?
  3. What are the “idols” in your life from which you should turn away?
  4. What loyalties, things, or relationships do you need to hand over to God?
  5. How can you show love and acceptance to someone in your network of relationships who might be in desperate need of forgiveness or affirmation?

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Advent Devotions (Week 3): Joy and Rejoicing

Text: Luke 1:26-56

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” —Philippians 4:4

The third week of Advent is Joy. Of course, joy and happiness are two different things. Happiness is an emotion that is contingent upon pleasant and conditional circumstances—it is fickle and can be fleeting; joy is the fruit of activating your faith in any given circumstance—good or bad. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit that can be sustained through any and all circumstances when our faith is resting in the Almighty.

The mystery of joy is that we can experience it even in seasons of pain, loss, or fear. This year has been an exceedingly challenging year for our family. We’ve dealt with unique spiritual battles, physical illnesses, and the tragic loss of Cindy’s sister to cancer. We have found that grief doesn’t have to be the absence of joy. Joy can be sustained despite the throes of sorrow and pain, because we know that God has a redemptive plan for our troubles (2 Corinthians 4:17). We grieve over the loss of our dear loved one, but we rejoice in the fact that death has been swallowed up in victory—a cancer-stricken mortal body was overtaken by an immortal and indestructible body (1 Corinthians 15:42-57). The Almighty has conquered the grave and in that we rejoice!

Joy is celebrating when you want to fear and doubt. It’s activating your faith when you want to run and hide. Imagine being in Mary’s shoes that very first Christmas with all those unknowns. You are an unwed teenage girl—a virgin still—and yet it’s been proclaimed by an angel that you are with child. She had so much to fear: the supernatural mysteries of her pregnancy, the implications of giving birth to the son of God, the scandalizing of her name, the potential rejection of her fiancée, the ridicule of her family. But what’s the first thing the angel says in this divine encounter? “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”

Don’t miss the etymology of the word “Greetings.” It’s not just code for a casual hello. The Greek verb is chairō and it means “to be cheerful, to be well, to bid farewell or God speed, to hail, or to rejoice.” Gabriel is speaking (declaring) joy into Mary’s circumstances, letting her know that she doesn’t have to serve her fears, but she can trust the Almighty to take care of her; it’s overwhelming in the moment but everything is going to be okay. Joy is the fruit of rejoicing. Rejoicing is not an emotion or feeling; it’s a deliberate act of the will declaring its trust in God’s promises and assurances. It’s what Paul was doing from a prison cell and admonishing us to do in every circumstance (Philippians 4:4-8, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

Mary gets it. She tunes her heart to worship and sings a powerful song of praise in the middle of all her fears, uncertainties, and feelings of aloneness. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” she sings. It’s a declaration of faith in the One Whose grip will not let her go. Her chorus has at least twelve allusions to Old Testament promises, implying that Mary was well versed in the Scriptures. God’s Word was on her heart and it came out through her song.

During this time of advent, we are reminded that circumstances don’t have to dictate our joy. To rejoice is to abide in Him regardless of our circumstances. We can trust that God is going to come through because He has given us His Word and His faithful résumé. He’s never failed you (Psalm 37:25). As my old friend used to say, “He’s brought you through the ocean, He won’t let you drown in the bathtub.”

We have a choice when it comes to rejoicing. We can choose to focus on all the worries that consume us, or we can choose to focus on the faithfulness of Christ that ultimately consumes all of those fears. We can rejoice in all circumstances! Begin to do that this week by speaking (declaring) joy over your given circumstances, like the angel did with Mary. Do that by tuning your heart to worship God, like Mary did, singing about His faithfulness throughout every generation. This Christmas, may the real joy of Christ overtake you as you choose to abide in His unfailing love and unwavering promises.

PRAYER

Father in heaven, thank you for the gift of your son, Jesus, who came to be the Savior for everyone who trusts in him. Fill our hearts with fresh wonder of what that first Christmas means for us today. Help us to rejoice in all that Jesus has done to save us, and help us to share the great joy of this good news with others you put in our path. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. Why do you think some people have a heightened sense of joy around Christmas time? (family, festivities, gifts, parties, etc.)
  2. If you had the skill and opportunity, how would you tell the world about a life-changing experience: write a song, publish a book, make a documentary, produce a movie, etc.? Why?
  3. What kind of attitude was apparent in Mary’s response to the angel’s visit and what did Mary’s final statement to Gabriel show about her relationship with God? (Luke 1:38)
  4. What attributes of God are extolled in the first part of Mary’s song? (Luke 1:46-49) How did Mary describe herself in her song? (1:47-48) In what ways can you develop the kind of humble spirit that Mary had?
  5. What correlation does God’s Word factor into our ability to rejoice? In what practical ways can you choose to rejoice this week, regardless of your circumstances? (write out Bible verses on memory cards, have a specific worship playlist, write in your journal, have conversations with others, have each family member share one thing they are trusting God to handle, )

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Advent Devotions (Week 2): Peace and Shalom

Text: Isaiah 9:1-7, Luke 2:1-20

“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.” —Isaiah 26:3

Christmas is a celebration of God’s faithfulness to His promises—namely the promise of a coming Messiah whose kingdom reign would change everything. Yes, everything! Yet our celebration is often overshadowed by the hustle and bustle of the season and the stress of making everything perfect. Though we sing songs about peace, we often spend the holiday season frantic, frazzled, and devoid of it.

As sure as anything else, God wants you to experience peace this Christmas. He doesn’t want you as panicky as a long-tailed kitty cat in a room full of rocking chairs. The key to living in that peace comes down to the aspect of your focus.

The Hebrew word for peace is shalom. This word occurs over 250 times in the Old Testament. Over the centuries, religious scholars have spilled barrels of ink reflecting on its association and complex meaning. Though our common western definition of peace is something akin to “the absence of conflict or war,” in Hebrew it means so much more. “Shalom” is taken from the root word shalam, which means, “to be safe in mind, body, or estate.” It speaks of completeness, fullness, or a type of wholeness that encourages you to live generously toward others. This is the biblical concept of peace that God promised His people in the looming days before that very first advent of Jesus Christ.

Throughout the Old Testament, God unfolds his redemptive plan for re-establishing His shalom on earth. Through the line of Abraham, God tells His people that they will bless all of humanity. He made “a covenant of peace” with them (Ezekiel 34:24-25) and promised to restore all things by sending a Savior through this lineage. This promised Messiah would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). This was prophesied about Jesus more than 700 years before his birth.

When we read the Christmas story of Christ’s birth in Luke 2, we find a great multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:10-14). Christ appeared to usher in a new era of peace with God, and peace with others. Our sins had separated us from our God (Isaiah 59:2), but when Jesus died in our place on Calvary’s cross, he took the punishment those sins deserved (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)—affording us a forever shalom and an eternal peace with God (Romans 5:1).

Christ, the divine embodiment of Shalom, is the only thing that can bring this world true and lasting peace. The Bible says, “Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:7). I think by now we can all agree that human governments and man’s institutions are desperately inadequate to bring about real peace and reconciliation. We need divine help! Scripture tells us that only His peace can break down the walls of enmity and human divide created by our own dogmas, religions, politics, and racial or ethnic differences (Ephesians 2:15–16). God’s kingdom reign ushers in peace that passes understanding (Philippians 4:7). He wants you to live under the government of that peace.

To do that, take refuge in the words of Jesus: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). Focus your eyes and fix your heart on God’s promise: “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you” (Isaiah 26:3). Speak peace (shalom) into the lives of others, even over strangers during your Christmas shopping. I like to do this by praying the Aaronic blessing over people (Numbers 6:22–27), or quietly uttering the word “shalom” as I pass by someone. Be an active agent of peace, working with the Holy Spirit in restoring God’s shalom on earth (Matthew 5:9)—we never flesh out this principle more than when we are actively engaged in making peace with those whom we have had past offenses or conflict.

Let’s live in God’s peace, and extend that shalom to others all around us as we actively abide in Him this Christmas season.

PRAYER

Our prayer this advent week is an echo of a shalom-filled petition made by St. Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; and Where there is sadness, joy… Divine Master; Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. If you could sleep out under the stars anywhere in the world, where would you put down your pillow?
  2. What message did the angel tell the shepherds? (Luke 2:10, 12) How do you think God might translate that message directly toward your circumstances, fears, or worries today?
  3. What does it mean that Mary “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”? What is required to transfer head knowledge about peace into real life experiences with peace?
  4. What is the responsibility of those who “discover” the good news about Jesus and his embodiment of peace?
  5. Where do you need to shift your focus so that you can live in the fullness of God’s shalom this Christmas season?

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Advent Devotions (Week 1): Faith and Expectancy

Text: Psalm 52:1-9, Isaiah 52:7-10

“I will thank you forever, because you have done it. I will wait for your name, for it is good, in the presence of the godly.” —Psalm 52-9

It was Christmas Eve, 1981. I was restless with the excitement of what I might find wrapped under the Christmas tree in the morning. The popular NFL Electric Football game had been on my Christmas wish list since, like spring. I had been holding out hope for many months, anticipating getting my hands on those little plastic football players and setting them up on the metal vibrating gridiron. I couldn’t sleep as that expectancy was already vibrating in my little 10-year old imagination.

We live in a time of the instant fix. Whether it’s instant downloads, immediate text responses, or that microwaved dinner on demand, we’ve grown addicted to getting what we want—or need—at the moment we desire it. Yet God has His ways of reminding us that He won’t be manipulated to suit our demands. No matter how addicted to instant fixes we get, there are still things that we must learn to wait for in patience and hope for in faith.

Waiting is the embodiment of faith—a faith that must learn to trust God’s character, His intentions, and His timing.

Hebrews 11:13 tells us that faith involves trusting God’s promises even if they are fulfilled long after we’re gone. The writer says, “These all died in faith without having received the promises, but they saw them from a distance…”

Advent is about faith in God’s divine goodness, expectancy in His redemptive plan, and patience in waiting for His promises to unfold in His timing. The 400 years leading up to the birth of Jesus have been referred to as the “Silent Years,” because it appears that it was a span when God revealed nothing new to His people. Then suddenly the Messiah was born! The story of Christ’s birth gives us assurance and joy because even though the waiting lingered for decades, God broke through at just the right time.

Consider your relationship with God in this moment. Are you struggling in a season of silence?

Psalm 52 is written during such a season. It is set to the backdrop of David’s flight from Saul (1 Samuel 21:1–7), which led to the slaughter at Nob of the priests who had helped David (1 Samuel 22:9–19). The situation looks dauntingly bleak. But David looks beyond his dire circumstances to the unswerving character of God. His faith imbues confidence that God will “uproot” the wicked and establish the faithful, whom he describes as a “green olive tree” (an image of vitality and fruitfulness, cf. Jeremiah 11:16; Hosea 14:6; cf. Psalm 92:12–14 for a palm tree in God’s courts). He concludes that the faithful trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever (52:8). The prospect that God will vindicate His name by protecting those who trust in Him enables David to wait in hope.

Friend, no matter how silent the season or bleak the circumstances may be—health complications, unemployment, financial hardship, loss of purpose, broken relationships, the sting of betrayal—God has never changed and He will show up. His character can be trusted. His intentions can be trusted. His timing can be trusted. He will establish the faithful and He will vindicate His own name in the story of your life. Trust Him!

As believers, we live with the anticipation that God will flex His strength in every situation, and that “all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (Isaiah 52:10). Break forth in singing… for the Lord has comforted His people!

PRAYER

God, I can get impatient with life. I can get snippy about having to wait. Teach me the virtue of waiting with patience. Show me how to trust You even in seasons of silence. Remind me that everything is temporary, including my momentary afflictions. Help me to trust in Your eternal redemption of all things, and to be assured that Your timing is always perfect. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. When have you had to wait for something you eagerly anticipated?
  2. Why do you think waiting can be a vital component of our faith?
  3. What expectations do you have of life after death? How does a person’s beliefs about life after death impact the way he or she chooses to live?
  4. What vow did David make to the Lord in the conclusion of the psalm? (Psalm 52:9)
  5. What kind of faith resolve to you need to make right now?

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When the Most Wonderful Time of the Year is a Mess

Text: Matthew 1:18-25

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). —Matthew 1:23

The most wonderful time of the year can be quite a mess. I look around and recognize that there’s not a whole lot of “happy” left in the holidays. Shopping malls are chaotic. Road rage lurks around every bend. I even saw one of Santa’s elves beating up another elf. Tis the season for… stress, and in some instances the loss of our humanity. And this is just the external mess.

Internally, we may be struggling with our own mess: trying to maintain the illusion of a Christmas-card-perfect December while really feeling wrecked and exhausted inside, struggling with family or relationship tensions, dealing with financial strain, or failing to control our temper in such times of madness. Then we try to sing “Silent Night” while the choir of shame sings a completely different tune in the soul.

What do we do when the most wonderful time of the year gets so messy? We need to remember that God didn’t send baby Jesus into a warm and fuzzy illusion. He didn’t send the Savior into an insulated bubble of morality. He sent His Son into a stressed out and jacked up world—a very messy one filled with racial and religious hostility, sharp political discord, injustice on the streets, madness on the corners, and hopelessness in the hearts of everyday people.

To this tumultuous backdrop, the Gospel of Matthew loudly proclaims:

“’She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.’ Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us.’”
(Matthew 1:21-23)

God “with us” in the mess? Perhaps we have decorated the Christmas story and sanitized the nativity far too much to remember how incredibly messy was that real scene in Bethlehem. Jesus in the manger is the Mess-iah who entered the mess by divine design, spending his first night sleeping in quite possibly the dirtiest corner of that town. God wants you to know, beloved, that none of the dirt in your life intimidates Him. He is not a God demanding that you get your act together in order to be worthy of His visitation; rather He has demonstrated quite vividly that the mess cannot, and will not keep Him away. He loves you too much to leave you alone in the mess.

As Ann Spangler notes: “When our sins made it impossible for us to come to Him, God took the outrageous step of coming to us, of making Himself susceptible to sorrow, familiar with temptation, and vulnerable to sin’s disruptive power, in order to cancel its claim.” He has not only invaded our mess—He has conquered it!

A Savior who isn’t intimidated by the mess will rescue you from any and every maddening situation. He will also rescue you from yourself this Christmas. Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

Lord Jesus, thank you for invading our mess. You are not a distant Messiah, but one who is very near, deeply familiar with our struggle… our pain… and our despair. You are here. You are holy. You are awesome in power. And You are bigger than all of this. You want to rescue us again this Christmas. Save us from those feelings of being left to ourselves in all the madness. Let that revelation bring the joy back into Christmas—the happy back into the holidays. In Your name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. What kind of madness have you witnessed during the holiday season? Why do people seem to lose it this time of year?
  2. Why do you think people are so stressed to make Christmas perfect?
  3. What is the significance of the name Immanuel? Why do you think God wanted that in the narrative of Christ’s birth?
  4. What is it that makes people feel they need to get it all together before coming to God?
  5. In what ways can God rescue you from yourself this Christmas?

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Advent Is Like a Prison Cell

Text: Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 1:46-55

“I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.” —Psalm 130:5

In 1943 German theologian and anti-Nazi dissident, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a letter from Tegel Prison as he prepared to live out the Advent season from a jail cell:

“A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes—and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.”

Though the analogy of a prison cell and Advent does deviate from traditional thoughts of glowing candles, melodic choirs, and ceremonious church bells, it does evoke images of desperate waiting—a kind of waiting that Bonhoeffer believed would ultimately prepare us for Christ’s coming. He once described how an Altdorfer Nativity scene “in which one sees the holy family with the manger amidst the rubble of collapsed house… is particularly timely.” Amid worldly chaos, the uncertainty of the future, and the consciousness of our own failings and captivity, “even here one can and ought to celebrate Christmas,” because Christ “is coming to rescue us from the prisons of our existence, from anxiety, from guilt, and from loneliness.”

Those many months that Mary had to wait for God’s promise to be fulfilled must’ve been agonizing. The teenage mother’s reputation would surely be scandalized with the birth of an illegitimate child. Joseph was prepared to “divorce her,” not buying the whole “angelic” story that what was conceived in her was “from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18-19). Mary must have felt confused and misunderstood. Overwhelmed. Distressed. Physically exhausted. Emotionally fatigued. Shamed. Judged. Powerless. Alone.

Mary had a season of waiting. This was her advent, necessitating faith, hope, and trust in the goodness of God’s plan, despite her present circumstances. Life has a way of bringing us all to this place at times—a place where we are completely dependent on the fact that our help must come from beyond ourselves. Whether we are stuck in a toxic work environment, out of a job altogether, feeling purposelessness, being misunderstood or falsely characterized, dealing with a difficult relationship, facing financial hardship, fighting an illness, or praying for the return of a prodigal son or daughter, the waiting is indeed the hardest part.

It’s been said that walking in the will of God might mean waiting as much as it might mean moving forward. Waiting is an exercise of faith that can often reveal something about the condition of our heart. Does the heart trust that God is good and that He is for us, or is it anxious because of unbelief?

In her season of advent, Mary discovered a song in her heart (Luke 1:46-55). Likewise did King David when he felt trapped in a desperate season of waiting (Psalm 40:1-17). What will be your song, Beloved? Long ago, the prophet Isaiah gave us something to sing about:

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.

May the Lord increase your strength and give you that personal freedom song as you abide in His word, trust in His plan, and wait patiently for His inevitable return.

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, because of your love and faithfulness, we can learn to rejoice in you always even as Paul encouraged the Philippians to do from a cold and lonely prison cell. We don’t have to understand how you will deliver us to already have a song of deliverance in our hearts. Help us to sing that song over and over again as we wait and prepare for your certain coming.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. When do you hate to wait? Why is waiting so hard?
  2. How might you have responded to Mary’s situation?
  3. What picture did David use to describe God’s deliverance in the past? (Psalm 40:1-2)
  4. What specific instructions does this psalm give to God’s people? (Psalm 40:4)
  5. What does God really want from us—especially in seasons of waiting? How can you cultivate more of that (what God wants) this week?

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