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The Numbers of Hope
By Max Lucado, Karen Hill
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Max Lucado
All rights reserved.
What will my friends think?
He's waiting for the shadows. Darkness will provide the cover he wants. So he waits for the safety of nightfall. He sits near the second-floor window of his house, watching the sunset, waiting for the right time. Waiting.
Tonight Nicodemus goes where no one who knows him would believe. Tomorrow morning he'll go where everyone expects him to be. He will gather with religious leaders like he does every morning and do what religious leaders do: discuss God. Discuss reaching God, pleasing God, appeasing God. God.
Pharisees talk about God. And Nicodemus sits among them. Debating. Pondering. Solving puzzles about God.
What does God say? Nicodemus needs to know. It's his job. He's a holy man and leads holy men. His name appears on the elite list of Torah scholars. He dedicated his life to the law and occupies one of the seventy-one seats of the Judean supreme court. He has credentials, clout, and questions.
Questions for this Galilean preacher. The man who has ample time for the down-and-out crowd but little time for religious leaders.
So Nicodemus comes at night. His friends can't know of the meeting. They wouldn't understand. As the shadows darken the city, Nicodemus steps out, slips unseen through the winding streets. He passes servants lighting lamps in the courtyards and takes a path that ends at the door of a simple house. Jesus and his followers are staying here, he's been told. Nicodemus knocks.
The noisy room silences as Nicodemus enters. The men are wharf workers and tax collectors, unaccustomed to the highbrow world of a scholar. They squirm in their seats. Silence.
The awkward silence ends as Nicodemus begins the most famous conversation in the Bible: "Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him" (John 3:2 NKJV).
Nicodemus begins with what he "knows." I've done my homework, he implies. Your work impresses me.
We wait for Jesus to return the compliment. "And I've heard of you, Nicodemus."
None comes. Jesus makes no mention of Nicodemus's VIP status or good intentions, not because they don't exist, but because, according to Jesus, they just don't matter. He simply issues this proclamation: "Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (3:3 NKJV).
Behold the Continental Divide of Scripture, the International Date Line of faith. Nicodemus stands on one side, Jesus on the other, and Christ pulls no punches about their differences.
Nicodemus lives in a land of good efforts, sincere gestures, and hard work. Give God your best and God does the rest.
Jesus's response? Your best won't do. Your works don't work. Your finest efforts don't mean squat. Unless you are born again, you can't even see what God is up to.
Nicodemus hesitates. Born again? "How can a man be born when he is old?" (3:4 NKJV). You must be kidding. Put life in reverse? Rewind the tape? Start all over? We can't be born again.
Oh, but wouldn't we like to? A do-over. A try-again.
Jesus doesn't crack a smile. "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (3:5 NKJV). About this time a gust of wind blows a few leaves through the still-open door. Jesus picks one off the floor and holds it up. God's power works like that wind, Jesus explains. Newborn hearts are born of heaven. You can't wish, earn, or create one. New birth? Inconceivable. God handles the task, start to finish.
Nicodemus looks around the room at the followers. Their blank expressions betray equal bewilderment.
Born again. Birth, by definition, is a passive act. The child contributes nothing to the delivery. Mom deserves the gold. She exerts the effort. She pushes, agonizes, and delivers.
The mother pays the price of birth. The baby doesn't do any of the work. Likewise, a spiritual rebirthing requires a capable parent, not an able infant.
The original creator must do it again. This is the act that Jesus describes.
Born: God exerts the effort.
Again: God restores the beauty.
We don't try again. We need not the muscle of self but a miracle of God. The thought strikes Nicodemus as insane. "How can this be?" (3:9). Jesus answers by leading him to the Hope diamond of the Bible.
A twenty-six-word parade of hope: beginning with God, ending with life, and urging us to do the same. Brief enough to write on a napkin or memorize in a moment, yet solid enough to weather two thousand years of storms and questions. If you know nothing of the Bible, start here. If you know everything in the Bible, return here. We all need the reminder.
The heart of the human problem is the heart of the human. And God's treatment is prescribed in John 3:16.
The words are to Scripture what the Mississippi River is to America—an entryway into the heartland. Believe or dismiss them, embrace or reject them, any serious consideration of Christ must include them. Could you ponder the words of Christ and never understand John 3:16?
Read it again, slowly and aloud, and note the word that snatches your attention. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
"God so loved the world ..." We'd expect an anger-fueled God. One who punishes the world, recycles the world, forsakes the world, ... but loves the world?
The world? This world? With all the horrible things that go on—child abuse, hunger, poverty, war ...? And God loves the world so much he gave his:
No. The heart-stilling, mind-bending, deal-making-or-breaking claim of John 3:16 is this: God gave his son ... his only son. Scripture equates Jesus with God. God, then, gave himself. Why? So that "whoever believes in him shall not perish."
Whoever ... a universal word.
And perish ... a sobering word. We'd like to dilute, if not delete, the term. Not Jesus. He pounds Do Not Enter signs on every square inch of Satan's gate and tells those hell-bent on entering to do so over his dead body. Even so, some souls insist.
In the end, some perish and some live. And what determines the difference? Not talents or what you do, not who you are or your possessions. Nicodemus had all of these. The difference is determined by our belief. "Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
THINK IT OVER
Have you ever hidden your search for God from friends? If so, why?
For you, what's the hardest thing about God's character to understand?
In what ways do you want to be like God?
Who is God?
3:16—"For God so loved the world ..."
If only I could talk to the pilot. Thirty seconds would do. Face-to-face. Just so I could explain. He was, after all, the one bumping my wife and me from his plane.
Not that I could blame him. Denalyn had picked up more than souvenirs in Hong Kong. She was so nauseous I had to wheelchair her through the airport. She flopped onto her seat and pillowed her head against the window, and I promised to leave her alone for the fourteen-hour flight.
I had a simple goal: get Denalyn on the plane.
The airline staff had an opposite one: get Denalyn off.
Blame me for their fear. When a worried flight attendant asked about my wife's condition, I sent shock waves through the fuselage with my answer: "Virus." Attendants hurried to our seats like police at a crime scene.
"How long has she been sick?"
"Did you see a doctor?"
"Have you considered swimming home?"
I downplayed Denalyn's condition. "Give us one barf bag, and we're happy travelers." No one laughed. The news of a virus reached the pilot, and the pilot made a decision: "Not on my plane."
"You must leave," his bouncer informed us matter-of-factly.
I leaned sideways and looked down the aisle for the man in charge, but the cockpit door was closed. Coward. I wanted to plead my case, but the man in charge was unavailable for comment. He had a 747 to fly, a seven-thousand-mile trip ... and no time for us.
Can you relate? You may feel the same about the pilot of the universe. God: the too-busy-for-you commander in chief. Even worse, you may suspect a vacant captain's seat. How do we know a hand secures the controls? Can we assume there's a pilot behind the steel door?
This is where Christ comes in. He escorts passengers to the cockpit, enters 3:16 in the keypad, and unlocks the door to God. "For God so loved the world ..."
Jesus assumes what Scripture declares: God is.
For proof, look up at the sky. That fuzzy band of white light is our galaxy, the Milky Way. One hundred billion stars. Our galaxy is one of billions of others! Who can understand such a universe, let alone more universes than we could count?
No one can. But let's try anyway. Suppose you attempt to drive to the sun. A car dealer offers you a sweet deal on a space vehicle that averages 150 mph. You hop in, open the moon roof, and blast off. You drive nonstop, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. Any guess as to the length of your trip? Try 70 years!
Suppose, after stretching your legs and catching a bit of sun, you fuel up and rocket off to Alpha Centauri, the next closest star system. Best pack a lunch and clear your calendar. You'll need 15 million years to make the trip.
Don't like to drive, you say? Board a jet, and zip through our solar system at a blistering 600 mph. In 16.5 days you'll reach the moon, in 17 years you'll pass the sun, and in 690 years you can enjoy dinner on Pluto. After seven centuries you haven't even left our solar system, much less our galaxy.
Our universe speaks of God. "The heavens declare the glory of God" (Psalm 19:1). A house implies a builder; a painting suggests a painter. Don't stars suggest a star maker? Look above you.
Now look within you. Look at your sense of right and wrong. Somehow even as a child you knew it was wrong to hurt people and right to help them. Who told you? Who says? Could your conscience have been from God?
You aren't alone. Every culture has frowned upon selfishness and celebrated courage. Even cannibals display rudimentary justice, usually refusing to eat their children. A universal standard exists. Just as a code writer connects computers with common software bundles, a common code connects people. We may violate or ignore the code, but we can't deny it. Even people who have never heard God's name sense his law within them. "There is something deep within [humanity] that echoes God's yes and no, right and wrong" (Romans 2:15 MSG). When atheists decry injustice, they can thank God for the ability to discern it. The conscience is God's fingerprint, proof of his existence.
Heavens above, moral code within. Someone got this plane airborne, and it wasn't any of us. There is a pilot, and he is unlike anyone we've seen.
"To whom, then, will you compare God?" the prophet asks (Isaiah 40:18). To whom indeed?
Hence, he always is. "Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God" (Psalm 90:2 NKJV).
God never began and will never cease. He exists endlessly, always. "The number of His years is unsearchable" (Job 36:26 NASB).
Even so, let's try to search them. Let every speck of sand, from the Sahara to South Beach, represent a billion years of God's existence. With some super vacuum, suck and then blow all the particles into a mountain, and count how many you have. Multiply your total by a billion and listen as God reminds: "They don't represent a fraction of my existence."
He is "the eternal God" (Romans 16:26). He invented time and owns the patent. "The day is yours, and yours also the night" (Psalm 74:16). He was something before anything else was. When the first angel lifted the first wing, God had already always been.
Most staggering of all, he has never messed up. Not once. The prophet Isaiah described his glimpse of God. He saw six-winged angels. Though sinless, they covered themselves in God's presence. Two wings covered eyes, two wings covered feet, and two carried the angels airborne. They volleyed one phrase back and forth: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts" (Isaiah 6:3 NKJV).
God is holy. Every decision, exact. Each word, appropriate. Never out-of-bounds or out of place. Not even tempted to make a mistake.
Tally this up. No needs. No age. No sin. No wonder he said, "I am God, and there is none like me" (Isaiah 46:9).
But is God's grandness good news? Smart pilots boot sick people off the plane. An all-powerful God might do likewise.
In the cockpit: God, who has no needs, age, or sin. Bouncing in the back of the plane: Max. Burger dependent. Half-asleep. Compared to God, I have the life span of a fruit fly.
And sinless? I can't maintain a holy thought for two minutes. Should we fear God's greatness? We should if we didn't have the next four words of John 3:16: "For God so loved the world."
The one who formed you pulls for you. Untrumpable power stoked by unstoppable love. "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31).
God does for you what Bill Tucker's father did for him. Bill was sixteen years old when his dad suffered a health crisis and had to leave his business. Even after Mr. Tucker regained his health, the Tucker family struggled financially, barely getting by.
Then Mr. Tucker came up with an idea. He won the bid to reupholster the chairs at the local movie theater. This stunned his family. He had never stitched a seat. He didn't even own a sewing machine. Still, he found someone to teach him and located an industrial-strength machine. The family scraped together every cent they had to buy it. They drained savings accounts and dug coins out of the sofa. Finally, they had enough.
It was a fine day when Bill rode with his dad to pick up the equipment. Bill remembers a jovial, hour-long trip talking about their bright future. They loaded the machine in the back of their truck and secured it right behind the cab. Mr. Tucker then invited his son to drive home. I'll let Bill tell you what happened:
As we were driving along, we were excited, and I, like any sixteen-year-old driver, was probably not paying enough attention to my speed. Just as we were turning on the cloverleaf to get on the expressway, I will never ever, ever forget watching that sewing machine, which was already top-heavy, begin to tip. I slammed on the brakes, but it was too late. I saw it go over the side. I jumped out and ran around the back of the truck. As I rounded the corner, I saw our hope and our dream lying on its side in pieces. And then I saw my dad just looking. All of his risk and all of his endeavor and all of his struggling and all of his dream, all of his hope to take care of his family was lying there, shattered.
You know what comes next, don't you? "Stupid, punk kid driving too fast, not paying attention, ruined the family by taking away our livelihood." But that's not what he said. He looked right at me. "Oh, Bill, I am so sorry." And he walked over, put his arms around me, and said, "Son, this is going to be okay."
God is whispering the same to you. Those are his arms you feel. Trust him. That is his voice you hear. Believe him. Allow the only decision maker in the universe to comfort you. Life at times appears to fall to pieces, seems irreparable. But it's going to be okay. How can you know? Because God so loved the world. And,
Since he has no needs, you cannot tire him.
Since he is without age, you cannot lose him.
Since he has no sin, you cannot corrupt him.
If God can make a billion galaxies, can't he make good out of our bad? Of course he can. He is God. He not only flies the plane, but he knows the passengers and has a special place for those who are sick and ready to get home.
THINK IT OVER
Who is God to you?
Think about a tough time in your life. How did it make you feel about God?
What one thing in God's creation points you to him more than anything else?
Excerpted from 3:16 by Max Lucado, Karen Hill. Copyright © 2007 Max Lucado. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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