Friday, December 9, 2016

Preparing For Christmas

We are in the heart of the holiday season, and most of us have one eye on Christmas even as we go about our daily tasks.  We shop, cook and bake, plan gatherings and parties, decorate, and send greeting cards.  It is a time of preparation!  In the midst of our busyness, though, I think one of the most important ways that we can prepare for Christmas is to consider how God prepared for Christmas.  Please join me in a brief journey through Scripture to observe a few highlights of God’s preparation.

In the Bible, the story of Christmas begins well before the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s birth.  It starts even before Genesis.  We read in Ephesians that our salvation in Christ is established before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4).  Our all-knowing, time-transcendent God starts to prepare for Christmas even before He creates the earth—and us!

We read in Genesis the very familiar account of the creation, of the Godhead working in concert to create—out of nothing—this glorious planet and the living things on it.  By the third chapter we read of the fall, of the broken relationship between God and the man and his wife.  But as God pronounces the consequences of their pride-driven choice, He also offers a glimpse of His redemption plan: sometime, somewhere, Eve’s seed—Christ, God Incarnate—will crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15).

Generation after sinful generation follow, to the point where we read that the violence and Godlessness among mankind cause God to regret His creating them (Genesis 6:6).  But still God prepares for Christmas.  He calls Noah to build the ark and then saves him and his family as the remnant through whom Eve’s Seed would come.

Generations after Noah, through Noah’s son Shem, Abram is born.  God calls Abram and establishes His covenant with Abram, promising to make a great nation through Abram and to bless all families of the earth through him (Genesis 12:2-3).  God uses Abram to introduce the concept of righteousness by faith, and it is through Abram that we meet Melchizedek, the mysterious high priest of God Most High, a priest whose ministry is apart from the Law that is to come and who is forerunner of Christ. 

God continues to prepare for Christmas.  As He renames Abram Abraham and Sarai Sarah, He empowers them to have a son, Isaac.  Isaac and Rebekah have Jacob and Esau, and again, we see God’s careful preparation as He chooses the younger son, Jacob, to bear the covenant forward.  The story of Jacob and Esau does not make for pleasant reading, and the ugliness continues among Jacob’s twelve sons.  But God is not deterred, and His preparation for Christmas continues.  He uses Jacob’s 11th son, Joseph, to keep His chosen people alive in the midst of famine, and as Jacob—called Israel by God—dies, his blessing of Judah contains a prophetic glimpse of Christ the Messiah: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.”

The Hebrew people demonstrate an appreciation for their heritage as the people of God, and even as they endure centuries of slavery in Egypt, careful record of tribes is kept.  When God finally calls Moses to lead His people out of Egypt, Judah’s descendants are among those rescued.  After 40 years in the wilderness, He calls Joshua to lead them into the Promised Land.  God’s plan for Christmas includes a place as well as a people. 

The Hebrew people are not particularly good at being God’s people, even after God has established them as a nation.  Even King David, the man after God’s own heart, commits  adultery and murder.  But King David’s flaws do not distract God from His plans.  We read in Psalm 89 of the LORD’s covenant with David, and His promise to establish His throne by a descendant of David, who is, of course of the tribe of Judah.  What is truly extraordinary is that in revealing a bit of His Christmas plans to David, God also gives future generations—and us—substance upon which His Messiah can be recognized.

As Hebrew history continues, the prophets are given glimpses of the coming Messiah.  Isaiah announces Immanuel born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14), and he speaks at length of God’s plan to bring to His people the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace who as a descendant of David will rule for all eternity (Isaiah 9).  Jeremiah communicates a word of encouragement from the LORD, that He will make a new covenant with His people and that His plans for them are for a future and for hope (Jeremiah 29:11).  Micah reinforces the Davidic line of the promised Seed in proclaiming that the coming Savior would be born in Bethlehem, David’s place of birth.  And again, the prophet’s words give those who heard them hope and give future generations assistance in recognizing the Messiah so that they could celebrate Christmas.

God’s plans for Christmas become increasingly detailed and specific as the moment approaches.  He breaks through a lifetime of infertility and the limited faith of Zechariah as He sends Gabriel to announce to Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth that she will conceive the forerunner to the Messiah.  Six months later, He sends Gabriel to Mary to announce that she is the chosen bearer of the awaited One.  Shortly after, God communicates with Mary’s betrothed Joseph via an unnamed angel to assure him that Mary’s highly unusual pregnancy is of His doing.  And sure enough, Mary and Joseph are descendants of King David. 

As history’s clock ticks, God moves in the heart of the Roman Emperor to declare a census that requires Joseph and Mary to travel from their hometown of Nazareth to Bethlehem just before it is time for her to give birth.  Legions of angels await the opportunity to proclaim the great event.  And then it happens, a real event in real time, orchestrated by an eternal God.  The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke record the first Christmas, and we see the fruit of God’s preparations.  The long-promised and highly anticipated Messiah has come!  His natal star bears witness to this great event so that we see confirmation in the form of the three Magi who arrive probably a year or two later to worship the newborn King. 

God’s preparations for Christmas have been concluded, but as we read further in these Gospel accounts and beyond in the New Testament, we see that the birth of Christ is only the beginning of the great plan.  Approximately 30 years after that first Christmas, Christ, the Lamb of God, takes away the sin of the world by dying on the cross.  Redemption has indeed been accomplished but not yet completed.  We learn that God is not yet done with His preparative work.  While His plans to reveal the Messiah at the first advent of Christ have been accomplished and Christ’s saving work on the cross is finished, we know that He continues to plan and work toward the second advent of Christ, when the redemptive work of Christ will come to its full fruition, and the eternal reign of Christ will begin.

So as we continue to scurry and plan, may we turn thankful hearts to the Lord of our Christmas feast and joyfully appreciate His loving preparation on our behalf.  And may we also remember that God continues to prepare for the second advent of Christ and remain alert in eager and confident anticipation.

Friday, December 2, 2016

An Advent Thought For The Day

"Immanuel" carries with it three distinct but interwoven connotations:
               Jesus is God
               Jesus is human
               Jesus is with us

                                                           From Hidden Christmas, by Timothy Keller

Thursday, December 1, 2016

An Advent Thought For The Day

Wise men still seek Him....

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Preparing for Christmas

'Tis the prepare for Christmas.  As we hurry through our days, driven by our expanding "To Do" lists,  I am reminded of a sentiment voiced by many marriage counselors:  "I so wish that this couple would have spent as much time and energy on preparing for a strong marriage as they did on preparing for a grand wedding."

The same can be said for Christmas.  May we spend as much time preparing our hearts to receive Christ in a deeper and more meaningful way as we do in purchasing gifts, decorating our homes, and baking goodies.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Wisdom of a Hymn

"Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in his hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand."

Ancient chant
Translated from the Greek by Gerard Moultrie

Monday, November 28, 2016

Advent Thought For The Day

"This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild
Had Mary been filled with reason
There'd have been no room for the child."

                                                      Madeleine L'Engle

Sunday, November 27, 2016

An Advent Meditation and Prayer

Beloved in Christ, in this season of Advent, let it be our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the Angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem, to see the Babe lying in the manger.

Let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this holy Child; and let us look forward to the yearly remembrance of His birth with hymns and songs of praise.

The Almighty God bless us with His grace; Christ give us the joys of everlasting life; and unto the fellowship of the citizens above may the King of Angels bring us all.  Amen.

                                                                                            Ancient Bidding Prayer


Sunday, November 6, 2016

Pleasing God As We Thank Him

As we head into November, it is appropriate and helpful to think about thanksgiving, the giving of thanks, the cultivation of a grateful heart.  I would like to start by considering an interesting passage:

And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. ‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’  But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’  I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  (Luke 18:9-14).

Here we see a devoutly religious man giving thanks.  What could be wrong with that?  Jesus explains that his thanks fall short because his prayer of thanksgiving is self-focused rather than God focused.  The Pharisee’s thanksgiving is about his feeling good about himself.  The tax collector knew that he had no cause to feel good about himself, and his prayer is God-focused.  And it is in this culturally-despised sinner that God takes pleasure.

I think we can learn a great deal from this passage.  Not all thanksgiving is created equal!  The giving of thanks is much more than finding things for which to be thankful.  While it is not inappropriate to thank God for our health, families, homes, and jobs, the real “rubber meets the road” issue is that of context.  Do we see our health, families, homes, and jobs as products of our hard work and effort.? Or do we, like the tax collector in our story, genuinely realize that we can earn nothing before God and that even as we see good in our labor, it is the gift of God (Ecclesiastes 3:13)?

Thanksgiving is an opportunity to come before God and to ask Him to reveal Himself to us.  And then, as we catch a glimpse of who He is, we can begin to see who we are before Him—unworthy and empty-handed but blessed by His mercy, grace, love, and all of His abundant provision.  Then we are truly in a position to give thanks and glorify God.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Thought For A Lifetime

"Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass.  It's about learning how to dance in the rain....

                                                                                                             Vivian Greene

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Thought For The Day

"It is difficult to overestimate the power of genuine listening."

                                                                             Adam S. McHugh

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Power of Contrast

Contrast helps us to see better, more clearly.  Contrast also helps our minds to differentiate that which is true from that which is false.  Writers often use contrast to illustrate a principle or a point and to convince readers of their position.  The Apostle Paul often uses contrast to make the truth he is communicating easier and more accessible to his readers.  His letters are chock full of contrasts meant to teach, encourage, exhort, and admonish his them.

I would like to take a brief look at such a passage.  I believe that Paul’s use of contrast can inform our thinking and open our hearts and minds to God’s sanctifying work. 

Please consider with me Ephesians 4:31:  “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”  Bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice all deal with our relationships with others, and Paul’s words remind us that becoming like Christ inside will affect our behavior on the outside.  In the next verse we read, “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.”  Paul has set before us two paths, one toward love, peace, and Godliness, and the other toward tension, strife, and godlessness.

Paul is writing to believers, about their corporate life as the body of Christ.  At first glance, his admonitions seem unnecessary—why would believers foster hurt and resentment instead of opting for forgiveness and a more gentle approach to their spiritual brothers and sisters?  But I have been living and ministering in the church for enough decades to know that Paul’s words are painfully relevant.  As self-focused sinners, it is all too easy to nurse the offenses we have encountered and seek to protect ourselves from those who have hurt us.

One of the things that this contrast emphasizes is that these two sets of relational attitudes are mutually exclusive.  We cannot be angry, bitter, and malicious while at the same time practicing forgiveness and exercising kindness.  And herein lies an important clue to taking Paul’s words to heart.  Because we are sinners living and working with other sinners, we cannot avoid pain and hurt, anger and resentment.  But if we exercise forgiveness and maintain a focus on God’s grace and mercy towards us, we will be able to love even in our pain and anger.  We cannot deeply change our feelings merely by an act of will, but we can direct our will toward the redemptive work of forgiveness.  And forgiveness will then enable us to offer others—even and especially those who have hurt us—tender hearts.

There is another blessing to be found in the point and counterpoint of this passage.  While the approaches described in these two verses are mutually exclusive, Paul’s words can represent an encouraging picture of cause and effect: as we put away bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice, we are more able to exercise forgiveness, approach others with a tender heart, and treat others with genuine kindness.  And then as we forgive, cultivate a tender heart, and deal kindly with others, we find it easier to resolve our negative emotions and put aside hostility.

I am very well aware that I desperately need to be forgiven and treated with gentleness and kindness.  And, I very much want to offer that to others.  May we take Paul’s words to heart and be richly blessed.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Thought--and Challenge--For The Day

"It is difficult to overestimate the power of genuine listening."

                                                                                   Introverts in the Church
                                                                                   Adam S. McHugh

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Challenge of Communication

"I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”  
                                                                                                Robert McCloskey

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Mystery of God

"...Mystery creates a space where trust can thrive.  Everything in its time, and time is God's playground."
                                                                                        Wm. Paul Young

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Privilege and Blessing of Ministry

Summer, 2016 is coming to an end.  I have long ago recognized that the concept of the lazy days of summer is unrealistic, but I do appreciate the more relaxed schedule and opportunities for outdoor activities that summer offers.  As we enter the Fall season of back to school and back to ministry, I am afraid that I sometimes “fall” into a “back-to-the-grind” mindset.  But I am coming to understand that the Lord wants more—and better—for me. 

Please consider with me a passage in C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  King Caspian of Narnia, along with his crew and Edmund, Lucy, and Eustace from our world, have sailed on a long journey from Narnia.  They have accomplished Caspian’s mission to find the missing Lords who served his father, but they have not yet sailed to the end of the world.  Many of Caspian’s sailors are tired and want to rest and then return home to Narnia as soon as possible.  But sailing to the end of the world is an opportunity not to be taken lightly.  As his sailors begin to grumble and groan at the prospect, please listen along with them as Caspian speaks:

“’Friends,’ he said.  ‘I think you have not quite understood our purpose.  You talk as if we had come to you with our hat in our hand, begging for shipmates.   It isn’t like that at all.  We…have an errand to the world’s edge.  It is our pleasure to choose from among such of you as are willing those whom we deem worthy of so high an enterprise….’  ‘Aslan’s mane!’ he exclaimed.  ‘Do you think that the privilege of seeing the last things is to be bought for a song?’”

It seems to me that continuing, returning, or beginning ministry endeavors is much the same as sailing to the end of the world with King Caspian.  It may demand much of us, but the reward far outweighs that demand.  We don’t have to do ministry.  We get to do ministry.  A friend of mine, a thoughtful pastor in the Bible belt, commented to me recently that he likes to say that they don’t use people to do ministry but rather they use ministry to do people.  Ministry is an opportunity to partake in the nature of Christ and participate in His kingdom purposes.  It is a powerful tool for the Lord to make us more fit for heaven as we use His gifts in relationship with one another.  It is a high calling and not to be taken lightly.

As we enter this new season, may we approach ministry opportunities as a glorious, heaven-sent invitation to join our Lord’s work in preparation for His party.