Unwrapping Jesus

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Isaiah unpacks the greatest gift the world has ever had. 

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Christmas Eve 2018. Isaiah 9:6

I’ve had trouble getting in the Christmas spirit this year. A big surgery two weeks ago kinda put the damper on things. I wish I could sit back and enjoy Christmas, but I don’t feel well physically. As I’ve aged, presents hold less appeal for me, too. I’ve started to think, maybe now that I’m an adult, Christmas isn’t really for me. It’s for the kids. It’s for the homeless. It’s for people who don’t have so much to do, or have enough money to get really cool gifts. But it isn’t for me, a middle-aged responsible adult.

As I’ve prepared this message this week, I realize I’m wrong. I don’t know about presents or “the spirit of Christmas,” but the meaning of Christmas is for me. It is for you too. For all of us. The central thing we Christians celebrate at this time of year is the gift of God’s presence in our lives. And that is for me, not just kids or others. And it really is for us, at all times.

Many years ago, centuries before Jesus was even born, Isaiah, prophesying by the Holy Spirit, described several key components of God’s present to us – Jesus Christ. He wrote this:

For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given,

and the government will be on his shoulders.

And he will be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

The first thing we ought to note from this passage is that the child is born “to us” and given “to us.”  God did not come to earth for any other reason than our benefit.  Jesus did not come for himself, nor for “someone else” but to us.  Soren Kierkegaard, the famous Danish existentialist, always encouraged people to read the Bible as if it were a personal message for them.

“When you read God’s Word, in everything you read, continually say to yourself: It is I to whom it is speaking, it is I about whom it is speaking…”

So when we read this passage from Isaiah, the words “to us” are not a mistake.  The son was born to us he was given, to us – the message is for us.  Jesus is not an abstraction that exist for those “other people” – he was not just given to Jews or to those really “spiritual” people.  He was given for you and for me.  This is an important signal, a reminder for those who read Isaiah 9:6 that it is relevant.  The prophecy is not just a fascinating historical event, that was fulfilled two thousand years ago – it is relevant to us in our time, our situations, our individual lives. Christmas is for you. It continues even in these days.

So what exactly is this relevant message?

The government will be on his shoulders.  I grew up in a third world country, where the government was frequently entertaining, but never very efficient.  I remember as a youth of twelve, getting off of a plane in L.A., touching US soil for the first time in several years.  We were to be here for three months.  As the car drove smoothly down the empty, early morning freeway, I thought to myself, “Wow, we’re in America.  The government really works here.”  I suppose it was primarily the absence of potholes on the freeway that inspired that thought.  Since that time, of course, I have become as cynical as the next person about the American government. I don’t want to get sidetracked, but it has been a very long time since I’ve had any confidence that the United States government really operates to the benefit of most of the citizens. Of course, the New Guinean government was worse. For those of you who think you might emigrate if it gets really bad, where would you go? You think anywhere is else is better?

Truthfully, no earthly government is perfect.  However, Isaiah tells us that this child, the one given to us, is the one who is ultimately responsible for everything. The fate of the world rests on his shoulders, not on any government or official.

Our hope is not in our government, or any earthly government – our hope in Jesus.  When Pontius Pilate asked Jesus about government (as a governor, it was topic that interested him) Jesus responded that his  (Jesus’) kingdom is not of this world.  In other words, Jesus is not interested in establishing physical ruler-ship of the world at this time – in spite of the fact that the Jehovah’s witness cult says he is.  He is concerned with the government of our souls, lives and our eternal future.  Whom we pay taxes to is not generally his concern, other than that he wants us to obey the laws of the lands where we live.  The Bible does say that there will come a day when Jesus will return and then he will rule the world as  King might.  However, the time and circumstances of that are not our concern.  We can simply put our trust in him, as one finally responsible for what happens. I know earthly government frustrates us sometimes, but we need to take longer view, an eternal perspective on government.

Now this child, this one given to us, the one who bears the weight of the world on his shoulders, has been given several significant names. First, he is called wonderful.  In many translations it says “wonderful counselor” but the Hebrew is probably more like “wonderful – comma – counselor.” In other words, they are two separate descriptions of Jesus.  Another way to say “wonderful” might be  “miracle-full.”  Jesus, when he lived on earth, was certainly wonderful in this sense.  Many signs and wonders accompanied his birth – the star, the angels, the wise men and so on.  He did many signs and wonders during his ministry – turning water into wine, healing people, driving out demons, walking on water.  And because he is given to us as well, he wants to continue to work wonders in our lives – reconciling and restoring relationships, healing us and even doing more supernatural miracles as well.

Next, he is the counselor.  Counselor has two major implications of course.  It can refer to someone who helps another with inner healing, and also to someone who gives counsel, or advice.  Jesus does both.  Sometimes we might have struggles in relationships, or a question about how to handle a situation.  Sometimes in our small groups, our temptation is to try and counsel each other – but Jesus is the real counselor. Our real job is simply to connect people with Jesus and His counsel.  He has the wisdom of God.  He stands close by, supporting, listening, encouraging, as good counselor would. If we are honest with ourselves and with him, he can lead us into inner healing, both directly, and through other believers. Another connotation of “counselor” is “comforter.”  Jesus offers us comfort as a counselor – he is there to love us and support us in time of need.

Mighty God.  I think that this name of Jesus is put as the third of the five names for a reason.  It stands, alone, in the center of the other four.  The other four all point to it.  It is, in fact – wait for it – chiastic structure. Jesus is not just some benign, divine uncle, simply there to our beck and call.  He is God.  There is an allegiance that his existence demands on our lives.  Yes, he wants to work miracles for us, yes he wants to be our comforting counselor, but also, he is our God.  He wants to be our ruler.  He is not under our control – but he seeks for us to joyfully submit to His control.  At the heart of the truth about this child is the fact that the God of the universe did come himself to be with us.  Christmas, and this child, is about God’s presence in our lives, and His desire to bring us into a relationship with Him, and to become King of our lives.

Everlasting Father. This is interesting. Isaiah is anticipating the birth of a child that hasn’t even been conceived yet, and he calls this baby a “father.” I think there are several things going on here. First, this is a clear prophecy that the messiah will be God himself in human flesh. Only God was known as “everlasting father.” Isaiah is saying, this child, born to us, will be more than human. He will be eternal God come into the world. Second, fatherhood in those days was significant because it had to do with inheritance. All that your father owned was yours also, even before his death. Isaiah tells us that this “eternal father” is born to us. Through Jesus we gain an eternal inheritance that will never fade or spoil. Third, through Jesus, we get the perfection of fatherhood. Fatherhood is essential to the development of children. An absent or negative father can derail a child for life. A positive and present father goes a long way toward giving the child what he/she needs to succeed in life. In this country we are in a crisis of fatherhood.  Many fathers are negative or even absent altogether.  Yet here, the promise is that this Christ-child will make up for what our earthly fathers lacked.  He can and will fill that most essential void in our lives and even in the lives of our children.  He will treat us like a good father should – He wants to be present in our lives, giving us affection and support, protection and guidance.

Prince of Peace.  “Shalom” is the Hebrew word for peace.  It does not just mean absence of war or “inner calmness” – it means, wholeness, wellness, harmony.  At the heart of Jesus’ peace is reconciliation with God.  Without this reconciliation with God, all the inner calmness in the world is pointless.  Through Jesus, through the child, we can have this peace with God, and the wellness, wholeness and harmony that come with it.

I want to return to the part that I skimmed over before: unto us a son is given.

In ancient Israel, it was tremendously important to people that they have a son to carry on the family name. They saw themselves as belonging to God in groups of families, clans, tribes and then as a nation. If you didn’t have a son, your name would die out, and be remembered no more among the people of God. Therefore, this promise of a son would have meant to those first listeners that they would always have a place in the kingdom of God. This promise of a son meant that they would always belong to God. It means the same thing today. “The Son,” is Jesus, and through him we will belong to God eternally. As the apostle John wrote:

And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.
The one who has the Son has life. The one who doesn’t have the Son of God does not have life. I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. 1 John 5:11-13

There is a story told about a man who came home from work one evening, tired and worn out, simply wanting to relax.  As he collapsed into the easy chair with the newspaper, his young son came up to him, wanting to his attention.  The father, unable to muster up much energy, found a picture of the world in his newspaper, and tore it up into small pieces.  He gave the pieces to his son and said, “Here’s a puzzle for you do.  See if you can put the world back together.”  He knew this would occupy his boy for quite some time, since the child did not know his world geography very well.  However in just a few minutes, the boy came back with the puzzle completed, all the countries in the right places

“How did you do that so quickly?” asked the father, amazed.

“It was easy!” replied the boy.  “On the back side of the paper was  a picture of a child.  As soon as I got the child right, the whole world was right.”

That’s sort of how it is with Jesus.  When we get THE CHILD right, our world becomes whole again.

Will you receive the promise of a son this year? Will you receive this child, who rules the universe, the wonderful counselor, everlasting father, mighty God, Prince of peace?

Merry Christmas!

PREPARING FOR CHRISTMAS

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Advent is a time to prepare for the Lord, who has promised to come to you. He is coming, whether you prepare or not, so wouldn’t it be better to ready to let him in?

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2018 Advent Week 2: Preparing for the Lord

A voice of one crying out:
Prepare the way of the LORD in the wilderness;
make a straight highway for our God in the desert.
Every valley will be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill will be leveled;
the uneven ground will become smooth
and the rough places, a plain.
And the glory of the LORD will appear,
and all humanity together will see it,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isa 40:3-5, HCSB)

One of my favorite places to go is the Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee. There’s nothing like that first glimpse of the Smokies when you’re driving East toward Knoxville or Maryville and you see those high ridges silhouetted against the sky. From a distance it looks like one long continuous line of mountains all across the horizon. But when you get closer, and actually start to drive into the Smokies, you realize that they are not actually just one unbroken ridge. We go to Townsend a lot, and there’s a road that weaves its way through and in between high ridges and mountains. When you get right to it, some of the ridges are actually closer and some far away. It is only the distance that makes the mountains look like they all start together and are all part of the same ridgeline.
I think this picture describes quite well how Biblical prophecy often works. Most of the prophets were given a vision by God, and that vision was much like a view of the mountains from the distance. They describe what is actually coming, but their perspective is affected by the distance of time. The prophets view the future like we view the Smokies from a distance – all the events were “out there” and they all seemed to be about the same distance away. When we get into the actual events however, we realize that actually quite a bit of distance separates each one from the other.
Very often, in addition to holding predictive prophecies, the writings of those whom we call the prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel etc. – also contain messages that are relevant to the people who first heard them. These immediately relevant meanings are meant for us as well.
Let’s look at Isaiah 40:3-5. Isaiah prophesied to the nation primarily during the reign of Hezekiah, King of Judah, from about 750 to 690 or so, BC. One of the many things he prophesied, was that the nation of Judah would be conquered by the Babylonians, and that many of the people would be taken away to Babylon as exiles (this happened, by the way, in 587 BC, almost 200 years after Isaiah’s time). Looking even further ahead, after his prophecies about the future exile, Isaiah goes on to prophesy about the return of the Jews from Babylon (this also happened, staring in the 520s BC). Isaiah 40 is basically the beginning of the section about the future return from future exile. And yet, at the same time, parts of this passage (and others in this section) are about the future coming of Jesus Christ to earth, which he did, as we know, roughly 2000 years ago, or, about 700 years after Isaiah prophesied. And finally, elements of these prophecies also refer to the time when Jesus Christ will come back again, at the end of time.
Whew! If you wonder how one passage can contain all those elements, just don’t forget how those distant mountains look.
The essential message for those in the days of Isaiah, and later for those exiles who returned from Babylon, was this: God is bringing his glory back to his people. Even in the days of Isaiah, the nation of Israel had clearly become a second rate power. The magnificent days of David and Solomon were history. The one nation ruled by King David had long since been split into a Northern Kingdom (called “Israel”) and a southern Kingdom (called “Judah”). These two nations often fought each other. They were dominated by the powers around them – Syria, Assyria and Egypt (and later, Babylon). In fact, while Isaiah was still alive, the Northern Kingdom (Israel) was utterly destroyed by Assyria, and ceased to exist. The glory days were over. But Isaiah 40:5 says

“And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Something that was lost is going to be restored. Now, “Glory” in the Bible, isn’t just about victory and success and triumph. In fact, the key element to Biblical “glory” is the presence of God. Maybe another way to say Isaiah 40:5 would be this:

“God’s presence will once more be manifest among you. He will be with you in such a way that it is obvious to all people. God has promised it.”

Along with this idea of the return of God’s presence, is the theme of deliverance. When we look at the context of the passage, clearly God is returning, and when he returns, he will bring deliverance. Salvation, would be another word for it.
It is significant that the voice calls in the desert, and the rest of the passage refers to making a way in the wilderness. When we consider the context of exile in Babylon, it may help to know that caravans and armies from Babylon to Israel always traveled North, around the desert, west toward the Mediterranean Sea, and then South into Palestine. When Babylon invaded, it did so from the North. And yet God is coming straight across the desert. The idea here is that there is no delay in his coming and that obstacles will be removed. God will come by the direct route. His isn’t bound by the caravans routes and traditional paths of men.
This passage from Isaiah is used in all four gospels. Each of the gospel writers identifies John the Baptist as the one who is calling in the desert, “prepare the way for the Lord…” It is probably no coincidence that John did most of his preaching out in the desert, directly east of most of Israel. John’s ministry took things one step beyond a return from exile. Once again, as a fulfillment of this passage, John was declaring that the presence of God would be manifest among his people. Certainly that promise was fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. God was present now in a way that went far beyond what the exiles could imagine.
Each time, along with this promise of God’s manifest presence and his deliverance (in short, his glory), comes an admonition that we should “prepare the way.” I think this bears some looking at, and perhaps has some application for our own lives. One of the primary places where this passage can really be played out is in the human heart. God will come, someday, in the flesh once more and end this world. But he wants to come to you right now in your heart. And the best way for you to prepare for that “someday” is to let him in your heart today.
First, we need to be clear – we don’t “prepare” in order to get God to come be with us. He has already promised to come. His coming is not dependent on our preparation. He’s said, essentially, “I’m coming, whether you get ready or not – so get ready!” We can prepare by learning his word, by telling others about him, by discovering our gifts and using them for his Kingdom. But even more profound than that, this passage gives us a clue as to how to prepare. Isaiah says:

“Make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.”

What he is getting at is this: we need to give God access. The image here is to let God come straight at your heart. Take out the twists and curves we put in to deceive others, ourselves, and even God. Let him get straight to the heart of the matter. I think the way to do this is to be honest with ourselves and with God about who we really are. Sometimes we might not be completely ready to be honest with other people as well. I’m convinced, however that once we make the way straight for God, once we give him unlimited access, we will experience His grace and love to such a degree that eventually we’ll be able to “be straight” with certain other people as well. Giving God clear access to your heart and life is simply a matter of saying “yes” to him. Doing that is the best way I know to receive him now into your life, and also to be prepared for when he comes back to put an end to this world.
Look at what else this passage has to say. God is coming. Give him access. And, “every valley shall be raised up.” Do you have any “valleys” in your life? Are there “low spots” – places where you are lacking or empty? I guess that’s a stupid question – of course there are. God says this. “I’m coming, give me access. And those low and empty spots, those places of weakness and hurt will be filled in. My presence is coming, and it will fill in all of your failings and inadequacies.”
Now for the final thought, which is perhaps not quite as comfortable:

“every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain…”

Are there any places in your life that “need to be leveled?” Any sins that stick out? Bad habits, pride, ambitions that have nothing to do with God? Get ready, because God’s got a big bulldozer. This isn’t entirely a negative thought. No doctor that I have ever heard of can remove a tumor from his or her own body. Sometimes we badly need and even want someone to bulldoze all the junk out of our lives that we can’t quite seem to handle ourselves.
This idea of the valleys being filled and the hills being leveled is really a sort of promise. The passage tells us to “prepare” by making the way straight. But then, when it talks about the valleys and hills, it says “they shall be…” in other words, it is something God will do for us.
Let me give you a concrete example. Most of you know that I struggle with chronic pain. In this struggle, I have often been aware of an opportunity. Actually, let me back up. I have been through hard times in the past, and afterwards, realized that I blew an opportunity to let the character of Jesus Christ be more fully formed in my life, because I spent the time whining and complaining. This time, not perfectly, but more often than in the past, I am aware of the choice I have, and instead of fussing, I am saying “yes,” to God. As I do that, God has been giving me something so precious – a deep knowledge of his love, and a sense of being so very close to Him. I don’t know how else I could have received it, other than saying, “In the middle of this pain, I say “yes,” to you, God. Instead of griping at you, I say, “do your work in me.” I know I’m not doing this perfectly, but even so, I can sense mountains and hills being torn down, and valleys being filled up inside me. I sense the presence of Jesus with me, more and more.
All of this, is essentially the promise of Christmas. Christmas is an old word meaning: Christ-Mass. It was the communion celebration of Jesus Christ. We are in the Christmas season right now. Use this Christmas season. These next two weeks, as we get excited, use the fun of Christmas to welcome Jesus, to give him access, and to watch in wonder as he works in your life to bring you closer to him. All you have to do is believe it, and don’t shut down the work that he is doing in your life.
Let’s celebrate the fact that Jesus is coming straight at our hearts. If we allow him, he will raise up the valleys, and fill in the rough places, and – this is the big one – he will live within us. The glory of God will actually dwell inside of us by the Holy Spirit – just as it did with Mary, 2000 years ago.

THE COSTLY GIFT

mary2

When Mary agreed to receive Jesus into her body and her life, it cost her a great deal. She lost the one thing she had to look forward to in a life of crushing poverty – her wedding. She lost respect, and social standing. She lost her home town for many years. But she knew that what she gained was far better than anything she lost. My prayer is that we too, make the same choice as Mary, and unconditionally receive into our lives the Savior of the world, the Lord of our lives, Jesus Christ, and find that what we gain is worth losing anything else.

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 Christmas Eve 2017

Luke 1:26-38. 

Mary

Our first child was supposed to born right around Christmas: we even gave her a Christmas-themed name. Kari and I are different in a number of ways, but we both have trouble feeling comfortable when our house is a mess. We like things neat and orderly. We also prefer to prepare for things ahead of time, rather than waiting until the last minute. So, before our daughter was born, our house was all in order. We thought we were ready.

About a week after we got home from the hospital with our daughter, I looked around our place. There were diapers, and blankets strewn around everywhere. Rumpled clothing lay on the floor where it had been cast off. The kitchen was full of unwashed dishes. Kari and I stared at each other out of bleary, sleep-deprived eyes, and said, “What happened?”

I remember very clearly talking to my mother-in-law on the phone and saying, “It feels like a bomb went off in here.” I also remember thinking, “Why didn’t anyone tell us how difficult this is?”

The truth is, it never really got any easier. There were uncounted dirty diapers. There was throw-up. There were messes, and laundry, and to go anywhere we needed to pack gear that outweighed the baby by about 10-1. Our quiet, orderly life was thrown into chaos. There was crying, and I don’t mean the baby. Aside from all of the chaos on the outside, having a child meant we had to rearrange our priorities. We couldn’t live selfishly anymore. This tiny little person – who couldn’t, walk, talk, eat solid food, or even smile, at first – changed our lives profoundly.

Becoming a father was one of the three greatest things that has ever happened to me. Fatherhood has challenged me, changed me, and made me grow. When you become a parent, you can’t remain exactly the same as you were before.

Now, with that in mind, think about Mary, the mother of Jesus. We think of her as holy and exalted. She carried the divine nature of God, joined to her egg, within her very body. She shared her own blood with Jesus. Think of it – the blood that he shed for the salvation of the world came originally from her. After he was born, she nursed him, feeding him still from her own body. She wiped his bottom when he did what all babies do. And yet, he was ultimately her Lord, her creator, her savior. In some ways, Mary must have had the most unique relationship with Jesus that any human being has ever had.

Even so, I think we can learn from Mary. In many other ways, her experiences were exactly like our own. One of the messages of Christmas, of Jesus coming to earth, is that we are faced with a choice. He isn’t just a sweet little baby. He himself said:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.  And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.  Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.  (Matt 10:34-39, ESV2011)

And yet, we think of Christmas as a time for “peace on earth.” The truth is, Jesus is divisive, because he calls us to respond to him. Even Mary, who, for more than anyone, had a real relationship with a sweet little baby, found that even Jesus as a baby, as an unborn baby, presented her with a difficult choice.

Let’s back up to a young woman entering adulthood. We make much of the fact that Mary was only a teenager, but in her culture, she was considered an adult. She was betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter. In that culture, her betrothal meant several things. First, it meant that the marriage was a done deal. Solemn promises and vows had already been exchanged. The only thing different between betrothal and marriage was that the couple did not yet live together, and had not consummated the marriage. Breaking a betrothal was like getting a divorce.

Generally, the betrothal period lasted about a year. I’m not sure why. It’s likely that it might take that much time for bridegroom to raise the necessary money for the bride-price and for the wedding festivities. It would probably also take several months to spread the word and gather any relatives who lived far away.

Wedding festivities lasted for week. The actual “wedding” began with an extensive parade through the town. The bridegroom paraded to the house of his wife, with friends and family accompanying him and celebrating along the way. It was obviously a very public occasion; in a small town, a wedding would be almost like a holiday.

On this occasion, the bride would be wearing the most beautiful clothing that she could possibly obtain. Her hair would be elaborately styled, and all in all, she would feel as beautiful as she ever would in this life. For this one day, all eyes would see her as beautiful.

After meeting at her family’s house, the bride and groom would parade back through the town, again with singing and celebrating, to the home of the groom. Again, they would be surrounded with the joyful faces of friends and families, singing, shouting and joking.

Back at the groom’s home, they would eat one of the most lavish and delicious meals of they would ever have in their lifetimes. A wedding in those difficult times was one of the few places you could count on to eat more than enough of your favorite foods. Guests would look forward to the food alone for months ahead of time. Surrounded by loving family and friends, the bride and groom would be blessed, prayed for and toasted. They wore crowns, and were treated like royalty on this day. After that, after the guests departed, the couple would consummate the marriage, and they would be officially husband and wife.

The angel came to Mary sometime during the year of betrothal. Aside from whatever daily chores she had to do, her life would have been consumed with the details of the coming wedding. In dirt-poor Nazareth, her wedding was one of the only major life-events that Mary had to really look forward to. No one took vacations or pleasure trips, or had the resources for such things. For a young woman like Mary, her wedding was going to be the highlight of her entire life.

Now, enter the angel. He told her that she would become pregnant. It was obvious that he meant right now,  not after she was officially married, but now, before she had ever been with a man. We know from Matthew’s account that Joseph found out Mary was pregnant some time before the wedding celebration, so this may have happened fairly early during the year of betrothal.

And just like that, there went the one thing in all her life that Mary had to look forward to. She didn’t know Joseph very well – engaged couples were seldom in love, or even close to each other, before the marriage. The safe assumption was that Joseph would divorce her before the wedding day. Not only that, but she would have to take on the incredible burden of parenthood all alone.

We know that a quiet divorce was, in fact, Joseph’s plan. God intervened and angel appeared to him also. Trusting God, Joseph did not divorce her. Matthew records that he took her as his wife, but that they did not consummate the marriage until after Jesus was born (Matthew 1:24-25). He doesn’t give any great detail about the timeline – in other words we don’t actually when they were married. Luke, with a little more detail, suggests that they were still only engaged when Jesus was born (Luke 2:1-7).

I highly doubt that Mary ever got her “event-of-a-lifetime” wedding. In fact, I doubt they had any wedding celebration at all. It was quite unlikely that they would do so, because it would only highlight the shameful and disgraceful fact of her pregnancy. If they had the celebration after Jesus was born, it would have been just as bad. Of course, Joseph and Mary knew that there was nothing shameful or wrong going on, but no one else was likely to believe them. If they had a wedding celebration, many guests might have refused to come.

I think this is one reason why both Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for the census. It was probably sufficient for Joseph to go alone, but they were probably both eager to get out of Nazareth and the shame and disgrace they were under. There are indications that they lived in Bethlehem for almost two years after Jesus was born. The census certainly did not require them to move there. I think they weren’t excited to get back to Nazareth.

Now, understanding the background, I want to say this a different way. When Mary received Jesus into her body and her life, it meant she lost the one cherished event in her whole life that she was really looking forward to. It meant she was exposing herself to disgrace and ridicule, and accepting a very uncertain future. It wasn’t as easy as saying “I get to be the Messiah’s mother? Cool! Bring it on!” By agreeing, Mary was inviting, divorce (without ever getting the fun of the wedding), ridicule and shame. She was relinquishing her only chance to have just one beautiful shining week in a life that was otherwise filled with crushing poverty. This is in addition to all of the “normal sacrifice” that is involved in becoming a parent.

The angel said that Mary had God’s favor. God has a funny way of showing his favor. It probably wasn’t what Mary would have chosen for herself. With all that in mind, listen to her reply:

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38, ESV2011)

Mary’s sacrifice is something we often overlook in the warm-fuzzies of Christmas. We are happy enough to contemplate the little baby Jesus, all clean and quiet. We could hold that little child and feel all peaceful and happy. Mary did. But she also gave up her own dreams to do so, and received much hardship and disgrace in their place. It really cost her something to receive Jesus.

Are we ready to recognize that receiving Jesus costs us our own agenda, or own control over our lives? Mary took Jesus on God’s terms, not her own. It meant giving up something she really wanted, but she was willing to do so. Are you ready to do the same? Can you receive Jesus on God’s terms, and give up your requirements?

Becoming a parent meant a whole lot of self-sacrifice on my part, throughout the years. It has sometimes been very difficult. And yet, I would not hesitate to do it all again. I have gained so much more than anything I’ve lost.

Mary shows us the way. She submitted to God. She agreed to the sacrifice. And though she and Joseph never got their wedding, they found incredible grace and joy. A few months later, talking to her relative, Elizabeth, Mary said these words:

My soul proclaims the greatness of15  the Lord,

 47 and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior,

 48 because He has looked with favor

on the humble condition of His slave.

Surely, from now on all generations

will call me blessed,

 49 because the Mighty One

has done great things for me,

and His name is holy.

 50 His mercy is from generation to generation

on those who fear Him.

 51 He has done a mighty deed with His arm;

He has scattered the proud

because of the thoughts of their hearts;

 52 He has toppled the mighty from their thrones

and exalted the lowly.

 53 He has satisfied the hungry with good things

and sent the rich away empty.

 54 He has helped His servant Israel,

mindful of His mercy,16

 55 just as He spoke to our ancestors,

to Abraham and his descendants17  forever.

When we give up our agenda, and humbly say, “I’m your servant, Lord. I’ll receive you on your terms,” we may lose some cherished dream, or control over life the way we want it. But in turn, we do receive the Savior, the healer of our souls, the unending source of grace and unquenchable joy. Mary could have had a week of joy during her wedding feast. She gave that up for an eternity of joy in presence of God. Losing her wedding, being subject to disgrace, she actually felt blessed, because what she received was greater than what she gave up.

For those of you who are parents, you know what we all give up to be good Fathers and Mothers. You know what we take on in added burdens and responsibilities. And yet, you know that every bit of it is entirely worth it.

God invites us to receive a child this Christmas. It involves just as much sacrifice as becoming a parent. But the promise is that what receive is even greater than parenthood, greater than all we can ask or imagine. I’m reminded of the words of the apostle Paul, in Ephesians:

14For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Eph 3:14-21, ESV2011)

My prayer for all of us this Christmas is that we make the same choice as Mary, and unconditionally receive into our lives the Savior of the world, the Lord of our lives, Jesus Christ.

Merry Christmas!

ADVENT: THE SEASON OF “SECOND CHRISTMAS”

 

Advent1

The church season of Advent is all about anticipation and expectation: not about Jesus’ birth, but about his return to earth. Sometimes, we have the same sorts of conflicting emotions about the return of Jesus that we have toward Christmas: anticipation, joy, stress and a fear that perhaps we will miss out.

1Dear friends, this is now the second letter I have written to you; in both letters, I want to develop a genuine understanding with a reminder, 2so that you can remember the words previously spoken by the holy prophets and the command of our Lord and Savior given through your apostles. 3First, be aware of this: Scoffers will come in the last days to scoff, living according to their own desires, 4saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? Ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they have been since the beginning of creation.” 5They willfully ignore this: Long ago the heavens and the earth were brought about from water and through water by the word of God. 6Through these waters the world of that time perished when it was flooded. 7But by the same word, the present heavens and earth are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.

8Dear friends, don’t let this one thing escape you: With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. 9The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance.

10But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief; on that day the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, the elements will burn and be dissolved, and the earth and the works on it will be disclosed. 11Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, it is clear what sort of people you should be in holy conduct and godliness 12as you wait for and earnestly desire the coming of the day of God. The heavens will be on fire and be dissolved because of it, and the elements will melt with the heat. 13But based on His promise, we wait for the new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness will dwell.

14Therefore, dear friends, while you wait for these things, make every effort to be found at peace with Him without spot or blemish. 15Also, regard the patience of our Lord as an opportunity for salvation, just as our dear brother Paul has written to you according to the wisdom given to him. 16He speaks about these things in all his letters in which there are some matters that are hard to understand. The untaught and unstable twist them to their own destruction, as they also do with the rest of the Scriptures.

17Therefore, dear friends, since you know this in advance, be on your guard, so that you are not led away by the error of lawless people and fall from your own stability. 18But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. (2Pet 3:1-18, HCSB)

2 Peter 3:1-18. Advent Week 1,2017

Remember when you were a kid, and it seemed like Christmas would never come? I sometimes enjoy the movie A Christmas Story. It really captures the combination of yearning, excitement and apprehension that some children feel about the holiday. In that movie, Ralph, a young boy, desperately wants a BB gun. He needs it. His heart will not be at peace until he possesses it. Throughout the whole movie he is aching for Christmas to come, but also a bit fearful that he’ll be disappointed.

Jesus also promised us a “second Christmas.” He said he would return some day. In some ways, I think we look at the return of Jesus the same way Ralph in A Christmas Story looks at Christmas. We want the gifts we might get: eternal life, an end to sorrow and suffering, being reunited with those we loved and have lost. Revelation 21:1-5 puts it like this:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

That sounds exciting. That sounds like a present we could really look forward to. In fact, in my better moments, I yearn for this. I know my soul won’t be at rest until I receive it.

But at the same time, we have a certain amount of apprehension about second Christmas. What if, when it comes, we are disappointed? What if Jesus was just messing with us when he promised to take us to be with him (John 14:1-6)? What if we are wrong about the whole thing? I think our fears about his return fall into a few different categories. I fear that won’t enjoy the time leading up to it. The holidays between Thanksgiving and Christmas can get hectic and stressful. In the same way, the Bible indicates that the time before Jesus returns will be stressful.

Another thing we tend to worry about it, is this: will heaven really be all it cracked up to be? I mean, I might get bored, singing in the choir, after a thousand years or so. Is our “second Christmas” present really as good as we think it is?

Finally, I think some us worry about this: will we really get the present we want? Or will we be left out? Jesus promised, but what could be taking him so long? Is the promise really for me? Is he even coming back at all?

The apostle Peter, in his second general letter to Christians, addressed some of these issues in 2 Peter 3:1-18. When Jesus first promised to come back, the apostles and the early church expected him within their lifetimes. No one ever dreamed he would wait for 2,000 years or more. So many Christians had begun to doubt, or at least wonder, about this promise. They were excited, but also worried. Here are several points from what Peter writes, that might help us as we look forward to the second Christmas.

  1. Second Christmas (the return of Jesus) is going to come. Scoffers are mocking the promise of Jesus, saying he is never really going to come back. But Peter reminds us that God is not bound by the same rules of time that bind us. A thousand years might be like a day to the Lord, or vice versa. If that is the case, the church of Jesus Christ has only been waiting two days for him to return. It seems like forever – just like Christmas seemed forever away when you were a kid – but it is not forever. God doesn’t count time the same way we do, just like adults see time differently than kids. But he has not forgotten or changed his promise. He will come back. The time-delay is because of God’s mercy and grace (2 Peter 3:9 & 15). He doesn’t want anyone to miss out on a chance to receive the incredible gifts he is bringing. So he is giving the world a chance to repent of sins and self-centeredness, and receive him. We may be apprehensive, but we are dealing with a loving and gracious God.
  2. It really will be good. In fact, it will be better than we can fully understand. This world is full of things that disappoint us. Remember that Christmas present you yearned for as a kid? How much joy does it bring you on a day-to-day basis today? By the time we are adults, if we are wise, we have learned that lasting joy does not come from temporary things. However, heaven is the opposite of temporary. We are promised eternal life, eternal joy. C.S. Lewis, among several other great Christian writers, suggests that our deepest desires are signals to us of what will be fulfilled in heaven:

Now, if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object.

Heaven is not a place where we wear robes and sing in a choir all day. It is the place where our entire purpose for existence is consummated. Our deepest desires are mere echoes of the great Reality that awaits us on the other side of time. Let me give you a specific and surprising example: A lot of people wonder if there will be sex in heaven. The biblical picture we have is unclear. But what is quite clear to me is that the joy and pleasure and intimacy with another person that we want to experience through sex is a pale, weak shadow compared to the stunning fulfilment we will find in heaven. The kinds of questions we raise about heaven are like a little child who is on his way to visit his grandparents, and wants to know if he will still be able to talk to them on the phone when he gets there. We are promised that it is better than we can ask or imagine. C.S. Lewis puts it this way:

These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.

  1. This Gift has been promised to us, and we can rely on the promise. Peter says the earth and sky will be consumed in fire, but: “In keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. (2 Peter 3:13)” Again this is the same promise reiterated in Revelation 21, quoted above. It is unimaginably good; better than we could ask or conceive of.
  2. The expectation of second Christmas should affect how we live today (2 Peter 3:14).

14 So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.

Let’s understand something clearly. Too many people get the cart before the horse. We don’t make efforts to be blameless and at peace with God in order to get to heaven and receive these promises. No. It goes like this: because we have these promises, and because we believe Jesus has given them to us out of his grace, our response to get ready for the life he offers. We don’t try to act right in order to receive God’s grace – we receive God’s grace first, and as a result, we make every effort to be blameless and at peace with him. The promise of Christmas can have a wonderful effect on young children. Sometimes, it is because they think they must be good in order to get good presents. But more often, it is the knowledge that at this time of the year, there is plenty of goodness and to go around. They are going to get goodness, and their response is often to be good in return. Ours should be the same, whether we are adults or children. The Lord has promised good to us (Jeremiah 29:11) – let that goodness flow back to him in a response of gratitude.

The fact is this: if we really are looking forward to the return of Jesus as the ultimate Christmas present, it should affect our lives. Worries that might otherwise be a big deal, don’t have to be so dominant. Things that others to do hurt me, don’t have to be unforgivable. God is being generous with me at Second Christmas, so I can spare some of the goodwill, and be generous with love and forgiveness toward others. There are a lot of things we get all tied in knots about, that simply won’t matter very much once Second Christmas comes.

  1. We can be secure in grace. (2 Peter 3:17-18)

17 Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. 18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.

Peter writes that we should be on our guard. We are not invincible. We might be carried away by the opinions of others, or our own love of sin. However, though we are not invulnerable, we can be secure – Peter himself calls our position secure. He tells us to grow in grace. What does that mean? I think it means that we grow in our understanding of how powerful and incredible God’s grace and love are. Because of what Jesus has done, there is no sin you commit than cannot be forgiven if you repent. There is nothing that can keep God’s love from you. Second Christmas is coming, and it is good, and the promise is yours simply by trusting that it is for you. These verses are about the end of the world. But they are not meant to scare us – they are written to encourage us, and comfort us.

Enjoy Christmas this year. But keep your eyes on the real promise – the Second Christmas, the return of the One who came the first time as a little baby. To focus our thoughts right now, let me close with two more quotes from C.S. Lewis and the weight of glory:

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of the morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so someday, God willing, we shall get in.

Nature is mortal; we shall outlive her. When all the suns and nublae have passed away, each one of you will still be alive. Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites us to use. We are summoned to pass in through nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects.

 

 

 

Step-Dad to God’s Son

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The Christmas Story in the Bible has a lot of heroes, and few villains, but one of the most overlooked heroes is the Step-Father of God’s son – Joseph. The fact is, Joseph is man of profound faith and steadfastness. His example is one that could help us.

 

 

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Christmas 2015

Christmas Eve 2015

 

Matthew 1:18-25; 2:13-15; 2:19-23

The Christmas Story in the Bible has a lot of heroes, and few villains, but one of the most overlooked heroes is the Step-Father of God’s son – Joseph. The fact is, Joseph is man of profound faith and steadfastness. His example is one that could help us.

Let’s consider his situation. Back in those days, engagement was a big deal – in fact it was almost as big of a deal as marriage. So when it says Joseph was engaged to Mary, this was no casual thing. Engagement involved what we might consider marriage vows, and engagements were not usually broken off except for some very serious causes, like the discovery that one partner was unfaithful. An engaged couple still hadn’t had the ceremony and begun to live together, but in general, they were considered to be as committed to each other as a married couple. Unwed pregnancy was also a very big deal in those days. Jewish law actually provided that a woman who was unfaithful to her husband could be stoned to death. By the time of the New Testament, that didn’t happen very often any more, partly because the Romans put a stop to it, but it was still there in the Jewish law. Even without that, it was a major scandal for an unmarried woman to have a child.

So here is Joseph, engaged, and he finds out his fiancée is pregnant – and of course, it wasn’t his baby. Even in this day and age, that would be enough for most men to call off a relationship.

A few years ago, I shared what the wedding day would have meant to Mary – it would have been the biggest, best day of her life. But this was also true of Joseph. On that day – and most likely, only on that day, in his entire life – he would feel like a king, and eat like a king. Your wedding was the highlight of life in a place where the poverty was soul-crushing. I’m sure Joseph was looking forward to that day.

Everything we read about Joseph tells us he was a good, decent man. He still cares enough for Mary that he doesn’t want her to suffer public disgrace, so he plans to break of the engagement quietly and discreetly. Even so, think of the hurt and humiliation he must feel! Even before they are properly married, this woman has cheated on him. All his happy dreams for the future are shattered around him by this humiliating betrayal.

So, after making his plans, he goes to bed. He has a dream in which an angel of the Lord tells him what’s really going on with Mary. Now, I want you to consider something. They knew just as much about the birds and bees back then as we do now. It’s not like they thought, “Oh sure, every so often you’re gonna have a virgin get pregnant, even though she’s never been with a man.” And in Hebrew culture, the idea of God impregnating someone was borderline blasphemy. The ancient Greeks worshiped Gods who were sort of like really big and powerful human beings. Their gods, from time to time, would get enamored with some beautiful human woman and come down and have an affair. But this is not at all the type of God that the Jews (or we) believe in. To a Jewish man, this is a strange and almost blasphemous idea.

So here’s Joseph. In his mind, he’s already been made a fool and rejected. Now some sort of angelic being comes in a dream, and says, “don’t worry, she’s still a virgin, she hasn’t been unfaithful. God put the baby in there through his Holy Spirit.”

I think my response might have been, “Yeah, right. Whatever.” But here is Joseph, being played for an even bigger fool than before, and what is his response?

“When Joseph got up from sleeping, he did as the Lord’s angel had commanded him. He married her, but did not know her intimately until she gave birth to a son. And he named him Jesus. (Matt 1:24-25)

Joseph was confronted with a crisis of faith. He had a choice. He could follow proper social convention and save face for himself and protect his injured pride. Or he could step out into the wild abyss of faith, risking ridicule and humiliation. He chose faith. And though we don’t often make a big deal of it, he is truly one of the heroes of faith in the Bible.

There’s another thing, too. Okay, he accepts in faith that God is in this. But now, think of it: Joseph was going to be God’s step-dad. Seriously! There’s a song by Michael Card that I love. The picture is of Joseph standing there, holding Jesus as a baby, rocking him to sleep. And he’s thinking, “How can I do this? How can I be a father to the son of God?” Again, he faced the choice. He could have said, “This is ridiculous. I can’t do this!” He could have made all kinds of objections: “I can’t provide him with the education he will need. I can’t even be sure I’ll be able to feed and clothe this child. How do I raise him? How do I discipline him? Will I need to discipline him?”

But, as before, he responded in faith. The first few chapters of Matthew show us a man who relied on God, was sensitive to him, and responded quickly and obediently to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. He marries Mary, just as the angel told him, though it is almost certain that the ceremony was nothing like the celebration involved in a normal Jewish wedding.

Mary has the baby, and they stay in Bethlehem for about two years. Then, after a visit from the Magi, the Lord tells Jospeh to move the whole family down to Egypt. This is a major journey. And of course, Egypt is a whole other country. But Joseph doesn’t hesitate. The same thing happens a few years later: the Holy Spirit tells him to go back, and even which town to settle in. Joseph does it.

I think that it is no accident that Joseph was the kind of man who heard from God. God picked not only Mary, but Mary and Joseph together. Joseph was ready to hear from God. He was probably the sort of man who wanted to be closer to God, wanted to hear from him. He remained sensitive to him and willing to make the hard choices of faith over feelings, faith over conventional wisdom, faith over fear. He made the choice of faith time after time.

Joseph is great example to us. Christmas can give us sweet, warm fuzzy feelings. But when we really think about it, that little child is confronting us with a choice. Will we believe and accept that the Creator of the universe willingly joined himself to a human egg, laid aside the privileges of divinity, and became this little baby? We really believe that here, in this frail, impoverished child, with the young, inexperienced mother and the plain, ordinary step-father, is the salvation of the world? Are we willing to take action on that choice of faith?

I hope Joseph’s example will encourage us to say, “yes.” If Joseph can look that stupid, so can we. If he can marry a pregnant woman, be step-father to God’s son, move all around the world because he heard something in a dream, we can certainly give up our pride, and trust this little child Jesus with our lives now, and our eternal future.

SECOND CHRISTMAS

2nd Christmas

Christmas has a way of awakening our desires. What we often don’t understand, however, is that our deepest desires are mere echoes of the great Reality that awaits us on the other side of time.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Advent 2015 Part 3

 

2 Peter 3:1-18. ADVENT 2015 #3 (fourth week in Advent)

Remember when you were a kid, and it seemed like Christmas would never come? I sometimes enjoy the movie A Christmas Story. It really captures the combination of yearning, excitement and apprehension that some children feel about the holiday. In that movie, Ralph, a young boy, desperately wants a BB gun. He needs it. His heart will not be at peace until he possesses it. Throughout the whole movie he is aching for Christmas to come, but also a bit fearful that he’ll be disappointed.

As I have pointed out during the past few weeks, Jesus also promised us a “second Christmas.” He said he would return some day. In some ways, I think we look at the return of Jesus the same way Ralph in A Christmas Story looks at Christmas. We want the gifts we might get: eternal life, an end to sorrow and suffering, being reunited with those we loved and have lost. Revelation 21:1-5 puts it like this:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

That sounds exciting. That sounds like a present we could really look forward to. In fact, in my better moments, I yearn for this. I know my soul won’t be at rest until I receive it.

But at the same time, we have a certain amount of apprehension about second Christmas. What if, when it comes, we are disappointed? What if Jesus was just messing with us when he promised to take us to be with him (John 14:1-6)? I think our fears about his return fall into a few different categories. I fear that won’t enjoy the time leading up to it. The holidays between Thanksgiving and Christmas can get hectic and stressful. In the same way, the Bible indicates that the time before Jesus returns will be stressful.

Another thing we tend to worry about it, is this: will heaven really be all it cracked up to be? I mean, I might get bored, singing in the choir, after a thousand years or so. Is our “second Christmas” present really as good as we think it is?

Finally, I think some us worry about this: will we really get the present we want? Or will we be left out? Jesus promised, but what could be taking him so long? Is the promise really for me? Is he even coming back at all?

The apostle Peter, in his second general letter to Christians, addressed some of these issues in 2 Peter 3:1-18. When Jesus first promised to come back, the apostles and the early church expected him within their lifetimes. No one ever dreamed he would wait for 2,000 years or more. So many Christians had begun to doubt, or at least wonder, about this promise. They were excited, but also worried. Here are several points from what Peter writes, that might help us as we look forward to the second Christmas.

1. Second Christmas (the return of Jesus) is going to come. Scoffers are mocking the promise of Jesus, saying he is never really going to come back. But Peter reminds us that God is not bound by the same rules of time that bind us. A thousand years might be like a day to the Lord, or vice versa. If that is the case, the church of Jesus Christ has only been waiting two days for him to return. It seems like forever – just like Christmas seemed forever away when you were a kid – but it is not forever. God doesn’t count time the same way we do, just like adults see time differently than kids. But he has not forgotten or changed his promise. He will come back. The time-delay is because of God’s mercy and grace (2 Peter 3:9 & 15). He doesn’t want anyone to miss out on a chance to receive the incredible gifts he is bringing. So he is giving the world a chance to repent of sins and self-centeredness, and receive him. We may be apprehensive, but we are dealing with a loving and gracious God.

2. It really will be good. In fact, it will be better than we can fully understand. This world is full of things that disappoint us. Remember that Christmas present you yearned for as a kid? How much joy does it bring you on a day-to-day basis today? By the time we are adults, if we are wise, we have learned that lasting joy does not come from temporary things. However, heaven is the opposite of temporary. We are promised eternal life, eternal joy. C.S. Lewis, among several other great Christian writers, suggests that our deepest desires are signals to us of what will be fulfilled in heaven:

Now, if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object.

Heaven is not a place where we wear robes and sing in a choir all day. It is the place where our entire purpose for existence is consummated. Our deepest desires are mere echoes of the great Reality that awaits us on the other side of time. Let me give you a specific and surprising example: A lot of people wonder if there will be sex in heaven. The biblical picture we have is unclear. But what is quite clear to me is that the joy and pleasure and intimacy with another person that we want to experience through sex is a pale, weak shadow compared to the stunning fulfillment we will find in heaven. The kinds of questions we raise about heaven are like a little child who is on his way to visit his grandparents, and wants to know if he will still be able to talk to them on the phone when he gets there. We are promised that it is better than we can ask or imagine. C.S. Lewis puts it this way:

These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.

3. This Gift has been promised to us, and we can rely on the promise. Peter says the earth and sky will be consumed in fire, but: “In keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. (2 Peter 3:13)” Again this is the same promise reiterated in Revelation 21, quoted above. It is unimaginably good; better than we could ask or conceive of.

4. The expectation of second Christmas should affect how we live today (2 Peter 3:14).

14 So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.

Let’s understand something clearly. Too many people get the cart before the horse. We don’t make efforts to be blameless and at peace with God in order to get to heaven and receive these promises. No. It goes like this: because we have these promises, and because we believe Jesus has given them to us out of his grace, our response to get ready for the life he offers. We don’t try to act right in order to receive God’s grace – we receive God’s grace first, and as a result, we make every effort to be blameless and at peace with him. The promise of Christmas can have a wonderful effect on young children. Sometimes, it is because they think they must be good in order to get good presents. But more often, it is the knowledge that at this time of the year, there is plenty of goodness and to go around. They are going to get goodness, and their response is often to be good in return. Ours should be the same, whether we are adults or children. The Lord has promised good to us (Jeremiah 29:11) – let that goodness flow back to him in a response of gratitude.

The fact is this: if we really are looking forward to the return of Jesus as the ultimate Christmas present, it should affect our lives. Worries that might otherwise be a big deal, don’t have to be so dominant. Things that others to do hurt me, don’t have to be unforgivable. God is being generous with me at Second Christmas, so I can spare some of the goodwill, and be generous with love and forgiveness toward others. There are a lot of things we get all tied in knots about, that simply won’t matter very much once Second Christmas comes.

5. We can be secure in grace. (2 Peter 3:17-18)

17 Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. 18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.

Peter writes that we should be on our guard. We are not invincible. We might be carried away by the opinions of others, or our own love of sin. However, though we are not invulnerable, we can be secure – Peter himself calls our position secure. He tells us to grow in grace. What does that mean? I think it means that we grow in our understanding of how powerful and incredible God’s grace and love are. Because of what Jesus has done, there is no sin you commit than cannot be forgiven if you repent. There is nothing that can keep God’s love from you. Second Christmas is coming, and it is good, and the promise is yours simply by trusting that it is for you. These verses are about the end of the world. But they are not meant to scare us – they are written to encourage us, and comfort us.

Enjoy Christmas this year. But keep your eyes on the real promise – the Second Christmas, the return of the One who came the first time as a little baby. To focus our thoughts right now, let me close with two more quotes from C.S. Lewis and the weight of glory:

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of the morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so someday, God willing, we shall get in.

Nature is mortal; we shall outlive her. When all the suns and nublae have passed away, each one of you will still be alive. Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites us to use. We are summoned to pass in through nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects.

PREPARING FOR THE END OF THE WORLD

end world

 

 

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Advent Week 3 (sermon #2). Matthew 24:36-44

As you are probably aware, there are only seventeen shopping days left until Christmas. This is the season when we remember how God selflessly surrendered the powers of his divinity and came to us as a helpless human baby. We typically commemorate this by generously cursing the people who steal our parking places at the mall, and mediating peacefully on new credit card debt while we drift off to sleep.

Of course, there is something else we can do as the days lead up toward Christmas. We can spend the time and energy in expectation. We can focus on the coming of some really cool Christmas presents! Ha Ha! Just a little pastoral humor for you there. Actually, while the time leading up to Christmas can be a wonderful time of remembrance and focusing on Jesus’ birth, it is also a time that can help us think about Jesus’ next physical visit to our world – his triumphant return. In fact, that is the traditional purpose of the church season of Advent, which we are now in.

As we read in the Bible about the things that led up to the birth of Jesus, it becomes obvious that the people living at the time did not know exactly what was coming, but all the signs and prophecies pointed to this: God was going to act in History. Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Anna and Simeon – all experienced things and remembered prophecies that encouraged them to get ready for the Lord to come to his people. None of them understood completely how it was all going to play out, but they believed and they acted in obedience and prepared for the Lord’s arrival.

Now, where are we today? Jesus has already come as a baby. He grew up. He sacrificed his innocent life for us. And he was raised from the dead, and left our world physically. It’s wonderful to remember that. It helps our faith. I also want to encourage us to also do what those faithful believers did before that all happened – to prepare for the coming of Jesus. In our case it is not his coming as a baby, but rather his coming into our lives personally, and of course, his triumphant return to earth. To help us do that I want to look at some things Jesus said before he left us. Please read Matthew 24:36-44 in your Bible.

This teaching of Jesus occurred during the week before he was crucified. Just prior to saying this, Jesus said that it will be possible to notice and consider “the signs of the times” that indicate his return is near. His next statement is this: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Now, I have met people who like to describe in detail what everything will be like just prior to the ending of world. I’ve met others who feel that they can guess with some degree of accuracy when it will come. I think, if we consider carefully what Jesus is saying here about his return, we will realize two things:

1. It is possible to recognize the “season” just prior to Jesus’ triumphant physical return to earth.

2. It is not possible to accurately predict specific details about the future, just prior to the return of Jesus, nor the exact time it will happen. Even Jesus himself did not know, prior to his leaving our world.

I think the Lord has set things up like this because he wants his followers to live in a state of continual expectation of his return. Look at this way: if we knew that Jesus would come back exactly at 9:00AM on November 2, 2027, I think we would all relax a bit and say, “well, I don’t have to bother about that for quite a while yet.” Let’s face it – some of us wouldn’t start to get ready for his return until 8:15 that morning. But if we look at this little passage, we can see that the point Jesus is making is that we should always be ready. The fact is this: it could be any day now. It could be today.

Jesus indicates that the season of his return can be recognized. Are we in that season? I think so. I recognize, however, that the apostle Paul thought so too. Fifteen hundred years later, and 500 years before now, Martin Luther thought he was living close to the end times. This doesn’t discourage me in the least, because I believe Jesus wants every generation of his followers to live as though his return is imminent. Some of the things that indicate to me that the season of Jesus return might be near are these: the formation of the Jewish nation in 1947; The dramatic increase in the number of lives lost through war in the twentieth century; the incredible spread of immorality and godlessness in the world. I think huge natural disasters like the tsunami a few years ago are also significant.

But even if I am mistaken in one sense, consider this. It is entirely accurate to say that, for all intents and purposes, Jesus will return by the end of my lifetime. When you die, it has virtually same effect, for you, as if it was the end of time, and Jesus has returned. At the time of your death you will meet Jesus face to face. Your existence on the old earth will have ended for you. If you think this old world will keep spinning in space for another 4 billion years, fine. But you won’t be on it for much longer, all things considered. It is not given to us to know when we die. I may get in a car wreck next week, and for me, Jesus has returned. So you also must be ready, because “the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

Jesus says it will be like the days of Noah. Virtually every culture that keeps any sort of history, has a historical tradition that includes a story very much like Noah and the ark. The Samburu people, living in the near-desert of Northern Kenya have a flood story. The people of India have one too, as do those in Indonesia, and around the world. There is debate about whether the flood was worldwide or local, but the historical and genetic evidence is that all people on earth are descended from one family, a family which apparently survived a great flood. The people in the days of Noah were warned about the flood. It didn’t seem to them like anything would ever change. Noah took 300 years to build the boat, and probably even he wondered if it would really come. But one day it did, and it destroyed everyone but the family that believed and prepared for it.

The return of Jesus may seem like it is a long way off. It may seem like things will never change. But those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

So how can we be ready? How do we “keep watch” as Jesus said? First, we need to receive and welcome Jesus as he comes to us right now. Consider Hebrews 3:7: “So as the Holy Spirit says, Today if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion” 2 Corinthians 6:1-2 adds this thought: “As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says, “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”

Jesus’ coming happened yes, at Bethlehem when he was born as a baby. And yes, He will come again in Judgment. But right now, He comes to us every day. He comes to us to spend time with us. Maybe that is time in prayer and meditating on the scriptures, or time going for walk and talking to him as well as listening to him. He comes to us, wanting to bless other people through us. Are you receiving him today? Maybe you’ve never received him into your life at all before. If not, please pray a simple prayer, something like this: Lord Jesus, I want to receive you in my life. I need your forgiveness and love and grace. Please come now and take over my heart and my will, and live your life through me. Thank you for hearing and responding. AMEN.

There’s really no point in getting all excited about the return of Jesus if we aren’t interested in the ways he comes to us right now. But if we have received in him into our lives, I think, as I said earlier, he would like us to live each day in expectation of his return. How would you live today if you knew, absolutely for sure, that Jesus was coming back at 11:00PM tonight. Would you express your love to your friends and family? Who would you spend time with? What would you say to people? How would you spend your time on the last day in history? Now, why can’t you do some of that every day, no matter how many or few days you have left? Why can’t you regularly tell people about Jesus? Why can’t you always affirm your loved ones and express your love for them? Why can’t you just avoid sin, just for today? Why can’t you fully surrender to Jesus every day?

It’s not a gimmick – Jesus really is going to back, whether we are ready or not. Instead, it’s grace – he’s told us he is. He wants to live his life through us, in the expectation of what he will do when he comes back. Will you let him?