THE SHOCK-WAVES OF A SINGLE CHILD

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If God really came into the world, we would expect that to create some changes. The event would reverberate through history. In fact, that is exactly what we find.

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CHRISTMAS 2019: THE SHOCK-WAVES OF A SINGLE CHILD

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us).

24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25, ESV)

The central claim of Christmas is that at a certain point in time, at a certain place in history, God himself came to earth as a baby. Matthew said that this God-child will be called Immanuel, which means: God with us. It is a stunning claim; if it is true, there are huge implications for every area of existence. Think about it this way: if God came to earth, it would be like dropping a boulder into a still, calm pond. The ripples would go out in every direction and disturb and change the surface of the pond. If God came to earth, it would change everything, and the changes would continue to be felt, long after the event.

So, what do we find? The God-child went around with the name Jesus. Jesus grew into a man who gathered followers, and he taught them God’s truth. Part of the truth that he taught them was about his own identity as God-in-the-flesh. Part of his mission was not just teaching, but also to die on our behalf, and he fulfilled that mission. What effect did all this have on the course of human history? Can we see any ripples in the course of human history?

I’m going to start with something that is frivolous, but actually somewhat remarkable, if you think about it. It is now roughly 2,000 years since Jesus was born. Even today, even in 2019, when we enter the season of remembering the birth of Jesus, millions of people behave better than at other times of the year. Throughout late November and December, people in the Western world are typically much more generous to each other, and to those less fortunate. We do little favors for strangers. We feed the poor. We give to charities. We overlook little offenses because we are influenced by the “season.” I think that the power of that original event can still be scene in how millions of people are a little bit more kind, caring and loving when we remember the birth of Jesus. That little child entered the world twenty centuries ago, and we still feel the shock-waves of it at the end of every year.

There are bigger things, also. One of the central truths that Jesus imparted to his followers was that all human beings are equal in value. Nowadays, we in the Western world take this for granted. But in the history of human cultures, this is a unique idea that came from one source: the teachings of Jesus Christ. Before Jesus, people in every culture, all over the world, took it for granted that human beings were NOT equal. Generally speaking, women were considered second-class. Noblemen were more valuable than peasants. Slaves existed to serve their betters. Adults were better than children. No one questioned this view of the world.

In recent years, as our culture has grown less Christian, some academics have tried to suggest that modern democracy arose only from ancient Greece, and Rome. They don’t want to credit Christianity with anything positive. It is true that the creators of modern democracy found inspiration in some of the writings of those ancients. But even the most enlightened of the ancient Greeks and Romans approved of killing unwanted babies (especially girls); of pederasty (that is men, sexually abusing boys); of slavery; and of the second-class status of peasants and women. They believed in a ruling class that was intrinsically better than anyone else. If there was a country today that practiced democracy in the same way as ancient Athens, that country would be condemned by the Western world for abuse of human rights.

No, the idea that all human beings are equally valuable came from Jesus Christ alone. That one idea has created innumerable ripples throughout human history. The teachings of Jesus on this issue elevated the status of women. His teachings are the source of the idea that children are precious and should be protected.

During the 1700s in the American colonies a revival of Christianity occurred. This was known as the first Great Awakening. It was the power of Christianity, bolstered by the first Great Awakening, that led the founding fathers to create modern democracy. Author Dinesh D’Souza writes:

The first great awakening, a Christian revival that swept the country in the mid eighteenth century, created the moral foundation of the American revolution.

…Historian Paul Johnson writes that the American revolution is “inconceivable… Without this religious background.”

Even before the Great Awakening, the political philosophers who inspired the American revolution (people like John Locke) were applying their devout Christian faith to political systems. The very idea of limited government, with rights to individual people, is a result of the teaching of Jesus. To put it simply: one of the ripples of the Christ-child is modern democracy. Millions of people live in freedom today because of that child born in Bethlehem.

In 1785, a British politician became a true follower of Jesus. The influence of Jesus on his life led him to believe that slavery was morally wrong, because, in the sight of God, all people are equally valuable. The name of the politician was William Wilberforce, and his Christian faith led him and sustained him as he created a movement that ended slavery in the British empire.

The abolition of slavery in the United States was largely a result of the second Great Awakening. Again, D’Souza writes:

The second Great Awakening, which started in the early nineteenth century and coursed through new England and New York and then through the interior of the country, left in its wake the temperance movement, the movement for women’s suffrage, and most important, the abolitionist movement.

Another one of the great ripples of this child coming to earth, was literal freedom for slaves. Slaves were freed only in countries where there was a significant Christian presence. Elsewhere in the world, slavery was ended only when Christian nations used their power and wealth to pressure other nations into freeing slaves.

Before Jesus, the Greeks and Romans had a few small facilities to take care of wounded soldiers. However, nothing like hospitals existed anywhere in the world. It was people who were trying to apply the teachings of Jesus who created the first hospitals; hospitals that were open for anyone in need. Even today, there are hospitals that exist for profit, and those that are run as charities (that is, they are not trying to make a profit, but rather simply to serve the community). Christian charitable hospitals outnumber all other charitable hospitals by a crushing majority. The compassion to help the sick, merely for the sake of helping them, is just one more ripple of this God-child.

In fact, there are so many significant ripples, that there really is not time to tell about all of them, nor to go into how they all came about. Universities would not be in this world if it were not for this God-child. Modern science would not have been possible without him. The whole idea of nuclear family, which is the only solid building block for stable, free societies, arose from this God-child. Our economic system, which recognizes human selfishness and manipulates it for human good, and has led to best standard of living the world has ever known, was made possible only by a Christian view of the world, which was only possible because of the child in the stable. Without that child, most of us would not be able to afford the presents under the tree.

Many of us don’t know a lot about history, or about other cultures. We may not have realized just how brutal and unfair life was before Jesus Christ came into the world. But his entry into history has profoundly changed the entire course of human culture. That is what we would expect to find if the claim is true.

Part of the power of this Child is that he not only entered history: he also enters the hearts and lives of all who will receive him. Just as his entry into the world caused profound changes, so also, his entry into our lives, personally, creates deep changes in us. When we invite him in, he brings love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. He changes our eternal future. He brings internal freedom, and wisdom, and compassion for others.

My prayer for you this Christmas is that he will indeed enter your hearts, and that you will continually receive, and rejoice in, the power of God with us. If you allow him to, you will find that it is the best Christmas present you have ever received.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

PREPARING FOR SECOND CHRISTMAS

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Sometimes it can feel like the Christian life might be a bit repetitive and boring. But we cannot live on continual excitement. We have to keep returning to get our spiritual fuel replenished, and sometimes that involves very ordinary, everyday sorts of things. Part of being ready for Jesus involves being faithful, day in, and day out. If we seek Him, he has the resources we need to remain faithful and ready.

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Advent, Week 3. Matthew 25:1-13

Advent is a time for preparation. The original “advent” was a time when many different prophecies were being fulfilled. Magi in Persia recognized an unusual configuration of stars, which signaled something portentous. Zechariah the Priest, and his wife Elizabeth, conceived a child, and Zechariah himself was struck dumb by a prophecy. Augustus Caesar got antsy about his empire, and called a census that made a descendant of King David return to his hometown of Bethlehem, along with his pregnant wife. When we read the New Testament narratives of Christmas, and the coming of the messiah, we get the sense that something big was coming, that the world was filled with anticipation.

In a sense, that was very true. But it seems clear that hardly anyone picked up on the fact that big events were brewing, that God was moving in history. No one recognized the Messiah when he came.

We recognize now that he came. We can trace back to the prophecies in Isaiah and from Moses and others, and we see how Jesus fulfilled them. But back then, very few people caught on. Jesus, while he was still on earth physically, promised that he would come back again some day. And he warned us that the day of his return will catch many people unprepared, just like the day of his birth. In the closing chapters of his book, the Apostle Matthew recorded some of the things Jesus said about his return. Today, we will look at one parable that Jesus used to describe this event. This the the parable of the ten bridesmaids in Matthew 25:1-13.

Back in those days, weddings were a very big deal. Many people were bone-cracking poor, but a wedding gave them a genuine reason to celebrate. In addition, most people were likely to get a lot more food at weddings than they usually would. In some cases the feast would go on for seven days, so those who were lucky enough to partake, may have counted on a wedding to help them through hungry times. All in all you might say that folks looked forward to a wedding the way we might look forward to… Christmas. Interesting, right?

The “business” of the marriage – the ceremony, you might say – took place between the groom and the bride’s parents, some of it up to a year before the marriage was consummated. After that year was concluded, there was a procession, usually after nightfall. The bridegroom would travel from his house to a place where he met up with the attendants of the bride (not exactly bridesmaids as we think of them, but close enough). The “bridesmaids” all carried lamps, or torches made from oil-soaked rags. Generally, these lights burned for about 15 minutes. When the bridegroom came, they formed a lighted procession around him, which traveled to the home of the bride. While they went along, others joined them, it became kind of a traveling party. They arrived at the Bride’s home, and she joined her husband, and from there, they all paraded joyfully back to the house of the groom. Immediately, the feast and week-long celebration began.

Jesus describes ten bridesmaids. They probably had their lamps lit in expectation of the bridegroom, because he says “they went out to meet the groom.” But he was delayed. Remember, this is a third world country, two-thousand years ago, before the invention of clocks or watches. Things happened when they happened. Usually, they happened on the correct day, but it was very hard to nail people down to specific times. Anyway, while they waited, either their lamps went out, or they eventually put them out. The groom was so long in coming that they fell asleep. When at last he came, they lit their lights again. Five wise bridesmaids had brought extra oil, and their lights were replenished, and ready to burn for as long as was necessary again. But the five others had no light left. By the time they had found oil, it was too late, and they were excluded from the feast.

Jesus tells this story as part of his teaching about his eventual return to earth. Most parables are told just to make a few simple points, and this is no exception.

First, there seems to me to be a strong correlation between “oil” and the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament, Kings and Priests were anointed with oil, to signify the Spirit of God. In fact, the word “anointed” came to signify “filled with the Holy Spirit.” I think Jesus was deliberate about choosing a story in which the presence of oil was the key point; and I think he did so because one of his main teachings here is about the Holy Spirit.

The message is here simple, but profound: You can’t get by on a one-time experience with God. Sooner or later, you’ll run out of spiritual fuel, and you could end up missing the Ultimate Wedding Feast, the return of Jesus.

Often, when you start your spiritual life with Jesus, it is very exciting. It changes everything. Sometimes, we experience a renewal of our faith, and that is also very exhilarating. But we can’t live on excitement forever. And it is exhausting to try to artificially generate new excitement to keep us going. At some point, the rubber meets the road. The bridesmaids were thinking, “I thought something was supposed to happen by now. This is dull, and boring.” It’s easy for us to begin to feel that way, spiritually.

However, we need to live what we know, day by day. Sometimes daily grind gets ordinary and boring, but it is where life is lived. Going to work, coming home, running errands, spending time in Christian Fellowship, serving others. It can feel like we get stuck in a rut, sometimes. And sometimes we do get in an unproductive rut. However, far more often, it is not a rut, it is just real life, and we need to be faithful, patient and persevering.

To make it through times like that, we need enough oil for our lamps – in fact, we need the Holy Spirit. If we hang around until the excitement fades, and then go look for more excitement somewhere else, we are acting like the five foolish bridesmaids. While they were out looking for something they had run out of, the wedding procession began, and they were left out of the feast.

Clearly, according to this parable, one experience with God is not enough. Ephesians 5:18 tells us to “keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit.” As we have seen somewhat recently, the apostles in Acts experienced a filling of the Holy Spirit over and over. So how do you get your lamp refilled?

We know the basics, right? We need to be regularly reading, or listening to, the Bible. We need to be regularly connected with other Christians in genuine fellowship, and worship the Lord together with them. We need to allow the Lord to use our lives to serve others. Some of that is what feels like a rut, sometimes, but we cannot hope to keep our lamps full without these things.

There are other things that can be added to these to help us. I think these others things could be different for different people. I can get refilled by reading a really good Christian book – something like “Waking the Dead” by John Eldredge, or “The Pursuit of God” by AW Tozer, or “Abide in Christ” by Andrew Murray. I have also found that the Lord often refills me through new music. I get refilled by being in nature, by thinking and writing.

Other folks get refilled in different ways – by exercising, or by making something with their hands, or writing poetry. For some it comes through times of concentrated prayer and fasting. Fasting is always good to try, if you are really stuck. Others, obviously, find it very useful to listen to sermons on the TV, radio, or the Internet. I am positive that if you ask God how he wants to replenish your oil, he will tell you, and make it available to you. Ask him, and then watch for his answer.

Here’s something else from this parable: No one else can be filled on your behalf. Remember that the 5 wise bridesmaids did not have enough oil to spare for the 5 foolish ones? Jesus included that detail in order to illustrate this point. You have to take responsibility for yourself to get the oil you need on an ongoing basis. No one else can do it for you, any more than they can eat a meal to satisfy your hunger.

Finally the time to replenish your oil is now. One of Jesus stated points is: “Therefore be alert because you do not know either the day or the hour.” Don’t think, “well, I’ll deal with my spiritual issues after Christmas.” Christmas might not come this year. Jesus may come back first. Even if he doesn’t, any person could die at any moment in an accident. Refilling your oil – getting refilled by the Holy Spirit – needs to be a priority.

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!

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!

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.

 

 

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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.

MAKING USE OF THE SEASON

Christmas-Eve-Picture

So this season, get into it. Enjoy the anticipation. Look forward the presents. For crying out loud, have some eggnog for me. But use it all to let God draw you closer. Use it to feed a hunger and thirst for him.

 

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CHRISTMAS 2014: Using the Season

I have felt disconnected from Christmas this year. What with one thing and another, we didn’t get a tree until about ten days before Christmas. The house wasn’t decorated, and we weren’t listening to Christmas music. We were busy, and I, at least, wasn’t out and about where Christmas stuff was happening. Then just a few days ago I did some Christmas shopping. I was ashamed to find that the decorations and music and the ways the stores are decked out actually started to get me more into the “Christmas spirit.” I thought, “Really? This is what helps me appreciate Christmas? This isn’t even what it’s about!”

Like it or not, the truth is, Christmas has become a cultural phenomenon. Sometimes, as Christians, we want to fight it. The commercialism can be disgusting. The whole holiday adds a great deal of stress to every December. And everyone seems to miss the point, anyway. We don’t want to get caught up in it all, because we know that when it is all over, we’ll just be left with new stuff that will eventually become old stuff, a ten-foot-high-pile of wrapping paper, a dead tree and maybe seven extra pounds.

But why not, this year, get into the whole Christmas thing again? Get caught up in it all, get excited, let the joy infect you – and use it to let Jesus draw you closer to himself.

No one knows for sure the exact date of Jesus’ birth but I did some research recently. Jesus was born less than nine months after his relative, John the Baptist. John’s father, Zechariah, was a priest in the priestly division of Abijah. Zechariah’s priestly division was the eighth out of twenty-four, and so we can estimate when he was serving at the temple and when John’s birth was first predicted. The Jewish new year varied a little bit each year, but the best guess for that year would be that Zechariah encountered the angel sometime in May or June. Luke says “after those days,” Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth conceived John. Five months later, the angel visited Mary, and then Luke says “in those days” Mary came to Elizabeth’s house. So if it all happened immediately, that would mean John was born in April and Jesus was born in September. But we don’t know exactly how much “after those days” and “in those days” really means. If there was a total lag time of just two months in those two flexible periods, then Jesus was indeed born in December. The exact date of his birth doesn’t really matter, of course. I just think it is interesting, after all the years I’ve heard “Jesus wasn’t even born on Christmas” to find that the evidence shows it is quite possible, maybe even likely, that he was born, if not on December 25, sometime close to it.

Even so, no one knows the exact date. So how did we get December 25th? In the middle 300s (AD) the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian. At that time, the big Celebration of the year for the Romans, was Winter Solstice. They celebrated it on December 25, because that was the first day they could tell that the days were getting longer again. It was a big time holiday. It had nothing to do with Jesus.

But Constantine, after becoming a believer, decided to make use of the pagan holiday to help people think about Jesus. So he declared December 25 to be no longer Winter Solstice, but now the commemoration of the birth of Jesus. He used the joy and pageantry in the service of the one true God.

In some ways, in our culture, Christmas has returned once more to a pagan holiday. Christmas trees come from a pagan tradition. The way stores use Christmas to drive sales has nothing to do with Jesus. Probably a majority of the people who celebrate Christmas, don’t care much one way or the other about Jesus. Even so, like Constantine, we can make use of it.

Think of it this way: what is it that we like about Christmas? What gives us so much anticipation and excitement. What makes it “the most wonderful time of the year?” I think most people look forward to one or more of these things:

• Time spent with loved ones.

• Rest – very few people have to work on Christmas

• Receiving gifts (and, in some cases, people look forward to giving them too)

• Food and Celebration

• Connecting with something deeper and bigger than ourselves (often through traditions).

Each of these are worthwhile things in and of themselves. We can make them even more worthwhile by using them to provide a boost to our relationship with Jesus. Let’s look at how.

TIME SPENT WITH LOVED ONES. One the greatest joys of Christmas is spending it with someone we love. One of the greatest sorrows is the first Christmas you spend after a loved one is no longer with you. If you are missing loved ones this year, use that to remind you of the promise of Jesus’ resurrection. Because of his forgiveness, and his resurrection from death, our sorrow will be turned to Joy. One day, nothing will ever part us from those we love:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” (Rev 21:1-4)

Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. 2 There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? 3 When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. 4 And you know the way to where I am going.” (John 14:1-4)

REST. We love the break of Christmas. Most people don’t do unnecessary chores at Christmas. We can relax and enjoy at least a single day. But God has promised us a rest that continues, not just for one, day, but forever:

God’s promise of entering his rest still stands, so we ought to tremble with fear that some of you might fail to experience it. For this good news—that God has prepared this rest—has been announced to us just as it was to them….So there is a special rest still waiting for the people of God. For all who have entered into God’s rest have rested from their labors, just as God did after creating the world. So let us do our best to enter that rest. But if we disobey God, as the people of Israel did, we will fall. (Heb 4:1-2 & 9-11)

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matt 11:28-30)

Turn the mood of this Christmas season into leverage for helping you rest in Jesus.

RECEIVING GIFTS. What did you get for Christmas last year? To be truthful, I cannot remember without putting some serious thought to it. What I do know is this: I am usually thrilled about new gifts, but it isn’t terribly long until the thrill wears off. But the Lord gives us gifts that never spoil or fade:

“Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. (Matt 6:19-21)

“You fathers—if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” (Luke 11:11-13)

Use the joy and anticipation of gifts to help you receive what the Lord is offering us – his Holy Spirit, and an unfading eternal future. Use the presents to help you focus on the eternal and immeasurably valuable gifts that the Father has given us through Jesus Christ.

FOOD & CELEBRATION. Often in scripture, food is used as a metaphor for fellowship with God. As we anticipate eating, and actually eat, let’s consciously invite the Lord to be a part of our lives.

Yes, I am the bread of life! Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, but they all died. Anyone who eats the bread from heaven, however, will never die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and this bread, which I will offer so the world may live, is my flesh.” (John 6:47-51)

Listen! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and have dinner with him, and he with Me. (Revelation 3:20)

So let’s feast! Enjoy the food. And as we do, worship, and receive Jesus’ invitation to close fellowship. Celebrate with loved ones, and use it to remind you of the eternal celebration we will have when we are finally together with Lord and our loved ones in the New Heavens and the New Earth.

CONNECTING WITH DEEPER REALITY. I think it is during this season the greatest numbers of people are really open and willing to consider something bigger than themselves. At Christmas we seem more ready to acknowledge that we want more – not just more stuff, but more –something – in our lives. That something is a relationship with Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

By the way, we can use more than just Christmas. I find that I usually deeply enjoy the period leading up to New Year’s also, and can use it the same way. But it isn’t even just season. We can use any time of joy, any celebration or event to which we are looking forward. We can use these things to point us toward what is greater and more eternal; the real celebration.

So this season, get into it. Enjoy the anticipation. Look forward the presents. For crying out loud, have some eggnog for me. But use it all to let God draw you closer. Use it to feed a hunger and thirst for him.

Pause for a moment. Can you sense we are on Holy Ground? The presence of Jesus transformed a plain, ordinary, smelly stable into a holy place. Let his presence do that for you not just at Christmas, but year round, wherever you find yourself.

Have a very merry Christmas!

DID JESUS REALLY COME TO BRING PEACE ON EARTH?

mary_2

This little baby presents each one of us with a difficult choice. Even Mary, his mother, was faced with the same choice.

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 2013

 

Christmas Eve 2013

Luke 1:26-38. Mary

Tonight, I’d like to focus a little on 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 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 their lives. 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.

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 think it is quite probable that Mary never got her “event-of-a-lifetime” wedding. In fact, I doubt they had any wedding celebration at all. It was highly 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.

I’ve thought before, 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?

The good news, is that when Mary did that, she found incredible grace and joy. A few months later, talking to her relative, Elizabeth, she said:

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, ​and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.

For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. (Luke 1:46-49, ESV2011)

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.

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.