The Old Preacher

Viewing the World through God's Word

Category: Advent (page 1 of 2)

Christmas: God Up to Something?

Maybe God was up to something.  You decide . . .

An angel appeared to an old priest serving in the silence of the temple sanctuary.  The angel told Zechariah his barren wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son, and that son would prepare the people for Messiah’s coming.  The priest was shocked by the angel’s appearance and his message.  He wanted a sign.  Instead, the angel struck him dumb for disbelief (Luke 1:5-23).

Soon, barren Elizabeth conceived (Luke 1:24,25).

In her sixth month, another angel-visit.  This one to a young virgin in Nazareth, Galilee, who was pledged to  marry a descendant of King David, Joseph.  “The Holy Spirit will conceive the Messiah in you.”

After a while, Mary went south to Judea to visit her relative Elizabeth.  Nothing unusual about that.  Except when Mary greeted Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s baby jumped in her womb, and she was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me” (Luke 1:26-45).  Important note:  this being before phones, e-mail and social media, Elizabeth knew nothing about the angel’s visit to Mary.

Suddenly, Mary magnified the Lord, with a beautiful poem of praise by which she affirmed her belief that the Lord had looked on her with favor, would upset the world’s power structures with her child, and would help Abraham’s descendant as he’d promised (Luke 1:39-56).

Elizabeth gave birth. A son.  Eight days later neighbors gathered for the circumcision and naming.  “John,” she said.  (Apparently, Zechariah had written to Elizabeth the name the angel wanted.)  Neighbors protested.  “Name him after his father!”  Then “dumb” dad wrote it again with an exclamation point:  “His name is John!”  The note loosed the old priest’s tongue to tell the whole story.  The neighborhood buzzed with a question:  “What will this child become?”

Suddenly, Zechariah answered.  “The Lord God of Israel is remembering his holy covenant with Abraham.  John will become a prophet of the Most High.  He’ll go before the Lord to prepare his ways so his people will know the way of salvation.”

Things settled down after that. The child grew.  Years wound by.  Until John was a young man.  Then he went off to live in the wilderness (Luke 1:57-80).

Then, in far-off Rome, Caesar Augustus issued a decree.  The emperor’s whole world had to travel to ancestral homes to register.  (More taxes were coming.)  For Joseph in Nazareth, that meant an arduous hundred-mile journey to Bethlehem with pregnant Mary.

Finally arriving in the little town, Mary atop a donkey groaned, “Joseph, it’s time!”  But they had no shelter—no room in the inn crowded with travelers.  Joseph frantically rushed to find a cave.  A haven for farm animals became a temporary home for the baby’s birth, and a straw-strewn animal trough became his bed (Luke 2:1-7).

Outside town, shepherds were tending their flocks at night.  Time and place for another angel-visit.  This one momentous.  “Don’t be afraid, the angel told the afraid shepherds.  I’ve got good news of great joy for everyone.  Today in David’s town a Savior has been born—the Messiah.  You’ll find him wrapped in cloth-bands lying in a manger.”  At that, a majestic choir of angels appeared, singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 

When the heavenly display ended and shepherds closed their hanging jaws, they found their tongues.  “Let’s go see.  Whaddaya say?”  So they did and saw.  There was the child in the manger and mom and dad hovering nearby.

On the eighth day, he was circumcised and named:  “Jesus.”  That was the angel’s idea (Luke 2:8-20).

* * *

Now:  was all this God up to something?  Or maybe Zechariah got caught up in spiritual ecstasy about an angel at the incense altar and Mary was just daydreaming as young girls are wont to do.  Maybe Elizabeth wasn’t really barren after all, and she and Zechariah just “got it right.”  Maybe Joseph and Mary were just, you know, “fooling around” and things got out of hand and well, you know.  Perhaps those shepherds had just spent too many nights out in the field tending dumb sheep and a group hallucination struck them.

Or maybe the whole thing is just a fairy tale that’s persisted over the centuries–part of the Christmas tradition as unreal as Santa Claus.

Or maybe God was behind the whole thing.

If you decide that it was God, you can have a really Merry Christmas.  That’s what Lois and I wish for you.

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Christmas: The Hiding Woman

A disgrace, and a sadness:  Elizabeth was barren.  No son to carry on Zechariah’s name. No tiny squeals of delight to fill their home.  No baby to suck her life-giving breasts. Breasts, like the rest of her old body, that could no longer give life.

But . . . Elizabeth conceived.  At first, she dared not believe it.  “ . . . for five months she remained in seclusion” (Luke 1:24).  But her body began to prove it.  Still she hid.  Did she fear her body would yet cruelly disappoint her?  Did she have to ponder her husband’s words about that fearful day in the temple?  Simple words he crudely scribbled after being struck dumb for disbelieving an angel’s words.

Zechariah the priest.  That day he, from among so many, had been chosen by lot to serve in the sanctuary.  He had been humbled—and grateful.  At his age it was likely his last opportunity.

He’d stepped solemnly into the sanctuary to offer incense.  Suddenly, to the right of the altar (he wrote to her), an angel had appeared.  Even if his words were abbreviated, they were enough to make her gasp.  The angel had announced Zechariah’s wife would give birth to a son who would be great before the Lord and be filled with the Spirit even before birth.  Was he now, she wondered, as he grew inside her womb?

But it was this prophecy that most astonished her.  “With the Spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him . . . “ (Luke 1:17). Zechariah had been quite clear about those words.  And about how the angel had struck him dumb, because he hadn’t believed any of them.

Her son . . . her son . . . would go before him–Messiah!

So Elizabeth hid herself.  At least until her tummy proved the prophecy.  Secretly she rejoiced in the removal of her disgrace.  Quietly she pondered if her son’s mission were true and  how her boy–her boy– would announce the Messiah.

A month after Elizabeth’s seclusion, her young relative Mary visited.  “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.  And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?’” (Luke 1:41-43).

Two mothers-to-be.  One impossibly un-barren.  One pregnant without a man.  Both caught up in the wonder of miraculous births of miraculous sons.  Two women rejoicing at what the Lord had done.

Neither knew the suffering that lay ahead.  Mary’s son, the Messiah,  would be rejected and put to death by Israel’s religious leaders and Rome’s self-centered king.  Elizabeth’s son would call Israel to get ready for the Messiah by a baptism of repentance.  And would publicly condemn a king for adulterous sex.  In the end, the woman of that affair would shrewdly take his head.

* * *

How foreign such words sound at Christmas!  Christmas is about good-news angels, worshiping wise men, a cuddly baby in a manger, peace on earth.  We barely notice the holy family escaping to Egypt from Herod’s rage that slaughtered Bethlehem’s young boys.  We sing happy songs that welcome the king.  But we forget powerful men didn’t.

Our country celebrates while disconnecting the child from the man the world crucified.  And John?  John the miracle born to an old barren woman.  We last see him led from prison to satisfy the spiteful wish of an immoral woman–a wish by  a sex-and liquor-drunken king afraid to look small before other small men.  John’s good story ends with his head presented on a platter.

Would Elizabeth, if still alive these many years later, have crept into seclusion?  Would she have feared for her own life?  Would she have doubted God and condemned Zechariah for bringing such outlandish “angel talk” to her home?  Or would she have  stood as tall as her old bent frame allowed to cry “Amen” to John’s now-silent words?

And what of us?  We’ve domesticated the message of Christmas.  Separated it from the violence it brought.  Allowed the world to make it a sweet fairy tale or a religious bedtime story.  Might it be that the church in America has largely gone into seclusion, like Elizabeth?  Have we hidden the angel’s prophecy to Zechariah within the four walls of our sanctuary?  Maybe we need to find ways to come out.  To trust the Holy Spirit to fill us.  And to endure whatever opposition we must to tell the whole Christmas story.

Maybe we need more John the Baptists this Christmas.  And more Elizabeths, who come out of hiding.

 

 

 

 

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Christmas: The King

The new king settled into his palace.   Peace reigned in Israel.  David and his devoted armies had defeated the Philistines.  “ . . .the LORD  had given [David] rest from all his enemies around him” (2 Samuel 7:1).  So, the king wanted to build a house for his LORD, a place to enshrine the ark of God.

But the prophet Nathan received a word that night.  The next day he told the king.  “The LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house.  When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you . . . and I will establish his kingdom.  He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Samuel 7:11b,12).

David  humbly accepted the prophet’s word and gratefully praised the LORD for his greatness and goodness  to Israel.

The promise stirred David’s heart.  His son would build a house for the Lord.  And a dynasty was born.  Israel would always have a son of David on the throne.  But might “I will establish the throne of kingdom forever” mean more?

After Solomon, civil war split Israel.  The twin nations repeatedly broke God’s covenant.  A Davidic king reigned in Jerusalem.  But the kingdom was crumbling under the weight of sin and God’s judgment.

Three hundreds years after David, amidst the sin-ravaged kingdom, prophets told of a coming Davidic king:  “See, a king will reign in righteousness and rulers will rule with justice” (Isaiah 32:1) . . .“Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. ” (Zechariah 9:9,10) . . . “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2).

Words of hope gleaming in the darkness.  Mysterious words:  “He will proclaim peace to the nations” . . . His rule will extend to the ends of the earth”.  Israel watched and waited.  For the king who would build God’s “house”, the son to once again rule from David’s throne with righteousness and peace.  And maybe his rule would extend to the earth’s ends!

* * *

Only one thing frightened King Herod—an enemy usurping his throne.  So when he heard news that wise men from the east arrived in Jerusalem looking for “ . . . the child who has been born king of the Jews”, his fears were fueled.  “Where is the Messiah to be born?” he asked his priests.  “Bethlehem, according to Micah 5:2.”  “Tell me when you find him, so I may go worship him too,” he told the wise men.

That evening, the star that had led the magi from the East, reappeared over the place where the child was. When “ . . . the wise men saw the child with Mary his mother . . . they knelt down and paid him homage.  Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11). 

They didn’t return to Herod. When he realized he’d been tricked, he was enraged.  If he couldn’t kill the one child, he’d kill every child under two in Bethlehem.

“Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:  ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more'” (Matthew 2:17).

Was this horrific violence just the ravings of a mad king?  Or did Herod’s murderous tirade portent how the world would receive this child-king?  For now, he was safe.  The Lord’s angel had appeared to Joseph in a dream,  “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you . . . ” (Matthew 2:13).

Was this child to reign on David’s throne over a whole-earth kingdom?

Would violent rejection plague him wherever he went?

Did the prophet Nathan (or the Lord) mean this son of David would reign forever?

Were the wise men’s gifts just rich presents or did they mean more than even they understood?  Did gold represent the child’s kingship.  Did frankincense symbolize his priesthood of intercession for his sinful people.  Did myrrh prefigure his terrible atoning death?

Were the magi’s words prophetic beyond their understanding.

And did these foreigners, these men from the East, symbolize the day when all of heaven will sing to this child, “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.  You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9,10)?

 

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Christmas: God Himself Will Provide the Lamb

The mountain loomed above the horizon:  Moriah.  Yet a day away.  Its sight signaled the end of Abraham’s journey.  He heaved a sigh of relief, welcoming the day because he dreaded the end.

The old man shuffled down the dirt path, leading his donkey bearing wood for a sacrifice.  Behind the animal, two servants followed.  Isaac, the son he loved, the son of God’s promise, walked stride by stride at his father’s side.  Isaac, the sacrifice.

Two days earlier, Abraham had heard the Voice—the One he’d heard occasionally for decades, the One that promised a son from old Sarah, the son to be the first of descendants as many as the sands of the sea.

But, this time the Voice spoke dreadful words:  “Abraham take your only son Isaac who you love.  Go to Moriah.  Sacrifice him there—a burnt offering on the mountain I will show you.”

The sun burned.  A hot breeze breathed on the land.  But Abraham’s blood ran cold.  He thrust a wrinkled hand through wispy hair.  How could the Lord God demand Isaac’s sacrifice?  His death would break the promise.  Worse, it might kill the old man and woman.

Even so, before the next day’s sun broke the horizon, Abraham had gathered wood, saddled his donkey and set out for Mount Moriah, his son by his side.

On the third day, the ground grew steep.  Moriah looked desolate now.  “Stay here with the donkey,” Abraham told the servants.  “I will take my boy a little farther.  We will worship and then come back.”

The words escaped the old man’s mouth.  “We will worship and then come back.” Were they words of faith?  Of insight deeper than knowledge?  Or a hope that  sacrifice would somehow not end in death?

Isaac shouldered the wood.  Abraham held the fire and knife—the knife with which he’d slaughter his son.  “Father,” bewildered Isaac asked as they trudged up the hill,  “We have wood and fire.  But where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”

Silence.  Abraham’s breathing was labored. Then he spoke.  Resolutely in hope.  Firmly in faith.  More than he knew. “My son, God himself will provide the lamb for the sacrifice.”

They reached the summit.  The place of sacrifice.  Isaac still held the wood, while Abraham stooped to gather stones.  He built an altar.  Took the wood from Isaac.  Laid it on the altar.  Led Isaac to it and lay the boy on the wood.  Isaac looked up fearfully, questioning, at his father.  “God will provide a lamb.”  Father and son remembered the words.  But when?  Where? The words mocked Abraham now as his shaking hand took the knife.  With feet firmly planted, but tottering with desperation, he raised the knife high toward the heavens.  One thrust to kill his boy.

He tightened his grip and tensed his muscles.  Now!  A shout came from heaven:  “Abraham, lay down the knife.  Do not hurt the boy.  For now I know you truly fear God.  You have not withheld even your beloved son from me.”

Abraham looked up.  Movement in a nearby bush drew his eye.  A trapped ram.  A sacrifice would be made that day.  But not a seemingly senseless one of the promised son.  Rather an offering of thanksgiving.  As his sacrifice burned toward heaven, Abraham breathed a name for that holy ground—“The Lord will provide.”

* * *

As years passed, Abraham’s descendants multiplied.  But so did their sin.  They lived estranged from their Lord. As did all mankind.  Prophets made it plain their sin was a snare and God’s wrath must fall.  Yet through the centuries, Abraham’s words echoed:  “God himself will provide the lamb”.

* * *

The cave sheltered animals.  But this night it would give sanctuary to a frightened teenager about to give birth and to her anxious husband.  Moments passed unnoticed as birth pains increased.  The girl moaned, screamed, pushed.  And “she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).

“God himself will provide the lamb.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Christmas: Crushed Serpent

Serpent and Satan.  Hardly the stuff of Christmas.  But the birth of Christ fulfilled a prophecy that leads us into the dark side of Christmas.

A long time ago the Lord God created the first man and first woman.  He put them in a paradise–Eden.  Filled with every kind of fruit tree imaginable.  All for them to enjoy.  Except one—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  God forbade them to eat from that. (Some have guessed that this test of Adam’s and Eve’s faith and obedience was necessary for them to progress from innocence to moral maturity.)

Edenic bliss was darkened by a sly serpent’s entrance.  “No, you won’t die if you eat from the God-forbidden tree.  Why, you’ll become like God!”  Eve listened and looked at the tree.  How desirable!  “She took of its fruit and ate (so the Genesis 3 story goes); and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he also ate.”

Their sin spread.  It’s infected us. Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man (Adam), and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned . . . “ (Romans 5:12).  Sin came.  Death came.  Man must return to the dust.

And, “ . . .  the LORD God said to the serpent: ‘Because you have done this, you are cursed more than all cattle, And more than every beast of the field; On your belly you shall go, And you shall eat dust all the days of your life.   And I will put enmity between you and the woman, And between your seed and her Seed; He shall crush your head, and you shall bruise His heel'” (Genesis 3:14,15). 

The fantasy-like story takes on deeper reality.  It’s not explaining why snakes crawl.  But warning that evil power personified exists.  To lead us astray.  From God.

“ . . .that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray“ (Revelation 12:9).

  • Temptation comes like a serpent; like the most subtle beast of the field; like that one creature which is said to exert a fascinating influence on its victims, fastening them with its glittering eye, stealing upon them by its noiseless, low, and unseen approach, perplexing them by its wide circling folds, seeming to come upon them from all sides at once, and armed not like the other beasts with one weapon of offence-horn, or hoof, or teeth–but capable of crushing its victim with every part of its sinuous length.
  • Temptation succeeds at first by exciting our curiosity. It is a wise saying that “our great security against sin lies in being shocked at it. Eve gazed and reflected when she should have fled.” The serpent created an interest, excited her curiosity about this forbidden fruit.  And as this excited curiosity lies near the beginning of sin in the race, so does it in the individual.
  • Through this craving for an enlarged experience unbelief in God’s goodness finds entrance. In the presence of forbidden pleasure we are tempted to feel as if God were grudging us enjoyment. The very arguments of the serpent occur to our mind. No harm will come of our indulging; the prohibition is needless, unreasonable, and unkind; it is not based on any genuine desire for our welfare.
  • If we know our own history we cannot be surprised to read that one taste of evil ruined our first parents. It is so always. The one taste alters our attitude towards God and conscience and life. The actual experience of sin is like the one taste of alcohol to a reclaimed drunkard, like the first taste of blood to a young tiger, it calls out the latent devil and creates a new nature within us. (Above four points from The Expositor’s Bible Commentary.)

We are “drawn away by [our] own desires” (James 1:14,15).  Yet, “[Our] enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

I am Eve.  But with a sin-nature.  And, vulnerable to the devil’s guile.  He slithers toward me.  Intent on enticing me to what God forbids.  His power is dark.  And pervasive.

Not only toward me.  The world.  Read the news.  Terrorism.  City gun violence.  Wars.  Corruption.  Sexual perversion.  Domestic abuse.

“ . . . the whole world lies under the power of the evil one (1 John 5:19).

 But from that long-ago story, light shines in the darkness.  The Lord God cursed the serpent/Satan . . .

 And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall crush your head.  And you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15).

A woman’s Seed to crush the Serpent’s head.  In that battle, the heel of the woman’s Seed would be struck.  A fatal blow to the Serpent.  A wound from which the Seed would recover.

Through centuries of evil the promise lay dormant.  Until He was born.

 “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14,15).

 “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3:8b).

 “And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (Colossians 2:13-15).

The Serpent still seduces.  But his doom is sure.  God is stronger.  And His Son,  the Seed of the woman, has come.  And conquered.

And, he ” . . . will soon crush Satan under your feet” ( Rom 16:20).

 

 

 

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Christmas: In the Beginning the Word

Can you believe it?  Christmas less than five weeks away!  And me without a breath of Christmas spirit.  Maybe writing will help.  So . . . here starts an occasional “Advent” blog.

The best-told Christmas narrative is Luke’s.  But, actually the story starts with John’s “non-Christmas” gospel prologue.  No angels or shepherds or inns or mangers.  Not “folksy” or warm and wonderful.   Mysterious.  Mind-stretching.  He begins with . . .

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning” (John 1:1,2).

“In the beginning”.  Directly connected to Genesis 1:1–“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”.  This One, whom John calls “ . . . the Word”, was there.  And he “was God”.  God.  Yet separate from God.

“Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3).  “The Word” spoke.  And all things came into being.

That decidedly contradicts the most prominent “scientific” view–“the universe as we  know it started with a small singularity, then inflated over the next 13.8 billion years to the cosmos that we know today”.  (These sites discuss that theory further–but have nothing to do with Christmas!)

http://www.hawking.org.uk/the-origin-of-the-universe.html

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/space/universe/origins-of-the-universe/

And Christmas is what I’m writing about, though it doesn’t sound like it  until John 1:14a . . .

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us”.  That’s John’s Christmas narrative.  Four words. “The Word became flesh . . . “The Word”, who was God (therefore, spirit–John 4:24), came to be a flesh-and-blood human.

“The Second Person in God, God the Son, became human Himself:  was born into the world as an actual man—a real man of a particular height, with hair of a particular color, speaking a particular language, weighing so many stone.  The Eternal Being, who knows everything, and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby and before that a fetus inside a Woman’s body . . . He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity . . . down to the very roots and seabed of the Nature he had created . . . But he goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined [believing] world with Him” (C.S. Lewis, The Joyful Christian, p. 51,52).

He came In order to be seen and known . . .

We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

John and others saw “glory”—the outshining of God the Father’s being.  “ . . . full of grace (God’s unmerited love) and truth (God’s covenant-keeping, faithful reliability)”.  In “the Word”, they saw God who loves the unlovable.  They saw God who can be trusted.

“The Word became flesh” in order to shine light in the darkness . . .

In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:4,5). 

“ . . . darkness”.  The realm of death and evil.  Death claims us all.  And evil is rampant, it’s commonplace.  But, thirty years later, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

He came also to make us to be what we can’t make of ourselves  . . .

“He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God–children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:10-13).

The world “the Word” created didn’t know him, didn’t want him.  But some welcomed him.  Believed in him.  To those (to us) “the Word” gave the right to become God’s children.  Children not naturally born.  “ . . . born of God.”  By the Spirit.  From above (John 3:3,5).  From where the Word was in the beginning.  He came to make us like himself.

“flesh . . . “  John could have said “became man”.  But, instead “flesh”.  Sarx. Implying weakness.  Vulnerability.  Perishableness.  What we are to make us like he was before.

“God . . .  entered the world as a baby . . . His face is prunish and red.  His cry, though strong and healthy, is still the helpless and piercing cry of a baby . . . Majesty in the midst of the mundane.  Holiness in the filth of [the manger’s] sheep manure and sweat.  Divinity entering the world on the floor of a stable, through the womb of a teenager in the presence of a carpenter . . . This baby had overlooked the universe” (Max Lucado, When God Came Near).

It’s his birth we celebrate.  May we do it with awe.

 

 

 

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Coming Christmas Morning

O PreacherChristmas morning.  Lois in the kitchen preparing for children and grandchildren coming later.  A few quiet moments for me to pray and ponder.  Reminiscing about long-ago Christmases when our son and two daughters were children.  A familiar reminder to you who have young children:  enjoy them this Christmas season.  They will soon celebrate in their own homes with their own little ones.

For some reason, woke this morning with these fascinating words from the apostle Paul . . .

The night is far gone; the day is at hand.
(Romans 13:12a)

It’s his reason for urging us to live morally upright lives as Jesus’ followers . . .

. . . you know that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep.
For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.
The night is far gone; the day is at hand.
So then let us cast off the works of darkness
and put on the armor of light.
(Romans 13:11,12)

I’m not thinking of Paul’s exhortation as much as the far-gone night and at-hand day.

I tend to see this world as “day.”  What lies out there in the future, even though Jesus promises glory beyond comprehension, seems “night” both because (unless Jesus comes first) I have to pass through the “night” of death and the future beyond death is unfamiliar territory.  But here Paul writes of life in this world as “night” and the future in the world to come as “day.”

It reminds me of Christmas morning when my brother and I were kids.  How hard to fall asleep the night before!  Too excited!  Too much anticipating what would be under the tree!  (Our parents never put our presents out until we were safely in bed.)  Struggling to sleep made Christmas Eve the year’s longest night.

But then the night was over!  I opened my eyes in record time (not like on school days).  I think my brother and I had it in our genes to naturally be as noisy as possible to wake up Dad and Mom.  Finally they rolled out, warning us to wait in our rooms until they made sure everything was ready, turned the tree lights on, and called us.  “Okay, kids.  Al.  Glenn.  Come on.”  Down the hallway we hustled toward the living room and the thrill of Christmas morning around the tree half-hidden behind piles of presents.

This world—the world where we live, the world we know, the only world we know—is “night.”  It’s filled, as Paul writes here in Romans, with “orgies and drunkenness”, with “sexual immorality and sensuality,” with “quarreling and jealousy.”  It’s also marked by disappointment and dissatisfaction and disability and death.  It never delivers on its promises.  Its “toys” always break down or wear out.  Oh, there’s goodness and joy to be sure.  After all, despite sin’s ravages, this is still my Father’s world.  But the evil one and our fallen natures corrupt and darken even the best of what God has made.

It is night.  But it’s “far gone”!  The day is at hand!  Christmas morning like none other is about to break into this darkness.  Jesus, born that first Christmas day, is coming again.  He who is the Light of the world will split the night with his glory.  He will call us:  “Okay, children.”  He’ll call us by name.  “Allan, Glenn, come.”  And we will rise with pounding hearts and wide-eyed looks and breathless hearts at the thrill of this “Christmas morning”  around the One who gave his life for us and comes now to gather us home to a world where it will never be night.

That day is at hand! 

Merry Christmas!

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Christmas Holy Words

O PreacherRejoice!  It’s the same Old Story!


In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,  to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the House of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.  He went in and said to her, ‘Rejoice, you who enjoy God’s favour! The Lord is with you.’  She was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean,  but the angel said to her, ‘Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God’s favour.  Look! You are to conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus.  He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David;  he will rule over the House of Jacob for ever and his reign will have no end.’ 

Mary said to the angel, ‘But how can this come about, since I have no knowledge of man?’ The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God.  And I tell you this too: your cousin Elizabeth also, in her old age, has conceived a son, and she whom people called barren is now in her sixth month,  for nothing is impossible to God.’  Mary said, ‘You see before you the Lord’s servant, let it happen to me as you have said.’ And the angel left her (Luke 1:26-38).

 

A few days later Mary hurried to the hill country of Judea, to the town  where Zechariah lived. She entered the house and greeted Elizabeth.  At the sound of Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth’s child leaped within her, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.  Elizabeth gave a glad cry and exclaimed to Mary, “You are blessed by God above all other women, and your child is blessed.  What an honor this is, that the mother of my Lord should visit me!  When you came in and greeted me, my baby jumped for joy the instant I heard your voice! You are blessed, because you believed that the Lord would do what he said.” 

Mary responded, “Oh, how I praise the Lord. How I rejoice in God my Savior!  For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and now generation after generation will call me blessed.  For he, the Mighty One, is holy, and he has done great things for me.  His mercy goes on from generation to generation, to all who fear him.  His mighty arm does tremendous things! How he scatters the proud and haughty ones!  He has taken princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly.  He has satisfied the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands.  And how he has helped his servant Israel! He has not forgotten his promise to be merciful.  For he promised our ancestors– Abraham and his children– to be merciful to them forever.”  Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months and then went back to her own home (Luke 1:39-56).

 


Joseph, her fiancé, being a just man, decided to break the engagement quietly, so as not to disgrace her publicly.  As he considered this, he fell asleep, and an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to go ahead with your marriage to Mary. For the child within her has been conceived by the Holy Spirit.  And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

All of this happened to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet:  “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and he will be called Immanuel (meaning, God is with us).”  When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord commanded. He brought Mary home to be his wife,  but she remained a virgin until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus (Matthew 1:9-25).

 

At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.)  All returned to their own towns to register for this census.  And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee.  He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was obviously pregnant by this time. 

And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born.  She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the village inn. 

That night some shepherds were in the fields outside the village, guarding their flocks of sheep.  Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terribly frightened,  but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news of great joy for everyone!   The Savior– yes, the Messiah, the Lord– has been born tonight in Bethlehem, the city of David!   And this is how you will recognize him: You will find a baby lying in a manger, wrapped snugly in strips of cloth!”  Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others– the armies of heaven– praising God:  “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to all whom God favors” (Luke 2:1-14).

 

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

The light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness has still not overcome it (John 1:4)!

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The Empty Christmas Chair

O PreacherAround many tables this Christmas an empty chair will sit.  A most-loved one will be missing.  Nothing will fill the chair nor the heart.  If all your chairs are full, some Christmas soon they won’t be.

” . . . it is appointed for mortals to die once”
(Hebrews 9:27, NKJV)

My brother died this year.  My sister-in-law wrote recently how some things don’t seem to change for the Christmas season, “but others are oh, so different.”  I can’t fathom the depth of the loneliness.  I’m not even sure that’s the correct word, nor that I can find it.  After so many Christmases, especially those with her son, how does she—how do they—“celebrate” Christmas?

It comes like a blow to the stomach, the thought that their story is replayed again and again and again.  Sometimes the circumstances of the passing are far worse, sometimes less so.  But surely all bear some brokenhearted void.

I dread the thought of Lois’ chair being empty, as I know she dreads the thought of mine.  After 53 years of a loving marriage beyond our dreams, how will one of us endure it?

Christmas tree in front of window

We’ll all come to that Christmas with the empty chair.  But  , , ,

. . . there was a baby in a manger . . . a sinless God-Man on a cross . . . an empty grave and an ascension into heaven.  Without the baby, we have no hope.  Without the cross, we’re  dead in our sins.  And . . .

. . . if we have hope in Christ only for this life,
we are the most miserable people in the world
(1 Corinthians 15:19, NLT).

Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
. . . he was buried,
he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures
(1 Corinthians 15:3,4, ESV).

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,
that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
(John 3:16, NIV)

“There are many rooms in my Father’s home,
and I am going to prepare a place for you.
If this were not so, I would tell you plainly.
When everything is ready, I will come and get you,
so that you will always be with me where I am.”
(Jesus, John 14:2,3, NLT).

There is, because of Jesus, another emotion, when we see the Christmas empty chair.  Emptiness, yes, but also longing.  C. S. Lewis wrote of it . . .

If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy,
the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.

It’s our desire “for our own far off country”, he wrote, saying that sometimes we call it “Nostalgia” or “Romanticism” or “Adolescence” or “Beauty”.  But . . .

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 yet visited.

At present we are on the outside of [that]world,
the wrong side of the door . . .
But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour
that it will not always be so.
Someday, God willing, we shall get “in” . . .

And when by God’s grace through simple faith in Christ we do, we will find the empty Christmas chair filled with the one we love—forever.

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Advent Flesh

In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God . . .
All things were made through him,
and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life,
and the life was the light of men.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it . . .
The true light, which gives light to everyone,
was coming into the world.
He was in the world, yet the world did not know him.
He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name,
he gave the right to become children of God,
who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man,
but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,
and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father,
full of grace and truth . . .
For from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace . . .
No one has ever seen God;
the only God, who is at the Father’s side,
he has made him known (John 1:1-5,9-14,16,18).

 “The Word”—who was with God in the beginning, through whom everything was created, and who was God—became flesh and lived among us.  Ponder that Scripture above.  Think deeply about the statement I made to briefly summarize that Scripture.  Remember the newborns you’ve seen—or even held—in a happy hospital room.  Consider:  the Word who was with God, through whom God created all things, who was God, came to us like THAT.

No one captures the mystery and meaning of that wonder better than Max Lucado in “Mary’s Prayer” (from his book God Came Near.)Read it reflectively with me.  Stand in awe of the wonder.  Bow your knee at the manger.  And have a Christmas filled with joy and peace and hope and grace and truth and love . . .

God.  O infant-God. Heaven’s fairest child.  Conceived by the union of divine grace with our disgrace.  Sleep well.  Sleep well.  Bask in the coolness of this night bright with diamonds.  Sleep well, for the heat of anger simmers nearby.  Enjoy the silence of the crib, for the noise of confusion rumbles in your future.  Savor the sweet safety of my arms, for a day is soon coming when I cannot protect you.

Rest well, tiny hands.  For though you belong to a king, you will touch no satin, own no gold.  You will grasp no pen, guide no brush.  No, your tiny hands are reserved for works more precious:  to touch a leper’s open wound, to wipe a widow’s weary tear, to claw the ground of Gethsemane.

Your hands, so tiny, so tender, so white—clutched tonight in an infant’s fist.  They aren’t destined to hold a scepter nor wave from a palace balcony.  They are reserved instead for a Roman spike that will staple them to a Roman cross.

Sleep deeply, tiny eyes.  Sleep while you can.  For soon the blurriness will clear and you will see the mess we have made of your world.  You will see our nakedness, for we cannot hide.  You will see our selfishness, for we cannot give.  You will see our pain, for we cannot heal.  O eyes that will see hell’s darkest pit and witness her ugly prince . . . sleep, please sleep; sleep while you can.

Lay still, tiny mouth.  Lay still mouth from which eternity will speak.  Tiny tongue that will soon summon the dead, that will define grace, that will silence our foolishness.  Rosebud lips—upon which ride a starborn kiss of forgiveness to those who believe you, and of death to those who deny you—lay still.

And tiny feet cupped in the palm of my hand, rest.  For many difficult steps lie ahead for you.  Do you taste the dust of the trails you will travel?  Do you feel the cold sea water upon which you will walk?  Do you wrench at the invasion of the nail you will bear?   Do you fear the steep descent down the spiral staircase into Satan’s domain?  Rest, tiny feet.  Rest today so that tomorrow you might walk with power.  Rest.  For millions will follow in your steps.

And little heart . . . holy heart . . . pumping the blood of life through the universe:  How many times will we break you?  You’ll be torn by the thorns of our accusations.  You’ll be ravaged by the cancer of our sin.  You’ll be crushed under the weight of your own sorrow.  And you’ll be pierced by the spear of our rejection.

Yet in that piercing, in that ultimate ripping of muscle and membrane, in that final rush of blood and water, you will find rest.  Your hands will be freed, your eyes will see justice, your lips will smile, and your feet will carry you home.

And there you’ll rest again—this time in the embrace of your Father.

“AND THE WORD BECAME FLESH AND DWELT AMONG US, AND WE HAVE SEEN HIS GLORY . . . FULL OF GRACE AND TRUTH . . . “

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