Welcome to the December Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
When writing, I used the New International Version of the Bible. Due to copyright restrictions, I have not included quotes for the scriptures, but highly encourage you to open your own bibles to read the scripture passages for yourselves.
A WORD FOR TODAY, December 2016
December 1, 2016
“‘Don’t be afraid; for you will not be ashamed. Don’t be confounded; for you will not be disappointed. For you will forget the shame of your youth; and the reproach of your widowhood you shall remember no more. For your Maker is your husband; Yahweh of Armies is his name. The Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer. He will be called the God of the whole earth. For Yahweh has called you as a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, even a wife of youth, when she is cast off,’ says your God. ‘For a small moment have I forsaken you; but with great mercies will I gather you. In overflowing wrath I hid my face from you for a moment; but with everlasting loving kindness I will have mercy on you,’ says Yahweh your Redeemer. ‘For this is like the waters of Noah to me; for as I have sworn that the waters of Noah will no more go over the earth, so have I sworn that I will not be angry with you, nor rebuke you. For the mountains may depart, and the hills be removed; but my loving kindness will not depart from you, and my covenant of peace will not be removed, says Yahweh who has mercy on you.” Isaiah 54:4-10, WEB
The Christmas season is difficult for many people. This is the time of year when the troubles of our lives seem exaggerated. Families with financial difficulties don’t have the money to do the things they want to do. Broken relationships mean loneliness. Those who are grieving struggle with the loss as they remember their loved ones and long for just one more holiday with them. It is colder, darker and snowy, rainy weather can be depressing. Every emotion is magnified, including anger and sadness.
I suppose for those who are dealing with tough times, a scripture like this is difficult. Too many feel abandoned, not only by the people in their lives, but also by God. When we are facing brokenness and pain, it is easy to think that God has forgotten us. When our lives aren’t the fairy tale, it is easy to think that God has rejected us. Yet, we are reminded, especially at this time of year, that we live in a world that is broken. We might have fairy tale moments, but real life means ups and downs. Pain is not God’s intent for His people, but sin has made it a natural part of our lives. The promise or Christmas, however, is that one day there will be no more pain.
Even if you feel abandoned by the world and by God, know that God has not forgotten His promises. He will always love you and He will be faithful. Even when it seems like you are all alone, God is near. His love is everlasting. His mercy is near. Most of all, do not take upon yourself the burden of blame, for God does not abandon His people because they are imperfect. He may use the moment to bring you to a new place, to a new relationship with Him. You will see that the promise is greater than any of the struggles we face whether it is during this season or all the year through. Be at peace, your God loves you.
“What more shall I say? For the time would fail me if I told of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets; who, through faith subdued kingdoms, worked out righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, grew mighty in war, and caused foreign armies to flee. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, not accepting their deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Others were tried by mocking and scourging, yes, moreover by bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned. They were sawn apart. They were tempted. They were slain with the sword. They went around in sheep skins and in goat skins; being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts, mountains, caves, and the holes of the earth. These all, having had testimony given to them through their faith, didn’t receive the promise, God having provided some better thing concerning us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” Hebrews 11:32-40, WEB
Today’s passage is the end of a long chapter showing the example of Bible characters who lived by faith. The writer of Hebrews included the stories of Abel, Enoch and Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Sarah. And of course, he included the story of Moses and the exodus of God’s people out of Egypt. The names of those who lived by faith are familiar to us and we wonder at how they stood so firmly in God’s Word even as the promises would not be fulfilled for generations. How did Abraham ever believe that he would be the faith of nations? How did David believe that his house would last forever? These promises were not fulfilled in their lifetimes, but they believed.
The chapter begins, “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen. For by this, the elders obtained testimony.” We are journeying through Advent in the hope of the coming of the Christ child that we know was already born. God fulfilled the promise of the Messiah. Jesus was born. He lived. He died. He rose again. And now He lives. Yet, we have a greater hope that has not yet been fulfilled. Jesus began the work of grace. We are saved. We still live in the hope of that which will come in the future. Jesus will come again to finish His work. We will have eternal life even though our imperfect and perishable flesh will die. How do we believe in the promise since it is unlikely to be fulfilled in our lifetime?
Generations of Christians for two thousand years have longed for the second coming of Jesus. Even in our lifetimes there have been prophecies that He would come on this day or that day. Many self proclaimed prophets claim to understand the hidden symbolism of the eschatological texts in the Bible, drawing followers who will do anything they say. Not that long ago I heard a story about a husband and wife sold everything they owned so they could buy billboards to warn everyone of the coming apocalypse. When it didn’t come, they were left homeless and abandoned by the prophet who encouraged them to do so.
We have faith. We have faith in Jesus Christ; we have faith that everything He has promised will come to be. He is faithful, so we believe. Yet, it is natural for us to be impatient. Why not now? After all, has God paid any attention to what’s happening in the world? Does He see how I’m suffering today? Can’t He make it happen sooner rather than later just to remove the burdens that are causing so much suffering and pain? Yes, it seems like it is taking too long for Jesus to come again, but we are reminded by the stories of those imperfect characters in the Bible that faith is the assurance that God will one day finish the work He began and that He will make us see clearly that which is right now hidden. Faith seems so intangible, but it is enough. Let us live by faith and know that our hopes will be fulfilled not only on Christmas but in eternity.
“Behold, Yahweh makes the earth empty, makes it waste, turns it upside down, and scatters its inhabitants. It will be as with the people, so with the priest; as with the servant, so with his master; as with the maid, so with her mistress; as with the buyer, so with the seller; as with the creditor, so with the debtor; as with the taker of interest, so with the giver of interest. The earth will be utterly emptied and utterly laid waste; for Yahweh has spoken this word. The earth mourns and fades away. The world languishes and fades away. The lofty people of the earth languish. The earth also is polluted under its inhabitants, because they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, and broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore the curse has devoured the earth, and those who dwell therein are found guilty. Therefore the inhabitants of the earth are burned, and few men left. The new wine mourns. The vine languishes. All the merry-hearted sigh. The mirth of tambourines ceases. The sound of those who rejoice ends. The joy of the harp ceases. They will not drink wine with a song. Strong drink will be bitter to those who drink it. The confused city is broken down. Every house is shut up, that no man may come in. There is a crying in the streets because of the wine. All joy is darkened. The mirth of the land is gone. The city is left in desolation, and the gate is struck with destruction. For it will be so within the earth among the peoples, as the shaking of an olive tree, as the gleanings when the vintage is done. These shall lift up their voice. They will shout for the majesty of Yahweh. They cry aloud from the sea. Therefore glorify Yahweh in the east, even the name of Yahweh, the God of Israel, in the islands of the sea! From the uttermost part of the earth have we heard songs. Glory to the righteous!” Isaiah 24:1-16a, WEB
Wow. I have been using the daily lectionary for my texts for the past week and plan to continue throughout Advent. Unfortunately, that means some of our texts will not be very pleasant. After all, these early days of Advent are focused on the future coming of the Christ. We know that we are waiting for Christmas, for the birth of Jesus, but we also know that He has already lived and died and rose again. So while we prepare once again for Christmas, we look forward to the end of days.
It seems strange to say that we look forward to the end of days, because it is not going to be a pleasant time. The apocalypse will be frightening for those who are not prepared. The texts from Daniel and Revelation promise death and destruction. Today’s text from Isaiah makes the same warnings. Yet there, at the end of this passage, you see a turn around. There are some who will lift their voice to God. They will shout His majesty. They will cry out from the sea. They will glorify God. They will be glorified. The apocalyptic warnings call us to turn to God. Those who repent, who trust in Him, who believe in Jesus, will not suffer in the end of days. The end of days will bring the fulfillment of all God’s promises.
It is frightening to think that the end of days will be so horrific, and yet don’t we see much of what is in this text in the world as we know it? See, human nature has always screwed up the world. We hurt each other, we destroy every good thing. We over indulge and waste what is good. We try to create a perfect world, but everything we try to do on our own fails because we do not trust God.
As we walk this Advent journey toward the birth of our King, we are reminded that the end of days is coming and it won’t be a pleasant time. However, Jesus has promised that it will be different for those who believe in Him. We will lift our voices for the One who can save us from the way things must be when God carries out His wrath against those who have not turned to Him. We will glorify God because He has done everything necessary to end this world and take us into eternity.
“‘Comfort, comfort my people,’ says your God. ‘Speak comfortably to Jerusalem; and call out to her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received of Yahweh’s hand double for all her sins.’ The voice of one who calls out, ‘Prepare the way of Yahweh in the wilderness! Make a level highway in the desert for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The uneven shall be made level, and the rough places a plain. Yahweh’s glory shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of Yahweh has spoken it.’ The voice of one saying, ‘Cry!’ One said, ‘What shall I cry?’ ‘All flesh is like grass, and all its glory is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, because Yahweh’s breath blows on it. Surely the people are like grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God stands forever.’ You who tell good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who tell good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with strength. Lift it up. Don’t be afraid. Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold, your God!’ Behold, the Lord Yahweh will come as a mighty one, and his arm will rule for him. Behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will gather the lambs in his arm, and carry them in his bosom. He will gently lead those who have their young.” Isaiah 40:1-11, WEB
I am nearly done decorating the house; there are just a few details to complete. I go a little crazy at this time of year, with Christmas themed displays in most rooms. I have a story lady area all my Christmas books, a collection of Santa Clauses, more than a dozen nativities and a lighted village. My official count of Christmas trees this year is ten. This includes a couple door hangers I’m using as Advent Calendars: I add an ornament every day. There is a ceramic tree that my aunt left to me when she died. I have several small trees: one has the twelve days of Christmas, one has my homemade ornaments and one has the ornaments that Bruce and I bought the first year we were married.
The centerpiece of our home is a ten foot Nordmann Fir tree. This is, perhaps, the most beautiful tree we have ever had in our home. We still like to have a cut tree; I’ve used artificial trees in the past, but I prefer real ones. People think I’m crazy, and perhaps I am, but I love it. It took 600 twinkle lights, hundreds of ornaments and 120 feet of garland to fill it, although I suspect I could have used more of everything!
Several people have told me that they don’t like to do cut trees anymore because they die and lose their needles. I understand their point of view, but I’ve found that artificial trees lose their “needles” too. As a matter of fact, the one foot tree that I have placed in my village lost more needles during decorating than the fresh tree as it was dragged into the house and set up. The artificial ones get old, they get worn, and eventually you just can’t fluff them back into shape any longer.
My tree will die, and by the time we take it to the curb in January there will be fewer needles on the branches. That tree would not have lived forever even if it weren’t cut down to decorate my home this Christmas. All living things die. As it lived, this tree provided soaked in the carbon and produce oxygen in return. The tree farm will grow another in its place. After Christmas, we will send it to the recycling plant to be made into mulch for someone’s garden. In the meantime, the tree is bringing me joy.
Isaiah says, “Surely the people are like grass. The grass withers, the flower fades,” but this truth is not nearly as depressing as his words in yesterday’s passage. Yes, our time is limited: we will die. Yet, we are reminded that God’s Word stands forever. The promises in today’s passage point to the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will make all things new. The world around us is not always the joyful and pleasant place we wish it to be. The world is filled with hatred and destruction, and unfortunately sometimes that hits too close to home. We grieve for those lost, we are afraid for what might be. Yet we are called to a life of trust because God will come and make all things right. He will rule His people with a firm but gracious hand. He will save us from that which threatens to destroy. We will die, but thanks to Jesus, we will live forever.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 11, 2016, Third Sunday in Advent: Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146; James 5:7-11; Matthew 11:2-15
“A highway will be there, a road, and it will be called The Holy Way.” Isaiah 35:8a, WEB
We have been doing an ongoing study in our adult Sunday school class about the character of God as revealed in the Old Testament and fulfilled by Jesus in the New Testament. We have learned about how necessary it is to know and understand the Old Testament stories to truly know and understand Jesus Christ and His saving work. One of the topics we discuss last Sunday was how the Messiah would be lifted up. It was promised in the story of the snakes during the Exodus in Numbers 21:6-9 and then show how Jesus was lifted up in John 3:14-18.
The first question we asked about the story from Numbers was, “Why didn’t God just get rid of the snakes?” We all pretty much agreed that snakes are yucky and life would be so much better without them. In the story, the snakes were biting and killing God’s people; it just doesn’t make sense that God told Moses to put a bronze serpent on a pole and have those bitten look at it. Wouldn’t it be easier to remove the problem rather than offer a solution? The whole point of the story was for God’s people to learn to look to Him, to trust in Him. Those who believed God and turned to the pole were saved.
Take takes us to the fulfillment in John’s Gospel. God’s people had turned from Him in so many ways. Though they claimed to be faithful and righteous, they were faithful to themselves and self-righteous. They had broken the relationship with God, living by works rather than faith. They were (we all are) sinners in need of a Savior and they didn’t even know it. Wouldn’t it have been easier to just get rid of sin rather than demand the price paid by Jesus on the cross? Why did Jesus have to be lifted, like that bronze serpent, so that we could be saved?
The bronze serpent didn’t save anyone. Moses didn’t save anyone. The people who looked to the bronze serpent trusted God’s Word and they were saved. The same is true of those who look to Jesus for salvation. We trust God’s Word that Jesus is truly the way of salvation.
The central theme of today’s texts is the ministry work of Jesus in fulfillment of God’s promises. Isaiah tells us that the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf will be unstopped, the lame man will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will sing. The psalmist made the same promise.
Matthew tells us that John the Baptist heard stories about Jesus Christ. He was imprisoned by Herod and could not go see it for himself, so he sent some of his disciples. “Are you he who comes, or should we look for another?” they asked Jesus. Jesus answered, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see,” and goes on to list the same promises. Jesus was opening the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf. He was making the lame walk and the mute sing. He was raising the dead. Jesus was fulfilling the promises of the Old Testament in their presence, proving by His works that He was the One for whom they were waiting.
The greatest promise of all is that Jesus was preaching the good news. It was well and good that Jesus was healing the people, but He was unable to heal every single person. What of those who did not get healed? Did God not love them, too? How could God allow even one person to continue to suffer when Jesus was so capable of making them well?
It is the age old question: why does God allow suffering? Just as we struggled with the question of why God didn’t just get rid of snakes, why doesn’t He just get rid of all pain? Of course, we see in the promises of God that one day there will be no more tears and pain, but shouldn’t that be true today? Jesus has come! All is made right with the world. The reality is that Jesus finished the work, but it is also only just begun. We wait for His second coming to complete the work, to end all pain, to begin the eternity that is our inheritance. Like the serpents in the wilderness, we still dwell in the imperfection of this world that is caused by sin, but we have the promise that if we look to the Jesus who is lifted up, then we will be saved.
Two thousand years after the birth of Christ we are still waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises. This is why James encourages us to patience. “Be patient therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it, until it receives the early and late rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.”
We aren’t very patient. The language of the New Testament has a sense of immediacy that seems to contradict the reality we see. Two thousand years is a long time; those who followed Jesus first thought that He would come again immediately. It is long enough to make us doubt what we believe, to make us wonder like John the Baptist and ask, “Are you he who comes, or should we look for another?” Unfortunately, a great many people are looking for another – another understanding of God, one that makes more sense in our world.
Jesus’ ministry certainly did not make sense to the religious elite of His day. He touched the untouchables. He brought wholeness to the outcast. He brought life to those who were dead to the world. He set the prisoners free, opened the eyes of the blind, and made the lame walk. He did not do good things for the righteous; He did great things for the sinners. It made no sense in Jesus’ day and does not make sense today. Human nature expects reward for goodness. Jesus gave gifts to the humble. No wonder so many people doubt that He is the Messiah even today.
The psalmist speaks of the hope we have in Jesus. “Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in Yahweh, his God.” This is not good news to the righteous; it is good news for the sinner because it speaks of looking beyond oneself and trusting in a higher power. That higher power, by virtue of its greatness, must know better how things should be accomplished. We are still waiting for the fulfillment of the promises two thousand years after the coming of Christ because God still has work to do. There are things to be accomplished and we are called to wait both patiently and expectantly while God finishes what He has started.
After sending John’s disciples back with the good news, Jesus spoke to the people about John. “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in king’s houses. But why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and much more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ Most certainly I tell you, among those who are born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptizer; yet he who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.” Once again, Jesus pointed to the Old Testament prophecy to show the fulfillment of God’s promises.
We have a hard time believing His final words here, though. John was a great man, a prophet of God and the precursor to the Lord. How can a little one be greater than John? The point of this verse is that John was of the Old Covenant, a covenant based on a different kind of promise. He was looking for salvation in flesh; the New Covenant gave a greater salvation. The power of the Old Covenant was fire and brimstone, it was destructive and judgmental. The power that Jesus came to bring was of healing and forgiveness, restoring people to God and making them whole. While His work has been complete, we do not yet see the entire fulfillment of this promise. This is the hope in which we live.
In the days when Jesus was born, the people were waiting for a Messiah, a savior or liberator. They wanted someone who would defeat the Romans and return Israel to the Golden Age of David. They wanted God to take vengeance on their enemies. But the Jews faced the same question we do today: who is the enemy? Jesus came to save the people, not from the suffering and pain in this world but from that which keeps us from God. Jesus is the Way that will make the desert a land of flowing blessings.
Isaiah says, “The wilderness and the dry land will be glad. The desert will rejoice and blossom like a rose.” Isn’t that a beautiful image? The desert is absolutely beautiful when it blossoms after a spring rain. The flowers seem to appear out of nowhere. It happens here in Texas every spring, although not quite so magically. If the conditions are perfect, the rains of February will bring out the Bluebonnets in such numbers that the fields turn to blue. Isaiah goes on, “It will blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing.”
Something spectacular was about to happen, and God’s people would return home with shouts of praise and song. When it happened, extraordinary things would occur: the blind would see, the deaf would hear, the speechless tongue would sing and the lame would dance. They shall see the glory of God. But this promise was not for all men, it was for God’s people. The highway leads directly to the gate of Zion: the unclean would not walk the Holy Way.
This promise in Isaiah was given to the exiles as they waited to be released from captivity. It must have been difficult to wait. We know that God is faithful, but when things don’t happen in a timely manner, we begin to doubt our certainty. But things happen in God’s time for a reason. Perhaps they weren’t ready. Perhaps they did not fully understand the depth of God’s grace. Perhaps there were still some that needed to be cleansed of the attitudes that sent them into captivity in the first place. The people were there to be transformed, to remember the God of their forefathers and the power of His Word. The promise would be fulfilled when the time was right, when God was satisfied that all were ready to return into His presence.
It is necessary to know and understand the Old Testament stories to truly know and understand Jesus Christ and His saving work. Though the words were spoken to those in exile, it is understood that the words also pointed toward another day, a future time when God would redeem the world and transform His people forever. Can you imagine a world as is pictured in the text from Isaiah? We might catch glimpses today, but there are still those who are blind, deaf, dumb and lame. The lions and jackals still roam. Were things changed when the exiles returned to Jerusalem? People still became sick, children were born blind. By the time Jesus was born, the unclean were walking into the gates of Zion.
There will come a day when there will no longer be sin in the world. Satan will be defeated. We won’t be tempted by that which leads us astray. We won’t hurt one another, we won’t cry, we won’t get sick. We won’t die. Until that day, however, we live in a world filled with sinful human beings. All of us fail to be that which God created us to be. We all fail. We all sin. We all need Jesus. The old snake will keep biting us and we might succumb to the poison that can kill us.
But we’ve been given the cure: just as Moses lifted the bronze serpent in the desert to heal the people bitten by the snakes, Jesus was lifted to heal those who look to Him for mercy and forgiveness. God could have taken away the snakes, but the lesson learned was trust in God’s Word. Those who believed were saved. God could also have defeated Satan without Jesus and the cross, but the only real salvation comes from trusting His Word, which is Jesus. He is the Way.
“Either make the tree good, and its fruit good, or make the tree corrupt, and its fruit corrupt; for the tree is known by its fruit. You offspring of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. The good man out of his good treasure brings out good things, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings out evil things. I tell you that every idle word that men speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Matthew 12:33-37, WEB
I was in the grocery store the day following the election when an elderly gentleman asked if I was satisfied with the outcome. I answered that I was uncomfortable with both of the major candidates so I voted my conscience; I voted for a guy I knew didn’t stand a chance of winning. As it turned out, he was disappointed; he supported the candidate that did not win. I was surprised that the conversation was not as uncomfortable as it might have been, as I know many such conversations have been since November 8th.
There were many reports in the days leading up to Thanksgiving about how to avoid those awkward conversations about the dinner table. Thanksgiving is notorious for being a holiday when families of extremely diverse points of view gather around the table and everyone was worried what would happen when Uncle Clyde said something that upset Cousin Julie. Emotions were incredibly strong in those first few weeks and people were worried that the wrong words might lead to broken relationships.
We need to have the same warnings in the days leading up to Christmas. The gatherings are different, but there are still many opportunities for us to say the wrong thing. It is perhaps worse, because we are likely to attend parties with more diverse groups. We need to be careful about what we say at those office parties or the school pageants. Our neighbor’s open house is not an appropriate time to begin an argument with one of their friends.
The problem with these conversations is not that we disagree about the politics and the issues, but that they almost always end up with insults and hurt feelings. The words out of our mouths really can do damage, even though we’ve been taught since we were children that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Oh, I’m sure that there are some who overreact, but we need to consider our words carefully and the impact that they will have before we say anything. At the very least, our emotional conversations in our holiday festivities can destroy relationships.
Jesus warns us in this text from Matthew that the words that come out of our mouth show what is in our hearts. Think carefully before you speak, and consider the damage that could occur from your words. May every word you speak during this holiday season glorify God and expand His kingdom.
“Brothers, children of the stock of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, the word of this salvation is sent out to you. For those who dwell in Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they didn’t know him, nor the voices of the prophets which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him. Though they found no cause for death, they still asked Pilate to have him killed. When they had fulfilled all things that were written about him, they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and he was seen for many days by those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are his witnesses to the people.” Acts 13:26-31, WEB
One day, a pastor on his way to a funeral, decided to get a haircut. As he sat in the chair, he chatted with the hairdresser. She told him that once she was asked to cut the hair of a dead man, but she was too afraid that he would sit up. So, she rejected the $150. The pastor told her that he knew of one occasion when a dead man sat up and he went on to describe the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When she was finished cutting his hair, she asked if he would return. He said that he would. She said, “Good, I would like to hear more about this man.” A normal, everyday experience gave one pastor an opportunity for evangelism.
Bill Bright suggests that every time we are in a situation for more than a few moments with someone, that we approach it as an appointment from God to witness to His saving grace in Christ Jesus. Yet, most of us never talk about our faith, thinking it is the responsibility of those who are trained and gifted for that type of service. We do not act as witnesses for Christ because we think there are others who are much better suited to do it.
Willowcreek Church in suburban Chicago offers this suggestion – that God has custom-designed you as an individual with unique gifts, personality and opportunities. We may not all be evangelists like Billy Graham, but that does not excuse us from being witnesses for Christ in our daily lives. There are different types of approaches to evangelism, one of which may fit you well. There is the confrontational approach, such as Peter was known to do. The blind man in John 9 used a testimonial approach, telling the people he met what Jesus did for him. The woman at the well invited the people from her village to “come and see” what Christ could do. Matthew used an interpersonal approach, witnessing to friends and family whom he invited to a party. The woman Dorcas served people, sharing her faith in word and deed by making clothes for the needy and helping the poor in Jesus’ name. Even the shepherds in the fields when Jesus was born found a way to tell others about God’s saving grace.
Imagine what it must been like in Jerusalem in those days following the resurrection. Hundreds of people had witnessed the presence of the Living Christ. What if the first disciples had not witnessed? The witnesses to which Paul refers are not just the apostles, they are all those who had seen the risen Lord Jesus. Most of them never stopped living their normal lives. They continued to cook dinner and clean house, travel to market for the supplies they needed for daily living. They worked their jobs, fed their animals, and weeded their fields. Yet, along the way they must have told someone about what they had seen. They were all individuals who shared a similar experience, yet every one witnessed in some unique manner, according to the gifts and opportunities given to them by God.
We study the story of Jesus during our Advent journey so that we will have the boldness and confidence to share our faith with others. Are you willing to talk about your faith with your hairdresser? How about the grocery store clerk or the mailman or your child’s schoolteacher? You may not be bold like Paul, but do you act as a witness for Jesus in your Christmas activities? You may think you do not have a testimony to give, you can invite others into your story to see what Jesus has done for you. Paul boldly shared the story of Christ to those listening, building upon the witness of others. We may never see the fruit of our evangelism, but every chance we are given to witness is an opportunity to plant a seed that by God’s grace will grow into faith.
“The king rejoices in your strength, Yahweh! How greatly he rejoices in your salvation! You have given him his heart’s desire, and have not withheld the request of his lips. Selah. For you meet him with the blessings of goodness. You set a crown of fine gold on his head. He asked life of you, you gave it to him, even length of days forever and ever. His glory is great in your salvation. You lay honor and majesty on him. For you make him most blessed forever. You make him glad with joy in your presence. For the king trusts in Yahweh. Through the loving kindness of the Most High, he shall not be moved.” Psalm 21:1-7, WEB
They say that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I have noticed that there is one thing that keeps a person of power humble, and that is thankfulness. It is when the ruler considers himself or herself the source of the position and authority that they fall into the trap of corruption. We’ve seen it throughout history: kings think they are gods, politicians ignore the will of the people, and dictators oppress those over whom they had control. They were not thankful to the people or to God for the position or authority with which they had been entrusted.
Martin Luther once said, “The greater God’s gifts and works, the less they are regarded.” It is, unfortunately, too true that the more we have, the less grateful we are. When we see pictures of those starving in third world countries, we see their great sense of thankfulness for even a measly portion of bread and water. Yet we, who have much more than we need, do not live daily lives of thankfulness for our great portion. We take our faith and all that goes with it - our church, our brothers and sisters in Christ, the wonderful resources we have - for granted, while those in countries where Christianity is outlawed rejoice and sing praise to God for even a part of a Holy Bible.
David had it all. He had a personal relationship with God; he had power and wealth. He was king over the nation of Israel. He wasn’t perfect. He abused the power that had been given to him. But whenever the Lord spoke to him about his failures, he humbled himself, repented and turned back to walk in His ways. He accepted the punishment and thanked God for His mercy and lovingkindness. He lived a life of thanksgiving, never thinking himself greater than the One who had given him all things. He glorified God in word and deed, raising Him high before the people in praise.
Perhaps we do not have crowns of gold or positions of authority over many people, however we have many good and perfect gifts given to us by the Lord God Almighty. As we look around at our world, a world for which we have worked hard we can easily take credit for it all and forget to thank God for these blessings. The more we have, the more we forget that all things come from God. Let us today, and every day, thank God for all that we havs: not only our Lord Jesus Christ and the salvation He gives, not only the food we eat or the home we have, but also every little thing we have been given. Look around you right now and thank God for all you see: your computer, your clothes, the books on the shelves. Thank Him for the calendar that is filled with opportunities for service and fellowship. Thank Him for soap, deodorant and even toilet paper. Thank Him for everything that will make your Christmas special. There is nothing we have that we have not been given by the hand of our God. We may not wear a crown of gold like the kings throughout history, but we have been given an even greater crown: the crown of salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord. May our lives always reflect our gratefulness.
“Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord. My spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior, for he has looked at the humble state 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. Holy is his name. His mercy is for generations of generations on those who fear him. He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down princes from their thrones. And has exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things. He has sent the rich away empty. He has given help to Israel, his servant, that he might remember mercy, As he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his offspring forever.’” Luke 1:46-55, WEB
It might seem strange to think about Jesus’ death while we are waiting for His birth, but the reality is that He came to die. The baby in the manger is meaningless if we don’t juxtapose it to the cross. Throughout the millennia since Jesus’ birth, Advent and Lent have had a similar purpose: to call Christians to repentance to prepare for the great moments of Jesus' life, His birth and His death.
Jesus doesn’t speak in the beginning of His life, of course, but at the end we are given words that are indelibly stamped on our hearts. The pain must have been excruciating as Jesus hung only by nails in His wrists and feet. He’d been beaten and humiliated. He cried out “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Though we would like to diminish the meaning of this word, we should not reject the idea that Jesus felt very alone at that moment. Yet, even as He was crying out in pain, He was also turning to the word of God, quoting a psalm for strength. This word comes from Psalm 22, a song of anguished prayer. He said, “I thirst,” and though He was in control of every moment that day, Jesus still had very real human needs. At the end, Jesus cried “It is finished.” We can ponder what He meant when He said “it is finished.” Did He mean His life? Did He mean His ministry? Did He mean the work of redemption for which Jesus was sent to the world? Whatever He meant, He then commended His spirit into the hands God, His Father.
In the midst of His agony, He continued to minister to those He loved. Jesus spoke words of forgiveness: “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” This word of forgiveness was for the whole of humankind, meant for all of us because we so often do not know that our actions are the very reason that Jesus died on the cross. At the confession of faith by the criminal who was hanging next to Him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” This is a more personal word of forgiveness for those who have repented and looked to Jesus for hope. He spoke directly to His mother and His beloved friend John who were standing at the foot of the cross. Seeing their grief, Jesus said to His mother, “Dear woman, here is your son.” To the disciple He said, “Behold your mother.” The scriptures tell us that from that day, John took Mary into His home and cared for her. Even as He was dying, Jesus cared about the needs of others.
Mary was the one person who was there from the beginning to the end. The words in today's passage were uttered by Mary when Elizabeth confessed faith that the child in Mary’s womb was the fulfillment of all God's promises. Tradition holds an amazing parallel, naming March 25 both the day to celebrate the announcement to Mary that she would bear the Son of God in her womb and the day that has traditionally been held to have been the actual day that Jesus was crucified, making it a day of both the beginning of His life and the end. Mary knew early that her Son was set apart to bring hope to the world and pain to her heart. It was prophesied at her son’s circumcision. Throughout her life, Mary willingly accepted God’s grace and purpose for her life and for the life of her son. Though she may not have fully understood everything that would happen, she received each moment with praise to God and she treasured them in her heart.
I wonder if Mary treasured the cross in her heart. A sword pierced her heart as she watched her Son suffering on that cross, just as Simeon foretold in the Temple when Jesus was just a baby. Yet, she also witnessed the greatest act of grace, as Jesus loved the world to the very end and offered the forgiveness only He could give. There, at the foot of the cross, Mary saw the fulfillment of her song and the Savior who came to redeem herself and the world. We are preparing to celebrate the birth of a baby, but let us also ponder the cross and what it means. Jesus was born to die so that the world will know God’s mercy and those who repent will experience God’s love, forgiveness and hope.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 18, 2016, Fourth Sunday in Advent: Isaiah 7:10-17; Psalm 24; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin will conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Isaiah 7:14, WEB
What does it mean to be righteous? Most people would define it as doing what is right. This is the law centered definition. As a matter of fact, the dictionary definition is: (of a person or conduct) morally right or justifiable; virtuous. Some people use it to describe something that is especially good or excellent. That’s certainly the way the people in Jesus’ day understood what it meant to be righteous. Those who lived according to the Law were righteous. We know, however, that it is impossible for any of us to live perfectly according to the Law. We fail every day. We sin in many ways. We might be more righteous when we compare ourselves to our neighbors, but we are nothing but corrupt, perishable flesh when we compare ourselves to our God.
The Biblical understanding of righteousness has a different point of view: we are not made righteous by doing what is right; we are made righteous by what God has done. Those who are righteous in God’s eyes are those who trust in Him.
Today’s lessons include the tale of two men who are faced with tough decisions. Ahaz had to deal with an oncoming invasion from Israel and Syria against Judah. God is faithful to His promises, and all He asks of His people is that they trust in Him. But Ahaz looked to allies to help him with his war. He went to Assyria for strength. Isaiah spoke to Ahaz with a promise: “This is what the Lord Yahweh says: ‘It shall not stand, neither shall it happen.’” And a warning, “If you will not believe, surely you shall not be established.” The decision facing Ahaz was to believe in God and to trust in Him.
God even offered him proof. “Ask a sign of Yahweh your God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.” It isn’t very often that God offers to prove Himself, but He did so with Ahaz. Ahaz, however, feigned righteousness by refusing to test God. “No thanks,” he told Isaiah.
How many of us would love to have proof that something we’ve heard is really from God? I know that there are times when I just wish He would speak more clearly so I can be sure. When we are making career decisions, considering marriage or making a move to another city, it would be so much easier if God said, “Yes” or “No.” But we are left without such clear guidance. We don’t have an Isaiah to tell us when we are going the wrong way. We just have to trust that God is guiding us and that He can use even our wrong choices to do His Work in the world. We glorify Him by our trust. Ahaz didn’t trust God, and He didn’t want the proof of God’s promise because then he would have to do things God’s way. God sent the sign anyway, and in the end Ahaz was not established. Ahaz was facing war and God was prepared to save Judah from destruction. Ahaz seized control and his plan failed.
God promised to send a son. The immediate fulfillment of the promise was probably a child born to Isaiah’s second wife. The child would suffer from the devastating invasion of Assyria, which would decimate the countryside and make fresh food impossible to produce. He would also see the destruction of Israel and Syria before he turned twelve or thirteen. This child would be called Immanuel, as a reminder that God is with His people, so that they might turn to Him, trust in Him and believe that He does have control.
That child was a foreshadowing of the ultimate plan of God, who had planned from the beginning of the world to send His own Son to be Immanuel (God with us.) Jesus was righteous from the beginning; He was in a right relationship with God, trusted in Him and obeyed His commands. Jesus willingly lowered Himself, giving up the glory of heaven to take upon His shoulders the burden of our failures. He was righteous so that we might become truly righteous, not by our own actions but by His grace. Jesus, Immanuel, would make an eternal difference for God’s people. Jesus, born of Mary, was set apart from all others, including the son of Isaiah; Mary was the virgin about which Isaiah was speaking. The first Immanuel was a reminder that God is with His people, but this Immanuel is truly God with us.
Ahaz chose to go his own way, did his own thing, followed his own path, but in the Gospel story we see how another man trusted God. Imagine it: you are legally bound to a woman who becomes pregnant. We might not make such a big deal about this in our day, but it was catastrophic for this couple. Not only would they suffer the ridicule of their community, but there were legal ramifications for this kind of unfaithfulness. Joseph could legally have Mary stoned to death. He did not want to do so, but there was still a problem: the child in Mary’s womb belonged to another man. That man had all the rights and responsibilities of that child. That’s why he felt he should divorce her, to free her to marry the father of her child.
This is why God appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take to yourself Mary, your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” God was in control. The child was not the product of infidelity, but of the Holy Spirit. God is the Father, and in this dream He is calling Joseph to act as His legal guardian. “You shall call his name Jesus.” By naming the child, Joseph became His legal father with all the rights and responsibilities. And Jesus became his son, with the heritage of the House of David. It was all in the plan.
Just like Ahaz, Joseph was faced with a dilemma: believe or not believe? Joseph chose to believe. He did all that the Lord told him. He took Mary as his wife and cared for her. And when the child was born, Joseph did what God said, and named Him Jesus. Joseph certainly could have taken matters into his own hands, did what was legally within his rights. Mary could have been sent away to have the baby in secret and then given up for adoption. The choice to take Mary, to live with the ridicule and raise a child that was not biologically his seems crazy. Just as the choice to face the enemy without allies seemed crazy to Ahaz. God calls us to trust Him and do the crazy because He is able to make it all work out right. When we don’t trust God, God still manages to make His plans succeed, but ours end up failing. We think we know better than God, but in the end we discover that we don’t know much. We try to succeed by doing things our own way, but we are truly blessed when we trust in God.
Jesus is the fulfillment of all God’s promises, including this one from Isaiah. He is Immanuel, “God with us.” God is with us. I think, perhaps, we would most often prefer if God was a far off God, separate, out of touch because we want to be in control. We want to do what we think is right and follow our own ways. We are far more like Ahaz than we are Joseph. I don’t know many people who would be so quick to follow a dream, to do something that goes against their very character. And yet, God knew that Joseph’s righteousness was not a false humility or a self-righteous obedience to the Law. Joseph had a right relationship with God, a heart to do God’s will and a spirit that discerned that what he heard was true.
God did not leave us to our own faithlessness. He chose to come and dwell among us. He sent Jesus, His Son, our Lord. It is for this Immanuel that we wait. It is for this Messiah that we watch. He will be all that God has promised, all rolled up in a tiny baby born in a stable in Bethlehem. This is perhaps the most incredible thing about our Christian faith: God came to be born of the most humble circumstances and live among us. He took the risk that His chosen helpers would do what He asked of them. What other god would become like his creation rather than demand the creation strive to be like a god? He saw our heartache close-up. He experienced our temptations. He is Immanuel.
We continue to be like Ahaz, trying to solve our own problems, turning to allies instead of God. But God continues to offer us the opportunity to witness the sign He sent in promise. “A child will be born.” If only we could remember that every day of the year, instead of just at Christmas. If only we could live consistently as the disciples God has called us to be. But that’s why Jesus came: because we are not able. So, let us trust in God and dwell in those promises, living in the faith that God now dwells among us. That is how we will be righteous.
The Christmas miracle was an incredible risk. Jesus did not just appear one day in flesh and begin preaching. He came into the world in the normal way: through the birth canal of a woman. Infant mortality was high, many children never survived to see a first birthday. Jesus faced disease and the sword of the Herod. He faced the dangers of the road when Joseph took his family to Egypt. God took a great risk trusting in the faith of one human man whose ancestry was vital to the fulfillment of the prophecy and promises. Joseph was of the House of David as Jesus must be to be the King of the Jews. It was worth the risk; it was worthwhile for you and for me because it removed the wall that separated us from our Creator. Sin caused us to trust in ourselves and others rather than God and it was grace that set us free from the bondage of our flesh.
Martin E. Marty in his book about Martin Luther wrote that Luther saw God as contradictory. “He makes most sense to me as a wrestler of God - indeed, as a God-obsessed seeker of certainty and assurance in a time of social trauma and of personal anxiety, beginning with his own. However you choose to explain his life, it makes sense chiefly as one rooted in and focused by an obsession with God: God present and God absent, God too near and God too far, the God of wrath and the God of love, God weak and God almighty, God real and God as illusion, God hidden and God revealed.” Unlike humans, however, God’s opposites are not contradictory, but rather encompass the wholeness of His character, which is a God who is bigger than any human understanding.
Unfortunately, we see things from our own perspective, a perspective that is miniscule compared to God’s omniscience. We try to fit God into a box, to limit His character and nature to fit into our own needs and desires. We want God to be what we want Him to be. Yet, God can’t fit into our box. He is all that He is and all that He does is within His character. He can only be true to Himself. The God that Luther sought was a God of seeming contradictions, but the reality is that He is present and absent, near and far, wrathful and loving, weak and almighty, real and illusion, hidden and revealed. He is more than we can ever imagine, but always the King of Glory.
The psalmist knows that only God deserves the praise. There are many Christians who are immature in their faith. They confess the saving forgiveness and yet often look to themselves to accomplish the work. There are too many Christians who think too highly of themselves and their righteousness. There are people who preach and teach a gospel that makes people equal with Christ. They believe that humans can reach the level of perfection that we will have when we live in eternity. They think they are sinless and know all that needs to be known about God and His kingdom. They take this knowledge and become very irresponsible with their actions.
Human beings never reach the point of perfection; we cannot approach the throne of grace on our own. We must look to Jesus Christ who can ascend the hill, receive the blessing and vindication as described in the psalm. As His followers, believers in His name, we can go with Him before the throne. He clothes us in His righteousness; we are called to simply believe.
Joseph was the adoptive father of our Lord Jesus Christ because by his heritage our King was a son of David. He was the true Messiah as promised throughout the Old Testament that would save His people from their sins. However, He was not only the son of man; He was the true Son of God. He was flesh and blood, born of a virgin and claimed by a man. But He was also Immanuel, God with us and by Him we have life and faith and hope and peace.
This message, this Gospel, is often lost in the midst of the Christmas celebration. There is symbolism in the things we do to honor our Lord’s birth. The lights on our houses and in our tree remind us that Jesus is the light of the world. The tree, an evergreen of some sort, reminds us of the everlasting love of Christ. The wreaths and poinsettias, balls and ribbons, even the candy canes have some deeper meaning to those of us who believe that Christmas is more than a time to party and give presents.
Yet, the world does not always see the Gospel in our festivities. They might know that Christmas is about the birth of a child. They might even know more of the details like the kings, the stars, the shepherds, the virgin on a donkey giving birth in a stable among the cows. But they do not see the Gospel in our glitz and tinsel. They will only know if we go out in faith and obey the command of God to tell the world that Jesus has the power to defeat sin and restore all men to God. It is risky. Evangelism is rejected more than it is received. Faith is ridiculed. In some places, even today, faith will bring persecution and death. But they will only hear the Gospel if we tell them. Without the words of grace, the glitz of the Christmas season is worthless.
Are you going to be like Ahaz, taking control of your world and ignoring God’s word, trusting only in your own plan rather than God’s? Or will you be like Joseph, who despite the risk offered by God’s Word, walked in faith and saw the fulfillment of God’s promises in his own home as he cared for the son of God as his earthly father? We have been restored to our Creator and we now live in a world where the God of all creation dwells in the hearts of all those who believe. This is truly good news and a message in which we can trust now and forever. It is in this message we will find true peace.
Advent is almost over, our wait is almost complete. It will soon be Christmas Day and we will celebrate the birth of Jesus. But Jesus came for more than a holiday. He came to call His people to lives of discipleship, lives of sharing the forgiveness, compassion and hope that comes from God through Christ Jesus. It might seem like the world is against us. It might seem like the world has rejected God and wants to destroy God’s message. It does, because the message of God is that He is greater than the world. The world wants to stop what God has done, is doing and will do. But God always has a greater purpose and now is the time for us to trust that He is in control. We are called to be like Joseph, responding to God’s word with faith. We should not be tempted to take the battle into our own hands, but instead learn what God would have us see in the circumstances that surround us. He took the risk for our sake. The only risk we take is to let go and believe that He has heard our cries and has come.
“For Yahweh of Armies says: ‘As I thought to do evil to you, when your fathers provoked me to wrath,” says Yahweh of Armies, ‘and I didn’t repent; so again have I thought in these days to do good to Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. Don’t be afraid. These are the things that you shall do: speak every man the truth with his neighbor. Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates, and let none of you devise evil in your hearts against his neighbor, and love no false oath: for all these are things that I hate,’ says Yahweh.” Zechariah 8:14-17, WEB
The relationship between God and His people has always been a tenuous one. The story of the kings is a roller coaster ride that goes from a king who had to a heart for God to a king several generations later who did evil in God’s eyes. Up and down, good to bad, over and over again. When things got so bad that the people no longer even know God, He found a way to bring them to their knees so that they would turn back to Him. Exile, defeat and destruction always made God’s people remember Him and He remembered them with His grace, forgiving and restoring them.
We don’t like to hear the word “wrath” in describing God’s relationship with His people. We prefer love and mercy and grace. Yet, God’s holiness demands that things be made right, and sadly sometimes it takes wrath for us to turn back to Him. Of course, the word “wrath” seems extreme. Sure, we get that God might be angry with us once in awhile, just as our parents were angry with us when we were disobedient. But we live in a world where violent or stern indignation is going overboard. Parents could be arrested for responding to a child’s disobedience with wrath. So, why is that word used so many times in the scriptures? Why does the psalmist talk about God’s wrath dozens of times?
Yesterday we heard that Martin Luther saw God as contradictory: “God present and God absent, God too near and God too far, the God of wrath and the God of love, God weak and God almighty, God real and God as illusion, God hidden and God revealed.” He is both a God of wrath and of love. It is the God of wrath which frightens people, including Martin Luther. He knew he was a sinner, unworthy of God’s grace, unable to be the person that He knew God wanted Him to be. Even Paul knew he was the worst of sinners, though we look to him today as a great example of faithfulness. We all deserve God’s wrath and is noted in today’s scripture.
However, God goes on to say, “Don’t be afraid.” We do deserve God’s wrath, but during this Advent season we are waiting for God’s answer. God had a plan, and that plan was Jesus Christ. He knew we would never be able to be the people He wanted us to be. God knew we couldn’t handle it, so He took it upon Himself. We can never be good enough. We can never be righteous enough. Jesus was both good enough and righteous enough and it was upon His shoulders that God heaped His wrath.
Now, in God’s grace we are called to live as new creations, people who can be entrusted with His work in this world. He makes us good and righteous enough to be His helpers. In thanksgiving and faith we are called to execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates, never devise evil in your hearts against his neighbor, and love no false oath: for all these are things that God hates. God is a God of both wrath and love, but we are blessed to live in the age when He wrath has been quenched. He might still feel anger when we fail to live up to His expectations, but Jesus steps in and reminds Him that it is finished. We are forgiven. Jesus was born two thousand years ago to take the wrath of God from us so that we can dwell eternally in His love.
“Great fear came on the whole assembly, and on all who heard these things.” Acts 5:11, WEB
I have to admit that we rarely attend church on Christmas Day. We love to go to the candlelight service on Christmas Eve and then spend Christmas morning lounging around in our pajamas around the Christmas tree. It is hard, however, when Christmas lands on a Sunday.
I saw a post on Facebook, actually one of several, that looked at the choices we make on a Sunday morning. The post dealt with the more mundane questions like whether we should play golf, go to soccer practice or sleep in rather than go to church and every excuse led to the encouragement to “Go to church.” I’m not sure the question is quite the same, but the question makes us think about why we spend an hour on Sunday gathered together. Many people say that they go “to be fed”; missing a Sunday leaves a hunger that makes the week a little more difficult. I admit that there have been too many times that I have gone to church to get something out of it.
I’ve heard of people who go to church to network or to meet a mate. There are some who go for the programs offered or because they love the music. Though they also attend the study and worship, the reasons for going are because they are seeking something for themselves. Some go out of duty and others because they are afraid that something bad will happen if they don’t go. The church is full on Christmas Eve because many grown children go to make their mothers happy. It has been that way since the beginning. There were people who were true believers and those who went for all the wrong reasons. The true reason for attending church is to worship God.
The story before today’s verse tells of two people whose hearts were not in the right place before God. Ananias and Sapphira saw other Christians giving all their worldly goods to the fellowship of believers. They sold some property and gave a portion to the disciples. They hid the rest to keep for themselves. They weren’t required to give everything, but they lied about it to appear as though they were giving so much more. The offering was not in faith but for selfish reasons – to make themselves look good. The scriptures tell us that Ananias and Sapphira fell down and died when their lie was revealed.
Fear came upon the church. There was no fear in the hearts of those who were true believers, but the pretenders did not know how to deal with this. This is true even today as many Christians don’t know how to deal with this image of God. This story reminds us that the Spirit can truly read the hearts of men and that we are in danger of death if we use the church for our own benefit. Unfortunately, we have lost this lesson in two thousand years of ministry. We think it is best to fill the seats and offer activities to draw people through the doors. We do this in the hopes that inside the people will hear the Gospel and be changed. Yet, we forget that the purpose of the Church is to take the forgiveness of God into the world so that they will believe and come to worship Him.
It would be better to have a tiny church of spirit-filled believers worshipping God than to have a huge church of pretenders seeking something for themselves. But the fear of God is lost to us today. The church is filled with demanding people who expect acceptance and tolerance in the name of God’s mercy and compassion, but they forget that God’s justice is merciful. The pews are filled with people who want to be fed but forget that we will be filled with God’s Spirit as we worship Him in faith.
Will we choose to go to church on Christmas Day? I have to admit that we are still pondering the question. What I do know is that if we so choose, it won’t be out of duty or to be “fed.” We will go to worship the God who has given us the greatest gift, life in, with and through the baby born in a manger. There are consequences to pretending to be faithful when there is no faith, but such joy is experienced when faith leads us to gather together in prayer and thanksgiving, receiving together the grace that is found in Him.
“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham became the father of Isaac. Isaac became the father of Jacob. Jacob became the father of Judah and his brothers. Judah became the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar. Perez became the father of Hezron. Hezron became the father of Ram. Ram became the father of Amminadab. Amminadab became the father of Nahshon. Nahshon became the father of Salmon. Salmon became the father of Boaz by Rahab. Boaz became the father of Obed by Ruth. Obed became the father of Jesse. Jesse became the father of King David. David became the father of Solomon by her who had been Uriah’s wife. Solomon became the father of Rehoboam. Rehoboam became the father of Abijah. Abijah became the father of Asa. Asa became the father of Jehoshaphat. Jehoshaphat became the father of Joram. Joram became the father of Uzziah. Uzziah became the father of Jotham. Jotham became the father of Ahaz. Ahaz became the father of Hezekiah. Hezekiah became the father of Manasseh. Manasseh became the father of Amon. Amon became the father of Josiah. Josiah became the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the exile to Babylon. After the exile to Babylon, Jechoniah became the father of Shealtiel. Shealtiel became the father of Zerubbabel. Zerubbabel became the father of Abiud. Abiud became the father of Eliakim. Eliakim became the father of Azor. Azor became the father of Zadok. Zadok became the father of Achim. Achim became the father of Eliud. Eliud became the father of Eleazar. Eleazar became the father of Matthan. Matthan became the father of Jacob. Jacob became the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, from whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ. So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; from David to the exile to Babylon fourteen generations; and from the carrying away to Babylon to the Christ, fourteen generations.” Matthew 1:1-17, WEB
How many times I have you read this passage, but read it in a hasty way? We see a long list of names and we tend to skip over it, knowing it is important, but not really paying attention. I think some people are far more interested in trying to understand why Matthew, in verse 17, tells us that there are fourteen generations between Abraham and David, fourteen between David and the exile and then fourteen between Babylon and Jesus. Why fourteen? There are numerologists who talk about fourteen being a multiple of seven, that three fourteens equals six sevens and that Jesus ushers in the seventh seven. Others have suggested that fourteen in the number of David’s name. The simpler answer, and perhaps simple is best, is that Matthew gives us a mnemonic device to help us remember the generations that lead to Jesus.
Some point to the fact that the three fourteens are proof that God had this all planned. Perfection shows God’s hand. I like this idea; God is certainly capable of making this perfection in the generations happen. However, though the genealogy is enough to prove that Jesus is both a son of Abraham and a son of David, it is incomplete. There are at least a few generations missing, particularly in the middle, that are given in other genealogies in the Bible. Matthew seems to have another purpose in this text than simply to report Jesus’ heritage, and the fourteen generations is a mnemonic device, it also has a literary function. Each section of the genealogy is the same, but each also has a different focus.
In his commentary published in 1857, Rev. Joseph Benson says, “The first fourteen generations brought their state to dignity and glory in the kingdom of David; the second, to disgrace and misery in the captivity of Babylon; and the third, to honor and glory again in the kingdom of Christ. The first begins with Abraham, who received the promise, and ends in David, to whom it was renewed and revealed more fully; the second begins with the building of the temple, and ends with its destruction; the third begins with their temporal captivity in Babylon, and ends with their spiritual deliverance by Christ.” We may someday discover that the number fourteen is important, but what really matters is that this genealogy marks each major period in Israel’s history and shows that Jesus is the rightful and legal heir to the throne of David.
I think what is most fascinating to me is not that Matthew indicates some sort of perfection in the generations, but rather how imperfect a line it is that brought forth the Messiah and Savior of the world. Instead of skimming over this long list of names, pay attention to them. Look up their stories. What do you see? Do you see men who were faithful and just and obedient? Oh, some of them had a heart for God, but many of them failed to live up to His expectations. All of them failed to be absolutely faithful, but a few were evil. Take, for instance, Jechoniah, whose story is found in 2 Kings 24:8-9 (he is also known as Coniah and Jehoiachin.) He was so evil that his family was cursed (see Jeremiah 22:30), and yet the legal claim to the throne of David still came through his life.
Matthew even includes women! They aren’t precious, perfect women, either. Tamar, Rahab and Bathsheba were women of questionable character and Ruth was a foreigner. We see in this genealogy not some perfect line of men ending with a crescendo of perfection in Jesus Christ, but rather a rag tag group of imperfect human beings that need the Savior as much as the rest of us. Even Mary knew that she needed the salvation that her Son brought to the world. This was all planned, of course, for God knew that no human being would ever be able to save the world no matter how good or perfect they seemed. Only one, Jesus Christ would be the perfect Son who would fulfill the promises of God.
“Sing to Yahweh a new song! Sing to Yahweh, all the earth. Sing to Yahweh! Bless his name! Proclaim his salvation from day to day! Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples. For great is Yahweh, and greatly to be praised! He is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but Yahweh made the heavens. Honor and majesty are before him. Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. Ascribe to Yahweh, you families of nations, ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength. Ascribe to Yahweh the glory due to his name. Bring an offering, and come into his courts. Worship Yahweh in holy array. Tremble before him, all the earth. Say among the nations, “Yahweh reigns.” The world is also established. It can’t be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity. Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice. Let the sea roar, and its fullness! Let the field and all that is in it exult! Then all the trees of the woods shall sing for joy before Yahweh; for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, the peoples with his truth.” Psalm 96, WEB
We are all familiar with the great questions. “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” “What is the meaning of life?” “Why did the chicken cross the road?” That last one is a joke, but even as a riddle the question leaves us thinking. I’ve seen a long list of humorous answers as well as an even longer list of similar questions. “Why didn't the Lutheran cross the road?” The answer, of course, is that he did not like change. Some of the questions make us laugh, while others are designed to make us think. They are questions that seek truth or define what is real. They might seem silly, but to those that seek to know they are a jumping point for deep discussion or debate.
Here’s another question: “If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one to hear, does it make a sound?” On one hand the answer is yes, because the sound waves will be created whether or not there is anyone to receive them. On the other hand, without the receptor, is it really sound? These questions can keep you running around in circles.
When we visited the great redwoods in Northern California, I heard a description of the sound made by a falling tree. The great redwoods are huge and the earth trembles beneath their weight when they fall. In one grove we visited, a park ranger pointed out a tree that was newly fallen. She said that it had gone down just a few nights before during a storm. It seems impossible that a tree so large and strong could be blown over by a gust of wind, but that is what happened. The earth was water soaked and the shallow roots just couldn't hold on. She said that the sound was frightening, a loud cracking and then a deep thud. Trees make other sounds also. Have you ever heard the wind whistle through the branches?
Even though those sounds might be creepy or spooky on a dark night, nothing would compare to hearing a tree shout for joy. Trees are given personalities in movies like “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Lord of the Rings.” The first impression of the characters upon hearing them talk is fear. I can talk about my trees singing in the spring, but I would not expect them to have a voice. Yet, the scriptures tell us that when Christ returns, even the trees will sing for joy.
Advent is not just a time for looking forward to the birth of the baby Jesus, but it is also a time to look forward to the coming of Jesus in glory. In that day, whenever it shall occur, all of creation will rejoice. The trees will sing out for joy. The thought of such an event might bring fear to our hearts, for Christ will come with power and authority beyond anything we can imagine. The world will be turned upside down and things will never be as they were. He will come as judge. Yet, we do not wait in fear but rather hope because the coming of our Lord is the fulfillment of all His promises. The singing trees will be just one sound in the symphony of peace for which we long.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 25, 2016, Christmas Day: Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 2; Hebrews 1:1-6 (7-12); John 1:1-14 (15-18)
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” Isaiah 52:7, WEB
It isn’t very often we get to deal with the Christmas texts in Midweek Oasis. In the thirteen years since I started following the lectionary on Wednesdays, it has only happened twice (this is the third time.) Christmas doesn’t happen on a Sunday very often. I suppose that’s why so many people have been wondering about what to do about church this week. I’ve seen numerous stories about people shocked that a church would cancel services on a Sunday. “It is Jesus’ day. Shouldn’t we be in church?” This is a question that goes around and around every time Christmas falls on a Sunday, and it is debated even among pastors.
One article from 2005 is headlined, “Mega Churches Cancel Christmas.” “While Christian groups are warring to make sure that business and government workers say ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of ‘Happy Holidays,’ one place you won't hear either greeting this December 25 is at many of the largest churches in the country.” This same article could be written today.
See, Christmas worship is very poorly attended. Besides Easter, more people attend worship on Christmas Eve than any other day in the year. Most Christians prefer to go to Christmas Eve, so that they can have time for presents and family. I wonder if those who are so upset actually go to worship when Christmas falls on a Wednesday. If it is so important to be in church on Christmas Day, why don’t they do it every year? I’m sure we’ll hear the same arguments in six years when it happens again. I don’t know the answer; there are good and bad reasons for making the decision either way. I have to admit that we haven’t normally gone to worship on Christmas morning, especially when the children were young. I do like, however, that it is an option at my church and we’ve decided to go this year. Whether or not you choose to attend worship on whatever day you do so, it is good to remember that Christmas is about the Gospel of Jesus Christ and that’s where our texts take us this week.
In Isaiah we hear, “Break out into joy, sing together, you waste places of Jerusalem; for Yahweh has comforted his people. He has redeemed Jerusalem. Yahweh has made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.” Isaiah was speaking to an exiled people, Israelites who had been trapped in Babylon far from Jerusalem for much too long. Yet, Isaiah spoke in the past tense telling them that the promise was already fulfilled even while they longed to be free. Though these words were once spoken to the Israelites, they are also spoken to us as a promise of the salvation found in Christ Jesus. When He was born, the holy arm of God was revealed. In Him we have seen the salvation of God. Christ is God's Word made flesh, His light that shines into the entire world.
While the promise of Christmas is the birth of a king, it is far more. The promise of Christmas is that God has come in flesh to touch the world in a new and marvelous way. All that was and all that is to be was wrapped up in those swaddling clothes.
When a celebrity is about to have a child, the reporters are ready and waiting for the moment to snap a picture or share the news. The whole world knows within minutes that the child has been born. The birth of Christ was certainly not unnoticed - the shepherds heard the good news, the wise men saw the bright star and Herod feared the possibilities. However, the city of Bethlehem was overflowing with people - did any visit the birthplace of the King? Was there a notice in the Bethlehem Gazette? Did the world hear the good news? And of those who heard the message of the Shepherd, did any listen? No, the Light was born into the world with relatively little fanfare. As a matter of fact, Herod's fear sent Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus running to a foreign land. The gifts of the wise men were perhaps their only financial means for a time while they traveled and settled in a place they did not know.
Christmas, as we have seen in our own lives, is not always a welcome celebration. We can joke about the mega churches canceling Christmas so people can gather around their Christmas trees, but there are those in the world who would rather Christmas be wiped from the calendar. There are those who would rather Christians be wiped from the surface of the earth. It isn’t just our day, however, this has happened since the beginning of time. God is good, but not everyone sees that He is. Not everyone accepts His authority. Not everyone things that Gospel is good news. As a matter of fact, many people don’t think that the Gospel is even necessary. Why do we need forgiveness? Why do we need to be saved? These are questions that have been asked by some in every generation.
Israel was founded for a purpose: to bring blessing to all nations. Yet, every era brought a new threat to Israel and now to the Church. Yet, we are reminded in the birth of this King in the manger that God made a promise to David so long ago. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promise that David’s house would last forever. No matter what God’s enemies did to destroy His people, God would always be victorious. In the end, He defeated even sin and death. The psalmist calls the kings of all the nations to be wise and listen, “Serve Yahweh with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Give sincere homage to the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish on the way, for his wrath will soon be kindled. Blessed are all those who take refuge in him.” People may wish for Christmas to really be canceled, but God will bless those who honor His Son. He’s not taking attendance; He looks at our hearts.
The people in the Old Testament had no idea how God would fulfill His promises, yet they worshipped Him. They sang hymns of praise and burst into jubilant song, as we do with our favorite Christmas carols. They did not know how God would reveal His salvation to the world, but we have seen it in Jesus Christ. The child born in Bethlehem was not plastered all over the news, and even now Christ comes at Christmas with little fanfare. More people are concerned about the presents, decorations and food than Christ. Even when Jesus is the focus at Christmas, we remember the infant in the manger, paying little regard to the Light that has come into the world.
John writes, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness hasn’t overcome it.” They missed it in Jesus’ day, and they miss it today. Our streets are glowing with Christmas lights, though few show any indication of glory to God. This baby for whom the holiday has been named is more, far more, than is seen in the celebrations of His birth, even in the celebrations that take place in church buildings whether they happen on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” When God spoke in the beginning, He revealed Himself in words. The people held on to the words for generations, but they missed the Word when He was in their presence. Too many still miss the Word today.
“The same was in the beginning with God.” Jesus existed even before the beginning. He is the Word and Light, the revelation of God.
“All things were made through him. Without him was not anything made that has been made.” When God spoke, His thoughts were made real and they came alive. The entire creation came out of nothing into being with just His Word. He spoke of light and light appeared. He called forth the waters and they came. He molded the dirt and made man. He gave us the very breath of life.
“The Word became flesh, and lived among us. We saw his glory, such glory as of the one and only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” It was not enough for God to promise His salvation. Even from the beginning He had a plan. The Word became flesh and dwelt among men. God arrived in the world in a small, crowded town mostly unnoticed. He walked, talked, ate, slept. He laughed and cried. He got tired and dirty and angry. He loved and served and hoped and dreamed. He was tempted, though He lived without sin. Then, when the time was right, He died.
There it is again, a reminder that Christmas is nothing without Good Friday. Jesus was born to die, and it was through His death we find life. The right hand of God was revealed not to rule with a mighty fist or reign on an earthly throne. No, Christ came that He might die. Darkness would snuff out the Light - for only an instant. For it is on the cross that the salvation of God was fully revealed. And they missed it then, too.
The words of Isaiah pointed to a promise that was to be fulfilled soon and later. The salvation of Israel was only a glimmer of the greater salvation to come. “God, having in the past spoken to the fathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, has at the end of these days spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made the worlds.” Christ, who was there in the beginning and through whom all things were made, is the greater revelation of God than even the prophets ever knew.
So now argue about whether we should open our churches on a Sunday morning or give people a break so they can gather around their Christmas trees. We celebrate the birth of the baby with singing and gifts and food, but is Christmas still about the Gospel? The Gospel is not just about the birth of a special baby, but about the One who came to die for our sake. Do we see the salvation of God wrapped in those swaddling clothes? Do we see the King that deserves our worship because He was there at the beginning and it was through Him all things were made? Do remember that the true Light of Christmas does not come from the hundreds of bulbs we have decorating our homes, but from Jesus Christ, the One who fulfills all God’s promises. Mary was obedient to God, bearing Christ into the world. John pointed to Jesus and told his disciples to follow the Messiah. Isaiah spoke of an unfulfilled hope as if it had already come to pass and the psalmist took refuge in God. We decorate our houses with beautiful lights, but have we shared the light of Christ with those who are still trapped in the darkness? We sing beautiful Christmas carols, but have we spoken the good news to those who have yet to hear?
There might be good reason for a church to cancel services on a Sunday morning, but we are reminded that Christmas Eve has passed and we live in a new day. We have enjoyed the candlelight and the music, the fellowship and the gifts. Now it is time to take Christ into the world, to sing a new song and remove the swaddling clothes to reveal the fulfillment of God’s promises. We are called to honor the Son; those who take refused in Him will be blessed.
The world has missed the God who has revealed Himself to them. They missed the Light. They did so in the days of Israel, in the days of Jesus and they continue to do so today. Christmas Day is about showing the world that He is truly present and that His love and mercy is real. Now is the time to set the captives free with the Word that lives. That Word is Christ Jesus, the right hand of God that for just a moment dwelt among us and died so that we might dwell with Him forever. He was the One whose beautiful feet brought the Good News.
We are now sent into the world to follow in His footsteps. Christmas Day and every day after, let us share the hope we have with our neighbors to the very ends of the earth that God’s salvation is found in His Son. Christmas, wherever or however it is spent, is a time to honor the Son and find blessing in His grace. Every promise has been fulfilled in Him, and in Him we will have peace.
“But when the fullness of the time came, God sent out his Son, born to a woman, born under the law, that he might redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of children. And because you are children, God sent out the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father!’ So you are no longer a bondservant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.” Galatians 4:4-7, WEB
The Christmas season is a time for family. It is a time to gather together for homecomings and remembering. Many people will be traveling over the next few days to be with the people they love. Some will drive, others will fly and some will even take trains or buses to those destinations. While there, they will share good food and conversation. Presents will be swapped and toasts made. Daughters home from college will help make cookies and sons will help Dad with the lights. Families with children will share old traditions and create some new ones.
It is a time when relationships are put to the test. Unfortunately, for some families the pressure of holiday gatherings is too much to bear. Old grudges bubble to the top and bitter rivalries explode. Those who are afraid that they have not lived up to the expectations of their family may approach the gathering with resentment. Others may use the time to place greater burdens on those from whom they desire more. Those relationships are strained and the people will have a difficult time experiencing peace on earth while they carry the weight of the brokenness.
God is like a Father. We are His family. The text today makes us wonder about our relationship with Him. How affectionate is your relationship with God? Is He like a family member with whom you might sit around the dinner table sharing memories of your childhood? Or is the relationship strained and uncomfortable? It is interesting that Paul looks at this relationship through the eyes of slavery. We were once slaves to sin, but now are set free to be sons of God. Yet, we tend to hold on to our sins. We are slaves to those things that keep us from knowing and loving God fully and freely. The same thing happens with our earthly families.
Christ came, born of a woman which makes Him as human as you and I, but He is something much more. He is the Son of the Living God, as fully divine as He is human. He came to make us sons, setting free those who are burdened by the Law and opening the door so that we might also be adopted. The Kingdom of God belongs to us, and we are called to live and laugh and love in that Kingdom for God’s glory. We are heirs of that Kingdom and are called to share it so that others might also be adopted and become our brothers and sisters in Christ.
“Now in those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment made when Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to enroll themselves, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to David’s city, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David; to enroll himself with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him as wife, being pregnant. While they were there, the day had come for her to give birth. She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a feeding trough, because there was no room for them in the inn. There were shepherds in the same country staying in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock. Behold, an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. The angel said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be to all the people. For there is born to you today, in David’s city, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This is the sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a feeding trough.’ Suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will toward men.’ When the angels went away from them into the sky, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem, now, and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ They came with haste, and found both Mary and Joseph, and the baby was lying in the feeding trough. When they saw it, they publicized widely the saying which was spoken to them about this child. All who heard it wondered at the things which were spoken to them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these sayings, pondering them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, just as it was told them.” Luke 2:1-20, WEB
The story “The Polar Express” has been a favorite Christmas story for many years. It is a fantastic story of belief, about children who have reached the age of understanding who finally give up the hope of Santa’s visit to their home. They have become disillusioned with the season because they realize the whole idea is a lie. The main character is a boy who no longer believes. He is old enough to want proof and so lies awake Christmas Eve in the hopes of hearing the bells of Santa’s sleigh. Instead, he is invited on a most incredible journey and he realizes that seeing is not believing; even when Santa is standing before him, he can’t hear the bells until he believes.
One of the other characters is a boy who has never known Christmas at his house. He is poor, lives on the wrong side of the tracks. His home is not covered in lights and he has no tree bearing ornaments and tinsel. He has nothing but disappointment because there is no one to bring Christmas surprises. It is not always poverty that makes for disappointments. Sometimes it is a lack of caring or an inability to find that perfect gift. Christmas for many people is not a day of joy, but of sadness.
It might seem odd to talk about sadness so close to Christmas Day. It is supposed to be a time of joy. There are many reasons why we might be disappointed. When we are far from our families and friends, we feel a certain sense of loneliness at the holidays. Too many of us are missing loved ones. Too many of us are struggling. Too many of us are dealing with health issues and brokenness.
When the dinner does not go quite right or when there is a big mess to clean up, we wonder why we go to all the trouble. It takes twenty minutes to unwrap the gifts that took four months to prepare, and then it is all over. There are many reasons why we aren’t all laughter and joy on Christmas day. We have to remember, however, that the first Christmas was not a day of happiness, but of pain, uncertainty and questions. Mary had a baby, and anyone who has experienced it will know that it is painful and frightening. Joseph must have been disappointed about having to force Mary into giving birth in a stable. The shepherds were frightened by the angels and then they were sent from their fields to find a baby lying in a manger. What makes this Christmas story so special is that those involved responded to the disappointment, fear and frustration with willingness and faith.
The boy in the story was chosen to be the first child to receive a gift on Christmas from Santa. Rather than the perfect gift or the most popular toy, the boy wanted to have one of the jingle bells from Santa’s sleigh. That bell was proof that Santa was real. He lost the bell, but realized that he did not need proof or the perfect gift. All he needed was faith. In the end Santa found the bell and put it under his tree, so he had faith and the gift.
There is joy in the Christmas story for those of us who live now, after the resurrection. We see the purpose of it all, we know the whole story. For those first people - Mary, Joseph and the shepherds - Christmas was a special day but it was not perfect. Mary’s firstborn lie in a feeding trough. Joseph had to find a way to keep his wife and child warm. The shepherds left their flocks on the hillside in search of a mysterious child. Yet, they all walked in faith, knowing that God was in control. Mary pondered all these things in her heart and the shepherds went forth praising God. No matter what happens this Christmas in our homes, I pray that we too will respond to the story of the birth in faith. May you be greatly blessed this Christmas and that you will know the joy of walking in faith even when things don't seem so perfect.
“Put on therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, humility, and perseverance; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, if any man has a complaint against any; even as Christ forgave you, so you also do. Above all these things, walk in love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your heart to the Lord. Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father, through him.” Colossians 3:12-17, WEB
Today is St. Stephen’s Day. Stephen was the first Christian martyr; his story is found in Acts chapters six and seven. In the early days of the church, the apostles tried to take care of all the work that needed to be done in the growing fellowship of believers. They studied and taught the scriptures and the stories of Jesus, and they took care of those in need. They realized that it was impossible for them to do everything. They needed help if they were going to be able to focus on preaching the Word to the world. They chose seven deacons to do the tasks of administration, the business of the church. Stephen was one of those seven.
Stephen wasn’t just a servant, however. He was a man of God who also did works of great wonder and spoke with the grace of God. He was seized by the authorities because they opposed the spread of “the Way” as Christianity was called in the beginning. They claimed that Stephen spoke blasphemy and persuaded some men to testify against him. Based on lies, Stephen was found guilty and was sentenced to death by stoning. “All who sat in the council, fastening their eyes on him, saw his face like it was the face of an angel.” (Acts 6:15, WEB)
Stephen gave the most eloquent speech, laying out before them the story of God’s love. He reminded them of the works of God’s power in the life of Israel and the promises of God that still lay before them. Then he placed the one whom they crucified in the midst of the story, showing them that everything was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He showed them how they missed the Messiah, and how they betrayed the God they claimed to love. They stoned him for his words, but even while Stephen received such brutality he knew the peace of God. He prayed for Jesus to receive his spirit and fell on his knees to ask for forgiveness, not for himself but for the ones who were killing him.
As we read today’s scripture it sounds like a message filled with ‘do this’ and ‘do that’ and yet this is not a message of law, but of Gospel. You are God’s holy and beloved, you who have heard God’s word and believe. Being of God means a life of peace and joy – though this does not mean it will be a life without conflict. As a matter of fact, for many Christians the peace of God comes with the risk of violence and even martyrdom. Stephen could have appeared before the Sanhedrin with trembling before their power and their authority as they wanted. He might have been freed, but he would never have been free. Instead of cowering before them and giving in to their demands, Stephen spoke the Word of God into their lives. The Word of God brought death to his body, but he had no worries because he had God’s peace in his spirit.
The life to which we are called is never going to be easy. We may be taken out of our comfort zone and put into a position of risk and difficulty. We may have to do something that shocks and upsets the world around us. We may have to say the very things that will bring scorn from our neighbors. Though it is unlikely to happen to most of us, Christians are still dying for the sake of the Gospel of Christ. We cry out for peace, and we strive to work for peace, but the peace that God promises is not something we can achieve by doing this or that. It comes from God.
As we live in that peace, we are called to be holy and chosen people. It means growing in the grace of God and becoming the visible manifestation of His love in the world. We are told to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. We are told to bear with one another, to forgive as we have been forgiven and to put on love above all else. As the peace of Christ rules in our hearts and we live in thankfulness, the world will see the word of Christ dwelling in our lives, like Stephen. For some, this life of peace will be offensive and they will seek its end. We might be tempted to hide that peace or to work toward a false sense of people. But as Christ dwells amongst us, we will grow in grace and will naturally live the life to which we have been called, the life of thanksgiving and praise. As Paul writes, “Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father, through him.”
“Yahweh, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth, who has set your glory above the heavens! From the lips of babes and infants you have established strength, because of your adversaries, that you might silence the enemy and the avenger. When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have ordained what is man, that you think of him? What is the son of man, that you care for him? For you have made him a little lower than God, and crowned him with glory and honor. You make him ruler over the works of your hands. You have put all things under his feet: all sheep and cattle, yes, and the animals of the field, the birds of the sky, the fish of the sea, and whatever passes through the paths of the seas. Yahweh, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Psalm 8, WEB
Today was “National Visit the Zoo Day,” and we did our part by visiting the zoo. It was in the plan for this week while our daughter is home for a visit; she hasn’t seen some of the new exhibits and animals. I was especially excited about the visit because I have not had the time to see the newest babies, a pair of jaguar cubs. There is also a new habitat for the big cats that opened since the last time I visited. The zoo has made so many changes in the past few years; it is growing and becoming better for the visitors as well as for the animals.
Some people don’t like zoos. I understand that; we all want to be free, and living a life in a cage seems like it is not conducive to a happy life. Yet, amazing things are happening at our zoos. The zoo here has an amazing breeding program, particularly for endangered and threatened species. In the past few years they have welcomed two tigers, three lions and two jaguars. There have also been numerous primates, amphibians, fish and birds. They have hatched more flamingos than I can count.
The zoo website states, “It is the mission of the San Antonio Zoological Society to foster appreciation and concern for all living things. We are dedicated to providing the highest standards of care for our animal and plant collections, a diverse educational and high-quality recreational experience for all visitors, and all the resources at our disposal for a conservation of the Earth's flora and fauna.” Visiting the zoo helps people to better understand animals, to learn about the dangers and to discover ways to help protect them. The animals in most zoos are born in captivity, so they would not survive “in the wild” but the people who are working at zoos also work to conserve the animals in the wild. The things they learn about animals in zoos give them knowledge to make a difference in the world.
I love to watch the animals. I could spend an hour in front of the flamingo exhibit, watching them preen and show off. I love watching the big cat cubs play. You can see in their activities how much they are like the pets we keep. Cats are cats, even if they are big enough to knock down a full grown male human. There is a place to interact with the lorikeets; it is fun when they land on your head and begin preening your hairline. The monkeys are so funny; the hippos and elephants are amazing. They mongoose are exhausting to watch. Every animal is unique, with personalities all their own. You can’t help but wonder at God’s creation when spending time in the presence of so many different types of creatures.
The zoo’s mission isn’t about faith, but those of us who are faithful can take the opportunity to praise God for His creativity. Who but God could make so many different types of animals? Who could give them life and breath? Who could instill in them the knowledge and instincts to care for themselves and their offspring? Who could give the birds such beautiful colors and the monkeys such endless energy? The big cats show us how to live as a family and the insects show us how to be industrious. The God who has done this deserves our thanks and our praise. And we, as the crown of God’s creation, must always remember that God’s care for us is an example of our calling to care for the world.
Scriptures for Sunday, January 1, 2017, The Name of Jesus: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7 or Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21
“So they shall put my name on the children of Israel; and I will bless them.” Numbers 6:27, WEB
The Nazirites were laypeople dedicated to the service of God. Among their ranks are some of the most important Biblical figures like Samson, Samuel and John the Baptist. They dedicated their lives to doing God’s work in the world, although most Nazirites committed to a specific period of time. The benediction in today’s Old Testament lesson is very familiar to us; we often hear it at the end of our worship as we are sent out into the world. We are reminded that our blessings come from God. The benediction seeks God’s favor on His people, not only in the tangible things of this world and protection from that which would do us harm, but also for God’s continued presence in our lives. We ask for God’s grace, that He would look upon us with favor. The blessing seeks peace, not the kind that comes with the absence of war, but the peace that comes from His presence. We are covered by His name; the name we receive is “Child of God.” We are identified as His.
In the Psalm 8, God’s name is exalted. “Yahweh, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth, who has set your glory above the heavens!” There are those who give such honor to the name of God that they will not even spell the word. Instead, the delete the vowel and write G-D. God’s name, whatever it might be, is too holy for human beings to speak with our filthy and sinful tongues. It is hard for us to imagine being identified with someone so holy. But God has covered us with His name, called us children and identified us as His own people.
He did this through Jesus, and we see that promise in today’s Psalm. “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have ordained, what is man, that you think of him? What is the son of man, that you care for him? For you have made him a little lower than God, and crowned him with glory and honor.” God’s name is excellent, but the day would come when a new name would bring salvation. It is not the name of another god, but a new name for God: God in flesh, Immanuel. That is why the name of Jesus is important: Jesus means Savior.
As a young Jewish boy, Jesus would have been dedicated to the Lord on the eighth day, circumcised according to the traditions of the Jews. Luke tells us that it was on this day that Mary and Joseph named Him Jesus, according to the words of the angel.
So why should we be so concerned about His name? By any other name, Jesus would still have been the salvation, the redemption, the promised child of God. I recently did some computer data work for an organization that gives Christmas gifts to thousands of children in San Antonio. It was interesting work, especially when it came to typing the names. Celebrities are infamous for giving odd names to their children. Every day items or strange words become monikers that children have to live with for their rest of their lives or until they are old enough to reject what their parents gave to them. Apple, Banjo, Diezel and Brooklyn are just a few examples. Some people use their children's names to make a statement, political or otherwise like Destiny or Justice. Then there is just the bizarre such as Moon Unit or Moxie CrimeFighter. Unusual names are not limited to celebrities, though. I found several children named Abcde. Would those children be different people if they’d been given different names?
We see in the scriptures, however, how important names are in the story of God. Abram became Abraham and Sarai became Sarah when Abraham was circumcised. Abram received the sign of the covenant and he was changed; the sign meant he belonged to God. Their names were changed to show their new relationship to God. Jacob was changed to Israel, again showing a change in the relationship between God and His people. We can discover the meanings of all the Bible characters and realize that their names had a purpose. Often the name itself has some special meaning. Other names are given to define a purpose or characteristic.
A wise woman once told me, “Your mom and dad gave you the name Peggy, but God has given you a more important name.” This was during a conversation about vocation, but our most basic calling is to be children of God. We are His because He has covered us by His own name.
God is given dozens of names in the scriptures: Creator, Almighty God, Father, the Lord our Righteousness, “I AM.” The Holy Spirit has a special name: the Counselor. Jesus is identified by certain names: the Light of the World, Savior, Redeemer, the Christ, and Son of God. The name Jesus is especially important; it means “the Lord saves.” It is by His name we are saved. Paul writes to the Philippians that the name of Jesus is the name above all other names, that at His name every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. It is His name we take when we are baptized, we become Christians by faith. His name is written on our hearts and on our heads. In His name we are adopted and made heirs of the Kingdom of God.
I often struggle with what to call those people who were adults when I was younger. Do I still call that adult advisor by their surname? What do I call a teacher who has become a peer? I am now an adult, so does the relationship change? It seems strange to keep calling them by such a formal name, but I can’t bring myself to do otherwise. The respect they earned when I was a young person is reflected in the way they are addressed today. I am not sure today’s younger generations will deal with similar issues since many have less formal relationships with the adults in their lives and already call them by their first names. It probably seems like an insignificant problem; does it really matter?
It does matter when we think about the reality of our unworthiness to be called children of God and the grace that makes us so. It may not be necessary to write God’s name with a hyphen, but it is a wonder that we are given such a great gift as God’s favor. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote that life in Christ gives us the right to call God the Father, with a less formal name. Jesus Christ was born that we might become children of God; by faith our relationship is changed and the name we call God is more personal. We need not worry about what name to use because we are invited to call God “Abba.”
The Name of Jesus is celebrated on the first day of January, but it is also the beginning of a new year. Everyone is thinking about resolutions: what should do to make ourselves better? I hope that I can manage more time in my studio and on my mini-trampoline. I want to renew some of the old flame in my relationship with my husband. I have promised to be better about sending snail mail to those who are far from home. These are good promises to make. The texts today remind us, too, that our relationship with God is of utmost important. He is more than just some distant and faraway being; He is our Father. We are more than creatures born to live and die in this world; we are His children. Let us begin this year with the assurance that we have been covered by God’s name, that we are adopted and heirs to His Kingdom. Let us begin this year dwelling in the promise of the benediction, knowing that God is shining upon us and that He sees us with favor because we are His because of Jesus. By His name we are saved, and we are saved to be people who dwell in His presence and experience the peace that He has promised.
“When the days of their purification according to the law of Moses were fulfilled, they brought him up to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’), and to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, ‘A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.’ Behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. He came in the Spirit into the temple. When the parents brought in the child, Jesus, that they might do concerning him according to the custom of the law, then he received him into his arms, and blessed God, and said, ‘Now you are releasing your servant, Master, according to your word, in peace; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all peoples; a light for revelation to the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.’ Joseph and his mother were marveling at the things which were spoken concerning him, and Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary, his mother, ‘Behold, this child is set for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which is spoken against. Yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.’ There was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher (she was of a great age, having lived with a husband seven years from her virginity, and she had been a widow for about eighty-four years), who didn’t depart from the temple, worshiping with fastings and petitions night and day. Coming up at that very hour, she gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of him to all those who were looking for redemption in Jerusalem. When they had accomplished all things that were according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth. The child was growing, and was becoming strong in spirit, being filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him. His parents went every year to Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover.” Luke 2:22-41, WEB
“Buy our product and you will have the happiest kids, the whitest teeth, or the cleanest clothing.” “Our product provides the fastest connection, the most reliable service or the cheapest price.” “With our product, you will be more popular, more beautiful or more intelligent.” We are bombarded by promises every ten minutes on our television sets.
A promise is defined in Webster’s as, “an assurance that one will or will not do something.” Companies around the world recognize the incredible power of a promise to today’s consumers. They spend billions of dollars every year producing and airing commercials that will attract the greatest number of people to purchase their product. Unfortunately, these promises often go unfulfilled. We have become so conditioned to the probability that promises will be broken, that we take, and make, them lightly. Even a promise as important as marriage is often entered into with the understanding, “If it doesn't work, we can get a divorce.”
The Old Testament is filled with promises which were fulfilled in Jesus; God was in control of every moment. The story of Jesus’ nativity, life and death is packed with people who had a very personal connection to the coming Messiah. Zechariah and Elizabeth were given a baby at a very old age after the promise of an angel. Mary and Joseph had encounters. The shepherds were amazed at the angels who announced His coming. The magi saw a star and followed it.
In yesterday’s text for Sunday we saw the naming of Jesus on the eighth day at His circumcision. Mary and Joseph followed all the traditions according to the Law of Moses. Forty days after Jesus was born Mary had to go to the Temple to be purified. They offered the proper sacrifices, but the visit was something special; it was the fulfillment of more promises. While at the Temple, Mary, Joseph and Jesus met two people who were awaiting the arrival of the Messiah. They knew, without a doubt, that they had seen Him in flesh. Simeon, an old man who was righteous and devout, was promised by the Holy Spirit that he would see the Messiah before he died. The moment he saw Jesus, Simeon cried, “Now you are releasing your servant, Master, according to your word, in peace; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all peoples; a light for revelation to the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.”
What a marvelous promise fulfilled in a baby! And yet, we are reminded that with the promise of salvation came great pain and suffering. Simeon blessed the family, but turned to Mary and told her the truth: “A sword will pierce through your own soul.” Salvation would come at a price, and Mary among all people would feel the pain in a very real way.
The other person that Mary, Joseph and Jesus met was a woman, a prophet, who was aged and had been living in the Temple for many years. She worshipped, fasted and prayed constantly. At the moment Anna saw Jesus, she knew that God’s promises were fulfilled in Him. She began to praise God and tell everyone that the Redeemer they were waiting for had arrived. Isn’t it amazing that these two people, Simeon and Anna, seemed to live to an old age for one very specific purpose: to praise God for Jesus.
“And Joseph and his mother were marveling at the things which were spoken concerning him.” They marveled? They were amazed? I suppose that could be true, but I have to wonder what it means that they were amazed? Was it surprising to hear these things about their son? How could that be? After all, they both were met by angels who told them all these things. They knew from the very beginning that Jesus was special. They knew He came from God. They knew He was the Promised One. How could they be amazed by the words of Simeon and Anna?
I think what this says to me is that even Mary and Joseph continued to be amazed at what was happening to them. Even though they had knowledge about Jesus and His future, they continued to experience the faithfulness of God in new, miraculous ways. Perhaps we can read this story about Mary and Joseph and realize that no matter how well we know God and understand the scriptures, we should still view God as surprising every day.
“The child was growing, and was becoming strong in spirit, being filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him. His parents went every year to Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast, and when they had fulfilled the days, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. Joseph and his mother didn’t know it, but supposing him to be in the company, they went a day’s journey, and they looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances. When they didn’t find him, they returned to Jerusalem, looking for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the middle of the teachers, both listening to them, and asking them questions. All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When they saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us this way? Behold, your father and I were anxiously looking for you.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ They didn’t understand the saying which he spoke to them. And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth. He was subject to them, and his mother kept all these sayings in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” Luke 2:40-52, WEB
My daughter is home for the holidays. She lives too far away to this mother’s estimation and we miss her terribly. It has been so nice to have her home, to have our whole family gathered around the dinner table, to share worship together. It has been nice to do some fun things together and just be with one another for even this brief time. It isn’t the same as when the kids were young, although the siblings managed a few typical moments and Bruce is especially silly around his Daddy’s girl, so some things haven’t changed. But it has been a delight to have her around, to enjoy her as an adult and to see how wonderfully she has grown up.
I have loved my kids through every phase of their lives, although I could have done without so many dirty diapers and the rebellion years. Yet, even through those times when I was frustrated or angry or worried, there was always good things happening. We don’t want to let go, and yet the very proof of successful parenting is that our children can go off and become independent. Twelve is one of those difficult years, when children become more independent. They begin to do some of the things that were mother’s job, such as preparing lunch for school. They work on their homework with little or no guidance. They begin to test their rights and learn about responsibilities. It can be difficult age for both the child and parents, particularly when the child oversteps the authority of the parents.
Parents recognize the dangers that children face, such as peer pressure. While we understand that our growing children need room to mature, we do not want them to suffer the consequences of bad decisions. Children tend to see themselves as indestructible. They are looking forward to a long life ahead and think that nothing could possibly harm them. At times they take unnecessary risks that have the potential to bring great harm upon their physical, emotional and spiritual lives. They get involved in relationships with people who could lead them down a rocky path. They try new things, go to new places and do so without the constant supervision of their parents. We have to let them go and pray that we have provided a firm foundation from which they can make the right decisions.
We often think of Jesus as some extraordinary child. Though Jesus was God incarnate, He was also fully human. We should not think of Him as the perfect child, never crying or getting dirty. He needed his diapers changed like every other baby in the world. He fell when He was learning to walk, skinned His knees when He played. I’m sure He even dragged mud into the house after jumping in puddles, just like the other kids. He went through the terrible twos and every other stage of life, learning and growing every step along the way.
Jesus was different, though. He was the Word in flesh, the physical manifestation of the Lord God Almighty. His Father was not a carpenter; He was the Son of the Creator of all things. When Jesus’ mother taught Him the scriptures, as was practice in Jewish homes, the words had a deeper, fuller meaning for Him. He understood what they said. A day came when He had to test His knowledge by seeking the teachers who studied the scriptures. His mother and father loved the Lord and they knew His word, but He needed more.
In today’s story, Jesus overstepped the bounds by staying in Jerusalem without His parents’ knowledge. They did not fully understand their son Jesus and His purpose on earth. To them, He was a twelve year old who was testing His independence. When they questioned Him, He explained it was where He needed to be, but He was obedient and returned with them to His home in Nazareth. Though Jesus was in many ways an ordinary child, He was also extraordinary. He was the child of Mary and Joseph, but He was the Son of God. The stories of His life are filled with unusual circumstances: visits from shepherds and magi, a journey to a foreign land and then home again, prophets who sing for joy at His presence, and a lesson in the temple. Mary, His mother, watched Him grow through the normal phases of life, but she also witnessed all these things. She treasured and pondered them in her heart, and encouraged her son through His life on this earth.