Friday, December 26, 2014

Still Good Tidings of Great Joy

"Christmas Cross" by J. Steven Hunt
Christmas is the opening chapter of the greatest story ever told...

How radical is the idea behind Christmas? The religious leaders at that time scoffed at the shepherds’ report of the angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth. They no longer believed in angels. They certainly couldn’t imagine God Almighty—Creator and Governor of the universe—humbling Himself to visit planet Earth.

Yet the Bible predicted this. Among other things, Isaiah had proclaimed 750 years earlier that Jesus would be born of a virgin and would be called Immanuel, which in the original Hebrew language means “God with us.”

Furthermore, God sent an angel to convince Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father-to-be, that his fiancée’s unbelievable story was really true: “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21).

So profound were the events of that first Christmas that thousands—perhaps millions—of angels celebrated. As the Gospel of Luke tells us in words immortalized by Linus each year on A Charlie Brown Christmas:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:8-14 KJV). 

“Fear not,” the angel told the shepherds. Why? “For, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” So great that Luke, himself a Gentile, would be asked of God to write the longest and most detailed of the four Gospel accounts. And what was the great news? That on the first Christmas, two thousand years ago, God became one of us. 

But of course, that’s only the beginning of the story. Christmas isn’t the climax of history, merely the opening chapter of the greatest story ever told.

By itself, Christmas is miraculous. But it’s not miraculous enough. In Scripture, the “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” is never understood in terms of Christmas alone. The Gospel according to Luke immediately goes on to say, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

The Good News is always to be understood in terms of Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter. You see this not only in the Gospels, but throughout the New Testament.

In other words, God’s greatest gift wasn’t simply sending His Son, but sending His Son to live among us, to die for us, and to rise again…to offer us the forgiveness of sins, redemption, and adoption into His family forever.

May we never grow too tired, too weary, or too old to contemplate the wonders of the greatest story ever told.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Waiting a Very Long Time

The birth of Jesus ben Joseph haunted those who knew his true identity. The sixth in a series of six meditations. Special thanks to my wife, Renée, for writing this one.

Simeon and Anna were quite elderly, but they certainly weren’t waiting around to die. Instead, every day they woke up with the expectation that today could be the day they’d dreamed about for decades.

Simeon had the Lord’s promise that he would not die until he saw the Lord’s Messiah. Anna had no such guarantee but, like many others, she knew the time of the Messiah’s coming was near (Daniel 9:20-25a). While they waited, they lived righteous and devout lives, walking with God in obedience and worshiping him with all their hearts.

When Mary and Joseph entered the Temple one morning with baby Jesus cradled in their arms, they looked like any other devout couple fulfilling their duty to God. But to an old man and an old woman, both led by the Holy Spirit, they stood out like a beacon. The small child and his parents were welcomed to God’s house as no family had ever been greeted before.

Like Simeon and Anna, you and I can wake up each day looking forward to the promise of Jesus’ coming—again (Titus 2:11-14; 1 Peter 1:3-13). But unlike them, we don’t know when.

We very well may not see Jesus Christ’s return in our lifetime. 

It’s so hard to wait.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Risking Everything at Christmas

The birth of Jesus ben Joseph haunted those who knew his true identity. Fifth in a series of six meditations.

If you’re married, what risks did you take to win your spouse’s heart? How long did you seek his/her “I do”?

The Magi risked everything. The Wise Men became holy fools—desperate, compelled, finally obsessed. They traveled perhaps 1,000 miles or more, probably in a small camel train, to find “the newborn king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2).

These men may have come from a prestigious city of the ancient Medes, Persians, or Caldeans—almost certainly not Jews. Why then their intense dedication to find Jesus Christ?

Somehow, they knew that God in heaven had sent his Son to earth. Nothing more spectacular had ever happened in human history. They felt driven to welcome this child and to present him with exquisite gifts of great wealth.

Braving extreme heat, sand storms, and the constant threat of thieves, these Magi traveled for months through many foreign lands to the far west—to within a day of the great Mediterranean Sea.

Why such persistence and risk? What in the world did they hope to gain? A story? Yet who would believe?

Like the Magi, you and I have a terrible, haunting choice to make. Are we willing to risk it all? If so, for what?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Who Would Believe?

The birth of Jesus ben Joseph haunted those who knew his true identity. The fourth in a series of six meditations.

God had visited the fields of Bethlehem with singing before. A thousand years earlier, his Spirit inspired a shepherd boy to sing dozens of great melodies of praise (many of the Psalms in our Bibles today). Every Israelite knew that shepherd boy left the fields to become Israel’s greatest king.

But no one had such hopes for these particular shepherds. Much more important people—King David’s descendants—filled the rooms of Bethlehem’s inns as they came back to be counted in their ancestral home.

Yet it was not to any of the VIPs that God sent his angel and the armies of heaven to announce the birth of the Savior, the Son of David. Instead, God displayed his extraordinary concert and light show to these shepherds—and invited them to come and see the Messiah everyone else had been waiting for.

Although initially stunned by the glory of God and the message of the angel, these shepherds immediately ran to see this miracle. There lay the baby, swaddled in cloth and snuggled in the hay—just as the angel said. This baby fulfilled every Israelite’s deepest hope and answered every Gentile’s greatest longings. His birth was good news that will bring great joy to all people” (Luke 2:10)!

The shepherds couldn’t stick around all night, of course. But as they headed back to the hills and their sleeping sheep, Scripture tells us that they told the miraculous news to everyone they met. Sadly, I’m sure they were mocked. After all, who would believe a bunch of shepherds?

Yet, after disappearing for four centuries, God had just announced the Messiah’s birth with multitudes of angels. Then this ragtag bunch had seen the Christ child with their own eyes.

It mattered not if others believed. They knew.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Risking Everything for the Sake of Christmas

What did Joseph stand to lose by adopting Jesus?
The birth of Jesus ben Joseph haunted those who knew his true identity. The third in a series of six meditations.

Have you ever been credited—or blamed—for something you didn’t do? Have you ever wished you could change your reputation?

Only after Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection did people come to think of Jesus Christ as “the son of the virgin Mary.” For more than thirty years Jesus was commonly referred to as “Jesus, the son of Joseph” (Luke 3:23, John 1:45). The assumption was obvious and the social stigma great.

In all probability, for many years only Mary’s elderly relatives Elizabeth and Zechariah, and Mary and Joseph themselves, knew (beyond question) that Joseph wasn’t Jesus’ real father. After all, no one else had received a divine revelation announcing this spectacular miracle. Not surprisingly, many chose to believe the rumors whispered about Joseph, Mary, and Jesus (John 8:41).

To his credit, Joseph believed what the Lord revealed to him in a series of dreams —no matter how incredible those revelations were. Each time, Joseph quickly translated his belief into action—at great personal cost.

Consider what Joseph lost:
          * his reputation as a godly individual
          * his extended family relationships
          * his home and country
          * his security

Not once, however, does Scripture record that Joseph hesitated to instantly follow God’s leading. He took to heart the reality that “just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so  my [the Lord’s] ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).

Like Joseph, you and I have a choice to make. Each day, will we choose God’s will and ways no matter what the cost? Or today will we decide to go our own way?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

What God Asks Us at Christmas

The birth of Jesus ben Joseph haunted those who knew his true identity. The second in a series of six meditations. Special thanks to my wife, Renée, for writing this one.

How many young women have trembled with trepidation or delight when their doctors announce, “You’re pregnant”?

It’s almost too hard to believe that a child is growing inside when everything still looks the same. Even the most ordinary, well-planned pregnancy seems like a dream at first. No wonder the angel’s announcement in Luke 1:26-38 left Mary astounded.

How could Mary really fathom becoming pregnant when she knew beyond question that she still was a virgin? Of course, she couldn’t figure it out—but she could believe the Holy Spirit would fulfill the angel’s words. And she could eagerly anticipate mothering the baby who would fulfill the prophets’ promises from long ago.

While her elderly relative Zechariah couldn’t fathom the angel’s announcement that his wife was going to bear a baby, Mary readily believed God could do something new and unheard of. Mary willingly accepted the miracle of this unique pregnancy and all the consequences that followed.

In all likelihood, the Lord could have asked Mary to do anything. As a humble servant of the Lord God, she was dedicated to doing whatever she could for him.

Whether it’s a high calling or difficult chore that the Lord gives us, are you and I ready to respond like Mary?

Monday, December 15, 2014

Unanswered Prayer and the Meaning of Christmas

One of our Christmas cactus plants in full bloom
The birth of Jesus ben Joseph haunted those who knew his true identity. The first in a series of six meditations.

Who is more anxious to see our most heartfelt prayers answered? 

You and me? Or God? 
In the very last paragraph of the Old Testament, the Lord declared: “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:5-6).

Four hundred years later, it’s time for that prophecy to be fulfilled. By lot, a priest named Zechariah, a revered relative of the virgin Mary, is chosen to enter the sanctuary and burn incense to the Lord. He’s probably waited his entire adult life for the privilege of approaching God’s presence to pray. What’s foremost on his mind? The deep yearning he and his wife, Elizabeth, have for her to bear a son.

Of course, Zechariah isn't expecting God to answer him audibly. But answer him he does by sending the angel Gabriel—the same angel who had explained part of the Lord’s timetable to the prophet Daniel six hundred years earlier. Gabriel announces to Zechariah that his wife indeed will have a son who “will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17).

Even though he was a righteous and godly priest, Zechariah’s first response is one of unbelief. Like Zechariah, you and I may find it hard to believe that God will ever answer some of our most important prayer requests.

Have you felt like Zechariah yet this Advent season?

Then again, imagine how Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, must have felt a few months later when his young relative, Mary, came for a surprise visit.

God hasn't finished writing His story yet…in your life or mine.

Still, it’s so hard to believe, isn't it?

Monday, December 8, 2014

"Only 10 more days until Christmas"

Renée & me at Oregon's famed Camp 18 a few weeks ago. 
I've been thinking about Christmas a lot lately. No, I’m not worried about what to buy my wife, my three grown and married children and their spouses, my two teenagers, and my seven grandchildren. 

Instead, I've been wondering why it’s often so easy for people to stop believing in Jesus when they “grow up” and “outgrow” the true meaning of Christmas. I've been deeply concerned about how aggressively some ridicule the whole idea of child-like faith. And I've been thinking about what it must have been like for Jesus 2,000 years ago.

In complete contrast to the Messianic expectations of the ancient Jewish people, Jesus Christ didn't come out of nowhere riding into Jerusalem as a conquering hero. Instead, he entered this world in a most unexpected way: as an infant child. Have you ever thought about what Jesus did the first 10 or 15 years after his birth? That’s right: He was a boy. Why in the world would Jesus, God’s Son, creator of the heavens and earth, want to be a kid all those years? Wasn't that a waste of time? No. Absolutely not. First, it was fun being a kid! Jesus got to play with other children.

Have you ever noticed that grown-ups sometimes worry too much and don’t have enough fun? I think Jesus invented a special plan so that, even though he was God, he could be a kid.

Ultimately, of course, Jesus became a child for a much bigger purpose. He entered our world as a child so you and I could become like little children and enter his world. We enter his world by being adopted into his family. That’s not all. We enter his world in order to become active members of his Church and to make an eternal difference by joyfully and willingly serving in his kingdom.

Anyway, that's what I've been thinking about Christmas. Your thoughts?  :-)

Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Prayer for All of Us

O gracious and holy Father,
give us wisdom to perceive you,
diligence to seek you,
patience to wait for you,
eyes to behold you,
a heart to meditate upon you,
and a life to proclaim you,
through the power of the Spirit
of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Benedict of Nursia (Italy/480-547) 

Monday, November 24, 2014

A Prayer of Faith

Mosaic of Noah Releasing Dove, Basilica di San Marco,
Venice, XII-XIII, Anonymous Master
After a long hiatus I've decided to resume posting on this blog. My purpose? Simply to reprint some of the If God Disappears blog posts that still seem relevant. The first? A simple prayer of faith. Ever the writer and editor, of course, I may rework some posts, but not this first one...

Dear Lord, 

Thank you so much for the gift of faith, which you offer to each and every person. 

Thank you so much, God, for the gift of your presence, which you promise will be ours now and always. 

Thank you so much, Lord, for the gift of your Word, the Bible, which builds up our faith and assures us you will never leave us nor forsake us. 

We love you, Lord. Please strengthen our love, our hope, and our faith. 

Please use us to encourage and come alongside those who are struggling. 

Help each one of us to “keep the faith” until the very end of our days. 

We pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen.