Posts tagged ‘Christmas’

A Carol Turns 200

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200 years ago, on this night, the modern Christmas carol was born.  A small church in Oberndorf, Austria had an organ that was in need of repair, and the parish priest there, Joseph Mohr, wanted a Christmas song he could sing with his congregants sans the usual stops and pipes.  He composed some lyrics that a local teacher, Franz Gruber, set to music, and the two of them performed the song, accompanied simply by guitar, for the first time during their Christmas Eve service on December 24, 1818.  The name of the song was “Silent Night.”

The song’s appeal is indisputably enduring.  It was sung in the trenches as a part of an unofficial Christmas truce in 1914 during World War I by German soldiers to their British enemies.  It was sung again during World War II in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in the Rose Garden of the White House.  When Bing Crosby recorded the song in 1935, it became the third best-selling single of all time.  And, of course, tonight, millions will gather across the world to sing the song by candlelight with warm hearts and, by God’s grace, lively faith.

Part of the song’s appeal is its utter simplicity.  Both the tune and lyrics are extraordinarily unassuming.  But the song also tells the story of Christmas extremely well.  Everything from Jesus’ birth to the angelic announcement to some nearby shepherds to the truth of Jesus’ identity is contained in this carol.  The last verse is my favorite:

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light;
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

Here, in just this one verse, we find who Jesus is, why Jesus has come, and what He has come to do.  Jesus is the Lord who has come as a baby in a manger out of love to bring redeeming grace.  That’s more than a verse in a carol.  That’s the gospel.  That’s why, 200 years later, this is still a carol worth singing.  Because it tells of a birth that, 2,000 years later, is still most definitely worth celebrating.

Merry Christmas.

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December 24, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Every Day Can Be Christmas

Gerard_van_Honthorst_-_Adoration_of_the_Shepherds_(1622)

Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

The first Christmas was a work day.

These days, Christmas is one of the few days of the year widely marked by time off.  But for the first people to hear of Christ’s birth, Christmas day was not a holiday, but a normal day:

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:8-11)

There was no glistening tree, no holiday feast, no gift exchange, no melodic carols, and no time off to be with family when an angel appeared to some shepherds that first Christmas night.  There was only another day at the office of the open field, with lots of sheep milling about.  The first Christmas was a work day.

The holiday of Christmas is, of course, precious.  I love to open gifts with my family and enjoy all the traditions and accoutrements that accompany this time of year.  But if the message of Christmas is kept within the boundaries of the actual holiday of Christmas, the truth of Christmas will be quickly lost.

The heart of the Christmas message is that God became human in the person of Jesus Christ.  He “took and flesh and made His dwelling among us” (John 1:14).  But Jesus did not become human to give us a holiday, as wonderful as that holiday may be, but to change our everyday.   This is why Jesus poured Himself into twelve men for three years.  This is why He healed the sick and fed the masses.  This is why He taught the curious and rebuffed the self-righteous.  He poured Himself into the everyday lives, struggles, and sins of people not to give them another holiday, but to show them that He was for and with them every day.

Assuming the traditional chronology of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is correct, I find it telling that the climax of Jesus’ work – His death and resurrection – occurred between holidays.  The Thursday night before Jesus died, He celebrated the high holy Jewish holiday of Passover with His disciples.  The Saturday Jesus was in the grave was the holiday of a Sabbath.  Jesus died on a Friday and rose on a Sunday.  He accomplished His mission not on important holidays, but during two common days.

The message of Christmas extends long beyond the holiday of Christmas, for the message of Christmas reminds us that Christ is with us not just during a day full of carols, decorations, presents, and food, but “always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).  So, as we celebrate Christmas today, let’s not forget why need Christmas tomorrow – and all year long.

December 25, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Christmas When Disaster Strikes

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Though wildfires in Southern California are not an unusual occurrence, the ones now tearing through the Los Angeles area are truly historic.  Hundreds of thousands residents are under mandatory evacuations, hundreds of thousands of acres have been burned, and many of the fires are not contained.  The fires are effortlessly jumping major freeways, including the 405, and engulfing everything in their path.

The stories emerging from the wildfires are heartbreaking.  On NBC Nightly News, images and stories of grieving and tearful people who have lost their homes have been commonplace.  In one image, a man stands on his roof staring down a massive wildfire with a garden hose in hand.  He doesn’t even look hopeful.  He knows it’s futile.

Even as I see tears and hear sobs, it is difficult for me to imagine how these people must feel.  At a time of year that is known for its bounty of gifts, there are thousands who have suffered the loss of so much.

One of my favorite Christmas carols is “Joy to the World.”  Its famously bouncy melody, however, can mask its realistic estimation of the trials of this world:

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

This world, the carol concedes, is full of sins, sorrows, and thorns.  And yet, the hope of Christmas is that a Savior has been born who “comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.”  The tension of this lyric is thick.  A catastrophe like the California fires is certainly a result of the curse – a world broken by sin.  Natural disasters were never meant to be part of God’s good creation.  But God comes into this world, cursed by sin, to make His blessings flow.  In other words, even in the midst of the fires, God’s blessings are not withheld, but bestowed.  But when you’re fighting a massive fire with a garden hose, God’s blessings can be awfully tough to spot.

Christmas can help us see how God’s blessings arrive, even when all we see is the curse.  God’s blessings arrive not in brash and bold and bawdy ways, but in small and poor and humble ways.  They arrive in little towns like Bethlehem.  They arrive through peasant people like Mary and Joseph.  They arrive with a baby who sleeps in some hay.  In other words, they arrive in ways that are easy to miss in a world where the curse looms large.  But those who take the time to see these blessings cannot help but be changed by them.

One story coming out of the California fires involves a family whose mansion burned to the ground last week.  When firefighters ordered an evacuation of the area shortly before the fires engulfed this family’s home, one firefighter asked the homeowner, “If we could save just one thing, what would you want it to be?”  The homeowner replied, “Please save my Christmas tree for my kids because it’s got so many memories.”  The family no longer has a home.  But they still have their tree.  They still have a reminder of this season and what it’s all about – the greatest blessing of God’s Son.  The curse may have taken this family’s house, but it did not take this family’s Christmas.

He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

He really does – even if it’s in the smallest of ways.

December 11, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Turkey, Germany, Power, and Love

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Terror doesn’t take a break for Christmas.

This past Monday was a tragic day in Europe.  In Istanbul, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey was assassinated by Turkish police officer Mevlut Mert Altintas, who shouted “Allahu akbar!” and “Do not forget Aleppo!” in an apparent protestation of Russia’s recent bombings of the embattled city.  Then, later the same day, in Berlin, a Tunisian man, Anism Amri, is suspected to have driven a semi-truck into an open-air Christmas market, killing twelve and injuring scores of others.  ISIS has claimed involvement in the attack.

In one way, this is all too predictable.  Terrorists are trained and indoctrinated to be callous to human carnage.  They seek power through the exercise of brute force.  ISIS has made no secret of its goal of a global caliphate and, even if it knows it can never realize such a theocratic dream, it will lash out at every opportunity possible to, at the very least, wield power through fear.  Terror attacks will continue.

It is difficult to imagine how Christmas must have felt for the loved ones of those lost in these attacks.  A day that celebrates history’s greatest birth is now tinged by the stain of death.  And yet, Christmas is precisely the message this world needs in the face of these continuing attacks.  For Christmas reminds us how such attacks will ultimately be overcome.

On the one hand, we should be thankful that responsible governments work tirelessly both to prevent these attacks and to bring attackers to justice. On the other hand, we should never forget that such efforts, no matter how noble they may be, are ultimately stop gap measures.  The defeat of terrorism lies not in the power of human governments, but in the meekness and weakness of a babe in Bethlehem.  N.T. Wright explains why this is the case when he writes:

You cannot defeat the usual sort of power by the usual sort of means.  If one force overcomes another, it is still “force” that wins.  Rather, at the heart of the victory of God over all the powers of the world there lies self-giving love.[1]

Terrorism is rooted in a lust for power.  But a lust for power cannot, in an ultimate sense, be exorcised by a use, even if it’s an appropriate use, of power.  A lust for power can only be defeated by, to use N.T. Wright’s phrase, “self-giving love.”  And this is where Christmas comes in.  For it is self-giving love that moves God to give His one and only Son to the world as a babe at Christmas.  It is self-giving love that moves God’s one and only Son to give His life for the world on a cross.  And through the meekness and weakness of the manger and cross, victory is won over every sinful use of power.  To use the words of the apostle Paul: “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, Christ made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15).

In the 1980s, one of TV’s most popular shows was MacGyver.  At the heart of the show’s popularity was the fact that no matter how perilous a situation he may have found himself in, MacGyver always seemed to find a way out of it using the simplest of means. A pair of binoculars that deflected a laser beam.  A paper clip that shorted out a missile on its countdown to launch.  MacGyver’s strange and unexpected hacks to disarm every danger imaginable have become so eponymous with MacGyver himself that his name has turned into a verb.  If there is a problem that calls for a creative solution, you can “MacGyver” it!

In a world that knows only the use of force in the face of force, Jesus pulls a MacGyver.  He solves the problem of the abuse of power in a way no one expected.  He uses a manger to enter the brokenness of our world.  And He uses a cross to overcome the sin of our world.  In this way, a Turkish assassin is no match for the manger.  And a Tunisian terrorist is no match for the cross.  Why?  Because though the former things may engender fear, the latter things hold forth hope.  And hope will win the day.

________________________

[1] N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began (New York:  HarperOne, 2016), 222.

December 26, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

A Tale of Three Kings

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Growing up, one of my favorite yuletide carols was “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”  The lilting melody and encomium to the “star of wonder” and its “perfect light” captured my imagination.  So you can imagine my disappointment when I learned that, at least from a historical perspective, this beloved song is probably all wrong.  The men who came to visit Jesus from far away were not kings, they were astrologers.  They also were probably not from the Orient, but instead from Babylon.  And although we assume that there were three of them because of the number of gifts they brought, we do not know this for sure.  There could have been more or fewer.

Even if the the song is wrong about the astrologers who come to visit Jesus, the Christmas story nevertheless does involve three kings.   The first is a king who sits on a throne in Rome.  His name is Caesar Augustus.  He received the name Augustus as an honorary title from the Roman senate thanks to, according to his own account, his “virtue, mercy, justice, and piety.”[1]  What a king Augustus must have been.

At the first waterfall of the Nile River, there is an inscription lauding Augustus that reads:

The emperor, ruler of oceans and continents, the divine father among men, who bears the same name as his heavenly father – Liberator, the marvelous star of the Greek world, shining with the brilliance of the great heavenly Savior.[2]

As it turns out, Caesar Augustus was hailed not only as a king, but as a divinity.  And it is this king who lifts his finger to issue a decree for a census that sends the whole world, including a couple of peasants from Nazareth, scrambling:

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.  So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. (Luke 2:1, 3-5)

The second king of the Christmas story is local ruler named Herod the Great.  He too received a prestigious title from the Roman senate: “the king of the Jews.”  Though his title was more baronial than Caesar’s supernatural titles, he was also proud of his position and fiercely sought to protect it regardless of the cost.  He became exceedingly paranoid that those around him were jockeying for his throne so, one by one, he had them executed.  First it was his brother-in-law, Aristobulus III, who Herod ordered drown.  Then it was another brother-in-law, Kostobar.  He even executed two of his own sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, accusing them of high treason.  Herod’s murderous rampages became so infamous that Caesar Augustus is said to have once remarked, “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.”

Considering Herod’s insecurities, it is no surprise that when a group of astrologers from a faraway land come to Herod and ask him, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2), Herod impulsively and impetuously gives “orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi” (Matthew 2:16).

This leads us to the third king in the Christmas story – the newborn king about which the Magi ask.  When Jesus was born, He certainly didn’t look like a king.  And yet, He inaugurated a kingdom that endures to this day, as a walk inside one of what are literally millions of churches will indicate.

Whether or not you believe Him to be an eternal king, Jesus is someone with whom everyone must grapple.   Caesar Augustus grapples with Jesus by means of indifference.  He didn’t know anything of Jesus and didn’t care to.  He was, after all, a much more important figure than some impoverished infant sleeping in straw in Bethlehem.  But what Caesar couldn’t have imagined is that it wouldn’t be his kingship that would eventually be celebrated with a worldwide holiday, it would be Jesus’ birth.  It would not be Jesus who would become Caesars’ footnote in history, it would be Caesar who became Jesus’ footnote.  We would nary talk about Caesar Augustus this time of year – or any time of year – were it not for Jesus.  Caesar’s indifference falls in the face of Jesus’ kingdom.

Herod the Great grapples with Jesus in a different manner – by that of hostility.  He hates Jesus and seeks to have Him killed.  But not only does he fail, he fails miserably.  Joseph takes his family and escapes to Egypt before Herod’s executioners can get to the child.  Herod fails to end Jesus’ life as a child even as Pontius Pilate ultimately fails to finish Him off as an adult, as the story of Easter so gloriously reveals.  Herod’s hostility, then, falls in the face of Jesus’ kingdom.

Though two millennia have passed, the reactions to Jesus’ kingship have not changed.  Many people treat the celebration of Christmas – at least the part that involves Jesus’ birth – with a mild indifference, a distant secondary feature of a holiday that primarily consists of the niceties of parties, decorations, and, of course, plenty of presents.  Others treat the story of the nativity with outright hostility – incensed that a holiday that has such blatantly Christian overtones would still be embraced and thought of as Christian by what should be an enlightened secular West.  But Christmas marches on.  And the fact that it does says something about Jesus’ kingdom.  It does not and will not fail or fall because of our responses to it.  Either it will endure for us and be a solace of salvation, or it will endure in spite of us and become an edict of execration.  Which way will it endure for you?  That’s the question of Christmas.

I hope you have an answer.

_______________________________

[1] Caesar Augustus, The Deeds of the Divine Augustus, Thomas Bushnell, trans., par. 34.

[2] Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars (Eugene:  Wipf and Stock, 1952), 99.

December 19, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Truly God, Truly Man

"Adoration of the Children" by  Gerard van Honthorst, 1620.

“The Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622.

During the Christmas season, it is important to focus not only on the birth of Christ, but on the person of Christ.  That is, it is important for us to remember not only that Jesus was born, but who Jesus was born as.  For it is not the simple fact of Jesus’ birth that gives the Christmas story significance.  After all, people are born all the time.  But Jesus’ identity as it is revealed in the Christmas story makes Jesus’ birth significant even 2,000 years later.

In Matthew’s Gospel, we get a clue concerning Jesus’ identity beginning with Mathew’s opening line:  “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1).  From here, Matthew goes on to give an extensive genealogy of Jesus’ family tree, going all the way back to Abraham.  The genealogy in Luke’s Gospel goes back even farther – all the way to Adam (cf. Luke 3:23-38).  These two genealogies, it should be noted, are quite different from each other, making Jesus’ family tree look quite disparate.  Indeed, over the years, scholars have debated the differences between the Matthew and Luke’s genealogies of Jesus.  Most often, scholars have conjectured that Matthew presents the royal genealogy of Jesus through Joseph, his stepfather, while Luke presents the biological genealogy of Jesus through Mary, His mother.  What is often left out of such discussions and debates, however, is that there is actually a third Christmas genealogy that all too regularly goes unnoticed.

Where is this third genealogy?  Beginning in Matthew 1:18:  “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.”  The Greek word for “birth” is genesis, from which we get our English word “genealogy”  In fact, this is the same word Matthew uses in 1:1 when he introduces his “genealogy [in Greek, genesis] of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham.”  Thus, in just one chapter, Matthew presents two genealogies.

So how are to understand these two genealogies?  In Matthew’s first genealogy, we read of Jesus’ human origin.  He is the son of David and the son of Abraham.  In Matthew’s second genealogy, we read about Jesus’ divine origin. He is of the Holy Spirit.  Thus, Jesus is truly man, the son of Abraham and David; but He is also truly God, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.

Ultimately, Jesus’ status as truly man and truly God is what gives the Christmas story its significance.  For as a man, Jesus can identify with us men – our weakness, struggles, and trials.  But as God, Jesus can save us from our sin.

Truly man.  Truly God.  All of this wrapped in a manger.  What an incredible story!  And what a terrific reason to say, “Merry Christmas.”

December 23, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Righteousness from God

"Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth" by Marco Palmezzano, ca. 1490 Credit: Wikipedia

“Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth” by Marco Palmezzano, ca. 1490
Credit: Wikipedia

Because the gospel is the crux of our Christian faith, we can never ponder it, speak of it, or write about it too much.  This is why I was delighted to stumble across this passage from Ezekiel while reading devotionally a few days ago:

The righteousness of the righteous man will not save him when he disobeys, and the wickedness of the wicked man will not cause him to fall when he turns from it. The righteous man, if he sins, will not be allowed to live because of his former righteousness. If I tell the righteous man that he will surely live, but then he trusts in his righteousness and does evil, none of the righteous things he has done will be remembered; he will die for the evil he has done. (Ezekiel 33:12-13)

What a beautiful explanation of the gospel and what kind of righteousness saves.  Ezekiel is clear:  you cannot be saved by your own righteousness!  Indeed, even if you act righteously, just one evil act erases all memory of your righteousness.  As James writes: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10).  To receive salvation, you need another kind of righteousness that is not your own.  You need a righteousness that comes from God.  The apostle Paul brings clarity to what kind of righteousness this is:  “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22).

Besides reminding us that our own righteousness does not and cannot save us, Ezekiel’s words also remind us that the gospel is not confined to the New Testament.  In both Testaments, the message of the gospel is consistent:  it is God’s righteousness, not our own, that saves us.  As God promises through the prophet Isaiah, “I am bringing My righteousness near, it is not far away; and My salvation will not be delayed.”

December 9, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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