Posts tagged ‘Christmas’

Christmas Risk

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Credit: Wikimedia

The celebration of Christmas is not just a time for trees, toys, traditions, and treats; it’s also meant to be a time of reflection. If what Scripture says happened at Christmas actually happened at Christmas, it changes everything – beginning with us. I like the way Frederick Buechner describes the holiday in his book The Hungering Dark:

For the moment of Christmas…those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of Him again. Once they have seen Him in a stable, they can never be sure where He will appear or to what lengths He will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation He will descend in His wild pursuit of man. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too. And this means that we are never safe, that there is no place where we can hide from God, no place where we are safe from His power to break in two and recreate the human heart because it is just where He seems most helpless that He is most strong, and just where we least expect Him that He comes most fully.

These words remind me of the Psalmist’s:

Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I go up to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in the depths, You are there. (Psalm 139:7-8)

At Christmas, God shows up in a place and way that history and humanity least expected – which means none of us are safe from God showing up to and for us. This may sound almost like a threat – and for those who wish to hide from God it certainly is – but it is also a precious blessing, as Buechner explains:

For those who believe in God, it means, this birth, that God Himself is never safe from us.

Yes, we may never be safe from God, but God is also not safe from us. Indeed, He is so not safe from us that He is even willing to die by us as we turn against Him and crucify Him.

That’s amazing love – found in the ridiculous risk, the infinite uncertainty, and the utter vulnerability of a manger. And that’s worth celebrating, reflecting on, and, most importantly, believing in.

December 27, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Christmas: Grace Upon Grace

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For a moment, put yourself in Joseph’s shoes. You come from an impoverished family and have endured a hardscrabble life. But now, finally, things are looking up. You are engaged to a good girl named Mary, and the two of you are on your way to a wedding. But then, she turns up pregnant. And you know the baby is not yours. What would you do?

2,000 years ago, in Israel and as a Jew, Joseph had only two options.

First, according to the law of Moses, he could have called for her life:

If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife – with the wife of his neighbor – both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10)

Second, as the son who Mary eventually bears notes, he could have divorced her:

I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9)

Divorce displeases Jesus, but He permits it when sexual unfaithfulness is involved.

Death and divorce – these are Joseph’s options. Which will he choose? Matthew tells us:

He had in mind to divorce her. (Matthew 1:19)

Joseph chooses divorce over death. But there’s more to Joseph’s decision than just one option over the other. Matthew adds a very important qualifier to Joseph’s divorce decision:

He had in mind to divorce her quietly. (Matthew 1:19)

In the first century, divorces were often public spectacles, meant to shame an unfaithful spouse. But Joseph forfeits his opportunity to shame his fiancé, as Matthew makes explicit in the rest of this verse:

Because Joseph was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. (Matthew 1:19)

Joseph was walking a tightrope. As a pious Jew, devoted to following the law of Moses, he knew he couldn’t just continue on as if nothing had happened. But Joseph also knew that grimly responding to his fiancé’s perceived infidelity with all that he could do according to the law wasn’t what he should do, for shaming her would destroy her. Something else was needed.

Grace.

Joseph followed the letter of the law by planning to divorce Mary, but he also did everything he could not to retaliate against her even though he thought she had betrayed him. He responded to her apparent unfaithfulness with every bit of kindness he could muster. Joseph did the right thing according to the law and the loving thing according to grace.

Joseph’s path can be instructive for us as we face messy moral challenges in our lives. Respecting divine law is necessary and right. But we are also invited to seek opportunities to layer divine grace on top of divine law.

We can discipline our children and still remind them how much we love them.

We can reprimand an employee and still do everything we can to help them succeed.

We can adamantly disagree with someone while still treating them gently.

When Joseph layered grace on top of law, something incredible happened:

An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, 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)

When Joseph chose grace, an angel appeared to show him where even more grace could be found. He did not need to divorce Mary, for, contrary to appearances, she had not been unfaithful. Instead, she was being a radically faithful servant to the Lord who had miraculously gestated in her the Savior of the world (cf. Luke 1:38).

In John’s account of the Christmas story, he describes Jesus’ mission like this:

From His fullness we have all received grace upon grace. (John 1:16)

“Grace upon grace.” Grace that begets even more grace. Pile it high. Spread it wide. Do what Joseph did for Mary. And trust in what Jesus has done for us.

This is the miracle and the message of Christmas.

December 20, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Celebrating Christmas Slowly

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Credit: “The Angel Appearing to Zacharias” by William Blake (1800) / Wikimedia

When the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah in Luke 1 while he is performing his ritual duties at the incense altar in the Holy Place at the temple in Jerusalem to announce that he and his wife Elizabeth will have a son who will prepare the way for Jesus, it signals a remarkable turning point in the history of the nation of Israel. The Old Testament ends with a dangling prophecy:

See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction. (Malachi 4:5-6)

This prophetic word is both retrospective and prospective. It is retrospective because it hearkens back to Israel’s greatest prophet, Elijah, who lived over 400 years before this prophecy was proffered. It is prospective because it looks forward to another and greater Elijah who will create a new family out of the remnants of a nation that has been scattered and battered by years of exile and conquest.

And then ­­–

Gabriel shows up and announces:

Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John … And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (Luke 1:13, 17)

This fulfillment had been a long time coming. Again, over 400 years had elapsed between the time Malachi had forecasted the coming of a new Elijah and Gabriel had announced the arrival of this new Elijah. Indeed, the last time Gabriel had shown up to anyone was over 500 years earlier to another prophet named Daniel:

While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel and making my request to the Lord my God for his holy hill – while I was still in prayer, Gabriel, the man I had seen in the earlier vision, came to me in swift flight about the time of the evening sacrifice. (Daniel 9:20-21)

It is interesting to note that Gabriel appears to both men while they are making sacrifices. The angel seems to like to show up in the midst of worship.

The apostle Paul writes of Jesus’ birth:

When the set time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. (Galatians 4:4-5)

It turns out that sometimes, God’s “set time” takes a long time to get here – hundreds of years, in fact. And this is one of the many things that Christmas can teach us. In a season that is known for its hustle and bustle, Christmas is best celebrated slowly and patiently – waiting for God to work in His way in His time. In a culture that prides itself on social media platforms like Instagram, cooking gadgets like Instant Pots, movie franchises that are Fast and Furious, and even Covid tests that are rapid, slowness does not find pride of place in our imaginations or priorities. And yet, it was a promise slowly but faithfully kept that changed the world – and is still changing eternities.

The name Zechariah means, “The Lord remembers.” By the time Gabriel appeared to this old priest to announce that he and his wife would have a son, it must have felt like they had been forgotten. But they had not been. God was just working slowly and patiently. May our character reflect God’s work this season – and each day.

December 13, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The True Transfiguration Tabernacle

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If you look closely, you’ll begin to notice that the story of Christmas isn’t found only in Jesus’ birth, but all over His life.

In Mark 9, Jesus takes His three closest disciples – Peter, James, and John – up a mountain for a “spiritual retreat” of sorts. But while they are enjoying and reflecting on the sight of Israel from the summit, Jesus is transfigured:

His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. (Mark 9:3-4)

This was not a sight for which the disciples were prepared. But they knew they were in the midst of a transcendent moment. Peter responds in a way that, though it might sound strange to us – would have seemed perfectly logical and appropriate to him:

Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for You, one for Moses and one for Elijah. (Mark 9:5)

Peter sees Jesus with Israel’s greatest lawgiver – Moses – and Israel’s greatest prophet – Elijah – and his response is to suggest a building project. What is Peter thinking?

The word translated as “shelters” is, in Greek, skene, which refers to a “tent.” The most famous skene in Israel’s history is introduced in Exodus 25 and 26 when God gives Moses instructions to build the tabernacle, which was the tent in which God dwelled. The tabernacle cast a long shadow over Israel’s history, especially when coupled with a mountain, because the pattern for the tabernacle came from God when He spoke to Moses from a mountain (Exodus 26:30) and this tabernacle eventually gave way to a more permanent structure in a temple, which was built on a mountain (Isaiah 2:3).

So, when Peter suggests building skenes for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah on a mountain, he senses he is part of a divine encounter just like Moses was. And when the divine shows up, tabernacles are in order.

But what Peter suggests never comes to pass. Instead:

A cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is My Son, whom I love. Listen to Him!” Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. (Mark 9:7-8)

It turns out that tabernacles were not needed for this divine encounter because there was already a tabernacle there.

And it’s this that takes us to Christmas.

In John’s version of the Christmas story, he speaks of Jesus as the divine Word, and says: “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us” (John 1:14). The Greek word behind the phrase “made His dwelling” is skene. When Christ was born, He was God’s tabernacle – His dwelling place – among us. Peter didn’t need to build some tabernacles on that mountain because Jesus was the tabernacle on that mountain.

The promise of this season is that God does not remain aloof from His creation or creatures. He comes to us. He sends the man, who as Matthew’s account of the Christmas story reminds us, is “Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’” (Matthew 1:23). Of the many promises this season provides, perhaps the most precious is this:

We are never alone, for God has sent a tabernacle in Jesus.

December 6, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Everyone Needs a Home for the Holidays

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Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Romans 15:17)

The apostle Paul penned these words in the midst of a socially stratified society. People were not warmly received, but coolly ranked along ethnic and economic lines. But when Jesus arrives, He breaks through these lines in the most surprising and even socially offensive of ways. When He, for instance, strikes up a conversation with a Samaritan woman, she is startled, for “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9).

In the Bible, a warm welcome that crosses cultural boundaries is called “hospitality.” In our world, this word has been reduced to an industry. “Hospitality” is reserved for those who can pay for a reservation at a hotel or restaurant. But in early Christian thinking, hospitality was when you welcomed someone no one else had room for. When Jesus was born, there was famously for Him “no place…in the inn” (Luke 2:7). Christians are called to make room to welcome people in, for when they do so, they are ultimately welcoming in Jesus (cf. Matthew 25:35). The full inn of Bethlehem serves as an invitation to make sure we have open homes.

One of the many things I love about Thanksgiving is that it is one of the all-too-rare moments left in our culture where biblical hospitality is on beautiful display. Families welcome relatives they have not seen in a long time into their homes. They also welcome a service member who is far away from his or her family to share a feast with them. Groups go to serve meals to the under-resourced. People are welcomed and loved as ethnic and economic barriers fall around the sight of a dressed turkey and sides.

Hospitality is not only the call of the Christian, it is endemic to the very order of creation. After all, God did not have to make room for us when He created the heavens and the earth, but He did. The very fact that God made this world for us is evidence of His hospitable heart.

As we begin this holiday season, how can you show hospitality? Who can you welcome in – not for a price or with an expectation, but simply out of love? Christ has joyfully welcomed you into His family by faith and is painstakingly preparing for you a place in eternity (cf. John 14:2). May we joyfully open our homes and hearts to bless others with broken homes and broken hearts. May we welcome others as Christ has welcomed us.

November 29, 2021 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Sunshine & Branches

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When an elderly priest named Zechariah is chosen by lot to burn incense at the temple in Jerusalem, it marks a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for him. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, there were around 20,000 priests serving at the temple in the first century. Many of them never got to bring such an offering before God. So, Zechariah, when his lot is drawn, is obviously overwhelmed by the magnitude of the moment. But an already overwhelming moment becomes even more potent when, in the middle of Zechariah’s liturgical service, an angel appears to him, telling him that he and his wife Elizabeth, both of whom could have easily qualified to be members-in-good-standing of the AARP by this point in their lives, will have a child who will, in fulfillment of ancient prophecy, “prepare the way for the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3). At first, Zechariah is skeptical of this angelic announcement, but his suspicion quickly melts into praise and hope, both at the promise that he and his wife will have a child and that his child will prepare the way for the arrival of God’s salvation. At the end of a song of celebration, he muses:

You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for Him, to give His people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heavento shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)

In his song, Zechariah celebrates both his child and God’s Messiah. He describes the Messiah as “the rising sun” who will come “to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

This picture of light was a common metaphor for the Messiah among the prophets:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)

And:

For you who revere My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. (Malachi 4:2)

In a world full of the darkness of sin, the Messiah would bring the light of righteousness.

When Zechariah speaks of the coming Messiah as “the rising sun,” the Greek word Luke employs is anatole, a word which refers to the east, the place from which the sun rises. What is fascinating about this word is that it can also be translated as “branch,” as it is when God speaks through the prophet Zechariah, who lived over 500 years before the priest Zechariah did:

I am going to bring My servant, the Branch. (Zechariah 3:8)

God calls the Messiah “the Branch,” the Greek word for which is anatole. In a world full of death, the Messiah would be like a tree that sprouts and brings life.

This one little word speaks to who the Messiah is in multiple ways. He sheds light in the darkness of sin and he branches out from death with life. Though Zechariah, more than likely, did not understand the fullness of who the Messiah would be and what He would accomplish when he sang his song, we live in what the apostle Paul once called “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4). In other words, we have the benefit of historical retrospection to understand more fully how Jesus changed the world – and how Jesus still changes lives. And because of this, we, like Zechariah, can have praise to offer and hope to hold this Christmas.

December 21, 2020 at 5:15 am 3 comments

More Than A List Of Names

Last week on this blog, I took a look at one of the most beloved parts of the Christmas story – the journey of the wise men. This week, I’d like to take a look at one of the most often overlooked sections of the story. The Gospel writer Matthew opens his version of the Christmas story not with an angel, or with a star, or with some startled shepherds, but with a genealogy:

This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife, Solomon the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, Abijah the father of Asa, Asa the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram, Jehoram the father of Uzziah, Uzziah the father of Jotham, Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, Manasseh the father of Amon, Amon the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.After the exile to Babylon: Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel, Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, Zerubbabel the father of Abihud, Abihud the father of Eliakim, Eliakim the father of Azor, Azor the father of Zadok, Zadok the father of Akim, Akim the father of Elihud, Elihud the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah. Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah. (Matthew 1:1-17)

You can be honest: did you read the genealogy above just now, or did you skip to the bottom to see what in the world could be said about a list like this? I know the temptation. When I’m reading through the Bible, I’m tempted to skip sections like this, too.

In the ancient world, genealogies were considered critical. They reminded the Jewish people of their history and God’s faithfulness. Genealogies were ways of keeping track of how God had guided and grown His people through the ages. This is especially true in Matthew’s genealogy. Matthew includes a section in his genealogy he titles, “After the exile to Babylon” (Matthew 1:12). When the Babylonians ransacked the city of Jerusalem and carried its residents into captivity, the Israelites wondered if God had turned against them. In the book of Lamentations, they cry:

The Lord is like an enemy; He has swallowed up Israel. (Lamentations 2:5)

Oftentimes, when the Old Testament writers speak of God, they call Him “LORD.” The capitalization of all the letters is meant to cue the reader that the Hebrew behind this translation is “Yahweh,” the personal name for God. The Israelites called God by name because they believed He knew their names – and cared about their lives. But in this line from Lamentations, they do not cry out to God personally, using His personal name Yahweh. Instead, they talk about Him formally – not as “LORD,” but as “Lord,” the Hebrew word here being “Adonai,” which is not a personal name, but a title meaning, “Master.” The God the Israelites once spoke to personally now feels like a harsh Master who is abusing them savagely, as they languish in exile in Babylon.

Matthew’s genealogy reminds us that, even during their darkest moments, God had not given up on His people. The names of those who were driven from Israel were still and recorded in the annals of God’s people and are now remembered as ones who pointed to the One in whom this whole genealogy finds its apogee: “Jesus who is called the Messiah” (Matthew 1:16).

In a year that has been full of so much pain for so many people, this genealogy can remind us that we are also in the annals of God’s family, even when we feel exiled – from friends, from family members, and from normal routines as a pandemic that just won’t quit drags on. My encouragement to you is to take a moment to reflect on the names in Matthew’s genealogy. After all, because of Christ, this genealogy is not just a list of names, it’s your family history in faith – and we should all take some time to learn about our family.

December 14, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

King Jesus, King Herod, and “Three Kings”

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One of the most beloved sections of the Christmas story is when wise men come to visit Jesus and His family:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.  When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.’” Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find Him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship Him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with His mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. (Matthew 2:1-12)

Part of what makes this particular section of the Christmas story so compelling is the evil king who serves as a foil to the so-called “three kings” who are looking to present gifts to Jesus. King Herod feels threatened by Jesus and wants to slaughter what he perceives to be the competition. This kind of ghastly plot comports with what we know about Herod historically. Herod was the king who had his wife Mariamne and his sons Alexander, Aristobulus, and Antipater all executed because he suspected they were trying to usurp his throne. Herod’s conduct toward his own family was so gruesome that Caesar Augustus, who was the Roman Emperor at this time, is said to have quipped, “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.” The first-century historian Josephus once wrote that Herod’s “character had nothing human to recommend to it.” And yet, if you would have asked him, Herod would have self-identified as a religiously observant Jew. After all, Herod was the one who expanded the temple in Jerusalem into a glorious showcase of Jewish religious sensibility and sacrifice.

Herod’s willingness to build a monument to Jewish religious rituals while acting so depravedly in his relationships with his own family is manifestly hypocritical. The fact that wise men who were not Jewish would gladly worship Jesus as the Messiah while a self-identified Jew would fearfully despise Jesus because he thought He might be the Messiah just further confirms how spiritually blind Herod really was. As Andreas Köstenberger and Alexander Stewart put it in their book The First Days of Jesus:

Herod powerfully illustrates the fact that it’s not enough to identify outwardly with God’s people. It’s not enough to give sacrificially of your funds and your energy to build God’s house (or temple) and to help others worship. It’s not enough to learn about God and His plan through His Scriptures. Every one of us is confronted with a choice…Who will we serve? For whom will we live?

These are questions that still come to us. The Christmas season is not merely about favorite carols, idyllic nativity scenes, and warm religious observances, as wonderful as all these things may be. This season is about a newborn King. And trusting in and living for this King cannot be captured in just one holiday. It is God’s call to us every day. May this Christmas be a time to renew our commitment to this call.

December 7, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

In a World Full of Much News, Christmas is Good News

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Credit: Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

Christmas is almost here. As many of us go on last-minute buying binges while we search and shop for the perfect presents for all our special someones, it is worth remembering that what makes Christmas special is not everything we do for this holiday, but what we are called to focus on in this holiday.

The first Christmas was a birthday punctuated by an angelic announcement to some shepherds who were in close proximity to a historically incomparable infant. An angel said to these shepherds:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)

Here, in this angel’s message, we find a sort of executive summary of what not only Christmas, but Christianity, is all about. The angel explains that a Savior has been born who is “good news.”

This two-word phrase – “good news” – is the echocardiogram by which the heartbeat of the Christian faith is measured. If this phrase permeates Christianity, the Christian faith is alive and well. If it does not, the Christian faith is doomed to anemia and obsolescence. Here’s why.

Culturally, two types of religion are prevalent. In more traditional cultures, religion that demands “good behavior” reigns. This version of religion promises that if you do what you should do and don’t do what you shouldn’t do, God will be pleased with you. This version of religion rewards one who walks the straight and narrow and lives as a straight arrow. Conversely, in more progressive cultures, religion that focuses on “good feelings” carries the day. This version of religion eschews what it sees as the needlessly constrictive and primitive commands of traditional religion and instead seeks the supernatural in what makes you feel good. Creeds of this religion include, “You do you,” “If it feels good do it,” and, “God wouldn’t want me to be unhappy.” Interestingly, though these two religions sound different, at their core, they share the same assumption: the onus for spiritual fulfillment is on you because religion is about you. You are the one who is responsible for your spirituality – either by your behavior or in your emotional state.

Christianity is utterly different. Christianity is not about you. Instead, Christianity is for you. And there is a world of difference between these two.

Christianity is about Christ – His birth that an angel announces to some shepherds, His ministry that He carries out in front of a myriad of eyewitnesses, His death that He dies in place of sinners, and His resurrection by which He conquers death. This is why the angel calls Christ’s birth “news.” News is about what someone else from somewhere else has done. Christ is someone else from somewhere else – from heaven itself. And He has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He has lived the life we cannot live, died the death we deserved to die, and offered the penalty for sin we cannot pay. Christianity is news about Christ. But it is not just “news,” it is “good news.” Why? Because, as the angel says, even though Christianity is about Christ, it is “for all the people.” And “all the people” includes you. What Christ has done, then, He has done for you.

Christianity promises that responsibility for spiritual fulfillment does not rest on you. Instead, it rests on the One who lies in a manger, dies on a cross, and empties a tomb. Jesus has done all the work necessary to procure the ultimate spiritual fulfillment of salvation for you. That’s the news the angel offers these shepherds. And I, for one, happen to think that news is quite good.

My prayer for you, this Christmas, is that you think it’s good, too. And that you believe that this news is for you. For it is this news that makes Christmas merry and hope real.

December 23, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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.

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

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