Advent Meditations: 10 – Christmas Joy

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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 2:10-11

What is the joy of this season?    Is it Tradition?  Family?  Giving and receiving?

The thing about each of these, is that the joy of these things is something very temporal and easily lost.

If the joy of Christmas is family, then what about those who have no family?  Does this season hold no joy for them?

If the joy of Christmas is tradition, then what is there for those who have suffered loss of loved ones – or even of financial resources?  For them, Christmas will be pure pain.
If the joy of Christmas is tied to traditions: decorating a house, eating certain foods, doing certain things – then if those things are no longer possible, because you had to give up the house, or because a family member passed away, or any other reason, then Christmas will not be a time of joy, but of pain and heartache.

If the joy of Christmas is in giving and receiving, then once again, what about those who have nothing to give and/or no one to receive from?  If the joy of Christmas is in giving and receiving, then Christmas brings loneliness and shame rather than joy.

These things are what are commonly held by many people to be the joys of Christmas, but let me tell you: these should not be – they cannot be – the wellspring of joy that Christmas brings, because it is only a matter of time, before all of these things run dry…and make Christmas a time of pain and bitter longing rather than life-giving joy.

What is the true joy of Christmas?  It is this: A Savior is born to you, who is Christ the Lord.

One of the verses in the Bible that I find most moving is Matthew 1:21:

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins – Matthew 1:21

This is the joy of Christmas: that though you were lost, God pursued you and found you!   That though you were without hope, God came near to you to give you hope that extends beyond the grave!  That though you were destined for darkness and death, God broke into time and space to bring you light and life!

That is a joy that doesn’t disappear when financial resources dry up!  That is a joy that doesn’t grow dimmer as loved ones pass away – but rather grows all the more vibrant and beautiful!

May this be the joy of Christmas for you!

And may we not teach our children, whether in word or in deed, to find the joy of Christmas primarily in tradition or in giving or receiving, or even in family – but in the hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

Advent Meditations: 9 – No Room at the Inn

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn – Luke 2:7

It is striking how many details came together at the birth of Jesus; so many separate strands came together at one time and place to prepare the perfect setting for his coming – political movements, an empire-wide census which brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, a star in the sky which directed Magi to Bethlehem.

The coming of Jesus into the world happened at a time and in a way that we can clearly see was providentially directed by and planned by God.

Don’t you think then, that the God who can align the stars, the God who can bring down and raise up political leaders, the God who can coordinate a census at just the right time, so that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, according to the prophecy… don’t you think that such a sovereign God could have also seen to it that there be an available guest room in Bethlehem for the burgeoning family to stay in?

Of course He could have. But He didn’t.

You see, it isn’t a question of what God could have done, it’s a question of what God willed to do.  (The same is true in our lives, by the way).

God could have made sure there was a place at the inn. God could have brought Jesus into the world in a wealthy family.  But what God willed to do was to have Jesus come into the world through a poor family in an unclean place.

Why?   It was for your sake.   For your sake He became poor, that through Him you might become rich – with a wealth beyond material riches. The kind of wealth that can never be taken from you, that moth and rust cannot destroy, that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you (1 Peter 1:4).

Jesus’ mission didn’t begin only in his 30th year. No, the road to Calvary began in Bethlehem, in the barn, where the Holy One came into the world in the midst of uncleanness…    What a picture of the incarnation that is.

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. – 2 Corinthians 8:9

 

Advent Meditations: 8 – Jesus Was a Refugee

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behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. – Matthew 2:13-15

I remember the first time I heard the words: I was 19 years old and worked with refugees in Hungary. We had organized a retreat, in which we took some of the refugees who attended the Bible studies we held at different refugee camps around the country to a “retreat center” in the Buda hills – if you could legitimately call that place a retreat center. It was pretty rough – but at least a step up from conditions at the refugee camps, which were former Russian army bases and workers camps which had been converted into shelters for thousands of refugees from Asia, Africa and the Balkan Peninsula.

A pastor from Oregon who had a heart for refugee ministry had come out for the weekend-long event. That first evening, as we sat down for Bible study, he began with these words: “Jesus was a refugee too.”

Jesus was a refugee too.

I had always known the story found in Matthew’s Gospel, of how, after Jesus was born, Herod the Great had ordered that all baby boys in Bethlehem under 2 years old be put to death, so that the one who had reportedly been born King of the Jews would not threaten his power. Having been tipped off to Herod’s plans, Joseph took his wife Mary and the young Jesus and fled by night to Egypt… where they stayed until Herod died.

No one is quite sure how long Jesus stayed in Egypt, but tradition says it was somewhere between 4-8 years. Jesus spent his early childhood, as a refugee, fleeing a murderous regime…

In fact, part of the mentality that the Jewish people were instructed to have in the Old Testament, was that they had once been “sojourners” (what we would call “refugees” or “migrants”) and therefore they should show love, mercy and kindness to foreigners (refugees and migrants) in their land.

Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. – Deuteronomy 10:19

King David was also at one point a refugee. In 1 Samuel 27 David was being targeted for assassination by a murderous King Saul. Ironically, the Philistines treated David better than the people of Israel did.

But here’s the point: part of the Christmas story is that when God became a man, he could have chosen to be born in comfort and to live a life of ease, but he didn’t. He chose to be born in a barn, to a teenage girl and a construction worker. He chose to become a refugee – to live in exile, despised and held in suspicion, treated as outsiders by those in the country they took refugee in.

Why?  So that he could relate to the poor.  So that he could even relate to the refugees.

When that pastor at our refugee retreat opened with those words: “Jesus was a refugee too,” suddenly he had everyone’s attention – and everyone wanted to know about this God, this Savior, who would become just like THEM. Who understood them, who could empathized with them, and who loved THEM.

Here’s the message of Christmas:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. – 2 Corinthians 8:9

Loving the sojourner in your land: a great (and biblical!) way to celebrate Christmas this year.

 

Advent Meditations: 7 – Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

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When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. – Matthew 2:10-11

The wise men, the Magi from the east, came to visit the newborn King of the Jews, because they saw his star in the sky and came “to worship him” (Matthew 2:2).

They brought him 3 gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. We all know what gold is, but what are frankincense and myrrh, and what was their significance as gifts for a newborn king?

Both frankincense and myrrh are resins made from dried tree sap – certainly lacking the glamour of gold – but both were rare and expensive in their own right, as the trees which they are made from are found in the Horn of Africa and the coast of the Arabian Peninsula.

Frankincense was an aromatic incense that was burned by the priests in the temple, and is still used in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox mass.

Myrrh was used as an ointment for treating wounds and one of its main uses was in the burial process – it was a kind of ancient embalming fluid. 

Kind of a weird thing to give to a baby though, don’t you think?  It’s not something you can pick up at Babies R’ Us!   It’s not something you normally bring to a baby shower!  “Oh, look: onesies and a baby bumper for the crib – and oh, a prepaid funeral and embalming.  A casket…    That is practical – and kind of inappropriate…  Thanks…I guess.”

Somehow these Wise Men understood that the reason this King, Jesus, had come, was to be wounded and to lay down his life – that his life would be a sacrifice.

He was born to die, so that we might live.

And just as they brought their gifts to the newborn king to recognize his rule and authority over them – the same is done today. The ways we express that Jesus is king over us is by bringing gifts similar to those which the Magi brought to Jesus.

They brought him Gold — we also express that Jesus is Lord over us by giving to Him of our financial resources.

They brought him Frankincense. In the Old Testament temple, frankincense was a symbol of the prayers and worship offered up to God, which rise up to the Lord and are a sweet-smelling aroma to Him. Another way we recognize the Lordship of Jesus is by praying and singing songs of praise.

And Myrrh: the symbol of death.  We recognize and declare Jesus to be King over us as we take communion and acknowledge what He did for us on the Cross, by dying in our place for our sins.

Be a wise man – or woman – and honor Jesus as your king by giving these gifts yourself this Advent season, and beyond.

Advent Meditations: 6 – Giving Gifts to God

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When it comes to Christmas, there is a joy that comes with giving and receiving. As children we tend to revel more in the receiving than the giving, and as we grow into maturity, we learn that as Jesus said: It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).

Where does the tradition of Christmas gifts come from?

Yesterday was December 6, on which, in some parts of the world, the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas is celebrated. Nicholas was a Christian man, who was famous for his generosity to the poor and needy. Read more about him here. Yet, it was not first from Nicholas of Myra (St. Nick) that the tradition of giving Christmas gifts derives.

Some have suggested that the tradition comes from the fact that on Christmas, God gave us the greatest gift possible: Himself, the Redeemer, come to save us from our sins.

you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins – Matthew 1:21

Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! – 2 Corinthians 9:15

Yet, it seems that the tradition of giving Christmas gifts comes from the “wise men” from the east who came to Jesus and presented the child king with three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.   I’ll talk about the significance of these in my next post, but for now, I’d like to focus on this: the tradition of giving gifts goes back to people who came to give gifts to Jesus.

It would be presumptuous to think that God needs our gifts. Furthermore, the message of the Gospel is that our relationship with God is based on what He has done for us (grace), not on what we do for him.

So then, what is the place of giving gifts to God?

When you give gifts to God, whether of your finances, your time or something else, you are saying: “I have come to you not for what you can give me, but for the sake of you yourself.The joy that I seek is not the hope of you giving me things, but the joy of knowing you, and I seek to enjoy you even more by giving up things which have value to me, to express my love, devotion, thankfulness and commitment to finding my joy all the more in you and not in these things.”

As you give gifts this Christmas season, remember to give to God – not to earn his favor, but to train your heart and express with your life that He alone can satisfy your heart, not any material things.

 

Advent Meditations: 5 – The Model for Missions

As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. – John 17:18

“Christmas is a model for missions and missions are a reflection of Christmas.” – John Piper

The meaning of Christmas is the mission of God: a God who loves and cares so much, that He left Heaven to come and reach out to us with love and truth.

Christmas is a model for missions: God was so moved by love and the conviction that there is something better for us which we desperately need, that He left what was comfortable to Him and at great expense to Himself, came to us, to speak to us in our language, on our level. That is the model of Christian mission both locally and cross-culturally.

Christian mission is a reflection of Christmas: by going out in mission we are imitating our Father and our Lord. We are doing for others what He did for us, albeit obviously not on the same scale.

The purpose of Christmas is joy. God gave us His comfort, that we might have JOY. What a gift!  What a sacrifice, and what love it is that motivates such a sacrifice for the sake of others – others who do not always (or perhaps often) reciprocate that love.

these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. – John 17:13

Not only is the purpose of Christmas joy, but the purpose of Christian mission is joy!   Joy for those who come to know the love of God BUT ALSO: joy for those who participate in the mission.

We were made for mission, and we will only know true joy when we get on board with the one ultimate mission: the only mission which has significance beyond this life and even this world: the mission of God to bring salvation to the world. It is in this mission that we can be truly fulfilled and that is a fountain of joy.

 

Advent Meditations: 4 – Set Free

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Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. – Hebrews 2:14-15

Last night I was at the hospital with the family and close friends of a woman who was passing on from this life. She was a wonderful wife, mother and friend, and she will be dearly missed.

But although she has passed from this life, she is not dead – she is alive and we will see her again.

That is the hope of the Gospel, and she and her husband believe and embrace the Gospel.

The verse above sums up the significance of Christmas more succinctly and clearly than almost any other passage in the Bible: because we, God’s children, are flesh and blood, HE took on flesh and blood, that through his death, he might destroy death and the devil and set us free from bondage to the fear of death.

The reason Jesus was born was so he could die. God became a man, because as God he could not die, but as a man he could. Therefore, he had to become human. Good Friday is the reason for Christmas.

Because of his death, we are set free from the power of death, and therefore we can be free of the fear of death. Our ultimate security has an immediate affect on our lives. The happy ending takes away the slavery to fear in the here and now.

When you no longer fear the last and greatest enemy: death, then you are truly free to live a bold, courageous life of pursuing things that really matter and giving of yourself radically in a way that makes a difference in the lives of others and the world, because you have nothing to lose.

Live in that freedom today.

Advent Meditations: 3 – Paradoxes and Promises

In an article for Christianity Today, Michael Horton began with a captivating introduction:

“It was confusing to grow up singing both ‘This World is Not My Home’ and ‘This is My Father’s World.’ Those hymns embody two common and seemingly contradictory Christian views of the world.” One sees this world as a wasteland of godlessness, with which the Christian should have as little possible to do. The other regards the world as part of God’s good creation to be enjoyed and redeemed.

Which is correct? Well, to some degree both.

Here’s another one for you: God is sovereign, yet “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” (1 John 5:19)

Which one is true? Is God sovereign, or is the whole world under the power of the evil one?  It would seem that the answer is: both.

These are paradoxes, things which seem that they should be mutually exclusive or contradictory, but yet both are true at the same time: this world is part of God’s good creation for us to enjoy and redeem AND this world is a fallen broken place, which is not our home, and from which we long to be set free. God is sovereign; God is in heaven and He does all that He wants (Psalm 115:3), AND the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.

Yesterday I watched the news unfold as multiple shooters entered a holiday party in San Bernardino, California at a center for people with disabilities and proceeded to open fire, killing 14 and wounding 17 more. And like most people, my response was a mixture of grief, sadness and exasperation that events like this have become so commonplace in our country and in our world.

At times like this it’s easy to believe that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one, and perhaps harder to believe that God is sovereign over all things. When you see the reports that there have been more mass shootings in the United States than days this year, it’s easy to conclude that this world is a dark place from which we hope to escape – and it’s harder to believe that the world is beautiful and good and that our focus should be on redeeming it for the flourishing of people to the glory of God. And yet, both are true.

These paradoxical statements are at the same time promises. And the hope of Advent is that the true light which gives life to all people has come into the world, and the darkness has not – and will not – overcome it.

Both sides of these paradoxes are true. Both sides of these paradoxes are promises – but only because of Christmas! Only because God became a man in order to redeem us can we have confidence that our redemption is nigh, and that though the darkness is real, the new day will soon dawn and the darkness will be fully abolished.

Advent Meditations: 2 – The Dawn

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The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. – John 1:9

One of the greatest metaphors the Bible uses to describe where we are at currently in the big picture of human history is: Dawn.

Dawn is an interesting time; dawn is where the night and the day exist simultaneously in the same space, yet neither in full force.

At dawn, the darkness is broken by the light, but it is still dark… but not as dark as it used to be. However, even though light has come, the light is not yet present in its full form, because although the light has appeared, it has not yet broken over the horizon to fully dispel the darkness.

Peter expressly uses this metaphor of dawn in his second letter:

we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. – 2 Peter 1:19

Jesus is called “the morning star.”  The “star” known as the morning star is actually not a star, but the planet Venus. The reason it’s called the morning star is because it is the last “star” that is visible in the sky once the dawn has begun.

What Christmas means is that the true light has come into the world and the dawn has begun. The beginning of dawn is an irreversible moment, and it is only a matter of time before the sun breaks over the horizon and totally dispels the darkness, bringing about the full light of day.

For our world, covered in the shroud of darkness, a darkness which permeates our very hearts, the message is clear: with the coming of Jesus Christ in to the world, the dawn has begun. The darkness has been broken. And while it is still present, it is no longer in full force. And while the light is neither yet in full force, it is a matter of time before the new day fully dawns and the darkness is abolished and fully overcome by the light.

Christmas is the death knell of the darkness. Look to the morning star and see that the dawn has begun!

Advent Meditations: 1 – An Indictment

For the season of Advent, I’m going to try to share several devotional thoughts over the course of the next few weeks.

Advent is First an Indictment

The word Advent comes from the Latin: Adventus Dominum – “the coming of God”. It is a time when we focus on how God came into our world in the person of Jesus Christ.

My favorite place to begin in the story of Jesus is the first chapter of the Gospel of John. John’s Gospel is different than the others in that John begins his account of Jesus BEFORE Christmas – in eternity past.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

However, where John is similar to the other Gospel writers is that before he talks about Jesus, he talks about John the Baptist (or “J the B” as I like to call him).

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. (John 1:6-8)

Why is John the Baptist an important part of the Advent story?  Because the first important thing to know about Christmas is that Advent is an indictment before it is a joy. The very fact that God had to come into this world to save us, shows what dire straights we are in.

J the B came to prepare the hearts of the people for the coming of the Savior. And how did he do it? By calling people to confess their utter sinfulness, and acknowledge their desperate need for a salvation which they were unable to attain for themselves.

We cannot fully appreciate the joy of Christmas until we first come to terms with WHY Jesus had to come: because we all desperately need a Savior and our plight is so serious that none other than God Himself would be capable of meeting that need.

The hard fact is that Advent is an indictment: that your condition is so dire that GOD had to die for you, in order to save you.
The Good News of Advent is that God was glad to die for you, in order to save you.