Christmas Wish List

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Remember Christmases when you were a child? Remember the weeks or days leading up to the grand moment and all the anticipation that swelled in your childish heart—anticipation of presents galore? A lot of it had to do with the pictures planted into our minds by the T.V. commercials of the day.

My anticipation always grew to staggering proportions every December. One year my wish list contained the most realistic newborn-sized doll on the market. I wanted that toy badly. I wrote to ‘Santa’—a jolly man with a perfectly white beard who appeared on a seasonal show and answered letters written to the address he’d provided. One of the dozens of letters Santa selected was mine. He read my childish scrawl, assured his watchers that Santa always gives good children what they want, and sure enough my doll appeared in the mail some days later.

I loved that doll for months—until the next round of commercials drew my attention to the newest toys on the market. And so the cycle continued. I always knew I wanted something, but each year’s pick provided fleeting satisfaction. Perhaps you have your own stories of wish lists from Christmases past. Perhaps your longings were for other things: for daddy to come home and live with the family again, or for the bullies at school to leave you alone. Many wish list items remained just unfulfilled dreams.

The Old Testament book of Isaiah speaks of a dream God has had for each of us—God’s wish list published to whet our appetite for the gift to end all gifts. “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights,” Isaiah quotes God as saying. He was offering the current king of Judah to ask for a sign that would prove God’s interest in people’s lives. The weak-kneed fearful regent refused the offer, believing that nothing could save him from his current problem, the besieging armies that stood on the doorstep of his poorly protected city Jerusalem.

“Listen up, you lily-livered leader!” replied the incensed prophet. “It’s not enough you try the patience of your subjects with your spineless superintendence of the country. Will you also try the patience of God? God has a sign for you, whether you are aware of your need for one or not!” (Isaiah 7:13, paraphrased).

Isaiah moved back into quoting God, “The virgin will be with child, and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14, NIV). With these words, God gives a clue to the greatest item ever to grace Christmas wish lists, fill stockings or adorn trees. It was a promise and a riddle wrapped in a ribbon that would take eight centuries to unravel. God was speaking not only to the inept ruler Ahaz. He was speaking to you and to me too.

He was explaining that of all the hopes, wishes and solutions to problems that promise to satisfy our yearnings, only one would truly fill the gap. Only Immanuel—God with us could be the wish list item to end all wish lists. Immanuel would describe the one unique baby who would enter this world’s landscape, who would be God Himself living among us. Neither time nor death would keep Him from accomplishing His purpose—to be forever with us.

The first Christmas morning would begin centuries of generations reflecting on God’s great gift of Jesus—of God intimately with us for eternity. All wish lists pale in comparison to the gift of relationship Christ offers those who want Him to be Lord of their lives. The life that flows through Him becomes an eternal life, which He offers to those—to you and to me—who embrace His presence.

Immanuel. Immanuel. Wonderful Counselor! Lord of Life, Lord of all! He is the Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Holy One. Immanuel. Immanuel!

 

(Photo Credit: By Genealogyphotos on Flickr – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8803906)

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Twenty-eight Days with Jesus, Day 4

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OBEDIENT.

“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit,” documents Matthew in his fourth chapter of the gospel named after him. We’ve encountered Jesus a chapter earlier explaining His life purpose to the sage, John, that He must “fulfill all righteousness.” There He was active and intentional. The integrity that would come to characterize everything we know about this amazing Man was first revealed there.

But now we see Jesus allowing Himself to be led. This is an important concept, and Matthew does not flinch from recording it. To be led is to follow the direction and orders of another. It is to deliberately put oneself at the mercy of another’s plans, to fulfill their purposes for you. This is what Jesus did.

Now, we ought to take note that His obedience was not a weak passivity that allowed Himself to be used by any and all. His obedience was focused wholly on the Father’s will as communicated to Him by the Holy Spirit. He was purposing to accomplish the task that He, as one of the three members of the triune God, had determined before time needed to be accomplished.

But His role of Immanuel, God with us in the flesh, meant that this determination to fulfill what He intended would come crashing head first against a barrier. He would need to personally experience the daunting interference of the devil—fallen angel, disobedient messenger and tempter of humans.

The ‘temptation of Jesus’, as recorded here in Matthew’s account is famous. We know the devil presents to Jesus three opportunities for a quick fix for Jesus’ situation as earthbound God-man: the tempter points out that stones could become warm bread at a word from the fasting Jesus—why should the Son of God (said with a sneer) be hungry? He then challenges Jesus to fling Himself off the peak of the temple of Jerusalem whereupon obedient angels would surely rescue Him—why should His minions not serve the Son of God? Satan’s grand finale is to offer Jesus the wealth and splendor of the world’s kingdoms if only Jesus would worship him for a moment—why should the creator of all not enjoy the wealth of His creation?

Yet Jesus is not daunted. He walks through barriers with an ease that belies the strength it takes to remain obedient to a true cause when every voice seems to point the other way. His answers to the tempter reflect His commitment to obey His Father, Truth itself. He points back to the Word of God, truths and commands recorded in Scriptures. And with that, the devil sullenly leaves Him.

C.S. Lewis offers us a useful thought on what this temptation would have meant for Jesus: “A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness — they have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist.”

So as we observe Jesus in this record of the devil’s attempt to tempt Him, we may recognize the epiphany we’ve been given. It’s a two-fold revelation. It’s an epiphany in terms of it revealing a moment when ‘you suddenly feel you understand or become conscious of something that is very important to you’ (credit to Cambridge Dictionaries Online for this definition). We realize that even when we are weakened by the strongest reasons tempting us to disown Him, the strength to remain true to God is accessible to us through Jesus’ own strength living in us. There is no temptation that is beyond Christ’s ability to help us spurn. Because of His obedience, we can be obedient too.

And secondly, it’s an epiphany in the more literal sense: a manifestation of the divine nature of Christ there in the dust and dirt of life on troubled planet earth. It wasn’t the end of the story, though. The writer of another segment of Scripture tells us about the attitude of Jesus, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

That is what obedience results in when rightly placed. This is Jesus. And this is what God wants for us.

(Photo Credit: “Jules Guérin. The Wilderness of Judea . 1910” by Jules Guérin (1866-1946)Book author: Robert Smythe Hichens – Robert Smythe Hichens, The Holy Land, 1910 p.175. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jules_Gu%C3%A9rin._The_Wilderness_of_Judea_._1910.jpg#/media/File:Jules_Gu%C3%A9rin._The_Wilderness_of_Judea_._1910.jpg)

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus

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Day 1: Riddle Explained

We all love a riddle. Author J.R.R. Tolkien gives us one in the story of The Hobbit when Bilbo Baggins and Gollum contend in a battle of wits. “Thirty white horses on a red hill,” begins Bilbo, “first they champ, then they stamp, then they stand still.”

The answer is teeth.

Riddling goes back a long way. Norse mythology included riddles such as this: “Four hang, four sprang, two point the way, two to ward off dogs, one dangles after, always rather dirty. What am I?” Familiarity with a more agricultural environment might help with this one. The answer is: a cow.

There are riddles in the Bible too. Samson’s riddle (“Out of the eater something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet”—answer: honey from a honeycomb built in the carcass of a dead lion), posed to his Philistine wedding party, became the unhappy cause of the failure of his new marriage. But only one riddle has had the power to change the story of earth and its inhabitants for unimaginable good.

Isaiah, prophet of the eighth century B.C., spoke of a “sign” that would signal God’s plan to bring freedom to earth’s inhabitants. “The virgin will be with child,” he began, “and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Many of us have heard this riddle so often it fails to carry the impact it would have had to those first listeners. There are two puzzling situations described: a pregnant virgin, and a child called “God” (Immanuel meaning “God with us”).

In the opening verses of Matthew’s account of the life and times of Jesus, this ancient riddle is remembered. The virgin is a girl named Mary. The embryo growing in her womb is not only a product of chromosomes contributed by the Holy Spirit, but the baby boy is God Himself, come in the flesh to experience humanity firsthand. The riddle is explained after eight hundred years.

But even in the first scene of Matthew’s gospel account of the life and times of Jesus a new riddle is announced. It is delivered to Joseph, the young man who will take Mary home as his wife, fully knowing of her pregnant condition and trusting she is still a virgin. This riddle is meant to console him, no doubt. It’s not the fairy-tale beginning of a marriage he had imagined when he first dreamed of wedding this girl. Joseph’s plans have been sidelined by God’s bigger plan for Joseph’s role as husband and foster father. Joseph is directed to prepare to name the baby boy ‘Yeshua’ (‘Jesus’ in English) because the name means ‘the LORD saves’—“because he will save his people from their sins.”

This is the riddle that concerns us today. Day One of coming alongside the earthly life of Jesus finds every one of us transported into the midst of the riddle concerning Him. We are the people. Every person is an integral part of the race of humanity created by God, and according to the riddle we need to be saved. We are on some downward spiral to destruction apart from what Jesus came to accomplish for us.

Subsequent days of exploring Matthew’s biography of Jesus will show us more—will help us observe what is recorded about Jesus’ life, show us how He lived, tell us what He actually said. Why are we interested? Because those who discover the truth behind the best of riddles have gained wisdom that is of great value in life; the riddle concerning Jesus and us is no ordinary riddle.

Jesus, grant us the grace to understand the riddle of your intentions for us, we the people You have created. Enable us to have hearts fully open to grasping the truth of your life; give us minds open to insight into our own situation of needing to be saved. We call on You to inhabit our twenty-eight day journey alongside You. Amen.

(Photo Credit: “Laughing Boy” by Josh Giovo from USA – Little Bugger. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Laughing_Boy.jpg#/media/File:Laughing_Boy.jpg)

EASTER LOVE-WORK, Part 3

Recognizing Peace

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Worldwide, it’s the Passion Week. Something about this week leading up to Easter resonates deeply with the souls of many people. Some may not know even why. Movie producers have provided the film ‘Son of God’ in anticipation of this week. We recognize that there is something otherworldly going on, but we’re not entirely sure what it is. Who is this Jesus? Why can’t people just let His story die?

Following the exultant shouts of Hosanna with which the people welcome Jesus that first Palm Sunday, He continues to climb the path toward Jerusalem. He knows the people are ecstatic today. He rejoices with them. But He knows more than that; He knows the crux of their passion. He knows the soul of their nation and the heart of their city Jerusalem, and it saddens Him. Luke 19:41-44 gives us a glimpse of how Jesus sees the situation as He prepares to enter the apex of His ministry.

“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

We’re told Jesus weeps as he says this. He is saddened because the people He has created have been blind to their Creator. He wants them to have real peace—not just freedom from the superficial bondage uppermost in their minds—but freedom from sin’s deadly effects. They refuse to see this though. They refuse to recognize that He, Jesus, is God come to them.

Remember how the prophecy of His birth had given Him the title of Immanuel–God with us? Now, as Jesus prepares for the task that will secure the ransom for all people, He sadly reflects on how few will accept it. Most will reject it. They will not acknowledge their need for that kind of peace. The truest expression of freedom that the hosanna-crying crowd has grasped is merely political. They have failed to understand their own eternal soul.

It’s easier to say ‘they’ than ‘we’, isn’t it? It’s easier to point the finger and be appalled at the foolishness or shallowness of others than to look inward, don’t you think? Maybe Jesus isn’t only talking to the inhabitants of Jerusalem here. Maybe He’s not just weeping at the thought of what they have missed. Maybe He’s weeping over you and me. Maybe He’s looking across the millennia, beyond empires and seeing you and me. He’s got your face and mine in mind as He looks toward the place where He will sacrifice His life to make eternal life available for us. Our souls are foremost in His thoughts as He mourns our self-imposed condition.

Is there any hope for people like us who haven’t recognized real peace when it’s been dropped in their laps?

Yes! A resounding Yes! It’s only a prayer away. Regardless of where we’ve been spiritually, we can begin to recognize the Giver of peace. We are invited to humbly call out His name, “Jesus”. We can ask Him to reveal Himself to our deepest core where we can respond “yes” to His question, “Do you want my peace?”

Easter is happening now. Let’s step up to the most expansive invitation ever offered humankind. Then we will never have to say, “If I had only known…”

(Photo Credit: Son of God film by 20th Century Fox)

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=WcIXCok9HPg#t=8

CHRISTMAS THOUGHTS 2013, Part 1

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Long-Unanswered Prayer (Luke 1:5-25)

Some prayers are barely out of our lips and the answer comes. I remember perching atop our aged chestnut gelding one snowy day, thinking we’d go for a walk around the neighbourhood. We had hardly left the yard when old ‘Fair-O’ was spooked by something: perhaps it was a car speeding by, a dog barking, or a garbage can too close to the roadside. In any event, my mount was feeling skittish and began to sidestep toward the snow-covered ditch. In a flash I envisioned him slipping into the meter-deep trench crushing me beneath his heavy sides, flailing hooves bruising my soft tissues.

“O God, help…” I breathed. And like a frame on a filmstrip the danger was past. We were back on steady hooves and solid ground as if it had never happened.

Some prayers, though, seem to fall on deaf ears. They hound us for years, never fully leaving our conscious minds, pleas for help that seem to go unanswered. The story of the first Christmas begins with such a tale; a story of long-unanswered prayer.

The pungent aroma rising from incense tickles the nose of the grey-bearded priest. Lit by the centuries-old oil-burning lampstand, the enclosed space is pungent with the history of God’s presence. Beyond the cedar walls the old man hears the assembled worshipers beginning to pray that God would be present to accept the offering. Zechariah, lying prostrate on the ground in prayer, suddenly sees a pair of feet before him. He lifts his eyes in speechless wonder. This is no natural man standing before him. With a shudder he squeezes his eyes shut. Perhaps the stinging incense has caused him to see visions.

“Don’t be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard” the angel explains. Yes, the Lord hears the corporate prayers of His people, thinks the old man; the incense is acceptable.

“Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name Jochanan (John). He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.”

What? His wife become pregnant? Her aged body finally bearing the fruit they had longed for all these many years? Impossible! And yet, Yahweh remembers. Zechariah’s own name, given to him by his father, is a testament to that. Yahweh is gracious. Could it be? Is the long-unanswered prayer finally becoming a reality?

Emerging from the Holy Place, Zechariah looks wonderingly at the assembly of praying people. They are awaiting the ritual blessing he, the priest, is to voice. But he is speechless. He has heard the pronouncement of God. The prayer of an old man is finally to be answered and it will be far greater than he ever imagined in his wildest dreams. God’s timing will dovetail the birth of this child with the birth of another Child, the Messiah. Jochanan will prepare these people for Immanuel.

Like Zechariah, we praying folk sometimes become jaded with certain of our prayers. We’ve prayed them so long we no longer imagine them answerable. Yet God’s ways take everything into account and bring answers at just the right time, in just the right way; His time, and His way. Let’s trust Him for that. Let’s receive what He plans for us with hearts open in wonder. The season of God’s answers always follow the season of our prayers.