It’s been a long year.
January and February were running along as usual, plans were being made, trips planned, and celebrations rehearsed - and then COVID-19 hit – and everything ground to a halt. I barely remember March. We sent the entire campus home to finish the semester online, as our state and nation moved from crisis, to quarantine, to lockdown. Since then we have lived through a 2nd and 3rd wave, and now prospects of a vaccine grow with each passing day. It seems like 2020 has already lasted 18 months.
And as hard as it is to believe, Advent is just around the corner. But this year’s Advent Season will be as different as this year’s Summer Break. Shopping will be different, celebrations will be different, and travel plans will be different. It will all still happen – but it will just all be different. But before we get caught up in all the tinsel and tags and boxes and bags of another holiday season – let’s pause and reflect on what is most important during this “most wonderful time of the year.”
But how does reflection work if you can barely remember part of the year?
I would suggest by remembering what hasn’t changed and isn’t different about this year. By remembering that Advent isn’t about getting presents, attending parties, or going to Disneyworld. By remembering that Advent is about celebrating that moment in time, when time was full, and God chose to enter our world. To take on flesh and live in our skin and walk in our shoes. To show us what life in the Kingdom and the Kingdom life look like.
So, close your eyes, take a deep breath...
The house lights go off and the footlights come on. Even the chattiest stop chattering as they wait in darkness for the curtain to rise. In the orchestra pit, the violin bows are poised. The conductor has raised his baton. In the silence of a midwinter dusk, there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen. You walk up the steps to the front door. The empty windows at either side of it tell you nothing, or almost nothing. For a second you catch a whiff of some fragrance that reminds you of a place you’ve never been and a time you have no words for. You are aware of the beating of your heart…The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. - (Frederick Buechner)
Advent is the name of that moment.
Praying with, and for, you all,
Jon S. Kulaga, Ph.D.
Ohio Christian University
The Midnight Journey
“... he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt... that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” — Matthew 2:14-15
Matthew is the only gospel writer that tells the story of the late-night flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus. And in the middle of that story, Matthew drops in an obscure passage from Hosea (1:11), seemingly to stretch the narrative to say that this Midnight Escape was a direct fulfillment of a specific Messianic verse. The difficulty is that any plain reading of the text reveals it is about Israel’s captivity and eventual escape from Egypt.
Perhaps Matthew’s purpose requires a more careful look at the word “fulfill.”
The Greek word used for “fulfilled” is pleroō. And it simply means to” fill up”. Matthew is wanting to demonstrate to his Jewish readers that Jesus was “filling up” the Old Testament, not merely checking off Messianic prophecy boxes. Jesus is bringing the fullness of the Old Testament that had been hidden in shadows for centuries, into the light. For example, in the Gospel of Mark we read that, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” (Mark 1:14-15). In this passage Jesus is saying “the time has been filled up and the kingdom is here, right now, with Me. The Old Testament is reaching its climax.”
In a similar way, Matthew wasn’t saying that Jesus’s flight to Egypt was predicted in Book of Hosea. He is saying Jesus’s flight to, and return from, Egypt was “filling up” the Hosea prophecy. Matthew is communicating to his Jewish audience that Jesus is filling up the redemptive historical purposes of the nation of Israel. Jesus, the faithful Son called out of Egypt, is filling up what was lacking in the first faithless son, Israel. Jesus was identifying himself with the covenant people.
Jesus came not only to “fill up” the Old Testament, He also came to fulfill the Law.
This can be seen most clearly in the difference between the ethic of Jesus and the ethic of the Pharisees. The Pharisees had an ethic of ritual, focusing on externals, whereas Jesus had an ethic of the heart, of the heart's inner workings. The Pharisees were concerned about not committing adultery, while Jesus was concerned about lust, the root of adultery. The deeper difference between Jesus’s ethic and that of the Pharisees was this: the Pharisees had an ethic of avoidance, and Jesus had an ethic of involvement. The Pharisees question was not “How can I make others clean?” Their only concern was “How can I keep myself from getting dirty?” This eventually degenerated into a concern not with God, but with self-image and reputation.
Jesus, in sharp contrast, got involved. He sought always and, in all ways, to help, to heal, to save, to restore. Too often we define Christianity by our “emptiness”, rather than by our “filledness.” By that I mean we define our Christianity by what we don't do; as someone who doesn't smoke or doesn't drink. Of course, I'm not suggesting a Christian does these things, but it's tragic that we instinctively define our faith by what we are not; by what we avoid.
But a definition based solely on what we avoid is a definition of “emptiness.”
In Matthew 25 Christ divides the sheep and the goats. How does He tell them apart? He does not identify his disciples as those who didn't drink and didn't chew and didn't go with girls who do. What he says is: I came to you naked and you clothed me, I came to you hungry and you fed me, I was in prison and you visited me.
We are to be known by what fills us, our fruit, not by our lack of tree fungus.
The only way to get rid of emptiness – is to fill it with something.
How will you be filling up Christmas this year?
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” — Hosea 11:1
The Gift Before the Gift
“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.” — Matthew 2:10
When we think of Christmas, we naturally think of God giving his Son to the world. And, in those moments, we are right to remember John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son...” Perhaps the perfect Christmas verse, this simple verse forms and informs the philosophical foundation for Christmas. It’s the entire Christmas and Easter story in one short phrase. It tells us WHAT God did for us, and it tells us WHY He did it.
But thirty years before there was a John 3:16, there was a Colossians 1:16. “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.”
Before Christ became the gift to the world — we were God’s gift to Christ.
And John echoes the words of Colossians when he begins his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” — John 1:1-3
Three words. In the beginning.
When Matthew was writing his gospel for his Jewish audience, he traced Jesus’s lineage back to Abraham. Luke, writing his gospel mainly for a Gentile audience, traced Jesus’s lineage back to Adam. But John traced Jesus’s lineage all the way back to the time before there was time — to the very pre-existence of the Trinitarian Godhead. “In the beginning” (John 1:1) — the very same phrase as Genesis 1:1.
In other words, before Christ came to earth as God’s sacrificial “gift” to humanity — we, along with all of creation — were gifts for Him. God didn’t give Jesus to the world at Christmas time for us to use him and do something with.
God gave the world — and us — to Jesus so he could do something with it that would bring His Father Glory.
Christmas is a time for giving. We celebrate the prophets and their giving us promises of a coming Messiah. Elizabeth gave her praise. Mary gave her body. Joseph gave his reputation when he stood tall and defended his young wife. The innkeeper gave his stable. The shepherds gave their time.
But in order for us to fully enter into the Advent experience and celebrate it for all its worth and meaning, we must become the first gift. We must be the gift before THE gift. We must surrender to him. We must detach ourselves from all the “created things” that surround this Season, because if we don’t, we will end up seeing all these things as oriented toward ourselves. We become the End.
But we are not the ones who give things meaning. Only God can give things meaning. As we gift ourselves to Him, our lives reflect the truth that Christ is the end and source of all meaning,
Three more words. Without. Him. Nothing. (John 1:3)
Without gifting ourselves to Him, we will accomplish nothing.
Without joining HIS-story, our story will have no ultimate meaning.
He is what gives our journey its ultimate purpose.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart. — Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)
He can take our mess — and make it into a message.
He can take our pain — and turn it into praise.
He can take our dying — and turn it into a resurrection.
And yes, God gave His Son.
But who should be the real gift this Christmas?
“What can I give the Lord for all that he has done for me?” — Psalm 116:2
The Waiting Room
“Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him.” — Luke 2:25
I hate waiting. I don’t go to amusement parks anymore, but if I did, I would be the target market for their “fast pass”, because I hate waiting in lines. I don’t do traffic jams very well either. Or TSA lines. Or, well, you get the picture.
Since I am not good at waiting — I would like to ask Simeon three questions.
Question #1 - Why are you still waiting?
The answer is found in the Bible’s description of Simeon. He is righteous and devout, full of the Holy Spirit. Which is to say, he was waiting on God because he believed God. God had told him he would not die until he saw the Messiah. And because he believes God is going to do what God said he was going to do – he is waiting.
Simeon is one of the only people in the Christmas story who find out about Jesus without a sign or miracle. Everybody else gets an angel, a heavenly host or a star. Simeon got no sign — just a word. And he took God at his word... and waited. Waiting is an expression of our faith in God.
How many miracles does God have to do for you, for you to take Him at His word?
Question #2 - How long have you been waiting?
All of us can wait a little while. A few minutes. Maybe a few days. Maybe a season. But what if there is no definite end? Scholars believe Simeon to be an old man, who had been waiting for the promised Messiah – for years. And Simeon new that it had been over 400 years since the last prophecy about the much-anticipated event (Micah 5:2), but he was still waiting.
When we wait for a long time, two things can happen. Doubt can start to creep in, and, we get tempted to take things into our own hands. The Bible is full of examples of people who got tired of waiting on God, began to doubt, took matters into their own hands... and things go really badly.
How long does God get before you fire Him?
But while Simeon was waiting God was working.
Consider what God had to do in order to fulfill one promise to just one of his followers. He had to open Elizabeth’s womb so that John the Baptist could react when Mary came to visit — as a sign to Mary. Then He had to send an angel to Joseph to reassure him. Then He had to put a tax census in the mind of Caesar Augustus to get Joseph and his very pregnant wife to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Then He had to foresee all of these scenarios hundreds of years earlier and create a Mosaic law that required parents to present their firstborn son to God (Exodus 13), just to get the young couple and their son up to the Temple, forty some days after His birth.
All of this so Simeon could see the Messiah before he dies.
In your waiting, God has not been sitting on the sideline – He is working.
Question #3 – What do you do while you are waiting?
What do I do when I am in the middle of a divine delay or a providential pause? The answer again is found in Scripture. Mary and Joseph went to the temple — and it was at the temple that they encounter Simeon (Luke 2:25-27). In other words, while Simeon was waiting, he was still worshipping.
In your season of waiting — have you stopped worshipping?
As we move through this Advent season, where we are anticipating and waiting for the day of Christ’s birth. Immanuel. God with Us. Let us also be sure that in our waiting, we haven’t stopped worshipping, because we know that He is working.
And just like Simeon, once you see the Christ — you will know His peace.
“I have seen the Christ – you can now dismiss your servant in peace... for my eyes have seen your salvation.” — Luke 2:29
Don't Just Do Something, Sit There
“But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
Americans are doers. Just look at our schedules, day-timers, planners, calendars, phones, computers and all the other devices and apps we have created to help us organize our time more efficiently and to keep us busy. Maximizing every minute with activity. We even have electronic devices that we strap around our wrists each morning to nudge us into walking and counting each step. The device doesn’t really discern — or care — whether I am hiking up a mountain trail or walking to a Krispy Kreme Donut Shop — it just wants me moving. Busy. Doing.
As a result of all this activity, time devoted to sitting and thinking has evaporated like the memory of a dream when the morning alarm goes off. Sitting and thinking can be viewed as idleness. Laziness. Perhaps even a waste of time. But that’s not what the experts say. Warren Buffett, the CEO of the fourth-largest company in the country, has estimated that he has spent 80 percent of his career reading and thinking.
Scripture’s word for all this mental activity is called pondering.
Driven by the legal obligations of the census, Mary and Joseph travel the 90 miles from Galilee to Bethlehem, and Mary delivers her son. That very evening they are visited by shepherds who were told of the baby’s miraculous birth by thousands of angels in the night sky. It had all come true. And then we are told, that “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). The word ponder, though, isn’t just thinking thoughts in your head. In fact, we are told Mary wasn’t spending time up in her head — she was pondering all these things in her heart.
After all the travel and all the travail, Mary paused. Smelled the hay. Looked up at the star. Listened to the animals heaving and lowing. And felt the warmth of her son’s cheek against her chest.
And she pondered.
So why is that important? Because pondering is an active process. It comes from two Greek words that mean to dispute with oneself, to argue or consult with yourself. Pondering is not some idle process of laying around and thinking random thoughts as they happen to pass across your mind. Pondering is the active process of taking in all that is happening and grappling with its implications.
After all the busyness of travel, childbirth and uninvited visitors, I am sure Joseph, having walked almost 100 miles, was asleep somewhere in the corner on a pile of hay. But Mary creates some inner space to listen to God, and Him alone. Without this space, listening becomes impossible as our life seems absurd – from the Latin surdus, meaning “deaf.” There, in the warmth of stable, Mary closes out the chaos of the last several hours and begins to shut the door to the internal chaos within — all the doubts, anxieties, joys, unresolved worries and fears.
Henri Nouwen writes, “as we empty ourselves of our many worries, we come to know not only with our mind, but also with our heart that we were never really alone... solitude allows us gradually to come in touch with the hopeful presence of God in our lives... and even the beginnings of the joy and peace which belong to the new heaven and the new earth”.
Take time today to treasure all that God has done for you in the past.
And all that He is doing today. Preserve it. Hold it close. Then take a few minutes to wrestle with what all that means for your day, your priorities, your values. Ponder what His gifts of grace, mercy, love and compassion mean for your future.
Be still and know, that while He is no longer in a manger, He is still on the throne.
“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6
All I Want for Christmas
“... and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Luke 2:14b
Christmas is the one time of year when it’s socially acceptable to let people know what you would like to receive as gifts AND to reasonably expect that those who are closest to you will actually go out and buy them for you. It’s also worth noting, as one who has been on the receiving end of those lists for quite a while, that when children are small, it’s not that hard to make them happy and it doesn’t cost that much. Sometimes it can even be the box that the toy came in that gets more attention than the toy!
However, as children grow up and progress into middle school, all they want for Christmas gets harder to find... and the price goes up. Then, when they move on to high school and later to college, the items on the list get harder to find and the price goes up... again. And as a parent, you soon find you have moved from Toys R Us to Target to Macy’s to the Apple Store.
But if you live long enough and grow up as you grow old, something completely different begins to happen. You realize that ‘all you want for Christmas’ can no longer be bought in a store. And the price is beyond the reach of any one’s budget. You find that while you can afford health insurance, you can’t always buy health. Money can buy a house, but not a home. Money can buy expensive watches, but it can’t buy time. Money can buy therapy, but it can’t buy peace.
But peace is possible. His peace. And it’s okay to ask for it – especially this time of year.
The Gospel of Mark tells the story of Jesus in the boat during a storm (Mark 4:37-39). From that story we can glean three ways to “get peace.”
PRAY. Yes, pray. “And a great storm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling... And they woke him and said to Him...” (v. 37-38). The disciples had stopped talking to Jesus and so he went to sleep. When they needed his help, they started talking to him again.
What am I so good at, so proficient at doing on my own, that I can stop talking to Jesus about it?
PERSPECTIVE. Keep your perspective. “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?” Seriously? The Messiah, who was healing the sick and giving sight to the blind, who had physically climbed into the boat with them, is the one they are asking if he cares about them? They had lost perspective.
Do I sometimes wonder if God still cares when the storms of life start to rock my boat?
PROMISES. Remember His promises. The promise in this story is given before the boat trip even begins when Jesus says to the disciples, “Let us cross over to the other side” (v. 35). He didn’t say “Let’s get in the boat and see if we can make it.” He didn’t say, “Let’s see how far we can get.” He said, “Let’s go to the other side.” Now, He didn’t say there would be no storms. He didn’t say that it wouldn’t be rough at times, or that they wouldn’t get wet, or even a little seasick. But He did say, they would make it to the other side.
What promises of God have I given up on, because I am in the middle of a storm right now, and my boat is rocking?
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men." — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” John 14:27.
The Weight of Glory
“An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified... and suddenly there appeared with the angel a great multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest...’” Luke 2:9, 13-14a
Glory is one of those words that Christians toss around assuming we all know what it means. It’s like the word “blessing”. It’s part of the “Christianese” we speak with little clarity and even less definition. And, admittedly, it is a difficult word to pin down.
The Hebrew word for glory is kabod. It is a little word filled with big meaning, but essentially it means weight, or heaviness. When Moses asked God to see the full weight of His glory – God basically replied “No, you can’t handle it.” When He did let Moses see just a sliver of His glory, Moses was forced to his knees, because of the sheer weight of it (Exodus 34:8).
Why would Moses ask to see God’s glory?
I think because he wasn’t satisfied. We all know from personal experience that even the best circumstances and events leave us unsatisfied. Great vacations wear off, new cars lose that “new car smell”, and no matter how much we eat on Thanksgiving Day, we eat again the next morning.
Moses longed not for more blessings from GOD – but GOD HIMSELF. Moses lived with a divine discontentment with anything less than GOD HIMSELF.
When the angels appeared to the shepherds in the midnight sky over Bethlehem, there were no city lights or streetlamps to soften the brightness of their presence. With an immediacy more characteristic of the Gospel of Mark, Luke writes, “And suddenly there appeared with the angel, a great multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest...”
But we need to remember, along with the writer of Psalm 19, that while the angels and the heavens may “declare” the glory of the God, they are not the glory of God. God’s glory is described as His infinite beauty, honor, splendor and greatness.
So how do we, like the angels, “declare the glory of God” in this world? How can we have the “glory of the Lord” shining in, and around and through us this season?
A clue can be found in Paul’s writings to the church of Philippi when exhorted them to “...do everything without complaining and grumbling... that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation. Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky” (Phil 2:15). And again, “...welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God" (Rom 15:7).
In other words, the glory of God is directly tied to our behavior, internally in my spirit, and externally toward others. Honoring God with my life, no matter how hard the path, declares God’s glory.
In one of his seminal essays, The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis writes, “It is often too easy in times of trouble to think too much about our own glory... However, it is hardly possible for us to think too often or too deeply about that of our neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it... it is with awe that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”
So instead of building fortified castles in which to hide and huddle until Jesus returns, we must think of ourselves, like the angels, as an “army of stars thrown into the sky” (Jacque Maritain).
The goal of not grumbling or disputing is to live in such an explicitly different way from the depraved world in which we find ourselves, that we stand out as "lights in the world." But how? Paul says, don’t complain about anything. Be grateful. Be kind. Be compassionate. Be patient. Do not be self-seeking, do not be easily angered. Always trust, always hope. Love your neighbor.
And, like the angels that first Christmas Eve, the darker the sky, the brighter we will shine.
This is the challenge of our time.
"Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." Matthew 5:16.
Ministry of the Night
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” — Luke 2:8.
Author and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel, was born in 1928 in Romania. During World War II, he, with his family and other Jews from the area, were deported to the German extermination camps, where his parents and little sister perished. Wiesel and his two older sisters survived, being liberated from Buchenwald in 1945 by advancing Allied troops.
Night is Wiesel's masterpiece, a candid account of his survival as a teenager in the Nazi death camps. His metaphor of “night” is particularly poignant because it captures both physical darkness and the darkness of the soul that threatens to overtake anyone placed in a similar situation. The night that threatened to envelop their humanity. Wiesel describes how the instinctive need to pray falters and, yet, deep within, he continues to fight the onset of spiritual night that threatens to exterminate God from his life.
While none of us can relate to what Elie Wiesel and his family experienced, we can all relate to that feeling of spiritual darkness that can overtake our minds and leaves us in a place that St. John Chrysostom described as the “dark night of the soul”, or what American novelist Flannery O’Connor described as faith “walking in the darkness”.
A time when goals are not met, ambitions are not achieved, prayers are left unanswered.
But it was in the darkness that the shepherds were to keep watch. It was at night that they were to be on their guard, defending their flocks. While others worked during the day, when all was bright and light, to them was given the task of laboring through the watches of night. And yet, it was to those same shepherds to whom, in the blackness of the evening, the angels appeared. It was to those shepherds that the privilege was given of being the first among many witnesses to proclaim, “I have seen the Messiah”.
A. W. Tozer writes that, “If God sets out to make you an unusual Christian, He is not likely to be as gentle as He is usually pictured by the popular teachers... you will find out the hard way that true faith lies in the will, that the joy unspeakable of which the apostle speaks is not itself faith, but a slow-ripening fruit of faith.”
Loss will come to all of us, but we are not alone.
Crazy and unreal as it may sometimes seem, God’s holy, healing grace is always present and available if we are still enough to receive it.
Fifty years after all the suffering, Wiesel decided that it was time to “make up” with God. He wrote God a letter, which was published in the New York Times (1997). It reads in part:
“Master of the Universe, let us make up. It is time. How long can we go on being angry? ... Let us make up. In spite of everything that happened? Yes, in spite. Let us make up: for the child in me, it is unbearable to be divorced from you for so long.”
Perhaps, like the shepherds, you have been selected for a time or season, to labor in the night. And for you it feels like you are walking in darkness. And you are tempted, like the servant with one talent, to bury your life, bury your pain, to bury your joy. To bury whatever it is that life and the world has handed you, and then live as carefully as you can, without living at all.
But a buried life is not Life.
“The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from"
(Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey)
The end is life. His life and our lives through Him and in Him. Light will come. Dawn will break.
Slowly you will discover God's love in your suffering.
You will feel and understand the ministry of the night.
“The day is yours, and yours also the night” Psalm 74:16.
The Invasion Has Begun
“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” — Luke 2:7
Leading up to the birth of Christ, the Roman Empire gradually took over more and more territories in the eastern Mediterranean, until around 63 BCE the Roman triumvir Pompey the Great captured Jerusalem. With such a vast empire to rule, many of these captured provinces were set up as client kingdoms. Judea happened to be one of these client kingdoms run by its own semi-independent king, the person we know from Scripture as Herod the Great.
Now, for the ordinary citizen of Israel, Rome was the dominant political factor. Although they might not have seen Romans on a day-to-day basis, the imposition of Roman power everywhere with Herod's rule and Herod's forces — everyone knew that Rome was the power behind the throne. Everyone knew that Rome was the source of both the wealth and also the source of some of the problems that occurred in the Jewish state.
In the minds of the average Jewish citizen at the time of Jesus, their country had been invaded and was now being occupied by a hostile force.
Tensions ran high along two lines of power – economic and religious. Judea at the time of Jesus, was a burgeoning economy. It was a new world because of the arrival of Rome, and because of the accomplishments of Herod's rule. Rome was taxing the economy and stealing the wealth of its citizens to pay for the huge military aspirations of the Roman Empire. The Pax Romana came at a high price — usually to its conquered enemies. The other area of tension was religious, much of it focused on the Temple. The Temple was both the center of continuity and devotion, and it was also the center of religious controversy. The Temple kept the hopes of the nation of Israel alive that when the Messiah came — all would be made right. Rome would be defeated, and Israel would be at peace with her Messiah King sitting on the throne in Jerusalem. And that’s what Jerusalem means — City of Peace.
And when time had reached its fullness — a baby was born. Jesus had landed in occupied territory, literally, to establish His Kingdom on earth, “as it is in heaven”.
The same is true to today.
We are living in enemy-occupied territory. That is what the world is.
C. S. Lewis writes that "Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening-in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going.”
Christian philosopher Dallas Willard, wrote in his work The Divine Conspiracy, that “when Jesus directs us to pray, “Thy kingdom come,” he does not mean we should pray for it to come into existence. Rather, we pray for it to take over at all points in the personal, social, and political order where it is now excluded: “On earth as it is in heaven.” With this prayer we are invoking it, as in faith we are acting it, into the real world of our daily existence.”
The Divine Conspiracy is God’s plan to intervene in human history, overcoming evil with good in human history.
And Mary brought forth her firstborn son . . . the invasion has begun.
"Behold, the days are coming," says the Lord, "That I will raise to David a Branch of righteousness; a King shall reign and prosper and execute judgment and righteousness in the earth." — Jer. 23:5.
The Impossibility Clause
“For a Child will be born to us, a Son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” — Isaiah 9:6
This fall, as the country emerged from the lockdowns and quarantines imposed by city and state governments due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus, businesses started to get back up on their feet. Restaurants, shops and malls reopened, with new limited capacity numbers to accommodate the social distancing rules. Even airlines and hotels started to see a resurgence in travelers and guests.
And people started making plans again.
But if the economy was going to recover, we needed reassurance that we wouldn’t be stuck with the bill for a plane ticket, a wedding venue, or even a night’s stay, if the coronavirus spiked again... as it appears to be doing. One hotel chain, Hilton Hotels, has a policy that speaks to that fear – it’s called The Impossibility Clause. It reads, in part:
Neither party shall be responsible for failure to perform this agreement if circumstances beyond their reasonable control (including, but not limited to, acts of God... in the city in which the Hotel is located) make it illegal or impossible for us to hold the Event.
As someone whose daughter is planning to get married in January 2021 – I appreciate this clause. We have, for us, a good deal of money tied up in a venue, a caterer, and a photographer. So, I like this clause. But what I really love about this policy language is that the very first item listed under conditions which make things impossible is “acts of God”. Now, I love the fact that Hilton Hotels has a positive theological position on the existence of God, but it doesn’t go far enough.
As followers of Christ, we also have an Impossibility Clause.
Like Hilton Hotels, we believe that God can act in such a way as to make our events impossible to hold. He can send snow, ice, tornadoes, and floods. And disease. But we have a secondary clause that also believes that He can also DO the impossible. He can take what is seemingly an impossible event – and make it happen and cause it to occur.
He can be conceived by the Holy Spirit and be born of a virgin.
He can suffer under Pontius Pilate, be crucified, die, and be buried.
He can descend to hell and rise again from the dead three days later.
He can ascend to heaven and sit down - at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
And He can live to intercede on my behalf, day in and day out.
He can put on flesh and walk around on earth as one of us.
He can lead a sinless life – though tempted in every way we have been tempted.
He can heal the sick. He can make blind eyes see. He can walk on water.
And, He can calm my storms, with just the three little words, “Peace, be still”.
He can do all these impossible things, and more, because with God, all things are possible.
In fact, nothing is impossible.
He can even take my sins, though they are legion, and wash me and make me whiter than snow. And not only can he do all these things, He already has!
As we journey through a new Advent season, let’s be intentional about focusing on the Author and Finisher of our faith. Remember, all things are possible, through Christ who gives you strength.
Our culture wants us to focus on Santa Claus.
But we need to focus on the God of The Impossibility Clause.
“For nothing is impossible with God.” — Luke 1:37
The House of Bread
“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem...” - Luke 2:4
Unless you have a gluten allergy, you love bread. Bread, in all its forms, is the most widely consumed food in all the world and has been an integral part of the human diet for thousands of years. Recently, I saw a list of breads from around the world each beginning with a different letter of the English alphabet – except X (and that was probably just an oversight). Everything from Arepa to Bagels to Focaccia to Grissini to Naan to Roti to Zopf – the world loves its’ bread. If you travel to France, they will offer you bread before your meal, which will include, you guessed it, more bread.
Bread has been called the staff of life because throughout much of the world, bread has been, and still is, a basic necessity. It sustains human life. It keeps us alive.
The Hebrew word for bread is “lechem”. The word is often used in Jewish prayers to represent food and sustenance. Jesus even taught his disciples to pray “Give us this day, our daily bread” (Luke 11:3).
The Hebrew word for house or place is “beit”. When you put the two together you get “beit lechem” – which would mean the “the place of bread” or “the house of bread.” And what would you expect to find at a House of Bread? Why, bread of course! And not just a little bit of it. Not just a crumb or a nibble. You’d expect baskets of bread and mantels of Matzah. After all, it is called the HOUSE of Bread, not the Shed of Bread.
In other words, inside the House of Bread, we would expect to find the staff of life, the very thing to sustain life. So, it should not surprise us, that when we discover the English translation of “beit lechem” – is Bethlehem – that what we find is the very thing you and I need above everything else, in order to live and flourish in this world.
Not money, or fame, or power. Not position or popularity. But the Bread of Life. Christian pastor and author Max Lucado has been credited with observing that God did not send an economist, politician or teacher because, “...He perceived that our greatest need involved our sin, our alienation from him, our profound rebellion, our death; and He sent us a Savior.”
When Jesus tells his followers, he is the Bread of Life, he is intentionally calling to their Jewish minds the historical significance for the Jewish people of God’s life-sustaining manna in the desert. Jesus intentionally chose bread as His metaphor because, like bread, salvation is essential to human existence and necessary for eternity.
When Jesus says He is the Bread of Life, He is saying He is essential.
The culmination of the saving work of Jesus, symbolized in bread, comes at the Last Supper. “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it, broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body’” (Matthew 26:26). The breaking of the Lord’s body and the spilling of His blood on the cross paid man’s debts for their sins. It was necessary for you and me to have eternal life.
The bread consumed at that Passover meal only staves off hunger for a few hours, but a relationship with Jesus Christ will sustain us forever.Jesus did not present Himself a source of salvation but as the only way to salvation. Without Him, without the Bread of Life, there is no hope for salvation. Believing in Jesus means placing our faith in that He is Who He says He is, that He will do what He says He will do, and that He is the only one who can.
Just what you would expect from a House of Bread!
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” - Micah 5:22
“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger...’” - John 6:35
The Rest of the Story
“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world... So, Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.” – Luke 2:1-4
For more than five decades the most listened-to voice in America belonged to a man named Paul Harvey. About twenty years into his career, in 1976, he introduced a segment into his radio show that became his legacy. This segment was known as the The Rest of the Story – and for 30 years until his death in 2009, over 3,000 episodes were recorded. Each broadcast started with "You know what the news is, in a minute you're going to hear the REST of the STORY".
Focusing on forgotten or little-known facts about historical events and personalities, “The Rest of the Story” invariably ended with a surprise twist and Harvey’s trademark finish: “And now you know . . . the rest of the story.” Harvey covered everything from Aspirin to Abraham Lincoln, and from Daniel Boone to Disney World. There was always a story, behind the story.
This piece of radio history has been described as the first marriage of history and mystery.
But is it?
So often when we read the Advent story in Luke’s Gospel, we skip past the historical data in the first few verses, in order to get the good stuff – the stable, birth, manger, shepherds, angels. What could be more boring than a king ordering a census so his IRS agents could collect more taxes. But consider that God had to move in the heart of a pagan ruler to declare a census – at just the right time in Mary’s “condition” – in order to force Joseph to walk 90 miles to Bethlehem – so that one prophecy about the Messiah - written hundreds of years earlier - could be fulfilled.
"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times." – Micah 5:2
Or take the word Advent. This word is THE word we use when we discuss the season in which we celebrate our Lord’s birth. When someone mentions the “Advent Season” – we know immediately that they are talking about Christmas. If you were asked to turn to the Advent story in the Bible, you would likely begin around Luke 2. If you were asked to purchase an Advent wreath – it probably wouldn’t be red, white and blue or orange and black.
And, if you were to write an Advent story – you would most likely not write one about Jesus on the cross and the empty tomb... but, maybe you should.
For the word adventus – from which we get our word “advent” – is the Latin equivalent of the Greek word - parousia. At the time the New Testament was being written, it would have been the Greek word most often used for “arrival” or “presence” and it usually referred to the anticipated or actual presence or arrival of a ruler or military leader. However, in the New Testament, 17 of the 24 times when ‘parousia’ is used, it is exclusively referring to Christ’s Second Coming. Which is most apropos, for when He comes again, He will be arriving as both a ruler and a conquering military leader.
There is mystery behind the history.
As we settle into the rhythms of this Advent season – have your spiritual antennae up. Scan the sounds, sermons and songs of the season. Most everything you hear will be about Christ’s birth. The stable. The manger. The magi. The star.
The child laying on his mother’s shoulder, will one day carry the world upon his shoulder (Isa. 9:6).
The child sleeping among the lambs, is the lamb of God, worthy to open the scroll (Rev 5:6-9).
The baby resting under the star, IS the bright and morning star (Rev. 22:16).
And now you know... the rest of the story!
"I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, "who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty." – Revelation 1:8
For the Last Time
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” Hebrews 1:1-2
Hebrews is not traditionally a “go-to” book in the New Testament when one begins to look for Advent passages to reflect on. Unlike the other epistles, Hebrews doesn’t read like a letter – no salutation, no person(s) mentioned in the salutation, and no people greeted at the end. Rather, Hebrews reads more like a sermon. The rhetorical phrases throughout the book lends itself to being more sermonic, than a piece of ecclesiastical correspondence (like the Pauline and Petrine letters).
One of those historical phrases that helps unlock Hebrews – which is rich in Jewish custom and tradition – is the phrase, “better than” or “better things”. The writer of Hebrews is taking great pains to show that Jesus is “better than” the prophets, the angels and Moses. And Jesus is a better high priest who offers us a better covenant.
In the very first chapter, the writer of Hebrews clarifies three problem areas for us, that Jesus clears up, just by his showing up.
First, we have a continuity problem – as we are told that God has tried to speak to us “many times.” In other words, God is a communicating God and He wants to have a relationship with you more than you do. The phrase “many times” carries with it a sense of discontinuity and fragmentation – a little here, and little there, when you’re ready, when you can handle it. But it’s a fragmented communication.
Then we are told we have a clarity problem – as God has communicated with us “in various ways.” As we read Scripture, we can see that God has tried fire, rain, floods, disease, manna, clouds, parted rivers, built tabernacles, initiated feasts, called prophets and even sent angels – to name a few. But the message hasn’t always been clear. We have either not wanted to hear him, or we have misunderstood or misinterpreted the message – but it wasn’t for a lack of trying on His part.
And finally, we are told we have a contamination problem – as the message is not always communicated through a perfect vessel. I will mention Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Samson, David and Solomon just to get the ball rolling.
But Jesus solves all these problems in one glorious Advent.
Jesus is a continuous, eternal, non-stop communicator for the Father, to us, through the Holy Spirit – and lives eternally to make intercession on our behalf. He is the radiance of God’s glory and the “exact representation” of God’s nature; which solves the clarity problem. And if you want to know what God would do if he lived in your shoes – look at Jesus.
Christian theologian and pastor, A.W. Tozer writes, “we may wonder how He would act and what He would do if He were to live among us for a while... but it is needless. We know how God would act if He were in our place, [because] He has been in our place.” They called His name Immanuel for a reason – it means God with us.
Because God has lived in my shoes, suffered what I suffer and experienced what I am experiencing – and has done it perfectly, it solves the contamination problem. He, in fact, was the perfect messenger carrying about with him the perfect message about life in the perfect Kingdom.
And it solves a final problem.
Jesus didn’t just show up and show us a perfect example and then die – like all the other major religious figures. Jesus is eternally alive and is an active presence in the life of every believer through the ministry of His Holy Spirit. Which means His holiness, righteousness, compassion, meekness and humility are still visible and available to the watching world, TODAY.
He is at the right hand of the Father. But he is also empowering the right hand of every believer to be friendly, loving, kind, prayerful and self-sacrificing – as long as they are walking on the earth.
“On that day you will realize that I am in my Father,
and you are in me, and I am in you.” – John 14:20
Survival Among the Ruins
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us...” – John 1:14
As we lean into the last throes of fall, and the chill of winter begins knocking on our doors, it’s a great time to be making your list – and checking it twice – about what books will be keeping you company this holiday season. Many of us will be tempted to reach back to some of the classics we read as children. Books like Alice in Wonderland, A Christmas Carol, Gulliver’s Travels, or Treasure Island.
Or perhaps Robinson Crusoe. We know the basic plot line of this fictional mishap. A man is shipwrecked on a desert island. He must scavenge among the ruins to survive. He lives by his wits for almost 30 years undergoing immense loneliness and anguish. After a time, he discovers footprints on the sand and soon meets another human, who he names “Friday”, and then they are rescued from this horrible fate.
Despite the fact that much of this plot line is wrong, the real problem, according to scholar Philip Zaleski, is that something important is missing from the modern abridgments we have all grown up reading. Mainly, what is missing, is the single most important fact about this boy’s adventure book and that is, that it’s not a boy’s adventure book.
It is, rather, a grown-up tale of a man’s discovery of himself, civilization and God.
As the narrator of his own demise, Crusoe confesses in the book that he commits what he calls his “original sin” by ignoring his father’s advice to join the family business and heading out to sea. There, he fills his days with arrogant, self-willed exploits involving storms, slavery and yes, shipwrecks. Eventually he confesses, “I was to be the willful Agent of my own Miseries.” Throughout the novel, Crusoe cries out to God for help, learns to see his situation as “the Work of Providence”, reads his Bible, and surrenders his life and fate to God. His conversion is deep and leads him to build a new ordered “civilization” on his little island. The novel is, in short, a textbook in the appropriate relationship between man, culture, nature and the God that created them.
What is interesting, is that in every modern adaptation, what the scissors have cut away for young readers, is not some scandalous reference to sex, alcohol or foul language – but rather any trace of faith or religion. Again, and again, one particular word, and every significant scene inspired by that word is removed. And what is that obscenity that is too dangerous for young boys, and now adults to see? The word is “God”. That word, which appears hundreds of times in Defoe’s original work from 1719, vanishes in our modern abridgements – as well as any hint of Crusoe’s conversion.
And why is this significant? Because it’s happening again.
Among the ruins of our shipwrecked culture, there is another word that is being erased. Edited. Excised. That word is “Christ”. We are allowed our lights, trees and presents – but don’t drag Christ into it. We can sing about Rudolph, just not a Redeemer. We can talk of a Santa – just not a Savior. We can have fun with mistletoe, just don’t mention the Messiah. In our modern adaptations of Christmas, we have erased all religion. We have deleted the God that gives the entire season its purpose and meaning.
In her Pulitzer Prize winning work, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard describes herself as a “frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world” who is “wondering awed about on a splintered wreck.” And so, we all are. But the lesson of Robinson Crusoe, the real Robinson Crusoe, is that when we
“...have uprooted God from our homes, schools, books and arts; we have cast
ourselves adrift. [But] God, the master mariner, never abandons his children.
We do well, to remember, too, that Robinson found salvation in a plight more
desperate than ours.”
And isn’t that the lesson of Christmas. I mean, the real Christmas.
“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.” – I Timothy 1:15-16
Don’t Be Scared
“And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” – Luke 1:30-31
In August 1587, a group of 115 English settlers arrived on Roanoke Island, off the coast of what is now North Carolina. Later that year and running low on food, it was decided that John White, governor of the new colony, would sail back to England in order to gather a fresh load of supplies. While there, war broke out between England and Spain, postponing his return three long years until August 1590. When he finally did return, he found no trace of the colony or its inhabitants, including his wife and daughter.
Ironically, five years earlier in 1585, due to the dozens of ships that had wrecked on the Frying Pan Shoals at this site, and to the fact this area was also the stomping grounds of Edward Teach, better known as Black-Beard the Pirate, White had named the outcropping of land which extends out into the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Fear. Over the past 400 years different names have been tried in an attempt to change the image of this region, but Cape Fear is the one that has stuck.
And perhaps because fear has a way of sticking, the first thing the angel Gabriel says to Mary, is “Don’t be scared.”
Perhaps. But when you consider the “good news” he was about to deliver to this young girl – I think the counsel to “fear not” is a bit understated. All the gossip, doubting, stories and rumors that were going to surround her pregnancy. And her explanation was supposed to be “It was the Holy Spirit”? The potential rift that would come between her and her fiancé – Joseph. What would the neighbors say? What would those who she went to synagogue with think? Her parents? The stigma that would follow this child all the days of his life.
When Gabriel said “Don’t be scared” – he was asking a lot from Mary!
But living in this world, while waiting for the next, is asking a lot. Faith asks a lot. One could make the case that a good substitute word for “faith” in the Bible, might be “risk” – because Gabriel was asking Mary to risk everything. Her reputation. Her marriage. Her future. And when faith does that, it is acting more like a verb, than a noun.
Faith surrenders to His will.
Faith believes there is a power working in me and through me - no matter how I feel.
Faith acknowledges His authority, even when I don’t see the plan.
Faith shakes you and makes you stand up and do something.
Faith calls you to get up – and start moving.
Faith does not operate where there is a guarantee of victory – faith only operates where there is the possibility of failure.
“Be it unto you, according to your level of RISK.”
Fear sticks when we focus on what is uncertain – when we don’t know how things will turn out.
Faith stands when we focus on what is true, and unchanging, and sure.
In the story of Jesus walking on the water, we are told that the wind was blowing, the disciples were rowing, and a “ghost” was glowing... and the disciples were afraid (Matthew 14). No doubt! They were afraid because they were in the middle of a storm and they didn’t know how it would all end.
Gabriel was challenging Mary to see the news he was about to share with her through the lens of faith, and not through the lens of fear.
The most faith-filled words ever spoken by a human may very well be, ”Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” – Luke 1:38
Oh, to have that measure of faith – and to be able to say those words... and mean it.