Have We Made Christmas Too Beautiful?


I think it was a message on the radio by Pastor Greg Laurie that got me thinking about the beauty of Christmas. In some ways Christmas should be beautiful because we have a beautiful Savior whose birth we are commemorating. It’s sort of like the now-ignored idea that when we go to church we wear our “Sunday best,” because God deserves our best.

But that idea morphed into an unhealthy tradition that actually kept some people away from church. So I wonder, is our beautiful Christmas doing the same?

First, the original Christmas was far from beautiful. Even the glory of the Lord that shone upon the shepherds caused them to be terrified. Not just a little disturbed. Not just mildly agitated. Terrified! That’s not so beautiful. These were men who stayed with their sheep during the night so that they would be in position to protect them. From robbers. From wild animals. From wandering into the dark. They likely were prepared to face all kinds of danger. But God’s glory terrified them.

Of course the message the angel delivered to them was beautiful. Joy. A Savior. The long expected King, born today! But that meant He was a newborn. Who couldn’t yet focus His eyes. Who had no bladder control. Who couldn’t eat solid food. Who needed to be burped. Who had a feeding trough for a bed. He couldn’t sit up or crawl or smile or speak or do anything king-like. He could sleep and cry and breast-feed and not much more. Not so beautiful when you think about it. But there is something beautiful about babies.

But they were in a stable, or wherever the manger was located. Not a clean hospital or a nicely decorated nursery. No cute matching outfit, not even a soft receiving blanket. Just strips of cloth wrapped about Him to protect Him from whatever was in that manger. Straw? Or had Joseph cleaned it out as best he could and the Christ lay with his step-dad’s cloak beneath Him? Had Mary the help of a midwife to cut the umbilical cord, to take care of the afterbirth? Was she able to get a quick bath before the shepherds showed up? Whatever. We can be fairly certain that Jesus’s surroundings weren’t so very pastoral as we often picture them. Not so peaceful or so beautiful.

In spite of this, the shepherds believed the message the angel had delivered. This was the Christ, born to be the Savior. Their Savior. They determined to go see this thing “that had happened,” not because they were skeptical and wanted to see if what the angel said was really true, but because they believed it was true. Their faith was beautiful.

Maybe the least beautiful part of the original Christmas was the fact that Jesus came to earth to be the once-for-all sacrifice for the sins of the world. That meant He was destined for the cross of Calvary, that the red of Christmas is His blood, shed for all who believe in Him.

The green? Perhaps the evergreen of eternal life that is ours because of Christ.

So the red and green of Christmas is truly beautiful, but not that first Christmas. The suffering of death was still ahead for the baby as He lay in the manger. And the thing about shed blood, about sacrifice, is that it’s not beautiful as it is happening. It’s painful and messy and full of loss and sorrow and, in Christ’s case, betrayal, rejection, disappointment, confusion. Not beautiful.

But after the fact, the wonder of His love is proven by the nail prints in His hands, the hole in His side, the red wine that represents His blood, the broken bread that represents His body. All the evidences of Christ, alive are beautiful, sacred, filled with such meaning they cause us to weep even today.

So which is it? Is Christmas beautiful or not?

I suppose it depends on whether or not we scratch the surface. Today we make all the outside trappings beautiful—decorated trees, Christmas wrapping, music, light displays, special Christmas cookies, cozy and warm settings with snow falling outside. You know, the Kincaid picture (the kind I love so much).

But what’s underneath? If we don’t get to the Savior who brings joy and peace, who solves our sin problem, who gave Himself as God’s gift to the world, then all the external beauty we manufacture stands in stark contrast to the reality of that first Christmas. I guess it’s up to each of us to make Christmas beautiful indeed.

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Published in: on December 20, 2018 at 5:44 pm  Comments (2)  
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God And The Impossible


At Christmas, it’s more common to talk about Jesus as a little baby, as the Incarnate Christ who came to humble living circumstances, even noting that putting on flesh was perhaps the most humble of circumstances that He faced. But all the while, we kind of forget that Jesus, as God, rules and reigns supreme.

One of the mysteries of the trinity is Christ’s “dual identity.” He is God and He is a baby in a manger, wrapped up in cloths, and in all likelihood, fast asleep when a group of shepherds stop by.

How can this be?

Well, the Trinity, Christ’s divinity, are not the first hard things that confront us mortals. There’s prayer and how it “works,” free will and how it co-exists with God’s sovereignty, creation and the whole idea of speaking everything into existence from nothing.

Atheists often think Christians are fools, as if we don’t see the difficulty in these beliefs. Ironically many atheists also claim that Christianity came out of the imagination of some humans who simply made it all up.

Made it up?! Who would think up some idea of Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit actually being One? Crazy talk. Anybody who can count can read that sentence and arrive at three, not one. But no. The Bible is clear. Jesus said He and the Father are One.

And the God-Man thing? Really? Jesus had two natures? Well, no, but kind of, yes. So He had a split nature? Definitely no. Then what? Well, all God and all man, but not two. Uh, the math isn’t adding up again.

This makes no logical sense, the atheist says. Which does call into question the idea that some finite mortal dreamed it up. Wouldn’t it seem more likely that if someone was coming up with a new religion, they make it seem clear and reasonable and easy to grasp? That’s what I’d do.

But instead we have a God who is both just and merciful, Judge and Savior, King and carpenter. How can this be?

There’s really only one way. All these claims can only be true if God is more than we are. If He is transcendent. If He can do the impossible.

And as it happens, that’s precisely what the Bible says about Him. The statement comes as part of the pre-Christmas story.

An angel appeared to the not-yet-married young girl living in Nazareth to tell her that she was going to have a baby, that this boy “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.”

Just one problem, Mary said. I’m a virgin. She was not some dumb brunette, that one. She understood all about how babies were made.

No worries, the angel responded. God’s power is at work here. And just so you know, your cousin Elizabeth, who is barren, who is past childbearing years, she’s pregnant. Has been for six months. Because, you see, Mary, “nothing will be impossible with God.”

So, if nothing is impossible with God, what in the Bible does not make perfect sense? A cataclysmic world wide flood? Yes, God can do that. Stopping a river and making a dry path to the other side? God can do that too. Closing the mouths of hungry lions? Yes, that’s on the list of impossible that God can do.

If nothing will be impossible with God, the most logical position to take is that some impossible things are going to take place.

Mary got that right away. Her response was, I’m God’s servant. I’ll do whatever you say. She accepted the impossible. She wasn’t pinching herself or trying to wake up. She wasn’t questioning what bit of bad cheese had she eaten the night before.

Granted, later she would have her moments of uncertainty when Jesus began His public ministry, but there, before His birth, she knew—God’s in charge, and I’m not. His ways are not my ways. And I’m not going to pretend mine are better. Because He, not I, can do the impossible.

Published in: on December 7, 2017 at 5:08 pm  Comments (2)  
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Why Shepherds?


Two distinct groups of people received notification that Jesus was born.

The wisemen we understand because… they were wise! And they had something to give the infant King. Three somethings: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold, the fitting mineral for a king; frankincense, the fitting incense for worship; and myrrh, the fitting perfume for embalming a body. OK, the last one may have had Joseph and Mary wondering, but I digress.

In reality, despite the many manger scenes to the contrary, the wisemen, who had some distance to travel once they recognized that a king had been born in Judea, were late arriving. The first group to show up was a collection of local shepherds.

Shepherds in first century Judea were hired workers, poor men with little future. Which is precisely why the angel announced the Messiah’s birth to them, conventional wisdom says. They fit what we now understand as Jesus’s purpose for coming to earth. He’s for the Everyman.

Maybe. Maybe that’s why the shepherds received the angelic announcement that Christ had been born. Kind of a bookend from the poor side that, along with the opposite rich wisemen, would encompass people of every station in life. It’s a good theory.

The shepherds also represented the people who weren’t doing all the religious ceremonies to make themselves acceptable to God. So some scholars have speculated that’s why they got picked.

They were lowly, they were without pretense as to their standing before God, they were poor.

All this might be true, but I think there’s something else more important, and it has to do with why these shepherds received the announcement and not another set, say from Bethel: they believed.

The angel of the LORD stood in front of them and God’s Shekinah, His glory, shone around them. Needless to say, they reacted like virtually everyone else who had an encounter with an angel: they just about passed out with fear. They may have fallen on their faces, covered their heads with their arms, ducked behind the nearest boulder. Anything to ward off this person of obvious power.

Before anything else, the angel calmed them down. They didn’t have any reason to fear him or his message. In fact he’d come to give them great news. And not just for them, but for, well, everyone. Then the announcement:

today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

He didn’t stop there. He went on to give them a sign. A strange sign, I think. I mean, God’s glory shining around them seems like a pretty powerful sign.

    More of that, please. Aimed at those owners of the vineyard just the other side of the plateau who chased away our flocks last week. They need a good dose of God’s awesome power, I’d think! Let them quake in their sandals for a few minutes. Or an hour. Just saying.

But no. The sign the angel passed along provided identifying features that would allow them to find the newborn baby. What would mark Him as different from any other baby that might be born that same night? Well, for one thing, He would be wrapped in cloths.

Some scholars say that was normal—babies in those days were all wrapped in cloths; no cute little baby outfits for them. Some say the cloths were akin to the strips used to wrap a body in preparation for burial—definitely out of the ordinary. Not sure, but I tend to lean toward the idea that this was uncommon. Otherwise, why mention it as an identifying feature? It would be like saying today, you’ll find the baby wrapped in a baby blanket.

    Well, thanks very much for all that help distinguishing this baby from all other babies!!

No matter, the second part of the sign the angel gave is irrefutably unique. The baby they’d be looking for was in a manger. Clearly, a feeding trough was not the normal bed for a newborn. Find the manger holding an infant, wrapped in cloths, and you’ve found the Christ Child.

The_Shepherds011What does all this have to do with the shepherds believing?

I mean, they saw the angel and God’s glory and then a host of other angels praising God. They were eyewitnesses.

To the announcement.

They still had to respond to what they heard. They could have sat around and debated what they’d just experienced. They could have discussed whether or not the message was true or whether any parent in their right mind would put a baby in a feeding trough.

Apparently they did none of those things. Rather they made the decision to track down this baby. They knew exactly what to look for.

So they’d need to knock on a few doors, make a few inquiries and find out what woman may have just given birth. Then they’d stop by and check out the sleeping quarters of the little guy. Shouldn’t be too hard.

I wonder how many doors got slammed in their faces. How many times they got yelled at, or ignored. But they persisted.

No matter how many people they roused from their sleep or disturbed with their questions, they needed to go to see “this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2:15b).

They determined to “go straight to Bethlehem.” They did not doubt that “this thing” had really happened. They didn’t dismiss the announcement as something not intended for them.

    Some mistake. The angels got the wrong field. In fact they were probably looking for the palace. It’s a few miles west. Up the hill. Can’t miss it.

No, the shepherds believed that Messiah was born that very day, that God had made it known to them, and that they could find this baby based on the sign given them by the angel. So they went. No hesitation.

They put feet to their belief. And when they found Jesus, “they made know the statement which had been told them about this Child” (Luke 2:17).

Two reactions to their announcement: “all who heard it wondered.” Let the debate begin!

“Do you think they really saw an angel?”

“How else would they have known a baby was born?”

“But they’re shepherds!”

“Yeah, but what they said matches what we’re seeing here—a baby in a manger! Who would make that up?”

“Maybe they saw the baby first and decided to claim some oracle told them about it.”

“But why would they do that?”

And on and on.

The second reaction was Mary’s. She treasured what they said, pondering it all in her heart.

She’d take this one bit of evidence, this second declaration that her child was special, this account delivered by shepherds who said they saw an angel, just as she had when she first learned about this little boy she’d just brought into the world.

She’d think about it all, and as the years went by, in the end, after Christ’s resurrection, she’d add her faith to that of the shepherds.

Published in: on December 23, 2016 at 2:36 pm  Comments (8)  
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The God Of The Impossible


Nativity_Scenes015Mary was astounded. How could she not be? An angel had told her she’d get pregnant, and here she was, still a virgin, staring down into the little face of her newborn son.

As if that wasn’t enough, a group of shepherds crowded into their quarters to worship her baby. Angels, they said, had told them about this child—where he’d be born and how they could find him and how they would know him.

Then there were the two in the temple when she and Joseph went to present Jesus according to the law. First was Simeon who said strange things: that her son would be a light to the Gentiles and a glory to Israel. Then in his blessing, Simeon added that he was appointed as sign to be opposed. He didn’t stop there, but added some confusing personal prophecy about a sword piercing Mary’s own soul.

Then there was the prophetess Anna who thanked God for Mary’s son and talked about him to everyone who was looking for the redemption of Israel.

All this came on the heels of her cousin Elizabeth, her barren cousin Elizabeth, getting pregnant. The angel had told Mary that would happen, too. And it was then he made the whole astounding series of events make sense: “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

The bottom line, and the only thing a person actually needs to believe in order to accept the astounding things we read about connected to that first Christmas, is that truth which Mary accepted. When the angel made his declaration about God’s greatness and power and limitless ability, Mary submitted to God—to His plans for her, His capacity to accomplish what He’d made known to her through His messenger.

She got it—that God was bigger than the laws of nature and that He was the fulfiller of prophecy. She ought not be a mother, but she was. The shepherds ought not have known about her son, but they did. Simeon and Anna ought not have declared a poor baby born to an unwed mother in a manger to be the Messiah, but they had.

Indeed, God can do the impossible.

That’s really the truth that separates people today as believers or unbelievers. If God can do the impossible, then He could take on human flesh and be born as a baby. If God can do the impossible, then He could die, once for all, the just for the unjust. If God can do the impossible, then no sin is too great for Him to forgive, no person so far from Him that He can’t reach them.

One of the worst kings in Israel’s history illustrates that point. Manasseh

erected altars for the Baals and made Asherim, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them. He built altars in the house of the LORD of which the LORD had said, “My name shall be in Jerusalem forever.” For he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the LORD. He made his sons pass through the fire in the valley of Ben-hinnom; and he practiced witchcraft, used divination, practiced sorcery and dealt with mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking Him to anger. Then he put the carved image of the idol which he had made in the house of God (2 Chron. 33:3b-7a).

A hopeless case, right? Idol worship, child sacrifice, witchcraft. Evil. But God didn’t turn His back on Manasseh.

The LORD spoke to Manasseh and his people, but they paid no attention. Therefore the LORD brought the commanders of the army of the king of Assyria against them, and they captured Manasseh with hooks, bound him with bronze chains and took him to Babylon. When he was in distress, he entreated the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. When he prayed to Him, He was moved by his entreaty and heard his supplication, and brought him again to Jerusalem to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD was God. (2 Chron. 33:10-13)

Impossible! But no. God “was entreated by him.” God forgives. God redeems. God reconciles.

The Christmas story is both the proof that God can do the impossible and the declaration that the God who is Lord of the impossible accomplishes the miraculous.

How right to praise His name.

This post is a re-print of one that first appeared here in December 2013.

Published in: on December 1, 2016 at 6:37 pm  Comments (3)  
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‘Twas The Night Before Christmas


Christmas_Mary_and_Baby_Jesus011It was the night before Christmas, and Mary’s back hurt worse than at any time since she got pregnant. She felt as big as a house, and tired. Oh, so tired. The trip from Nazareth had been long and hard, and then when they finally got to Bethlehem, they couldn’t find a place to stay.

All their relatives had given their guest quarters to others. The only place available was with the animals. It gave them some protection from the elements, at least, but sleeping on the hard floor wasn’t going to help her sore back any.

But then her baby kicked. This little miracle who she was to name Jesus. He would come into this world and become know as Immanuel—God with us, or so the angel had said.

Angel. She could hardly believe an angel had actually talked to her, told her she had found favor with God, that she’d get pregnant without having intimate relations with a man, that her baby would be called the Son of God and would take the throne of David and reign forever. Forever?

The amazing thing was, her betrothed also had an encounter with an angel. She didn’t find out until she got back from visiting her cousin Elizabeth. She’d dreaded talking with Joseph. How could she explain about being pregnant? She saw how people looked at her, heard the whispers. Her own family argued about what would become of her. They knew Joseph, being an honorable man, would not want anything to do with her now.

But he did. Later he told her he’d made up his mind to divorce her quietly. He was so kind. Though he thought her unfaithful, he still wanted to spare her as much public humiliation as possible. But before he could act on his decision, an angel came to him in a dream, he said. Everything he learned verified everything Mary had heard from her angel.

Gabriel, his name was. Joseph didn’t remember his angel’s name or even if he’d given a name. He didn’t need to because there was no question he was from God and the message was God’s. Everything he said pointed to the fact that her son, the son she and Joseph would raise together, would be special. How could he not be?

And here he was, kicking inside her. It was all so scary. The angel had told her not to be afraid, but he’d been talking about a different kind of fear than what she was feeling now. How could she be a mother? She didn’t have her own mother or Elizabeth or any of the women in Nazareth to go to for help. Who could she talk to when she had to nurse her son for the first time or when he got sick or woke crying in the middle of the night? How was she to know what to do?

Then there was the actual birth. It couldn’t be long now. She’d be so glad to have this baby out. Except she knew enough about births to know she was in for hours of pain. Most likely. In all her fourteen years, she’d only heard of one birth when the baby came quickly. Most of the mothers were in agony for hours, crying out against the pain over and over. And some of the babies didn’t survive the ordeal. Some of the mothers didn’t either.

But her baby would make it, that she knew. He had a destiny, foretold by angels. Jesus. What kind of a boy would he be? What kind of a man would he become? How could he who would grow up as a carpenter’s son become a ruler of his people? Yes, he was of the ancestral line of the kings, physically through her and legally through Joseph. But no king had ruled over Israel for, what, hundreds of years. Why would anyone think her son would be any different from the many other descendants of King David?

Would he have to fight to take his rightful place? Would he be a brilliant orator and win the people to him? Maybe he’d be like Moses and show the people signs to convince them that he was of God—the son of God—so that they would follow him.

Maybe . . . but now more than her back hurt. These pains . . . weren’t just from Jesus kicking . . . She needed to talk to a midwife. Could Joseph find one in this city? If not, he’d have to help her. She couldn’t do this alone. What could she use to put around her baby’s little body? Where would she put him? Someplace where she’d know he was safe when she slept. And, oh, she needed to sleep.

But this pain . . . should she wake Joseph and send him to look for a midwife? She should have thought of that when they first arrived, but they’d been so focused on finding a place to stay. Another . . . pain. Stronger. Harder. Was this what labor felt like? Was Jesus on his way?

Published in: on December 24, 2015 at 6:22 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Christmas Spirit


Christmas treesChristmas is a cherished holiday with any number of traditions. Consequently, the “Christmas spirit” has been fashioned out of the best of the season. In fact, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, his well-loved story about this season, takes to task those who disparage the qualities we most associate with the Christmas spirit—generosity, love, and joy.

Noticeably missing is fear. Odd, since fear played a great part in the first Christmas. Joseph was afraid to go through with his planned marriage because Mary turned up pregnant. He and she both were afraid, at separate times, when an angel visited them. So were the shepherds. Joseph again, having moved his new family to Egypt to keep Herod from killing their baby, was afraid to move back to Judea.

In other words, the first Christmas wasn’t about the warm and fuzzy, the beautiful lights and winter-scene cards or a warm fire with stockings all hung by the chimney with care. In fact, no presents showed up that first night. Some gawking strangers smelling like sheep did, parroting something about good tidings of great joy. All Mary could do was to file their words away to think about later. After all, she had a baby to feed—her first born, and what did she know about being a mother? Might she have been just a little fearful?

Appropriate to this topic are words Jonathan Rogers quoted in his blog some years ago:

I love Andrew Peterson’s song “Labor of Love,” sung like an angel by Jill Phillips on Behold the Lamb of God, my favorite Christmas album ever. Here’s the first stanza and chorus:

It was not a silent night
There was blood on the ground
You could hear a woman cry
In the alleyways that night
On the streets of David’s town

And the stable was not clean
And the cobblestones were cold
And little Mary full of grace
With the tears upon her face
Had no mother’s hand to hold

It was a labor of pain
It was a cold sky above
But for the girl on the ground in the dark
With every beat of her beautiful heart
It was a labor of love.

But not without fear.

In fact, fear followed Jesus throughout His life. He provided a miraculous catch of fish for Peter and he was afraid. He healed the guy who couldn’t walk, and the whole group of witnesses were afraid. He walked on water and His disciples were afraid. He raised a young man from the dead and the whole crowd was afraid. He kicked out the demons from a possessed man, and everyone in the entire district was afraid.

Actually Jesus seemed to validate their fear. At one point He said, “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!” (Luke 12:5). As it turns out, Jesus is that One.

Yes, He is the Judge. Granted, His first appearance as a baby wasn’t to bring judgment. That will come when He returns. Isaiah says the government is on His shoulders. In Revelation it is the Lamb Himself who breaks the seals issuing in the final judgment of the world.

What’s my point. Only that the true Christmas spirit should include reverence. Love, sure. Generosity, joy, gladness, definitely. But worship—the bowing down part of Christmas—shouldn’t be neglected. The events surrounding Jesus’s birth created awe in those who witnessed them. In the same way, I’d do well to look with awe on our Savior. After all, fear is part of the Christmas spirit.

Published in: on December 21, 2015 at 6:46 pm  Comments (4)  
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Love Doesn’t Come Softly


Nativity_Scenes015I know, I know, the novel Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke and the movie made from it tell us that love does come softly, but I disagree, if for no other reason than that Jesus, God’s gift because of His love for the world, didn’t come into the world softly. No baby does.

Of course, Jesus wasn’t just any baby, either. First, He left His heavenly home, His throne of glory, His place with the Father. Such a shattering change, taking on the likeness of men, couldn’t have been easy, and hardly seems “soft.”

I don’t think Mary would have characterized anything about Jesus’s birth as “soft.” When the angel came to tell her she’d become pregnant, he first had to tell her not to be afraid. Then there were the months of pregnancy, with no husband—the worry that perhaps Joseph would not want to marry her; the dread of what her neighbors would think, and say; the loneliness of being pregnant without the shared experience of other expectant mothers; the trip to Bethlehem when she was eight months’ pregnant; finding no room where she could give birth to her baby.

These could not have been easy, but mother love has a way of putting the needs of the child above her own thoughts of comfort and ease.

Then there was the actual birth that first Christmas. I’m pretty sure Mary wouldn’t have said her love for her son came softly. Not during the pain of childbirth. In a manger. Away from home. Did she have a midwife to help with the delivery? Or did her betrothed step in and help her? Or was there a kind stranger who heard her cries and came to her side? Or was she alone? None of those would be easy or “soft.”

Of course there were the shepherds who came later that night to worship her son. Yes, I imagine Mary was really up for company about then. And worship? Her son? Because of angels?

Months later Mary and Joseph packed up and hurried out of town, headed for Egypt, in order to save the life of their little one. Such a journey, driven by the fear of not knowing if they’d be pursued, if they’d find a welcoming place to live, could not have been easy. I wouldn’t characterize it as a soft period in their lives.

But ultimately Mary did lose Jesus. As the righteous, devout man Simeon prophesied when Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the temple when he was a week old, Mary experienced the “sword piercing her own soul.”

It was important for Mary to know that mothering the Messiah would not be all sweetness and light. It was both a great privilege and a great burden. (David Guzik, Study Guide for Luke 2 through Blue Letter Bible)

Soft? Not really.

So Christ’s example shows us that God’s love didn’t come softly, and we see that Mary’s love for Jesus didn’t come softly. Both came at great cost.

The Apostle Paul, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, penned one of the enduring, oft-quoted passages about love. It’s beautiful, but primarily it sets down just how “not soft” love is:

Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor. 13:4-7)

Endures. Bears all things. Does not seek its own. These are not the ideas of Hollywood love that’s filled with personal pleasure. This love that Paul describes is hard. It’s all about putting others first.

This love does not come softly. It comes from hard work, from sacrifice, from prayer, from discipline, from choosing to love even if feeling love isn’t there.

God loved us while we were yet sinners. There was nothing in us to commend us to God. We were rebellious, prideful little tyrants, trying to tell God what He should do and on what basis we would be willing to give Him worship. In our unregenerate state, we are insufferable. And God loved us.

That doesn’t come softly. It comes at great cost. And that’s the love God wants us to emulate:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. (John 13:34)

I understand that Janette Oke’s book/movie had in mind the idea that love comes unexpectedly, as we walk through life together, sharing and working and helping one another. In the story, the two lonely people, the widow and widower who had agreed to create a household together for reasons other than love, found love. They weren’t looking for love, but softly, through the long winter, their hearts came together.

It makes a wonderful, heartwarming story. A Hallmark story. I love a good romance, a happy ending. It’s just that, in truth, love—for a spouse or child or neighbor or coworker or boss or church member or in-law—takes work and commitment and perseverance. It is hard.

Quite honestly, realizing how love is hard makes me appreciate God’s love so much more:

But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy (Titus 3:4-5a)

If God hadn’t loved, not a one of us would be saved.

In fact, God as He reveals Himself in the Bible, is the only God among all the gods who loves those He made. Pagan gods, Hindu gods, the god of Islam, demand obedience and generate fear. The One True God shows Himself over and over as the God who provides, who rescues, who gives grace, who loves.

There’s nothing soft about His love . . . except perhaps the receiving of it.

Published in: on December 14, 2015 at 6:06 pm  Comments (5)  
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Hope Isn’t Wishful Thinking


AdventWreathLitLast Sunday night I hoped the Denver Broncos would defeat the New England Patriots in a National Football League game. (They did! 😉 ) I had no certainty that they would. Yes, the game was played in Denver (home field is always a big advantage in the NFL) and yes, New England (as the announcers interminably reminded the watching audience) had a number of offensive players hurt. And yes, the Patriots were playing at altitude on a short week of rest. But those factors did not guarantee Denver a win. I still hoped, not knowing how it would all turn out.

In many respects, you could say my position was one of wishful thinking. Not that my wishing could have any bearing on the outcome, but I had no certain knowledge and merely wished that the result I wanted would be the one that prevailed.

Happily it did!

But my hoping for a Denver victory on Sunday night is about as far from the hope a Christian has as possible, given the similarity in the dictionary definitions. The Bible links hope and faith in Hebrews 11:1 and both have nothing to do with “hoping against hope” or wishful thinking.

Rather, the writer specifies that faith is tied to assurance and hope to conviction.

Assurance. Conviction.

There’s a certainty about both those words. They remind me of Elisha’s position when his city was surrounded by an enemy army and he told his servant not to be afraid.

Uh, seriously, Elisha? I think there’s good cause to be afraid.

Except, Elisha saw what his servant didn’t—the host of heaven amassed against the enemy. So Elisha wasn’t making a foolish statement, and he wasn’t hoping against hope that things would turn out all right. He wasn’t exercising wishful thinking in the face of insurmountable odds. He was, in fact, exercising faith. He had the assurance that God’s army outnumbered the enemy. He had the hope built on conviction that God would not forsake him.

Even though outwardly nothing had changed. From where his servant sat, their situation couldn’t have been worse. They didn’t have the arms or the men to fight against the enemy and they didn’t have the resources to withstand a siege. All seemed lost.

It’s that “seemed” word that makes all the difference, because how things seem apart from God aren’t actually how they are.

Things undoubtedly seemed bleak to very-pregnant Mary when she had to follow Joseph to Bethlehem, then to Egypt, running for their lives with her little son. How could she know that for centuries people all across the globe would read about those frightening, uncomfortable, dangerous trips and give God glory because of His protection and care, because of fulfilled prophecy, because of the evidence of the humility of God’s Son, born in a manger, on the run before He could even walk.

Did Mary have hope? Did she envision herself raising her infant to become a man? To become the Savior of the World? That night I imagine she had hope despite the pain of childbirth. After all, the angel had told her she would bear a son. He wouldn’t lie. So she had assurance that this birth, even in a stable, would bring little Jesus into the world. And yet, she still had to bear the pain. She still had to run for her life when the angel told them to flee to Egypt. And she still had to witness her son die on a cross.

Hope is not wishful thinking. And it is not assurance that all will be without trouble or pain. But hope, when placed in God and His Son Jesus, gives what we all need: assurance that our sins have been washed away by the blood of the Lamb, that God has adopted us into His family, that we are no longer under condemnation, that God has given us His mercy and grace, and that we have a future to look forward to.

There’s a verse in Jeremiah that all too often is misused. Jeremiah is assuring the people of Judah who have been exiled to Babylon that God has not forgotten them, that they have a future and a hope despite the fact that they’ve been captured. This is not a promise of perfect health and untold wealth as some assume. But Christians can claim this promise for what it is: God’s declaration that our destiny is in His hands.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans for welfare and not for calamity, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

We may face “captivity” in the here and now, but we have the hope of heaven—the assurance of things not yet seen, the conviction that He who promised is able to bring it to pass.

Published in: on December 4, 2015 at 7:23 pm  Comments (1)  
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What Mary Didn’t Know


nativity-926289-mIt’s kind of interesting that in a pre-ultrasound society, Mary knew she was having a boy. No other pregnant women of her day knew the sex of the child, but Mary knew. She even knew her son’s name before his birth. She also knew, though undoubtedly many in her community suspected otherwise, that she was still a virgin—the impending birth of her son notwithstanding.

And finally, Mary knew what the angel had told her: she was blessed, her conception would be miraculous, the Child would be known as the Son of the Most High, He’d be King. If she and Joseph compared notes about their separate angelic visitations, she may also have known that He’d be called Immanuel—God with us.

That leaves a lot of unknown. Mary didn’t know, for example, when precisely she’d give birth. In other words, she didn’t know Christmas Eve was Christmas Eve. She most likely gratefully lay down that night in the animal stall, simply glad the long trip from Nazareth was over and she could ease the pain in her back.

When did her contractions begin? Was her labor long? Hard? Did Joseph rush to a relative and ask for a midwife to attend her?

When at last her son arrived, had been cleaned up, the umbilical cord cut, and she’d delivered the afterbirth, did she feed him, then place him in the only safe place at hand—one of the feeding troughs—so she could finally get a little sleep? Because she didn’t know she and her little family were about to have visitors.

Mary didn’t know that while she brought this new precious life into the world, an angel had appeared to a handful of shepherds to announce her son’s birth. She didn’t know about the multitude of the heavenly beings who would join in to praise God and to deliver a blessing to humankind.

Days later, when she and Joseph took Jesus to the temple, she didn’t know about Simeon or about Anna waiting their whole lives for her son who they recognized as the Messiah.

Throughout Jesus’s life, there was so much Mary didn’t know or understand. In fact, “Mary, Did You Know?” a fairly recent Christmas song with lyrics and music written by Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene, addresses this point.

The song asks rhetorically if Mary knew “her Baby Boy” would walk on water, give sight to the blind, calm the storm with His hand, and ultimately, that He was the Creator, the King who would one day rule the nations, the perfect Lamb, the Great I Am.

The fact is, she didn’t know any of the miraculous things Jesus would do, and when she asked Him to help at the wedding when they’d run out of wine, it appears from what Jesus said to her that her asking was more indicative of her not knowing who He was than her knowing.

He was special—that fact was undeniable. But after an angelic visitation, an impossible conception that led to an incredible birth, shepherds bowing to her son, prophetic words spoken over Him in the temple, wisemen traveling from some far off country to give him expensive gifts, Mary still didn’t know who Jesus was.

She knew what she’d seen and heard. She stored it all up to think about later. But not until Jesus died, not until He rose again, not until—most likely—she, along with around 500 others, saw Him ascend into heaven did she get it. We know she did because she was in the upper room when the Holy Spirit came upon the group of Jesus’s faithful followers (Acts 1:14).

In the end, what Mary didn’t know, she would learn. Praise God that He gives us a lifetime to get it right—to respond to His call, to accept what He’s told us about Himself.

Proof, atheists always say. Where is the proof, the evidence that your God exists? Mary had all the evidence in the world—she was part of that evidence—and still she didn’t believe. Until she did.

May this Christmas be the day when more blind eyes will open, when more broken and contrite hearts will believe and know what previously they couldn’t understand: Jesus, Messiah, has come to rescue and to save!

Published in: on December 24, 2014 at 6:15 pm  Comments Off on What Mary Didn’t Know  
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The God Of The Impossible


Nativity_Scenes015Mary was astounded. How could she not be? An angel had told her she’d get pregnant, and here she was, still a virgin, staring down into the little face of her newborn son.

As if that wasn’t enough, a group of shepherds crowded into their quarters to worship her baby. Angels, they said, had told them about this child–where he’d be born and how they could find him and how they would know him.

Then there were the two in the temple when she and Joseph went to present Jesus according to the law. First was Simeon who said strange things: that her son would be a light to the Gentiles and a glory to Israel. Then in his blessing, Simeon added that he was appointed as sign to be opposed. He didn’t stop there, but added some confusing personal prophecy about a sword piercing Mary’s own soul.

Then there was the prophetess Anna who thanked God for Mary’s son and talked about him to everyone who was looking for the redemption of Israel.

All this came on the heels of her cousin Elizabeth, her barren cousin Elizabeth, getting pregnant. The angel had told Mary that would happen, too. And it was then he made the whole astounding series of events make sense: “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

The bottom line, and the only thing a person actually needs to believe in order to accept the astounding things we read about connected to that first Christmas, is that truth which Mary accepted. When the angel made his declaration about God’s greatness and power and limitless ability, Mary submitted to God–to His plans for her, His capacity to accomplish what He’d made known to her through His messenger.

She got it–that God was bigger than the laws of nature and that He was the fulfiller of prophecy. She ought not be a mother, but she was. The shepherds ought not have known about her son, but they did. Simeon and Anna ought not have declared a poor baby born to an unwed mother in a manger to be the Messiah, but they had.

Indeed, God can do the impossible.

That’s really the truth that separates people today as believers or unbelievers. If God can do the impossible, then He could take on human flesh and be born as a baby. If God can do the impossible, then He could die, once for all, the just for the unjust. If God can do the impossible, then no sin is too great for Him to forgive, no person so far from Him than He can’t reach them.

One of the worst kings in Israel’s history illustrates that point. Manasseh

erected altars for the Baals and made Asherim, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them. He built altars in the house of the LORD of which the LORD had said, “My name shall be in Jerusalem forever.” For he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the LORD. He made his sons pass through the fire in the valley of Ben-hinnom; and he practiced witchcraft, used divination, practiced sorcery and dealt with mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking Him to anger. Then he put the carved image of the idol which he had made in the house of God (2 Chron. 33:3b-7a).

A hopeless case, right? Idol worship, child sacrifice, witchcraft. Evil. But God didn’t turn His back on Manasseh.

The LORD spoke to Manasseh and his people, but they paid no attention. Therefore the LORD brought the commanders of the army of the king of Assyria against them, and they captured Manasseh with hooks, bound him with bronze chains and took him to Babylon. When he was in distress, he entreated the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. When he prayed to Him, He was moved by his entreaty and heard his supplication, and brought him again to Jerusalem to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD was God. (2 Chron. 33:10-13)

Impossible! But no. God “was entreated by him.” God forgives. God redeems. God reconciles.

The Christmas story is both the proof that God can do the impossible and the declaration that the God who is Lord of the impossible accomplishes the miraculous.

How right to praise His name.

Published in: on December 24, 2013 at 6:17 pm  Comments Off on The God Of The Impossible  
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