Sunday, December 17, 2017

Advent, 3rd Sunday: Pink Candle

Today, churches who share together the Advent wreaths rites light the pink candle on this, the third Sunday in Advent.  Why is it pink?  There is more than one traditional answer, but one of the most common is that it symbolizes joy - - joy that Jesus is almost here.

Joy is an opposite of disappointment.  Have you been disappointed in any aspect of your Advent season thus far?
About 9 days ago, we had a record December snowfall in my part of Georgia.  8 days ago I was supposed to attend my favorite symphony concert of the year.  Due to the forecasted road conditions at the time I was to be returning home, my party and I did not deem it safe to travel those icy roads.  So, regrettably, I called the box office and turned in my tickets.  Talk about being disappointed?  I literally grieved missing this concert!  It just "makes" Christmas for me!  I don't often cry, but last weekend I cried.

A few days later I called the box office again and they agreed to transform my missed tickets into tickets for last night's "similar" Christmas performance.  So, I gathered up most of my original party, added in one interloper (lol!  you know who you are!), and headed down for the concert.  While it was not the one I had originally longed to see, it was delightful.  There were still a few logistical "concerns" along the way, but we all got to enjoy this wonderful blend of styles (classical, jazz, gospel) presented by high schoolers through senior citizens, celebrating the Christmas season.  I truly enjoyed it!  God had redeemed my disappointment in this situation, and I am grateful.

Have you ever had someone grab a fleshy portion of your body and then just pinch it as hard as they can?  Once a toddler member of my family bit the back of my upper arm;  I guess she just thought it looked tasty! Surely does hurt, doesn't it?

Disappointment is similar.  It's not an all-out tragedy of epic proportions, but it hurts, sometimes for a while.

Perhaps because expectations are higher, disappointments seem to get magnified at the holidays.

  • You didn't get that part in the Christmas play.
  • Someone else was invited to a special event, "in your place".
  • You got a pink, fuzzy Snuggie as a gift.
  • Your loved ones chose to spend Christmas Eve, your family's special traditional time, with the in-laws.
None of these events are earth-shattering or life-changing.  But, they ache like a bad bruise.

At the root of disappointment is a loss of control.  Things don't turn out like we wanted them to. Surely we need to do our best, plan, be organized, be responsible.  When we do so and yet are disappointed, it is like a slap across the face.  We are once again confronted with the reminder:  our control is an illusion; only God is in control.

"My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts," says the Lord.  "And my ways are far beyond anything you can imagine."
Isaiah 55:8

What is the antidote to disappointment, then?

What a lot of us do is to shove down our disappointment and pretend nothing is wrong.  That can be useful to an extent; most people don't want to see an Eeyore (the eternally downcast, ever-gloomy donkey from Winnie the Pooh).  But, it's not useful in the long run.
If we don't adjust our hearts and attitudes, disappointment can morph into restlessness, anger and bitterness.  Those are not useful at all.

What is more healing is to pour out our heart to trusted friends and to God.  Our friends can be used by God to counsel us and to give us comfort.  And, God can handle our angst.   It's okay to cry, to grieve, to rant, even, to God in prayer.

"He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust."

Ultimately, though, we need to do as the Wise Men did, as recorded in Matthew 2:11.  (By the way, Matthew is the only gospel writer who records this event, and most theologians believe it happened when Jesus was a toddler, not a newborn.  Matthew has this habit of sometimes presenting events out of chronological order.)

They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh.

We need to set aside our disappointment and kneel in the presence of the King, offering back to Him the gifts He has given us.

Most of our disappointments have to do with other people, don't they?  Often, they center around those we love the most.  Have you ever been asked to lay at the feet of the King those you love the most?  I have, and frankly, I don't like it!  In fact, submitting my will to His is not "one of my favorite things".  My old sinful nature just rears up and resists!

Part of submitting our disappointment to Him can involve changing our focus.  Ok, so your plans have changed.  God had other plans; trust them.  How can you shift your focus to serve Him in other ways.  This resplendent walk is all about glorifying Him, you know, as opposed to pleasing ourselves.  If this "unfortunate" reality has inserted itself into your Advent, as (quite honestly) it has mine, let's take the steps listed here to "turn it around" for His glory.  Ask Him to change your heart, to take away your disappointment and to show you how you can worship Him in this season, starting this day and leading all the way through to the New Year!  He will.  Remember, when we give ourselves more fully to Him, we are never ultimately, forever disappointed. 

 Scripture reassures us, “No one who trusts God like this—heart and soul—will ever regret it.”
Romans 10:11
The Message
Dear Father, some of us are going through terrible disappointment this holiday season.  Please help us get through it.  Although these admonitions of mine sound easy, they're not.  Submitting our will to Yours and keeping our joy about it is hard.  We so ridiculously believe that we know best.  It's laughable!  I'm sure you laugh at our preconceived plans sometimes.  Have pity on us, dear Lord and bind up our broken hearts.  Bandage our bruises and wounds.  Pour your healing oil over us and wrap us in your arms of love.  Tell us again that it will be okay and that You have a plan in this situation that is better than we could even dream at this moment.  We bow before the King in worship and offer our gifts to You.  In Jesus' name, amen.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Advent, Day 14: The Second Gift

I was thinking of this short, but powerful, film clip this morning as I worked on this post.....I hope the sentiment expressed in the clip is not true of readers who enter here!

Yesterday, we meditated on the first 16 verses of John 1.  In verses 13-14, John told us that Jesus was full of grace and truth.  Here are verses 9-16 again:

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet )the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and)his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) 16 For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.
So....yesterday we focused on grace, and today the focus is on the second gift, truth.  
There is a movement afoot, an old, Satanic deception, that leads people to believe in moral relativism.  In other words, this lie denies that truth exists.  "It may be true for you; but, it's not true for me."  The Bible declares this to be false, a trap of the Devil's.  This belief is a very successful trap too, because many fall into it.  They are attracted to it because, if a person can make up his or her own truth, then he or she can simply do "whatever"  - - - be one's own god.  As Jack Nicholson's character says, they "can't handle the truth".  Such folks are like the Israelites who fashioned a golden calf to worship while Moses was on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 32), or like Jereboam, king of the northern tribes of Israel, allowed the people to make two golden calves and set them up in  "places of worship" in two regions of Israel
(1 Kings 11:25-14:20 and Amos 5).  Jereboam typifies rebellion.

Just because you don't believe something doesn't make it untrue.  
Nor does it make it true.  
God's truth stands unshakeable, independent of any human's belief or non-belief. 

In vs. 27, John reaffirms that God gave the Torah, the law, to Moses, as a textbook, to lead the people in the way of righteous obedience.  But, the Torah could not save a person from sin.  Only the blood sacrifice of animals, offered by the sinner in repentant faith, could appease the wrath of God mentioned in yesterday's post.  It was the sinner's faith that saved them, that made them right with God.  Jesus's coming fulfilled the law, and took our relationship to God to a whole new dimension. No longer must we sacrifice animals by faith to receive God's forgiveness, His grace. 
The apostle Paul explains this in Hebrews 10.  Look and rejoice, Christian!

1The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. 2Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins.3But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. 4It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
5Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
6with burnt offerings and sin offerings
you were not pleased.
7Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—
I have come to do your will, my God.’ ”a
8First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. 9Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. 10And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
11Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. 14For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
{The off-set portion above is also Psalm 40:6-8.)
This is truth.  Our high priest, Jesus, offered the once-for-all blood sacrifice of Himself.   It is for this reason Jesus declared in John 14:6 - - "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No man comes to the Father except through me."

"Those being made holy" is a phrase that applies to those who have embraced Jesus and His Way as the truth which it is.  That phrase refers to the sanctification/purification aspect of salvation, the resplendent walk.  Yes, some - - - - even most - - - people will reject Jesus and His Truth  (John 1:11).  However, verse 12 contains a glorious "but" - - - {Message version}

But whoever did want him,
who believed He was who He claimed
and would do what He said
He made to be their true selves,
their child-of-God selves,
These are the God-begotten,
not blood-begotten,
not flesh-begotten,
not sex-begotten.

Children of God - - - that is we, Christians!   The power referred to in verse 12 is that same sanctifying, purifying, refining power that Jesus Christ brings into the lives of His children on a daily basis.

"See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!  
And, that is what we are!"
1 John 3:1

Friend, you were created by God and FOR Him, whether you like that truth or not. You can choose to embrace/receive/believe it ... or not.  That does not change the truth.  And, you can only be your true self, the being that God created You to be, when you allow Him to give you Spirit birth, to make you "born-again", as Jesus described it to Nicodemus in John 3

Living and walking in truth is a GLORIOUS life, a gift I give thanks for every day!  If you have not become "God-born", will you take that step today?  Receive His grace and truth.  Open the first and second gifts of Christmas!

Dear Father, it is because of Your grace and truth that we, Your God-begotten children, give gifts at Christmas.  Our gift-giving is but a shadow of The Gift You gave to us.  As the Wise Men brought gifts to the Holy Child, Jesus, bowing down in worship, so we worship by giving sacrificial gifts to each other, as reminders of the Gift that cost You so much.  Thank you for Jesus and that, "through His fulness, we have received grace upon grace"!  Oh, what love You have poured all over us, that we should be called the Children of God!  In Jesus' name, amen.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Advent, Day 13: The First Gift of Christmas

Do any of you really like shopping for Christmas gifts?  While I enjoy giving gifts at Christmas, I do not enjoy the act of shopping for them.  It is, to put it plainly, a hassle.  My mother gives everyone money, which makes things easy for her and generally satisfies all the recipients.  On the other hand, I have both been the recipient of gifts that made me gasp in delight, and I've been the giver of such gifts.

Unfortunately, in our American society, the gift-giving surrounding Christmas has become a distortion of what it should be.  I don't even need to elaborate here; the discerning reader knows exactly what I mean.  So, why do we even give Christmas gifts, anyway?  ("Anyways" is not a legitimate word, by the way.)

The initial reason we began to give Christmas gifts is explained in one of my very favorite Scripture passages  (John 1:1-18, particularly verse 16 & 17) and modeled for us in the acts of the wise men in Matthew 2

From the NET version:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. The Word was with God in the beginning. All things were created by him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created. In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind. And the light shines on in the darkness, but the darkness has not mastered it.
A man came, sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify about the light, so that everyone might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify about the light. The true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was created by him, but the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to what was his own, but his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who have received him—those who believe in his name—he has given the right to become God’s children 13 —children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband’s decision, but by God.
14 Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glory—the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father. 15 John testified about him and shouted out, “This one was the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’” 16 For we have all received from his fullness one gracious gift after another. 17 For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known.
John tells us that we have all received from Jesus Christ's fullness one gracious gift after another.  He goes on to elaborate:  God first gave the law to the Jews. But, Jesus fulfilled the law by giving us grace and truth.  John said in verse 14 that Jesus was full of both.

The gift of grace is the greatest gift ever!  God's gift of His Son reconciles and restores any human being to Him, if that person accepts God's offer of salvation by grace, only available through "the Only Begotten", Jesus.  What is grace?  Grace is God's unmerited favor - - - giving us what we do not deserve, which is His lovingkindness, His approval, His benevolence.

Our English word "grace" comes from the Greek word, "charis".  This word is closely related to the Greek "chairo", which means "to rejoice".  In the days of Homer, who wrote The Iliad and it's sequel, The Odyssey, long before the birth of Christ, the word meant "sweetness" or "attractiveness", later coming to mean the "undeserved favor bestowed upon someone by someone greater, that is, someone in a superior position."

It is important to understand the context of God's grace.  To fully comprehend this gift, we must look at God's holiness, something often pushed aside in Christianity today.  According to the Bible, God is holy, which means totally without sin.  Jesus, being God Himself, is also holy, and lived the perfect human life while on earth.  Holiness is a state of being that cannot tolerate the smallest smidgen of sin.  Sin provokes wrath/anger in the heart of God.  Wayne Jackson, writing in The Christian Courier, puts it like this:

"Divine wrath is the reflection of a deliberate and measured reaction of a perfectly holy Being toward sin — a response that is entirely consistent with the righteous nature of a loving God. Standing over against the starkness of sacred wrath, is the dazzling concept of “grace.”1

Who can tolerate the wrath of God?  Who can stand against it?  Who can be "good enough" to negate it? 
No one. 
And, that is why we have Christmas. 
That is why Jesus had to be given, to be "made flesh and dwell among us" (vs. 14).  He "took up residence among us", "made His home with us".  One version says "pitched his tent with us".  He IS grace and came, bearing grace, that first gift of Christmas.

Oh!  Have you received His grace in your heart and life?  While peace with God is made available to all people (Luke 2:14) God's grace is conditional in that each person must understand and obediently receive it. John Calvin distorted Scripture when he asserted that God's grace is bestowed through the sovereignty of God, irrespective of human will.  The Calvinist position is negated elsewhere in Scripture, one notable example being that of Noah, another of Abraham, and so on.

"Grace, grace, God's grace!  Grace that can pardon and cleanse, within.  Grace, grace, God's grace!  Grace that is greater than all my sin!"
"Grace Greater Than Our Sin", by Johnston/Towner, 1911

Please accept His matchless gift of grace today, and if you already have, rejoice!  Thank Him for it, this first and best gift of Christmas!

Oh Lord!  As I contemplate the many, precious gifts you have given me, the first on the list is your marvelous grace!  Your love chased me and I was overwhelmed by your beauty and holiness, your lovingkindness and mercy.  Thank you for this most wonderful gift of all.  Thank you for Your Son, the One and Only, my Savior. 


Thursday, December 14, 2017

Advent Day 12: A Leaping Heart

Do you remember times in your life when your heart leapt for joy?  I'll bet you can think of many.  I surely can.  What a wonderful feeling, right?  I remember, a few months ago, watching my dear friend find out her daughter was going to give birth to twins.  She was shown the first sonogram, and there were two little "lima beans" in the picture!  She nearly collapsed in tears of joy!  And, this past Tuesday, those little identical twin girls were born.  What joy!

Today's Advent passage is from the Message version this morning - - Luke 1:5-15.
It's the beginning of Elizabeth's and Zachariah's story.

During the rule of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest assigned service in the regiment of Abijah. His name was Zachariah. His wife was descended from the daughters of Aaron. Her name was Elizabeth. Together they lived honorably before God, careful in keeping to the ways of the commandments and enjoying a clear conscience before God. But they were childless because Elizabeth could never conceive, and now they were quite old.
8-12 It so happened that as Zachariah was carrying out his priestly duties before God, working the shift assigned to his regiment, it came his one turn in life to enter the sanctuary of God and burn incense. The congregation was gathered and praying outside the Temple at the hour of the incense offering. Unannounced, an angel of God appeared just to the right of the altar of incense. Zachariah was paralyzed in fear.
13-15 But the angel reassured him, “Don’t fear, Zachariah. Your prayer has been heard. Elizabeth, your wife, will bear a son by you. You are to name him John. You’re going to leap like a gazelle for joy, and not only you—many will delight in his birth. He’ll achieve great stature with God.

These two were of the tribe of Levi, which meant he would become a temple priest and she a priest's wife.  Such was the role assigned to them as members of the Levitical order.  Not only that, but Elizabeth was "spiritual royalty", as humans would view it.  She was descended from the daughters of Aaron, who was the first Levitical priest appointed by God Himself.

In spite of this, the couple had no children, a situation that caused them much grief, embarrassment, shame, stigmatization.  People of that day would have looked at them and whispered, "What did they do to deserve such a curse from God?"  Childlessness was seen as a curse.

Levitical priests of the highest orders lived for that opportunity to go into the Holy of Holies.  It was an awesome, fearsome occasion.  One never knew what would happen in there.  Apparently, some men had become so overwrought they had suffered heart attacks and presented a problem - - - how to get them out?  So, it had become a tradition to tie little bells on the garments of the priest selected to enter this most sacred of places.  If the minders heard the bells tinkling, they knew he was still alive. Similarly, a rope was tied around one ankle, so that he could be dragged out if he collapsed in there.

Lo and behold!  The unimaginable happened to Zachariah, who was a "priest's priest".  In spite of the corruption in the priesthood of that day, he and his wife lived "honorably" before God.  In spite of their seeming "curse", they remained faithful.  How many of us would do the same, in the face of such adversity?

Then, we see such an amazing example of God's timing in verse 13.  The angel said, "Your prayer has been heard!"  This is the second time I know of (or can recall) when a very old couple has been told they would conceive, Abraham and Sarah being the other.  Zachariah and Elizabeth prayed for a child for a very long time.  Whether they were still praying, even in their twilight of life, I don't know; the scriptures do not say.  But, the point is that they had prayed faithfully.

It appeared for so long that God's answer was going to be "no". 
But, God's timing is not our timing.

What are you asking God for today?  What news or answered prayer would make your heart "leap like a gazelle"?  Here at Advent, we wait for and anticipate the Savior's birth.   We wait for the anniversary we know will occur.  Not so with deeply longed-for prayer requests however.  It is hard to "keep the faith", to keep praying and seeking the face of God.  Sometimes, it feels pointless and "impossible".

We must remember that, no matter what answer God ultimately gives us to our prayers, nothing is impossible for Him.  Nothing.  The angel Gabriel stated this to Mary, as recorded in Luke 1:37 - - -

"For nothing will be impossible with God."

The most hardened sinner's heart is not too hard for God.
The most wayward child is not too hard for God.
The vilest illness is not too hard for God.
The most ambitious dictator - - -
The strongest storm - - -

Zachariah, despite his astounding track record of faithfulness, thought the angel of the Lord's message was impossible.  As a lesson to him and to others, God took away his power of speech for a time.   I can understand Zachariah's "faith lapse" there. There's no telling what I would have thought or said, in such a situation!  Sometimes, when we have prayed and prayed, even in the face of impossibility, we are astounded when God gives us the answer we were seeking!

You may be familiar with a more-recent Christmas song called,  "A Strange Way to Save the World". 1

Wasn't it though?  A strange way to save the world?
Some would say "impossible"!  A virgin, being overshadowed by the very Spirit who created all things ... impregnating her?  All the Old Testament messianic scriptures that were fulfilled by Jesus?  Impossible, right?

Keep praying for "your impossible", Christian!   

Good morning, Lord.  I am so privileged to serve "the God of the Impossible"!  The One who created all things and holds it all together.  Help us to faithfully and in submission to seek Your will in our prayers, remembering that Your love is everlasting and that nothing is impossible with You!  All my love, in Jesus' name, amen.



Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Advent Day 11: Meh...Messiah...

At some point or other during Advent I am tempted to have a "Meh..." reaction to the whole thing.  (Mostly this comes from letting myself get overwhelmed and exhausted.)  Does that ever happen to you?

Today's passages of scripture are Malachi 3:1-6 and Matthew 2:1-6.

Let's briefly survey the first passage.  Here it is (Holman Christian Standard Version):

The first phrase hearkens back to the end of the previous chapter, which closes with the question, "Where is this god of judgment you keep referring to?"  At the beginning of chapter 3 is God's answer, through Malachi.  Interestingly, before affirming that Messiah is coming, God gives us a prophecy that was fulfilled through the ministry of John the Baptist, whom Jesus called "the greatest " (Matt. 11:11; Luke 7:28).  Isaiah, an earlier Old Testament book, also prophesies about John (Isaiah 40:3).  "Then" (after this - - - the ministry of John), the Messiah will come.  God goes on to say that Messiah will refine and purify the Levites, the priestly family of the Jews.  What is that all about?

Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament.  By the time Messiah is born, 400 years have passed. The Levites have gotten extremely "fat", lazy, complacent.  Now, let's look at Matthew 2:1-6  - - -

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem saying, “Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was alarmed, and all Jerusalem with him. After assembling all the chief priests and experts in the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they said, “for it is written this way by the prophet:
And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are in no way least among the rulers of Judah,
for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
I find it astounding the 1st century A.D. chief priests and Torah experts had such a lackadaisical attitude toward the arrival of the Magi.  Why didn't they go with them to find Baby Jesus?!  (I don't think it was because they were too tired!) 
This is the first look we have had at New Testament Jewish religious leaders, and, of all people, the reprobate King Herod was leading the charge!  The response of the Jewish leaders seems to be "Meh.."  One has to wonder - - -did they really believe the Scriptures?  Did they think that they no longer needed a Messiah, so much so that they had stopped looking for one?  It is Herod who goes "on the hunt" to find this Baby Messiah.  Obviously, these Levites needed a "refiner's fire"!

John Piper, in his book, We Have Come to Worship Him, points out that Herod's and the chief priests' reactions to the Magi typifies the two kinds of people who choose not to worship Jesus.  The first type of reaction is "Meh...":  complete disinterest.  The second type is strong opposition, as illustrated by Herod.  These people are deeply disturbed by Jesus and the claims He makes.  They want no part of Anyone who would throw them off of the throne of their lives.  The Magi, of course, typify the third group: those who meet and then choose to worship Jesus.  All people who have heard the gospel fall into one of these three categories.  In which one are you?

Even those who have decided to follow Jesus sometimes have one of those first two, inappropriate attitudes.  Those are certainly to be avoided, whether here in Advent, or at any other time.  Jesus came, not only to purify "the sons of Levi", but also us, His disciples, as we follow Him in the resplendent walk!

Dear God, let us who claim Your name not have a "Meh" attitude toward the coming of Your Son. His birth is the reason for all the seasonal celebration that surrounds us.  So often, though, it gets buried amid the fal-de-ral.  Like those Levites, I need Your "refiner's fire" in my life, to purify my heart and attitude, as intense heat purifies gold and silver.  Then, I will be able to see You clearly, to worship You dearly, this Advent and Christmas season.  In Jesus' name, amen.