Sunday, December 30, 2018

First Sunday after Christmas

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith  (He 12:2).  Amen.

I have seen the commercial on TV a few times now.  You may have as well.  I won’t mention the car company because you may not be a Chevy fan.  (There is a free plug for them.)  But real people and not paid actors announce that we are eligible to receive the employee discount on a new vehicle.  If you are in the market for a 2019 model  (or 2020 by now), that might be a nice incentive  (as long as you don’t have to punch in and put it together).  Near the end, a number of them shout, “Welcome to the family.”
There is a bigger, even better family, that we belong to.  All because of Jesus whose birth we continue to celebrate during this Christmas season.  Jesus is your Brother who comes for his family and who cares for his family.  We read from …

Hebrews 2:10-18

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ Jesus, who is here with us and there for us,
We speak of “brothers” in different ways:
As a fact—by birth and by blood.  That doesn’t require much explanation.  Think of the picture that a proud mom and dad take of their boys sitting by some festive Christmas decoration and post to social media for everyone to comment on their cuteness.
As a figure—by experience or expertise.  Those in the military refer to each other as “a band of brothers” or “brothers in arms.”  Pastors sometimes talk about “brothers in the ministry.”  Perhaps it the same in other professions because they share something in common.
Whether or not you feel a closeness like that to another makes no difference.  We get the concept of a brother.  Even more so when we look at Jesus.

Jesus Is Your Brother
1.  Who comes for his family  (10-13)
2.  Who cares for his family  (14-18)

1.  Who comes for his family  (10-13)
I read that the second most popular hobby in the United States is genealogy—shaking your family tree.  (In case you are curious, the first is gardening.  You know my feelings on number one.)  As we trust in Jesus, it is not for amusement about our ancestors, but for encouragement.  Jesus is your Brother who comes for his family.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews contends what we confess:  that God created the heavens and the earth  (Ge 1,2).  Or in his words:  “for whom and through whom everything exists”  (He 2:10).  All that is seen and unseen is for his glory and by his authority  (Ro 11:36).  And when all was said and done, his evaluation, as well as his conclusion, was that it was “very good”  (Ge 1:31)—perfect.
But it may not have lasted long because the devil would not leave it alone.  He dangled the lie that God was not good in front of Adam and Eve and they decided that it was true—in spite of how loving the Lord had been to them.  When they ate the forbidden fruit, they were no longer connected to him, but separated from him.  Or outside of the family, not inside.  And that is not the right place to be.
That is not what God wanted.  He was not powerless, but purposeful.  He did not pretend that sin did not exist, but planned to get rid of it.  And it was all his doing.  It was right what he did.  “It was fitting that God … should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering”  (He 2:10).  That is Jesus—the source of our rescue.  He did not explain to us the way to heaven.  He became for us the Way to heaven  (Jn 14:6).  Jesus, our Brother, is the only path to the Father.
But that didn’t come without pain.  It was through agony that Jesus accomplished God’s objective “in bringing many sons to glory”  (He 2:10)—to his side in our eternal home.  God made Jesus perfect.  Really, he brought Jesus to the goal of saving us.  We might compare it to the person who resolves to race in a 5K in the new year.  That one has to set up a training program to reach that end—how much to lift and how far to run.
As our brother, Jesus lived for us.  We have not, cannot, keep the law continually, but he did constantly.  For example, he observed the 4th commandment for us completely.  Luke reported that the twelve-year-old Jesus “went down to Nazareth with them [that is, Mary and Joseph] and was obedient to them”  (Lk 2:51).  That kept on in his teens and twenties—all through his life.  Like Samuel grew “in stature and in favor with the LORD and with men” so did Jesus  (1 Sa 2:26; Lk 2:52).  He did all for us.  He gives that perfection to us.
As our brother, Jesus died for us.  The Infant in the manger becomes our Substitute on the cross.  And when he cried out on Good Friday, “It is finished”  (Jn 19:30), he made us holy—set free and far from sin.
That is why Jesus became one of us.  “Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family”  (He 2:11).  And he is not embarrassed to mention that.  “So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers”  (He 2:10).  He claims us as his own.  The writer to the Hebrew Christians backs that up with some quotes from the Old Testament.
“I will declare your name to my brothers; in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises”  (He 2:12; Ps 22:22).  That is why Jesus, the suffering Savior  (Is 53), came—to make his Father’s love known  (Jn 1:18).  He shares good news with God’s children and joins them in honoring him.
“I will put my trust in him”  (He 2:13; Is 8:17).  Jesus’ life was one of confidence—all the way to the cross.  When he paid for our sin, he proclaimed:  “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”  (Lk 23:46).
“Here am I, and the children God has given me”  (He 2:13; Is 8:18).  He draws our attention to the detail that he has included us in the family of God.
Jesus is your Brother who comes for his family—for you and for me.
2.  Who cares for his family  (14-18)
That same source indicated that the second most visited category of websites  (sadly behind pornography) is tracing your family line.  As we turn to Jesus, it is not just a matter of information about our roots, but of salvation.  Jesus is your Brother who cares for his family.
At Christmas we consider the importance and contemplate the significance of what happened in the little town of Bethlehem  (Lk 2:6,7)—true God became true man, making his dwelling with us  (Jn 1:14).  He wasn’t a hologram, but a whole man.  Or as the author puts it:  “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity”  (He 2:14).  I wonder if Mary looked as his fingernails the first night in the stable.  That is what I always check when I am around a newborn.  (It is odd, but also interesting how tiny they are.)  Jesus was just like us—in the same manner.
And it wasn’t out of boredom or curiosity, but for benefit and reality.  The reason:  “so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death”  (He 2:14,15). “To destroy” is in the sense of “to render inoperable.”  You may not have noticed.  (I am not trying to insult you.)  During Advent, the lights on the trees up front were blue.  Now they are white.  We can flip a switch so that the one color doesn’t work.  That is what Jesus did to the devil  (1 Jn 3:8).  He is ineffective.
Notice how it goes.  The devil tempts us to sin and when we fall, he taunts us with death.  That is the wage that sin pays and he is more than happy to see that we collect what is due  (Ro 6:23).  But remarkably, Jesus used the very thing that Satan held over us to nullify his reign of terror—death.  Jesus died to release us from the devil’s grip.  Because Jesus gave up his life and then came back to life, we have life—right now and forever.  Death may still touch us, but it does not terrify us.  Jesus won the victory and gives it to us  (1 Co 15:57).  Death doesn’t mark the end of life, but rather the entrance to life.
We are the objects of his concern and care.  “For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants”  (He 2:16).  Jesus came for us, not angels.  The angels announced his birth, but we are the beneficiaries of him becoming a human—we who have the same faith as Abraham  (Ro 4:16).  That is exactly what they expressed:  “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you”  (Lk 2:11).
There is more to this necessity of Jesus identifying with us.  “For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people”  (He 2:17).  Jesus is merciful—he understands our needs and meets them.  He is faithful—he is dependable and reliable in fulfilling his Father’s will.
But this “high priest” figure.  The readers in those days would be much more familiar with the reference than we are in these days.  But we can still profit from the illustration.  Every year on the great Day of Atonement, the high priest would take the blood of a goat and step behind the curtain in the temple into the most holy place.  There he would sprinkle it on the top of the ark of the covenant  (Lv 16:15ff.).  It was a reminder that blood was necessary to take away sin  (He 9:22).  Jesus shed his own precious blood on Golgotha and satisfied God’s anger over our sin.  That blood cleanses us too, removing the deepest stain and darkest spot  (1 Jn 1:7).  We are “at one” with God.  “The LORD is gracious and compassionate”  (Ps 111:4) as the psalmist had us sing.
One more bit of assistance.  “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted”  (He 2:18).  My older brother could tell me what 6th grade was like because he had sat in the classroom the year before me.  Jesus knows up close and personal what it feels like to have the devil come after him—again and again.  Satan was relentless because he wanted Jesus to sin and slip so that the world would have no Savior.  But Jesus never did sin  (He 4:15).  And now our Brother can stand by his family members when the devil comes with his deceits and deceptions.  Jesus can comfort:  “I know what it is like to have Satan whisper that it is better to go against God than to go with him.  I have been there.”  Along the way, Jesus either makes us firm when we stand against Satan or gives us forgiveness when we stumble into sin.  Jesus is your brother who cares for his family—for you and for me.
The Chevy family doesn’t mean that much if you are not in the market for the latest truck or greatest automobile.  That is what the advertising would have us conclude.  For the last 7+ years, we have been a “family,” a church family.  Thank you for your all of thoughtfulness and kindness, all of your generosity and sincerity.  There is not an ending of a relationship, but a changing of one.  Far or near, we call God our Father and Jesus our Brother.  That is who he is because he came for his family and cares for his family.  Through faith in him, we will see each other again—if not on earth then for eternity.  Then Jesus, our Brother, bless us going forward with you—in the future as in the past.  And it still is true:  Merry Christmas.  Amen.

Grace be with you all  (He 13:25).  Amen.

December 30, 2018

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christmas Day (Matthew 1:21)

“Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people”  (Lk 2:10).  It is true.  Amen.

It is a pretty common question in the month of December.  You asked it because you were giving.  Or you answered it because you were getting.  “What do you want for Christmas?”

It seems as if little ones have an easier time with that inquiry than older ones.  They don’t have to think long and hard.  There is usually a long list of suggestions, all prepared to hand out to anyone who wants to know.  In the olden days, it was compiled by paging through a catalog.  Now you can browse on the internet.  In general, the reply to “what do you want for Christmas?” comes down to stuff.

An interesting side note, when I posed that thought to our home bounds, there was usually a long pause.  And then the responses varied from more time with family or another trip to church.  Thank you to them for that noteworthy perspective.

Let me tweak that question just a bit.  “What do you need for Christmas?”  (I think that I have mentioned before that my parents used to answer that with socks.  Did they really have to spend the time wrapping them?  Why not eliminate the middle man and put them in my drawer and not under the tree.)

I am going to submit that we all need the same thing.  We need a Jesus, a Savior.  And that is what we receive.

We go back a little bit before the first Christmas.  Mary and Joseph were pledged to be married  (Mt 1:21).  They had spoken their vows in public and were legally husband and wife.  They didn’t live together right away in that culture according to custom.

And there was a situation.  Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant.  But he was not the father.  He could only conclude one thing.  She had been unfaithful.  And there was a solution.  He was going to divorce her  (Mt 1:19).

But God put a stop to that plan.  He sent an angel to inform him …
Of what had happened.  The child that Mary was carrying was conceived by the Holy Spirit  (Mt 1:20).  That is not so much a technical explanation as it is a practical realization.  Jesus did not have a human father and did not have the taint of any sin—true God and true man at the same time.
Of what would happen.
- “She will give birth to a son”  (Mt 1:21).  There would be no requirement to schedule an ultrasound.  The baby is a boy.
- “You are to give him the name Jesus”  (Mt 1:21).  No pouring over a baby book or thinking through relatives to come up with a suitable name.  Jesus.

There was a reason for it—not just because it sounded good.  There was rational behind it—because he would serve well.  It is almost a job description:  “Because he will save his people from their sins”  (Mt 1:21).  “Jesus” means “the Lord saves.”  That is who he is—the Lord.  That is what he does—saves.  He himself would rescue us from the impossible situation of being separated from God.

That is why we celebrate Christmas.  Jesus “made his dwelling among us”  (Jn 1:14).  Jesus wore our flesh and blood and bore our sin and shame.  Not only would he live under the law and die, but he would keep it perfectly and his death would count for us all.  He saved us from our sins.  We are “children of God”  (Jn 1:12).

So every time that we call out, “Jesus,” we are making an admission.  “I need a Savior.”

And every time we cry out, “Jesus,” we are making an acknowledgement.  “I have a Savior.”  Peter summed it up well when he once confessed:  “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved”  (Acts 4:12).

That is exactly what the angels announced to the shepherds out in the field that first Christmas night.  “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord”  (Lk 2:11).  What the prophet Isaiah said:  “The LORD will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God”  (Is 52:10) and what the psalmist had us sing:  “his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him”  (Ps 98:1) has been accomplished.  Jesus—Savior—is born.

What do you want for Christmas?  That might be one thing.  Fill in the blank.  And see what happens today.  What do you need for Christmas?  That is another thing.  Look in the manger.  See what has happened today.  It is not just a one size fits all, but he is one Savior for all.  You need a Jesus, a Savior.  And that what you have.  Jesus.  Savior.  Merry Christmas.

We read from Matthew 1:21:
“She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests”  (Lk 2:14).  Amen.

December 25, 2018

Christmas Eve (Isaiah 9:2,6)

Dear friends, … This is how God showed his love among us:  He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might have life through him  (1 Jn 4:7,9).  Amen.

The first thought behind the word “polar” is probably something that is extremely cold.  You perhaps cringe when you hear about a “polar vortex”  (even though you might not be able to give a scientific definition of what it is).

But it can also carry the connotation of equal opposites.  It is somewhat in the names, but take for example that polar can refer to the North Pole and the South Pole.  They are at entirely different ends of the globe.  (By the way, from my understanding, they are both cold.)  So we often use the expression “polar opposites.”

Light and darkness are case in point of polar opposites.
Literally—Where there is light, even the smallest amount, there is no darkness.  Think of a star in the night sky.  The distinction is clear.  And also when one spreads, the other retreats.  You can envision a sunrise or a sunset—either getting brighter or dimmer.
Figuratively—Light signifies good like wisdom and faith, a connection with God, and dark symbolizes evil like ignorance and unbelief, a separation from him.  One is all about abundant joy; the other is about absolute misery.  When one increases, the other decreases.

The prophet Isaiah illustrates the sharp contrast by beginning:  “The people walking in darkness”  (Is 9:2).  Judah was a dark place.  Not because the sun didn’t shine like at certain times in the northern or southern regions of the earth.  But because there was sin.  It was evidenced in their activities—idolatry and immorality.  That is nothing new as it had been going on in people’s attitudes and actions since Adam and Eve believed the lie of the devil and fell into sin, ruining their perfect relationship with a perfect God.

The world we live in is dark.  That is not a shocking statement or a hard sell, is it?  Even around Christmas time, there are things like violence and hatred—both close to us and around us.  That goes on the other 11 months of the year as we make our way from day to day  (cf. Ps 1:1).  Darkness when it comes to our feelings on the inside and darkness when it comes to our dealings on the outside.  We include ourselves rather than just indict others—as if we don’t ever do anything wrong as we point out the darkness in others without pointing to it in ourselves.

Add to that:  “on those living in the land of the shadow of death”  (Is 9:2).  Death comes as an ugly and unfortunate result of sin  (Ro 5:12).  That deep darkness hangs over our heads.  No wonder people are afraid of the dark or to be in the dark.

The only thing that dispels darkness is the very opposite—a polar opposite.  And that is light.  That was the case on Day 1 of creation.  God commanded as he created it:  “Let there be light”  (Ge 1:3).  And that shattered the obscurity.  When we flip a light switch, it is a pale comparison what the Lord brought about.

But ultimately we can’t produce light.  It is a gift of God—from him and to us.  And so it is with his gift of the Light—Jesus.  Through Isaiah, the Lord promised to send a great Light to pierce the darkness of sin and death.
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light”  (Is 9:2).  There is a complete reversal.
“On those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned”  (Is 9:2).  The light is gleaming.

It is interesting to note that the Lord speaks in the past tense, even though the fulfillment of that would not be for 700+ years.  But God is different from us.  When he makes a guarantee, it is as good as done.  It is almost as if Isaiah heads to the future and describes the event as though it has already happened.  And it comes in a strange way—in the form of an infant.  It is not a program, but a person.  “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given”  (Is 9:6).

We look back tonight to celebrate that birth.  There is the Light of life in the darkness of sin.  It wasn’t that a glow came from the feedbox and it lit up the cattle shed like a lamp in the living room.  Or even a dazzling halo over the baby’s head.  But God accomplished what he had assured for so many years.  Luke states it so simply in his Gospel:  “And she [that is, Mary] gave birth to her firstborn, a son.  She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger”  (Lk 2:7).  What happened in private became public.  The angels announced it assuredly to the shepherds:  “Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord”  (Lk 2:10,11).

Jesus is the One who has rescued us from the guilt of sin and removed the curse of death.  There is light in the darkness—holiness instead of unholiness.  As Jesus once commented:  “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life”  (Jn 8:12).  Note the close connection—where there is light there is life, eternal life.  We no longer stagger in darkness because we strut in the light.  As John put it before:  “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another  [we share in this together—that makes us want to be together], and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin”  (1 Jn 1:7).  The little One whom Mary held would one day be hung on a cross.  In the horrible darkness of Good Friday, he would cleanse us from our sin.  And then three days later, he would come back to life in the early light of Easter Sunday.  His life gives us life. 

It doesn’t matter if you are on the North Pole or South, light and darkness are polar opposites—not just various shades of grey.  We can appreciate the difference too—as a fact and as a metaphor.  There is light in the darkness.  Jesus is born.  And he scatters the darkness of sin and supplies the light of salvation.  And that light is ours.  Merry Christmas Eve.

We read from Isaiah 9:2,6:
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. … For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.

Peace to you  (3 Jn 14).  Amen.

December 24, 2018

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Fourth Sunday in Advent (Luke 1:39-45)

Grace be with you all  (He 13:25).  Amen.

What is the best way to punctuate the phrase:  “Happy Advent?”  (I get it that theoretically it doesn’t need any since it doesn’t have a subject and verb.  But play along with me.)
With a simple period—as if it is a good statement.  In a sense, it becomes like “Happy Birthday.”  It rolls off of our tongues without much thought.  It is just what you say when someone turns a year older because you don’t want to state just “birthday.”  The person already knows that.
With an exclamation mark—as if there is great excitement.  In that manner, you express a desire.  Like “Happy Birthday!”  You are conveying what you want—that the big day be a big deal.

The next two days we will celebrate Jesus’ birthday on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  And it will be merry.  But before we do, we have one more Sunday in Advent.  As we get ready for Jesus’ coming as a Baby, I am going to suggest the second—an exclamation mark.  Happy Advent!  Make an Advent exclamation!

Elizabeth helps us.  And it has to do with more than punctuation in a sentence, but more about preparation for a Savior.

There were going to be two miracle births:
One was improbable.  Elizabeth was barren.  And both she and her husband were “well along in years”  (Lk 1:7).  Their desire to hold a baby had dried up.
One was impossible.  Mary was a virgin  (Lk 1:27).  Cradling a baby hadn’t crossed her mind since she never had relations with a man  (Lk 1:34).

But no one told God that  (Lk 1:37).  He can intervene marvelously in the normal course of events.  Nothing is outside of his ability or capability.

He dispatched the angel Gabriel to the priest Zechariah while he was on duty in the temple in Jerusalem.  The messenger affirmed:  “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John”  (Lk 1:13).  He would be the forerunner of the Christ.  And then six months later, the same one was off to Galilee to announce to Mary:  “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus”  (Lk 1:31).  This was the long-awaited and long-anticipated Messiah—Son of God and Son of David who would rule forever  (Lk 1:32,33).

But there was a dilemma.  To whom could Mary turn or talk?  It is not quite the same when a couple has a big reveal with family and friends.  What would Mary do?  Cut into a blue cake with the neighbors at a party?  Send off a blue balloon to post on the internet for all to press “like” and post a comment?  Perhaps she got the idea when Gabriel informed her that her relative Elizabeth was pregnant  (Lk 1:36).

Mary wasted no time:  “At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea where she entered Zechariah’s home”  (Lk 1:39,40).  The two expecting ladies had plenty to chat about because of their similar circumstances.

It all began when Mary “greeted Elizabeth”  (Lk 1:40).  That set off a course of events and exclamations.  First Luke reports it:  “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb”  (Lk 1:41).  Later Elizabeth relates it:  “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy”  (Lk 1:44).  This was more than the normal jumping and jostling in a mother’s womb.  The little one joined in the extreme happiness of looking ahead to God’s saving work in Jesus—almost as if he is saluting him with his squirming in her belly.  We add our figurative joyful gymnastics to John’s as we get ready to go to the manger the next two days  (Lk 6:23).

But also this:  “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit”  (Lk 1:41).  By special revelation, he allowed her to see clearly and shout plainly.  “In a loud voice she exclaimed:  ‘Blessed are you among women’”  (Lk 1:42).

She does point out Mary.  She is blessed.  God had done great things to her.  Mary was the only woman given that role—to be the mother of God.  She alone had that responsibility in history.  Why Mary?  God’s grace.  That is why she was highly favored  (Lk 1:28)—a recipient of God’s undeserved kindness.  God chose her.  His was his doing, not hers.  In her song magnifying the Lord, she calls her son “my Savior”  (Lk 1:47).  She needed him too.

But Elizabeth also pointed to Jesus.  It was all about him.  “And blessed is the child you will bear!”  (Lk 1:42).  That was the focus of her Advent exclamation.  Jesus.

We don’t overlook Mary.  But we honor her child with Elizabeth.  We are filled with the Holy Spirit who allows us to call Jesus “Lord”  (1 Co 12:3).  As we will confess soon:  “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord”  (Apostles’ Creed).  He is our Savior from sin.  We heard him in that heavenly conversation between the Father and Son from the pen of the epistle to the Hebrews:  “‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, O God.’”  (He 10:7).  That is why Jesus came—to do what God desired.  Jesus would live perfectly in our place—obeying the law.  Jesus would die gladly as our Substitute, carting our sins to the cross  (Is 53:5).  The unknown writer mentions the result:  “We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all”  (He 10:10).  He sanctified us—setting us free from sin and far from it when he shed his blood.  It need not be repeated.  The prophet Micah stated it in a few words:  “And he will be their peace”  (Mi 5:5).  All is right between us and God.  In the words of the psalmist, we are “saints”—recipients of God’s mercy  (Ps 85:8).  And as he also had us sing:  “You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sins”  (Ps 85:2).  Make an Advent exclamation with Elizabeth to Mary:  “Blessed is the child you will bear!”  (Lk 1:42).

Elizabeth also wondered why this happened to her.  “But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”  (Lk 1:43).  It was a distinct and definite privilege.  Once more, this was her Lord that Mary was carrying.  She makes another exclamation:  “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”  (Lk 1:45).  Mary had placed herself at God’s disposal:  “I am the Lord’s servant”  (Lk 1:38).  And she trusted that God would bring about what he had spoken about.

We look back to marvel at how God executed his plan to rescue us from sin and Satan.  Even down to the detail of where Jesus would be born—“Bethlehem”  (Mi 5:2).  From there the eternal One entered our world to be born in that little town to take away our guilt.  Make an Advent exclamation with Elizabeth.  We believe it too like Mary because what God promises, he keeps.  And after a look back, we look ahead.  Jesus came once.  He will come again.  Just like he said.

Today is the last Sunday in Advent.  With eagerness, make an Advent exclamation with Elizabeth to Mary and about her:  “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! … Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”  (Lk 1:42,45).  He is born to be our Lord and Savior  (Lk 2:11).  And so tomorrow, it will no longer be Christ is coming for us, but he has come for us.  We believe it.  Happy Advent turns into Merry Christmas.  Both with exclamation marks.

We read from Luke 1:39-45:
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea,
40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.
41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.
42 In a loud voice she exclaimed:  “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!
43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.
45 Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”

May the God of peace …equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever.  Amen  (He 13:20,21).

December 22, 2018

Monday, December 17, 2018

Third Sunday in Advent (Philippians 4:4-7)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ  (Php 1:2).  Amen.

What is your favorite Advent decoration?  Perhaps that is a strange question.  We don’t often talk that way this time of the year.  We use the adjective “Christmas” in front of that word.  Christmas decoration—whether it is a tree or an ornament or a stocking.
But it is still Advent.  And we do have at least one decoration for this stretch of four Sundays.  The Advent wreath.  One candle for each week, indicating Jesus who is the light of the world  (Jn 8:12).  A green circle, symbolizing life, eternal life.  That shape is also significant, signaling victory like the crown placed on the heads of the winners of a contest or conquest.
We light another candle every week.  It is the third Sunday in Advent.  So we get a bit ahead of ourselves.  But under the apostle Paul’s direction, we will ignite them all.  Light four Advent candles—joy, gentleness, prayer, and peace.  We read from …

Philippians 4:4-7

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ Jesus, whose coming we continue to consider,
There are various suggestions as to the meaning of the four candles.
Option #1:  the prophecy candle, Bethlehem candle, shepherds’ candle, and angles’ candle.
Option #2:  They stand for hope, peace, joy, and love.
Since there is no standard explanation, we are free to create our own.  (I don’t mean to insult any artist, but it is kind of like abstract art.  If it is not a landscape or stick man, you can come up with your own interpretation.)
We can take our cue from Paul’s four verses in Philippians.

Light Four Advent Candles
1.  Joy  (4)
2.  Gentleness  (5)
3.  Prayer  (6)
4.  Peace  (7)

1.  Joy  (4)
It is no secret.  This is a dark time of the year.  The sun goes down around 4:30 PM.  That makes light from any source welcome.  It is that way with our wreath.  Light an Advent candle of joy.
That is what Paul leads off with:  “Rejoice”  (Php 4:4).  But it is not a matter of:  “Be happy.  Be glad.  ’Tis the season to be jolly.”  And it is not something that we have to work up on our own or work through by ourselves.  Because that can be shallow and short—a fake smile or a phony grin for one month.  That doesn’t last.
Where does true joy come from?  It is not from outward circumstances—like a pile of presents under a tree, but from inward sureties—like a place in paradise with our God.  That is what Paul points to:  “Rejoice in the Lord”  (Php 4:4)—in the sphere of, in the circle the Lord.  That produces ongoing and unending joy—cemented to him and surrounded by him.
Add to that an adverb.  “Rejoice in the Lord always”  (Php 4:4).  Yes, at all times and on every occasion.  What a minute.  Perhaps Paul has gone too far now.  Rejoice when there are problems and pains?  Those are real and they hurt.  Rejoice when there are difficulties and death?  Those are relevant and are hard.  But, yes:  “Rejoice in the Lord always”  (Php 4:4).
And in case we missed it, Paul mentions:  “I will say it again:  Rejoice!”  (Php 4:4).  The repetition is because of importance.  Paul had not lost touch with reality.  He is not writing to his dear friends in Philippi from a sandy beach, but under house arrest.  He didn’t yet know of his outcome of his trial in Rome.  That is because joy is not based on what is going on around us, but built on what is inside us.  The prophet Zephaniah is helpful with his reasons:
“The LORD has taken away your punishment”  (Zeph 3:15).  There is joy in Jesus’ manger, cross, and tomb.  He was the One that was pure and perfect in our place and then punished and pierced for our sins  (Is 53:5).  He was raised from the dead and he returned to life.  And so the psalmist had us sing:  “With you there is forgiveness”  (Ps 130:4).  That was the “good news” that John the Baptist proclaimed to the people who came to him along the Jordan River when he preached repentance—turning from their sin and turning to their Savior.
“He has turned back your enemy”  (Zeph 3:15).  With death defeated and the devil destroyed, our guilt is gone and heaven is our home.
“The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you”  (Zeph 3:15).  The Lord is on our side and by our side.  Jesus is Immanuel, “God with us”  (Is 7:14; Mt 1:21).
Light an Advent candle of joy—joy in Jesus.
2.  Gentleness  (5)
You can’t hide light—natural like from the fiery orb in the sky or artificial like from the bulbs on an evergreen.  We can’t conceal our joy.  It is evident in our actions.  Light an Advent candle of gentleness.
“Let your gentleness be evident to all”  (Php 4:5).  That is the way that our joy shows itself—with gentleness.  It might be along the lines of “bigheartedness.”  But it goes beyond generous.  It has the idea of not demanding one’s rights loudly, but yielding them quietly—a willingness to suffer wrong rather than inflict it.  That is not that easy, is it?  Someone grabs the last item in the store as you are out and about shopping.  “Let your gentleness be evident to all”  (Php 4:5).  Hardly.  And that is in public.  What about in private?  We have some growing to do.  But like John the Baptist encouraged the various individuals who came out to him:  “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance”  (Lk 3:8)—fruit relative to their roles in life.  That exterior fruit for them and us is evidence of interior faith.  It is clear in our dealings with others.
Forgiven through Jesus of a lack of being kind or considerate, we model our life after Jesus who was always gentle with everyone with whom he came into contact—helping and healing the sick, absolving and assuring the guilty  (2 Co 10:1).  And that embraces us.  That is not a demonstration of weakness, but a display of strength.
And then follows the reminder:  “The Lord is near”  (Php 4:5).  That is what Advent is about—Jesus’ coming, the first time or the second time.  That is what Paul has us ponder.  Jesus will come back one day to confer on us our eternal home.  We wait like a child staring at the neatly and nicely wrapped gifts, knowing that it won’t be long now.  Or like a watchman anticipating the morning  (Ps 130:6).  “Come, Lord Jesus”  (Re 22:20).
Light an Advent candle of gentleness—gentleness through Jesus.
3.  Prayer  (6)
It is likely that there is a statement, or even a shout, that sounds like this:  “I wish that there was more light.”  That is the case as we look at a third.  Light an Advent candle of prayer.
Paul goes on with a something that we need to hear, not just now when there might be high stress about getting everything done for next week—with the prospect of company to the purchase of gifts, but anytime there is heavy strain.  “Do not be anxious about anything”  (Php 4:6).  He is definite:  not at all.
That really is an echo of Jesus’ words when he taught his disciples on a hillside:  “Do not worry about your life”  (Mt 6:25ff.).  That is not an encouragement not to think about something.  It is an emphasis not to worry about it.  That is a lack of trust in an all-powerful and almighty God who gave us Jesus and will give us all things  (Ro 8:31).  We can’t hear that too often, can we?
And it is not that we sweat the small stuff and surrender the big stuff to the Lord.  (I don’t know how to make the distinction.  If it is critical to us, it is a concern to God.)  We “cast all our anxiety on him because he cares for us”  (1 Pe 5:7).  “But in everything … present your requests to God”  (Php 4:6).  We make known to him what is on our heart and in our head  (Ps 50:15).  And those talks with our God incorporate …
“prayer”  (Php 4:6).  That is a general conversation with the Lord.
“petition”  (Php 4:6).  We include a plea for a specific need like for recovery or therapy.
“thanksgiving”  (Php 4:6).  We express our gratitude for his willingness to listen and his readiness to act.  We entrust ourselves and others into his loving hands.
Of course, that is not a substitute for planning ahead and pushing forward.  But in every effort, we don’t fail to communicate with our God, awaiting his blessing.
Light an Advent candle of prayer—prayer to Jesus.
4.  Peace  (7)
The desire is that all go well for Christmas.  No one wants plans to fall flat in failure.  Paul has something bigger and better than a successful string of lights on a tree.  Light an Advent candle of peace.
Paul closes with a promise:  “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”  (Php 4:7).  Again, with Jesus encircling us, all is good, right with God.  We are at peace through the “Prince of Peace”  (Is 9:6).  That is what he came to give and that is what continues to grant  (Jn 14:27)—peace.  That goes way beyond our ability to understand, but not our capacity to appreciate.  Because peace is ours—from God and for us.  It protects where we think and what we think like a sentry took his post at the city gates.  That picture was not lost on the Philippians because many of them were retired Roman soldiers.  That peace keeps us safe and still.
Light an Advent candle of peace—peace from Jesus.
Call it what you will—a Christmas wreath or an Advent one.  Come up with four recommendations for each of the candles.  We don’t go wrong if we pick the four thoughts that Paul presents.  Light Advent candles—joy, gentleness, prayer, and peace.  And like the circle of the garland, they are all connected.  We have joy which causes gentleness which leads to prayer and results in peace.  Let those shine brightly in Advent and in your life.  Happy Advent.  Amen.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.  Amen  (Php 4:23).

December 16, 2018

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Second Sunday in Advent (Malachi 3:1)

Look!  An Advent Messenger

This is the time of year when you try to grab people’s attention.
You are driving here or there and “Look!  That is an impressive light show on someone’s front lawn and rooftop.”  The demonstration is dazzling as it flickers and blinks.  (Some even choreograph it to music.)
You are trimming the Christmas tree and “Look!  This is an ornament that grandma made quite a few decades ago.”  And then you put it on a branch.
You are shopping in the mall and “Look!  This would make an outstanding present.”  And you make a mental note about the wish.

That is what the LORD Almighty—the One who is over every host in heaven and army on earth—does through the prophet Malachi  (Mal 3:1).  He announces to his complaining people that he has something, better, someone, to show them  (Mal 2:17).  He is emphatic:  “See”  (Mal 3:1).  It is along the lines of “behold.”  But we don’t talk like that.  “Look.”  There is an urgency in his words.  As well as a certainty.  “See, I will send my messenger”  (Mal 3:1).  The Lord is dispatching a specific individual on an authorized mission and as an approved representative.  That one comes from him and he is for the people.

And there is a purpose for him:  “[He] will prepare the way before me”  (Mal 3:1).  Road construction is not a new phenomenon.  It has been going on for a long time.  In ancient days, when a king was coming, there would be a concerted effort to repair the corridor so that the dignitary could travel on flat ground—no deep potholes to go in or high bumps to go over.  It was to be even and level.

The prophet Isaiah clearly contends the same, pointing ahead.  “A voice of one calling:  “In the desert prepare the way for the LORD”  (Is 40:3; cf. Lk 3:4).  And the gospel writer Luke carefully confirms the identity, detailing the time in history with the precise rulers listed alongside of Caesar  (Lk 3:1,2).  Look.  An Advent messenger.  It is an advance party of one—John the Baptist.  He was to make the route ready.  The King was coming, “the King of glory”  (Ps 24:8-10).  Jesus.

Luke also identifies this messenger’s function as a forerunner to turn the people back to the Lord their God  (Lk 1:16):  “Make straight paths for him.  Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low.  The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth”  (Lk 3:4,5).  He was to address two extremes that would hinder Jesus’ arrival:
Any ditch of despair.  That is the one who has the inkling that “I am too bad.  My guilt is too big.”  There may be a gazing at one’s lack of love, even in December.
Any peak of pride.  That is the one who has the idea that “I am not too bad.  My life is too good.”  There may be a glancing at his or her generosity around Christmas.
We need to evaluate where we are—reacting with open anxiety, wallowing in self-pity, or relying on our actions, walking in self-righteousness.  Look!  An Advent Messenger.  We listen to him.

So John took up shop outside of Jerusalem in the wilderness.  Again Luke documents his activity.  “He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”  (Lk 3:3).  There was water.  And there was washing.  And there was a recognition because there was repentance.  That is, a turning from one’s sin and turning to one’s Savior.  The goal was the sending away of sin, a canceling of a debt.  That is because of Jesus, who takes away the sin of the world  (Jn 1:29).  Look!  An Advent Messenger directing us to the forgiveness in Jesus.  We have clean hands and a pure heart  (Ps 24:4).

And we give John our ear.  Or a parent or a pastor, someone in our family or one of our friends as an Advent messenger.  We recall our sin and remember our Savior—the One who came as a Baby and the One who will come as a Judge.  He came to take our place on the cross at Golgotha so that we can take our place by his side in heaven.  And we can be confident that we will.  As the apostle Paul penned to the Philippian Christians:  “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus”  (Php 1:6).  Jesus is coming.  That is our focus as we get set for his first arrival in a manger and his final appearance on the clouds.

There is a lot that can take our concentration off the coming Christ.  It is not that displays of lights, decorations on evergreens, and dreams of gifts are wrong.  It adds to this stretch on the calendar.  But Look!  An Advent Messenger.  He leads us to Jesus, who entered this world to erase our wrongs.  He is coming.  Happy Advent.

We read from Malachi 3:1:
“See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.

December 9, 2018

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Midweek Advent Service (Psalm 117:1,2)

Shout an Advent Hallelujah!

Maybe you know of the Hallelujah Chorus.  It is a part of Handel’s Messiah.  You probably have heard it.  (If not, you can google it when you get home and get it stuck in your head.) 

It was the final number of the Christmas concert from my freshman year to senior year in high school.  One of my less mature friends would comment, “When in doubt, just sing ‘hallelujah’ and you will be fine.”  (He was not far off.  It comes up once or twice in the piece.)  That is not the worst advice before Christmas.  When in Advent, shout “Hallelujah.”

It is a word that is on loan to us from Hebrew.  We simply take the sounds from that language and put them into letters in English.  You are familiar with it because you have heard it and used it often—whether in worship or even in conversation.  Hallelujah.

But it is more than just a matter of bringing it into our vocabulary to impress others like if we greeted one another tonight with the Hawaiian aloha.  (Then we might as well stick with the Hebrew shalom.)  It is beneficial to define it.  Hallelujah means “praise the LORD.”

Two times in two verses that is what the psalmist has us say—the first words and the last ones:  “Praise the LORD … Praise the LORD”  (Ps 117:1,2).  It must be important.  It is.

Add to that two bits of trivia.
It is the shortest chapter in the Bible.
But this is better than a 30-second commercial to satisfy our short attention span quickly—nothing more than a quick plug and we can get back to regular programming.  “Praise the LORD”  (Ps 117:1).  Now let’s resume with what is necessary. 
And it is not just something to get out of the way like a child who could gladly skip the next 20 days of December to unwrap some presents.  “Praise the LORD”  (Ps 117:1).  Now let’s return to what is needed. 
It is the middle chapter of the Bible.  I have highlighted before that the middle, at least in Hebrew, is the most important.  Think of a meal.  The appetizer is wonderful and dessert is delightful.  But the main course.  Well, it is the main course.  And so the psalmist leads us:  Hallelujah.

This little psalm is in a collection of praise psalms  (Ps 111-118).  It was used at the Passover, Israel’s national celebration of when God spared the first-born.  We use it for a special occasion too—our midweek Advent service.  “Praise the LORD”  (Ps 117:1).

What does “to praise signify?  Someone once put it this way:  “being sincerely and deeply thankful for and/or satisfied in lauding a superior quality or great act of the object.”  That is a mouthful.  But in a sense, Thanksgiving continues as we contemplate Advent.  Jesus is coming.  We eagerly await the announcement of the angels:  “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you”  (Lk 2:11).  Hallelujah because of his greatness and excellence.

We praise the LORD.  He is the gracious and compassionate One  (Ex 34:6,7).  The heavenly messengers also mentioned that:  “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord”  (Lk 2:11).  True God becoming true man, taking on our flesh.  True God becoming true man, taking away our sin.  Hallelujah because of who he is—the LORD.

Who is to do this praising of the Lord?  It is not a specific group or a geographic space.
“Praise the LORD, all you nations”  (Ps 117:1).  No one is excluded.
“Extol him, all you peoples”  (Ps 117:1).  “Extol” carries a similar thought as “praise”—to glorify the quality of someone.  Everyone is included.

It might be easy to be casual about Christmas.  For most of us, all of us, this is not new.  Jesus is born.  Do we really need 4 weeks to get us ready for that observance?  I would suggest “yes.”  We need Jesus, who rescues people from their sins  (Mt 1:21).  Us.  So those sent by God to publicize the entrance of the One who would be in a manger, later to be on a cross to be out of his grave declared:  “Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people”  (Lk 2:11).  We are part of the “all.”  Shout an Advent Hallelujah because Jesus came for you.  For me.

Why are we to praise the Lord?  Two reasons:
“For great is his love toward us”  (Ps 117:2).  His mercy is great.  It towers over us.  In another psalm, David described it this way:  “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him”  (Ps 103:11).  He didn’t leave us in our sin, but loved us and sent his Son—for the world and for us  (Jn 3:16).
“And the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever”  (Ps 117:2).  The Lord is trustworthy because what he states is always true.  He is dependable and reliable.  It is during Advent that we often review the many prophecies of the coming Savior.  As we go to the little town of Bethlehem, we spot the Righteous One whom God promised to crush the devil’s head  (Mi 5:2; Je 33:16; Ge 3:15).  And if he kept the guarantee of Jesus’ first coming on Christmas Day, we can be sure and certain about his second one on the Last Day.
Shout an Advent Hallelujah because of the Lord’s love and faithfulness for right now and for all time.

It may not be our custom or even our culture to call out “Hallelujah”—“praise the Lord”  (unless you went to the same institution as I did growing up and it was tradition for the annual performance).  But we can in this case—with our mouth or just in our heart.  Not just to amaze someone with our knowledge of Hebrew.  But to call attention to God’s grace to us in giving us Jesus.  Shout an Advent Hallelujah!  Praise the Lord.  Yes, praise the Lord.  Happy Advent.

We read from Psalm 117:1,2:
1  Praise the LORD, all you nations;
Extol him, all you peoples.
2 For great is his love toward us,
And the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever.
Praise the LORD.

December 5, 2015