Christmas Joy!

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“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”  Luke 2:10-11 KJV

Joy is synonymous with Christmas. It’s written on cards and ornaments and sung in our favorite Christmas carol, Joy to the World! It shines in the eyes of little children at the sight of Santa and the presents under the tree. Joy fills out hearts as we embrace loved ones and are reunited with far-away family. But is our joy merely in the lights and gifts and celebrations at this time of year?  Do we truly understand the reason for the joy of the Christmas season?

The angels brought the good news of the birth of Jesus with a proclamation of joy, because God had fulfilled a promise to which the Jews had looked for centuries, the promise of the Messiah who would rule in righteousness and justice, who would save His people and restore to them all that God had given to them.  And they were right about the coming Messiah – yet they were also wrong.  The Jews expected a Messiah who would break the enemy’s rule and restore Jerusalem back to its former glory in the days of David and Solomon. But the true enemy of the Jews was the same enemy you and I have today.  Our own sinfulness. Sin is what kept the Jews in bondage, and it is what keeps men in bondage today.   The Messiah of God did not come to break the back of an enemy nation, but to break the bonds of sin that keep mankind imprisoned.  And that is the true joy of Christmas.

Beloved, don’t let your Christmas joy stop at the tree.  Look beyond the tinsel and wrappings and see the Messiah in the manger, the Savior on the Cross and the Risen Christ who has come to set you free.  JOY to the world, indeed!

Waiting for Jesus

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The old man shuffling through the temple courts was a common sight. You could tell exactly what time of day it was when Simeon came around. Same gait, same expression, the same sense of yearning. But today there was something different about him. He was excited, his eyes darted around and his feet moved as if every step was determined by a force outside of himself. Suddenly his weathered face lit up like a thousand candles as his arms extended towards a young couple. With Jesus cradled in his arms the old man began to speak in the sing-song voice of worship: “Sovereign Lord, as You have promised, You now dismiss Your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to Your people Israel” (Luke2:29-32).

Just then an old woman came up to the little group, her eyes bright with wonder and fixed on the infant in Simeon’s arms. “This is Him! This is the One! Oh, praise the name of the Lord – He has sent the Redemption of Israel!” Simeon smiled at Anna and nodded his head in agreement with her proclamation. They had both held tightly to the assurance that God would one day comfort and redeem His people and he was glad to share this glorious moment with his friend.

For the two elderly people, the baby was the fulfillment of a promise they had long held to and yearned to see. Simeon, filled with the Holy Spirit, had been assured by God that he would see the Hope of mankind before he died. Anna, widowed early in her life, had dedicated her years to worship, fasting and praying for the Messiah to come. It had been such a long time – not just their lifetime, but hundreds of years for the oppressed nation of Israel. In the temple courts that day, their faith was rewarded and they received the child with great joy.

How do you hold on when the promise of God is a long time in coming? Just like Simeon and Anna did – with faith. They never wavered in their expectations. They never stopped believing that every promise God made was as sure as His name – El Emunah, The Faithful God. Beloved, His name still stands today. You can wait in faith because God is still always and forever faithful. Christmas is the blessed proof that He will never fail to do what He says He will do.

Image: “Simeon’s Moment” by Ron DiCianna

Worship the King!

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What kind of faith must you have to chase a star for two years and hundreds of miles based on an ancient prophecy? The wise men – Matthew calls them “Magi” – traveled what scholars suppose to be about 1,000 miles “from the east” (Matt. 2:1), most likely ancient Persia, or our modern Iran. They were probably devout scholars who studied ancient holy texts of many religions. The writings of the Jewish faith – which would include prophecies of a special King – would have likely come to them via Daniel’s time in Babylon. Through their studies, they came to recognize that the star that rose at a specific time signaled the birth of this very King. So they set out on a long, difficult journey with gifts fit for royalty.

Here’s what amazes me about the Magi – it wasn’t curiosity that caused them to leave their homes and families for such an arduous journey. It was worship. Matthew records their words to King Herod, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw His star in the east and have come to worship him” (v. 2). Here’s the other thing that is surprising to me – He wasn’t their king. Remember – they identified Him as the “King of the Jews.” The Magi didn’t owe him homage. Why would they worship a king not their own? They realized from all they had studied that this king was worthy of worship – not just the worship of the Jews, but the worship of all men everywhere.

These Magi took ancient prophecies, looked forward, and recognized that Jesus was a unique king. In faith and awe, they set out on a long journey to worship Him. You and I have not just ancient prophecies, but we have the New Testament Scriptures that testify that Jesus is this King. We have the eye-witness of the Apostles and we have the heart-witness of the martyrs that testify that Jesus is not just King of the Jews, but King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The faith of all these should inspire faith in us. Jesus – the baby in the manger, the child in Bethlehem, the man healing lepers and raising the dead and dying on a cross and bursting alive out of the grave – this Jesus is worthy of our faith and worthy of our worship. Let’s give Him all He deserves this Christmas – and every day.

When God Inturrupts Your Life

 

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She stood in the dim light of the early morning with her hand over her belly and her heart full of awe and wonder at the life growing within her. It was all so surreal. She tried to remember every detail but it was so wonderful and frightening at the same time. She had heard a rustling beside her and turned to see a man – but not a man – an angel? Yes, it was an angel; he said his name was Gabriel and he called her “highly favored,” but surely he meant someone else. She was a peasant girl from the nothing town of Nazareth. Her highest goal was to marry Joseph and have a family. She pulled her cloak tighter around her and noticed that she was trembling – fear mixed with excitement ran like shockwaves through her small frame. But the angel said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus” (Luke 1:30). Mary pointed out that she was a virgin, wondering – not if – but how this would happen. He spoke of the Holy Spirit and an overshadowing and the impossible becoming a reality. Then the angel said the most remarkable thing – that this child would “be called the Son of the Most High God” (v. 35). Oh my! Did he mean that she – Mary of Nazareth – would be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah? It was every Jewish girl’s dream.

In the stillness of the morning, the angel’s announcement still rang in her ears. She repeated aloud the words she said to him that day as if reassuring herself and reaffirming her willingness, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said” (v. 38).

Mary’s quiet, well-planned life was suddenly interrupted by God. She was put in a most scandalous situation, one that could have cost her her beloved Joseph, and possibly even her life. It was an inconvenience to say the least. Yet she humbly surrendered herself to the will of God and embraced an unknown future with awe and wonder and faith. Beloved, has God interrupted your life with something unexpected – something inconvenient, perhaps even shocking? It may be a person, a diagnosis, a major change, or a great sorrow. How will you respond? With fear and anxiety? Or with faith and humble surrender? Are you willing to be the Lord’s servant?

Why Christmas Belongs to Shepherds not Kings

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I remember an old evangelist who told the story of being in the Miami, Florida area to do a revival. He and the local pastor were driving around inviting people to the revival and witnessing to anyone who would listen. They found themselves in a very affluent neighborhood with massive houses and expensive cars. They spied a man out in his front yard and stopped to visit. After speaking to him of his need for salvation, the man spread his arms in a grand gesture of all that he owned and said, “Saved from what?” Then he dismissed them with a laugh. That man was Jackie Gleason – famed radio, television and movie star.

Perhaps that is why the angels came to lowly shepherds rather than the kings and religious leaders of the day. People who think they have everything also think they have no need of a Savior. They have so much wealth or power or acclaim that they have no room for faith – which is this week’s Advent focus. Shepherds, especially at the time of Jesus’ birth, were the lowest of the low. Scholars tell us that these shepherds were likely watching over sheep that would be used in the sacrifices at the Temple, especially the Passover sacrifice. Their job was nasty, smelly, grueling and demeaning. But they were humble because of their lowly position. These shepherds were just the kind of people God was looking for – people who would receive the Good News with faith.

The Bible tells us that when the shepherds heard the angel’s announcement, they said, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened” (Luke 2:15). They believed the message and set out to find the baby – not because they wanted proof of what the angels said, but because they had faith that it was true. And when their eyes saw what their hearts believed, they couldn’t help but “spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child” (v. 17)

Do you have faith Beloved? Do you believe that what God said about the Baby in the manger is true? Then you can also have faith that this Child is your Savior, your Redeemer, your Hope and Peace, and Joy. Have faith in what God has done and you will see what your heart believes.

Hoping for Christmas

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“When they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her first-born son” (Luke 2:6).
A woman waits many long months before her baby is born. We wait in doctor’s offices, we wait our turn in kindergarten, we wait for a plane, and many a parent has waited up for their kids to get home. Waiting is part of life, often a frustrating one. But it’s really all in our attitude and expectation. Have you ever been around children waiting for Christmas? They are so impatient, but they are so full of joy and excitement at what’s to come. They have great expectations for what Santa will bring.
The Bible tells us that the nation of Israel had waited for centuries for the One whom God would send – the Messiah. Devout Jews prayed daily for this coming. They longed for and watched diligently to see God’s Redemption. Yet the Lord delayed in sending the Chosen One. The people prayed and waited. And waited. And waited.
Can you relate? Have you prayed and waited with no end in sight? What could possibly be taking so long? Has the Lord forgotten you? Not a chance. God’s delays are often a season of preparation. Whether it is a situation, a place or a person, something needs to be made ready. Very often, it’s me and you. I want to give you a Word from the Bible and I hope it will bring you peace as God tarries. “But when the time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4). When the time fully comes – when things or people (or you) are ready for His good plan – God will bring about something wonderful. He never delays one millisecond past the right time.
What is your part? Keep praying. Keep waiting. Keep watching. But do so with hope and expectation, like a child waiting for Christmas. Beloved, God is at work on your behalf – perhaps He’s tying the bow on your gift right now.

 

Christmas Presents – or Christmas Presence

O Immanuel . . . God is with us.  Isaiah 8:8, 10

My best friend and I are separated by almost a hundred miles.  We chat often on social media and text and talk with one another on the phone, but when I have the chance to see her face-to-face my heart rejoices.  There is something about presence—about being together physically that touches the heart more than a phone conversation ever could.

In the beginning, in the Garden, God and His first children, Adam and Eve enjoyed one another’s presence regularly.  The Bible tells us that they delighted in spending time together “in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8).  But sin forever altered that.  The fellowship was broken by disobedience and man was physically separated from God. A few select people encountered God for specific purposes, like Noah, but God no longer walked with His creation like before. After Noah, the Bible shows no interaction between God and man throughout many generations, until Abraham. God promised His presence with Abraham and his descendants and He was faithful through their escape from bondage and their desert wandering and settling in The Promised Land. He was with them, but still not in the same way as He had been with Adam and Eve. The Israelites built a temple where He could dwell among them, though still separated from them by walls and heavy curtains.  When Israel’s apostasy reached a certain point, the Lord withdrew His presence from the Temple—and the people.  But He promised His presence would one day return to them, in the person of the Messiah.  And as He always does, The Lord kept His promise.

The hope of Christmas is the hope of God with us – in the flesh. It is the fulfillment of the promise of His presence. God – in the person of Jesus was born as a flesh-and-blood baby in a stable in Bethlehem. He had tiny toes and tiny fingers, and He cried for the comfort of His mother.  He walked with His creation. He talked to them. He touched them – healing, comforting, and cleansing them. Imagine being able to reach out and touch God’s own hand. The most wonderful Christmas present is the presence of God. That is the promise of Immanuel—God with us.

Christmas is Real Hope for Real Life

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He gave her a hug and pressed some folded bills into her hand. “I know this is a hard time, but God is going to come through for you. He has always come through for me.” The woman thanked the man then sighed, “I hope so. I don’t know how much longer we can go on like this.” Hope is a necessary thing, almost as essential to the spirit as oxygen is to the lungs. When every breath is a struggle the heart strains to keep beating, the mind becomes dull, and the smallest task becomes a huge challenge. It seems easier to just sit life out than to push to keep moving. When hope fades, our spirit is weakened, we become disheartened, our thoughts forlorn. When life is hard, hope seems more of a desperate gesture than a sure belief.

That’s why the Bible presents hope as a confident conviction. Micah saw the gathering storm clouds of hardship on the horizon. Judgment was coming to Jerusalem because of her sin. Hope seemed futile in the face of imminent oppression. But Micah hoped anyway saying, “But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord, I wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me” (Micah 7:7). He understood the reality of their troubles, but he also knew the faithfulness of God. What was the root of his conviction? His hope was not in an outcome – his hope was in the Lord. And it was not a desperate hope – hope in this sense means to wait in expectation. Because his hope was in God, and because he knew God’s character, he knew with a confident assurance that God would hear and act on his behalf. Even though the situation looked grim, Micah hoped in the Lord and “hope does not disappoint us” (Romans 5:5). Isn’t it interesting that Micah also offered these words: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2). You might recognize this as the prophecy of the coming Messiah. No wonder Micah had such confident hope.

Beloved, if hope is in short supply right now, I want to remind you that Christmas confirms the power of hope because of the faithfulness of God. The promise of God that Micah delivered was fulfilled by the Baby in the manger in Bethlehem. I also want to assure you that God does indeed always come through. I was the woman hanging onto a thread of hope. And my hope was not disappointed. God is faithful. Christmas is proof.

Christmas Hope in a Manger

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Kids on Christmas morning hope for the newest toys and electronics under the tree. The soldier’s mother hopes for her son’s safe return for the holidays. Teachers hope to survive until Christmas break and students hope there will be no pop-tests before they reach the last day of class. Travelers hope for good weather and light traffic while law enforcement hopes for safe drivers and no accidents. The merchants hope for record sales and shoppers hope for great bargains. Christmas is synonymous with hope – but not for these reasons.
For the Jewish people, hope was in short supply. Their nation had long been under the control of others; at the time of Jesus’ birth, the Romans ruled over Jerusalem. The Jews had hoped for God’s Messiah to rescue them from oppression. They hoped for a leader who would overthrow the Romans and reestablish David’s throne and Israel’s independence. God would indeed send the Messiah to rescue His people from bondage and establish His Kingdom, but He would overthrow a greater enemy than the Romans. He would save more than just Israel and would rule over an everlasting Kingdom from David’s throne. He would not come in power with a sword in his hand and a crown on his head. He would come as a helpless baby with straw in His tiny fist and a crown of thorns in his future. He would not raise a scepter over Jerusalem but would be raised up on a cross outside the city gates. He would not overthrow Rome – He would overthrow death. Their hopes would be fulfilled – but not as they envisioned. It would exceed all they could ever ask or imagine.
Your hopes might be for something flashy and fun, or simple and quiet this Christmas. You may have hopes that can’t be put in a box with a bow. One of my favorite verses is Proverbs 13:12: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but when dreams come true at last, there is life and Joy.” In God’s good and loving hands, hope is a sure thing – a promise given and fulfilled in the same instant. It may not look what you thought it would be Beloved, but you have His Word that it will be full of life and Joy.