Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Before You Turn the Calendar

It's just about time to turn the calendar from the old year to the new. But in this moment -- standing on the threshold between 2014 and 2015 -- are you looking backwards or forwards?

In the year now past, the world saw some amazing and horrific moments. And each of our lives had its ups and downs. As we look at the New Year on the immediate horizon, many hopes, goals and dreams await, as do many uncertainties -- not to mention the old familiar problems we're dragging with us into the new.

How many times have you turned the page from December to January? How many calendars have you set aside? I can't get to New Year's Eve without thinking about how many times I've stood at this brink before. I think about the New Years Day celebrations I've seen come and go and, more to the point, how many or few are left? Personally, I find it hard to believe we're already 15 years into the "new" millennium.

Really? Is that possible?

One of the oldest psalms in the Bible was written by Moses. He was talking about just this topic, "The years of our life are 70, or even by reason of strength 80; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away" (Psalm 90:10).

Also, note how the fleeting nature of our life is brought out so clearly in the fifth stanza of the hymn, "O God, our Help in Ages Past":

"Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Soon bears us all away;
We fly forgotten as a dream
Dies at the opening day."

As we age, New Year's Eve can be a depressing thing, and for some it's unsettling. But Moses points us to God's immortality. "Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting You are God" (Psalm 90:1-2).

Each new year is a reminder how temporary this earthly life is, but God reminds us He has always been here, is here now, and will be here forever. Jesus says just that in Revelation 1:8, "'I am the Alpha and the Omega,' says the Lord God, 'who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.'"

Because of Jesus' perfect life, innocent suffering and death, and glorious resurrection, we can have peace and joy as we stand at the beginning of another New Year. Though the coming year is -- to be sure -- filled with all kinds of unknowns, one thing is perfectly certain. Our God will be right here with us, bigger than any of our problems. No matter what we face, He offers His forgiveness, restoration, protection and rest. And after our last day, through Jesus Christ He promises us everlasting life. So let us remember as the New Year rings in, it's not a time to be gripped by fear, but a time to embrace God's eternal, unchanging promise in Jesus Christ our Savior.

Happy New Year to each and every one of you!

May the year ahead be a time of excellence and joy as you remember and honor the Father of all time, the Son He sent to save us, and the Holy Spirit who establishes and keeps us in that faith.

How do you plan on going boldly through the coming year? Do you have any pointers for those who get hung up on the changing of the calendar or who want to make a fresh start in 2015?

If so, you can click here and let us know.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Warrior Babe

What do you see when you look at the Christ Child in Bethlehem's manger: a tiny, vulnerable, helpless baby? Last weekend the children's choir at my church sang, "This Little Babe" by Benjamin Britten. It gave me an entirely different perspective on that Baby in a manger.

1. This little Babe so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan's fold;
All hell doth at His presence quake,
though He Himself for cold do shake;
For in this week unarmed wise
the gates of hell He will surprise.

2. With tears He fights and wins the field,
His naked breast stands for a shield.
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows looks of weeping eyes.
His martial ensigns cold and need,
And feeble flesh His warrior's steed.

3. His camp is pitched in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib His trench, haystalks His stakes,
Of shepherds He His muster makes.
And thus as sure His foe to wound,
The angels' trumps alarum(1) sound.

4. My soul with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to the tents that He hath pight(2).
Within His crib is surest ward;
This little Babe will by thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly Boy.

1. "alarum" - Old English for "alarm"
2. "pight" - Old English for "pitched"

Britten set the music to the last four stanzas of Robert Southwell's poem "New Heaven, New War." The "New Heaven" part calls on the angels to come to earth to celebrate the new dwelling place of their God and King. Britten's "This Little Babe" is the "New War" half of the poem. (Most guys probably don't read too much poetry, but this one is worthy of consideration.) You can check it out by clicking here!

That's one of the most intriguing things about Christmas. Who would ever expect God to become a vulnerable, helpless human baby, so He can take the battle to Satan? We'd more likely picture an epic Hollywood production with the glorious Son of God leading His angel armies in battle, blasting the evil vermin to smithereens, as their withered forms come crashing to the ground. But God's ways are not our ways. All our human eyes see is a tiny human baby. But through the eyes of faith we can see Southwell's Warrior Babe.

But the same thing applies to Jesus' crucifixion struggle with Satan. Who would expect it to occur at a place of execution? On Good Friday Jesus carries a great beam of wood to that decisive battle, but who would expect Him to permit Himself to be nailed to it? But it is precisely through that humility that He crushes the serpent's head. In His suffering and death He pays the price for human sin, setting us forever free from sin, death and hell.

That's the true wonder of Christmas: God's Son became one of us, arriving as He did, a small, vulnerable human to win salvation for each and every one.

Merry Christmas!

As we celebrate and revere God's Son of salvation this Christmas, we are renewed as we press on in faith in a tumultuous and uncertain world.

What does His appearance mean to you?

We'd be interested in hearing your views. You can tell us by clicking here!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Man's Man

Many people have a bucket list of things they want to do before they die. I have a list for after I die. Mainly, it involves the people I want to see when the Lord takes me home.

For one, I'm looking forward to catching up with my loved ones whom Jesus has brought home. It will be amazing to see Mom and Dad in glory, especially when my last memory of each is marred by the ravages of their cancers.

Next, I'd like to spend some time gazing at the angels in heaven. Apart from the Baby of Bethlehem Himself, nothing fascinates me more about Christmas than the angel hosts proclaiming His birth to shepherds and glorifying God in chorus.

Third, I have a list of people from the Bible I'm eager to meet: Mary and Joseph, to be sure, along with the shepherds and wise men. But one man who has always intrigued me is John the Baptist. I'm eager to look him in the eye and thank him for the impact he's made on me.

To me, John was a man's man. First, he lived out in the wilderness, eating locusts and wild honey. Then he took on the tough job of preparing stubborn, self-righteous people for a Savior they saw no need for. This included challenging proud Jewish religious leaders like King Herod, whom he called out for taking his brother's wife as his own, even though he risked imprisonment and execution to do so.

It was probably inevitable that such a strong man of God would be a magnet for young men moved by the Spirit to faith. A group of disciples attached themselves to John, and were so jealous for his sake that they got upset when Jesus began drawing the crowds away from their teacher.

It's John's humble reaction then that I admired most. He likened Jesus to a groom and himself to that groom's best man. "The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease" (see John 3:29-30). John knew Jesus was his God and Savior, and He deserved all the attention. That's what truly great men of God always do, lead people to the only One who can save them: Jesus Christ, God's Son, our Savior.

But this wasn't the first time John rejoiced greatly in the presence of his Lord and Savior. Mary had just been visited by the angel Gabriel, and Jesus had recently been miraculously conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and was beginning to grow in her womb. She rushed off to visit John's mother Elizabeth and his father Zechariah. John was still unborn at the time, six months along in his mother's womb. But the moment Mary greeted Elizabeth, the Holy Spirit filled him, and he leaped with great joy in the presence of the Son of God, his Lord.

We can all know that same thrill and great rejoicing this Christmas as the Holy Spirit of God brings us again to gaze upon the Christ Child in Bethlehem's manger.

Actually, that makes me want to redo my bucket list for heaven. Before I talk to John the Baptist, admire the beauty of the angels, or see my parents, I want to feel that wondrous awe of gazing upon the beauty, glory and majesty of our Holy God -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

What's on your bucket list? You can tell us by clicking here!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Comings and Stirrings

How is the Christmas shopping going? Mom was always pretty organized when I was a kid. Dad? That was a different story.

When I was a kid, Dad always waited until December 24th to go out and buy Mom's Christmas present. He took the day off from work, piled us five boys in the station wagon, and headed downtown to look in the storefront windows and decide what to get for Mom.

For the longest time, I thought Dad was a big procrastinator. He must have hated shopping, and only went out begrudgingly at the last minute because he knew "If momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy." It seemed he had to be against the deadline before he could stir the interest, patience and energy to go out and brave the crowds.

I know better now.

I know Dad had his present for Mom picked out weeks ahead. The only reason he always waited until the 24th was because he and Mom were in cahoots. Each year they bought our family one big present and scheduled it to be delivered on December 24th -- while all of us were downtown with Dad.

One year that plan went slightly awry, however. That year Mom and Dad came rushing in the room, "C'mon on, put on your coats and gloves. It's time to go shopping. Hurry!" They hustled us off into the car, and away we went. Later on I learned the delivery truck had come earlier than expected. Mom asked them to drive around the block while Dad hurried us to the car at the last minute.

Mom and Dad each reached their heavenly home many years ago, but I still smile to think of the care and great effort they took to make our Christmases so special.

During the Sundays leading up to Christmas, the great church prayer (the Collect) begins with the words "Stir up." The first Sunday we asked Jesus Christ to stir up His power and come with all His angels to judge the world, drive out every evil, and bring us home forever.

Sometimes it seems that Day will never come, like He's sitting on His heavenly throne procrastinating, delaying until the last possible moment. But God has it all planned out. He's waiting for just the right time -- His time -- to rise from His throne and come down to judge us, save us from sin and death, and bring us to live with Him forever.

But then, we need to be ready for His coming, so this past week we prayed, "Stir up our hearts to make ready the way of Your only-begotten Son." We often procrastinate too. We need Him to remind us of our sin and our need for His salvation so that we can celebrate His birth, life, death and resurrection.

Many generations have come and gone since Jesus made that promise to return in glory, and we have no idea if Jesus will come in our lifetimes or many generations down the road.

But we can ask God to make us ready in either event, and we pray our Lord Jesus will find us faithful, watching and ready, whether His return or our own death comes first.

Christmas is such a momentous time of the year. How do you honor the Christ's coming while keeping your heart tuned to His pending return? You can tell us by clicking here!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Traveling toward Bethlehem

Monday morning I was on my way to drop my son off at school when I passed a Catholic church. In the front yard just beyond the sidewalk were figures: Joseph was guiding a donkey, and Mary was riding on its back. A few hundred feet down the road stood the little town of Bethlehem. I thought how unique that is.

Normally, when manger scenes are set out, all the characters are in place from the start. Mary kneels at the foot of the manger, and Joseph stands behind it. The Christ Child rests on the hay. The shepherds are there, leaning on their staffs, with sheep at their feet and lambs across their shoulders. Included also are the wise men, standing or kneeling with their gifts. Camels are present with other animals too, and an angel hovers above them all. This kind of Nativity is more like a picture postcard: static, unmoving. The figures stay in position until Christmas is over, and the set is put back in storage.

But the scene I passed that morning is dynamic, breathing the very life of that first Christmas. It carries us back to a living, vibrant moment in time, the most pivotal period in all of human history. Mary and Joseph traveled down from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and Jesus traveled along with them, as He grows in Mary's womb.

The distance between Joseph and Mary and their Bethlehem destination makes me wonder what that Catholic congregation will do in the coming weeks. Will they move Mary and Joseph a little closer each day or week? Will Mary and Joseph reach the city on the 24th? Will baby Jesus be in the manger that night? Will a bright star appear over the streets of Bethlehem? Will the shepherds show up a few hours later? Will the wise men begin their travels along the sidewalk, following that guiding star?

Once again my thoughts remind me that Jesus came into this world in a definite time and place. But He didn't come to stay in that manger. He grew up and moved on -- the same way each of us passes from childhood to adulthood. And in that growing the Savior experienced first-hand what our lives are all about.

Of course, He didn't need to become human to know what it is like to live as a human on earth. As the almighty Son of God on His throne in heaven, He knew human life better than any of us. But the fact that He actually came and lived out that life changes the picture dramatically. I often find myself doing things that seem insignificant or unimportant: the endless chores, the trivial tasks to be done at work or at home. But Jesus did the same kinds of things in His life. His life gives those moments in our lives honor, dignity and great significance.

But Jesus did one thing we can never do: He lived His life perfectly as our Substitute. And He suffered the punishment we deserve for all our failings and sins when He died in our place on the cross. The human passage of His birth, childhood, life, suffering, death and resurrection transformed all our paths, opening for us the opportunity to live forever with our God in His glory.

Like Mary and Joseph, each of us is on a journey through life. We may be walking that path with a few close friends, or all alone. But we're never really alone; Jesus Christ travels that road with each of us.

The Christmas story is one that changes everything for each of us. What does Christmas mean to you? You can tell us by clicking here!