What Child Is This? (an advent meditation)

What Child is this
Who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap, is sleeping?
Whom angels greet
With anthems sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ, the King
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing
Haste, haste to bring Him laud
The Babe, the Son of Mary!

The Christmas song What Child Is This? asks as question that the world has pondered since the birth of Jesus. Who is this child-turn-man that claims to be Lord and Savior of the world?

Jesus once asked his first disciples what others said about him. They answered: “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, speaking for the group: “You are the Christ [Savior-King], the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:13-16).

In his book Mere Christianity, CS Lewis said that when a person looks at the claims of Jesus in Scripture, one must conclude he is either Lord, liar, or a lunatic. Some may go a step further and say that the Jesus of the Bible does not exist; but if we start with the historical existence of Jesus as detailed in Scripture, then only those three options remained.

Jesus claimed to forgive sins (Matthew 9:1-8); accepted Peter’s claim to be the Messiah/Christ, Son-of-God King (Matthew 16:13-19); claimed to preexist Abraham and at the same time took for himself the name of God (John 8:56-58).

With what he claimed, Jesus was no mere good teacher or religious prophet. He either lied about himself, had delusions about himself, or was the Lord he claimed to be. The Christian faith is built on the latter, as the song affirms: This, this is Christ the King!

So, this Christmas, who do you say that Jesus is? May you celebrate, worship, and follow him as your Savior-King!

O Little Town of Bethlehem (an advent meditation)

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

The song O Little Town of Bethlehem speaks to the great thing that came out of seeming insignificance. This is the very thing that happened with the birth of Jesus. When God sent his Son into the world to be our Savior-King, he chose insignificance.

Yes, for Jesus to be a descendant of David, he had to be born to one of David’s relatives. We get this in both his birth mother, Mary (the genealogy in Luke), and through his adoptive father, Joseph (the genealogy in Matthew). But, to be a descendant of David didn’t guarantee prosperity or notoriety. Mary was a young virgin, likely from a poor family. Joseph was a common tradesman, probably young in his craft and not well off.

When a census was declared, the couple, with Mary nine-months pregnant, headed back to their ancestral city. Bethlehem had the notoriety of being the town of King David’s birth, but not much else.

The census flooded the small town with travelers. Joseph and Mary were too late to find a room at the local inn, and didn’t seem to know anyone in town to stay with. So, they ended up with cattle where God the Son was born into the world. If not for a chorus of angels sent to display God’s glory to a group of shepherds, the birth would have largely gone unnoticed.

Everything seemed so insignificant. Yet through this, God fulfilled a promise given by the prophet Micah centuries before: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2).

God has a way of working through what the world deems as insignificant. Jesus was called the carpenter’s son. The twelve, most were poorly educated fishermen. David was a shepherd boy, the youngest of his warrior brothers. Yet in the small things, God did great things.

So, Christmas reminds us that smallness and insignificance is no hindrance to the work of God. As Paul reminded the church at Corinth:

For consider your calling, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth…. God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:26, 28-29)

So, let’s not boast in our strength, wisdom, and might this Christmas season. Instead, let us celebrate the God who does great and mighty things through what seems insignificant.

O Holy Night (an advent meditation)

O Holy Night is a Christmas hymn with which many are familiar (at least with John Sullivan Dwight’s English translation). Not only is the song beautiful in speaking about the greatness of our Savior and the good news of his work in the world, it also speaks about the gospel’s social implications.

Written in a day where slavery was still common among nations of western culture, the song says of such ill:

Truly he taught us to love one another
His law is love and his gospel is peace
Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother
And in his name all oppression shall cease

The Bible often speaks about God’s justice in the face of oppression. On the spiritual level, sin has enslaved and ensnared each one of us. Thus, God sent his Son into the world to provide freedom from spiritual tyranny. Jesus redeems that which our rebellion against God’s goodness seeks to destroy and ruin, a gift of grace by faith in Jesus.

But this is not the end of the matter. When we experience spiritual freedom in Christ, we are led to bring the good news of such freedom to the world around us. And we are led to break the bonds of physical oppression as much as we can.

Jesus, born into the world as a baby 2000 years ago, was a declaration of war upon sin and its effects. Though the root of sin is spiritual, its effects have a far ranging physical reach. Physical oppression results where spiritual oppression is left unchecked. When Jesus returns, bringing God’s full judgment against sin and God’s full salvation for those who have followed Jesus, physical oppression and spiritual oppression will be no more.

The job of the church, then, has always been two-fold: work for the release of people under both types of tyranny.

Social justice has always been a call for God’s people. We are to fight for the sake of the least of these because God’s law is love and his gospel is peace. The problems come when we neglect one side of our call for the other. A church that emphasizes only the solution to the spiritual problem offers truth without the physical manifestations of love meant to go with it. A church that emphasizes only the solution to physical problems offers acts of love but without the truth that can free the soul.

Christmas reminds us to keep both in balance. God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to save sinners and to bring justice and goodness to the daily operations of the world. Truly he taught us to love one another…

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (advent meditation)

In this series leading up to Christmas 2016, we’ll take a look at some of the Christmas songs from our Baptist Hymnal and see the reasons we celebrate the birth of Jesus.

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine Advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadow put to flight
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!

The second line of the classic hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, was inspired from Luke 1:78-19. There, Zechariah the priest had been given a promise of his own son (who would be John the Baptist), yet he doubted this promise could be true in his and his wife’s old age. Due to this doubt, Zechariah was made mute until John was born.

Shortly after, “Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied” (1:66). His prophecy exalted God and spoke of the role that John would have as a forerunner to Jesus, the Savior-King. Zechariah said,

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sin in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (1:76-79).

John, then, would point to the coming One who was greater. He would speak of Jesus, in whom people would find forgiveness of sin. This coming forgiveness is pictured as the break of light (dayspring in the song) over the horizon, shining down upon a dark land.

What a beautiful picture to imagine as light chases away the darkness! Thus the coming of Emmanuel, God with us. Sin has ensnared our souls and corrupted the world. Our rebellion against God has justly deserved his wrath, seen first in physical death and second in spiritual.

We often think: There must be more to life! We long for death to not be the end. Yet death stands there, an inescapable enemy that darkens our lives, either taking the young too soon or the old after the body has spent so much time suffering and breaking down. Our sin traps us in a dark land; death casts its shadow over each of us.

Yet, the light has dawned. Jesus came to give hope to the hopeless, to bring those who lived in darkness into his marvelous light. Jesus was born into this world to die on a cross, the sacrifice for our sins in our place, and to then kick down the door of the grave.

Even if we die, Jesus said in John 11, so long as we are trusting in him, we shall live. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He rescues us from our sin and rebellion, and he gives us new life now and forevermore.

And so the song calls us to cheer. The gloomy clouds are gone. The dark shadow of death is put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice!—is this not the proper response along with humble thankfulness to God through Jesus? The Savior-King has come. Let us rejoice and bask in his light!

What joy! (a meditation)

This week we celebrate Thanksgiving. We always risk the danger of being distracted with football and Black Friday savings, but if we slow down and ponder the things we should be thankful for, then we will understand the true meaning and develop a great joy.

In Psalm 126, the psalmist looked back upon the return of God’s people from exile, and wrote:

When the Lord brought back his exiles to Jerusalem, it was like a dream! We were filled with laughter and we sang for joy. And the other nations said, “What amazing things the Lord has done for them.” Yes, the Lord has done amazing things for us! What joy! (126:1-3)

This rush of joy should be the same feeling we get when we think of our salvation in Jesus. Our sin had trapped us in a spiritual exile with little hope of escaping the darkness. Then, by giving us Jesus, God pulled us out of hopelessness. Like a wonderful dream, the Righteous King gave himself from sheer mercy and love and brought us into his people and his eternal land.

Our sins forgiven and our eternal hope secured—what laughter it should cause and what songs of joy should be sung!

When we ponder such salvation, our hearts should surge with thanksgiving. More than for food, more than for social freedoms, and more than for family, our minds should be overwhelmed with gratefulness for what God has done for us in Jesus.

As we let our hearts be thankful for salvation and we let joy fill our minds over what God has done, then we can be properly thankful for other good things, other evidences of God’s grace in our lives. Then, when the world sees our thankfulness and joy, they will see that God has indeed done great things for us.

Joy is a witness. Thankfulness points beyond ourselves. We acknowledge a greater Giver, a greater Rescuer, a greater King. This points others to the same source of hope and we can sing along as one voice: “Yes, the Lord has done amazing things for us! What joy!”

This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.

What about him? (a meditation)

Imagine for a moment that you were the apostle Peter. After insisting that you would never deny Jesus, you vehemently declared that you were not Jesus’ follower and had never met the man, after Jesus was arrested to be crucified. But then after the resurrection, Jesus comes and takes you aside and for each time you denied him, he asks you, “Peter do you love me?”

John 21 gives us the account of this restoration of Peter by Jesus. Grace was extended and Peter found forgiveness, though the memory of everything pained him.

After restoring Peter, Jesus went on to tell Peter about the way he would one day die:

“When you were young you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” ~John 21:18

The tradition of church history tells us that Peter was arrested and crucified upside down under the reign of Nero. Whether all the exact details are so, Jesus’ words made it clear to Peter that his death would be costly and forced against his will. Yet, with this information, Jesus still said to Peter, “Follow me”—this the same call that Jesus gives to all of us when he tells us that we must daily take up our own cross (Luke 9:23).

In response, Peter turned and saw John (“the disciple whom Jesus loved”) nearby and following them. Peter then replied to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?”

Jesus’ response?

“If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (21:22)

In other words: “Mind your own business. I wasn’t talking to you about John, I was talking to you about you.”

A life of following Jesus does not come with sure promises of riches, fame, ease, or health this side of death. No doubt, some receive and do great things through their faith. Hebrews 11 lists several Old Testament people who were faithful to God and gained riches, power, and even life back from the dead. After this, however, Hebrews 11 also speaks about unnamed others who were forced to live in caves, on the run, arrested, beaten, and/or sawn in two.

Our experience of life will be no different. Some who follow Christ will see many good things in life, and live long and healthy. Others who follow Christ will see many hardships, and die young and poor. Most will experience something in between.

On our journey of faith, we might be tempted to point to others who we think are getting a better deal and say, “Lord, what about him? What about her?” Jesus’ answer to us is the same: “I’ll worry about them. You follow me!”

This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.

Let us go to the house of the Lord! (a meditation)

God gives his people a joyous desire to meet together. We see this expressed in David’s words from Psalm 122:

I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” -Psalm 122:1

The words that follow in the psalm paint a picture of God’s people from across the different tribes of Israel coming to Jerusalem to go to the temple together. It was at the temple they could be united as one people, sharing one voice, and with one purpose: “To give thanks to the name of the Lord” (122:4). There was something sweet about such gathering that David looked forward to.

Old Testament and New, we see God dealing with individuals to create a people. Paul wrote about this in Titus 2:14 where he tells us that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”

The redemption was of each individual turning from sin to Jesus. The result was a people zealous to do God’s will, namely: good works in this world.

A key factor of our encouragement in doing good works is our gathering together. In the Old Testament, the temple in Jerusalem was unique because it was where God’s glory and Spirit most fully manifested. After Jesus’ work on the cross, he made his people the new temple—we reflect God’s glory as we receive God’s Spirit. Peter described us as individual bricks being built together as a spiritual house (1 Peter 2). So, wherever Christians gather as a church, there is found a present “house of the Lord.”

The earliest Christians in Jerusalem would still go to the temple until it was destroyed but they also gathered daily “house to house”—smaller gatherings, yet each representing God’s glory. They gathered for time with God’s word, devotion to prayer, sharing of communion, and sharing of lives as they praised God together (Acts 2:42-47).

These were joyful occasions fueling them to do good in a world that didn’t always understand their religious devotion.

And so it is for us. Different things attempt to pull us away from gathering with other Christians: jobs, sports, family functions, desire for extra sleep, etc. Therefore, we must prioritize and persist. This just as the author of Hebrews wrote:

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. ~Hebrews 10:24-25

Let us, then, be glad to go to the house of the Lord. Let us meet together, praise God together, and find encouragement to live daily strong in our faith in Jesus, loving others and doing good in this world.

This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.

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