Saturday, November 30, 2013

The True Meaning Of Christmas

Christmastime is here. We’re inundated with sales for everything from appliances to Zhu Zhu pets. Between football and holiday specials, there’s not a moment of television air time that’s not taken up with some advertiser persuading you that their store is the place to spend your days and your money.

I found my respite from the holiday materialism on the Hallmark channel. There I found miraculous happenings that center around Christmas. The Scrooge theme is ever-popular, showing up in all sorts of ways. From orphaned children finding homes, to the hardened widow who hasn’t celebrated Christmas since his wife was killed on Christmas Eve – there is no end to the heartwarming, poignant stories telling us about the “true meaning of Christmas.”

It was during one of these warm, fuzzy movies that I started to consider that phrase, “the true meaning of Christmas.” These movies seem to say that the true meaning of Christmas is found in “miracles”: snow on December 25, finding that perfect Mr. Right, that first kiss at midnight under the mistletoe. But is that what Christmas is really all about?

According to Mr. Webster, the definition of Christmas is “the annual commemoration by Christians of the birth of Jesus Christ on Dec 25.” If this is true, then we’re not really getting the truth in these movies. Now I’m as sentimental and weepy as the next person, especially around the holidays, and I enjoy almost every Hallmark Christmas movie. But I also value truth. And the truth is, the events of those movies happen all year round, totally apart from any Christmas “miracles”. Soldiers come home to their families, people fall in love, young women get heart transplants, and orphans are cared for the other eleven months of the year. Those events are no less “miraculous” in April than they are during Christmas week, and no less valuable to their recipients. So I echo Charlie Brown’s resounding question: “Isn’t there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?”

I’ve always been thankful for Linus, Charlie Brown’s blanket-dragging, thumb-sucking but oh-so-wise friend. He beautifully answers Charlie’s question by quoting from the gospel of Luke. He replies,
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And Lo! The angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not! For behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, ‘tis Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a manger.’ And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly hosts, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’
That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

In his world of materialism and performance, seeking after the perfect tree and trying to put on a meaningful Christmas play, Charlie Brown needed his friend Linus to speak truth into his life. He needed to hear that no matter how poor your tree or sad your performance, no matter how many Christmas cards are in your mailbox or presents under your tree, the true meaning of Christmas will never be found in those things. The true meaning of Christmas is found in Emmanuel, God with us.

Perhaps there is a Charlie Brown in your life who needs you to be Linus. Linus was “prepared to give an answer” for Charlie’s question, and he did it with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). Peter tells us that we all should be ready to give others the reason for the hope that we have inside of us. That hope we have is Jesus, Christ in us, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27). People need that hope every day of the year, not just at Christmastime. It’s his coming that we celebrate on December 25 each year. Because His lives in us, we celebrate Him the other 364 days of the year as well.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Advent of Christmas

The advent of the Christmas season has begun. One would have to be a hermit to miss the signs; they’re everywhere. Soon we’ll see the plastic nativity scenes adorning lawns everywhere. Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus with halos around their heads will be on greeting cards in our mailboxes. All this causes a longing in my heart; a desire to know what that first Christmas was really like, and although we can’t know for certain, the Scriptures give us some clues.

The story starts out with the scandal of pregnancy in an unmarried, yet betrothed woman. According to the Law, Joseph had every right to turn her over to be stoned to death. Yet this Child she carried was under God’s sovereign watch; He spoke to Joseph and compelled Him to believe. The couple married and then left, perhaps quietly, for a journey to Bethlehem where a census was taking place. By this time in a pregnancy, most mothers-to-be are busy nesting, getting ready for the arrival of their new bundle of joy. Mary and Joseph, however, left their home to travel 80 miles on foot. When they reached their destination, they were exhausted, hungry, and Mary was in labor. Joseph, burdened with the desperation of their circumstance, pleaded for mercy as door after door was closed in his face. Finally in the crowds of people gathered to be counted, they found their birthing room – a barn full of straw. We assume there were cows and sheep there. The stories depict them gazing on in silent reverence, when most probably they were audibly protesting the intrusion of the woman and her labor cries. Then suddenly with one final groan, Jesus, the Light of the World, made His appearance in the flesh. The God of the Universe, who measures the heavens in His hand, was a tiny, naked baby boy, maybe eight pounds and seven ounces, perhaps twenty inches long. The Voice that once said, “Let there be light!” causing the empty void to give way forever now cried and fussed about leaving the warm darkness He’d known for the past nine months. Joseph carefully cleaned Him off and wrapped Him in some swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a feeding trough while His young mother recovered from the birth. There was no halo surrounding His head. He was not holding out His hands in blessing to the shepherds who came to see Him. He was a normal, human baby.

Normal, yes, but very extraordinary! This Jesus, who existed in the form of God, emptied Himself and took on flesh. Certainly this was not a difficult task for the Almighty – He created flesh, after all! But consider the Bible’s use of the term “flesh”. Paul says it best in Romans 8 verse 3. “…sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.” When the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, Jesus’ divine self became covered with sinful flesh. How should we think of this? Imagine the most incredibly beautiful young woman, virginal and innocent, eyes wide with wonder, hair and cheeks glowing with purity. Now imagine her stooping to pick up a rotting buffalo hide dripping with intestines and dung, and covering herself up with it from head to toe. You’d shout, “Don’t touch it! You’ll dirty yourself up completely!” This illustration pales in comparison to the incarnation of Christ. The perfection of God taking on sinful human flesh is something we can’t begin to comprehend.

In this sinful flesh, He lived a normal yet sinless life. He had growing pains, His voice changed in His teen years, He scraped His knees, banged His thumb with a hammer in His father’s carpentry shop, He felt hunger and thirst. He learned the Scriptures from the time He was a young boy, reciting them to His mother as she prepared the evening meal. He grew in wisdom and favor with God and man. The only thing He didn’t do was sin. The writer of Hebrews tells us in chapter 4, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” He lived this perfect life in our place, and then on the cross He became sin (2 Cor 5:21). He fulfilled the law, paying its penalty, so that we could become the righteousness of God; a most inequitable transaction, but without it there would be no salvation.

The sweet pictures and clean images we have of Christmas do no justice to the true miracle of Christmas. Days full of shopping and wrapping, Santa and mistletoe can steal away the winsomeness and wonder of the real miracle of Christmas: Emmanuel, Jesus, God with us. Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly this Christmas season. Let it fill your days with awe and thanksgiving as you celebrate the advent of the Messiah.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Book Review: A Plain Disappearance

The book A Plain Disappearance by Amanda Flower is the third in the series The Appleseed Creek Mysteries. This was my first exposure to the author and the series. Despite not being familiar with the characters and their histories, I was able to follow along and enjoy the mystery.

The story is about a young woman, Chloe Humphreys, who lives in an Amish community in Ohio, though she is not Amish. Her life is further entwined in the Amish culture because she is dating a young man who left the Amish faith prior to his baptism. This allows him to continue living and working in association with his family.

A young girl is murdered in this quiet community, and Chloe finds herself in the middle, assisting the police chief in solving it. Apparently she has come to the aid of the police in both of the previous books. The interplay between the characters seems to have developed over the course of the series, so as I read, I found myself wondering about what had happened in the previous books. This doesn't detract too much from the story, although I do think I would have enjoyed the story more had I read the first two books.

The crime is solved in the very last few pages, which feeds the reader's desire for a good whodunit intrigue. The characters are relatable, and the writer's style is enjoyable and makes the reading experience pleasant. I plan to pick up the first two novels in the series, and then look forward to what happens next in Appleseed Creek!

I received this book for the purpose of this review. I was not required to write a favorable review.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Packing Light - a Book Review

Packing Light, by Allison Vesterfelt

We all have baggage. Some baggage is heavier than others. But no matter what kind of life we've lived, when Christ makes us born again, He takes that baggage and replaces it with His own - His gospel. We're new creations. The old man has passed away, and all things are new.

So why is it then, that we keep trying to stuff more into our suitcase? We try to pick up some of the old stuff and cram it in, and we pick up all kinds of useless junk along that way that just has to be included on the journey. If we're really messed up, we keep our suitcase, and then buy a back pack, overnight bag, and footlocker just so we have more room for the stuff that we don't need! And then we're so concerned with carrying all that stuff, and shuffling it around, and trying to find the appropriate stuff to pull out for any situation, that we lose sight of ourselves! We become junk store merchants! This is not the life to which we're call in Christ. We're called to let go, follow Him and fully trust Him to meet every need.

Allison Vesterfelt has written a thought-provoking memoir of her journey to this understanding. Stepping outside of her comfort zone, she embarks on a 50-state adventure with a friend. They must pack light, since they'll be on the road for 6 months, driving across the country and back. As they travel, they accumulate more stuff, they purge, they acquire. They are constantly re-evaluating what is necessary and what can be discarded. Allison comes to realize that in holding tightly to the unnecessary, she was letting go of the person God created her to become.

Packing Light is a great read - there's adventure, fun and loss. And intentionally or not, Packing Light is packed full of the good news. In talking about making decisions for her life, she writes, "Everything was going to be okay. I knew it. He (God) loved me, He loved me, He loved me. That was all that mattered." (p. 95) She talks about unrealized expectations in a way that reminded me of Jesus' twelve disciples - they were expecting a triumphant, conquering Messiah, but instead they had one who was killed on a cross. She writes about rules and how we think obeying the rules will keep us from disappointment and heartache, but they don't. Just like keeping the Law of Scripture, which cannot save us. We either neglect the rules and reap the consequences, or we become obsessed with them and shift our focus off the beauty and glory of God and shine the spotlight on ourselves and our efforts.

In my opinion, her most profound words appear on pages 130-131. I won't quote it entirely (you'll just have to read the book yourself!). But I will close with my favorite sentence: "When we become who God meant us to be all along, we leave a wake of His presence behind us." Isn't that what the Christian life is all about? We live our lives in such a way that the world might see Christ in us, the hope of glory. Buy the book, read it, and pass it on to someone else who needs to learn to fill their suitcase with the gospel, and let all the rest take care of itself.

I received this book from the author for the purpose of this review, although I was not required to write a favorable review. I just couldn't help it!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

I Am Barabbas

Contemplating the Good Friday story today. So many of the players depict me in part: Like Peter, I deny Christ in my words and deeds out of fear of what others will think. Like the Pharisees, I think I can be good enough to deserve God's love. But I realized today that the person in the story that most completely portrays me is Barabbas. Guilty, deserving death, but gets off Scott-free because Jesus took my place. I am Barabbas. He went free because sinful people fear grace much more than we fear sin. We think we are good enough to atone for our sin and make ourselves righteous. Grace tells us that we are beyond the hope of ever being good enough. Looking at grace forces us to see our total depravity. The Pharisees were trusting in their excellent work of law-keeping, which would require God to call them righteous. But righteousness comes to those who are unable to merit it, through the grace of God in Jesus Christ.In Christ, I am forgiven much. May my love for others show how much I love Christ.