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Archive for December, 2014

We’re All Wrapped Up!

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Steve and I are enjoying the presence of our happy family this week.  May you also be creating glorious memories to enjoy for years to come.

I’ll be back with a new post on Monday, January 5!

(Art credit:  pinterest.com)

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It’s Christmas!

Glorified-Christ-in-Heaven

Praise God, our Savior has come.  The King of kings and Lord of lords left the glories of heaven for us.

The Son of God became a man

to enable men to become the sons of God.

-C.S.Lewis
(Mere Christianity)

Incredible, isn’t it?

(Art credit:  www.coolchaser.com.)

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Nativity-29

Bethlehem. One word that immediately conjures images from the Christmas story: an inn with no room for a travel-worn couple, a stable or cave that became the birthplace of a King, angel choirs announcing his birth, and exuberant shepherds worshiping the newborn Messiah.

But just five miles from Bethlehem lies Jerusalem. In fact, from some locations within the little village, you can gaze northward and glimpse the rooftops of the capital city.

Perhaps, as Christmas approaches, we would do well to shift our gaze for a few moments, from the manger in Bethlehem toward Jerusalem: the place where our Savior gave up his life on a cross.

Most of our thoughts this time of year focus on the village where the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head, where angels came from the realms of glory and shepherds quaked at the sight. Each year we sing carols that highlight nearly every aspect of the story.

But there is one carol that reminds us of the bitter realities of Calvary, even while celebrating the sweet story of Jesus’ birth: “The Holly and the Ivy.”

Historians tell us that long before Christ was born, Europeans were bringing holly into their homes during winter, as part of several pagan celebrations. Later, Christians continued the tradition, but adapted the symbolism associated with the plant.

To these believers of long ago, holly represented Jesus. The sharp points on the leaves reminded them of the crown of thorns pressed down on Jesus’ head prior to his crucifixion. The bright red berries represented the blood he shed. Holly also produces white flowers, symbolic of Christ’s purity.

And what of the ivy?  One source suggested that ivy requires a support system as it grows.  Small tendrils find places to cling. (Ivy seems especially fond of brick walls, doesn’t it?) Perhaps the lyricist of this carol was thinking of us when he included the ivy. We need to cling to God for support in our lives.

Note the last line of the first verse: “The holly bears the crown.” Indeed.  He is the King of kings and Lord of lords!

 

The holly and the ivy, when they are both full-grown,

Of all the trees that are in wood,

The holly bears the crown.

 

The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower,

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ

To be our sweet savior.

The holly bears a berry, as red as any blood,

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ

To do poor sinners good.

 

The holly bears a prickle, as sharp as any thorn

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ

On Christmas day in morn.

 

The holly bears a bark

As bitter as any gall,

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ

For to redeem us all.

The Bethlehem Christmas story includes so many elements to celebrate: God’s love manifested in the birth of a Savior; Mary’s and Joseph’s faithfulness to fulfill God’s plan, the angel’s message of peace on earth, and the shepherds’ joy.

But may our celebration also include appreciation for God’s love that prompted him to give up his only Son to death, that those who believe on him might have eternal life. May we celebrate the faithfulness of our Savior to fulfill God’s plan in spite of the agony and sorrow.

And, yes, may we celebrate the deep-down, long-lasting peace and joy that only Jesus can provide (John 14:27; 15:11).

 

(Sources:  Christmas, by Charles Allen and Charles Wallis (Revell, 1977); http://www.hymnsandcarolsofthefaith.com; http://www.landscaping.about.com; http://www.mymerrychristmas.com.)

Art credit:  www.lamblion.com.

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Christmas. The first syllable surely needs no explanation of origin. It speaks of the One we celebrate.

But what about the second syllable, -mas?

Christmas is a term that has been around for nearly a thousand years, coming to us from Old English. Cristes Maesse meant “Mass of Christ.” It was established by church leaders to disconnect the church celebration of Jesus’ birth from pagan holidays and customs—holidays such as Winter Solstice. (Even before the birth of Christ, Romans were celebrating the shortest day of the year, in anticipation of the sun’s gradual return.)

As a matter of fact, as early as the fourth century, Christians were creating their own wintertime celebration. One theologian pointed out in 320 A.D.: “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of Him who made it.”

Yet there are those who wish to keep the customs of Christmas without including the One being celebrated. Seems they’d like to take away the first syllable, Christ. But then all that’s left is –mas.

Sounds like mess.

Indeed. I am confident that without Christ, my life would be a mess. 

A mess of fears.

A mess of brokenness.

A mess of worry.

A mess of guilt.

A mess of dissatisfaction.

It’s possible that for a long while I’d be able to hide the mess under glittery packages of stuff, noise and distraction, busy-ness.

But eventually, a body must stop and rest. That’s when my mind would kick into high gear and the mess would wreak havoc in my soul. Chances are I’d develop sleep problems, depression, or perhaps even physical manifestations like ulcers. Stress can do that to a person.

Shouldn’t I at least consider the alternative? What if I do allow Christ in my life?

Oh, my. The list of precious gifts He bestows is astounding and practically endless. To begin, he provides:

  • Calm in place of fear.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me” (John 14:1), Jesus said.

  • Restoration in place of brokenness.

 “Anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons” (2 Corinthians 5:17, The Message)!

  • Peace of mind in place of worry.

 “Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met…God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes” (Matthew 6:33-34, The Message).

  • Forgiveness in place of guilt.

 “Everyone who believes in [Jesus] receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43).

  • Contentment in place of dissatisfaction.

 “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6).

 And among his many other gifts to us, Jesus grants us the incredible privilege of eternal life (John 3:16)—with him in heaven.

But how will I be able to enjoy all these gifts if I don’t give Christ a chance?

I really have nothing of value to lose. Just the mess.

 

“Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15)–the Christ of Christmas!

 

(Art credit:  www.emblibrary.com .)

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No Christmas season would be complete without the reading of the second chapter of Luke—the account of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem, presiding over the birth of Jesus in a stable or cave, and receiving shepherd-guests.

Toward the end of the account, as those shepherds were spreading the word of Jesus’ birth, Luke wrote, “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (v. 19).

Indeed. She had much to process:

  • Her baby was the Messiah, the Promised One, who would save his people from their sin. I wonder if she studied him, looking for signs that he was different from other infants.
  • This was the Prince of Peace cradled in her arms. Yet he had been born to a common village girl in very primitive conditions.  Did that seem strange to her?
  • The shepherds had learned of his birth when angels visited them, just as the angel, Gabriel, had visited Mary and then Joseph.  Gabriel had also visited Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Four angel visitations in a matter of months. Never had that happened before.

I find myself pondering, too—pondering Mary herself–this dear, young girl who carried a tremendous burden for a long time.

Dear means beloved and valued. Mary is certainly that for numerous reasons.

  • She embraced Gabriel’s announcement with great faith. “May it be to me as you have said,” (Luke 1:38). She put herself in the care of God in spite of incomprehensible circumstances.
  • Her prayer, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), gives indication of a heart fully committed to God.
  • She endured much: shame for her pregnancy, a long, uncomfortable journey to Bethlehem, and crude circumstances for the birth of her Son.

Mary was young—perhaps between thirteen and fifteen years of age. That was the typical age for a girl to be married in Bible times.

Yet, young as Mary was, Gabriel praised her for being “endued with grace” (v. 28, AMP). In addition, Mary demonstrated stamina, maturity, and gentleness beyond her years, in dire circumstances. No doubt God graced her with these traits. But I have to believe Mary also had freedom of choice, as we all do, to embrace God’s way for her.

But what I ponder most about Mary is the fact she carried a tremendous burden, given to her by an elderly man, Simeon, eight days after Jesus was born.

You undoubtedly remember the story. Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the temple at Jerusalem to be circumcised. There they met the righteous and devout Simeon who had been waiting decades for the Messiah. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him he would not die until he had seen the Lord Christ.

Immediately upon seeing the child, Simeon knew this was the One. He praised God for keeping his promise, blessed Mary and Joseph, and then spoke particularly to Mary, saying Jesus would cause some to rise and some to fall, and the thoughts of many hearts would be revealed.

Simeon’s last words must have caused Mary’s eyes to grow wide and her heart to skip a beat: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:21-35).

What?! Wasn’t the worst behind her? Surely Mary wanted to ask Simeon, “What do you mean?” Scripture gives us no indication that she did so. Perhaps Simeon walked away, leaving the stunned couple to stand speechless there in the temple court.

For thirty-three years those last words of Simeon must have echoed in Mary’s mind again and again. How does a person live with such long-term foreboding? Perhaps her mind turned back to the night of Gabriel’s visitation. Perhaps, for thirty-three years, Mary repeated what she had told the archangel: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said” (1:38).

Mary may very well have developed the calm assurance that even when God’s ways are baffling, we can rest assured he is orchestrating events to accomplish far more than we could ever imagine (Ephesians 3:20). She had been witness to such orchestration in Bethlehem.

Mary knew that even our personal hardships can fulfill purposes that extend far beyond ourselves.

That’s a lesson for all of us to embrace with calm assurance.

 

(Art credit:  www.seekerville.blogspot.com.)

 

 

 

 

 

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I love all things Christmas–with a few exceptions for the silly (Dancing Santas I can do without.), the gaudy and over-glittered (unless my children made it), and the highly repetitious (“The Little Drummer Boy,” with its twenty-one pa-rum-pa-pum-pums is one example).

But I do look forward to:

  • Evergreen wreaths with cheery red bows perched on light poles in the business district.
  • Colorful lights twinkling from bushes and rooftops.
  • Vanilla-spice Christmas cookies, crisping in the oven and filling the house with sweet fragrance.
  • Candles glowing from table and shelf.
  • Delicate, porcelain figures, circled around Baby Jesus in our treasured family crèche.
  • Beloved carols resounding through the house or sung at church with family and friends.
  • Family gathered from near and far, nestled around the Christmas tree to hear the beloved story of the Nativity once more.

You get the idea.

I’m now getting to the age when all these things are very familiar. I’ve enjoyed them again and again over the decades. Yet they never lose their appeal. Every year, as Christmas approaches, I eagerly anticipate the repetition of each experience.

Why? Why hasn’t boredom set in? It’s not an easy question to answer. But these reasons occur to me as possibilities:

  • My relationship with Jesus influences my response to these Christmas traditions. My joy in the season is greatly augmented because I know him.  And celebrating Someone whom I love and worship is far superior to celebrating a stranger.
  • The Christmas story and its themes of peace, joy, and hope, provide stability in an uncertain, even fearful world. We Christians enjoy the benefit of Christ’s peace, joy, and hope in our hearts every day (Romans 5:1-2).  That, too, is something wondrous to celebrate.

But that’s not all! Jesus is coming again and all the perfections of heaven await those who believe in him. Did you know that for every single prophecy in scripture that foretold Jesus’ birth, there are eight which look forward to his return? Also consider: every prophecy about Jesus’ birth came true; therefore, we can be confident every prophecy about his second coming will also come true.  Christmas is a celebration that not only looks back with great joy, but forward with great hope.

  • Our King of kings and Lord of lords left his perfect heavenly home to dwell among us. He became human that we might be glorified (Philippians 2:6-9; Romans 8:30). He has made it possible for us to enjoy every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3).   And, He is our:

Wonderful Counselor (Isaiah 9:6), guiding our way.

Emmanuel (Matthew 1:23), gracing us with his presence.

Shepherd (Hebrews 13:20), tenderly caring for us.

Rock (1 Corinthians 10:4), providing stability and refuge.

Advocate (Romans 8:34), interceding for us when Satan tries to condemn.

And so much more. Who can help but celebrate our loving Savior?

May all things Christmas turn our hearts and minds to him–his miraculous birth, his perfect life and sacrifice, his glory.

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Jesus Christ,

the condescension of divinity,

and the exaltation of humanity.

–Phillips Brooks

a-young-Philips-Brooks

 

Are you familiar with Phillips Brooks (1835-1893)? If you had lived in the mid-to-late 1800s, it’s likely you would have known the name. By age thirty, he was considered one of the premier preachers in America.

Brooks began his ministry at a small church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he served two years. In 1859, another church in Philadelphia, Holy Trinity Church, invited him to be their minister, and Brooks accepted.

Less than two years later, America was engulfed in the Civil War. Young Brooks led his congregation through those dark and painful times.

But finally, on April 9, 1865, General Lee surrendered to General Grant, and Americans dared hope for reconciliation between North and South. Then, just one week later, President Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed. Phillips Brooks was asked to preach at the funeral of the fallen president. Brooks was just thirty years old.

The war years had taken their toll on the young preacher. In December of 1865, he took a sabbatical in the Middle East. On Christmas Eve Day, Brooks was in Jerusalem. He decided to borrow a horse and ride to Bethlehem, about five miles away.

Approaching the village, Phillips noted that little had changed since Bible times. Sheep still dotted the hillsides and shepherds in long robes still kept watch over their flocks.

 

10

 

At dusk, Brooks rode into Bethlehem itself—just a small, clay-colored village crisscrossed with dirt paths. Phillips thought, How stunning to consider that our heavenly King was born into such modest surroundings.

And then his thoughts drifted back to that momentous night when the Son of God also became the Son of Man. His heart overflowed with fresh wonder and unspeakable joy. The heartaches of the past four years began to diminish.

Later he would tell family and friends the experience would forever be “singing in my soul.” But Phillips found it impossible to fully describe that evening. This was one time the famous orator was at a loss for words.

Three years later in 1868, Brooks found his thoughts returning to that mystical Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. He started jotting down words and phrases that occurred to him, and it wasn’t long before he had the makings of a poem.

This might lend itself to music, he thought, and gave the poem to the organist of Holy Trinity Church, Lewis Redner.

 

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But try as Redner might, a tune worthy of Brooks’ lovely poem would not come to him.

Lewis went to bed on Christmas Eve feeling like a failure.

Later, Lewis explained what happened next: “I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune as we now have it, and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony. Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.”

But it has. Nearly one hundred fifty years later, we’re still singing O Little Town of Bethlehem. It is one of the most beloved carols in the world.

 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.

 

Phillips beautifully highlighted two contrasts between:  1) the still, dark night and the everlasting Light that burst upon Bethlehem, 2) the sleepy little village and the momentous birth which occurred in its midst. The tune Redner heard and recorded also created contrast by moving between major and minor keys.

Brooks concluded his first verse with one more set of opposites :  All of our hopes are met (fulfilled) in Jesus, and all our fears are met (dealt with) by Jesus (1 Timothy 1:1; 1 John 4:18).  Glad tidings of great joy, to be sure.

I have to wonder also if the quote at the beginning of this post—another study of contrasts–didn’t result from that Christmas Eve in Bethlehem:

Jesus Christ,

the condescension of divinity,

and the exaltation of humanity.

 

Sources: Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins; www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com; www.crosswalk.com; http://www.joy-bringer-ministries.org.

Photo credits:  www.openlettersmonthly.com; http://www.heavens-gates.com; http://www.globible.com

 

 

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