Monday, December 19, 2011

The Song That Can't Be Silenced


This month we’ve been considering why millions, many without understanding, have been caught up with Christmas; why we bear silent witness to the Savior’s birth with multi-colored lights and holiday parties and evergreen trees and, yes, with Christmas carols, those songs that can’t be silenced. I was surprised to learn that even Richard Dawkins, the well known atheist and author of The God Delusion, likes to sing Christmas Carols!  In an open letter last week to Prime Minister David Cameron he writes: As a “cultural Anglican I recoil from such secular carols as ‘White Christmas,’ ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and the loathsome ‘Jingle Bells,’ but I’m happy to sing real carols, and in the unlikely event that anyone wants me to read a lesson I’ll gladly oblige — only from the King James Version, of course.”     I assure you, Dawkins is not a convert; but then Jesus did say, "With God all things are possible!" 

Biblical faith has always been a singing faith.  According to Scripture there was music when the world was created (Job 38:7); there was music when God delivered His people from Egyptian slavery (Exodus 15); there was music when the Temple was dedicated to the Lord (II Chron. 5:13); there was music when Jesus was born (Luke 2:13-14); and Revelation says that there will be music when Jesus the Messiah returns & heaven and earth are made new (Rev. 4:10-11). 

A unique feature of Jewish and Christian worship is organized congregational singing.  One of the reasons why you only hear Hanukkah and Christmas songs at "Winter Concerts" is that it is historically Jews and Christians who have written all the sacred choral music. So it should come as no surprise that there is no other time of year that the message of God’s love is more omnipresent than right now, when songs of divine help and Christmas joy are so in evidence.  We hear them wafting through shopping malls; streaming from car radios, or playing on ipods. For 2000 years, we’ve been singing and chanting and humming with the angels who announced the Messiah's’ birth.  What is the power of these songs, even for skeptics, and why do we sing them?

We sing at Christmas because the God of the highest place has come to dwell in the lowest place:
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14"Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors" (Luke 2: 8-14)!
This passage contains the first Christmas carol, the song of the angels, “Doxa en uyistoiV Qew” or in Latin, “Gloria in excelsis Deo” ( “Glory in the highest to God”) a phrase that we know was used in worship as far back as 128AD when Pope Telesphorus issued a decree that on the day of the celebration of our Lord’s birth, all churches should have special evening services and that at services and at other appropriate times, the congregation should sing, “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” 

Glory to God in the highest...the highest heaven, that is.  The angels were speaking not just of the first heaven, of oxygen and birds…or the second heaven, of the moon and stars…but the highest heaven... beyond time and space.  These spiritual beings, who were here before the world began, sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven” because before the first stone was set by the pyramid builders; before brontosaurus walked the earth, before the oceans formed or the galaxies cooled, they knew that the Infinite would become an infant; that the God of the highest place would come to dwell in the lowest place. And when that day finally came, they rejoiced!  

John puts it this way, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  I like Eugene Peterson’s "Message" translation:  “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”  What this means is that in Jesus the Messiah and Son of God, the Creator himself came to the lowest place with us; He cried with us, crawled with us, walked with us, ate with us, laughed with us, put his arms around us, listened to us, spoke to us, wept with us, suffered with us, and even died with us.  There is no place we may go that he has not already gone with us.

Listen to Bono of the Irish Rock Band U2 from Cathleen Falsani’s interview with him in The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People: “The idea that there’s a force of love and logic behind the universe is overwhelming to start with, if you believe it…But the idea that that same love and logic would choose to describe itself as a baby born in [cow dung] and straw and poverty is genius, and brings me to my knees, literally.  To me, as a poet, I am just in awe of that.  It makes some sort of poetic sense.  It’s the thing that makes me a believer” [and he could have said, it’s the thing that makes me sing ‘Glory to God in the highest’].”

We sing at Christmas because God has loosed His unearthly peace on earth:  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace….” Christ has come from the highest place to the lowest place to bring us peaceshalom with God and others.  Now we must understand that this is not a peace that is forced upon human beings with a sword – like the Pax Romana, as impressive as it was. Certainly, if God wanted to force this world to be “peaceful” he could do so at any time he wanted; but his desire was and is that we might freely love him, and each other – which is the only way that true peace is really possible…

A while back I saw an MTV broadcast in which a panel of music “experts” was being asked to name their favorite rebel song.  One song got everyone’s approval.  Why?  "It makes you want to go out and break things!” one judge said.  Here are 4 of my favorite rebel songs from the Bible…songs that make you want to break things too.
        #1 The song of Moses after the exodus from Egyptian slavery (“Sing to the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously!” – Ex. 15: 1). Jesus’ disciples heard that song and then broke down the dividing wall between slaves and masters; worshiping together, and eventually working to end the State sponsored slave trade through godly men like John Woolman, William Wilberforce, and Frederick Douglas.  
        #2 The song of the children in Psalm 139:13 (“It was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb).  Jesus’ disciples heard that song and then put an end to the practice of infanticide at a time when killing one’s baby was not only legal but encouraged. 
        #3 David’s cry to God in Psalm 22 (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”) Jesus’ disciples heard that cry for help, also on Jesus’ lips, and put an end to the callous disregard of the sick, the suffering, and dying in the first century, risking their lives to come to their aid when there was no organized or humane care for them.
        #4 The song of Mary in Luke 2: 46 (“My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.) Jesus’ disciples heard that song, and those of the other women who followed Him, and began to shatter the abusive and disrespectful treatment of women…honoring them as full members of society, and spiritual leaders.

My point is that Jesus and his disciples led a true rebellion, a revolution of self-giving love, of reconciliation and forgiveness, of holiness and peace.  That song of peace continues to move people today.  Country music star Travis Tritt spent many years playing out-of-the-way joints before he made it big in the music industry. Many of the bars he played at were dangerous places, with drunk fans starting fights over the smallest matters. But Tritt found a unique way to keep the peace in those situations: 'Silent Night' - "It proved to be my all-time lifesaver," Tritt says. "Just when [bar fights] started getting out of hand, when bikers were reaching for their pool cues and rednecks were heading for the gun rack, I'd start playing 'Silent Night.' It could be the middle of July, I didn't care. Sometimes they'd even start crying, standing there watching me sweat and play Christmas carols" (Twang! The Ultimate Book of Country Music Quotations, R. Obstfeld and S. Burgener).  Now that's the peace of Christ and his message at work…the peace we long for, the peace this world needs, the peace that He came to bring.

We sing at Christmas because God has claimed us as His beloved:   “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”  Why has God descended from the highest place to the lowest place?  Why has He come to restore peace with our God and with our fellow human beings? The answer is, “because he favors us, because he loves us.”  The word favor” translates the word eudokia which in modern Greek means not only favored one, but “beloved.”  We would say today, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom he loves.”  This world suffers from a deficit of real love...

As I was researching this message, I came across an article on the web written by John Morris, a modern pagan (beliefnet.com).  He writes: “I was complaining to our High Priestess about the lack of singing in our coven….When I was a kid in the Presbyterian Sunday School, we sang Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.  I grew to dislike the words, but they were fun to sing…. I’ve thought of the old songs while I was out running through the snow….chanting the old words of my Quaker ancestors, “How can I keep from singing?”  I was unfamiliar with that hymn and so looked it up.  The last line is this: The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart; A fountain ever springing: All things are mine since I am His — How can I keep from singing?  


Can you believe that a Wiccan was actually singing that song to himself while running through the winter snow?  That is his testimony!  I get the feeling that Morris, despite his unbelief, still longs to hear God’s love song, to know that he belongs to the Creator, not a coven…just like millions of other people around the world today.  


Music continues to be a powerful conveyor of the Gospel today.  When the nihilist, Frederich Neitzche (1844-1900) heard Bach’s Passion of St. Matthew he admitted upon hearing it, "One who has completely forgotten Christianity truly hears it here as gospel."  In Japan – a country that has suffered much in the aftermath of this year’s massive earthquake -- performances of Bach's Christmas Oratorio are always sold out, though tickets cost over $600.  Japanese conductor Masaaki Suzuki, a Christian, said that “Bach works as a missionary among our people. After each concert, people crowd the podium wishing to talk to me about topics that are normally taboo in our society—death, for example. Then they inevitably ask me what ‘hope’ means to Christians…Bach has already converted tens of thousands of [our people] to the Christian faith.”   Yuko Maruyama, a Japanese organist who was once a devout Buddhist is now a follower of Jesus.  Why?  “Bach introduced me to God, Jesus, and Christianity. When I play a fugue, I can hear Bach talking to God”  

We read in Luke 19:40 (NIV) that as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, his disciples began praising God joyfully with loud voices.  Some religious leaders told Jesus to rebuke them, but Jesus replied, “I tell you, if these keep quiet, the stones will cry out."  It’s the song that can’t be silenced; and like the shepherds, we've been invited to sing along.  The angels’ song was not a solo; but a choral anthem.  It invites us to join in, which is exactly what the shepherds did when they returned from Bethlehem “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen….” (Luke 2: 20). The Christmas music that we hear playing over shopping mall loudspeakers, car radios or ipods, invites you and me to join the worship band, to sing in the symphony of salvation, to kneel at Bethlehem’s manger.  Here is a prayer to get us started...

King Jesus, we've heard the song that can't be silenced today; the angelic song that tells how you came from the highest place to dwell with us in the lowest place; how you came to bring me true peace, peace with God and peace with those around me in a world broken by sin, evil, and death; the song that tells of your love for me.  How can I keep from singing?  I believe that you went to the cross to free me from my guilty past, and that you are risen from the dead and alive today.   Glory to God in the highest!  Now, I receive your Holy Spirit, and the gift of eternal life, that I may be with you, and serve you in fellowship with your other disciples forever.  Amen!  

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Testimony of the Tree


The Christmas Tree is one of those universal symbols of this season… it stands in front of city halls and on top of skyscrapers; and millions stand in line each year to buy one for their living room.  As my family and I were shopping for a noble fir at the local home improvement store last Saturday, I thought how amazing it would be if the line of worshipers coming to church the next day was as long as the line of customers waiting to purchase these trees! Alas, Christmas tree sales are no predictor of church attendance; nor can one  make a “biblical case” for the mandatory display and decoration of Christmas trees.  So is this just a “heathen symbol” we should avoid, as some argue, or a sacred testimony to Jesus’ birth?  I believe it's both -- and I think we should be glad that it is. Here are some "theological" reasons why...

(i) In each of us there is a longing for the Tree of Life.  If one could travel in a time machine to December 17, 500 years before Christ, and enter a Roman villa on a cold, mid-winter night, you would see something that looked strangely familiar: decorated with bits of metal and adorned with 12 candles you would see an evergreen tree, that had been placed there during the festival of Saturnalia – a celebration honoring Saturn, the Roman harvest god.  If one could travel to Northern Europe during a similar period, hundreds of years before Christ, one would find that it was the custom of the Druids (the priests of an ancient celtic nature religion), to cut down the evergreen tree and to place it in their homes as a symbol of eternal life during the winter solstice. 

A few years ago, I was invited to a “Winter Solstice Festival” that doubled as a school fundraiser. I'll never forget that bizarre experience.  There were actually unadorned evergreen trees all around the festival grounds, as a reminder of its pre-Christian roots.  Not only this, but there was a drama in which a kind of “advent wreath” was used to celebrate the cycles of nature and tell the story of the rebirth of the light!  Paganism is still alive and well. The fact that pagan and pre-Christian cultures used and still use “evergreen trees” in winter festivals could suggest to us that our own “Christmas tree” is no more than a relic of pagan tradition that should be rejected.  But before we go there…

I think we need to ask an important question, “What do these ancient pagan traditions tell us about humankind and its search for significance?”  I believe they plainly tell us that there is a longing for life and divine purpose in every human heart; a longing that is part of our creation as human beings. We see something very similar today when those who do not know God (or who do not want to know Him) are nevertheless drawn like a magnet to these symbols of life, not realizing that God longs to feed us from the Tree of Life. Genesis 2:9; and Genesis 3:22-23 speak of an evergreen tree that bore life-giving fruit: the “Tree of Life” that was God’s gift to humankind.  In the garden paradise of Eden, God planted this tree; and makes it clear that he fully intended for human beings to eat from it and be sustained by its fruit forever; but that was not to be. The Scriptures tell us that, though God intended for us to eat of the Tree of Life, we turned from Him and began to walk in the shadow of the Tree of Death.

(ii) We live in the shadow of the Tree of Death. In Romans 1:18-25 Paul speaks of how human beings substituted the worship of the Creator for the worship of the creature. Many peoples in the ancient world worshiped nature, the return of the sun, and the gods of agriculture.  Today, many of us worship money, success and pleasure in the same way.  Not knowing the true God, the Giver of the Tree of Life, they fashioned gods out of dead trees and worshiped them; and though they could not re-create the Tree of Life, they learned how to fashion another kind of tree – what the Greeks called  xulon (xulon), a tree that could bring only death. 

The word xulon literally means, “dead wood” – and it described anything made from wood, esp. a stick, a cudgel, or a club which were used as weapons [see Theological Dictionary of the New TestamentV. 37xulon]. Xulon came to mean an instrument of restraint and punishment for slaves, madmen and prisoners (e.g., a heavy wooden collar, stocks for the feet, hands, head).  Eventually, the word xulon came to signify a “stake” or a “tree” to which criminals were fastened, and then to the Roman “cross” – an instrument of torture and suffering that brought with it a curse!  Deuteronomy 21:22-23 describes how those who were convicted of a crime punishable by death were often hung on a tree and that “…anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse.” 

Here then is the story of the human condition.  God desires to give us the Tree of Life, but we choose the Tree of Death!  I’m going to purposely avoid mentioning the most tragic examples of that choice this year, and share just a few of the more ridiculous examples from Christmases past.
  • The San Francisco Chronicle reports that when two men in San Raphael were offended by each other’s gifts, a fight broke out; there were flying flowerpots which landed them them both in the hospital.
  • The LA Times told of 20 year old Brandi Nicole Nason who was also less than pleased with her former stepmother’s gift.  Nason was accused of setting her stepmother’s house on fire with a Molotov cocktail that caused $200,000 damage on Christmas Day.
  • And when a man in Victoria, BC grumbled to a woman that the load of gifts in his arms was heavier than the tree she was carrying, how did she respond?  She beat him so hard with her Christmas tree that she was arrested.

John writes: And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).  That darkness was never deeper than when Jesus the Messiah, who opened the eyes of the blind, and taught us to love even our enemies, was himself handed over and crucified on the Tree of DeathPeter would never forget the day when he stood in its shadow.  In Acts 10: 39ff. he says that “We are witnesses to all that He did both in Judea and in Jerusalem.  They put Him to death by hanging him on a tree (literally, a xulon.…” But the good news is, Peter does not end there.  He goes on…  “They put Him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.”  

(iii) In other words, Jesus redeemed the Tree of Death by transforming it into the Tree of Life...  
Christ’s death on “the tree” has meant a removal of the curse of sin, and the gift of eternal life for all who trust in him. Paul puts it this way: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” Gal. 3:13. I want to be clear that Paul speaks of the Law as both a blessing and a curse; a blessing to those who obey its commands and a curse to those who turn from them; life to those who walk in the truth of its words; and death to those who ignore them.  Humankind has rejected God’s commands and so lives under the shadow of death. Yet Christ who knew no sin, willingly died on the tree and took upon himself the very curse of death that should have been our own so that we might be freed from sin’s power and alive to God.  That he really did take upon himself that curse, says Paul, is evidenced by the fact that he died on the accursed tree like a common criminal (Deut. 21:22-23) and then rose again from the dead.  

I began by saying that in pre-Christian times one might find in a Roman household during mid-winter something very much like a “Christmas tree” – an evergreen decorated with bits of metal and candles.  But what you would not have found in those Roman households was a cross hanging on the wall.  That’s because the cross was an actual instrument of fear, torture, and violent death.  It would have been as likely to see a Roman household with a cross on the wall as an electric chair in someone’s living room today.

Yet get this: in very early Christian art, the cross is used as a symbol – not of death – but of life!  In fact, in early Christian art, there is a close relationship between the image of the cross and the Tree of Life; the living trunk of the cross bearing branches and leaves.  That which was a symbol of torture, death and oppression for centuries was utterly changed into a symbol of life. Listen to Rev. 22: 1-2: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the LambOn either side of the river is the Tree of Life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

Friends, consider this incredible possibility: that Christ is our “Tree of Life” – the One who conquered sin and death on the cross and offers healing and redemption to all who trust in him….Should his followers place an evergreen tree in their homes or churches, even though this custom has roots in pagan worship and secular tradition?  I say, “Yes!” just as his followers often display crosses in their homes: both were pagan symbols before Christ’s birth; and both have been utterly transformed by the power of His indestructible life!   
I wonder, would the Christ-child, if he sat beneath our sparkling tree, condemn as crass and empty all he saw? Or might he laugh and cheer and clap his hands with joy to see his miracle take place again and life become abundant shared in love?  --  J. Barrie Shepherd in A Child Is Born
When faithful Christians light the Christmas tree, they’re celebrating Jesus’ victory of life over death; they’re celebrating His power to purify what has been profaned; and that those who delight in his word and walk in his ways are like evergreen trees, in the words of Psalm 1:3, “like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in season, and their leaves do not wither.”  So let us give thanks then that through God's Son, the Terrible Cross, the Tree of Death, has been changed forever into the Wonderful Cross, the Tree of Life!

Heavenly Father, with more wonder than that of little children who kneel beneath the Christmas tree, we kneel beneath the Wondrous Cross -- the instrument of death and despair which your Son transformed into the mighty Tree of Life when He bore the penalty for our sins in His own body, freed us from sin’s curse, and gave us power to walk as his disciples.  Gracious God, remind us again this Christmas that you sanctify what is ordinary by your Spirit; make fruitful and evergreen those who are nourished by your Word, and raise all those who trust in You from death to eternal life.  For this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son (1 John  5:11). All praise and honor, glory and power, be Yours, forever and ever.  Amen!

An Invitation to the Party


After the angel's announcement to Mary that she would bear the Christ child, Luke records her Psalm-like song of praise: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior..." (Luke 1:46ff.).  Mary celebrates with all of heaven because she has just been invited to be part of the greatest miracle in history.  Now it's quite a steep descent from this majestic song of praise to a certain half-baked prayer in the comedy, Christmas Vacation, but I'm going to go there anyway...

If you've seen the movie, you'll recall that Chevy Chase plays the part of the goofy dad, Clark Griswald and that in one memorable scene Clark and his extended family are gathered around the table for a holiday feast. There are beautiful red and green Christmas decorations on the dining table, and everyone is dressed in their holiday best. Clark stands at one end of the table smiling as he carves a golden brown turkey. He looks at his family, drinking in the joy of the moment; then taps his knife against a crystal glass as he calls the family to attention: “Since this is Aunt Bethany’s 80th Christmas, I think she should lead us in the saying of grace.”

"What did he say?" Aunt Bethany replies, a little hard of hearing. 
"He wants you to say grace!"  her husband shouts. 
"Grace?  She's been dead for twenty years."  
"He wants you to say the blessing!"  
"Oh," says Aunt Bethany as she bows her head and folds her hands. 
One thing is clear as they awkwardly prepare themselves, no one at this table is comfortable with the "religious" nature of the big moment.  Then Aunt Bethany closes her eyes and begins in a reverent tone….“I pledge allegiance to the flag....”  Clark registers a dumbfounded look as everyone else joins in, “...of the United States of America.” 

It's a funny scene...and a sad one!  The one ray of hope for me was Clark's dumbfounded look of amazement! Because he really did want to say a prayer at that meal...and bring at least a measure of holiness to their celebration.  Clark is not alone either, because despite all the craziness of this holiday, I believe millions do still long to celebrate it in a holy and joyous way.  Here are 3 things to consider as you do…

First, God has created in us a longing to celebrate…I’m not here to put a wet towel on parties and gift giving and joyous laugh out loud gatherings at Christmas time.  Oh no!  Genesis tells us that God saw what he created and called it “good!”  He filled this world with life, and with human beings who have a unique ability both to bless the creation and to love the Creator. But the Bible says this love relationship for which we were created was tragically broken by our sin & shame.  We all long to recover the joy we were made for…

That’s why the Scriptures are filled with the promise of a new celebration.  In Deuteronomy, God actually requires that his people set aside 10% of their wealth just to celebrate: Deut. 14: 22-29 says that  In the presence of the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always….you and your household rejoicing together.”  Imagine, 10% just for a party!  Where is God’s sense of fiscal common sense?  Where is his sense of priorities?! You may be wondering what that party was all about.  Deuteronomy tells us clearly: it was because of God’s blessings, his steadfast love recounted from one generation to the next, that his people would feast and celebrate together. 

The Hebrew Scriptures also speak of a very special year of celebration…a year of Sabbath rest on the year following seven, seven year cycles: the fiftieth year, the year of Jubilee.  Now get this!  On the fiftieth year of Jubilee all debts were to be canceled, all land was to be returned to its original owners, and those who were in prison (who were primarily debtors not criminals) were to be set free (Lev. 25: 8-12)! The Jubilee year was especially good news for the poor and disadvantaged.  Imagine how college graduates would react if the UC Regents suddenly announced that next year was a Jubilee year and that tuition would be cut in half, or imagine that all your education loans were suddenly canceled, or that your credit card company reduced your debt to zero. If you're having difficulty imagining it...you're not alone, because so far as biblical scholars have been able to ascertain, the Israelites couldn't imagine it either: the Year of Jubilee was never celebrated!  The good news is that, though the people forgot to honor the Jubilee, God never did….

In fact, with the Messiah's arrival, the jubilee celebration has already begun. When the angel tells Mary that she will bear the Messiah, she sings a song of celebration and Jubilee, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the callously rich away empty.  He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors(Luke 1: 46-55). 

Fast forward to Jesus’ thirtieth year when he opens the scroll of Isaiah in his home town synagogue in Nazareth, and reads these words: “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor….’ Then he announces, ‘Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’” (Luke 4: 18ff.). In other words, the Jubilee has just begun!  How then should we celebrate at our Lord’s birthday party?   

Celebrate Joyously. Mary sang, the angels rejoiced …and Jesus proclaimed good news! Did you know that Jesus’ disciples were actually criticized for not living a more austere life; for not fasting more like the Pharisees:  They said to Jesus, "John's disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink." Jesus said to them, "You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you?” (Luke 5: 33-35).  In other words, if you think that parties are the exclusive domain of the fraternity house or the Friday afternoon office, or the tailgate, or the bar room, think again.  God’s people are the ones who should be celebrating!

To know Me and to welcome My coming, is to celebrate like you would at your own wedding (Mind you, Jesus was not talking about a modern wedding that lasts a few hours before the couple departs for their honeymoon, but a Middle Eastern wedding, an epic week long party with family and friends)!  Now at my wedding we danced…we ate good food…we laughed, we cried a little, we spent time with friends…but we worshiped and prayed too!  I’ll never forget that day. Every time we gather together it should be a celebration of Christ’s work in us.  So celebrate joyously; and then…

Celebrate Reverently.  Holiday is a contraction of “Holy Day.”  It's time to recover the legacy of holy celebration.   Mary’s song of celebration is surprisingly outward focused in a “counter cultural” kind of way.  It’s hard to imagine Mary on a 12am shopping spree.  But I can imagine Mary getting excited about…
  • Sharing a gift of food or hospitality with a neighbor…or inviting someone to dinner for the holidays…or blessing someone who is in need; or serving someone who serves you…like your mailman or gardener or your child’s teacher? 
  • Celebrating reverently doesn’t mean you can’t attend secular office parties or neighborhood holiday gatherings …it means being an authentic joy-filled witness to Christ, his words and ways, in the midst of those annual events. 
  • We’re not called to be solemn faced party poopers…we should act like those who know Jesus, the Reason for the celebration, and the Life of the Party.
So celebrate reverently…and Celebrate Hopefully. Mary’s life was hard, yet she praised God with hope.  Does my life have to be a Christmas postcard in order for me to celebrate this Season?  I saw a Christmas card the other day that said, “Joy to the World…blah blah blah blah!”  That’s so sad but so typical of the cynicism of our age. Celebration is not what we do after all our problems have disappeared.  It’s God’s gift to us in the midst of life’s trials and tribulations – a foretaste of the future God has in store for us; and we are to grab hold of it with all our might!!  To his disciples Jesus says: You have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22).  Regardless of what you are going through, Jesus gives us reason to hope…

When I was serving as an assistant chaplain at Trenton State Prison, a dreary maximum security facility, an inmate by the name of "Mike" once said to me, “Even sitting here in [prison], my life is better than it ever was before.  How can I say that?  I can say that because today God is my life.  Sitting here I have everything that I was searching for during all those years of using drugs, and much more.  The peace and love that I have today since I let Christ into my life is beyond compare.”  I hasten to add that Mike fully accepted responsibility for the actions that got him into prison, and wrote this testimony down for me without asking anything in return.  The hope of Christ's coming brings hope in the most hopeless situations.

God created us for celebration, and Christ’s coming was and is a time for celebration…but what we need to know more than anything today is that...the invitations have been sent; and he is awaiting our response.  Every “party” has a guest list.  Some are invited, others are not.  We had a great Thanksgiving Dinner at our home this year…we invited lots of family and many friends.  We wish we could have invited more, but we only had so much room.  Jesus says that the kingdom of God is a party to which all are invited; and there’s plenty of room for everyone who wants to come (Luke 14: 15-23).  

Hear afresh, the words of Rev. 3:20: “Behold I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me.” (cf. Romans 10:13). Why settle for a Christmas vacation, when you could be part of a never-ending Kingdom celebration?   

Gracious God, I thank you for inviting me to join you in a new season, a season of renewed hope, a season of celebration, a season of joy which was inaugurated in the coming of your Son!  Please forgive me for the sin and pride which only brings sorrow and sadness.  I now turn from everything I know is wrong, from anything that could separate me from you and the joy of your fellowship.  Thank you for coming to this broken world in Jesus who is Immanuel, God with Us.  Thank you for living as light in the darkness, for bearing my sins on the cross so that I could be forgiven and set free.  Now where there is sorrow, may I sow joy; where there is hatred, may I sow love; where there is sickness, healing; where there is cruelty, kindness; where there is fear, faith; where there is death, life.  By your Holy Spirit, I now join in the celebration of your expanding rule and reign through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.   

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Message of a Billion Lights

Hiking in the Verdugo Mountains one December evening, I remember looking out over the Valley, and beyond the Santa Monica Mountains to downtown Los Angeles and the Pacific, to see millions upon millions of dazzling Christmas lights twinkling in the darkness.  It reminded me of Jack Hayford's comment that God has “caught” humankind with the brilliant lights of Christmas (Jack Hayford, Come...and Behold Him!, Multnomah Books, 1995, p. 30).

Hayford is right…this Christmas, a billion people across the face of the earth -- many without understanding -- with candle flames and multi-colored lights, will announce this glorious fact: The Light has come!  Let's try to more deeply understand what so many fail to understand, so that we can celebrate and proclaim the truth about the glorious light of Christmas.
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. 6 There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. 9 The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world (John 1: 1-9).
Associating God with light was not a new idea. John reminds us that it's the word we've been hearing from the very beginning. The image of light is an image for God that goes all the way back to the book of Genesis, the first book in the Bible, to the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, and to the first verses in the first book of the Bible, where we learn that…


He is the Light of lights before all worlds. Yesterday I worked all day putting up my Christmas lights.  I take pride in my display, however humble; and my favorite part is that moment, when after replacing all the burned out bulbs and fuses, I flip on the switch. I wonder sometimes if the millions of people who flip on their Christmas lights each night ever ask themselves why the really big lights, the countless stars in the heavens, burn so brightly?  What turned those lights on?  Scientifically speaking, we don't have a clue.  That's because science can’t describe anything before the moment of creation when the laws of physics, and the dimensions of time and space itself, came into being.  Yet thankfully, where human reason cannot penetrate the darkness, God's revelation enlightens: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…..And God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light” (Genesis 1: 1-5). Nearly an eternity before the existence of our sun or our moon, before our own galaxy was formed, before the more than four hundred billion other galaxies shined in the night sky, each of which contains at least a hundred billion stars like our sun; there was another Light, says Genesis; and that Light, says St. John, is the light of God.  Interestingly enough, Einstein theorized that as one approached the speed of light, time slows down from the perspective of the traveler; and that at the speed of light…time stands still.  Paul once said of the Creator that “He alone…has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light….” (1 Tim. 6.16) and Peter writes that “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Peter 3:8)!  No wonder John says elsewhere that "God is light and in him there is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5).

The glorious light of Christmas is, first of all, the glorious light of the Creator.  Ravi Zacharias reflects on this fact in his book, If the Foundations Be Destroyed.  
“On Christmas Day 1968, the three astronauts of Apollo 8 circled the dark side of the moon and headed for home. Suddenly, over the horizon of the moon rose the blue and white Earth garlanded by the glistening light of the sun against the black void of space. Those sophisticated men, trained in science and technology, did not utter Einstein’s name. They did not even go to the poets, the lyricists, or the dramatists. Only one thing could capture the awe-inspiring thrill of this magnificent observation. Billions heard the voice from outer space as the astronaut read it: “In the beginning God”--the only concept worthy enough to describe that unspeakable awe, unutterable in any other way. “In the beginning God created”--the invasive, the inescapable sense of the infinite and the eternal.”  
God is the Light of lights before all worlds and, He is the redeeming light of our darkened world.
A. God has not only created light in the darkness of space; he is the Light of truth and goodness in a world darkened by sin and evil and death.  The lights that illuminate our Christmas displays bear witness to the light of God that pierces our darkness, bringing hope and eternal life.  The Bible is filled with images of God, and of our Lord Jesus Christ as light in a darkened world….
  • Before God delivers his people out of bondage in Egypt, he appears to Moses as flaming fire in the midst of a bush that is not consumed (Exodus 3.2).
  • As Moses leads his people through the wilderness, the Lord goes before them as “a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light” (Exodus 13.21).
  • The golden lampstand that burned continuously in the tabernacle and later, in the temple (Exodus 25.31ff.; 27.20ff.) was to be a reminder of God’s saving presence and eternal guidance.  
  • The Psalmist declares: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear” (Psalm 27.1).
That divine light became visible in Jesus the Christ: Matthew refers to Jesus as the world’s “dawning light,” a reference to Isaiah’s prophecy (Matt. 4.16): “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9.2).  In the ancient world, one of the most difficult things to do was to keep a fire going. To lose one’s light was not just an inconvenience, it meant the loss of heat and warmth; the ability to cook food; to protect one’s self from wild animals; and to find one’s way in the night.  Light brought warmth, security and protection.  The hunger for light and warmth has been constant from the beginning of human history.


Now John writes of the Christ, “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world" (John 1.3b-5, 9).  When John says that He is the light of all people; he uses the Greek word phos from which we derive the word photon.  What is a photon? Photons are massless particles of electromagnetic radiation traveling at the speed of light.  There are low energy photons like radio waves and high energy photons like gamma rays.  Now visible light is the only form of electromagnetic radiation that human beings can see.  In the same way, though the infinite power and glory of God is invisible to us, He has made himself visible by the light of Christ. “No one has ever seen God” John testifies, “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18).  Einstein, the physicist who profoundly shaped our understanding of light, called Jesus the “the luminous Nazarene.”

Jesus told his disciples to carry his light to those who live in darkness:  “You are the light of the world…Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5. 14-16).  If Jesus is the world’s dawning light (Matt. 4:16), his disciples are to reflect that Light.  The reason the moon is visible to us, is that it faces the sun.  It’s light is a reflected light.  So too, as we face the Messiah and take him seriously, we will reflect his light to the world.  There are more examples of His impact on human history than we can possibly recount…

In his book, If Jesus Had Never Been Born Jim Henry reflects on an event that took place on Christmas Eve, 1989. “It was … after a Romanian church had gathered for a candlelight service, that the Communist soldiers came to take the pastor. The people lined up outside the church -- 10, 15, 20, 30 deep -- encircling the church and saying, “If you come after the pastor, you come after us first.” The soldiers couldn’t get in. They couldn’t move them. The candle lights began to move through the cities. As those candles began to spread, others came out into the street, and courage came. On Christmas Day the people said, “We’ve had enough of this,” and the terrible dictator of Romania and his wife, were courageously overthrown."

Christ has given countless millions courage to be light in a darkened world.  Paul writes in Eph. 5.8-9: “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.  Live as children of light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.”  He is the Light of lights before all worlds…he is the redeeming light of our darkened world, and…


He is the eternal light of that glorious new world.  Christmas lights have a limited life span.  Eventually, they burn out (dying of natural causes) or, if you’re a Christmas light at my house, you often get accidentally stepped on or smashed by my ladder, and die an untimely death!  Such is the fate of holiday lights; and every candle flame that flickers out, and every crackling fire that is reduced to ashes.  But God’s light can never be extinguished. Isaiah prophesies: “The sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory….” (Isaiah 60.19).

Robert Russell talks about a house in his neighborhood that kept their Christmas lights burning long after the season was past. They burned through January, even through the first of February.  Finally, about the middle of February,  he became a bit critical and said, “If I were too lazy to take my Christmas lights down, I think I’d at least turn them off at night.”  But about the middle of March there was a sign outside of their house that explained why they’d left the lights on. It said simply, “Welcome home, Jimmy.” We learned that family had a son in [the war], and they had left their Christmas lights on in anticipation of his return.  Those lights were a symbol of hope (Robert Russell, author and pastor of Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, Kentucky,in sermon "Jesus Came to Be the Light").

What is do you hope for this Christmas?  Could it be making things right again with a friend or family member… finding companionship, getting out of a dark place, wanting to serve and help someone in need?  As we light our homes we often do so as a silent testimony to those hopes. Christ has promised us that this hope is not in vein, for he conquered the grave and in him there is peace with God and eternal life. This same Lord promises to come again to take us to himself.  We began with the first few verses of the first book of the Bible.  In the last chapter of the Bible we read that our Lord is preparing a brand new world for us; and that a Day will come when there will be no more tears and nothing to fear if we only hope and trust in him, for “there will be no more night; they [will] need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22: 5).


As I was hanging my lights yesterday on the side of the house, my neighbor who can see those lights was looking through the window with his wife.  “You’re a nice man! Thank you!” he shouted.  We’ve cleaned our windows so we can enjoy your lights!  The past few years have been tough for them; and they’ve told me in so many words that those lights have been a reminder to them of the light of God’s presence. In the billions of candle flames and torches and multi-colored lights of this season, may God give you spiritual eyes to see the One to whom they bear silent witness  and to let in the true light of Christmas… the One who lit the stars, the One who lights up our darkened hearts with his grace and truth, the One who calls us to follow him today with unshakeable hope, the One who said, “I am the light of the world, the one who follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How to be a witness in your own home

The other day I was doing an interview with an 8th grade boy from a nearby Catholic school.  I’ve done several of these interviews in the past, and this one was arranged by his mother. She told me over the phone that it was the boy's father who would bring him to the interview.  Now this 8th grader, who I'm going to call Andrew, had a lot of good questions for me…I got to share about the core convictions of the Reformation, and among these: grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone, and Christ alone.  When we were close to being finished I asked one more time, “Do you have any other questions?”  “No,” he said, but then turning to his Dad he said, “Dad, do you have any questions for Pastor Steve?”  That was a first!

In all the interviews I have ever done like this, no child ever asked a parent if she/he had a question for me.  The father seemed caught off guard by his son’s question: “No, I don’t have any questions for Pastor Steve.”  The son pressed further: “My dad’s an atheist,” he added.  That opened the door!  He proceeded to tell me about his unbelief…and yet respect for Jesus and his moral teachings.  He also said that his wife was a strong Catholic, but that he did not share her beliefs. I challenged him to keep asking questions, and shared with him that I too went through a time of questioning and that it helped me find answers.  I invited him to give me a call if he ever wanted to talk further before they walked out the door. 

I share this story because it describes a common situation...a family in which one of the members is not a believer (more thoughts about that story in a moment). Jesus cares about the spiritual life of our home.  The first place that Jesus wanted his disciples to bear witness to him was in Jerusalem.  That is, he wanted them to start at home, with those they knew best. Sometimes the hardest place to be a witness to our Lord is among those who know us the best!  Now the Bible tells us that God is at work through us to bless our not-yet-believing family members as we do six things… 

You can begin by keeping your commitments: Paul’s advice to Christians with unbelieving spouses is to be faithful in our commitment.  In other words, be someone who binds the family together, not someone who pulls it apart! (1 Cor. 7: 12-16).  In Corinth, Christianity was a radically new phenomenon in what was an overwhelmingly pagan city.  No doubt there were many new Christians with unbelieving partners. This put tremendous strain on the relationship. The Christian partner has a whole new set of loyalties, new priorities, new desires.  A follower of Christ is “a new creation”!  But if your spouse does not share that experience, you’ve probably felt misunderstood, frustrated, even torn in two.  

Then consider things from the unbeliever’s perspective.  I read about a Cape Town brain surgeon in this situation who said that his wife “was no longer the person with whom he had originally fallen in love and decided to marry; and that there was now another “Man” in the house to whom she was always referring every decision and consulting for advice and instruction.  He felt like he was no longer the King of his castle: that Jesus was giving the orders and setting the pace” (David Prior, The Message of First Corinthians, p. 125).  

In response to this very real situation with which we too are familiar, Paul encourages commitment to the marriage for one powerful reason…consecration.  Paul literally says, “The unbelieving man is consecrated, made holy (hegiastai) by the woman” (14) and vice versa.  The unbeliever does not cancel out the faith of the believer; quite the opposite -- something special happens between the unbeliever and the Lord.  There is a sanctifying process going on that can result in your partner experiencing new life in Christ.  And it’s not only your spouse who is hegiastai, but your children as well who are blessed and consecrated by your commitment.  "What about those who have already divorced?" you may be wondering.  Let me encourage you to be the Lord’s peacemaker as you seek to bring His peace and healing into the heart of your separated family!  

Secondly, pray for them in difficult times: Luke describes a time when Jesus was teaching and healing in the synagogue in Capernaum beside the Sea of Galilee.  Now I’ve visited this synagogue, and Peter’s house is a very short distance from it.  No doubt, he was thinking of his mother-in-law that day who despite her closeness to the synagogue, could not be there because she was suffering from a high fever.  Immediately after the service, Peter brought Jesus down to his home:  We read in Luke 4: 38-39 that, “Jesus stood over her and rebuked the fever and it left her.  Immediately she got up and began to serve them.” Peter’s faith in bringing Jesus to his mother-in law reminds us that even if our family members cannot or will not come with us to Jesus, we can bring Jesus to our family members or close friends as we pray for his help. 

I clearly remember that it was when my best friend’s mom in elementary school got very sick that I first began to share with him about my faith in God and began to pray for him and his family.  It opened a door and planted a seed.

Thirdly, show love and respect:  The theme of honor and respect are everywhere in the Bible. In Ephesians 5: 21-6:4, Paul urges us to practice mutual submission, honor and respect out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:21).  Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord….Husbands, love your wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”  Children are to obey their parents in the Lord.  Parents aren't off the hook either: Fathers do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”   

When you honor your spouse, when you show love and respect to your children or to your parents…you are planting seeds of faith, and showing them the character of Christ.  I’m convinced that one of the reasons my 94 year old grandfather came to faith in Christ was that my mother tirelessly served and helped him in his older years.  She loved him into the Kingdom. What a witness!

Fourth, teach your children without apology:  Prov. 22:6 says “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he shall not depart from it.” One of our duties as parents is to bring our children to Jesus, just as parents brought children to Jesus to be blessed by him (Matt. 19:3).   Some parents believe that taking their children to church is nothing more than “brain-washing.” My reply is that our brains are going to be washed by something one way or the other. There is no such thing as a values-free or values-neutral society.  If our children are not taught Christian values, they will be taught secular values by default – the message that life is without purpose, that there is no right or wrong; that having more stuff is the key to happiness, that I have a right to satisfy any and every desire; that the commitment of marriage is boring; that violence is the way to solve problems.

Lisa and I were talking about the state of our schools with a neighbor and the quality of teaching, which I think is very good.  But I began to think about the privilege of sitting at the feet of the Teacher…whose words and works have changed the course of history. Jarislov Pelikan, Prof. of History at Yale says, “Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost 20 centuries.  If it were possible, with some sort of super magnet, to pull up out of that history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left?”  Why we would we withhold that knowledge from our children?  A Chinese professor told me that she wanted to read the Bible because she said you cannot understand western culture without it (Note: Jesus was not "western" but "middle eastern."  Regardless, he has had touched men and women from every culture and tribe).  Teaching our children about the words and works of Jesus Christ is not foolish…it is wisdom itself.

Fifth, honor God and his sovereignty over them: Jesus challenged us to love him more…than earthly family (Matt. 10:37).  He was even thrown out of his home town, but it didn’t dissuade him from his mission (Luke 4: 23-30; Luke 8:19ff.)  Jesus shocks us, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37).

To love Him more than family means that we keep the 1st commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.”  We can make a god of our families, our success, or our children’s success.  As followers of Jesus we are aware of  the larger priorities of the Kingdom.  It’s not all about the success of my family…it’s about serving the King as members of his family.  When we put Him first…it is a witness to my spouse and my children that there is a larger world, a world of need into which we are being called to serve and make a difference for the King. But let me underscore that loving Christ more than family does not mean neglecting them.  We are to love him more, not instead of our families. As his followers we continue to be called to care for, honor, and love our families with the love he pours into our hearts.  When we love him first, we learn from him how to love them best.

Finally, invite your family…to meet Jesus: There are many stories in Scripture of family members bringing loved ones to the Lord.  Joseph (Genesis 50), you’ll remember, was the vehicle through which his entire family was brought into a deeper relationship and understanding of God’s forgiveness and provision.  Andrew brought his brother Peter to Jesus saying, “We have found the Messiah” (John 1:35-42).  Did Andrew, or his mother, plan for his dad to come to my office with his son so that he could ask a few questions and get another perspective?   It dawned on me later that week that this is exactly what happened.   He was set up!  

Someone I care about very much is my hero when I think of the principles we spoke of today.  Her dad was very hostile to the Christian faith.  He would put pieces of paper at each place setting on Thanksgiving with the following words typed out:  “Please do not pray in my presence or thank God for this food.  It is an insult to the hard work I did to put it on the table.”  I’m speaking, of course, of my wife Lisa. Nevertheless, Lisa’s mom continued to love and stay committed to her husband.  She and her children prayed for him, and showed him deep love and respect.  When Wally threatened to disown Lisa if she went to Fuller Seminary to study psychology, she went anyway because she believed it was the right thing to do. It was costly…and when she decided to marry a pastor, she endured the additional hurt of her dad not attending our wedding.  Nevertheless, she continued to love Wally.  Gradually, we began to see his heart soften toward us, though seemingly firm in his unbelief.  The end of the story?  We have hope!  We found a locked file cabinet after he died with everything we ever wrote to him about the Lord.  And we have reason to believe that Christ met Wally in the moments before he died… and that Wally did finally come to know that Jesus is Lord….but that is another story.

Jesus wants to consecrate your family through you too!  Think for a moment about someone in your immediate family, or a close friend who you know that you need to pray for; a child, a not-yet-believer; someone struggling with doubt or tragedy.  What is God calling you to do this week to express his grace and truth? Why not begin with prayer.  Pray for the power to love, forgive and respect your family, especially not-yet-believing family members.  Pray for an opportunity to share your story of God’s work in your life.  And offer up a prayer of faith that the God -- for whom all things are possible --  is at work in your family even when it may be difficult to see! 

King Jesus, give me courage to be your disciple and to boldly join you in your mission.  I confess my fear that truly following you may separate me from my family and close friends; or that I may fail to represent you well.  Help me to trust that you can bring the people that I love into your kingdom, whether through me or apart from me.  As I love and honor you before my family and friends – may they hear and see you.  As I commit myself to them, pray for them, love and respect them, teach them about you, and share my testimony of your work in my life, may they know you as Savior and Lord, and the blessing of walking in your ways.  Jesus, I trust your word when you say that in losing my life, I will find it again.  I therefore surrender not only my life, but my hopes and dreams and deepest longings for those I love, and pray that we might be joined together in your spiritual family, forever.  Amen!