Good News for All People

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on December 28, 2011.
Our Christmas celebrations have come to an end once again. Nevertheless, the many truths of Christmas endure all year long. One of those truths is always stunning to me. In fact, it may be nothing short of miraculous. What is this enduring truth? It is simply this: the good news of Christmas is good news for all people. No matter who you are, where you’ve been, or what you’ve done. The good news of the Savior’s birth is for you.
Consider the story of the shepherds in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth. Luke tells us that angels announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds in a field near Bethlehem. In those days, shepherds were considered second class citizens. They lived on the margins of society. They often lived and slept outdoors, because they couldn’t leave their sheep unattended. Shepherds in the ancient world weren’t even allowed to testify in court, because they were prejudicially considered untrustworthy.
When God decided to announce the birth of his son, he didn’t send his messengers to the capital city or the governor’s house or the king’s palace. Instead, he chose to announce the good news of the birth of Jesus to the people everyone else considered to be less than human and unimportant. Why does Luke include this detail? It’s because he wants us to know that the good news of Jesus’ birth is for everyone, even poor, outcast shepherds.
Consider also the story of the magi in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth. The magi were foreigners from the east who came to honor Jesus. In today’s world, we would probably call them immigrants. They traveled from a far off place to give gifts to Jesus. Why does Matthew include this story about foreigners coming to worship the little Jewish king? He wants every reader to understand that this king has come for everyone. No single race or nationality has a monopoly on Jesus. He comes for everyone, no one is excluded based on where they are from.
It’s also worth observing that the magi appear to have been wealthy, since they gave gold to Jesus as a gift. This is quite a contrast to the poor shepherds in Luke’s gospel who had only their adoration to offer. This is a helpful reminder that Jesus welcomes all people to himself. Whether rich or poor, immigrant or local, the good news of Christmas is for everyone.
Perhaps there has been a time in your life when you were made to feel marginalized or second class. Perhaps you’ve been concerned that you have nothing of value to offer to Christ. You need to know that the ground is level around the Bethlehem manger. All who come to Christ in faith are welcomed by him. Will you come?

The Advent of Love

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on December 21, 2011.

Christmas is a time when our thoughts turn easily to love. We think of those we love as we prepare for family gatherings and purchase gifts. Christmas is also a time when we think a little more carefully about God’s love for us demonstrated in the sending of Jesus at his birth in Bethlehem. The truth of God’s love revealed through Jesus has been on my mind as I’ve read several times through the stories of his birth in the gospels this Advent season. As I read these stories once again, though, I was struck that the word “love” doesn’t appear in them. In recounting the stories of Jesus’ birth, the gospel writers never describe that event in terms of God’s love. So, that got me to thinking: Where do you turn in the Bible when you need help thinking about the revelation of God’s love in the advent of Christ?
It wasn’t long before I remembered 1 John 4:9, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.” On the surface, this verse may not look like a Christmas verse. Remember, though, that Christmas is about the coming of Christ, and this is a verse about the coming of Christ. In fact, any verse that talks about God’s purposes in sending Jesus to be with us and offer himself for us is a Christmas text, because those verses are about the coming of Christ.
So what does 1 John 4:9 tell us? It tells us simply and beautifully that God sent Jesus, his only Son, as an expression of his love. God sent Jesus so that we could experience his love in a way that no one had ever experienced it before. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, he was not like any other baby. He was the unique expression of the Father’s love for us. Jesus came to fill the world with the love of God, and after the birth of Christ, love could never again be reduced to an abstract concept. With the birth of Mary’s baby, love had come, and love had a human face.
But that’s not all. This verse not only explains that the coming of Jesus is the revelation of God’s love, it also tells us about God’s purpose in that expression of love. And that purpose is to give life. Christ came so that we might have life through him. You don’t have to look far to see that the world is lost in a sea of darkness and death. Just watch the evening news. Jesus came to infuse this tired world with the life of God. He came to take what was broken and restore it. He came to take what was dead and dying and give it life. And that’s good news. That’s the good news of Christmas.
As Christmas morning arrives, my hope and prayer for you is that you experience God’s love and life in a way that you never have before. May the Christ, who is the perfect expression of the Father’s love, make his presence known to you and fill you with his life this Advent season.

The Advent of Joy

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on December 14, 2011.
Have you ever been to that place? You know the one, the place where you are willing to do what you know you have to do but you are not excited about it. You know the task at hand, but you are not eager to face the challenges. So, you approach it with hesitation, timidity, and perhaps a little fear. You want to be joyful, because you know it’s the right thing to do, but all too often, the right thing is the hard thing. I bet you’ve been there before.
Mary of Nazareth certainly had. After being visited by a messenger from God who told her that she would miraculously conceive a child who would be God’s Messiah and the world’s true king, Mary was committed to the plan. Remember her words: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” Mary may have dreamed of being the mother of the Messiah, but she never dreamed it would be like this. She may have hoped that one of her sons would be the Christ, but she didn’t expect it to endanger her life or cause her the shame of the whispers and sideways glances, having become pregnant before she was married. Mary was certainly committed, but the Christmas narratives give us no initial indication that she was joyful about it. At least, not yet.
Instead of celebrating, Mary ran away. She went to the home of her relative Elizabeth, where Mary would spend the first three months of her pregnancy. The journey to Elizabeth’s home would have likely taken about nine days on foot, a journey she probably made with a caravan. You can imagine the thoughts that swirled through her mind during those nine days. What will I do? What will I tell my parents? What will I tell Joseph? Who will believe me? Why is God putting me through this? Mary must have thought Elizabeth would understand. She must have thought there was no one else to whom she could turn.
When Mary entered Elizabeth’s home, and before Mary could even tell Elizabeth about her unusual circumstances, Elizabeth knew and greeted Mary with excitement and reminded her that God keeps his word and that he can be trusted. Only after this do we read that Mary rejoiced. Only then did joy come to her heart.
I think there’s a lesson to be learned there. When focused on her challenging and adverse circumstances, there is no indication that Mary was experiencing God’s joy. In fact, the text suggests that she fled looking for a safe haven. It was only when Mary’s attention was drawn to the consistency of God’s character that joy returned. We need to learn what Mary had to learn: the source of our joy is never in our circumstances; it’s always in God’s character. Circumstances change; God remains the same. Life happens; God is consistent. Challenges and adversity will come; God is faithful and true. Joy comes in knowing the character of God, not in trying to navigate life on our own.
Perhaps you are in one of those places this Christmas season. Perhaps you are feeling the tension between what must be done and the challenge of doing it. My prayer for you is that your attention will be drawn to God’s character and that you will be reminded that he is trustworthy. Perhaps this knowledge will be for you the advent of joy.

Are you ready?

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on December 7, 2011.
Advent is a season of preparation. As we celebrate the coming of Christ as the child of Mary, we also prepare ourselves for the day when he will come again. So, the Advent season is not merely about waiting passively for something to happen to us; it is an active preparation for the coming of God in Christ. This invites the question: what are we doing to prepare ourselves to receive the Christ?
We can find some help with this question in the familiar story of Mary. You remember the story; don’t you? Mary was a young girl, engaged to a young man named Joseph. She was from a small and unimportant town called Nazareth. One day she was visited by a heavenly messenger named Gabriel, and his message was exceptional, strange, and even somewhat scary. The messenger told Mary that she would be the mother of a very unique child. Indeed, his conception and birth would be nothing short of miraculous. And God would make him a great king, and he will be called the Son of the Most High.
With all the joy and celebration that surrounds the Christmas story, it is easy to forget what a shocking and scary message this would have been for Mary.  We seldom realize that she was probably only 13 or 14 years old, the typical age for a Jewish girl to be married. And we often forget that, in first century Jewish world, becoming pregnant outside of marriage was a crime punishable by death. Even if her life was spared, she would live with the shameful looks and hurtful jokes of those who lived in Nazareth. Here she was, barely an adolescent, and this messenger from God brought news that could endanger her life and result in public shame.
In light of these things, Mary’s response to Gabriel is nothing short of stunning. What did she say? Only this, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Even though it would be costly for her, Mary was already actively preparing for the coming of Christ. And she made preparation by offering herself completely and totally to God for his plan and his purposes.
With that in mind, we are left with the question of whether we are making ready to receive Christ. What are we doing to prepare for his coming? We would be wise to follow Mary’s example and give ourselves fully to God and to his purposes. Allow me to invite you to do just that and to use Mary’s prayer as a tool. Every day between now and Christmas, will you pray Mary’s prayer: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” When you rise in the morning and before you go to bed at night, pray these words to God. Perhaps, if we do this, we will be increasingly ready to see God at work in a variety of ways, and perhaps we will be more ready to be involved in that work. Imagine what it might be like if our whole community prayed this prayer together throughout the month of December. Imagine what God might do through us and in this place. Just imagine. Are you ready?

Hope Is with Us

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on November 30, 2011.
I love Christmas! I love it for so many different reasons. I love singing my favorite Christmas carols in church every Sunday. I love all the special gatherings and events, the decorations, the meals, the giving, and everything else that goes with Christmas. I look forward to Christmas months before it ever arrives, and I’ll bet some of you do, too.
I especially love Christmas because it marks a special season in the church year. That season is Advent, which is observed in churches around the world during the four weeks preceding Christmas. The word “advent” comes from a Latin word that means “to come.” The time of preparation during the weeks preceding Christmas is about getting ready for the coming of Christ, not only as the babe born in Bethlehem but also as the king who will one day come to fulfill his kingdom of love, justice, and hope. One of the ways the Church observes advent is by lighting special candles, which are placed together in an Advent wreath. Each candle represents an Advent theme; the first candle represents hope. We lit the candle of hope this past Sunday, because hope is at the heart of everything Advent is about.
We learn about the extraordinary events surrounding the birth of Jesus in the opening chapters of Matthew’s gospel, and one key element comes when we are told that Jesus shall be called Emmanuel, which means, “God with us.” What a stunning statement: God is with us! The almighty creator who reigns in holiness and majesty is with us, and he comes to be with us through Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary. Matthew doesn’t say it outright, but the entire narrative of Jesus’ birth carries tones of hope. Hope has come because God has not abandoned us; indeed, he has come looking for us, not for what we can do for him, but because he simply wants to be with us. It’s almost too good to be true.
The idea of God with us doesn’t show up a lot in Matthew’s gospel, but it does show up in two very important places. We’ve already looked at one of them in the first chapter of the gospel; the other comes at the very end. After being raised from the dead, and commissioning his followers to disciple the nations, Jesus declares, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Did you catch that? This idea of someone being “with us” bookends the whole gospel, except there is one significant change. God with us at the beginning of the gospel has become Jesus with us by the end. That is the good news of Christmas. In the person of Jesus Christ, the only God is personally and uniquely present with us. And because Jesus is with us, hope is with us.
My prayer for you this Advent season is that you will experience the presence of God in Christ in a unique and surprising way. I pray that your hope is renewed as you come to a deeper knowledge of the Christ child who is also the resurrected Lord of the cosmos and Savior of all who have faith in him. He is our hope, and he is with us. Thanks be to God.

I want to share my faith, but I’m not sure how

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on September 14, 2011.
It can be very difficult to talk to other people about our faith in Jesus. There are a variety of reasons for this. We know something happened to us when we came to believe in him, but we’re not quite sure how to describe it. We may really want to share our faith, but the thought of it scares us to death. Life is so busy. We work; we have family; we have things that must be done. And, after all, how often do we run into people that don’t have some church or religious affiliation? I can come up with excuses to avoid sharing my faith all day long, and I bet you can too. And, as a result of those excuses, there was a time in my life when I rarely had evangelistic conversations with people. Here are a few simple ideas that have helped me become increasingly faithful in sharing my faith.
The first one is this: think about what you might say ahead of time. Take some time to sit down and write out your testimony on paper. Think through it. What changed about your life after you came into a new and living relationship with Jesus Christ? Write these things down and commit them to memory. When you come to the point of your conversion, be sure to explain what it means that Christ died for your sins. This is the key element where God promises his power will show up in your story. It is also helpful to memorize a some key passages of scripture. John 3:16-18 and Romans 10:9 are clear and concise summaries of what God wants to do in the lives of every person that he has made.
Another idea is to think of a few people that may not have a church or may not know Christ, and begin to pray for them, asking God to provide an opportunity for you to talk to them about faith in Jesus. Sometimes we overlook those who are nearest to us. So take some time to simply think through some people you already know, and look for opportunities to talk to them about the gospel.
The last thing is intentionality. What do I mean by that? To borrow the slogan of a well-known athletic clothing manufacturer, just do it. This is really the big one for me. When I realize it’s been far too long since I’ve talked to someone about Jesus, then I just have to make myself get out and go talk to people. I’ve discovered that it’s really quite fun. I’ve met all sorts of interesting people and have had some great conversations about Jesus. And let me tell you, there is little in life more exciting than being there when someone meets Jesus for the first time. The Bible says that the angels rejoice when that happens; you will too.
At the end of the day, sharing the good news with people is really just a matter of following Jesus. He is the one who told his followers to teach the nations to obey everything he commanded. And helping people find faith in Christ is the first step in learning to obey him. My prayer is that these reflections will help you to become an increasingly faithful follower of Christ as you share with others what he has done for you.

Come What May

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on August 31, 2011.
Life is full of transitions. Whether it’s a different job, a new marriage, the loss of a loved-one, a move to a new community, a new baby, or the move of a grown child out into the world for the first time, we all go through transitions, and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Transitions sometimes bring grief, and sometimes they bring joy. They often bring new challenges even in the midst of excitement. Given the certainty of seasons of transition, the question for all of us is this: how will we navigate the changes that are a natural part of life? Several things come to mind.
First, we simply need to recognize that new seasons of life will come. Growth and change are natural parts of life. The scenery will change as we travel this journey. Transitions are often the most difficult when they are unexpected. So, when new things come, if we’ve learned to expect surprises, then they can be a little easier to navigate. We may not know what the specifics are, and it will never be the case that everything just works out nice and neatly, but if we expect changes to come in life, we’ll be more prepared for them.
Second, it’s important to remember that God is always at work to draw us ever closer in relationship to him. And transitions in life can be a big part of that. When things are least certain, when we are unprepared for what will happen next, these are some of the times in life that God is able to do some of his greatest works. It’s easier for us to look to God in challenging times. And God uses those times to draw us into a deeper relationship.
I find it helpful to remember that, come what may, God is always busy about his work of making all things new, and the day is coming when God will remove the veil from his grand masterpiece of new creation and we will dwell in the new heavens and the new earth. In the meantime, we are on a journey forward. Will we be able to see what God is doing to make us into new creatures as we find our way forward through the challenges that are a part of life?
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