Good news!

How do people announce the birth of a child? Usually it’s letters or notes or someone standing up in church. I know someone who recited a poem to announce that his wife was pregnant . . . and it would have been great if he’d been any good at poetry, but he wasn’t. So it was just funny. But when Jesus was born, God had a unique way of letting everyone know about it.

Today’s passage comes from Luke 2 again, this time verses 8 through 11.

8 That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. 9 Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David!

Talk about a really exciting way to announce that a child has been born! Wow.

This is another well-known passage, and there are a lot of practical applications that can be drawn from it. Most notably I think is the fact that the angels came to shepherds, who were the dregs of Jewish society, to announce Jesus’ birth. I think that says something about God.

God wanted everyone to know about Jesus’ birth. It wasn’t some secret that He wanted kept. It wasn’t some club that only members could know about.

I mean even the angel said that He brought good news that would bring great joy to all people. Not just some people.

So if the birth of Jesus is something that should bring joy to all people, why does it seem like people are scared to talk about it? I know there’s the whole issue about being offensive and about sharing the holidays, but let’s be real here, folks. If we want to have a politically correct holiday, we need to get rid of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa too. It’s not just Christmas that should get the boot.

Religion has turned Christmas into a tradition that only “Christians” celebrate, and that’s wrong. That’s one of the reasons I really hate religion. Religion says it’s all right to be a club. Religion encourages cliques. And it doesn’t matter what your religion is. They’re all the same.

Jesus has never been exclusive. He came here for all people. And maybe announcing that offends people. I don’t mean to offend people, but that’s what Christmas is about. Celebrating the birth of Jesus. Celebrating the Hope that God brought into our world.

And that’s something that all people need to hear, whether it offends them or not. After all, it’s good news. So don’t be afraid to tell people why you celebrate. Do it nicely, of course. Thumping people on the head with a Bible has never been effective in helping people understand what Jesus did for them. But don’t shrink back either because you’re afraid.

Jesus birth is good news. And if people would listen, they would receive great joy from it, no matter who they are and where they come from.

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I am like the manger

Have you ever noticed how Jesus changes things? Today’s passage is Luke 2:6-7.

 6 And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. 7 She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.

There are all sorts of practical applications to make of this, but the one that sticks out this morning is the manger again.

I mean, it was just a dirty, stinky, smelly manger. Probably rough. Maybe made of wood or stone. The stable was definitely filthy, and so was the manger I’m sure. But in a matter of moments, it went from something ugly and filthy to the bed of a King.

But that’s what Christ does with all of us. We start out common and broken, but when He comes into our lives, He transforms us into something else. His family.

He takes the broken pieces of our lives and weaves them together into an amazing tapestry. And the parts of us that are ugly become our most beautiful features. And when we used to be wretched and miserable, we can say now that we have hope and life and joy, even on the worst days and in the most difficult circumstances.

That’s transformation. That’s taking something that was and turning it into something else. That’s what happened to that dirty, smelly manger in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. And that’s what happened in my life when Christ became my friend.

It’s a really simple thought this morning, but it’s also kind of deep, I guess. Just to think that all of us are just like the manger Christ slept His first night in.

So this is brief because it’s simple. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but every time I look at a manger now, I can honestly say that I’m the same way it is. Where once it was just a piece of furniture in barn, now it’s famous. It’s on everyones’ yards and Christmas cards and mantlepieces and bookshelves.

I’m not famous, obviously. But I am a new person, thanks to Christ. And He has transformed my life into something He can use.

And if that isn’t a happy thought on the frigid first day of winter, I don’t know what is.

God’s plan disguised by inconvenience

Do you have struggles in your life? If you think you don’t, you’re lying to yourself. Everyone has struggles and difficulties. Granted, some people have bigger struggles than others. But no one can escape them. And depending on your perspective, you can easily let them control your life.

I know, personally, the struggles I have aren’t huge. There aren’t any major illnesses in my life. No major medical issues. No major financial issues. No major lifestyle issues. The struggles I face more than anything else are more like matters of inconvenience.

Good example? My basement flooded last night. And it wasn’t even a major flood. It was just enough water to make a mess, which I promptly cleaned up. And then I went and took a shower. And then it promptly flooded again. Again, not enough to do any major damage. Just enough to be inconvenient . . . . and to cause me to call my dad and plead for help.

I think oftentimes God will put obstacles (read that opportunities) in our path that have to be dealt with as we walk toward His goal for our lives. Some opportunities are more fun than others. But I guarantee we learn more from those than we do from the fun ones.

And even though these opportunities may feel like obstacles when we run into them, if we can keep our perspective straight, we can look at them like God sees them — stepping stones to better things.

Today’s passage comes out of the Christmas story, Luke 2:1, 4-5.

1 At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. 4 And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. 5 He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was now obviously pregnant.

Talk about inconvenience.

It would have been difficult enough to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem on foot but Mary was pregnant . . . and not just pregnant, obviously pregnant. And maybe they had a donkey. Maybe not. People always portray them with a donkey, but Mary and Joseph weren’t rich people. So I wouldn’t be too surprised if they had to walk the whole way. And I’ve never been pregnant, but I know a lot of people who have been. And walking isn’t their favorite thing to do during that period in their life.

And why did they have to do this? Because the Roman emperor said so. It was a stinkin’ census. A governmental thing. Like taxes. It interfered with everyone’s daily lives and upset the whole order of normalcy.

I can only imagine the grumbling this census caused in people. Maybe even in Mary and Joseph. I don’t know. I know I wouldn’t blame Mary for grumbling about something like this.

But what would have happened if Christ hadn’t been born in Bethlehem?

He still would have been virgin born. He still would have been the Son of God. He still would have fulfilled many of the prophecies in the Old Testament. . . . just not all of them.

The Old Testament is very specific saying which Bethlehem Jesus would be born in (there are two). Prophets had been very specific for hundreds of years as to the location where Christ would be born. What would have happened if Joseph had decided it was too much trouble to obey the law? What would have happened if Mary had decided to stay home?

Granted, traveling to Bethlehem had to be a terrible inconvenience, but it was necessary to fulfill prophecy.

So what does this mean for all of us?

Well, many times, God is going to ask us to do things that inconvenience us and we’re not going to understand why. I mean, maybe Mary and Joseph knew that Jesus was going to be born in Bethlehem because of all the prophecies and that’s why they didn’t have a problem going. But I guarantee, they didn’t know the far-reaching effects of having a child born there. Just like we don’t truly grasp the implications of our reactions to what God brings into our lives.

Being inconvenienced usually means that it’s something God wants you to do. Being inconveniences usually means that you’ve gotten too comfortable or too confident or too focused on something that doesn’t matter. Being inconvenienced usually means you’re only thinking about how your plans will be upset.

I can tell you the main reason I was so upset last night about my flooded basement wasn’t because of the mess, although that was troublesome. What upset me more than anything was that I had other plans for last night. And I couldn’t get them done because I had to clean up my basement. That inconvenienced me because I had wanted to do my own thing last night instead of having to take care of a wet, cold, dripping mass of towels. And I had to do it twice!

But I can also tell you that my basement floor is super clean now. So maybe it was God’s way of telling me that I needed to mop? =)

I don’t know. But what I do know is that many times God will ask things of us that seem like huge inconveniences. Things that will cause more struggles in our lives than they solve. But every time there’s a reason for it. And every time there’s something for us to learn. And every time, there’s something God is going to do with it.

So the best thing to do when inconveniences come from God is to just remember that He knows what He’s doing and try to enjoy the struggle, as strange as that sounds. Because you can look forward to the other side when it’s finished and you have gained something for your trouble. And you never know how God might use it. But you can be confident that He will.

The morning light from heaven is about to break upon us.

John the Baptist doesn’t get talked about very much. He doesn’t appear in many discussions, and he doesn’t get a lot of notoriety. Probably the biggest claim to fame he has in our society today is a verse in a dc Talk song, Jesus Freak. But even then, that verse never mentions his name. You just have to know Scripture to know what the verse is talking about:

“There was a man from the desert with naps in his head
The sand that he walked was also his bed
The words that he spoke made the people assume
There wasn’t too much left in the upper room
With skins on his back and hair on his face
They thought he was strange by the locusts he ate
The Pharisees tripped when they heard him speak
Until the king took the head of this Jesus freak ”

I mean, if you know Scripture, you know his story. You know he baptized Jesus. And you know he was killed after he pissed off King Herod. But not many know he wrote the first chapter of the Book of John. Just the first chapter, though. And not many know the miraculous story of his birth. And not many also know that Isaiah made a prophecy about John the Baptist in Isaiah 40:3-5. But I will be the first to admit that I really didn’t know the song of dedication his father, Zechariah, sang at his birth until this morning.

This is the last part of the song, found in Luke 1:76-79 (the whole song starts at verse 68).

76 “And you, my little son,
      will be called the prophet of the Most High,
      because you will prepare the way for the Lord.
 77 You will tell his people how to find salvation
      through forgiveness of their sins.
 78 Because of God’s tender mercy,
      the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,[h]
 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
      and to guide us to the path of peace.”

I know parents have high expectations for their children, but wow. This is a lot to live up to. But this was more than just John’s parents’ expectations: this was a prophecy from the Holy Spirit. John was born to declare the coming of Christ.

So what?

John the Baptist was born to God’s prophet. He was born, and the Bible says he lived in the wilderness until it was time for him to appear publicly in Israel. He was a wild man who lived on locusts and honey and wore animal skins and he spoke truth and he directed people to Christ and identified him as the Messiah.

Why?

Did God need an introduction? Did God need a prophet? Did Jesus need someone to go before Him and make sure people knew who He was? Well, I don’t think He necessarily needed it. God doesn’t need anything from any of us.

But there’s something that we need to remember. People had been declaring the coming of Christ for thousands of years. But up until this point in history, God had been silent. Did you realize that? There was a massive time of silence between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament — like 500 years worth of silence.

Can you imagine that? Going 500 years without hearing from God? We get impatient when we don’t get an answer from God in five minutes, let alone 500 years. But that was the situation Israel was in. They had been taken into captivity, and while God hadn’t abandoned them, He wasn’t talking to them.

Until the angel appeared to John the Baptist’s father. I may have my timing off. Mary may have gotten her news first, that she would bear the Christ child, but John was born before Jesus was. So I’m pretty sure Zechariah and Elizabeth had to be told first.

So I wonder if God appointed John to be the forerunner of Christ to help people remember that He was still working. After 500 years of silence, if Christ has just shown up and started doing miracles, would people have listened? Would they have paid attention? Or would they have just written Him off as a nutcase?

The thing that interests me about John the Baptist is that his purpose was super important but once he accomplished that purpose, he disappeared. He pretty much became nonessential. And there is even a Scripture somewhere, I think it’s in John, where he says that he must decrease so that Christ could increase. And that’s really what happened.

John the Baptist prepared the way for Christ to stand up and teach people how to be saved. And then, well, he died. And maybe that seems unfair, but I don’t think so. I think we all have a purpose similar to John’s. If we believe in Christ, we are all His ambassadors down here.

And it’s not that we can go places that Christ can’t. Obviously, Christ can go anywhere. God made everything and can go places we can’t. But God gives us the opportunity to speak to people who don’t know Him yet. And if they choose to follow Christ, then it’s our job to step back and let God work in their lives. It’s our job to lead people to Christ and then get out of the way. But that’s hard sometimes, especially for control freaks like me.

Our job is to get them to the door. It’s their choice to open it, and if they decide to open it, we have to let them walk through alone and do whatever it is that God wants them to do.

Now that doesn’t mean we can’t be there for them. But it does mean that we need to stop trying to control people and their decisions.

Just something to think about on this Monday before Christmas in 2011. We may be the ones who help prepare people to accept Christ, but once they make that choice, we need to step back and let God lead them. He knows better than we do anyway. We aren’t their Holy Spirit. Christ must increase in their lives, and He can’t do that until we decrease.

Celebrating Christmas all year long

Today’s verse is Luke 1:30-33.

30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 And he will reign over Israel[a] forever; his Kingdom will never end!”

And while this is a great passage, I have to be honest this morning. It frustrates me.

I understand how important it is to know the Christmas story. And I understand how important it is to know about Mary and Joseph and how events unfolded to bring Christ into the world. But it seems to me that we really only talk about it in December. And that frustrates me.

The Christmas story is something we should talk about and celebrate all year long.

Don’t you think the fact that we only really dig it out and read it out loud and share it and talk about it during December is the reason the world is tired of hearing it? In biblical Christian circles, it seems the Christmas season is the only appropriate time to talk about Mary and Joseph and the wise men and the shepherds and angels. Is it because we think it’s the only time of year that people will listen to it?

I don’t know. And maybe I’m being too harsh this morning, but why don’t we talk about Luke 1:30-33 any other time of year besides Christmas?

Come on, read it again. This is a big deal!

30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 And he will reign over Israel[a] forever; his Kingdom will never end!”’

Can we even comprehend how huge this is? This is everything. This is the beginning of the fulfillment of prophecy. This is the beginning of our hope for eternity. This is the beginning of the end for Satan, our adversary.

You realize that the Bible would be moot without this, don’t you? The New Testament completes the Old Testament. Christ fulfills the Law. If Christ hadn’t come, all the Bible would do is condemn us. But Christ came to give us hope and the promise of a life beyond this broken world. He came to offer us a new life and friendship with God.

So why do we only celebrate the Christmas story at Christmas time? Why do we only celebrate the birth of Jesus in December?

If I remember right, early Christians celebrated the birth of Christ during the feast of Saturnalia in the Roman Empire so they could avoid persecution (any of you historical types, please feel free to correct me). And that’s the history of why we celebrate in December. But those of us in the United States shouldn’t have to do that anymore. We shouldn’t have to wait until December to celebrate the birth of Christ.

But it’s American culture to break out the Christmas songs and the manger scenes and the trees and the lights and the presents in December.

And I’m not complaining. I love this time of year. Christmas time is my favorite time of year, bar none. I don’t care if it’s cold and snowy and icy (or rainy and thunderstormy and balmy like yesterday . . . silly Kansas weather). I love Christmas.

But why can’t we have Christmas all year long? Why can’t we celebrate Christ all year long? Why don’t our lives reflect the joy of His birth every day? How can we think that celebrating His coming for a few weeks out of the whole year can do it justice?

People talk about having Christmas all year long, meaning that the spirit of Christmas (or the generic generosity that infuses the Scrooge types over the holidays) needs to endure all year long. And while that’s nice, there’s something more important to me than just being generous.

Christ is my Savior. God is my best friend. And if Jesus hadn’t come, I would be lost and alone and hopeless. Period. And to me, that’s ample reason to celebrate every day for the rest of my life. So why don’t I?

This year I may leave some Christmas decorations up after December 25. Because even after Christmas is over, I want to keep celebrating. I want to remember what Christ did even if the rest of the culture — both inside and outside of the church — says it’s time to move on to other holidays.

Christmas should be a lifestyle. It should be a year-long celebration of what Christ did for us. It should be an everyday remembrance of His birth and the hope He brought to our lives. It shouldn’t end on December 25.

So I don’t know about you, but I’m going to keep celebrating this year. And maybe people will look at me funny. But at least they won’t be able to ignore it. They won’t be able to say that it’s just Christmastime. Because if I celebrate Christmas during other times of year, they’ll understand that it means more than just decorating my house and wearing socks with jingle bells on them.

What if questions

What if God had chosen a different way to save the world? Or what if He had decided we weren’t worth saving at all? What if keeping the Law were the only way to get to heaven? The world would be a different place.

There’s a book by a writer named Bill Myers that I really enjoy. The book is called Eli, and if you haven’t read it, you should. It’s a quick read. And basically, it looks at what the world would be like if Jesus didn’t come until the 20th century. It looks at how modern culture would have reacted to Him. 

Imagine. I mean, really imagine what the world would be like if Christ hadn’t come when He did. Think of the state we would be in now.

For one thing, I wouldn’t be a Christian. No one in the United States would be. No one in England would be. No one in Europe or Africa would be. And no one in most of Asia. Because one of the biggest things that changed when Jesus came was that salvation was offered freely to non-Jewish people.

If Jesus hadn’t come, we would all still be held accountable under the Law, which no one can live up to. If Jesus hadn’t come, we would still have to live by the rules laid out in Leviticus. We would have to offer sacrifices. We would have to dot every i and cross every t.

But that’s not the way God decided to do it. And, of course, God in His eccentricity made salvation happen in the strangest way possible.

The passage for today is Luke 1:26-28.

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, 27 to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. 28 Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!”

Can you imagine what this must have been like for this poor girl? I’ve never seen an angel so I can’t compare, but I’m sure it must have been terrifying.

What would have happened if Mary had refused to do what God was asking of her? After all, this was a big deal. And she had to know what people would think. But she didn’t refuse. She accepted the responsibility of it. I don’t think God would have chosen her otherwise.

And I guess at the end of the day, the what if questions don’t really matter. Because speculation on what could have happened doesn’t really benefit anyone, except to be thankful that it didn’t happen that way.

It’s a good thought for a Wednesday, midway through the week. Because there are a lot of what if questions flying around in my life right now. And I can sit and ask them all day long. I can let them take over until the speculation glues me to the ground because I’m so afraid of what might happen that I never take steps to do anything at all.

But all I have to do is think about the story of Jesus’ birth. There are so many bad things that could have happened. I could keep us here all day listing them. But the beautiful part is that God had everything planned already. He knew everything that was going to happen. He had everything figured out. And none of the what if’s applied.

And I don’t know if that’s comforting in your life or not, but it makes a big difference in my life. Because I always feel like I’m on the edge of a cliff and one wrong move from me will send me toppling over the side. So it’s nice to remember that God has a plan and He’s working everything out for my good, even down to the specific details that I have no chance of foreseeing. Because He’s God. And that’s just what He does.

So if you’re paralyzed by what if questions today, stop asking them. They don’t do you any good. Because if God can work out the birth of His Son to a virgin at just the right time and keep them both safe and well cared for around the First century, God can handle whatever stuff is going on in the lives of you and me.

Does prophecy matter?

Prophecy is a concept that I’ve never really understood. When I was younger, I never really grasped its importance because to me, it just seemed superfluous. I didn’t really understand the significance of the phrase in Scripture that said something to the effect of, “This happened that prophecy might be fulfilled.”

What did that mean anyway?

To me, prophecy was just something someone a long time ago stated. And all you had to do to make it come true was to do the things that the prophets stated.

As a child I had always heard that Jesus had come to fulfill the prophecies made in the Old Testament. I also heard that because He fulfilled the prophecies in the Old Testament that it proved He was the Messiah. But how did fulfilling prophecies mean anything?

Well, as I have gotten older, the significance of those prophecies has begun to sink in a little. It isn’t the fact that someone said them a long time ago. It’s the substance of those prophecies that matters. Because not just anyone could have fulfilled the prophecies made in the Old Testament. These weren’t simple statements about what someone would say or how they would dress or where they would go. These were heavy, weighty proclamations that were both paradoxical and impossible, and only God Himself could have brought them to pass.

Besides that, there are hundreds of them. The Old Testament is full to overflowing with prophecies about the Messiah. Detailed information related hundreds of years before Jesus was born.

It’s fascinating to me because God still had to announce to the local Israelites that Jesus had been born and tell them where to find him. Anyone who had studied the Old Testament before the birth of Christ had all the information they needed to know how to find Him the night He was born, but personally I don’t think any of the locals were looking for him.

So it’s doubly interesting to me that the people who came looking for Christ of their own volition were foreigners.

The wise men weren’t Jewish. They were probably Persian. And there probably weren’t three of them. And the reason they knew how to find Jesus stemmed from the prophecies that Daniel wrote while he was alive in Babylon.

Think about that. Think about how complicated God’s plan is. Think about how it’s all connected.

The wise men would never have found Jesus if Daniel hadn’t written those prophecies. And Daniel would never have written those prophecies if he hadn’t been taken into captivity as a child.

But the prophecies about Jesus aren’t just in Daniel. No. They start in Genesis 3:15 and continue in every book of the Bible all the way through Malachi.

Today’s passage is Matthew 2:4-6. 4He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

 5“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:

 6 ‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
      are not least among the ruling cities of Judah,
   for a ruler will come from you
      who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’”

This is Herod after the wise men have come to Jerusalem, looking for Jesus. Because the prophecies in Daniel didn’t say where Christ would be born. That prophecy is in the minor prophet book Micah (notice the prophet specifies Bethlehem in Judah because there were two Bethlehems). So since the wise men were looking for a King, they went to Jerusalem. But Christ wasn’t born as a King. He was born as a slave.

Herod was psycho. I’m just saying. He was a paranoid, wicked person, but even he knew that if he wanted information about where the Messiah would be born, he knew he had to go to the Old Testament.

Fast forward to 2011. The Christmas story has become a cute little figurine set people set up on their fire places and forget about. The wise men have become plastic lawn ornaments with fictional names. And nobody really talks about Herod and the slaughter he brought down on Bethlehem shortly after Jesus was born. And when anyone in American culture has a question about Jesus, we turn to the works and writings of historians or psychologists or sometimes even to the opinions of well-known religious leaders.

What about Scripture? I mean, if a black-hearted maniac like Herod knew to look to Scripture to find out about the Messiah, what’s our problem?

The Old Testament is full of prophecies about the Messiah. The New Testament is evidence that Jesus fulfilled all of those prophecies. He didn’t leave one unfulfilled. And no one but the Messiah could have done that.

That’s why prophecy matters. That’s why it’s important. Prophecy is a message from God explaining what is coming so we know what to look for.

So if we have questions about what’s coming — and there is something coming that will change everything — we need to look to Scripture and not to the opinion polls. The president doesn’t know. The news media doesn’t know. Congress doesn’t know. Your pastor doesn’t know. Your teachers and professors don’t know.

But God does. And what’s more, everything we need to know about what’s coming is in the Bible. We just have to read it.