The People of Christmas Eve

Luke 2:8–14
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

It’s interesting and inspiring to think of the people of Christmas Eve. Just looking at each person or group represented in these few verses…

SHEPHERDS – These guys were marginalized and, probably, hygienically challenged. They lived and worked outdoors. Socially, they were at the bottom of the heap. Many considered them not just physically dirty, but “spiritually” dirty.  That they have any screen time at all on Christmas Eve shows just how different Christ and His birth are. Jesus came for all of us. Yes, He came for the least of us, but His coming really meant that the least of us would no longer be called the least of us. All are equal in the sunshine of God’s love in Christ. This liberates and encourages all of us. Whatever position we have in this broken world does not matter to God. In God’s kingdom and economy, we are judged by our character and our faith. Amen.

AN ANGEL and THE HEAVENLY HOST – Angels are people too, in a way. They don’t die. They have power the likes of which we can’t imagine. They are frequently in the presence of God. They obey perfectly (or are rejected completely, which is the case for Satan and all demons, fallen angels all). It was a big day for angels. Angels are created beings with a purpose: they work for and glorify God. They do not exist for themselves! On this big day, they got to experience their reason for being like never before.

DAVID – David had been made a promise by God as told to him by Nathan (2 Samuel 7). From my sermon earlier today 12/24/17 … “Who was King David? Well, he was the eighth and youngest son of Jesse of Bethlehem. He was of the tribe of Judah. You can read about him in 1st and 2nd Samuel as well as 1st Kings and 1st Chronicles, but you can learn about him from the inside out by reading the Psalms, over half of which he is credited with writing. He was one of three kings of the United Monarchy of Judah-Israel from 1050 BC to 930 BC. Each reigned about 40 years. Saul, the first, reigned from 1050 to 1010. David reigned form about 1010 to 970, and Solomon his son reigned from 970 to about 930. After that the Kingdom was divided into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. / David was chosen to be King by God through the prophet Samuel over all his older brothers. He is famous for slaying the giant, Goliath. He is also famous for his sinful relationship with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah. He ended life on a bitter note, in some ways, due to his epic failures as a father. Despite the worst of what he did, the Scriptures call him a man after God’s own heart (in 1st Samuel 13:14 and Acts 13:22). And David’s heart, when he was at his best, was to worship God above all things. Nothing meant more to him than the chance to build a temple for God. Today we’re going to read about the day God said “no” to this dream of his… for the sake of a bigger ‘yes.'”

THE BABY – Jesus Christ was of the tribe of David. He was “the Son of David.” He went from everything to nothing; that’s what we contemplate tonight. No change of circumstance anywhere at anytime can compare to His. We are incapable of fully imagining it, because we can only partially imagine what perfect fellowship with His Father for eternity past had been like. Human history is a parade of Biblical prophets leading up to the moment of Christ’s birth, who all point to it in one way or another, and who all affirm both the reality of it and the reality of the love of God it proves. Our Savior and Christ is born; this is what we celebrate this night and tomorrow. Merry Christmas!

Advent Worship

Isaiah 9:2
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.

Written yesterday (Sunday, December 17, 2017) morning…

“I’m writing from the ‘green room’ of the main building on our Montgomery campus. It’s Sunday morning, the 3rd Sunday of Advent. The theme today is joy. The way to joy is always and only through sacrifice. See the Cross. And past it there is an empty tomb.

The worship team is practicing. They should stop soon because people will be walking in to find a seat and settle in before the service begins.

My mornings this month each feel like the opening scene of ‘Home Alone.’ Chaos tempts one to forget something important. In the movie it was a little boy left home alone. In my life (and in many others), it is the baby whose birth we celebrate this month. The Chaos of Christmas can cause us to forget the person at the center of all seasons: Jesus Christ. This chaos can be just like the darkness of Isaiah 9, even though it seems much more innocent. Whether innocent or insidious, anything that blocks our eyes from seeing Christ is ‘deep darkness.’ God sent His Son to each of us that each of us may see ‘a great light.’ So, stop reading this, get ready, and head out to worship with us today. Together let’s marvel like the Magi at the great light of Jesus Christ.”



The Advent Resolve of Joseph

Matthew 1:19 – And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.

Tucked away in the story of Advent, there are surprises. This verse above is one. Joseph himself is another. He was a man of epic compassion and character. He disappears before we pick up on the adult years of Christ’s ministry in the Gospels, but he is center stage at the beginning. Without his resolve to do the best he could for a woman who seemed to have betrayed him, the story of Advent would not be what it is.

Here are just a few things to think about concerning Joseph…

  1. The Character of Joseph was the real home that God the Father chose for His One and Only Son, once the baby Jesus left Mary’s womb. Only a man like Joseph could be the earthly, adoptive father for the Son of God, the Savior of the World. Joseph, like no one else in history, provided for and protected Jesus Christ. How amazing this is!
  2. The relationship grace extended from Joseph to Mary continues to uplift every single person who hears of it, right up to this very minute. It is the model of Ephesians 5 marital submission-to-the-other. It is the model for what is most important in any human relationship: thinking of what is best for the other.
  3. Joseph did not allow his emotions to overwhelm his ethical code. He was willing to sacrifice his own feelings, reputation, and pride for the sake of his fiancé and the child she carried.
  4. Joseph’s “Advent Resolve” came from an exchange with an Angel (messenger) of God. The Angel’s voice rose above all the other voices that must have been shouting for Joseph’s attention.
  5. The Scriptures here call Joseph her husband, though he was not yet, at least not technically. However, beyond the cultural piece we’ve all heard about how engagement was different in those days, we can read this as the identity Joseph accepted. “I am really already her husband.” In his mind, Joseph was not merely the leading candidate for being Mary’s husband, nor was he merely a customer who had put his marriage to her on some kind of lay-away plan. He leaned into the full responsibility of his future role. He did not back out.
  6. Joseph saw his relationship to Mary and Jesus as an opportunity to serve, not to be served.
  7. Joseph, a carpenter, seems to have lived a difficult life in which he had to rise above disappointment and stand up to defend those in his care. He was a warrior in his way: a man of courage, decisiveness, honor, and strength.
  8. Joseph was a leader like no other. He may have had only two followers during his most important season of leadership, his wife and his son, but the rest of us are still yielding endless blessings because he accomplished his mission.
  9. Joseph, in this verse, is a man with a completely broken heart. Divorce – not from his marriage, but from his engagement – was the only option he knew before an Angel counseled him. He wasn’t going to look the other way on what he thought was Mary’s sin, but he also wasn’t going to do anything to make things worse for her. He had, apparently, already identified himself as her husband.
  10. No sense of revenge polluted Joseph’s thinking. He didn’t want to hurt Mary because she had hurt him. He wasn’t on the hunt for “the other man.” He didn’t allow his personal pain to play too large a role in his thoughts or his actions.
  11. Joseph disappeared. We don’t read a thing about him past the birth and childhood of Jesus. I think this is more than him just dying early. He embraced obscurity. And it seems even God honored this servant’s humility by allowing him to retain it in this special way. That’s part of the mystery of Joseph. Did he know the joy of humility that his adopted son epitomized? It seems so. It’s refreshing and encouraging to consider the soul and heart of such a person of faith. I hope you think so.



Finland and “Sisu”

2 Timothy 4:7
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

SPA51928It turns out that today (12/6/17) is a very great day for Finns. Today is the celebration of 100 years of independence. I have Finnish heritage from my Mom’s side. Finland is cool. (No pun intended!) It is a tough and beautiful place, famous for the resilience of its people. In fact, resilience is really the core value of Finnish culture and this resilience is captured by the word “Sisu.” “Sisu” is a word for which there is no English comparison. Below is the best I’ve found in terms of a working English definition of “Sisu.” It comes from Finlandia University in Hancock, MI.

“Sisu is a unique Finnish concept. It is a Finnish term that can be roughly translated into English as strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity.

Sisu is not momentary courage, but the ability to sustain that courage. It is a word that cannot be fully translated. It defines the Finnish people and their character.  It stands for the philosophy that what must be done will be done, regardless of cost.

Sisu is an inherent characteristic of the Finnish people. You might call it backbone, spunk, stamina, guts, or drive and perseverance.  It is a measure of integrity that surpasses the hardship and sees through to the end.

Sisu is the quality that lets them pick up, move on, and learn something from previous failures. It’s the hard-jawed integrity that makes them pay their war debts in full. In short, it’s the indomitable will that sets Finns apart and explains many of the incredible things they do.

Due to its cultural significance, Sisu is a common element of brand names in Finland. For example, there are Sisu brand cars (and Sisu armored vehicles), the icebreaker MS Sisu, and a brand of strong-tasting pastilles manufactured by Leaf. Mount Sisu is the name of a mountain first ascended by mountain climber Veikka Gustafsson in the Antarctic.”

That is just uber-cool stuff, eh? Had you ever heard of “Sisu?” Well, I don’t think the apostle Paul had either, but he captured it, I think, in far fewer words in this famous verse above. It’s always what we need. It’s often what we lack. It’s time to fight, finish, and keep for the One who did all this for us on the Cross.

May the Lord grant us some holy “Sisu” this Advent and Christmas as we face all that we have to face with the courage He gives us, the courage that Christ’s birth both represents and grants.

(And… Happy Birthday Finland!)


New York City

Matthew 11:28–30

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Yesterday we were in New York City taking in the smells, lights, and sounds of the busiest place on earth at the busiest time of the year. Galaxy-sized jumbotrons lit up sidewalks packed with people from all over the world. I wondered how many selfies per second I was witnessing. The windows at Saks 5th Avenue, Lord and Taylor, and Macy’s were feats of Christmas wonder.

At St. Patrick’s Cathedral they hosted a free organ recital. Thousands gathered in awe as deep tones moved throughout the cavernous, towering space. Candle and pine smells filled the air. In the middle of this, some children clutched handheld devises, trading actual reality for virtual reality, while others whined to their parents that they were tired, or hungry, or bored. Parents summoned stamina and patience.

Weariness in such an environment is not an option. If you feel like you have energy at one moment, don’t worry, both the moment and the energy will pass.

In fact, New York City seems a perfect place to get into contact with personal weariness. And, in this setting, Jesus’ offer in Matthew 11:28 stands out as particularly sweet and satisfying. He has come to bring peace. He brings peace between us and God, peace between us and each other, and peace between us and our own hearts. This peace has a better name: rest. I pray for all of us to find rest in Christ this Advent.

(Although… maybe we can’t find rest; maybe, in Christ, rest has to find us.)



On the Advent of Advent

And I said to them, “Cast away the detestable things your eyes feast on…” (Ezekiel 20:7a)

We are a few days away from the beginning of Advent 2017. It starts on December 3rd, the first Sunday of Advent. As we focus here on “looking unto Him,” we take note that if we are fixing our eyes on Him, we are unfixing our eyes on what is not Him. And there is so much that is not Him. Many of us have filled our eyes, hearts, and lives with what is not Him. Advent is a time to close our eyes to it all, take a deep breath, and look to Him.

One of the first things I notice (with the Spirit’s help) in averting my gaze away from detestable things is how detestable they really are. It reminds me of the various piles and messes I walk by in my home every day. After a while, I get used to them and they become invisible. Only when I clean them up do I realize how much energy these piles stole from me. I think I’ve added steps to my Fitbit every day just walking around them!

I have some cleaning up to do in my life. The physical piles around me are a small thing; the spiritual messes within me are much more significant. The verse above says that I not only fixed my eyes on detestable things, but I feasted on them. I fed my soul with poison. I consumed toxins that I should have cast away. Casting away is not casual either. The sense the phrase gives is of one throwing something as far away as possible in a big, dramatic gesture accompanied by some kind of involuntary grunt.

Isn’t it amazing how God is always interested in your welfare, in you being and doing better, even through difficult days? His commitment to you overcoming everything you need to overcome never wavers.

When I’m not looking to Him, I’m not seeing His love or His provision. I’m missing out on His mercy. When I do look to Him… finally… I see the miracle the Magi sought, the wonder that captured the hearts of the shepherds, the subject of the lyrics of every song sung by angels… right up to this very minute.


Returning for Advent

Isaiah 45:22 (KJV)

Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else.

  • This is the verse that Charles Spurgeon heard in a small country church on a wintery Lord’s Day which altered the course of his life. It is the verse that God used to assure him of his salvation. Upon hearing it simply expounded he realized he could do nothing to save himself; all he needed to do was to look to God. God would play the part of God in his life and do all the saving through the complete work of Christ. Just look and be saved. He looked. How about you?
  • Just to update whoever who reads this, I’ve intentionally pulled away from engaging with this blog and all social media since the first day of Lent (Ash Wednesday) 2017. I’m returning now about a week before Advent 2017.
  • I hope your Bible reading has gone well. I had to pull back from my aggressive plan and simplify, but I am on track to complete my 23rd year of reading through the Bible. It is a sweet foundation and a perpetual fountain for me. On a funny (or at least peculiar) note, Shannon and I had our whole family’s DNA tested this year, but we used instead of Weird huh? After all that.
  • So, I’ll be changing the name of this blog shortly and using it for offering my annual Advent devotional.
  • The devotional this year will take its title and theme from the verse above (Isaiah 45:22). “Looking to Christ During Advent” is my (rather ordinary) working title.
  • The weekend after Thanksgiving is usually the start of Advent, but not this year. This year (2017) Advent begins on Sunday December 3rd.
  • Consider how you and your family will set apart Advent as a special season. We like to set up a wreath and use candles. We light the candles pertinent to the week each night for dinner. It’s always exciting each Sunday when an additional candle is added to the cue for the week. And, of course, the lighting of the Christ candle in the middle on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is the highlight. How could it be anything else?
  • Here’s a link explaining what Advent is (from an apologetics viewpoint)…

Ash Wednesday Fires

  • I’ve written a devotional for Lent. It’s available to all at Goodwill Church and anyone who calls (845-457-5959). We’ll send one to you. It’s 20 readings for the Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of each week of Lent. The focus is on fire. We want to be on fire for God. It’s called “A Transform Matchbook” and we’re actually handing out special Goodwill matches (to adults) with it. The matches serve as 4-out-of-5-senses sermon illustrations for the devotional.
  • Today we read (for those of us using the Our Daily Bread full-Bible-in-a-year program) Numbers 25. A priest, Phinehas, kills two lovers, Zimri and Cozbi, and stops a plague before it kills more than the 24,000 people that have already died from it. Here are questions I came up with concerning this…
    • What is the equivalent of this passion for God now?
    • We see this kind of “righteous” killing occasionally in the Old Testament, never really in the New Testament. Many of have come up with poor solutions to this such as saying that the Old Testament God is different from the New Testament God or that this was a different “dispensation.” But for Lent, as well as for Christian life, we see only the Cross. So, how is Numbers 25 only solved by Matthew 27 (or Mark 15 or Luke 23 or John 19)?
    • Why are passages such as Numbers 25 both so hard to read with good spiritual comprehension and so easy to misread?
    • Why do we separate the Testaments? (Ever wonder about this?)
    • Only death brings an end to death, which is something I can only appreciate and understand if I appreciate, understand, and trust my eternity to the Cross of Christ. So, how can this concept apply to my devotional life and to the rest of my life?
  • I have a crazy schedule for the next several months. So, I’m taking time to absorb it and make plans. If I want time with my family and adequate sleep, I have to fight to the death with clocks and calendars. Blood will be drawn. The hands of a clock look like swords right now. This battle belongs to the Lord. It helps being in the military because I know (and care very much about and think very highly of) many members of our nation’s military who have crazier schedules. Way crazier! Yet, they make it work. They do it. They inspire me to not quit or pout. They are a gift from God to all of us.

Fitting, Not Quitting

I’ve heard from a few who are reading through the Bible in a year. Or they were. Things piled up. Yes, sometimes we get behind on our reading and it becomes a source of stress. Here are a couple of hacks for staying on track or getting back on track.

  1. The first is key. Don’t quit. Maybe you are a month behind. Maybe you haven’t made it out of Genesis yet. No worries. This is your private devotional journey. Don’t alter your goal. Instead…
  2. Alter time. One great approach, if you’ve gotten behind, is to call for a new New Year’s Day. Maybe you stayed with it for ten days before starting to slip. If you want to read this same amount daily (see the next point on this), then count back ten days from today and call that New Year’s Day. You will still read through the Bible in a year; you just stretched the year. That’s fine. It’s the reading that counts. Adjust the goal posts all you want, just keep holding on to that football.
  3. Taper back. Maybe you need a two-year plan instead of a one-year plan. Adjust the amount of reading you want to do in a day.
  4. Don’t despair or compare. You’re not in a race with anyone else. You should not feel ashamed that you fell behind in your Bible reading. This is kind of silly, right? Don’t make your devotions about self-discipline. Make them about “discoveries and discussions.” We discover the meaning for a day in God. We discuss with our spirit what His Word tells us and then we discuss it with Him through our prayers and our responses to His Grace throughout the day.
  5. If you can, another idea is to have a marathon Bible reading day or half-day. I can do this sometimes. Some people can’t at all. I totally get this. I know some single Christians who schedule “God days.” What a luxury! This, they tell me, is part of the plus-side of being single. They love it so much. They go somewhere scenic and catch up on their study and devotions. It’s just them and God.
  6. Take advantage of all the audio resources we now have. Maybe it’s best for you to listen to the Scriptures in the car during your daily commute. This is not cheating. This is your life and this is what will work for you in terms of connecting with God through His Word. So, get at it with my blessing! Also, I sometimes like to have the Scriptures read to me by a recording while I read along. This is especially helpful when my mind is racing all over the place, which is often. 🙂
  7. Enjoy God. Scripture study and devotions are like eating. We eat more of what we like. Maybe it’s just the New Testament this year. Then do that. Maybe you like Psalms and John and that’s it so far. Then start with those two books. Keep in mind that if you are bogging down then FITTING is the word, not QUITTING.

If you’ve come up with some other hacks yourself that have helped you stay the course, drop a note here about them for the rest of us. God bless!

This is your friend

“It is our heaven to lay many weights and burdens upon Christ. Let him find much employment for his calling with you; for he is a such a Friend as delighteth to be burdened with suits and employments; and the more homely ye be with him, the more welcome.”

Samuel Rutherford, “The Loveliness of Christ”

There’s a fruitless fig tree in the reading a few days back (Matthew 21:18-22) for those reading through the Bible in a year via the plan found in Our Daily Bread. Jesus disdains this tree’s fruitlessness. It is the opposite of who He is. You will never go to His tree, the Cross, and fail to find fruit that restores your soul to life. This fruit is displayed like a summer night sky filled with stars. When you reach for it, a hand reaches back for yours. A voice like no other says, “I will never leave you. Never.” This is your friend. This universe creator turned carpenter laid down his life for you on purpose. He knew who you were before you were born. He knew what He was doing for you before you ever heard His Name. This is your friend. You do not have another friend like Him. This friend wants you to find fruit in Him every time you seek it. This friend wants your problems, your pain, your failure, your sin. Hand it to Him. He leans into every part of you that you try to hide even from yourself. He wants to clean things up and clean things out. He knows how you speak to and treat the ones you say you love. He wants those dead parts of your life and heart; that’s what He’s come to work with and change. Like an artist seeking a blank canvas or a sculptor a rough stone, Jesus seeks your broken life. The things He can do with a broken life! It is amazing. This friend of yours is something else. The things about you that destroy every other relationship in your life are the basis for your relationship to Him. And your friendship with Him brings relief and rescue for each of these other relationships. This is your friend.