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.