Monday, December 25, 2023

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Christmas Eve: Peace Like a River

Today is Christmas Eve, but it is also the fourth Sunday of Advent. Today we light the candle of Jesus as our Prince of Peace.

When children are little, we often introduce them to a simple Sunday School chorus with hand motions: “I’ve got peace like a river.” This truth comes from passages like Isaiah 66:12 in which God promises His people,

“For thus says the LORD: “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees.”

This is a promise that suggests an abundant and free-flowing peace, as well as peace resembling the nurturing comfort of a parent.

But if you look at a river, it rarely ever demonstrates the calmness we equate with peace. Instead, a river rushes head-strong over rocks and logs, waterfalls and anything in its path. It is relentless. It finds a way. It keeps on going.

In John 16, Jesus is talking to His disciples about how their grief will turn to joy. He finishes the chapter in verse 33 by saying,
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Peace and overcoming. At first a contradiction of words. But they get at Jesus’ definition of peace.

As the Prince of Peace, the peace Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection unveiled a turning point in history. Much like a river that divides and shifts; ebbs and flows, Jesus inaugurated a peace marked by change and healing. Like Aslan the Lion in the Chronicles of Narnia, Jesus the Prince of Peace is “on the move.” At His birth, all the characters in the story were moving towards Him. But when the time came for Him to begin His earthly work, Jesus distinctly stepped towards the ones He chose as followers.

When John the Baptist baptized his cousin Jesus in the Jordan river, he was doing more than preparing Jesus for His earthly ministry. Standing in the historic river that bridged the gap between captivity and return, John was showing the world that “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” was the One who stood eternally between exile and promise, between sin and redemption.

Born as a baby, the Prince of Peace shed His heavenly garments for swaddling clothes. He traded a divine throne for a rough-hewn feeding trough. Fully God, yet fully man, Jesus came to both show and make a way. In this world there will be suffering, there will be obstacles and challenges of every type, but take heart, His peace is as strong and wide as a rushing river that knows no bounds.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Hindered on the Road to Bethlehem

Christmas is a time when many of us travel home. Today I'm traveling to be with my family in Wisconsin. I woke up to a city notification on my phone about dense fog all through the county. And it made me think about that in traveling for Christmas, we are all on the road to Bethlehem. But like this fog, what is hindering us from getting there?

For thousands of years Jesus' ancestors living in Bethlehem traveled from here to there, and back again. Mary and Joseph were not going on vacation to Joseph’s home town, they were called there by a decree to be counted in a Roman census. The shepherds probably didn't want to come into the city, so full of swarming people. It was calmer out in the fields with their sheep, despite the heavenly chorus of angels. And the wise men (we know that they came later) had to travel the farthest distance, following a star across deserts and mountains and valleys.

Today through our foggy roads we have GPS, we have maps, you have cell phones to help us make the way safely.

We are all on the road to Bethlehem. What is hindering our journey? We have the prophecies of the Old testament, we can read about the yearning hearts of ancient Israel, we know the story. We can probably recite the Nativity narrative without opening our Bibles.  So what hinders us on our journey? I’m not going to tell you an answer. It is different for each of us.

I heard a short devotional on this week that speaks to this. Brian Trent is a pastor in South Carolina who shares ah-ha moments about life and Scripture on Instagram. His family was reading the Luke 2 narrative and began to wonder, when the shepherds ran off to Bethlehem to see Jesus, what happened to the sheep? Nativity scenes will have us believe a few sheep came too, but a band of shepherds had hundreds of sheep to care for. There is no way they could have joined the shepherds in the busy streets of Bethlehem. Maybe a few shepherds stayed behind. Maybe the angels stayed and watched the sheep. Trent then points us to the parable Jesus told his disciples about the Lost Sheep:
“If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish."
(Matthew 18:12-14)
I wonder if Jesus was thinking about his own origin story when he told this parable. For the shepherds responding to the angel’s announcement did just the opposite. They left the 99 in order to find the One all of Israel had been waiting for.

As we reflect on what is keeping is from Bethlehem, maybe it’s the 99. All the distractions, the good and worthy people, things, and places that ultimately hold a dim candle to the One who is God with Us.

This morning I delayed my travels to make sure the fog has lifted. May we take the time to lift our eyes to the Who, not the where, what, when (although these are all fascinating, important things to wonder about).

We are on the road to Bethlehem to meet the One, who is Christ our Lord.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Blue Christmas: The Dawn is Coming

Within Advent, we call December 21st Blue Christmas. Today was the darkest, shortest day. Tonight is the longest night. A dark stretch that tomorrow will begin waning the other direction, giving us more and more light. But that is tomorrow. Tonight we sit in solemn communion with the suffering, the outcast, those in bondage, those in pain.

In Advent we wait: How long until we are delivered? How long until the darkness is redeemed?
In Advent we remember: Jesus the Light of Life was born and became Immanuel, God with is. It was He who pierced the darkness.
In Advent we anticipate: He will come again. Mighty and victorious. Blessing us with this assurance, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’” (Revelation 21:4-5a).

Though the darkness seems deeper and the dawn further from our grasp, Advent reminds us that we are not alone—neither in the waiting nor in the aching.

The O Antiphon for December 21st is "O Oriens." In English, it reads,

O Morning Star,
splendor of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

The word Oriens can be translated as Morning Star or Dayspring—a word that was once equated with the dawn. No matter how dark the night, there is an eternal truth that dawn will always come in the morning. The sun will go on rising and setting because it was ordained by the Creator, the Everlasting Father. But that does not mean death and darkness won’t continue on this Earth. On this side of heaven, they are a constant, a mark of the Fall, a curse as old as the Garden.

But we have a hope penned by Jesus’ ancestor, David. In the 23rd Psalm, David the shepherd honors the juxtaposition of suffering and joy, fear and love, uncertainty and peace. The passage ends in verse 6 with these words:
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

These days, which stretch on and on with dark shadows, despair, and confusion are not forever.

The Forever is coming, and it will be glorious because Jesus Himself will be the Light.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

He is not Finished Yet

When we call Jesus the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty, God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace, how does that change our perspective on waiting?

During this third week of Advent we are focusing on Jesus as the Everlasting Father. There are many things about Christ that we can equate with eternity—His eternal kingdom, the image of Him as the Word become Flesh, the eternal communion between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

One of the clearest images of eternity found in the Nativity story is that of God being born as a tiny baby. God’s timeline has always been different from ours. He had no need to arrive on Earth as a grown adult, ready to engage people with His message of forgiveness, healing, and love. Having existed eternally before the Incarnation, God has infinite time to bring about His plan of redemption.

Jesus’ birthday, the day we celebrate as Christmas, is not the beginning, nor is it the end of Jesus’ story, of our story. Christmas lands in the middle of eternity as a pivotal moment. The day Jesus was born, nothing would ever be the same again. From the moment of his conception to His last Earthly breath on the cross, Jesus has been acting out one unique truth about God: He is not finished yet.

If everything feels like a failure, it is because God is not done working. If there doesn’t appear to be any hope left to hold onto, it doesn’t mean God has abandoned you. On the contrary, He is working and moving—all on our behalf.

Our waiting may be 25 days, or it may be 25 years. Either way, we don’t stand alone in our waiting. With every sign of resignation and prayer of relinquishment, we are held by strong, eternal hands.

In this we have hope: He is not finished yet.

From Root of Jesse to True Vine

As early as the sixth century, Christian worship began using a collection of short chants during evening vesper services to usher in the final seven days of Advent before Christmas Eve. These seven songs are called the O Antiphons. If you’ve ever sung all the verses of the nineteenth century hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” then you’ve likely heard the focus of each Antiphon. After invoking “O”, each verse is based on a name of Christ from Old Testament prophecy. You can read more in this Plough article entitled “Divine Light in the O Antiphons”.

1.    “O Sapientia” (Wisdom)
2.    “O Adonai” (Lord)
3.    “O Radix Jesse” (Root of Jesse)
4.    “O Clavis David” (Key of David)
5.    “O Oriens” (Dayspring)
6.    “O Rex Gentium” (King of Nations)
7.    “O Emmanuel” (God with Us)

The O Antiphons are traditionally read from December 17-23. Today’s Antiphon is “O Radix Jesse”, or Root of Jesse:

"O Root of Jesse, which standest for an Ensign of the people,
At Whom the kings shall shut their mouths,
Whom the Gentiles shall seek,
Come to deliver us, do not tarry."

A more dynamic, modern translation is:

"O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples;
kings stand silent in your presence;
the nations bow down in worship before you.
Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid."

In the book of Isaiah, the Messiah is referred to the Root/Shoot of Jesse two times:
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD—
 and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.

In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.

(Isaiah 11:1-3, 10).
While the focus of Isaiah 11 is often the ancestral lineage of Jesus, the O Antiphon helps us see a theme of wider importance: Nothing will hinder God’s plans of redemption for His people.

As I was listening to the third Advent week of the She Reads Truth podcast, the speakers reflected on this very topic. The guest, Eli Bonilla Jr., commented on how Jesus did not develop something brand new, but stood on the “stump” of His forefathers in order to bring about redemption. He did not do away with the law, the traditions, the practices of His people, instead He fulfilled them, instilling the commandments with a new, everlasting Truth.

The translation of the "O Radix Jesse" Antiphon conjures an image of a flower blooming from a branch growing out of an ancient stump. I don’t know why I’ve never thought of it before, but this brings another growing image to mind. Jesus spoke often of Himself as a descendant (from the root of) David and Jesse, but He also spoke of another horticultural analogy. In John 15, the apostle quotes Jesus’ bold declaration to His disciples:
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15:5-8)
As ones who abide with Christ, the True Vine, the Holy Spirit enables us to bear fruit. Fruits of the Spirit like "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23).

Indeed: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.”

The same darkness we feel today was hovering over the Judean world just before Jesus was born. The promised Messiah seemed to be a false hope. All the prophets said He would come from the line of David, but following the exile into Babylon that royal lineage seemed just as thwarted as a stump of a fallen tree.

Yet from everlasting to everlasting, the True Vine was working on carving a path across time and space to provide a renewed hope for a hopeless world. He was born tiny and weak, not much stronger than a twig from a tree stump, but as He grew in the Spirit, the Root of Jesse became a victorious banner of faithful restoration and love.

Sunday, December 17, 2023

Evergreen and Everlasting

When I was young, it was important to my family that we get a “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree—a tree that others might look over. Not the most symmetrical, bushy, or beautiful, but full of character and up to the task of displaying our twinkle lights and ornaments.

The holiday classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas, first aired on CBS in 1965. Just like Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” comic strip, the TV special follows Charlie Brown and his comrades. This time, they are preparing for a Christmas play. In his new job as director, Charlie Brown sets out to find a Christmas tree to help set the stage. Only he doesn’t select the expected fake, shiny tree with sparkling tinsel, but a struggling little evergreen that can hardly hold onto its needles, much less a Christmas ornament.

Charlie Brown wants to give this little tree a chance. It is an evergreen after all.

Since the beginning of the Christmas tree, evergreen trees have been used as a part of the Christmas celebration. Early Christians equated evergreen trees with everlasting life with God. Indeed, coniferous trees of any kind are a beautiful image of the kingdom of eternity inaugurated by Jesus’ birth.

When Charlie Brown chose a “real” tree for their Christmas play, he was choosing something that would last much longer than all the commercialized holiday cheer he saw around him. His young, depressed heart sought something deeper. But when Charlie Brown and Linus arrive back at the theater with the tree, they are met with ridicule:

Lucy: You were supposed to get a good tree. Can't you even tell a good tree from a poor tree? . . . You've been dumb before, Charlie Brown, but this time you really did it. What a tree.

[All Laughing] 
Charlie Brown: I guess you were right, Linus. I shouldn't have picked this little tree. Everything I do turns into a disaster. I guess I really don't know what Christmas is all about.
(shouting in desperation): Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?
Linus Van Pelt: Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.
Lights, please.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, "Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, 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, good will toward men." (Luke 2:8-14 KJV)
That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
The angels said, “Good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” Did you catch that “all”? It was good news when the people of Israel heard the news of the Messiah from the prophets. It was good news for the shepherds and people living in Bethlehem. It was good news for the Magi, traveling across deserts to reach a forecasted king. It was good news when Jesus began His earthly ministry, teaching and healing, sacrificing and resurrecting. And it is good news for us today. Only an Everlasting Jesus could make that much difference to that many generations of His children. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown!”

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Everlasting Father: Born a Creator

Tonight I am starting the 3rd week of Advent early. The third candle represents Jesus as the Everlasting Father.

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
- Isaiah 9:1-2, 6-7 (ESV)

But how, you might ask, can Jesus the Son also be described as a Father? Although the three persons of God in the Trinity have unique roles, their intertwined-ness and dependency on one another enable Jesus to display characteristics of eternal fatherhood. The key focus here, however, should be the infinite nature of Jesus.

In a Gospel Coalition article entitled “How Can Jesus Be Our Everlasting Father?”, David Sunday says,

“Isaiah is speaking of a child who will be born some 700 years in the future—yet he makes clear that this child is the author of eternity, the “father of time”!

In the Old Testament, God refers to Himself as the “First and the Last” (Isaiah 44:6). In the book of Revelation, John sees a vision of Jesus saying, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 22:13). Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. It’s like saying, “from A to Z”—it’s a completion, and comprehensive covering of all things from beginning to end.

Ocieanna Fleiss wonders about the eternal nature of Jesus in the first chapter of her book, Awaiting the Manger. She asks,
“When did the story of Jesus begin? When the angel Gabriel descended to the dusty town of Nazareth to find a peasant girl who would be blessed among women? Or did it begin earlier in history’s halls? Maybe in an easily skimmed-over verse from the book of Micah, when the prophet hailed the little town of Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah. . . Or was it further back into the dark past when our first parents Adam and Eve sided against God . . . when God promised a Deliverer would come from the seed of the woman to crush the serpent’s head, restoring the shattered relationship between God and his sons and daughters? (Genesis 3:15). Surely that was when the story began. But no. Not even then. Jesus’s story—the story of our deliverance from the shackles of sin to new life—began here: ‘Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world’ (Ephesians 1:4).”
Before time and space—Jesus thought of us, predestined us, loved us, prepared the way for us.

Fleiss finishes, “And, all of this would first be heralded in a tiny space crammed into a crowded town, when, begotten of the Father’s love, the Son would trade his throne for a manger (Luke 2:7). A lot happened before the beginning.”

Genesis 1:2 describes pre-creation as formless and void, dark and watery. What else does that sound like?

Many thousands of years after the formation of light and land, and living things, Jesus found Himself back in a dark and watery void—the womb of a young woman named Mary. Little did those dwelling on earth know, the baby to be born had given up His divine kingdom to bring about a kingdom of new life. From the very microscopic seed of His mother’s womb to the glorious expanse of His heavenly throne, Jesus indeed is the First and the Last, the eternal One, the Everlasting Father, who has, is, and will continue to weave together an incomparable story of redemption and grace.

Friday, December 15, 2023

Christmas Hymn: "Come, Thou Redeemer of the Earth"

This evening I’m sharing another rich Christmas hymn: "Come, Thou Redeemer of the Earth."

Originally written in Latin, “Veni, Redemptor gentium”, the lyrics are attributed to St. Ambrose of Milan around the year 397. The words were translated into English by John M. Neale in 1862. The music was adapted in 1609 by Michael Praetorius.

You can listen and follow along here:

Come thou Redeemer of the earth,
Come, testify thy wondrous birth:
All lands admire, all times applaud:
Such is the birth that fits our God.

Forth from His chamber goeth He,
That royal home of purity,
A giant in twofold substance one,
Rejoicing now His course to run.

From God the Father He proceeds,
To God the Father back He speeds;
Runs out his course to death and hell
Returning on God's high throne to dwell.

O equal to the Father, Thou!
Gird on Thy fleshly mantle now;
The weakness of our mortal state
With deathless might invigorate.

Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
And darkness breathe a newer light,
Where endless faith shall shine serene,
And twilight never intervene.

All laud eternal Son, to Thee;
Whose advent sets thy people free
Whom with the Father we adore,
And Holy Ghost, for evermore.


Thursday, December 14, 2023

Keeping Time with Expectation

Martin Luther once said that Jesus is the “center and circumference of the Bible.”

During Advent we often quote Galatians 4:4 (ESV) which says, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son. . .” but Romans 5:6 (NLT) gives a similar message, “We were weak and could not help ourselves. Then Christ came at the right time and gave His life for all sinners.”

In the Galatians 4 passage, the Greek word for time is Chronos. In the Romans 5 passage, the whole phrase “the right time” is translated from the Greek word, Kairos. In English, the meanings of these two verses appear to be the same, but in the Greek, they are drastically different.

Madeline L’Engle wrote about Chronos and Kairos time in many of her works, especially in her middle grade science fiction, A Wrinkle in Time. She has a reverent and inspiring way of weaving together the practical and the fantastical in order to teach the reader a little about the mysteries of time and space.

Professor and writer, Susan VanZanten describes the two ideas of time this way:
“The ancient Greeks had two words for this: chronos and kairos. Chronos refers to what I have been calling clock time, an objective duration of physical movement, ordinary time measurable by a calendar in which one day is just like any other. Kairos, in contrast, is subjective and qualitative; it refers to the special place an event has in the flow of time, a moment when something happens that can only occur at that time. Christians sometimes refer to Kairos as ‘God’s time,’ a unique window of opportunity in which certain actions can take place. In the New Testament kairos refers to a specific, God-ordained time sometimes called the ‘right time’ or ‘appointed season.’ The incarnation, the turning of water into wine at Cana, the crucifixion, and the resurrection are all understood as kairos moments.”
As we live, here, in Chronos time, we are living between the two Advents. Jesus came to earth as a baby more than 2000 years ago. And some time in the future, He will come again. That unknown moment will certainly be a Kairos event—shocking the very foundation of what we know and understand about this temporal planet we call home.

While we are here, observing Advent with annual expectation, what is it we are yearning for?

The context of Romans 5:6 gives us a clue. God sent Jesus to Earth to repair that which was broken when sin entered the Garden so many years before. Before the first bite of forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve had perfect communion with God, perfect peace, and perfect rest in God’s glory. They had no need that God hadn’t already supplied.

But then a rip tore through humanity and we became enemies of God. The gospel message is that Jesus, Mighty God, is able to justify us—wiping away our record of sin, and restoring that which was broken. In Romans 5:1-2, Paul tells us three benefits to this justification:
1.    Peace with God (no more enemy status)
2.    Access to grace (a repaired relationship with God)
3.    Hope in God’s glory (both present and future).

In 2009 I named this blog, Lineage of Expectation. So much of Advent is about hope, and waiting, and yearning. For thousands of years, the people of God were waiting for a Messiah to deliver them. And now, we are waiting again.

The word hope is defined by Merriam Webster as “cherishing a desire with anticipation.” Hope is more than wishing for something to come true. There is a measure of confidence in hope. Hope is steadfast and long-suffering. And it is active. Because the same external things we are striving for in Jesus’ second coming, Jesus has already promised are ours through the power of the Holy Spirit. We are living in an “already, not yet” kind of time with the miraculous benefits of God’s presence.

In the fullness of time
(chronos): When God had lined up all the ancestors, prophetic messages, battles, warriors, worshipers, wanderers, waiters to perfectly reveal the Messiah.

At the right time (Kairos): That moment when God tore down our twisted expectations of what a Messiah would look like and amazingly entered humanity as an infant King ready to lead the way through service, love, sacrifice, and mercy.

We look back at the first Advent with such clarity. But another Kairos moment is coming. May we continue to be a lineage of expectation.