Christmas Reflection, 2016

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Isaiah 9:2-7
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. 

Joy to the World

Joy to the World , the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the World, the Savior reigns!
Let all their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

This song, originally written in 1719 by Isaac Watts, was written to be sung on Christmas Day! It announces the Savior’s birth in unparalleled beauty, truth, and grandeur. Watch Night services rang in Christmas Day with a passionate singing of this song at precisely the stroke of midnight. Our Christmas Day service, at Renton Church of the Nazarene, will begin with this song. I’ve waited all year to sing this song. He has come friends. He has come to make his blessings known far as the curse is found. He went to such great lengths to accomplish that. He has begun the ending of the curse, and of sin and death. He has come! Let us rejoice in this truth today, even as we prepare for His return. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her King!”

Advent Reflection #28, 2016

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Luke 1:67-79

His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us— to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” And the child grew and became strong in spirit ; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.
Do you ever struggle to live up to other people’s expectations? What’s worse, is that many people have hugely unrealistic expectations to deal with. John was one such child. His parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, clearly have big, God-given expectations for him. I wonder if they were satisfied with him? I wonder if they thought his life would end the way it did, beheaded while sitting in prison? I assume that they did understand his life, and that they were proud of him. It seems like they understand well, the role he was to play. They appear to embrace it; to relish in it. I think Zechariah understood that in a similar way that most people will “rage against the dying of the light” to borrow the words of poet Dylan Brown, the darkness rages at the coming of the light. Both John and Jesus would be marked men from birth. They had to be. And yet, they came anyway. They lived anyway. They taught, baptized, and proclaimed the Good news anyway. They died anyway. And Jesus, Jesus was raised on the third day, calling for the immanent death of death itself. The old ways are dying; the new ways are coming. None of this would have been possible without John the Baptist.
John prepared the way for the Lord, Jesus. He preached salvation through the forgiveness of sins. He sought to guide our feet into the path of peace. His ministry was integral to God’s great rescue plan. John proclaimed the difficult truth that not many wanted to hear, but all need: we are sinners, we’ve wandered away from God, we must repent, turn around, live into God’s calling for us, and embrace the coming Messiah and his ways. Advent is a chance to become acquainted, or re-acquainted with the ministry of John the Baptist. It’s a time that calls us all to repentance, to turning around (metanoia), to kneeling, to prayer, to a posture of open receptivity to the new thing that God continues to do in our lives. Jesus has come. Jesus is coming. Jesus will come again. Are you ready? Are you willing to repent, and change your ways? Are you willing to allow the Gospel message to sink  so deeply into you that you begin loving enemies, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and dying, loving the unlovable, and living for Him and His ways rather than for yourself? Hear the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness, the one who prepared a way. That way is prepared. Now, prepare to receive Jesus anew.
Today, as you pray, pray that your heart would be prepared to receive Jesus anew this year. Pray that your life would be prepared to receive Jesus anew this year. Pray that the world would be prepared to receive Jesus anew this year – not through a particular candidate, party, law, or country, but through the transformed lives of God’s called-out people the Church. Christ-followers pick up the mantle of John the Baptist, to prepare the way for the Lord. We are called to live lives that clearly testify to our love for God and others – not just God, and not just others. God and others. Does your life look like this from the outside? Do people notice? If not, pray that God would break through to your heart, and transform your life, that you would be a living sacrifice, as Paul says, helping to prepare the way for Jesus. If people do notice God’s love in you, love for both God and others, then pray that God would give you more of this love and grace, for you will need it! Good, faithful disciples pray daily for more and more of God’s grace and love, knowing that they must be continually transformed by the renewal of their minds into the image of Christ Jesus (Romans 12:2). Today, pray that God would allow you to receive, or re-receive the gift of the Son, of Jesus, into your heart, your life, and your world. And then, be prepared to receive this undeserved, but freely given gift.

Advent Reflection #27, 2016

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Luke 1:57-66

When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.” They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.” Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God. All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him.
It’s amazing how many people have opinions when it comes to babies and names. With our first child, Lily, we found out the sex of the baby but didn’t reveal her name until she was born. With our second, Rowan, we waited to find out what and who he’d be when he was born. We also kept our name possibilities secret that time. We didn’t want others to ruin a name that we liked, or hear negative comments about it. In my experience, no one holds a newborn and complains about their name, but they’re full of complaints in the abstract! In fact, one of the few times we discussed a name possibility we had considered with a family member, this well-meaning, but thoroughly unhelpful family member shared several negative comments about the name. Our previous strategies were confirmed!
When the time came for Elizabeth to have her child, Zechariah was still mute. She delivered the boy and then announced that his name was to be John. “What?!?,” they said to her, “none of your relatives has that name!” Seriously? First of all, who are “they?” Well, unless Elizabeth’s really adventurous, “they” here, is likely her family, specifically women in her family. She’s just done one of the most amazing things possible, and at a very old age, and immediately the women in her family begin judging and critiquing her. Wow! Perhaps even more important, though, is why does this matter in the first place? Isn’t God the God who makes all things new? Wasn’t Elizabeth’s pregnancy in the first place, borderline miraculous? Why can’t this child represent a new start, a new direction, and bear a new name? So “they” motion for Zechariah, “surely Zechariah will overrule Elizabeth and name the boy something sensible like Abinadab or Methusaleh!” Instead, John writes down, “his name is John!” The matter was settled. Zechariah’s mouth was unstopped, his tongue unfurled, and his voice returned to him. Zechariah did the right thing. (Maybe God should have stopped up “their” mouthes for a bit?!?) God was doing something new, and a new name was central to God’s plan.
Are you open to the new, to change? Do you greet change with fear and anger, or with an open mind? Today as you pray, ask God to bless you with the ability to have an open mind about God’s ways and means. Ask God for an open mind and flexibility regarding church, traditions, and young people in particular. God is always doing something new. We are in trouble, when we’re so set in our ways, so stuck in our comfort zone, that we miss out on the new thing God is doing. Where are you encountering change in your life? Family and friends doing something new? Is your work rolling out a new computer and/or software system? Still struggling with new worship songs, or maybe with old hymns? Maybe the pastor or church leaders changed up a decoration or layout at church that you liked? Ask God to help you embrace change with an open mind, and open heart, and an open spirit. Our God, after all, is a God who makes all things new. All that new-making, makes for a lot of change!

Advent Reflection #26, 2016

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James 5:7-10
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.
Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

What if Christians vowed to stop killing each other? What if we saw our faith as deeper than our other allegiances to the point that we would not kill others in war, if they are also Christians. How many of the world’s major battles could have been avoided had the Church taken its teachings seriously? Yes it’s hard to love our enemies – but we’ve got to start somewhere. What if we learned to pursue peace and reconciliation with other Christians that we don’t necessarily agree with or whom we have a dispute with? Learning to reconcile such differences peacefully might go a long way in teaching us how to actually love our enemies. I’m convinced that despite whatever you might think about war and violence, Christians are not to kill other Christians. What a great start that might make towards God’s shalom coming on earth as it is in heaven!

To this end, this brief passage from James offers much practical wisdom: be patient, strengthen your hearts (for the hard work of patience), and do not grumble with one another. This practical wisdom is offered in light of this Advent insight: the Lord is coming, indeed, the Lord is near. James does not want his readers to be caught unawares at the immanent coming of the Lord. Instead he helpfully describes Jesus’s followers as farmers, patiently waiting upon their crops, caring for the land, paying attention to weather and other conditions. To harvest a crop, you must first cultivate it. Elsewhere, James says, “a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” (James 3:18) I love that verse. Peace will only be harvested if it is sown. And why sew it? Because we are called to do so, it’s what God desires, and God is drawing near.

Today as you pray, pray for peace. Pray that God’s shalom would come on earth as it is in heaven. Pray that you would know peace in your own life. Finally, pray that God would make you an instrument of God’s peace, by allowing you to sew peace. Ask God if there is someone you need to pursue reconciliation with. And then, if there is, do so! Odds are, there’s a friend, family member, or even your spouse that you need to reconcile with – and yes, that almost always involves asking for forgiveness and offering forgiveness. Mutual forgiveness is key to peacemaking. Ask God who you might pursue reconciliation with, and then do it. In this way, you will sew peace. Remember, when you sew peace, a harvest of righteousness awaits you!

Advent Reflection #25, 2016

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Luke 1:39-45
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Have you ever felt a baby kick whilst still in the womb? It’s a pretty amazing thing. The thought that there is a small human growing in there, a baby that hears, moves, reacts, eats, and sleeps is mind-boggling. It’s also worth noting just how terribly vulnerable this tiny child is. In the womb, the baby is literally completely dependent upon its mother. If she doesn’t eat right, it doesn’t. If she drinks alcohol or smokes, so does it. If she uses drugs, so does it. If she decides it is unwanted, sadly, it doesn’t get a say in the matter. There’s nothing more vulnerable than a small child. Once the baby is born, the helplessness continues and, in fact, gets a bit worse in my opinion. Now, we must add to the list, the need for touch, affection, diaper changing, and basic care. The child is no longer permanently attached to its mother, and so now the mother (and hopefully father and others at this point) must choose to continue to care for it. Then, as the child begins to grow, it begins crawling, and soon, walking. Now the child’s status is deceptive as we confuse mobility and words for understanding and autonomy. If anything, these little movers that we often call toddlers are now more vulnerable in that they can really get themselves into trouble that they cannot get themselves out of! Babies are dependent little creatures, helpless in so many ways.
In this passage the unexpectedly and miraculously pregnant Elizabeth meets the unexpectedly and miraculously pregnant Mary. Elizabeth’s baby, John, kicks (or perhaps leaps) in the womb at the mere proximity to Mary and her unborn child Jesus. Two helpless children and two very important, blessed, and unexpected soon-to-be mothers. One old woman and one that is not barely old enough. Two inexperienced mothers. So many reasons to say, “no,” and yet here they are. What a strange way to start a revolution. The sheer vulnerability of this plan always trips me up. So many things could have gone wrong. Why would God risk everything by entrusting the plan for salvation and redemption into the hands of these women? Besides, even if both did an absolutely stellar job, a mother, even the best mother, cannot prevent every bad thing from happening. Some things are simply out of our control. And certainly a helpless baby can do nothing to defend or even provide for itself. This plan seems sketchy at best. And yet, this is precisely how God chose to redeem and save the world, reconciling all of creation back to God’s self, paving the way for God’s coming Kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven.
Have you ever leapt for joy at the mention of Jesus’s name? Have you ever teared up when singing of God’s immeasurable goodness? Have you ever felt overwhelmed in the presence of a holy place, person, or moment? In the same way that Elizabeth praised Mary, and her yet unborn son leapt for joy, we too are to be filled with joy and praise for Jesus. Today as you pray, ask God for joy. Ask God to show you the people, places, and situations in your everyday life that most closely usher God’s presence into your life. Look for these people, places, and situations and seek them out. Pay attention, embrace them, and be filled with joy. Let joy overflow you, so that you share it with others, just as Elizabeth does with Mary.

Advent Reflection #24, 2016

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Psalm 96
O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth. Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples. For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the LORD made the heavens. Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts. Worship the LORD in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth. Say among the nations, “The LORD is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity.” Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.

I’ve been dealing with a case of chronic laryngitis for the past few months. I primarily noticed it when I could no longer sing. Instead of decently on pitch singing, I was producing squeaks and rasps, and nothing close to proper pitch. This continued for about a month until I finally went to the doctor, realizing this was more than just some weird cold. She prescribed the use of a steroid inhaler that I already had (but almost never used) for allergies. It immediately began helping, but I’m still no where close to 100%. I can talk fine, though my voice is weaker, and my singing is hit-and-miss. (To be honest, I begin teaching two large classes at Seattle Pacific University in 2 weeks and I’m a bit worried about my voice. I would appreciate your prayers!) Anyway, throughout this process, my desire to sing has grown exponentially. Especially as we prepare to sing Christmas Hymns, which are my favorite, the next couple of Sundays.
I am not really a musician, but I can say that having lost my singing voice, I can feel the overwhelming desire to sing, and to sing to God in particular. The desire to shout forth in song, to lift our voices and cry out is strong in most of us, even if it is kept covered up. Worship and music are deeply connected. Music ≠ worship, but worship is intimately bound up with music. We have musical souls, in that we are creatures made for worship (homo liturgicus, as theologian Jaime Smith has suggested).
In this passage, the Psalmist uses a phrase that is used often in the Psalms and some of the Prophets, “sing a new song.” To sing a new song is to be overwhelmed with creativity, love, and praise, so that new words leap off of our tongues, in addition to all the old ones. In other words, the old songs are still wonderful and should be sung, but the human (body, mind, and soul) is made to sing new songs because we were created and redeemed by the God who makes all things new. To sing a new song does not mean scrapping all the old songs. It does, though, require an openness towards novelty and fresh expressions of God’s goodness and love, and of our thankfulness and praise for God. This of course reminds me of the so-called “worship wars” that still rage, though quieter today than a decade ago, as well as the contemporary trend for worship bands from larger churches to write their own songs, changing them frequently. Such novelty is often met with a great deal of resistance. I will admit that these trends are not necessarily my favorite. But they also reveal a deep and profound love for God that cannot help but issue forth in the singing of new songs. If we never sing new songs, does that mean God is done working?  Perhaps it means that we simply have enough of God and need no more, thus nothing new to sing about? I’m convinced that singing new songs is fundamental to a life of discipleship and transformation. (But of course, that doesn’t excuse bad theology – I am a theologian after all!)
Today, pray through song. Put a song on your car stereo, computer, CD player, or iPod/iPhone. Sing out loud, perhaps on a walk, in your home, car, or office. Sing to the Lord. Perhaps you find a song you haven’t sung in a while and you sing it again. Then perhaps you might find a new song and listen to it repeatedly until you can sing along. In all of this, let the fountain that is your soul burst forth in joy, thanksgiving, and worship. In the process of this prayer, pray that you will be more open to new songs in worship: be they ancient or contemporary. Pray that God will help you to understand the purpose for song, especially musical worship, allowing your to embrace, and even delight in, the singing of songs to the Lord, both old and new. Who knows, perhaps you will even sing a new song to the Lord!

Advent Reflection #23, 2016

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Luke 1:5-25

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
Zechariah seems to get a bit of a bum deal. His question to Gabriel is not really any different than Mary’s. Unless we’re not privy to his attitude or demeanor, he appears to be asking the same sort of biological question as Mary. She asked “how can this be?” because she had not sexually “known” a man before. Zechariah, on the other hand, believed that he and his wife were far too old, and on top of that, they had been unable to ever conceive a child. (Notice that whereas Zechariah calls himself old, he refers to his wife Elizabeth as “getting on in years.” That’s a smart man!) Regardless, Gabriel’s response to Zechariah’s alleged lack of faith is to cause Zechariah to be mute until the baby is born. This is likely less of a curse, though, and more of a proof: if God can shut up Zechariah’s mouth, surely God can open up Elizabeth’s womb! Sure enough, this is exactly what God does. Soon after now-mute Zechariah returns home, Elizabeth becomes pregnant. She stays in hiding for some time, likely thinking that she will miscarry, but she does not. After 5 whole months, she believes. Remember, Zechariah hasn’t been able to tell her. At the end of the passage, Elizabeth makes this prophetic announcement, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
Barrenness is a heart-breaking, and often embarrassing situation. It shouldn’t be the latter, but it usually is. While it is not a person or couple’s fault, they typically receive it as such and bear the scars of this for a long time. The drives within us to procreate are very strong, and when anything prevents that from occurring, it is unwelcome to say the least. And yet, God delights in bringing life out of barrenness. There were a nearly countless number of babies born to parents thought to be barren in the Old Testament. Jesus was even born to a woman whose womb had never even had the chance to conceive, let alone fail to for any number of reasons. I’m convinced that God doesn’t cause barrenness, but delights in ending it, in bringing life out of it, because this is simply who God is. God is a God who makes a way when there is no way. God is a God who creates out of nothing, in unfavorable conditions. We can safely add to this, that God is a God who chooses unlikely candidates experiencing unfavorable conditions to do great and mighty deeds. God time and again delivers God’s people despite what appears to be hopelessness. To borrow a phrase from the recent Geico commercials, “If you’re God, you make a way when there is no way, it’s what you do.”
What is the barrenness in your life? What are the places where you have reached dark, dismal dead ends? Where do you feel like you have failed, and there is no hope of success? Have you given these to God? Have you asked God to make a way, to show you the way you ought to go? Have you tried walking that path, despite its apparent strangeness and even foolishness? You should. Today, as you pray, consider these things. We all have situations like this in our lives: literal barrenness, the painful loss of a loved one – perhaps even a child, a difficult and unwanted divorce, separation from a spouse, the hurtful loss of a friend, estrangement from a grown child, lack of success at work or even the loss of your job . . . the list could truly go on and on. Will you give God these situations of barrenness, loss, and darkness? Will you give God the things that you’ve given up hope for? Will you stop trying to force God to do what you want God to do next, and instead allow God to lead you down the meandering but bountiful path that God has prepared for you? Will you trust God to make a way when there doesn’t appear to be a way?