Monday, December 26, 2011

What's in a Name

This morning after Christmas, I feel a bit like my preschoolers when their Uncle Johnathan comes home after months of anticipating his arrival, all of my little ones running around shouting, "He's here! He's here!"

For many of you, the excitement is over, maybe even exhaustion has set in, or perhaps even a bit of depression from the sudden drop in adrenaline and things to "do." Wrapping paper is crumpled in the trash, delectable treats all (hopefully) consumed, hidden surprises all revealed. For some, it's all over.

And yet, today should be more exciting than even yesterday. Christ's journey has only just begun. He's here! Christ. God with us.

That name--Emmanuel. God with Us. It's still important this side of the nativity...this side of the cross.

Mary and Joseph didn’t have a problem with choosing a name for their little babe in the feed trough. The angel had told them up front what the baby’s name would be: “and they will call him Immanuel—which means, ‘God with us’” (Matt 1:23).

The meaning of Jesus’ name was and is important because His very character was inscribed in His name. His name meant that as the second part of the trinity, He had left His heavenly home to physically come to earth and dwell among us in the flesh. He was 100% God. And yet He was also 100% human.

But why is this such a big deal? And for that matter, why did we need God to dwell with us anyway?

First, the fact that a sinless, holy God would see fit to dwell among sinful humanity blows my mind each time I think about it. There are many days when I want to cut myself totally off from the sin I see being so openly and guiltlessly flaunted in our society…and I’m a sinner, myself. But Jesus who was perfect chose to dwell here. That is incomprehensible.

As the disciple John said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:1,14).

Secondly, God needed to dwell with us if we were ever going to be reconciled to God. His coming to earth and, ultimately, giving His life on the cross, bridged the gap between man and God the Father, whose relationship had been severed by an endless ocean of sin. Paul writes, “Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation” (2 Corr. 5:18-19).

Isaiah 9:6-7 prophesied His coming much earlier: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.

Mary and Joseph couldn’t have possibly known all that their son’s name would mean for them and for all mankind. But through Scripture, we can understand more of how God is with us even still—the Holy Spirit that resides within us, Jesus who makes intercession for us with the Father...


God is with us as our counselor in times where life’s circumstances leave us questioning our next step.

God is with us as Prince of Peace when anxiety, uncertainty, or depression threatens to drown us.

God is wish us as mighty, everlasting king of all creation who will come again soon to reclaim His earthly throne.

This post-Christmas season, don't forget that Christmas is not over. It's only just begun. Even without the tinsel and holly, we must remember to continue giving thanks to God for His son, Jesus.

Immanuel. God’s word made flesh for you, for me.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Keeping Focused Down the Stretch

It's here, that final sprint towards the finish line, golden ribbon coming in sight near the horizon, beckoning us to hurry, hurry, hurry faster through the not-enough-hours-in-the-day burst towards Christmas Day.

It always surprises me, this week.

Even when I choose to make my Christmas smaller, focus on the fewer more meaningful traditions, do tasks earlier, make my gift giving smaller and an investment of myself. Even then, something sends me in a last minute scamper for the perfection I promised myself I wouldn't seek this year.

It might be a can of cream of shrimp soup I forgot when cream of mushroom would suffice. Or a friend coming into town who asks to squeeze into a calendar square. Or downloading a few more blasts from the past to put on my dad's very first Ipod.

Or perhaps it's nothing so trivial, but rather an addition of some act of service to show Jesus' love to others, like making that extra trip into town to deliver a gift card to grandparents who can't afford Christmas for the eleven year old girl they care for. Or stopping in my parking lot rush to dig deep for two wrinkled dollar bills to give the deaf Hispanic woman offering me a red pen, her hands reaching heavenward to sign "God bless."

Or maybe it's the unexpected--like my youngest son spiking 101 fever this evening, indicating something unseen is lurking, waiting for its own chance to usurp center stage. Or the death of a grandma in the middle of Saturday afternoon's bread baking, burial grief to come.

Tonight marks the fourth week of advent. During Week One, we focused on Christ being “our Hope.” During week two, the focus was on Jesus being "the Way." Last week, we sought to remember that Christ is "our Joy."

And now? In the blur of frantic rush, in the brittle unexpected, yes, even in heartache and darkness where death seems more my focus than life? Now, I, we must strive even harder to maintain focus, keep our eyes on the One lying in the manger.

This week, we must remember that Christ is our Peace.

The prophet Isaiah described the coming Messiah:

"For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;
And the government will rest on His shoulders;

And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Eternal Father, Prince of Peace

There will be no end to the increase of
His government or of peace..." (Is. 9:6).

In this poetic litany of adjectives, intentionally last in line, at the end is "Prince of Peace." Yet, the very next line shows it is not least in importance, the ultimate irony that in Christ, peace will ultimately have "no end".

As Christ prepared the disciples for His coming crucifixion, He sought to help them understand this concept, that even in His absence, they could still have His Peace within: "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. 'Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful'" (Jn. 14:26-27).

Christ was not leaving them alone but would provide the Holy Spirit as a comforter, as an indwelling Spirit to remind them that Christ is peace.

Peace is not a state of mind. It is not dependent on circumstances. Peace is trust in the person of Christ. He can give you and me peace not on either side of a storm but within its raging, not either side of an illness but in its feverish heights. It's all about where our focus is.

The prophet promised, "You [God] will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you" (Is. 26:3).

No matter what we think must be done this week, no matter what seeks to steal our peace or steal center stage, Christ made it clear to Martha: "only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her" (Lk. 10:42).

Only One thing is needed. Our focus to be on the Savior. On our Peace.

Image: "A Christmas Blur" from "Nell's Dish Du Jour"

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Real Joy of the Season

The darkness ripples, its inky black turning a lighter hue of grey morning right before golden orb crests and spills life awash over everything it touches.

Such is what happens this night, the third week of Advent. Third purple candle ignites, the three together strong enough to cast a mixture of light and shadow on all the faces surrounding it. The darkness shies away, knowing what is coming...Who is coming.

Tonight marks the third week of advent. During Week One, we focused on Christ being “our Hope.” Last week, the focus is on Jesus being "the Way." And for this third week, we seek to remember that Christ is "our Joy."

The angel who hand delivered the very first Birth Announcements of our Savior's birth to the shepherds called this Word made flesh "good news of great joy which will be for all the people" (Lk. 2:10). Joy had come! They just had to seek and find it in the most unexpected places--a cattle trough.

During His ministry, Christ tried to teach His Disciples how to enter into His joy: "Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full" (Jn. 15:9-11). Full joy, abiding joy, abundant joy--it was only found through a love relationship with this Person of the trinity.

For the most part, though, the disciples just didn't get it, this joy found in the abiding. They thought it was something tangible to be touched, smelled, tasted, a joy found in Christ's literal kingdom coming to earth in a predictable political fashion.

And so when their Savior died, when the one in whom they placed the hope of all Israel was placed behind a wall of near-immovable rock, they scattered, were inconsolable, joyless.

Only after the Disciples saw the resurrected Christ did they finally understand Christ, Himself, was their joy...not because of what He did for them but because of who He was: "And they, after worshiping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising God" (Lk. 24:52-53).

To remember who Jesus truly is--our hope, the only way, our chief joy--is the only way to prepare our hearts for this Season of Joy. To experience that joy requires our worship--continual praising of God. Otherwise, our joy will be hollow, only an echo of the pure joy that's found in a Christmas celebrated without Christ.

When we are enduring the temporary trials of this earth and think we cannot enter into the joy of the season, we must worship Him anyway. We should not hide our disappointment from Him or drum up some 10 cent joy from within ourselves.

He knows already.

Instead, we must consciously choose to raise our voice in a song only to Him. Read His Word. Or just bow heads to whisper thanks for His Son before weeping before His throne.

His is the joy that no one can take away (Jn. 16:22).

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Direction for the Hopelessly Lost

“Hopelessly lost” is a good adjective to describe me, not just in a spiritual sense but in a physical one as well.

When God was assembling my double helix, He left out the genetic code that would give me a sense of direction. North, south, east, west—don’t ask me. Instead, I attempt to drive by landmarks—the house with the “Quilts for Sale” sign out front, the farm where sheep used to graze twenty years ago, the intersection where golden squash and plump unshucked ears of corn were heaped overflowing in baskets one summer.

Even then, driving familiar roads is incredibly difficult, especially when a route I’ve driven dozens of time should be familiar but still isn’t. A few weeks back, I got lost driving to my friend’s house and had to call frantic for help.

As you can probably guess, I have a serious fear of being lost. Going prayer walking each week through the maze-like twists and turns of subdivisions has a couple times left me frantic, almost lost with thoughts of leaving breadcrumbs along my path to ensure I find my way back to the van.

Several years ago, my husband bought me a Garmin as a Valentines’ Day gift, but it died a well-mourned death last summer. Ever since, each time I get behind the wheel, I feel like a trapeze artist flying through the air with no net. If I let myself think about it, it’s terrifying.

All too many times, I don’t know the way when others find it childishly simple.

Tonight marks the second week of advent, two purple candles now flickering in the darkness. During Week One, we focused on Christ being “our Hope.” This week, the focus is on Jesus being “the Way.”

In the upper room when Jesus was preparing the disciples for what was to come, He said, "'In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.' Thomas said to Him, 'Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?' Jesus said to him, I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me" (Jn. 14:2-6).

Jesus clearly tells us that He is The Way to everlasting life, to the place He is preparing for us. What’s more, He is the only way. But trusting in Christ alone for one’s salvation is a plan so simple that it’s easy to miss.

Even for the directionally challenged, it sometimes seems more logical, even easier to forge our own paths and trust in the good works of our hands, in what “feels” right in our gut versus trust in Him and what His many times head-scratching Word says about The Way He has laid out for us to follow.

But leaning on our own sense of direction will only result in us being hopelessly lost. Proverbs 3:5-6 speaks of Christ’s followers finding the Way by trusting in Him by faith: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart And do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight.

Trust, faith in Christ is the only Way. Relying on a map made by human understanding will only take us down a different path than the one leading straight to salvation.

As difficult as Scripture is to understand at times, to know the Way is to know the Word. John tells us, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14).

In this Advent season, the Word is about to make His appearance in flesh. The Way is coming to make Himself known to a lost world.

While we may not know the exact paths, hills, and curves God wants us to take on our journey to Him, we do know He has given His Word as a roadmap to help guide us in the Way.

For one so confused by earthly directions, the idea that there is only one Way is actually quite comforting. If I keep my eyes firmly focused on Him, if I ask in faith for His guidance and keep my mind and heart rooted in studying and applying His word, I can’t get lost.