I hear many Christians declaring that we need to “Keep Christ in Christmas” because “He’s the Reason for the Season“. Yet, this year, when Christmas fell on Sunday, many churches chose to emphasise their Saturday Christmas Eve Service and some went so far as to cancel their Sunday morning service so that their members could spend time with family.
This state of affairs highlights a reality that many people recognise, but have trouble explaining. There are two distinct holidays both called Christmas.
One holiday places family front and center and close behind is materialism and credit card debt. This holiday has many cultural and family traditions relating to which movies we watch in December, which music we play, and which food we eat. It’s not a bad holiday, in fact, it’s a great experience and an important part of our children’s formative years. It’s warm, it’s rustic and comforting, and hopefully it’s full of love.
So many songs promote this Christmas celebration from, I’ll Be Home for Christmas to Winter Wonderland and Jingle Bells. The romance of Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire seems comforting no matter if you live in Florida or Australia and never see snow, or eat chestnuts for Christmas.
Likewise, the list of Christmas moves is extensive. Here’s a list of 50 with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe being as religious as it gets. From classics including A Christmas Carol, and It’s a Wonderful Life to modern classics such as Elf, and Home Alone many families have their own movie play list at this time of year.
The other holiday is a Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s a celebration of God becoming human: the Incarnation. The Incarnation is also a story of love. A story of God’s love toward us. In John 3:16-17 Jesus himself described what happened at his birth. “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
The Christian celebration requires worship. It has its own set of sacred carols, but not so many movies. The Christian holiday has also been romanticised. It focuses upon the cute scenes of a baby in a manger surrounded by shepherds and animals. If that’s the totality of the Christian story then it’s no wonder so many have bought into an alternative narrative.
From a Christian perspective the Incarnation of Jesus should prompt people to contemplate questions about the Trinity and the nature of the Godhead. We should ponder the relationship between God and humanity. The miraculous advent of Jesus gives a greater depth of meaning to subsequent events surrounding his death and resurrection.
Additionally, the Biblical account of Jesus birth provokes us to consider complex social topics including the relationship between Christ and political powers, the tragedy of violence, and the plight of refugees. We also contemplate the titles given Jesus and how he is “God with us”, the “Prince of Peace”, and “Saviour”. None of these discussions have cute answers.
Because both of these holidays, the secular and the Christian, are each called Christmas and because they overlap and many people celebrate both… it’s easy to mistake one for the other.
Family is important. God wants us to live within loving families. Traditions, myths, songs, and movies encourage people and provide shared experiences and values. But for Christians, Christmas first and foremost is about reminding ourselves that God loves us immeasurably. Sometimes family reminds us of this truth. Sometimes family causes us to question this truth.
And sometimes, the secular holiday pulls us away from our Christian celebration. For some of us having the picture perfect Christmas dinner, or ensuring the children have time to open their gifts and play with them, take a higher priority than worshiping our Saviour.
I’m not writing this post to beat anyone up, but to emphasise how easy it is to lose focus on the miracle of the Word becoming Flesh. We don’t keep Christ in Christmas because we say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays”. We keep Christ in Christmas by allowing ourselves to dwell upon the Power, Wisdom, Humility and Love found in that manger. We keep Christ in Christmas through worship. And we keep Christ in Christmas by keeping our lives centered upon God and reflecting God to others, because the birth of Christ makes a difference in our lives.
I have no regrets about my faith upbringing. My family and small church nurtured and encouraged my faith. They gave me opportunities to ask questions, exercise gifts, and participate in the mission of God.
However, somewhere along the line I began to assume the idea that there was one correct answer to every faith question. If my answer was “I don’t know”, that was acceptable, but it meant that I didn’t know the correct answer.
As my faith has grown I’ve come to appreciate that the bigness of God often means that limiting ourselves to just one correct answer sells God short.
One example of narrowing an answer too much concerns our salvation. Why did I become a disciple of Jesus? My standard answer sounds something like, “I became a Christian because I didn’t want to spend eternity in Hell and I wanted my sins forgiven.”
I’m confident millions of other Christians through the years have responded to the Gospel for similar reasons.
While in an ideal world people would respond to the Gospel as a loving response to the love of God our motives are usually much more self-centred than that. But we don’t need stay that way.
In Ephesians 3:1 Paul describes himself as “the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles.” Most scholars agree that Paul probably wrote this letter from a Roman prison. They also agree that he was imprisoned as a consequence of his ministry. However, it’s notable that Paul doesn’t describe himself as “the prisoner of Rome…“, but as the prisoner of Christ Jesus.
As a prisoner of Christ Jesus, Paul was committed to the person and mission of Jesus. In Romans 6:19 Paul describes how we’re all captive slaves to something,
“ Forgive me for using casual language to compensate for your natural weakness of human understanding. I want to be perfectly clear. In the same way you gave your bodily members away as slaves to corrupt and lawless living and found yourselves deeper in your unruly lives, now devote your members as slaves to right and reconciled lives so you will find yourselves deeper in holy living.” (VOICE)
By calling himself a “prisoner of Christ Jesus” Paul references his status as a disciple of Christ. With that in mind the next phrase challenges our generally accepted understanding of salvation.
Paul is a prisoner of Christ, a disciple of Christ, a follower of Jesus, for the sake of you Gentiles.
We might not describe ourselves as followers of Jesus for the sake of ME. But when escaping hell is our primary reason for accepting God’s salvation, then it really is all about me.
The problem here is not that I need forgiveness. There’s nothing wrong with preferring to spend eternity with God than without God. The difficulty arises when our primary reason for relationship with God revolves around my well-being.
This naturally brings us to the vital question, “For whose sake are you a prisoner of Christ Jesus?” “Who benefits from you being a Christian?
Jesus lived his life for the benefit of others. Paul lived his life for the benefit of others.
- Who do we live to benefit?
- Who does our church exist to bless?
- Who notices our faith?
- Who would miss God’s presence if we weren’t present?
Too often it seems Christians feel like prisoners of Christ, trapped in a list of wrongs and right. How that picture changes when we’re prisoners of Christ Jesus for the sake of our neighbors.
Simplicity is a popular topic in some circles nowadays. We live in a culture driven by consumerism and materialism. We are swimming in a sea of accumulation, and it has not led us to be happier or more satisfied with life. We are beginning to see a pendulum shift with the rise of minimalism. Since we have discovered obtaining things is not the key to a meaningful life, some people are ready to try simplicity.
Simplicity sounds like a viable alternative to the cluttered and busy life many of us know too well. The turn towards minimalism is a welcome trend in our culture since it is more in line with the teachings of Jesus. However, the biblical teaching on simplicity is not just about what one owns or where one lives. Simplicity must begin from within. Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:21) Our desires begin in the heart. If a person is going to simplify their life, then they must desire less. The way to do this is to focus on the heart.
One of the most well-known passages concerning simplicity is Matthew 6:25-34. This section is marked by the word “anxious” found in verses 25 and 34. In verse 25 Jesus commands, “do not be anxious about your life” and in verse 34 he commands, “do not be anxious about tomorrow.” This entire passage is about trusting in God to provide. God feeds the birds. He clothes the lilies. If he does these things, then he will certainly make sure his followers are clothed and fed as well. The argument continues to build until in verses 32-33 Jesus contrasts the way the world lives with how Christians are supposed to live. People who live by a worldly standard seek after worldly things. They seek after money, possessions, and power. Followers of Jesus are expected to desire the kingdom of God rather than material possessions and wealth. Christians are called to live a simple life with God at the center.
In Matthew 6 Jesus talks about food and clothing. He speaks to his followers about simplifying their outward life, but we must remember this all began with a statement about what the heart desires (Matt. 6:21). You cannot change what you are doing on the outside without first changing what is going on inside of you. This is made evident in Philippians 4:6-7:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Paul uses the language of Jesus. He gives a similar command to the ones Jesus gave in Matthew 6:25, 34. The difference here is that Paul is speaking of inward things rather than outward things. He is instructing Christians regarding an inward peace that God provides those who are following the path of Jesus. When a follower of God commits to not being anxious or being overwhelmed with worry and instead turns to God in prayer and thankfulness, then they are filled with “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.”
The right desires, inner peace, not being anxious, and prayer are all inward things that lead us to a life of simplicity. Our outward life is directly tied to our inward life. A life of simplicity is not just about owning less stuff. It is about desiring the right things and trusting in a God who will not disappoint.
Scott Elliott is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and Austin Graduate School of Theology. He lives in La Grange, TX and is the minister for the La Grange Church of Christ. He is married and has two sons. He enjoys writing about the Christian faith and posting the occasional film review. His articles and reviews have appeared in RELEVANT magazine, Englewood Review of Books, and other publications. He also blogs regularly at https://start2finish.org/category/resurrected-living/
As part of our Summer Blog Tour you can win a copy of Tim Archer’s newly released book and accompanying workbook Church Inside Out by leaving a comment on this page and then completing the form over HERE.
I’m grateful to share Brandon Fredenburg’s contribution to our Summer Blog Tour. Brandon is a thoughtful writer who shares resources and perspectives that I usually overlook.
As part of our Summer Blog Tour you can win a copy of Tim Archer’s newly released book and accompanying workbook Church Inside Out by leaving a comment on this page and then completing the form over HERE.
I’m afraid the title is more ambitious than my few paragraphs offer. To make my task more manageable, I offer a few idea-starters about the gospel as taught by Jesus, Paul, and the early church bishop, Athanasius.
The gospel Jesus taught
In contrast to Matthew’s and Mark’s summary of Jesus’s “gospel of God” (Mark 1:14), Luke 4:18–19 depicts Jesus preaching selectively from Isaiah 61:1–2:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
He has anointed me
to evangelize the poor.
He has sent me
to declare liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free the broke(n) with a full release,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (my translation).
When Jesus omits “and the day of our God’s vengeance” (Isa 61:2b) and rehearses God’s blessing of a foreign widow and an enemy general, he turns the gospel of God his hearers expect inside out. “He isn’t just our God and he blesses our enemies,” Jesus reveals. Their reaction, like their “God,” is one of deadly vengeance.
Perhaps this is why Jesus begins his evangelizing with the word “repent.” Apparently, even John the Baptist missed it, as Matthew 11:1–15 makes clear. Jesus says those who even barely grasp his message have far greater insight than John. John’s gospel of violent, fiery judgment, it seems, put him at odds with Jesus’s view of the nature of the kingdom of the heavens. “Repent,” then, as Jesus uses it, retains its core meaning of “shift your paradigm” with reference to God and God’s kingdom. For John, repentance focused on the personal sacrifices required for holiness; for Jesus, repentance kept its eyes on the merciful nature of God toward all persons (Exod. 34:5–7; Jonah 4:2b). “For I delight in mercy but not sacrifice; and in knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6, my translation).
Jesus’s gospel is about his Father and his Father’s nature. The Father’s nature was so misunderstood, Jesus claims no one but he knows the Father (Matt. 11:27). He then immediately invites those wearied and burdened by compromised gospels of God to come to him for rest, to take on the easy, restful yoke of learning as a disciple of his gentle humility and light burden. “No one knows the Father except the Son”: not John the Baptist, not the Pharisees or the scribes, not Moses or Elijah, not Jesus’s disciples, no one except he … and his post-resurrection disciples. The Father is known rightly and fully only through his Son (Heb. 1:1–3b).
The gospel Paul taught
In 2 Cor. 5:14, Paul claims that Christ’s death universally incorporates humanity. In his death, all died. When this insight becomes clear, a whole new world comes into focus. Paul knows this from his own experience: before he embraced it, he viewed Jesus as a renegade false prophet whose death was just. Once the scales fell from Saul’s eyes, he saw the new creation. He no longer saw through Adam’s blind, fearful, ashamed, sin-focused eyes. Jesus Messiah incarnated into the old, blinded, fearful, ashamed, sin-wracked Adamic humanity, embraced it and us fully and carried it and us into Death. And by God’s own unilateral act of cosmic justice, Jesus (and it and us) were raised to newness.
Paul makes a parallel point in Ephesians 2, but goes farther. In 2:1–3, Paul sets the cosmic stage: we were all dead in our sins, naturally characterized by impulsive anger, like the rest of humanity. The “we” in 2:1–3 is undoubtedly all Adamic humanity. “But,” Paul contrasts, “God, being rich in mercy, because of his abundant love with which he loved us — even while we were dead in our sins — co-enlivened us with Christ: you are rescued by [God’s] favor!” Not only did we all die with Christ, God raised us all up and seated us all with Christ. This rescue from Death is anchored in God’s favor, accomplished by God’s faithfulness, given as unconditional gift, and integral to God’s (new) creation-act.
Paul extends Jesus’s gospel to include Jesus’s cooperation with the Father in rescuing Adamic humanity from its errant view of God and the self-caused alienation “in our own minds” (Col 1:21). The rescue for all humanity has been a fait accompli since Jesus’s resurrection. The message of what God has done in Christ is proclaimed so that, by awakening to its truth, all persons can dwell in the present blessings of the new creation.
The gospel Athanasius taught
Just as Paul authoritatively interpreted Jesus’s gospel in scripture, Athanasius’s views both reflected and influenced the understanding of the early church (ca. 200–400). In contrast, Augustine’s perspectives (post-400) dominated the Latin church and, through it, the Reformers and most of contemporary Evangelicalism.
In his On the Incarnation of the Word, Athanasius explains that humanity, brought to life out of nothing, maintained life by keeping a clear knowledge of God’s nature (i.e., the Logos) within them. Humanity’s existence depended on an uncompromised trust and dependence on God. Once the devil deceived humanity into mistrust, humanity cut itself off from its source of life and knowledge. Thus, by degrees, humanity not only lost its ability for clear reason, it began to disintegrate into physical death and, beyond that, into the corruption of utter nothingness; that is, into Death. Return to nothingness was not a God-imposed punishment, but a God-warned natural consequence of cutting our own umbilical cord.
It was both intolerable to and unworthy of God that he would do nothing to rescue those created in his own likeness, especially because they had been tricked by falsehood, and because a neglect to rescue them would demonstrate weakness. Thus, a rescue by the Logos that had created humanity was needed. The incarnated Logos fully incorporated all humanity into his own body, joining corruptible to incorruptible, and sacrificed himself (and us in him) to death to settle Death’s claim. Since Christ is the incorruptible Logos, Death could not contain him. By Christ’s death, Death died. Because we died his death and he ours, physical death is no punishment and Death-as-annihilation is no possibility. Moreover, once Death died, Christ then offered himself (and us in him) to the Father, who raised him as firstfruits and will raise us-in-him at the final resurrection.
The Gospel inside out
The gospel of God is not an invitation. It has no steps for us to climb to seek and gain God’s favor. It is not an offer that, by accepting, we activate its benefits. No, the gospel is far greater.
The gospel is the astounding declaration that, despite having gotten God all wrong in our thinking, having mischaracterized, misrepresented, maligned, mistreated, and had malice toward him, God has never been against us. To be sure, God has been against all our fearful, ignorant, misguided, vengeful characterizations of him and their effects, but he has endured them to be with us so that we might truly glimpse him and repent. He did not leave the glimpses to chance, but manifested himself entirely in the Lord Jesus Christ and the new creation life in which we participate. The basis of the gospel has always been God’s compassionate nature toward all creation; its benefits have always been active for all persons, but its enjoyment is possible only to those whose eyes see. Repent, and believe the gospel of God!
Peace and all good to all, always.
Brandon L. Fredenburg is a professor of Biblical Studies and assistant dean for the College of Biblical Studies and Behavioral Sciences at Lubbock Christian University. He lives, ministers, and teaches in Lubbock, Texas.
Today’s guest post is by Jennifer Rundlett. I appreciate Jennifer’s writing because it is so very different from mine. She encourages me to approach Scripture in different ways. You’ll find that this post is a meditation more than a factual argument. To get the most out of it, read it slowly and allow your mind to travel through time as Jennifer guides us to a remote hillside many years ago.
Don’t forget to leave a comment on this page and complete the entry form HERE to win a copy of the newly released book and workbook Church Inside Out.
Questioning authenticity ~ historical accuracy ~ contextual studies ~ foundational truths…these were the watchwords of my youth.
And there too, how many times had I practiced making statements that disqualified my faith? Statements such as:
“We can’t really know the actual day of Jesus’ birth.”
- “There must have been a logical explanation for the star that led the wise men to see the baby Jesus.”
- “Since we have no recorded image of Jesus, we can’t know what he truly looked like…”
Which then led me to other kinds of statements such as:
- “Of course, I don’t really believe that God created the world in a literal 7 days.”
- “Perhaps there was a logical explanation for all those miracles Jesus performed.”
And even when I suspended my skeptical ways to believe all the accounts of the Bible…the angel’s visitation…Jesus’ virgin birth…
I would hear myself saying:
- “That was then and this is now and those are stories of a by gone time.”
However, at some point I realized that these kinds of statements were not cultivating my inner eye of faith. These statements did not develop in me the fruits of the Spirit such as love, joy, peace, patience and kindness. Instead they produced in me the fruits of skepticism ~ scoffing ~ cynicism. As a result my personal dreams became small and my inner fire extinguished.
Recently, my imagination was captured as I gazed at these pictures of The Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes that sits on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee near Capernaum, in a place called Tabgha, Israel.
This beautiful stone church boasts the actual spot Jesus performed his miraculous feeding of the 5000 with only a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. This event was so iconic in the ministry of Jesus and resonated so deeply with the Jewish people, that it has been recorded in all 4 of the gospel accounts of his life. (Matthew 15: 29-39, Mark 6:35-44, Luke 9: 10-17, John 6: 5-13)
It amazes me to see these people living by faith and celebrating this as the actual spot where Jesus performed his miracle of abundance. (You can read a description of a Spanish pilgrim from 380 A.D. by clicking here.)
Letting my mind wonder, it was easy for me to imagine how this spot might have been preserved through the centuries.
Knowing this, I began to postulate on how important this stone might have become to each passing generation. Thinking on them, I can see how this stone must have invited them to gather and to partake of the communion feast. United by their faith, the many would become one, as they dedicated their lives to God and asked for him to, bless and multiply their offerings to represent his glory throughout the world.
If I stop and silence all the voices inside my head teaching me to be logical and distrust these kinds of things…
If I step out of my comfort zone and grab hold of the thought that maybe it is true…
I can also begin to imagine what it was like for those people who traveled a great distance to sit on a hillside to see with their own eyes the miracles of Jesus. I can then become curious about their individual lives. Who were these people and how were they changed as they witnessed Jesus’ miracle? Why did they leave the comfort of their lives to seek and to hear the voice of Jesus? And if I resolve to bring the scene even closer… I might even begin to imagine myself sitting among them?
These are the kinds of spiritual exercises that can help me to grow in my faith and when I take time to do this, I am led by the Spirit to say with strengthening conviction that God is all powerful and that Jesus became human and dwelt among us performing many great signs and wonders while teaching us how to live transformed lives.
Yes! Jesus died and was buried and on the third day he rose again!!
And because I have allowed my mind to travel back and experience his miracle of abundance, I understand with a deepening faith that these things happened in a real time a place.
This week as you think about your own impossible… let your experience of this miracle fill your heart and let Jesus feed your inner eye of faith with his Spirit so you might live and shine his light outward into your community.
Jennifer Rundlett, M.M. is founder of God thru the Arts ministry and author of My Dancing Day: Reflections of the Incarnation in Art and Music. From over 15 years of college classroom experience, she has crafted an inspirational reflective approach to the arts that has inspired her classes as she shares her vision of the loving nature of God. Jennifer blogs regularly at https://jrundlett.wordpress.com/
Now with her new book The Joyful Sound: Reflections on the Life of Christ in Art and Music, she has carefully chosen and arranged over 20 celebrated masterpieces that invite you to encounter Jesus more fully. Through these spiritual exercises you will walk among the first disciples and hear your voice join with the chorus to make a joyful sound. As a special thank you for reading this blog when you follow that link please feel free to use the insider promotional code SWG5K64H. Thank you!
You know the story. The parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15 is one of the most well known Biblical stories. It’s a simple story of redemption as a son leaves home but returns after frittering away his inheritance. The story captures our imagination because of the father’s response. The father asks no questions and welcomes the son home with a community banquet. The son receives grace, acceptance, forgiveness, and love when he’s done nothing to deserve it.
I’ve heard it suggested that we should more accurately title this story “The Parable of the Prodigal Father”. You see, the word ‘prodigal’ describes someone who is ‘extravagantly wasteful or lavishly generous’. The word emphasises adjectives like: reckless, extravagant, and lavish. While the son in the story recklessly blew through his inheritance, the father lavished him with grace and forgiveness.
As I read the story this time I noticed that the father in the story always loved the son. Even when the son thought he’d be better off without his father, the father granted him the freedom to pursue his own path. The father allowed himself to be vulnerable, susceptible to the pain of rejection. Although rejected by the son, he never returned insult for insult. His love was constant.
The story ends as the son celebrates his return. He celebrates restored relationships. He celebrates forgiveness. He celebrates safety. He celebrates acceptance. He celebrates a second chance. He celebrates…
The difference was not that the father now loved the son more. The son celebrates because he now appreciates the father’s love. He experienced grace. He felt the embrace of acceptance and value. It will take him time to fully grasp the depth of his father’s love, but he now lives a new life within his father’s embrace.
When I view the resurrection through this lens it reminds me that God always gives us the freedom to reject him. I’m reminded that Jesus death was necessary because I walked away from God. I don’t quite understand that equation, but I do understand that it communicates God’s love and forgiveness for me. As I examine the empty tomb I realise the prodigal grace that he’s “wasting” on me.
Perhaps the resurrection’s greatest revelation is not that God loves me, but that I begin to appreciate what it means to be loved by God.
So I celebrate. I celebrate God’s love. I celebrate God’s power. I celebrate God’s victory. I celebrate the grace and mercy God extends to me. I celebrate the hope I have to join Jesus eternally in his new life. I celebrate being accepted. I celebrate restored relationship and the forgiveness that makes it possible. I celebrate…
…and I hope you do too. My prayer for you today is that you may experience the wonders of life within the embrace of God.
This past Sunday the church celebrated Palm Sunday. This day is important as it marks the beginning of the final week of Jesus’ life. This week is often called Holy Week and concludes with the celebration of Easter next Sunday. You can read the description of Jesus’ entrance HERE.
I struggle to make a lot of sense out of Palm Sunday. (See last year’s blog post HERE.) On the one hand it seems like an attention-getting charade that Jesus organizes to check off another item on the list of Messianic prophecies. On the other hand perhaps Jesus organized it to placate the crowd but suffers through it as he knows the reality of his imminent death rather than coronation.
This year my perspective on the celebration focused upon victory.
Palm branches being waved at a procession would immediately symbolise to Greeks, Romans and Jews that a king or important official was present. However, not every governor entering Jerusalem would be greeted this way. The most likely scenario for a branch-waving, celebratory parade would be when a king or general had won a great battle and was returning to his home base. The branches waving and the coats on the ground honor the victorious ruler.
Ironically, while the crowd greets Jesus as a victorious Messiah, there actually is no victory at this point. In less than a week he’ll be dead. The celebration and palm waving are premature and nothing but hollow flattery.
In hindsight we recognise that though the timing of the celebration was off, and the crowd’s vision of a earthly messiah was misguided, the praise and description of Jesus was appropriate. In hindsight we acknowledge that Jesus is a victorious king. His victory was sealed through his death and resurrection, and he reigns right now at the right hand of God.
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”… But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:54, 57
I had never noticed it before but this year my attention was drawn to Revelation 7:9-10. In this passage we find a joyful scene of worship and celebration around the throne of God. As the elders worship we see that they’re holding palm branches.
The glimpse of glory and victory that we see on Palm Sunday is fully portrayed here in Revelation as Palm Eternity. 2 Corinthians 2:14 describes the ministry and ascension of Jesus as a “triumphal procession”. We live as participants in his triumphant celebration. At the same time heaven rejoices, waving palm branches before Jesus, the victorious king.
Just as the Jerusalem crowds cried out, “Hosanna” which vaguely means “God saves”, in heaven the multitude praises the Lamb saying, “Salvation belongs to our God.” Seeing Jesus for who he truly is leads to worship.
Jesus is victorious over sin and death. In the process he saves from the consequences of our own sinfulness. So we respond by crying out, “Hosanna! ” Praise to our God who saves! May we join the worshiping multitudes at the throne of the Lamb celebrating Palm Eternity.
I have regrets. I’m not immune to errors in judgement. I’ve made mistakes.
Even worse, I’ve done things wrong that weren’t mistakes. They were deliberate words and actions that I knew were wrong and I did them anyway.
I’ve accomplished things. There are things in my life that make me proud. Degrees I’ve gained. Friends I’ve kept. Family I’ve loved. Trophies for this and that. Not perfect, but proud.
When I look back on my life, some days I see the warts. Sometimes I see smiles.
The problem when my regrets fill the horizon is that I don’t look back far enough. I only look at my life. My disappointments. My hurts and pain over the last 40 years. If only I would look further into the past. 2000 years further…
When I look deeper into the past I see Jesus. I’m reminded that as he wept in the Garden of Gethsemane he looked 2000+ years into the future. He saw my shortcomings. He knew I’d disappoint him and others. He knew that at times I’d choose to ignore him. Knowing all this he still took the actions necessary to forgive me. He died for my benefit. He welcomed me into his family.
The attitude that I bring with me today often reflects how far I look into the past. Can I look backwards past my regrets just as Jesus looked forward past them? Can I look back far enough to see Jesus, or will I allow my regrets to block that view? Will I move through today with the baggage of yesterday or the freedom given me by Christ?
Each January I lead the Lawson Rd Church of Christ through a process of reflection and projection that we call Vision Sunday.
When we reflect on the past year there are always things we wish we’d done differently. Situations that we could have handled better. People we could have loved more. How we view the past has a big influence on the future. We can criticise it. We can become discouraged by it. We can learn from it. We can be motivated by it. Or we can focus on the places God’s hand is obvious and praise him.
Today is Martin Luther King Day in the US of A. We face the same process and the same choices. MLK Day prompts us to spend time looking both backwards and forwards. When we do so…
- We can criticise Dr King for his shortcomings.
- We can criticise the day.
- We can be discouraged by aspects of the past or the lack of progress of the past 50 years.
- We can continue to learn from the civil rights movement.
- We can be motivated to continue the work of those who’ve gone before us.
- Or we can look for God’s hand in our history and praise him.
I am firmly in the camp of the last three. Dr King’s vision of equality and love for all neighbors comes from the pages of Scripture and the heart of God. We’re not there yet, which means we all still have roles to play in standing against discrimination and racism. Don’t just read this and do nothing. I encourage you to take a moment and write down something you can do to encourage racial harmony.
How we look at the past, individually, as a church, or as a society, will influence the way we view and live the future. As individuals we must believe that we can make a difference. As a society we must admit the wrongs of our past and work to right them. As Christians, we acknowledge our regrets, but move forward in the power of Christ, filled with hope while working for a better tomorrow.
The psalms provide a wonderful example for using the past to motivate the present as we move into the future. They contain many examples of praising God for past faithfulness that inspires confidence in His future faithfulness. Yesterday during worship we read the first few verses of Psalm 21 and I’ve copied them here for your encouragement.
The king is glad because You, O Eternal, are strong.
In light of Your salvation, he is singing Your name.
You have given him all he could wish for.
After hearing his prayer, You withheld nothing.
True blessings You lavished upon the king;
a crown of precious gold You placed upon his head.
His prayer was to live fully. You responded with even more—
a never-ending life to enjoy.
With Your help, his fame and glory have grown;
You raise him high and cover him in majesty.
You shower him with blessings that last forever;
he finds joy in knowing Your presence and loving You.
For the king puts his trust in the Eternal,
so he will not be shaken
because of the persistent love of the Most High God.
Isaiah 40 sits at an important junction in the book. From this point the prophet transitions from warning Judah of impending judgement and begins reassuring God’s people that He’ll deliver them from captivity. The very first words of the chapter change the tone as they declare, “Comfort, comfort for my people, says your God.”
Then in verses 3-5 we find a passage better known for being applied years later to John the Baptiser. (Mt. 3:3, Mk. 1:3, Jn 1:23)
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the LORD;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
At first glance it appears that God commands His people to get busy building a road for Him to travel upon. The instruction actually serves as a figure of speech. At the heart of this passage God lets His people know that nothing can stand between Him and them. The highway figuratively illustrates that God will take a direct route to His people, wherever they are. That provides comfort for a suffering nation.
Hundreds of years later when people asked John the Baptiser, “Who are you?” John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘make straight the way for the Lord.'” (John 1:22-23)
Consistent with the Jewish interpretative tradition of the day, John has searched the Scripture and found a text that describes his mission. John takes what was initially a figurative illustration and adopts it as a literal agenda for his life mission.
- Demanding repentance and a new way of life
- Urging justice for the poor, oppressed and suffering
- Calling for baptism
- He promises forgiveness of sins.
- He anticipates the restoration of Israel.
- He precedes the Messiah.
But John isn’t the end of the story. Jesus fulfills the remainder of Isaiah’s thought. If John prepared the way for Jesus, Jesus prepares the way for us.
Jesus goes before us. Jesus ultimately goes to the cross for us. He makes a way for us in the wilderness. A way through guilt to forgiveness. A way through condemnation to grace. A way through sin to holiness. A way through this world to eternity.
Jesus makes a way for us to God.
As you would expect with a prophet named “John the Baptiser”, his call to repentance included a call to baptism. Jesus didn’t need repentance, but he chose to be baptised by John. As we follow Jesus into the waters of baptism like him we also:
- mark a point of surrender to God. In baptism we also accept the mission God has for us.
- encounter God the Father and received the Holy Spirit. We too are anointed. When we are baptized, God says over us, “This is my child whom I love. I am delighted with you!”
- identify with sinners. Jesus chose to identify himself WITH sinners. He didn’t become human to stand on the banks of our fallenness and hurt. He jumped right in and lived with us. In our baptism we identify ourselves AS sinners in need of forgiveness. And so, John’s message of salvation and forgiveness is pertinent for us also. We accept God’s forgiveness while living sinful lives among other sinners.
Through Jesus, God makes a way for us.
You and I are not the end of the story. God has a made a way for us to receive His salvation. Now He will use us to prepare the way for someone else. In this mission we can again learn from John the Baptiser. In Luke 7 John hasn’t seen the results of Jesus’ ministry that he expected, so, from jail, he sends his disciples to double check with Jesus that he really is the Messiah. As people preparing the way, we will often find ourselves second guessing our efforts. Where’s the fruit? Am I really being effective? Is God working through my efforts? Because our preferred timing is seldom the same as God’s timing.
Keep going. Don’t give up. Jesus told John, “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” Don’t become preoccupied with results, just fulfill the mission God gives you.
As Jesus prepares the way to the Father for you, you participate in His mission preparing the way for others.
**BONUS: And because Isaiah brings to mind several songs… here are some videos I found:
The last few verses of the chapter contains the wonderful imagery of God giving strength to the weary so that they soar like eagles. This picture has inspired many songs.
Disappointment is an experience that every one faces … and often in many varieties and shades. Sometimes disappointment comes at the hands of others, and sometimes we create it all on our own.
You know, that weight you were going to lose by now. The degree you were going to earn has somehow eluded you. The order you were hoping to establish in your daily routine escapes in the trap of too many late nights and way too early mornings. The books you wanted to write that once started remain unfinished. The commitment to write for someone else that has found you looking at an empty document, fingers stalled on the keyboard. The preacher who thought he would have been able to lead his church to greater heights.
Oh, excuse me… didn’t mean to spill MY disappointments in myself all over the place. But I bet I’m in good company.
“Life is a long preparation for something that never happens.” ~W.B. Yeats
Age has a way of sneaking up on us. Health issues slow us down when we thought before that we could be active any time we wanted to. Like the addict who swears he has no problems, we blind ourselves to reality until one day when the stark reality of who we are doesn’t leave us any way out. We realize that all the things we thought we might be, well, they aren’t likely to happen.
After the crucifixion of Jesus some disciples grappled with their own disappointment. As they tried to sift through the information … he died … the women said they saw an angel who said he was alive … but we haven’t seen him … he must be dead.
“But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” ~ Cleopas and another Discouraged Disciple on the road to Emmaus.
How can there be any power in a disappointing story? You get to the end of the book only to find out the main character has died. Powerful? Not really. You watch all the episodes of a show that has you hooked, but in the end they just ruined the whole thing. Disappointment. Well, we may not be able to rescue fictional works that turn sour in the end, but your life is different. It’s nonfiction, no matter how crazy the details. Disappointments – great or small – can actually turn out to be a pretty powerful experience.
Sometimes out of the rubble of disappointment is a new reality you couldn’t have designed or pictured if you tried.
“Thankfully, our disappointments matter to God, and He has a way of taking even some of the bitterest moments we go through and making them into something of great significance in our life. It’s hard to understand it at the time. Not one of us wants that thread when it is being woven in. Not one of us says, ‘I can hardly wait to see where this is going to fit.’ We all say at that moment, ‘This is not the pattern I want.” ~Ravi Zacharias, The Grand Weaver
When Jesus revealed himself to the disappointed disciples on the road to Emmaus, new light was given to their faith.
Luke 24:32-33 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
Instead of continuing toward Emmaus they went to Jerusalem to join the other formerly disappointed but now ecstatic disciples.
Maybe your disappointments seem irreversible. Divorce. Financial ruin. Accused. Arrested. Abandoned. Abused. Mourning the loss of a person or even a pet … disappointment is one gut-punch we don’t just walk away from.
The one thing that never disappoints us is hope. Hope that is certain of what lies ahead. While our knowledge of God’s promises is secure, the road that we travel between here and there can be rugged. The reason hope never disappoints us is that we carry it with us through the dark streets of shame and uncertainty.
When God saved you He poured hope into your heart. Not just a little, but filled your heart up because He knew that there were going to be some real struggles along the way. If you’re disappointed, just clear out all the troubling thoughts and focus intently here:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. ~ Romans 5:1-5
If you didn’t feel some disappointment lift, read it again. See the friendship with God expressed there? The assurances just pour out of this passage.
We are justified by faith.
We have peace with God through Jesus.
We have access to grace in which we stand.
We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
We … boast … in … our … sufferings (disappointing, isn’t it, that sufferings have to enter into this passage).
People who suffer endure. Character is produced. Hope, the kind that can never disappoint us, has been given to us. Because God loves us. All in the face of suffering.
So, dear friend, when you’ve felt the pangs of disappointment, remember that your story isn’t finished yet. The hopes you had might be eclipsed by a more glorious plan that God has for you – even when it’s hard to understand.
Here’s a Prayer for the Disappointed
God so often my eyes are clouded and I can’t see the Powerful Risen Savior because the ‘facts’ of the day are staring me in my face. I am disappointed because I thought maybe You would provide for me in a different way. But in faith I affirm that You know much more about my tomorrows than I do. I know you’ll walk with me through days of glory and days of gloom. Would you bring healing and serenity to my hurting heart today? I don’t have to know all the answers. I just want to know You more. Father please remind me of the power of a disappointing story and how Your hope never disappoints. This hope, found only in your son Jesus, my Brother. Amen.