Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Christmas Greeting

We are now just hours away from celebrating one of the most joyous announcements the world has ever heard - "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:10-11). I shared with my congregation last Sunday, as we examined this carol of Christmas, God did not send to the world an advisor. The world had more than enough advisers. Neither did God send the world a reformer; reformation had been tried - the list included Joash, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, Josiah, Nehemiah and Ezra - but was only short-lived. No, what the world needed was a Savior - someone who could bring lost mankind back into a relationship with a holy and loving God.

Amid the din of those times, only a few listened to this glorious announcement. A few shepherds heard and risked their very careers by leaving their flocks unattended as they hurried to worship the Savior who lay in a manger. And a few magi (wise men) risked their very lives as they traveled hundreds of miles to come and worship the Savior and to share gifts with Him. Simeon and Anna, two elderly saints, heard and offered their final praises to God upon seeing the Savior.

Sadly the majority of the world failed to listen to the message. Herod sought to protect his throne. The Pharisees sought to protect their religion. And the common folk sought to protect their ignorance.

This Christmas Season the response to the announcement that the angels shared with a terrified group of shepherds has not changed. The majority of the world continues to pay little heed. Many seek to protect their religious rites and rituals. Others seek to protect their careers and livelihood. Multitudes seek the protection of their ignorance. In fact, the battle cry is whether to call December 25 and this season of the year "Christmas" or just a "holiday." Schools no longer have "Christmas programs;" if they have any program at all it is a "winter program." Clerks in stores are fearful of losing their employment if they dared to respond with a "Merry Christmas" to a customer. It is as if the world cries out, "Let's have Christmas but without Christ." If Christ be taken out of Christmas what remains? December 25 becomes just another day. Christ is so much more than Christmas, but Christmas finds its significance only in the person of Jesus Christ.

Through the years of time since that first Christmas a few have heard the message and have hurried to the manger as did the shepherds. For them to know Christ is to experience Christmas. I trust that you have come to know Jesus Christ as your Savior. If you have not, then I invite you to accept the gift He came to give - the salvation from your sins and acceptance into the family of God. Then you will experience what Christmas truly is: Jesus Christ.

We do not know what 2012 holds for us - many say the world will end in 2012; but I am prepared if it should, are you? The world will continue teetering on the edge of the abyss; there will be more wars and rumors of wars; there will be more unusual weather patterns impacting millions around the globe; the financial markets will continue riding the roller coaster of highs and lows. But, friends, behind each event will be the hand of God directing each act toward His intended climax - the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, our King.

Marlys and I want to wish you and your families a very Merry Christmas and a blessed beginning to the New Year.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Message of True Peace

The message of the angelic choir to the shepherds guarding their flocks on the hillsides outside of Bethlehem that very first Christmas Eve was this: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests" (Luke 2:14). This may be one of the most misunderstood statements in all of the gospel accounts.

Many have interpreted this statement to mean that Jesus came to bring peace on earth. Certainly this was what the Jews had hoped would happen. If only the presence of Rome could be expunged from their land real peace would come. Others reasoned that if the power of the Roman tax collectors could be eliminated, then there would be financial peace. And still others hoped that there might be relief from the oppressive legalistic practices the Pharisees had imposed upon the people, all in the name of a "loving" God.

Did Jesus Christ come to bring peace to the world? If one examines the historical evidence, the answer is a most assured "no!" Even Jesus Himself died at the hands of violent Roman executioners. Within three decades of His death, the Roman armies destroyed the city of Jerusalem and its temple and sent tens of thousands of Jews to either their death or to slavery. And, how many wars have there been since then? How many people have been killed in those wars? The answer would be countless millions. Peace - hardly!

What about those who cried out for relief from the oppressive legalistic practices of the religion of the day? It seems that the rules became more oppressive, especially after the temple with its ritual sacrifices was destroyed. Peace - hardly!

No much has changed in our world of the twenty-first century. Once again the world teeters on the brink of war. Reports this week included the news that the Syrians have armed 600 missiles with chemical warheads. The Iranians have announced that they will conduct war games in the Persian Gulf and will close the Straits of Hormuz to all shipping. Sectarian violence continues in many parts of the world. Even within our own country we have seen thousands take to the streets, often using violence, to voice their strong disapproval for the widening gap between the "haves and the have-nots." Peace in our time - hardly likely!

So, what was the message of the angelic choir that night? Let's reread the carol: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." Earthly peace - no! Religious peace - no! A restored relationship with God - absolutely! Jesus Christ came as a savior, not as a king. He came to change the hearts of men, not to change the circumstances of men. He came to do that which mankind could not do for themselves. He came so that, those who would believe in Him, might know the peace of God. That they might know that the condemnation of an angry God was removed forever. Paul expressed it this way: "Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1).

Will the world ever experience the peace that its seeks? Yes, that will occur when Jesus Christ returns to claim His throne. Then He shall be known as the Prince of Peace. But until that day, we celebrate this Advent Season the wonderful news of the peace we can have with God. May we not take this gift lightly.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Christmas: Its a Miracle

We are now half way through the Advent Season. All around us are the trappings of Christmas - brightly lit trees gleam in the darkness of the cold winter evenings, bells ring beside red Salvation Army kettles informing us that many will be without a Christmas unless we respond, and everywhere people are rushing too and fro looking for that "perfect" gift. For those of us who live in the northern climes, the ground has its first dusting of snow and the temperatures have plunged to the near-zero range. It certainly begins to feel like Christmas.

But what is Christmas? This is the season of the year that rings so hollow for many. Psychologists inform us that December ranks among the highest months of the year for suicides. Depression grips the hearts of countless others. Where is the joy? Where is the peace? Are we missing something?

I believe the answer is "yes, we are!" We are missing Jesus. We get so caught up in all that happens at the Christmas Season that we forget the reason why we celebrate Christmas in the first place. Without Jesus, guess what?; there would be no Christmas. If there is no incarnation, there is no reason to light the trees, ring the bells, or shop for that "perfect" gift. Without the incarnation, the line from C. S. Lewis' "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" rings true: "It is always winter and never Christmas!"

I know it is not Christmas just yet, but I would like to share my favorite Christmas verse with you. We live in a world that is daily filled with news that, at times, turns our stomach and causes our blood to boil. But let me share some good news. "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). Friends, this is perhaps the greatest text on the incarnation of Jesus we have in the Bible. But, in order to more fully understand it, we need to go back to the very first verse of John: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." You got that? Hard to comprehend, isn't it? The first two parts are easy to understand: fact #1 - there was the Word in the beginning; fact #2 - this Word was alongside of God. But it is that third fact - the Word was not only equal with God, but was in fact God - that really causes our minds to spin.

Then John shares that this Word - who was God - became flesh; He became a man. God became a man. Not just a man, but a baby! I have often wondered what Joseph thought as he cradled the baby Jesus in his arms, knowing that he held the God of the universe. But now that God needed to be fed. He needed to have His diapers changed. He probably cried when hungry, perhaps keeping Joseph and Mary from sleep. God became a baby! Can you fully imagine that thought? The One who spoke the worlds into existence now needed to learn how to speak. The One who had crafted everything with His almighty hands now learned how to sharpen a saw-blade and to drive a nail. Amazing, isn't it?

But there was a reason for this incarnation. It was not just so God could experience what it was like to be a man. No, God took upon Himself flesh as the only way in which to reach a lost mankind with His love. He had tried the impersonal way through sacrifices and regulations, but those had failed. Now He came to show love with the greatest demonstration coming at the cross.

Yes, without Christ there is no Christmas. It is sad that for many this is a holiday, but it is not Christmas!