Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Christmas Memories

There is an old Christmas song that begins with these amazing words: "It's the most wonderful time of the year."  Truly those words echo within the hearts of many this Christmas Season.  This is the season when scenes of "Christmases long ago" come rushing back into our memories.  This is my first Christmas without my Mom.  The other day I just sat and enjoyed remembering those Christmas scenes when I was a boy.  My Mom loved to bake at Christmastime.  She made dozens of cookies - more than one variety.  She made pounds of candy - her burnt-sugar fudge would literally melt in your mouth.  My Dad's job was to crack all the pecans and walnuts Mom would use in her baking and candy-making.  He also led the charge in the peanut shelling.  I was never very good at cracking a pecan without destroying the nutmeat, but I could shell peanuts.  My siblings and I often had a contest to see who could shell the most peanuts.

Christmas morning would find us off to Yulatta at 6:00 a.m.  You know, we did not even mind getting up early for that service.  The air was crisp, the snow would crunch when you walked on it.  There was a quietness and yet brilliance in the Christmas-night sky.  With joy we would sing "Joy to the World, the Lord is come" and "O, Come All Ye Faithful."  Then, just as the sun was beginning to peak over the horizon, we would hurry home.  Breakfast was always served before the presents would arrive.  Mom always had a Swedish cinnamon-pecan tea-ring that she served, drizzled with powdered-sugar frosting and decorated with red and green maraschino cherry pieces.  A favorite treat were those gigantic Christmas oranges - there would be one beside each place setting.  It was a breakfast that I always treasure.  Then, after the dishes were done - no, we had no dishwasher to put them into - we all had to pitch in - then we gathered around the tree for the presents.  I loved Christmas mornings.  And, to be honest, I still miss an early Christmas morning worship service. 

As I thought of many Christmas memories, I was reminded of a verse within the Luke Advent story that brought special meaning.  Luke writes these words of Mary: "But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19).  We like to imagine what the scene there in Bethlehem that night looked like.  To be perfectly honest, we have a lot more questions than answers.  Were there animals in that cave?  How many shepherds came?  Did they bring sheep with them?  What kind of a child-birthing experience did Mary have?   What was going through Joseph's mind as tried to comfort and encourage Mary as she delivered her first child?  But, whatever happened that night, Luke tells us that "Mary treasured all those things and pondered them in her heart."  I am confident that every year, around the time of Jesus's birthday, Mary would sit and remember that night.  The story of the angelic visitation and of their anthem as shared by the shepherds brought joy.  She would remember the kindness of Joseph and the smile that crossed his face as he delivered the Son of God. 

Perhaps Mary pondered deeply a truth that still mystifies us today.  That little baby she had just delivered and was now nursing at her breast; that little baby who then was quietly laid within a manger-bed and whose soft breaths gave a signal of peace; that little baby was God Himself!  She had had the opportunity to ponder that mystery for the preceding nine-months.  Yet, even as she saw the fruit of that amazing pregnancy lying there before her, there was still a mystery that surrounded it. 

Friends, have you taken time this Christmas Season to have your mind stirred with the memories of Christmases in the past?  But, more importantly, have you taken the time to just ponder the mystery of the Incarnation?  I am drawn to those mystifying words from the Apostle John: "But the Word (and John has identified Who that Word is with his opening statement - "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God") became flesh and lived among us" (John 1:14).  The Creator of the universe became part of His creation.  The powerful El Shaddai became a helpless little baby.  The One who rained down fire from heaven at a prophet's command, now cries out to His mother for life-sustaining nourishment.  The One who called Himself the "Great I AM" now has a body with a beginning and an ending. 

Friends, that is the mystery of the Incarnation.  That child whose birthday we celebrate on Monday, is the Son of God.  And there was only one purpose for His coming - to provide the way of salvation for sinful men and women, young men and young women, and boys and girls.  I trust you have received that amazing gift that Jesus came to give. 

This will be the final blog for 2017.  Taking some time next week to spend with our family.  So, I want to wish you and your families a very Joyous and Merry Christmas and a Blessed start to the New Year. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A Reading Wish-List for Christmas

Christmas is less than two weeks away.  This weekend is our annual Living Nativity which has been hosted by our church family for many years.  It comes complete with camels, a cow, a donkey, some goats, and, this year, some chickens.  There will be some Roman soldiers who will announce that taxes are due to the Emperor.  Shepherds and wise men will roam the hallways sharing their stories with any who will stop to listen.  And all will be directed toward the stable where Joseph and Mary tenderly care for their little baby boy.  This year we have added a main street to our Bethlehem, featuring a woodworking shop, the office of a scribe, and a food vendor offering the delicacies of the First Century.  Last year we had over 1500 people visit Bethlehem and experience in a new way the real reason for Christmas.  Here is my invitation to any of you living near Buffalo, MN: Come and join us this Saturday or Sunday evening.  The Living Nativity is open from 5:00-7:00 p.m.   The cookies will be home-made and the chocolate and coffee will be hot.

It seems that about this time every year I share with you some of the books that I have read and highly recommend.  The winter months are great times to sit near a warm fire with a cup of hot cider and enjoy a good book.  This past year the Church has celebrated the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation.  Several biographies of Martin Luther were published.  Eric Metaxas has written an outstanding biography of this Augustinian monk who dedicated his life to helping people understand that salvation does not come through any efforts of their own.  It comes only through faith.  Metaxas's book is titled, Martin Luther.  I found the book to be a fascinating read.  The author, at times, seeks to enter into the very mind of his subject to better understand why he did what he did.  What I also appreciated about this book was the careful descriptions of those men who influenced Luther and were in turn influenced by Luther.  For example, I was unaware that Luther never personally met the Elector Frederick who was responsible for Luther obtaining a position of teaching at the new university in Wittenberg and who protected Luther when the Church turned against him.  And, of course, Metaxas does an excellent job of helping us to enter into the marriage of Luther and his Katie.  What a remarkable woman she truly was.  Not only will this book help you to better understand the life of this remarkable man, but it will also give you insights into the culture of the sixteenth century.  If you were to read only one book about Luther, this is the book I would highly recommend.

A second book that is recommended is titled, Killing England.  This is the seventh book in the "Killing" series written by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard.  Over the past several years, I have devoted more of my private reading to better understanding the American Revolutionary times.   I have discovered that there is a complexity about that era that truly defines it.  In this book, which I must admit I had a difficult time putting down, the authors portray the ebb and flow of the Revolutionary War.  Although the book does not purport to be written from an evangelical or even Christian perspective, the authors do point out those moments when Someone stepped in just when defeat seemed inevitable.  As with all of the books in the "Killing" series, this book is well foot-noted for further referencing. 

There is one other book that I highly recommend.  It was written by Jim Putman and is titled, Real-Life Discipleship: Building Churches That Make Disciples.  The Adult Ministries Pastor here at our church introduced many of us to this book.  You know we spend a lot of time in our churches talking about being a disciple-making church.  But what does that look like?  How does a church make disciples who, then in turn, make disciples for Jesus Christ?  This book begins that discussion.  There is a 30-week training process that accompanies this book.  I have been privileged to be part of that training process this year.  We are near the half-way point.  It has been refreshing to relate with two other men in my triad on a weekly basis.  We are asking ourselves first, what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus, and then, how can we help others to become disciples.  Discipleship is not a lecture that can be attended, or a course that one can graduate from.  Discipleship flows from an intentional relationship, based upon truth, that I have with someone else.  I have to admit that this book, and the accompanying training, has opened my eyes to see discipleship in a whole new light.  I strongly recommend it for a small group that really wants to see God do something through their lives. 

So, if you are still wondering what to put on your Christmas list, perhaps one of these books might be recommended.  Reading will stretch your minds and also challenge your hearts. 

May God bless you as you prepare your hearts for our Savior's birthday.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Jerusalem: It's Time to Recognize It As Israel's Capital

The world woke up this morning to startling headlines: President Trump is going to declare that Jerusalem is the undisputed capital of Israel and that the United States is planning to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  The announcement is scheduled for today.

Already nations in the Middle East have sounded the alarm.  Hamas has declared Friday to be a "day of rage" following Friday services at the mosques.  They are even advocating violence as part of the demonstrations against this decision.  The president of Turkey has indicated that if President Trump follows through with this declaration that it is a "red line" within the Muslim world.  Other Middle Eastern nations have made similar statements, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  Thoughts have ranged from violence on the streets, to demonstrations in front of American embassies, to the total collapse of any further peace-talks between Israel and the Palestinians. 

Of course the sides are divided.  In an article written by Loveday Morris and Ruth Eglash from the Washington Post, and published on December 2 in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, several leaders within the Palestinian and Israeli communities were asked about the impact such a decision would have upon the relationships between Israel and the Palestinians.  Gais Abdul Karim, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, when asked about the impact of a Trump declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, said, "This would be even more problematic, as this would involve direct recognition of the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem.  It would also be recognition of the illegal Israeli move to announce Jerusalem as a capital."  He went on to say, "The U.S. will lose its status as a broker and declare itself as an ally to Israel.  It will be a complete catastrophe and perhaps a final end to the attempts by the U.S. administration to start a process."

When asked the same question, Nachman Shai, a member of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, responded: "Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and we want it to be internationally recognized.  When Israel was declared in 1948, some world countries did recognize Jerusalem, and they even had their consulates and embassies here.  But after the 1967 war, some of them moved, and later, following each crisis, even more left.  I understand the issue with territories, but Jerusalem will always be Israel's capital.  And what does it really mean if the embassy is in Jerusalem?  Why should it not be in Jerusalem?  I think every country in the world would expect foreign embassies to be in their capital." 

These are just two differing opinions.  Since its declaration as an independent state on May 14, 1948, the center of Israeli government has been in Jerusalem.  I have driven by the Knesset many times.  The Knesset is the equivalent of our Congress.  Nearby are the offices of the various departments of Israeli government.  The residence of the Prime Minister is located in Jerusalem.  When foreign dignitaries come to Israel, those meetings are held in Jerusalem. 

Yes, for nineteen years - 1948 to 1967 - Jerusalem was a divided city.  East Jerusalem was Arab, while West Jerusalem, where the government was seated, was Jewish.  Jerusalem became an united city following the close of the 1967 Six Day War.  At that time Jewish leaders declared that Jerusalem would never again be a divided city.  And it has not been, although in the eyes of many around the world, there still is that line of demarcation that exists.  One can travel freely today from East Jerusalem into West Jerusalem.  They are no check points.  To the pilgrim visiting Jerusalem, it is one large growing city. 

And yet tensions run high between those living in East Jerusalem from the rest of Jerusalemites.  Just a little spark can set off a massive emotional explosion.  Will this declaration by President Trump today be that little spark?  One can only hope that it is not!  The moving of the embassy will take several years, but this declaration will begin that process.  Here is what is often overlooked in this matter of the embassy in Israel: Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama all declared that they would move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  Friends, Congress authorized the funding of such a move decades ago, but it has just been a matter of talk.  Here is where President Trump is different.  He follows through on what he says he will do, and the world is beginning to recognize that he is not your traditional political talking head.  And this is what makes them nervous.  It is what makes leaders in Congress nervous. 

During the campaign, Candidate Trump declared that, if he became President, he would move the embassy of the United States from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  Now, it seems that promise is one step closer to being fulfilled.

Friends, you need to remember that Jerusalem's history is not yet completed.  We know that someday - and hopefully very soon - Jesus Christ will reign from David's throne there in Jerusalem.  At that time every nation in the world will come to Jerusalem to worship God and to pay homage to King Jesus.  Jerusalem is still to experience some terrible days of suffering before King Jesus comes, but it will survive. 

I always tell my congregation and students, keep your eyes focused upon Jerusalem for that is where all history will climax.  That is the intentions of our God.  Let me close with these words from the Prophet Ezekiel: "This is what the Sovereign LORD says: 'This is Jerusalem, which I have set in the center of the nations, with countries all around her" (Ezekiel 5:5).