Unto Us a Child Is Born!

child-is-born-738347“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned…For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.” (Isaiah 2, 9.6a)

As we come upon the Christmas season, we are called to recognize and live in its joy even in spite of all the darkness around. In fact, the truth of Christmas is the only thing that can guide us to joy in the midst of the darkness. And of course, that is the point of Christmas.

I was reminded of this recently as we sat in anticipation of a phone call. We have been awaiting a call from my older sister and her husband that “a child has been born.” She was due Tuesday, Nov. 21. This was an anticipation that had been long in coming and not just because of the nine months of pregnancy. In my family, life has been abundant. Within about ten years, we’ve been blessed with eleven new children amongst four families. Gatherings are filled with life, with noise, with joy. Since then though, the light of new life has been overshadowed by the darkness of death. A string of miscarriages have been the recent storyline. The excitement of good news was dashed by the somber reality of unrealized hopes.

We were ready for the good news of life, that to us a child had been born. On Monday night, the phone rang. I saw it was my dad on the caller id. I anticipated a call of good news. He didn’t have any. He was calling to tell me that one of brother’s co-workers, a dear friend and mentor to him, had a heart attack and died at work. He was in his fifties. My brother had tried to revive him by CPR to no avail. He left behind a wife and children. The other day I received news that a close friend of mine in her forties had received a dark diagnosis about her cancer battle. The cancer was spreading relentlessly. They give her three months to live. The shadow has loomed at our church here as well as recent deaths leave empty chairs, ends to life-long conversations, and grief that is hard to bear. Why does death seem to have control? Why is its shadow so ominous? As those walking in darkness, we needed to see a great light. As the Lord promises, “weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Psalm 30.5).

Monday night my dad called with news of weeping. But just about an hour ago, on this Tuesday morning as I write this, a phone call came. On the other end, my sister gave the good news of the morning, “to us a child is born, to us a son is given.” Micah was here, 9 lbs 1 oz. A Hebrew name, Micah translates as a question, “Who is like the LORD?” As we come upon Christmas, we must rejoice in this. Who else is like the LORD, who gave us his very Son, the Light of the world, who would conquer death and break forevermore the shadow of death? As we face the darkness this Christmas, let us rejoice that in Jesus Christ the light has come. “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you” (Isaiah 60.1-2).

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Joining the Party of Heaven

cross rejoiceI love the stories that Jesus tells about the lost things, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. Found in Luke 15, they are familiar to us and we, for the most part, understand what they are about. But in one way, we still struggle to truly get them.

One key piece of all of these stories is the response to the lost thing getting found. In all three instances, we witness rejoicing. The shepherd who finds his lost sheep invites his friends to come and celebrate with him. The woman invites her friends to come celebrate with her after finding her lost coin. What is striking about these stories is the further information that Jesus gives us. Not only is rejoicing happening on earth when lost things are found, so too is this what the angels rejoice about. They rejoice about a sinner getting saved.

In the first two parables, the lost sheep and the lost coin, we assume that the invited friends came and celebrated. We’re not told that, but the story seems to end with the understanding that this happened. So, you have a group of people rejoicing over the finding of an animal and a treasure. But when we come to the third story, we are challenged. The end of the lost son story does involve rejoicing. A party is held by the father whose son has returned. But in this story, it doesn’t end with a statement about the angels in heaven rejoicing over one sinner who repents. The first two stories were analogies to get us liking the idea of lost stuff being found and hearing that when sinners are found, we are rejoicing with heaven.

The problem with the story of the lost son is that we have an actual case where a lost sinner is found, where we can expect to have the same formula. This is not a story about a sheep or a coin. This is an actual human being who comes back. We should see rejoicing in both earth and heaven. We see rejoicing happen, but the bit about heaven is left out and the focus is turned to someone on earth who doesn’t want to join the party. The faithful older brother of the lost son thinks he’s gotten a raw deal. He doesn’t want to rejoice. He’d rather have the father rejoice over his faithfulness, over what he wants to rejoice in. And even with the father’s pleading, this story ends with the feeling that the older brother doesn’t go in. It’s easy to rejoice with heaven when we’re thinking of a lost sheep or coin. It’s harder when heaven rejoices over an actual sinner who comes back, who might infringe on our territory, who might take up our attention, who might change our preferences a bit. Then, as Jesus tells it, we might not be as quick to stand up and rejoice with heaven.

I think we begin to truly understand these texts when we learn to rejoice like heaven. Too often, we rejoice and celebrate the wrong things and we might even be ho-hum about what heaven rejoices about—sinners coming to life in Christ.  The question becomes, are we rejoicing with heaven or standing outside the party wanting the attention of our needs and our wants? Heaven desires to teach us its joy, the joy of sinners coming to repentance.

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Driven to Our Knees

prayer-on-my-knees4A couple weeks ago, I was on my way to our denominational Prayer Summit in Los Angeles. I started out early Monday morning as I made my way up to Grand Rapids for my 8:30 am flight. As I drove to the east at about 7 am, the clouds were far enough above the horizon to allow the sun to show its beauty as it rose. The horizon was filled with its orange and red brilliance. It was awe-inspiring. As I turned north, with the sunrise to the east, I looked to the west and was surprised to witness a double rainbow. This beautiful scene turned me to consider once again the power and goodness of our God. It served as a powerful opening to my trip and it would come back to mind later as I read Ezekiel 1.25-28. In this text, Ezekiel describes an encounter with God’s glory that in certain ways was similar to what I saw Monday morning, including an image of brilliant fire and the glory of a rainbow. Needless to say, I sensed God’s presence in a powerful way as I traveled to the Prayer Summit.

In prayer, we are drawn into fellowship with the God who has done mighty things to save us and assure us an eternal future. As we reflect on God’s nature, his love, his grace, and his promises, we come in prayer to give thanks. As I observed the beautiful scene before me that Monday morning, I was drawn to prayerful praise.

After some hours, I finally made it into LA and checked into my hotel. I had a few hours before the conference started, so I relaxed a bit and decided to turn on the TV. What I saw was carnage. Almost every station was covering the Boston bombing that had taken place earlier that day while I was in flight. For a while I was glued to the television. In events like these, our hearts are turned toward the suffering. Our hearts long for relief and healing. Our hearts long for justice. Our hearts long for all this ugliness to just be done.

As I reflect on it now, it was quite a contrast—my morning sunrise scene and the gruesome scene in Boston. But as I think of it all, this contrast isn’t unique. It is there every day. Perhaps it is not always as obvious of a contrast, but it is there. It is in this stark contrast, this tension, that the Christian lives and finds the need to pray. On the one hand, we come in prayer for the amazing grace of God to save us and to promise us the coming kingdom in all its beauty. On the other hand, we come in prayer for the awful reality of sin that still plagues our world, our communities, and our bodies. We pray to give thanks and we pray to cry out for help in our time of need.

If we are honest and engaged with the world, with our bodies, and with those around us, this stark contrast is constantly present. We live in tension—in praise for God’s eternal gift through Christ and in crying out as sin ravages our world, our communities, and our bodies. If we are to live powerfully in this tension, it is prayer that will give us this power. Prayer fills this tension with the comfort and the power of the Holy Spirit to steer us to true hope.

Blessings

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Good Friday Drama: White as Snow

532733_465497666853529_366235305_nI wrote this for our Good Friday service. Inspired by an idea one of our worship planners had from Zechariah 3, we witness Satan as the accuser of a child of God at the judgment seat where God presides. In this, we are reminded once again that “though our sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”

The scene begins with Satan  leading a man before God’s throne. The man is bound and dressed in a robe that is stained with splotches of red. The dialogue is between Satan and God as the man simply stands in silence awaiting his judgment.

God: Satan, you come again to accuse. Who do you bring before me today?

Satan: I bring another wretched sinner. His name is of no consequence.

God: Tell me his name. It is of great consequence to me. He is my creation.

Satan: If you know him, why must I say his name?

God: You must acknowledge the uniqueness and beauty of what I have made. I demand

         that you acknowledge his name, a creature made in my image.

Satan: Matthew. I bring before you Matthew. (pause)

           In your great knowledge, you know I speak no lie before you.

           You call him a creation of uniqueness and beauty, yet this creature before you is a

           repulsive criminal. You may call him Matthew. I call ‘em like I see ‘em. He’s just like

           all the rest, another human dripping with selfishness, lust, hatred, deceit, envy, and

           pride.

          The only uniqueness in him is how he’s learned to sin so creatively,

               the secrets he’s kept,

               the sinful shadows in which he’s hidden,

               the subtle acts of revenge he’s rendered,

               the selfish manipulations played to get his way.

           As the evidence will show, and I have plenty, he is guilty. Guilty.

           In your infinite wisdom and holiness, no other verdict will be possible.

God:    Matthew, you come alone. Is there no one offering a defense on your behalf?

Satan: Who would give defense? His friends? His family? Any human for that matter?

            How could their words be trusted? They are as guilty as he. Their mouths would

            only speak ignorant lies.

          They sound petty in their judgments. Didn’t you hear their foolish babble at his

          funeral? They speak such niceties. I’m surprised they couldn’t hear me laughing at

          their tall tales. I’ll admit, to the casual observer, he was better than many. He had a

          certain shallow righteousness about himself, but you and I know better, and you

          better than I.

          For every good thing that could be said about him, I have ten or more things to tell

          on the other side.

God:    So, he has no defense?

Satan: As I’ve already pointed out, no legitimate defense is available – and it wouldn’t do

           him any good. This isn’t a court of public opinion, is it, one based on their easy

           standards? Isn’t this your court, the court of the most holy and righteous God?

           What did you tell your people? “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.”

           If that’s the standard, who dare stand before you and give defense?

           Guilty is the only plea to enter. He’s guilty!

God:    Guilty is his plea? So, he acknowledges his guilt?

Satan: All of it. He offers no excuses, no explanations, no justifications for his miserable

            life. It is piled high with sin. Where should I even start?

            From what category would you like to start – his actions, his thoughts, his

            omissions?

           From what commandment would you like to start – the first, the fifth, the sixth, the

           tenth?

          Where should I start?

God:    I think we should start by acknowledging the truth.

Satan: That’s what I’m doing, speaking the truth. Bearing light upon the darkness of his

           soul. Letting you see the truth.

God:    Do not speak your lies to me. You, a messenger of light? I don’t need you to see the

            truth. I am the light that gives vision. Your desire is to make people blind, to darken

            their eyes. You desire to consume lives, to enslave them to your eternal darkness.

            You were a murderer from the beginning and you do not stand in the truth,

               because there is no truth in you.

            You only speak lies, because you are the father of lies.

Satan: Do I not speak the truth about his guilt?

God:    You speak what is advantageous to your destructive ways.

            He acknowledges his guilt, so you seek to destroy him with it.

            For the one who pleads not guilty, you encourage their sense of innocence so they

           will see no need to repent.

           It is all a ploy, a deceitful and manipulative ploy to destroy and to keep my creatures

           and me apart.

Satan: But in my defense, do I not speak truth about his guilt?

God:    You do not speak truth about me – of who I am, of what I have done.

Satan: Are his sins not apparent to you? Are you blinded by your own light?

            His sins are like scarlet? He is stained with sin. He is not clean.

God:    Though Matthew’s sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.

            I am the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger,

            abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands,

            and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.

Satan: He is guilty. He belongs to me.

God:    No, he belongs to me! He’s my creation. And in my Son’s sacrifice, he is my

           recreation.

Satan: Don’t bring him into it.

God:    We must. He is the light of the world that shines in the darkness. He is the way, the

           truth, and the life that exposes the lies that you tell.

           You say you speak truth, but you speak nothing of my Son who is truth incarnate.

           Satan, leave this courtroom.

Satan: But his guilt.

God:    His guilt has been taken away. Leave my presence!

                (Satan, with stern resignation, gathers his papers, pounds them on the lectern

                and  walks out, leaving Matthew standing before his Creator).

         Matthew, though your sins were like scarlet, in my Son they are white as snow.

         Though you come before me with stained garments of sin and shame,

         I’m here to clothe you with my Son’s garment of righteousness.

             (At this point, God stands up and places the cross between the judge’s bench and

             where Matthew stands. The cross has upon it a white garment. After setting the

             cross down, he comes to Matthew, takes off his stained garment and switches it

             with the white garment representing Jesus’ righteousness. The stained garment is

             placed on the cross and the white garment is placed on Matthew).

        Matthew, through faith in my Son, you too have become my child.

        I love you.

                (God embraces Matthew and they walk out together).552309_465498023520160_869440679_n

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Not Losing Heart

resurrectiontodor-mitrovicWhat does it mean to live with Easter power within us? As we celebrate the foundation of our faith, Jesus’ resurrection, we’re told that “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you” (Romans 8.11). The Apostle Paul says further that “if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness” and that God “will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you” (Romans 8.10-11). These are bold life-affirming statements that call us to engage the power we have been given to live this life for God’s glory through eternal hope.

As Christ’s resurrection was a bold victory over death, so are we called to live boldly against death in resurrection power. This is a daily struggle though for we still must wrestle with the power of death in different ways. It is definitely hard to live boldly when it seems like death has the upper hand. We do suffer in our bodies. We do face temptations. We do face trials of all kinds. We do face dry times in our faith where it seems like God’s power is absent. The question becomes, do we allow the power of death to define us, or the power of resurrection?

Before his death and resurrection, Jesus, at different times, would tell his disciples what was going to happen to him. One time is recorded in Matthew 17.22-23. Jesus tells them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” It is perhaps easier for us to grasp Jesus’ statement since we live after the events Jesus predicts here, but the disciples struggled to grasp what Jesus was telling them. Jesus does talk about his death, which is vital to redemption, but he closes his statement with talk of triumphant resurrection. Though there is bad news in death, it leads to greater news in restored life. But as Matthew records, the disciples stopped listening after Jesus talked about being killed. Matthew records the disciples’ response quite succinctly, “And the disciples were filled with grief.” To the attentive reader, this response should give us whiplash. We might object to the disciples’ reaction, “Why are you grieving over Jesus’ proclamation of resurrection?” We must concede though that the disciples were unable at the time to imagine death’s defeat in this way. They hear Jesus’ death as the end of the story.

In certain ways, we’re tempted to let the power of death be the end of our story too, or at least to put up the white flag in this life and simply wait for our future resurrection. Even as those raised with Christ through the Spirit’s presence, we see the power of death threaten and we grieve like the disciples. We fail to remember the life-transforming resurrection power within us. We stop listening, allowing death’s belittling of us to define us. We let sickness define us. We let addictions mock us for our weakness. We let temptations shame us into worthlessness. We let doubt slow us rather than assurance drive us. We let indifference hold sway in our hearts because what real difference can we make anyway. We allow the power of death to be the last word. This is not what living in the resurrection is.

No, we are called to a bold life that stares the powers of death in the face and says, “You won’t win because you’ve already been defeated by my Savior and Lord. You don’t define me. Jesus defines me and I am a person saved, forgiven, held secure in heaven above, and loved as a child of God.” To be a child of the resurrection is to turn from Satan’s taunts of control and declare the bold freedom of living in Christ who has conquered death.

With all this said, it doesn’t mean we won’t face all the things of hardship in this life. We’ll still face sickness. We’ll still face trials. We’ll still struggle with temptation. We’ll still face the fury of evil. Paul acknowledges this as he encourages us, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (II Corinthians 4.8-10). As we face these things, we’ll have a different strength to confront them. We go forth not on our own strength, but upon the same strength and power that raised Jesus from the dead.And further, with all this said, it doesn’t mean our bold living in the face of death’s power will look the same for all of us. It will depend on the time or the situation and will change with time or situation. For some, resurrection power will bring a triumphant and boisterous joy. For others, resurrection power will give a steady perseverance to move forward in courage. For others, resurrection power might simply give strength to see God’s blessings in the midst of deep sadness. For others, it will simply keep them from going over the edge of despair and give them courage to take one life-affirming step forward. The key thing is not to fit a mold of Christian expression, but to engage God’s molding of you in Christ—in his death and his resurrection.

The key is this – to not allow the power of sin and death to define us and defeat us. We are children of God, those risen in Christ and those with the same Spirit within us that raised Christ from the dead. In that truth, we hear Paul’s word of encouragement, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (II Corinthians 4.16).

As those in Christ, we must always have resurrection perspective. No matter what threats the darkness brings, the light of Christ has already triumphed. It is supreme. No matter how ominous the dark clouds of death might look, they have no power over us to define us. All they can do is scare us a bit. This is when we need to be reminded by Paul again, “you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Romans 8.15-17).

Christ Is Risen! He Is Risen Indeed!

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The Blessed Reminder of the Snow

It’s not supposed to be snImageowing anymore, but it is. The flurries continue to bring fury into our thoughts. “Just warm up already!” we think as we walk again into the cold and frigid wilderness. It’s not that we expect last year’s 75 degrees, but 28 degrees? It was 14 degrees last night! It’s Easter next week. Opening day of baseball follows a day after. We’re planning a sunrise service for Easter. We might have to stay inside. The Tigers open in Minnesota. I’m sure they’re lamenting that the Metrodome isn’t still being utilized. Needless to say, we’re all anxious to get on with things, to at least top out at 50 degrees and have April showers, of rain that is. We want to see the daffodils pop and the robins return.

Yet as I watched the snow fall last night a reminder came to my mind, a Lenten reminder. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1.18). In my anxiety for life to burst forth, the snow reminded me of what is needed in our hearts before any true life can blossom. We need a cleansing. We need to be made white like snow.

The relevance of this ties nicely as well with our Lenten series, My Brother’s Keeper. We opened Lent by exploring Genesis 4, one of the darkest chapters in the Bible, where Cain murders his brother Abel out of envious hate. As God questions Cain, he responds with frigid indifference, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God responds with words that should haunt us as a human race, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”

His blood cried then. How much more blood has cried since then? How much is crying today? Oh, do we need a cleansing. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” Bring the snow. Bring the beauty. Cleanse the soil of blood spilt. Cleanse our soul of hatred, of indifference, of the lust for violence. Though our sins are like scarlet, make them white as snow, make them disappear in righteousness.

This brings us to the cross, another bloody affair. The sons of Cain kill the Son of God. This merely fits a tragic pattern of the human search for peace. As Jesus comes to enter Jerusalem and face his enemies, he stops to look over the city and he weeps. “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19.42). Since the beginning, the search for peace in the human heart has included the spilling of blood. Cain began the pattern. Individuals, families, tribes, kingdoms, empires, and nations have continued it. Paul quotes Isaiah 59.7-8 in summarizing humanity, “Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.” Not a glorious picture of humanity, but why spread a false myth of human self-glory. That only has proven to bring more shedding of blood, whether through murder, conquest, or our culture’s boldness in thinking it has the right to judge whether a child is worthy to see the light of their first day.

What will bring peace? What will transform scarlet to white? The answer is Jesus’ blood. Because the only future that God saw for humanity was the pattern of Cain, Jesus came to shed his own innocent blood for redemption. He reversed the course of hatred and vengeance with the path of love and forgiveness. “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.”

“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.” God bless the snow, even on the second day of spring. If it can teach us what Jesus has done for us and remind us of the new life we have, let it snow. It can even snow on Easter! And we won’t even need the flowers because we’ll be those who are blossoming for the world to bring them the beauty and fragrance of God’s love and grace.

Blessed Lent.

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Ahead of the Times

jesus-to-the-thief-on-the-cross1A vocal and continuous criticism of the church in our day, and most likely throughout the centuries, is its lack of relevance to contemporary life. It is commonly assumed by many that in significant ways the church is “behind the times.” While in certain ways this may be true, in the most significant matters it seems that this accusation is leveled by those who merely don’t like what the church says on certain matters. This is the case especially in matters of morality and reliance upon a Savior who two-thousand years ago was crucified on a Roman cross. Of what relevance does a violent death two-thousand years ago have on us in these civilized and progressive times? Indeed we have advanced, but we must ask the question as to what end we are advancing – toward a life-filled paradise or a death-filled wilderness?

When one encounters the criticism of the church being “behind the times,” it usually comes out of a disputed definition of what “paradise” is. Our culture has bought wholesale that “paradise” is defined by us, not God. Indeed, the Bible’s definition of paradise, as that of living in full fellowship with God and in full obedience to him on his terms, is in conflict with our view. Many might like the idea of living with a god in paradise, but it is on our terms, and this god becomes obedient to us rather than vice versa.

This struggle over paradise is not new. It is the tragic human story. The lie that Adam and Eve bought was that they could be with the times and that God was behind the times. They sought progress and advancement in their knowledge and experience – a greater paradise. Instead they inherited the wilderness.

So, in response to the criticisms of the church being “behind the times,” the church with boldness and humility responds, “We are a people ahead of the times.” This bold claim is not made from our own strength, as if this is an even-matched arm wrestling with the opposition. It is made from our weakness and reliance upon our crucified, risen, and ascended Lord – Jesus Christ, who has overcome the world.

The church boldly proclaims that Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen one, is reigning over the world as King of kings and Lord of lords. This claim seems outlandish to many in our culture and especially irrelevant to the self-defined paradises that are sought. As Richard John Neuhaus writes in his wonderful book Death on a Friday Afternoon,

“In the world and in our hearts, his sovereignty will continue to be disputed. We are a people who say now, who say ahead of time, what one day will be said by all. The Church, the community of faith, is the people ahead of time” (p. 39).

We speak and proclaim what has been promised, the promise that Jesus speaks to all sinners who believe, the words he spoke to the thief on the cross beside him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” But this is God’s paradise that he gifts to us, not our self-defined paradises that we assume God would be glad to enter.

The church proclaims what has been promised and it progresses through faith, “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11.1). As Neuhaus says further, “It is by faith that we follow this disputed sovereign, this crucified king who speaks of paradise when all we see is paradise lost” (p. 39).

Blessed Lent to you.

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