Come, Let Us Adore Him!

I wanted to cap off this week of Christmas carols with this line from “O, Come, All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles)”


Oh, come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,
Oh, come ye, oh, come ye, to Bethlehem.
Come and behold Him, born the King of angels;

Refrain:
Oh, come, let us adore Him, oh, come, let us adore Him,
Oh, come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.


Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation;
Oh, sing, all ye citizens of heav’n above!
Glory to God, all glory in the highest;


Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to Thee be all glory giv’n;
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing;

O Come, All Ye Faithful– Words by John F. Wade (Latin); translation by Frederick Oakeley.
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The words of this hymn sum up an important pattern running through this week’s group of song lyrics. Worship, praise, obedience, wonder, joy– all come by way of invitation. Christmas compels us, not by force of law, or a show of superior power, but by beauty, generosity, humility, and Love. God gives the invitation; He draws close to the lowly and the broken-hearted; He dispels the darkness with starlight, and breaks through the silence with angelic choirs; He cries quietly from a borrowed stable. Shepherds leave their flocks to see him, Magi travel with treasures to worship him– but the rest of the world passes by, unaware and untouched. As this child grows, he continues to issue invitations– “Come unto me, you who are weary, and I will give you rest!” “Whosoever believes in me shall have everlasting life.” “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry. (John 6:35 a)” Jesus didn’t use threats and judgment to attract angry followers. In fact, when he spoke harsh truth, the religious and political leaders of the day plotted to kill him– and he knew of their plans but did nothing to stop them! Those who followed Jesus did so because he asked.

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It is the same for us today. The invitation still exists– it is still valid. It is possible to ignore Jesus, to say, “No;” even to deny Him. Christmas is not a command. It is a communion. The wonder of Christmas– the miracle– is that God has not ignored us or denied us; He has not bound us in chains and forced our obedience or our worship; He has not abandoned us to the darkness. He reached out, He pursued us, wooed us, sharing our burdens and our woes, and promising us fullness of life and joy– IF we will accept the invitation.

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Let us come. Let us worship and adore Him. Let no tongue on Earth be silent or sullen. Let nothing keep us in dismay and fear. Let our hearts prepare to receive this matchless gift of Grace. Let all that is within us praise His Holy Name!

Let us celebrate!

All Creation Sings His Praise

Tigers and turtles; flamingos and fleas; whales and warthogs; skinks and skunks; rocks and rosebuds; Eskimos and Ecuadorians–God’s world is filled with variety.  Chirping birds and thundering herds; roaring seas and buzzing bees.  Colors, sounds, smells, and sensations– we are surrounded by glimpses of glory, echoes of eternity, and hints of Heaven.

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Often, we take for granted the beauty of God’s creation– we don’t stop seeing it, we just stop marveling at it.  Instead of drinking it in, we drown it out.  We criticize, analyze, and theorize…why did God make rats?  how does He exist outside of time?  when will He change the seasons this year (will we have spring?  how long will winter last)?  what is the purpose of dust?  why are some animals (or rocks or plants) colorful, or noisy, or deadly, or smelly, or slow?   And we miss the forest for the trees– we get caught up in the amazing details and infinite variety in creation, and miss the majesty of the creator– His sense of the ridiculous in things like tumbleweeds and walking sticks, dust devils and platypuses, or His artistry in butterfly wings, dew on spiderwebs, and cascading waterfalls– in geodes and dimples and mewling kittens.  We miss the elegant design in a bees knees, or galaxies, or a banyan tree.

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God creates– it is an element of His character.  And we are made in His image– we long to create.  From drafting sentences to making a pie to shaping a piece of wood into something sturdy and useful– we long to produce, to concoct, to cause growth, to heal, to nurture, and to effect change.  We are also created with a deep appreciation of creation– the wisdom and the work it takes to set planets spinning, and ecosystems cooperating, and to unfold a new sunrise every morning.

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If you haven’t already, take a few minutes asking God to open your eyes and ears to the song and dance of creation today–from dandelions to darting dragonflies to the amazing variety of people dodging traffic or making conversation around you.  Join in!

Praying to Win

Have you ever watched a sporting event–a real nail-biter–and prayed for your team to win?  Do you wonder if God is concerned about Little League or High School Basketball, or which team wins the Superbowl?  And what about the parents and coaches on both teams praying to him–one side has to “lose”–how does God answer such prayers?  DOES he answer such prayers?

While the Bible doesn’t give us a specific answer, I think there are some general principles that apply.  When teams prepare for a big game, they may talk about their desire to win, they may study their opponents, assess their own strengths and weaknesses, and give themselves pep-talks about winning, but they don’t practice winning– they practice playing their best, improving those areas where they are weakest, and working to bring their best on game day.  They don’t pray to win by default or by bad sportsmanship.

The apostle Paul uses athletic analogies for the Christian life– he talks about running the good race, fighting the good fight, and working to be worthy of the prize.  But he doesn’t direct Christians to pray that God gives us a victory.  Instead, he points out that the greatest victory– that over sin and death– has already been won!  We don’t fight the battles wondering if our victory or loss will turn the tide of the war.  We fight in the hope of strengthening our fellow warriors and bringing our victorious Savior more glory and honor.

This holds true in other areas as well.  In politics, we fight to win, but not in desperation or despair, knowing that if we lose this battle, God is not defeated or even surprised by the outcome.  Even in situations of corruption, despotism, and chaos, God can raise up leaders, topple evil powers, and bring renewal and revival.  In war, we fight to win, we fight to defend what we know to be right; but even if we lose the battles, we don’t lose faith.

God doesn’t always give us “wins.”  He doesn’t guarantee that we will never face setbacks or disappointments.  In fact, sometimes we need to “lose.”  We need to lose our selfish ambition, our pride, our drive to compare ourselves with others, our envy and greed, and our failure to submit to God’s best plan.

We pray for victory, but more than victory at any cost, we pray for God’s will to be victorious– for his strength to be shown even in and through our own weakness.  We pray for victory on God’s terms– which may mean a painful loss today, and grieving for the night, but joy that comes in the morning.  Great teams, great nations, great leaders– are not forged in continuous expectation of easy victory.  Sometimes we learn more and become greater by learning from our failures.

Let’s not just pray to win– let’s pray to be more than conquerors (Romans 8:37)!

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Surprise!

The world is full of surprises– some good, some bad.  Open your mailbox on any given day, or walk down the street…you are bound to see something unexpected.  You may get a bill you forgot about, or run into an old friend.  There are surprises in the weather patterns, in traffic patterns, in relationships, in jobs, all around our houses and neighborhoods, in world events.  Some are shocking, some delightful, and any of them can change our days or even our lives.

We like pleasant surprises; we fear the unpleasant ones.  But most of us don’t pray for them.  We pray for miracles–healing and rescue and transformation–pleasant outcomes that we hope for or imagine.  We pray for ease and comfort, or wisdom and strength to face the bad times.  But we don’t ask God to surprise us.

Why don’t I ask God to awe me?  Dazzle me?  Surprise me?  Sometimes I fear that he might surprise me with what my past actions deserve.  More often, I simply want to stay in the comfort and simplicity of what I already know.  I don’t want to be delighted; I just want to be entertained.

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One thing I know, but I need to be reminded:  God does not give bad surprises.  He does not send ANYTHING into my life that can’t be used for my good and his glory.  The world will send tragedy and I will have to face the consequences of Sin– mine and others’.  I may be unfairly treated at work; I may be struck by a drunk driver and paralyzed.  I may face difficult losses, and inexplicable circumstances.  And the mistake is to see these as “surprises” from God.  God never promised a pain-free, problem-free life in this world, but he surprises us with the kind of gifts that overcome and even confound our tragic circumstances– the power to forgive, to be joyful, to have peace, and share love.

John 16:33 English Standard Version (ESV)

33 I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Matthew 7:9-11 New International Version (NIV)

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

The road ahead is full of surprises–that’s a great reason to pray.  God loves to surprise us with good things– that’s another great reason to pray for them!

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The Empty Cross

The most common symbol of the Christian religion is the cross.  And, while many statues and necklaces and artistic renderings include a dying Christ figure , the kind you most often see is the empty cross.  On this day between the crucifixion and the resurrection, I want to consider the significance of the empty cross.

  • First, the empty cross reminds us that Christ lived.  In spite of those who continue to challenge the historical evidence, there was a man named Jesus of Nazareth.  He lived in a particular time and place, and he was tried and sentenced to death by crucifixion.  His existence caused the modern Western Calendar to be split into two distinctive parts based on the estimated year of his birth, and his life, death, and resurrection gave rise to a movement that has never been stamped out, equaled, or eclipsed.

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  • Second, it reminds us that Christ died.  He was fully human in his capacity to feel pain, rejection, betrayal, hunger, thirst, and grief.  Yet he also experienced joy, companionship, hope, love, compassion, laughter, and growth.  He didn’t just grow old or fade into obscurity.  He didn’t leave his life’s work unfinished, he didn’t compromise or change his message; he didn’t give up or start over with a different “crew.”  Though he never staged a coup, or built up an arsenal, or rose to a seat of power or influence, this homeless, itinerant, soft-spoken rabbi was seen as enough of a threat to the leaders of his time that he was framed, tried and convicted, and sentenced to death.
  • The empty cross also reminds us how he died.  Modern crosses often look imposing and even triumphant, as they tower over a mega church parking lot, or hang on a chain of elegant silver, or stand in rows of chiseled rock in a military cemetery.  “O death, where is your sting?  O grave, where is your victory?”  (I Cor. 15:55)  But the torture before and during the crucifixion were brutal– bones were not broken, but they were pulled out of joint and then forced to bear the full weight of a bloody, swollen and bruised body of ripped muscles and exposed flesh.  Heat caused the salty sweat mixed with blood to drip into his eyes, his open wounds, and around his nose and mouth, but he was unable to wipe any of it away.  Flies gathered; he couldn’t keep them from buzzing or biting.  Each breath was a torturous push and pull of the arms and body upon the nails holding him at an unnatural angle against a wooden bar that rubbed against his already raw back.  And all of this was public; entertainment for the masses of hecklers, and those who were rejoicing in his humiliation and failure.  There was nothing pretty or majestic about the cross on that day.

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  • The empty cross reminds us that Jesus was buried and put under Roman guard.  His emaciated, bloody, barely recognizable remains were wrapped up and prepared with spices.  Guards, whose lives depended on this body remaining in the tomb and undisturbed, were posted, and a huge boulder rolled into place to block entry to and exit from the tomb.  Jesus didn’t spontaneously climb down off the cross, or waltz out of an air-conditioned cave.
  • Finally, the empty cross reminds us that Jesus was the Christ–death could not stop him; the grave could not hold him.  His victory was complete.  He didn’t claw his way out of that tomb; he didn’t sneak out in the dead of night; he didn’t hobble into hiding for several weeks because he was only “mostly dead” of his torturous injuries.  He arose, victorious, recognizable to those who knew him best; healed and full of power.

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There are hundreds of reasons why we “cherish the Old Rugged Cross.”  And, though the cross stands empty, our reasons are not.  Hallelujah!  Tomorrow, hundreds of millions of Christians will be celebrating the empty tomb.  But for today, I want to celebrate the empty cross.

Why “Good” Friday Matters

Good Friday is a stumbling block for many people who would be Christians.  Some get angered at the mere mention of “Good” Friday.  They see nothing good in it, and no reason to celebrate.  They mock Christian celebrations and practices throughout Holy Week.  They ask, “What could be good about being arrested, beaten, tried in an unfair court, mocked, and condemned to death?”  “What could be good about celebrating someone’s final meal, and following the gruesome details of his humiliating crucifixion?”  “Why remember someone being tortured by his enemies and abandoned and even betrayed by his friends?”  I know someone who uses the crucifixion of Jesus as “proof” that God is neither omnipotent, nor holy.

Yet the Bible chooses to focus time, detailed description, and several varying viewpoints to make this the pivotal event (along with the resurrection) of history.  The Crucifixion does not come as a sudden and inexplicable episode in Jesus’ ministry. He predicts it; not just once, and not just in one account–he doesn’t hint vaguely at some “future trouble,” or potential danger–he gives a detailed description of what will happen to him:

Mark 10:33-34 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

33 saying“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be [a]delivered to the chief priests and the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and will [b]hand Him over to the Gentiles. 34 They will mock Him and spit on Him, and scourge Him and kill Him, and three days later He will rise again.”

Luke 24:6-7 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

He is not here, but He has [a]risen. Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.”

Why do we need Good Friday?  Why, my acquaintance posits, does a loving God make salvation contingent upon the death of himself in human form?  Is it that God is incapable, or unwilling to offer “unconditional” grace?  After all, does he not offer “unconditional” love?  Why must salvation be achieved only by the unjust death of a perfect being?  Why must reconciliation and new life be forged in suffering and death?

These are not unreasonable questions, but I think they miss the broader picture.  Before the cross, before the scourging and the betrayal, let’s look at the life of Christ.  Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, the author of creation, could have stepped out of Heaven at any moment, and arrived in all his glory, surrounded by angels, to walk in pomp and dignity through the world he created.  He could have swept the entire Roman Empire off the face of the planet, healed every disease with a whisper, and lived in the Temple in Jerusalem as the Ruler he is.   Instead, he came as a helpless child, born to a teenage mom and her fiance during a grueling tax season.  He grew up in relative obscurity, never attended college, and is lost to history until he begins his second career as an itinerant rabbi at age 30.  He never held political office, never owned a home of his own, never wrote a book, or produced a piece of art work, never led an army into battle, never married or had children, never became wealthy, never did anything to make himself famous by worldly standards.  He was not crucified because he posed an actual threat to the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, but because he was accused of blasphemy by not denying claims that he was the promised Messiah of Israel.  His only “claim to fame” was that he was a dynamic teacher and had performed miraculous healings.  By almost every worldly standard, his life was a failure and a lesson in wasted potential.

His death is in keeping with his humble life.  It strikes us as a failure– humiliating, unjust, anti-climactic.  A life of servitude, poverty, being misunderstood, and making all the “wrong” friends and enemies.  Why would God live such a ridiculous and unfulfilling life?  Except he didn’t– it wasn’t a failure; his life and death stand as examples of how to live at peace, and how to change the world!  Hundreds of people flocked to hear him teach; hundreds more to see him heal the sick and raise the dead.  But he never charged a single coin, never demanded accolades or even thanks.

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This is the paradox of the Gospels.  God’s ways are not our ways.  His humiliating death on the cross was necessary for the ultimate triumph of the resurrection, but it was more than that– it was a vindication of justice over injustice and service over selfishness.  Good doesn’t always triumph over evil in a power play.  God has the power to obliterate every one of his enemies, but more often than not, he causes them to fall by their own arrogance and blind ambition.  The Chief Priests, the Roman Soldiers, the agony and torture of death– they were no match for God’s love.

Good Friday showed us that God can ALWAYS make even our most difficult circumstances, even the worst situations, into something VICTORIOUS.  Jesus still had to suffer and die, because we will still have to face betrayal, hatred, injustice, unanswered questions, and even taste death.  An Easter without Good Friday is a happy ending without the story.  Only an omnipotent God could have given us the triumph; only a loving God would have walked the Via Dolorosa to fight in the trenches with us.

 

The “Fake” Good News

I keep hearing about, and seeing reports of “Fake” News.  Even the term “Fake” News is somewhat misleading–is it news?  Is it False News?  Is it “fake” because it never happened, or because it has been exaggerated or taken out of context?  Or because it doesn’t say what I want it to say?  How do I know what is “real” news anymore?

The biggest problem with “Fake” news is that it “feels” real, true, and important.  In reality, it may be none of those things.  Yet there if often a kernel of fact, or a dusting of truth that makes it hard to disprove or dispel.  And, if it had already been accepted as legitimate news by thousands, it’s even harder to stop it from being spread.

But the more insidious problem with “fake” news is the time wasted trying to sort truth from fiction, and plain fact from exaggeration and distortion.  If my friend sends me an article, or a video, or a photo, I may accept it as true on the strength of my friendship.  But what if they’re just passing it on from another source?  What if I see it from a recognized news source?  Do I dare question it?  And if so, where do I turn to verify it?  There are several fact-checking websites, but even they have biases that cause them to weigh facts differently in various situations.  Whatever assumptions we used to hold about “neutral” reporting have been proved wrong.  We are being conditioned to trust none of what we hear and less than half of what we see!

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What about the “Good” News that Christians carry into the world?  Is it like the “Fake” news we see on TV or read about on our tablets?  And if someone challenges our faith in God’s word, how can we prove that the Gospel is not “Fake”, and that our Faith is not just more hype with smoke and mirrors?  If we are pursuing prayer, shouldn’t we be confident that our prayers are not in vain and that our faith is sound?

The claim of “Fake” news makes an assumption that there is such a thing as “True” news.  Similarly, saying the Gospel is “Fake” assumes that there is an alternate truth.  But the real burden of proof is on those who want to push for the alternative.  The truths of the Bible have been time-tested, and shown to be real.  The challenges I hear most often are to the exceptions, not the rule.  I don’t hear anyone saying that “Thou shalt not steal” is a “fake” morality.  Instead, I hear that, “Christianity is fake because I know Christians who cheat and steal.”  I don’t hear people claim that “it is not morally wrong to kill.”  Instead I hear them justify exceptions.  “I’m not promoting abortion as a good thing.  I don’t think it’s right to kill another human being, but this is just a fetus, and anyway, I’m just protecting a woman’s right to her own body.”  “I don’t think it’s ethical to force someone to stay alive if they are in pain and they want to die.”  “You can’t go around just killing anybody, but I think it would be better for everyone else if ___________________ (insert the name of a group– Down’s Syndrome children, Jews, Sunnis, Hutu/Tutsi) didn’t exist.”  “I don’t believe the morals found in the Bible are wrong.  I just don’t think you need to believe the rest of it to “be moral.”

People point to single passages, single verses, even single words to “prove” that the Bible is racist, sexist,  intolerant, and promotes violence.  The Bible includes many examples of people NOT following God’s laws, and yes, the results are grisly.  And there are difficult passages when God calls for a wicked city to be destroyed completely.  Critics are not wrong to point out that the Bible is not about perfect people behaving perfectly.  And the same Loving God who frees the slaves from Egypt is the God who destroys Jericho, and Sodom and Gomorrah.  Taken out of context, these few examples may seem to cast doubt on the authority of God’s word.  Yet the same critics who pound away at the same few examples in the Bible discount hundreds of instances of  historical events that highlight human sacrifice, genocide, mass infanticide, slavery, torture, and all sorts of other evil that occurred without the Bible’s influence.  Moreover, I hear a lot about claims against “Christians” who fought in the Crusades or owned slaves–I hear a lot less about Christians who worked to end slavery and the slave trade, or Christians who founded universities, charitable institutions, or brought revivals that sparked decades of social progress throughout countries and continents.

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I don’t hear many people claim that there was no such person as Abraham, or King David, or Solomon, or Nebuchadnezzar, or Pontius Pilate or Caesar Augustus.  But they want to deny the historical reality of Adam and Eve, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Apostle Paul, who are found in the same Bible.  Why?  Because if Adam and Eve are real, there must be a creation and a creator.  If Jesus really lived and said the things that are attributed to him, we must deal with the claim that he was Messiah.  If the Apostle Paul really lived and wrote his letters to the churches of Asia Minor, we must deal with his claim that he encountered the risen Christ and his life was dramatically and eternally changed.

However, there is a “Fake” gospel– Good news that doesn’t match the Biblical account–a “Fake” Christ that only said or did or “would do” what we want him to say or do; a Christ that isn’t holy or righteous, but just loves us because it’s the “zen” thing to do; a Christ who is without power to save or to sanctify; a Christ who is without mercy and loves only those who look the part or say the right things.  How do you spot a “Fake” Christ and a “Fake” Gospel?  Get to know the real ones of the Bible.  You’ll soon be able to spot an “imposter.”

“Fake” News will always fail the test of time and the challenges of real evidence.  Good News will transcend the test of time and the challenges of faulty evidence.

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Christ Has Died, Christ Is Risen, Christ Will Come Again!  THAT’s the Good News!

 

 

Prayers in the Pendulum

I’m late in posting an entry today– it’s been a day of swinging in the pendulum.  Not in a personal sense, but in praying for friends and family.

We all have “pendulum” days (or weeks, or even hours)– times where we are carried, pushed, swung, or banged about by life’s circumstances.  Moments where time stands still– sometimes in astonishing joy, and sometimes in soul–stomping grief.  Then comes the rush of being pulled by forces beyond our control– up, and down, across, and through the arc.  I’ve been hearing from friends all day, sharing those moments, and asking for prayer.  In the space of an hour, I’ve prayed for those who have just lost loved ones– a mother, a sister, a son– and those who are celebrating– an engagement, a birthday, a new home.  I’ve prayed for those whose lives are in the balance– in ICUs and in the womb.  Cancer, anniversaries, new puppies, pneumonia, a new job, a vacation, a car accident…

When we pray for others, we share those joys and heartaches– together, we swing through the arc of tragedy and triumph, even if we don’t all feel the full impact.  We become like the balls on the pendulum swing; absorbing and sharing laughter and tears not fully our own. But by doing so, we provide both energy and equilibrium.  Shared joys are multiplied; shared pain becomes bearable.  Prayer breaks through the isolation or the intensity of the moment, and keeps us grounded, or keeps us from shattering.   It reminds us that even in these defining and refining moments, life is not static.  And the momentum pulses through us in our connectedness.

Yet prayer goes one step further– it brings triumph and tragedy to the God who is above, beyond, around, and amidst the circumstances, the chaos, and the emotional highs and lows.  Our voices, raised together in laughter or grief, exasperation or anticipation, ascend to the one who came and lived and laughed and cried among us– to Jesus, whose arms are fully extended to embrace us wherever we are on the pendulum.

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