Fruitcake?

Poor Fruitcake– the butt of dozens of Christmas jokes. Someone once said that there were 20 Fruitcakes produced in France in 1541– and they are all still in circulation today! I know a few people who like fruitcake, but most people just make fun of it. Technically, it IS a cake, but it is mostly made up of fruit and nuts soaked in rum or brandy or candied for preservation. Fruitcakes can be mailed, shipped, and saved for months without rotting, but the fruits never taste fresh, and much of their flavor is overwhelmed by the sugars used to preserve them. Fruitcake is heavy, and sweet. It is full of things that are “good for you,” but the end result is not very healthful.

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I was reading the other day in Galatians, and a couple of days later in Philippians– two passages that speak of Christians producing fruit. Our lives are to be characterized by virtues and acts of service that bring health and healing, joy and peace to those around us. And these virtues are the products of our Faith in Action– of The Holy Spirit working in and through us.

22 But when the Holy Spirit controls our lives he will produce this kind of fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  23 gentleness and self-control; and here there is no conflict with Jewish laws.

Galatians 5:22-23 (Living Bible–emphasis added)

 So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush. Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.

Phillipians 1:9-11 (The Message–emphasis added)
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“Fruit of the Spirit” is not something we can manufacture ourselves. Only God’s Spirit at work IN us can produce such fruit. And, while it is Fruit that will last, it doesn’t need to be dried or candied or soaked for preservation. Unlike the fruit in Fruitcake, the Fruit of the Spirit is eternally fresh and bursting with life and flavor. There is nothing wrong or evil about Holiday Fruitcake. But it cannot compare with fresh fruit for wholesomeness and healthfulness.

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Sometimes, we try to manufacture our own “Fruit of the Spirit.” And this can be far worse than a harmless but calorie-laden Holiday Fruitcake. Even those who are opposed to Christ can manufacture a certain amount of Joy, or Patience, or Self-Control. Anyone can appear Gentle or Kind when they choose. But, separated from the source of life and growth, we cannot produce fresh fruit. Our Joy may be soaked in Rum. Our Patience may dry up. Our Kindness may be candy-sweet, but hiding malicious or selfish motives. Or we may surround our fruit with worldly “wisdom,” disguising and transforming it with cake and nuts.

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This holiday season, let’s not become dried out or artificially sweetened in our acts of service and Love. Let’s be producers of Godly Fruit– Love that reaches out to the Lost, the lonely, and the “unlovable” with true love and not just sentimentality; Joy that bubbles up from a thankful heart and a transformed mind; Peace that transcends our current trials and circumstances; Patience that endures hardship without losing hope; Kindness that wraps itself around the unworthy and never tires; Goodness that knows no conceit and seeks no credit; Faithfulness that inspires and produces hope in a faithless world; Gentleness that smooths over troubled waters without being overcome; and a rock-solid Self-Control and steadiness that produces trust– not in our own power or wisdom, but in the One who produces it in our lives. We should be humble and grateful, teachable, and ready to forgive, encourage, and pray for others.

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Don’t be a Fruitcake this Christmas– be a Fruit Basket instead!

Anticipation…

Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent. Four weeks later, we will have Christmas Day. For some, the time will pass in a frenzy of shopping and wrapping– the time will fly by! For some, the time will pass in meditation and reflection– it may seem to crawl. For some, the time will pass with no difference from any other time of year. For most of us, there is a sense of anticipation…we are waiting for something: the “Christmas Spirit,” the festivals and events, the time spent with loved ones far and near…

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Christmas, more than any other day, brings this sense of expectation. We sing songs, listen to stories, reach out to friends and neighbors– all in anticipation of a single day. And sometimes, the anticipation and expectation exceed the realities of the day. We feel disappointed in the gifts, or the weather, or the circumstances. But our anticipation shouldn’t be about the single day on the calendar. Christmas is so much more than just a day, or even just the “spirit” of the day.

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We don’t know the actual, historical day when Christ entered human history as a baby. As the Gospel of John relates– “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word WAS God.” (John 1:1) But this Word, this Only Begotten Son of the Father, this second person of the Trinity, DID enter human history as a member of the human race. He came and dwelt among us, His creation. He walked and talked, ate and slept, worked and wept, lived and died as a man. The Lord of All Creation tasted freshly baked bread and felt the first raindrops of Springtime. The King of the Universe wiggled His toes in the sand, and wiped sweat from His brow. The Lamb of God shared belly-laughs with His friends over a shared joke. The Lion of Judah wept over the death of His friend. The Author of Life knew what it was to die, abandoned and betrayed.

None of this is anticipation for us, as it was for the prophets of old. It is history. Christ has already come. He already lived a life of compassion and grace, wonder and weariness, agony and anticipation, and, most of all, Love. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that Whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting Life.” John 3:16 Christmas for us is not about anticipating Christ’s arrival. Christmas is the celebration of what that arrival means for us all these years later and forevermore. And we can celebrate all the wonder of Christ on any day of the calendar year. But there IS real anticipation at Christmas– the anticipation of Eternal Life and Christ’s triumphant return. Just like the prophets waited and wondered, we wait in Hope of a glorious reunion.

Christmas, December 25, 2022, may be a disappointing day–it may be dreary, gloomy, lonely, or disappointing in its circumstances. It may bring us bad news, or heartache. But it will also bring us another opportunity to rejoice– to rise above whatever circumstance brings to focus our thoughts forward and upward, where Christ, who once came as a baby, now reigns and rules and waits– anticipating the same reunion that brings us hope and healing.

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Content, But Not Complacent

If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment. For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content. But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.11 But flee from these things, you man of God, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 

1 Timothy 6:3-12 (NASB)
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“Godliness with contentment is great gain.” (1 Timothy 6:6) We are entering a season of Thanksgiving and Christmas, and it can be a wonderful time to count one’s blessings and give praise with a humble and thankful heart. But it can also be a season of discontent, envy, overspending, and even depression. Many people are restless. They want “more”– more stuff, more respect, more power, more popularity, better health, a bigger house, trendier clothes…the list can be endless. Advertisers work hard to stir up this kind of discontent in the hope that people will buy their products. Politicians stir up discontent and fear to get more votes. Even religious leaders can stir up discontent in the hope of gaining influence, respect, and money.

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God will not stir up discontent in our hearts. Instead, He wants us to learn to be content and grateful for the blessings we already have, and to trust Him for the things we both need and desire. He will see to it that we get what we need to live a Godly life, even if it seems meager compared to others who boast of their circumstances. Those who trust in their wealth or power will find it is never “enough.” Discontent breeds more discontent– envy gives rise to anger and bitterness. Greed gives way to dishonesty and violence. It is the enemy of Godliness and Humility. It is the enemy of the Christian Walk.

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But there is another danger to the Christian. We should desire to develop a spirit of contentment, but we must be careful not to let contentment become complacency. The Apostle Paul does not stop in his message to Timothy, but reminds him to both “flee” the temptation of greed and discontent, and “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness.” Contentment is not an excuse for complacency. We are to “fight the good fight of Faith.” We are to be content with what we have, but not complacent about where we stand or how we live.

Discontent says– “I don’t have enough. I need more! (Even if I must take it by force or manipulation)”. Complacency says–” I have everything I need. I am an island of self-sufficiency. I don’t need anything (including God!) Both attitudes are conceited and fail to acknowledge God’s provision and His Sovereignty. The discontented, greedy person will be at war with God’s laws. The complacent person may not be fighting against God’s laws, but s/he will ignore God’s will, and refuse to stand up for justice or mercy. The complacent person is complicit in evil, even when they are not the ones doing it. The complacent Christian is ungrateful, and has only half-hearted praise for the Author of the blessings they enjoy.

There are many “Christians” in both categories. Many who claim to follow Christ, but are really following what they think will bring them power, wealth, health, or popularity. Many are being lulled into complacency by their blessings and comfortable circumstances. Both groups have lost their focus. God is to be the center of our lives– not our own comfort or our own pursuit of it.

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This season, may we be content, humble, and willing to give God the Thanks, Praise, and Worship He deserves. And may we not become complacent about doing good, standing firm in the Faith, and helping others.

Peace on Earth

Christmas is a joyful season– for most people. And it is a giving season; a busy season; a bright and noisy season. But for most of us, it is NOT a peaceful season. Our small city had a lighted parade the other night. It was festive and bright; there were a lot of happy people cheering on marching bands, floats, dancers, decorated fire engines and tractors, horse-drawn carriages, and other entries. People were eating, drinking hot cocoa, enjoying the entertainment, and even singing carols. The whole downtown was decorated with brilliant lights and banners and festive plants. But before the parade started, and after it ended, there were angry drivers trying to find (or leave) parking spots, bawling toddlers, rowdy people who had more to drink than just the cocoa, and several others who were just tired, and cold, and overstimulated.

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While parades and festivities, parties and pageants have become part of the seasonal celebrations in many parts of the world, they are not what Christmas is really about. Jesus did not come to the world to bring “fun.” He did not come to bring toys or games, parties or feasts. He did not come to bring cheerful songs and fragrant holiday decorations, or hot cocoa and cookies. The angels who announced His arrival did not bring good tidings of candy canes, flying reindeer, or twinkle lights.

We sing about “Peace on Earth.” We talk about it, send greeting cards about it, and pray for it. But what do we MEAN when we talk about Peace on Earth, Good will to Men (Humankind)? For many, it is a wish or a prayer that wars would end, or that the petty differences between rival political factions or even rival churches would end. We speak of global peace or universal peace– peace between men (and women). And it is good that we should want such peace. But is that really the kind of peace Jesus brought with Him? He didn’t put an end to wars and disagreements during His ministry here. He didn’t “settle the score” for those who experienced oppression– the Roman Empire remained; the tax collectors still took more than their fair share; there was still slavery and abuse; greed and adultery and murder did not cease. And the world has been noisy, and messy, and angry and depressed in the two millennia since. And yet…

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There IS peace on earth–it is the profound peace that comes with “Good will to Men.” God’s good will found its ultimate expression in the gift of the Savior. There may still be wars and pestilence, angry drivers, bad hair days, injustice, confusion, grief, and pain among people. But there is power to be at peace in the midst of it all– the power of a Peace that passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7); the power of Peace with God (Romans 5:1).

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Jesus came to a world that knew only the rumor of such peace. Even King David– a “man after God’s own heart,” a man who wrote songs about peace and safety and joy in God’s presence–knew this kind of peace as something that had been promised. David could know the immediate peace of God’s forgiveness; he could know the blessings of obedience and the restoration of the joy of salvation (Psalm 51:12). But the everlasting Peace that has been accomplished by the Advent of the Christ– David, Moses, Abraham, and all the prophets had longed to know it; to experience it from within.

And THIS Peace we can experience– not just during the Advent and Christmas Season, but throughout our lives. Chaos, loneliness, grief, separation, injustice– it HAS BEEN defeated. It has no power to separate us from God’s Good Will or from His Loving embrace! The noise and anger and clutter and abuse is still real. We should not ignore it, and we certainly must not contribute to it or sanction it. But we no longer have to live without hope; we no longer have to fret and live in constant fear or defeat.

There is no parade tonight as I write this– there are still lights and occasional noises downtown– a door closing, a dog barking, a car passing. But there is Peace within– no matter how loud or bright, how festive or even forlorn things seem.

Keep Silence

We have entered the season of Advent, and as we prepare our hearts for the coming of the Christ Child, one of the first steps should involve quieting our hearts.

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This can be difficult in the daily noise and bustle around us– particularly in this season! We have filled Christmas with sparkle and glitter; the ringing of bells and endless songs about reindeer and jolly fat men and decorated trees. But this is NOT Christmas– not yet. The bright lights of Christmas, the joyful songs of the angel hosts, all need a proper context. And that means a cold, dark night more than 2000 years ago. It means an emptiness. A heavenly silence that stretched over 400 years. Silence from heaven; silence in the earth; silence in the soul.

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In silence, we ponder. We wait. We anticipate–perhaps even dread– what may come. What will God say when He finally speaks again? Will it be judgment–severe, holy, deserved, undeniable? Will it be condemnation? Will it be that final pronouncement of God’s Holy Sovereignty, and our utter failure to measure up?

The joy of Christmas comes, not because of seeing light shows and snow glistening on trees, or listening to jingle bells and laughter. It comes from knowing that God’s Word is Peace! It is reconciliation and restoration. It is Freedom and Victory over Sin and silence and eternal Death! It is not first felt in the blaring of anthems and resounding of carols. It is in the soft cooing of new Life coming into a dark and silent world. Of everlasting love being wrapped in rags and gently laid in straw.

God delights in turning earthly things upside-down. And so He comes to us, not with fanfares and regal procession, but in stillness and gentleness, in the middle of a dark and silent night.

Alleluia! Alleluia!

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