Every year, we celebrate the birth of Emmanuel– God With Us. It is amazing to consider the Love of God that brought Him from His Heavenly throne to a lowly manger stall, the King of Glory contained in the tiny body of a sleepy infant.
But we should be careful not to miss the rest of the story. As wonderful as it is to think that God would love His creation enough to visit among us, to “taste” life as a human, the story gets gloriously magnified as Jesus leaves the manger to enter a ministry. Jesus didn’t just live among us, He healed, taught, laughed, formed friendships, and served among people– many of whom scoffed, scorned, and rejected Him and His message.
And His message was this: God wants– in fact He passionately yearns– to restore the relationship WE have broken. Jesus didn’t come to “taste” human life– He came to GIVE His life as a sacrifice for those who didn’t deserve it, to extend forgiveness to those who had no right to ask for it. The Holy and Perfect God became the guilt and shame of Sin, so that we could be reconciled to Him. He accepted the penalty of Death, so that we could be given eternal life.
This miracle of reconciliation can be difficult to understand. I sometimes get “stuck” in the weight of my past–I know that Christ offers forgiveness, but I sometimes act as though the penalty hasn’t been removed; only suspended. But that’s not what Jesus taught. Like a leper cured of leprosy, I am clean–no scars, no stains, no relapse–all traces of my disease removed. In this world, I will still feel the sting of the consequences of Sin– betrayal, sickness, injustice, even death. But death is no longer my destiny; it is a temporary rest stop on my way HOME.
Jesus didn’t come to “taste” human life; He came to “taste” death– and He came to destroy its power, so that we could know true Life, and live it to the fullest!
“O ye heights of Heav’n, adore Him, Angel hosts His praises sing. Pow’rs, dominions, bow before Him, And extol our God and King. Let no tongue on earth be silent, Ev’ry voice in concert ring, Evermore and Evermore!”
“Silent night, Holy night…” Tradition has it that Christ was born on a cold and silent night. The Bible doesn’t exactly say when he was born. It does say that the angels appeared to shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks by night; and that the wise men of the East followed a star to find the newborn King. But the Bible doesn’t talk about the night being unnaturally silent or cold– these are details we’ve added to the story that may or may not be accurate.
But one thing is certain– whatever silence may have settled over Bethlehem near the time of Christ’s arrival; whatever lull in the hustle and bustle of the busy city’s streets–there was no silence among those who heard the good news of His birth. From the singing hosts of Heaven’s angels, to the excited voices of the shepherds, the inquiring whispers among the wise men, and the nervous recitations of the prophecies among Herod’s advisors, Christ’s birth was met with a symphony of reaction.
And so it continues–as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day approach, hymns will be sung, rich with words like “Hallelujah,” “Joy, ” “Blessed,” “Adore,” “Savior,” “Lord,” “Wonder,” “Glory,” “In Excelsis Deo,” “Redeemer,” “King,” and “Emmanuel!” From every nation, and in every language, praise and worship will erupt from homes and churches. And this is in addition to prayer and worship that rises in an unbroken stream around the globe each day, every day.
It fills me with wonder to think that at any given moment, someone, somewhere, is praying and praising our Wonderful God. But millions of tongues are silent– even on Christmas–in response to God’s Everlasting Love and Grace. There are millions, even billions of tongues that will greet Christmas Day without wonder, without hope, without joy. Billions who will grumble about the weather, or the outcome of a sporting match, or their family relationships.
Someday, “no tongue on earth” will be able to keep silent in response to the Messiah. “Every knee shall bow, in Heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10b-11 NIV)
Can you imagine a choir made up of every single human being–“every voice in concert”– declaring the worth and majesty of God’s Holy Lamb?! This babe born to be the Prince of Peace; this Only Begotten of the Father; our Emmanuel– He is worthy of such a concert! Let NO TONGUE on Earth be silent! Let us Extol Him! How Great Our Joy!!
“He rules the world with Truth and Grace, And makes the nations prove The glories of His Righteousness And wonders of His Love.”
Christmas is a time of wonder. Even stories that have little to do with the birth of the Christ Child– Frosty the Snowman, or A Christmas Carol, or The Grinch Who Stole Christmas–involve miracles and wondrously unexpected transformations. We thrill to see redemption and hope triumph over gloom and bitterness. We cheer when the Grinch’s small heart grows three sizes, or when Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer makes the team and leads Santa through a snowstorm. We want to believe that there is a special magic about the first snowfall of each year; that the very coming of Christmas Eve holds a special promise of Peace and Goodwill.
But the ultimate Wonder is that of God’s Love for us:
God SO LOVED the world– not because the world was lovable; not because the world’s people were just and kind and honorable; not because God was blinded to the world’s sickness and sorrows, and just wanted to feel “groovy” about the world…
That He GAVE– God didn’t just talk about Love and Joy and Peace– He GAVE–His only begotten Son. He, the creator, became the created– the ruler of the universe became a helpless baby born in a crowded city, banished to a barn because there was no room reserved for his coming. God gave lavishly, sacrificially, completely– He poured out His majesty to take on humanity, and then poured out his human life in service and sacrifice. He kept nothing back– none of his power to avoid injustice, shame, or death; none of his glory or majesty. He suffered the indignity of dusty roads, homelessness, sleepless nights, and crucifixion. He suffered the loneliness of misunderstanding and betrayal by his friends and family.
That WHOSOEVER BELIEVETH IN HIM– Whosoever! Not the noble, not the rich, not the “eminently qualified,” not the beautiful or strong or intelligent “enough.” God yearns to bring the wonder of redemption to the very ones who are ready to give up; to those who know they don’t deserve God’s love and grace; to those who have not known joy or peace, only darkness and grief– those who cannot earn God’s favor can have it in abundance, if only they believe that God exists, and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him (Hebrews 11:6)
SHALL NOT PERISH, but have everlasting/eternal life–What a wonderful promise! Wonderful because it is beyond our ability to fathom; wonderful because it is undeserved and unexpected; wonderful because it is the ultimate expression of limitless, eternal LOVE. We think of Death as inevitable and permanent–But Christ came to show us that death is temporary and powerless! Hope and Joy, Love and Peace– they have already WON. They are the reality– the rest is only a vapor.
O, Come, All Ye Faithful. O, Come, O, Come, Emmanuel. Come, let us adore Him. Come…
28 Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30 (NKJV via biblegateway.com)
Christmas is coming…Christmas is not only coming in the sense that we anticipate the season…Christmas is about “coming.” About Jesus coming into a world He had created; coming to rescue the souls of men and women; asking us to come to Him in return to receive from Him.
“Come.” It can be a command; an imperative. But it can also be a plea. The nation of Israel was pleading with God to come to their rescue. And He came. Not as they expected. Not to rescue them from Roman occupation by military might. He came to live among them, to share their burdens, to rescue them from the darkness of sin and death.
“Come to me…” Jesus asks us to come, to follow Him. “Come, all ye faithful..” God, who has the power and authority to demand our obedience, our worship, instead asks for it. He pleads with us to come…to choose Him. To receive His gift of salvation. To share our lives with Him.
“Lord, forgive me for the times when I have come to you reluctantly, half-heartedly, and out of a sense of duty. You came willingly, sacrificially, and joyfully. I want to do the same today.”
It is one of the most popular Christmas Carols– we sing it every year: “Silent Night, Holy Night; All is calm, all is bright; ‘Round yon virgin mother and child– Holy infant, so tender and mild; Sleep in Heavenly Peace– Sleep in Heavenly Peace.”
Each year, we celebrate the coming of Christ– “Son of God; Love’s Pure Light.” God coming to earth to live among His creation– Emmanuel, God with us. And it becomes familiar, and gets mixed in with stories of Santa Claus and gift-giving, decorated trees and flying reindeer.
But stop a minute to reconsider the amazing juxtaposition–the very Word of creation became a speechless baby. The ruler of galaxies came to earth naked and needy, hungry and helpless. Holy Infant–fully God and fully human in His frailty.
God could have come as a ruler of might; He could have stepped out of Heaven in a blinding flash of light, spoken with a voice of thunder, and made the mountains tremble. He could have filled the skies and scattered all the stars and clouds. He could have come in all His Majesty– and someday, that’s how He will return.
But on that Silent, Holy Night, He came in humility. He came in Heavenly Peace.
What an awesome enigma–the One who would break the power of death came in the weakness of an ordinary birth. The Giver of Life choosing to reside in the womb of an ordinary young woman, gasping for air as He took His first breath as a human. The omniscient one having to learn to sit up, and eat, to speak and to hold His mother’s hand; to stand up and walk.
God SO LOVED us that He went to extravagant lengths to meet us in our humanness. He didn’t need to become human for His sake– He did it for us; that WE could know Him more intimately; so that when we talk to Him, we are talking to one who has known hunger, and pain, and heartbreak, and loss– as one of us.
It is terrifyingly easy to miss the significance of the incarnation after the fact. As we remember the Advent season, let us reflect on the world before that Holy birth.. a world so fallen that no one could imagine the face of God; no one could imagine walking with Him or sharing a meal or a smile with Him; no one had ever felt His touch on their cheek or heard Him laugh. No one could have imagined that God would bleed, or cry out in agony, or taste death. But He came. He lived and walked among us. He died. And He paid the penalty for your sins and mine, so that we can share life with Him– eternally.
‘Tis the season for Christmas Music– hymns and carols, ancient songs and modern tunes celebrating the Advent and Birth of the Lord Jesus. Joyful, passionate, somber, or even a bit silly, such music can lighten our spirits, and remind us of the incredible gift of God– Emmanuel–His very presence among mankind.
Christmas lyrics often use wonderful imagery to retell this amazing story. The Bible accounts tell of shepherds, angels, wise men, and stars– the songs give us the immediacy of a dark night– “silent”, “still”, “earth as hard as iron; water like a stone”, “a midnight clear”, “half-spent was the night”…
Most of us live in a world that rarely gets so dark. If we live in a town or city, we are surrounded by street lights, security lights, even night-lights in the hallway. Even so, we have a feeling for how the midnight and early morning hours seem darker, colder, quieter, and more dreary than any other time. And there is a significance in remembering that Jesus came to earth in the midst of literal and metaphorical darkness, “when half-spent was the night.”
God is Omnipresent– it is not as though God leaves us when all is merry and bright– but His presence is often most keenly sought, and unexpectedly found, in darkness and distress. When all seems bleak, cold, and hopeless, Jesus comes silently, small and fragile as a baby, bringing light, hope, joy, and peace. He comes when the night is “half-spent”– when the darkness is deepest, the silence weighs heaviest, and the cold is most bitter; when hope and light seem lost.
Jesus’ Advent came after four hundred hears of silence. Prophets, such as Isaiah, Zechariah, and Micah, had spoken of Messiah rescuing Israel from captivity. But the years had passed, and Rome ruled the Jewish people with an iron fist. God had stayed silent, and hope seemed remote. Rome would continue to rule the world for another four hundred years. But when Messiah arrived, He didn’t come to break the power of Rome. He didn’t come at the end of that particular “night”; rather, He came when the night was “half-spent.” He came gently, quietly, and humbly. He came to deliver Israel from something much darker, colder, and deadlier than a foreign occupation. Jesus, through His life and death and resurrection, came to deliver Israel, and the rest of the world, from the power of sin and death.
All the promise of deliverance and salvation that came in the middle of that bleak night so long ago, remains for us to celebrate– even in the middle of our “half-spent” nights.
We may not see the dawn in the middle of our struggles. We may not hear the angels singing or feel the warmth of the new day coming. But because of this “Rose e’er Blooming”, we can rejoice. We can find hope and peace in the present night, knowing that Emmanuel is with us!
During this season, many of us spend time decorating–we add lights, candles, sparkling ornaments, and fragrant trees–we make our houses and yards festive and bright. And it is appropriate to do so, as we are preparing to celebrate the Light of the World, and the joy of Immanuel– God With Us.
But it is also good to remember that God did not enter a world cleaned up, decorated, adorned, and prepared for Him. Jesus was born in a stable. Angels sang; prophets dreamed; the faithful waited and watched; but the rest of the world was distracted by a census, crowded streets, rude and grumpy neighbors, taxes, cold nights and endless bad news.
Some of us put up elaborate mangers with beautiful figurines–robed Wise Men, earnest Shepherds, and the Holy Family; a few animals, and an angel or two– all clean and shiny and serene. In reality, it was likely crowded, noisy, dirty, smelly, and cold. The Shepherd and Wise Men were not there at the same time, and the angels were not present at the stable.
It seems obvious to say, but it’s important to remind ourselves that Jesus himself never celebrated Christmas. He never sang carols about His own birth; He never counted down the days on an Advent Calendar; He never decorated a Christmas Tree, or enjoyed a plate of Christmas cookies. Instead, He spent His life among the poor, the mean, and the lowly. He entered the lives of beggars and lepers and outcasts–and He brought light into their world. The Lord of all creation, who created galaxies of glittering stars, who commanded armies of angelic hosts–walked on dusty roads and had no home to decorate. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, and showed compassion to those who were possessed by demons.
This Advent season, as we decorate and prepare our homes for a warm and merry Christmas, may we remember to live among the poor, the mean, and the lowly. This year, it may seem more difficult, but it is not impossible to share hope and joy with those who need it so desperately. May we prepare our hearts as well as our hearths to accept the Light of the World. And may we reflect it into the world around us– more than ever!
Holy God, you came in humility and compassion. You lived to serve, and you died to save. Show me how to love and serve in this season of darkness and fear, just as You did so long ago, that those living in darkness may more than just holiday tinsel and glitter. Amen.
One of my favorite movies is “The Princess Bride.” It’s a quirky movie, based on a novel by William Goldman. It’s part fairy-tale, part satire, part warm and funny love story. In it, one of the characters, Inigo Montoya, is impatiently trying to track down his father’s killer, the vicious Count Rugen. Ironically, to fund his quest for revenge, he takes a job working as a mercenary for Rugen’s mentor, Prince Humperdinck. Part of his job is to kidnap Humperdinck’s fiancee, Princess Buttercup, and kill the mysterious man who is trying to rescue her. When the mysterious masked man climbs the perilous Cliffs of Despair, Inigo waits at the top to challenge him to a duel.
But Inigo is impatient. He calls down to the struggling masked man. “I do not suppose you can hurry things up a bit,” he suggests. He even offers to help the man–“though I do not think you will accept my help, since I am only waiting to kill you..”
Inigo is not cut out to be a vicious mercenary– clearly– because he befriends the masked man before their deadly duel (which doesn’t result in anyone’s death). He even waits–yes, WAITS– for his opponent to get rested and prepared before the duel begins. Inigo may hate to wait, but he has developed the gift of waiting for others when it really counts. (A skill he demonstrates elsewhere in the tale.)
What does any of this have to do with prayer? We are entering a season of Advent. It is a reminder that the whole world waited impatiently for the coming of the Messiah. Centuries of impatience; centuries of expectation, centuries of waiting for a coming Hope.
We will spend a few weeks waiting– and it may be made more anxious because of COVID–waiting for presents, or to reunite with family. And we all hate waiting. We are uncomfortable with delayed expectations, and uncertainty in our immediate future. Even with the joyous anticipation that Christmas brings, the period of Advent can be nerve-wracking.
Inigo Montoya spent years anticipating and “waiting” to exact revenge for his father’s death. He hated waiting. But he used that time wisely. In the waiting, he prepared. He studied the art of sword-fighting. He searched far and wide for his quarry. His life revolved around this less-than-holy goal. And, though he “hated” waiting, he waited for decades, never giving up, and finally, achieving his goal. Along the way, he made many mistakes, but he also made friends, and avenged his father’s honor.
This Advent, we “await” the coming of the Christ child. And, as followers of that same Christ, we await His victorious second coming. This is so much better than waiting for revenge. We wait for reconciliation, for restoration, and for renewed life! We have a great hope– the anticipation of Eternal Victory and Joy! How are we preparing? Do we spend our time complaining? Do we give up? Or do we seek diligently, not for a six-fingered man to kill, but for opportunities to spread the Joy and Hope we have found?!
Children can be very inventive when finding ways to hurt other children. Name-calling, shunning, shaming, or just pushing, shoving, and tripping each other on the playground. As parents, teachers, and concerned adults, we should be working to instill compassion and discipline in our children– compassion to see how such actions and words hurt, and discipline to keep them from speaking and acting out of emotion and carelessness. We also spend time wiping away the tears and comforting those children who have been bullied and hurt by their peers. And we teach them sayings like, “Stick and stones may break my bones, but words (or names) can never hurt me.” Such sayings mean well, but they are not entirely true. Words and names can hurt. They DO hurt. And they don’t just hurt the person who is the target of such words. They hurt the speaker and everyone who lets the words fall unanswered, or who picks up the words to hurt someone else.
Christians should stand out as beacons of light and love. Yet many of us are guilty of throwing “sticks and stones” every bit as hurtful and thoughtless as those hurled by playground bullies.
A few years ago, I read with some shock a hate-filled article from a Christian woman who was urging all her Christian friends to boycott “Operation Christmas Child”, a group sponsored by Samaritan’s Purse, a charitable organization founded by Franklin Graham, son of the famous Evangelist, Billy Graham. Every year, Operation Christmas Child sends out millions of shoeboxes filled with Christmas gifts, meant for some of the poorest children around the world– orphans, refugees, and those in extreme poverty. But according to this woman, Operation Christmas Child was a hate-filled organization, spreading racism and condescension by sending “white” “western” baubles meant to taunt the recipients–useless articles like dolls and toy cars and color books with crayons. She also called out Mr. Graham as a racist, homophobic, hate-monger who should be — well she did stop short of asking for his assassination, but not by much. (I’m not here to champion Mr. Graham. But she gave no examples of racism and homophobia, nor did she give Mr. Graham any chance to defend his organization.)
Her proposal was that anyone wishing to help someone in a “third-world” country should instead send their donations to a group that provides livestock– goats and chickens–to struggling farmers and families in developing countries, giving them the means to be self-sufficient, independent, and providing practical help instead of “frivolous toys”.
I spent hours crafting a response to this woman’s article– one I later deleted without sending. I believe her proposal came from a heart that sincerely wanted to help others. And I think her hatred and disgust for Operation Christmas Child was based on criticisms she felt were warranted. But her article left me in tears for three reasons:
It was hateful and filled with the kind of name-calling and condemnation that Christians should not just avoid, but mend and correct with love and grace. That doesn’t mean that we cannot say anything negative about other Christians or criticize their actions if they seem inconsistent with the Gospel. But there are Biblical guidelines for doing so.
Second, the article was divisive. She did not allow that anything about Operation Christmas Child could be done with a loving motive or a positive outcome. Because she found issue with the founder and with the design of the boxes and certain contents, she felt justified in condemning everything and everyone connected with it. And because she had found a solution that made her feel virtuous, she wanted every Christian to follow suit.
Finally, I believed her article was driven primarily by the passing emotions of rage and disgust self-righteousness, instead of a desire to do whatever she could to honor God and help those He loves. In fact, the majority of those living in poverty around the world (and thus subject to the goals of the charities she contrasted) live in urban areas–often they are homeless or live in crowded refugee camps or sprawling housing complexes. Sending livestock can certainly help farms or families who have land and food available to tend them. It is a helpful and loving gift to send a goat to a family or small village–it is however, impractical to send a pair of chickens to someone living in a high rise in Nairobi, and her advocacy shows a “western”, “white” naivete that rivals the one she sees in dolls and color books and caricatures printed on the boxes used to send them.
My response was no better–it pointed out her faults (as I saw them), and was designed to make her feel foolish and little and “wrong”. And just because I deleted it then, I obviously have not forgotten the incident. But I bring it up now because I see in it an ongoing problem—one to which I am not immune, even as (or maybe especially as) a Christian. It is very easy, especially with social media, to speak “in the moment”– and often in the emotion of the moment. We react, rebuke, chime in with our “two cents,” and let our tongues (and fingertips) destroy when they should be building up.
“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” Proverbs 25:11
So, for this new year, am I hurling sticks and stones, as I sneer at those with whom I disagree? Am I like the playground bully, finding delight in calling others names, or laughing at their expense? Am I tearing down other Christians because I hear others being critical? Or am I using my tongue (and my keyboard) to bless others? Do I speak the truth (harsh as it sometimes is) with love and grace, or with pride and condescension? Do I listen more than I speak? Would I want Jesus to read my Facebook posts or hear my conversations? (Because He DOES!) Does He speak through me?
May His words take up residence in our hearts and spill out of our mouths and fingertips today!
We live in a weary world– weary of war, weary of chaos, weary of worry, and weary of sin and its consequences. From the time the alarm rings to the time we finally lay down our weary heads, we are bombarded by stress, misunderstandings, distractions, disappointments, questions, harsh words, harsh images, demands, doubts– I’m tired just listing them…
Even so, we are surrounded by promises (mostly false) of peace and rest, satisfaction and success. “Buy this!” “Try that!” “New!” “Improved!” The voices call out, offering temporary bliss, or temporary escape from the weariness all around. “Jingle Bells!” “Happy Holidays!” “Tidings of Comfort and Joy!” It is tempting to let Christmas become just like all the other worldly distractions–shiny, loud, stressful and fleeting, full of promise, but leaving us empty and cold in the end.
But Christmas IS different, because it doesn’t celebrate what the world has to offer. The celebration includes lights and bells, songs and gifts, food and friends and family– but at its heart, Christmas celebrates something “out of this world!” Jesus came to a weary world long ago, and no matter how weary the world was, or is, or will be, Jesus brought all the hope and healing of Heaven in the small package of a tiny infant child in a crowded town in a conquered land.
On that Holy Night, God crashed the party– He did more than watch from a distance, more than speak from the skies above or send angel messengers–He arrived, actively participating in the struggle, the bone-weariness, the hunger and thirst and chill and stress of living among His fallen and fractured creation.
And the weary world rejoices–can you hear it? Above the bustling noise of people shouting, and car horns blaring, and advertising slogans, and piped-in Christmas songs…Can you feel it–beyond the comfort of a warm blanket and hot cocoa, beyond the hugs of friends or the smiles of strangers or gifts from loved ones? Can you see it–beyond the glare of city lights, undimmed by the darkness of hatred and greed?
The lights and songs will fade away, but the Love, Joy, and Peace of God that came to the world that first Christmas is for all time!
“Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices, ‘O Night Divine. O Night, when Christ was born. O Holy Night!'”