On a Cold Winter’s Night…

One of the great classic Christmas carols, “The First Noel,” describes the night of Christ’s birth as a “cold winter’s night, that was so deep.”

It is dreamy and dramatic to think of Jesus coming into a cold, dark, dreary (and even snowy) world, bringing angels, glorious stars, kings bearing expensive gifts, and joyous songs.

In the past two posts, we’ve looked at Jesus as the Light of the World, and the Word of God; we’ve looked at Advent as a time of darkness and silence, in anticipation of the coming light and the Gospel. The idea that the world before the Birth of the Savior was cold continues the pattern of absence. Darkness does not exist independently. Neither does silence or cold. Each is the absence of something else– Light, sound, warmth–and it can only be known by the degree to which its opposite is reduced, distant, or absent.
In contrast, the light, sound, or warmth is made more evident in contrast with its opposite–we may not notice a slight difference in lighting on a sunny day, or a slight difference in temperature; but a candle in a dark room, or a whisper in a silent auditorium has a dramatic effect.

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We don’t actually know the exact date of Jesus’ birth, and while December falls during winter, that doesn’t always mean a cold night in every part of the world. If shepherds were watching their flocks in fields just outside of Bethlehem, it is not likely that the temperatures were below freezing, or that there was snow and ice all around. The Middle East is not known for icy winters, after all. Nighttime generally brings colder temperatures, and it may be close to freezing by the middle of the night if you have no fire or protection from the wind, but a “cold winter’s night” is more likely to be found in Minnesota or Finland, not in Bethlehem, and usually in the middle of winter– January– rather than the beginning of the season.

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However, just like the darkness and silence, the cold of that first Christmas was spiritual in nature. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+1%3A9-12&version=ESV). Jesus entered a frigid world– a world of closed-off people, suspicious, oppressed, angry, sick, and world-weary. Hatred can be cold, but colder still is apathy and disdain and hopelessness. The world of Advent is a world desperate for the light and heat and sound of God’s love– not because God is absent, but because people have moved so far away from Him. The light becomes dimmer, the songs become a series of indistinct noises, and the cold and damp of night creep into our souls. Today, even with the hope and light of the Gospel story, we take our focus off of the true light of the world, and the true source of warmth and love, and too often focus on the lesser warmth of a new jacket, or the glittering lights of a shopping center, or the strident sounds of greed and envy.

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Jesus may not have come in the cold of midwinter. But He came into a world of cold hearts as a helpless baby in a strange and unwelcoming land. And he was wrapped in rags and placed in a feeding trough– the warmest place that could be found. But even in this tiny, shivering baby, there was the warmth of Pure Love. And it was felt by all who came in contact with Him– shepherds rejoiced, Mary pondered, Wise Men knelt in adoration.

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I love seeing candles and firesides at Christmas time– I love coming into a warm house, full of laughter and love, or singing carols on a cold night, and being invited inside to share the warmth. I love fellowship at church, and sharing a hug and a smile with those I meet. Imagine the warmth of God with us–All of the warmth and life of being wrapped in the arms of Grace, and held by the nail-scarred hands, never to be cold or alone ever again. Can you feel it? Can you anticipate it? Imagine passing that on to someone who has never known such warmth…on a cold winter’s night…

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This Little Light of Mine…

John 1:4-5 American Standard Version (ASV)
 4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness [a]apprehended it not.

Footnotes:John 1:5 Or, overcame.

via http://www.biblegateway.com
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I love words. But sometimes, it can be frustrating to find just the right word to express a complex idea. I’m sure the Apostle John felt the struggle as he began writing his Gospel account of the life of Christ. How can mere words describe the arrival of GOD– creator and ruler of the universe– into a darkened and sin-filled world, come to live among and serve the very lost souls He would die to save? John, of all the Gospel writers, uses the most visual metaphors to describe the Advent of Jesus (many of which he heard from the lips of Christ Himself)– He was the “Light of the World”, the “Bread of Life”, the “Living Water,” the “Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and the “Good Shepherd.”

But right away, the phrase John uses to talk about the “Light of the Life” causes modern English scholars confusion. John says that the light “shineth”, or “shines” in the darkness and the darkness “comprehended” (or apprehended, or understood, or overcame) it not. The phrase is simply too big for one word, or idea. The Greek word comes closer to expressing a dual idea, but even it can’t wrap up the totality of such an event.

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Consider–This Jesus, one with God from the beginning, and the “Word” of creation, spoke light into existence. Where there was darkness, He exploded– light upon light– stars and galaxies of light! Even on the darkest night we will ever know, there are millions of lights spread out across the vastness of space, including our own sun, even unseen on the other side of the planet. Darkness can never “comprehend”, let alone “overcome” the existence of light in our world.

Moreover, when we see physical light piercing the darkness, we are aware of it, but we rarely comprehend, or understand it. Whether we are blinded by a flash of light, or compelled to seek out a single hint of light in a darkened tunnel, it is not obvious at first glance (and sometimes even after diligent study) the source or scope of the light. It may be a candle, or a set of glaring headlights, or the glint of reflected light in a mirror. It could be a distant star, a satellite, or a street light shrouded in fog.

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But in a spiritual sense, it is even more true that “Light has come into the world” (John 3:19), and it “shines” in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood, or apprehended, or overcome it. Jesus came as an infant to His own chosen people, people who were longing for the advent of their Messiah. But few of them recognized Him. They didn’t understand– even Jesus’ closest friends didn’t “get it” at first. And some of them tried their best to “overcome” and “apprehend” the Gospel message– zealous religious leaders like Saul tried to stop the “light” of Jesus’ message and all those who trusted in it. Saul had to be “blinded” by a light on his way to Damascus, so that he could finally “see” Christ (Acts 9).

And the light is still shining in the darkness– as followers of Christ, we are to reflect God’s love and grace to those around us. Many of them will not comprehend; many will try to overcome or even destroy the message we bring. Our light may seem small and insignificant. It may seem like we are surrounded by the vast darkness of space, or shrouded in fog. But the light of Christ cannot be extinguished, or rationalized out of existence, or contained. All the words ever spoken, written, or thought throughout all the ages of mankind cannot compare to the power of God’s “Word”, who spoke worlds into being in an instant, and yet entered His own creation with a soft cry of an infant in the middle of a dark night so long ago.

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This is the “little light of mine”, and of yours if you are a follower of Christ. It pierces through the darkness of despair, hatred, addiction, injustice, greed, oppression, malice, rebellion, war, grief, loss, disease, and sin.

This season, as we anticipate the Advent, let us remember the greatness of the tiniest of lights, and the triumph of that light over the vast darkness. It is easy to get distracted by the twinkling of a thousand artificial and commercial lights this season, or blinded by the soot and smog and clouds of gloom and pain that surrounds us. It’s so important that we keep shining; continue reflecting the true light that only comes from the “Light of the World”

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“This little Light of mine–I’m gonna let it shine!
This little Light of mine– I’m gonna let it shine,
Let it shine, Let it shine!”

Whom Shall I Fear?

Psalm 27

Of David.
The Lord is my light and my salvation—
whom should I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
whom should I dread?
When evildoers came against me to devour my flesh,
my foes and my enemies stumbled and fell.
Though an army deploys against me,
my heart will not be afraid;
though a war breaks out against me,
I will still be confident.
I have asked one thing from the Lord;
it is what I desire:
to dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
gazing on the beauty of the Lord
and seeking him in his temple.
For he will conceal me in his shelter
in the day of adversity;
he will hide me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock.
Then my head will be high
above my enemies around me;
I will offer sacrifices in his tent with shouts of joy.
I will sing and make music to the Lord.
Lord, hear my voice when I call;
be gracious to me and answer me.
My heart says this about you:
“Seek his face.”
Lord, I will seek your face.
Do not hide your face from me;
do not turn your servant away in anger.
You have been my helper;
do not leave me or abandon me,
God of my salvation.
10 Even if my father and mother abandon me,
the Lord cares for me.
11 Because of my adversaries,
show me your way, Lord,
and lead me on a level path.
12 Do not give me over to the will of my foes,
for false witnesses rise up against me,
breathing violence.
13 I am certain that I will see the Lord’s goodness
in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart be courageous.
Wait for the Lord.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+27&version=CSB
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There are a lot of scary things in our world– war, disaster, taxes, death, violence, injustice, disease, uncertainty, evil, darkness, even supernatural and spiritual darkness–enough to keep us frightened and sleepless every night! And we spend a lot of our time fearing the unknown–worrying about the future; worrying about things that have not happened, and may never happen! We worry about things that matter– the health and well-being of our loved ones, uncertainty about our job or home, crime and civil unrest in our nation or neighborhood, difficult decisions with serious consequences. We worry about things that are less urgent–someone laughing at us, hair loss, dropping a phone call, running out of gas, losing a game or an argument…

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David had some real reasons to be fearful as he wrote Psalm 27–evildoers, enemies, war and armies, false witnesses, and violence. Yet, he found safety and strength in the Lord. We can take comfort in the message of this Psalm–God is faithful. He is strong. He is eternal and unchanging. He is a stronghold we can trust.

But before we get too comfortable, let’s take a closer look. David’s trust is not based on a superficial knowledge about God. David’s trust comes as a result of seeking God’s face and following in “your way” (v. 11). David’s life was proof of God’s strength and protection, because David’s life was filled with fearsome adversaries!

Many generations after David penned this Psalm, the prophet Amos wrote to the people of Israel– people who knew this comforting psalm, but had lost their fear–people who no longer sought the Lord’s protection or His ways.

Amos 5 Christian Standard Bible (CSB)

Listen to this message that I am singing for you, a lament, house of Israel:
She has fallen;
Virgin Israel will never rise again.
She lies abandoned on her land
with no one to raise her up.
For the Lord God says:
The city that marches out a thousand strong
will have only a hundred left,
and the one that marches out a hundred strong
will have only ten left in the house of Israel.

For the Lord says to the house of Israel:
Seek me and live!
Do not seek Bethel
or go to Gilgal
or journey to Beer-sheba,
for Gilgal will certainly go into exile,
and Bethel will come to nothing.
Seek the Lord and live,
or he will spread like fire
throughout the house of Joseph;
it will consume everything
with no one at Bethel to extinguish it.
Those who turn justice into wormwood
also throw righteousness to the ground.
The one who made the Pleiades and Orion,
who turns darkness into dawn
and darkens day into night,
who summons the water of the sea
and pours it out over the surface of the earth—
the Lord is his name.
He brings destruction on the strong,
and it falls on the fortress.
10 They hate the one who convicts the guilty
at the city gate,
and they despise the one who speaks with integrity.
11 Therefore, because you trample on the poor
and exact a grain tax from him,
you will never live in the houses of cut stone
you have built;
you will never drink the wine
from the lush vineyards
you have planted.
12 For I know your crimes are many
and your sins innumerable.
They oppress the righteous, take a bribe,
and deprive the poor of justice at the city gates.
13 Therefore, those who have insight will keep silent
at such a time,
for the days are evil.
14 Pursue good and not evil
so that you may live,
and the Lord, the God of Armies,
will be with you
as you have claimed.
15 Hate evil and love good;
establish justice in the city gate.
Perhaps the Lord, the God of Armies, will be gracious
to the remnant of Joseph.
16 Therefore the Lord, the God of Armies, the Lord, says:
There will be wailing in all the public squares;
they will cry out in anguish in all the streets.
The farmer will be called on to mourn,
and professional mourners to wail.
17 There will be wailing in all the vineyards,
for I will pass among you.
The Lord has spoken.

18 Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord!
What will the day of the Lord be for you?
It will be darkness and not light.
19 It will be like a man who flees from a lion
only to have a bear confront him.
He goes home and rests his hand against the wall
only to have a snake bite him.
20 Won’t the day of the Lord
be darkness rather than light,
even gloom without any brightness in it?
21 I hate, I despise, your feasts!
I can’t stand the stench
of your solemn assemblies.
22 Even if you offer me
your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
I will have no regard
for your fellowship offerings of fattened cattle.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice flow like water,
and righteousness, like an unfailing stream.
25 “House of Israel, was it sacrifices and grain offerings that you presented to me during the forty years in the wilderness? 26 But you have taken up Sakkuth your king and Kaiwan your star god, images you have made for yourselves. 27 So I will send you into exile beyond Damascus.” The Lord, the God of Armies, is his name. He has spoken.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Amos+5&version=CSB
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The people have an outward confidence– they believe themselves to be under God’s protection and blessing. They offer sacrifices and sing worship songs and revel in their success and peace. But God’s words are frightening and urgent. Those who arrogantly call for the “Day of the Lord,” expecting God to pass judgment on their enemies will find to their shock and horror, that God’s wrath falls on them as well. Their confidence has been misplaced, because it has rested on a false picture of God, and an exaggerated sense of their own righteousness. God warns them that judgment is coming– and even as He does, He issues an invitation– “Seek me and live!” (v. 4– see also v. 6 and v. 14). God has withheld judgment, He has given His people opportunity to follow His way. Instead, they have followed the ways of the very enemies they used to fear! Their feasts and festivals have become nothing but a mockery and an affront to God–the same people who claim to worship Him are perverting justice and oppressing the poor. They cheer for evil and refuse to listen to the truth.

God is a stronghold and a light to banish fear and darkness–but a stronghold or tower cannot protect you if you are wandering alone and unprotected or worse yet, if you are leaving the tower to embrace the enemy in the dark! God doesn’t just want to be a light at the end of the tunnel– He wants to be a light to show us the road right in front of us, and a light to banish the darkness where our enemy hides! When we have a proper “fear” of the Lord– when we recognize His wisdom, strength, and sovereignty– when we seek Him in humility and awe and need, and dwell with Him, we need not fear anyone or anything else. When we make empty boasts about God’s favor and protection while ignoring His ways, we drown out His loving warning and His call to return to safety…we should be afraid– very afraid!

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Father, may I find my confidence only in You. I want to dwell in Your house and seek Your face today and every day. Thank You for being eternally strong, righteous, faithful, and merciful! Thank you for giving us warnings and providing restoration, hope, and salvation. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Let All Within Us Praise His Holy Name


O holy night! 
The stars are brightly shining 
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth! 
Long lay the world in sin and error pining 
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth. 
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices 
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

Refrain:
Fall on your knees 
O hear the angel voices 
O night divine 
O night when Christ was born 
O night divine 
O night, O night divine

Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming 
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand 
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming 
Here come the wise men from Orient land 
The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger 
In all our trials born to be our friend.

Refrain
Truly He taught us to love one another 
His law is love and His gospel is peace 
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother 
And in His name all oppression shall cease 
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we, 
Let all within us praise His holy name.

Refrain

 

From /www.songsforteaching.com/christmas/oholynight.php
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To the untrained eye, it was not a Holy Night– The streets of Bethlehem were crowded and dusty. The night, even if the stars were shining, was filled with noises and smells that fell far short of anything sacred or glorious. There were strangers clogging the city’s streets and inns and homes– extra animals to shelter, extra mouths to feed, extra waste everywhere. It was a weary world, it was in error and it was pining– but it was also noisy, angry, distracted by petty inconveniences and worried by chaos and upheaval and oppression.

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There was nothing special about the night itself. It was NOT a Holy Night until Holiness arrived in the form of a squalling infant born to a teenage mother and a carpenter/stepfather who were compelled to beg for shelter in an unfamiliar city full of squalor and resentment. People had come from all over to be nothing more than numbers in an unpopular bureaucratic nightmare. This child might have been no more than a number to the governor of the region, or to the Roman Empire, or to the Herod, the hamstrung pseudo-ruler of Judea–but His coming split history in two; it redefined the value of a single, simple soul! This was the night when the creator entered His creation AS a member of the creation– a child among other children; a helpless baby in a fallen and depraved world, vulnerable to disease, cruelty, abuse, starvation, exposure and exploitation. This God/Man would see and hear, and smell and feel the ugliness of leprosy, poverty, hunger, homelessness, despair, grief, madness, war, slavery, loneliness, betrayal, and death.

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In His lifetime, He had no home of his own. He built no monument, founded no schools or hospitals, fought no (physical) battle, and toppled no governments. But, in the years since that otherwise ordinary night, majestic cathedrals have been built and have stood for hundreds of years; nations and governments have been transformed; hospitals, clinics, shelters, sanctuaries, universities, and institutions have served the poor, the sick, the outcasts, the weary, the forgotten, and the lost. The world is still fallen– there is still injustice, slavery, weariness, sickness and sin around us. But, because of that night, we are not waiting in utter darkness–as the Apostle John writes:

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16 For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life… 19 This is the judgment: The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the light and avoids it, so that his deeds may not be exposed. 21 But anyone who lives by the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be shown to be accomplished by God.

John 3:16, 19-21 Christian Standard Bible
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We live on the other side of that ordinary, Holy Night– we will never know the darkness of a time without a Gospel of Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men–we are witnesses to the power of Divine Love in human flesh. We have reason to “fall on (our) knees” and “let all within us praise His Holy Name!”

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My prayer is that we would all “hear the angel voices” this season and be able to worship in the fullness of joy this Christmas.

Be Thou My Vision

One of my favorite old hymns is the ancient Irish tune, “Be Thou My Vision.”  I have heard it jokingly referred to as “the optometrist’s hymn.”  But there’s a lot more to unpack in the title than just a plug for good eye care.

adorable blur bookcase books
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God’s word is full of references to sight, seeing, blindness, light, lamps, darkness, night, day, visions and dreams, foresight and prophecy, images and reflections, and much more.  God is both the source of our sight, and of our insight.  God sheds light on our deepest secrets of the past, and provides a lamp allowing us to see the obstacles ahead more clearly.  Jesus came to be the Light of the World, and bring sight to the blind, both physically blind and spiritually blind.

bright building candle candlelight
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Many times, we pray for answers– we want a quick solution to our circumstances, or a definitive direction for our next step.  But God sometimes wants to show us a bigger picture.  Sometimes, he wants to show us more intricate details.  Instead of asking for what we want God to give us, we need to ask for God to give us the vision HE has for our future.  He may not reveal every detail– or he may only reveal the next detailed step.  But God’s vision is clearer and bigger, and more glorious than we will ever know if we aren’t willing to look with His eyes to see.

abendstimmung atmospheric background beautiful
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We also need to ask God to BE our vision– that we would see him more clearly for Who He Is!  Whatever is in our focus will appear bigger and clearer than things in the periphery.  When we allow Him to be our vision, we start to see things from His perspective, which makes all the difference.  What we see on our own is often an optical illusion– problems look bigger than they really are, hurts and grievances grow larger,  and people become distorted by the lenses or mirrors we use to view them.  And we lose sight of God’s glory, wisdom, majesty, power, and everlasting love.  But God restores our focus and our perspective, so that we see problems in the light of His power to overcome; we see people who are made in His likeness and image– people who are loved by God, even if they are in rebellion against Him.  We see the glory of God’s creation as it was meant to be, even as we see the wreckage of pollution, corruption, disease and disaster.  We see God’s mercy as lives are transformed and families are mended and justice is finally achieved.  And we see the rays of hope in God’s promises fulfilled and those yet to be fulfilled.

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