Lord, Lord!

21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by thy name, and by thy name cast out demons, and by thy name do many mighty works? 23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

Matthew 7:21-23
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In just the past three weeks, three of my family members and one of my friends have made the decision to be baptized as a public declaration of their decision to live for Christ. All of them (and the others who were baptized at the same times) were baptized by immersion, signifying that they have, spiritually, died to self, been buried, and are raised with Christ to eternal life. This is not a step to be taken lightly, and I have confidence that all four (and more) of those I know are serious in their passion to follow the Lord.

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When I write about prayer as a pursuit, I hope to convey that prayer is part of a larger pursuit of seeking God. And seeking God must include acknowledging Him as Lord above all– especially self. Jesus warned about people who claim to follow Him in word, but do not obey Him. It is, unfortunately, very easy to “speak Christian-ese”: to sound righteous and reverent when we are around others who claim to believe, but justify behaviors that may or may not stem from selfish motives.

There are obvious examples of hypocrisy in our world, but in His famous “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus warns that many who seem to be doing good deeds, and “talking the talk” will not be part of God’s eternal kingdom. We are not to be seduced into thinking that God will be impressed by charitable giving, memorizing Scripture, or working on the Mission field if we are not willing to repent of our “secret” sins and false attitudes. And it is not for us to point fingers at “other” hypocrites– it is for us to humbly assess whether or not we are truly acting in obedience and submission to our Lord, or satisfying our own selfish desires and hoping for God’s stamp of approval.

Prayer should be a two-way communication. We pray to God, but we also listen for God’s guidance, wisdom, conviction, and encouragement. And we must act in obedience, and confess our disobedience if we want to “keep the slate clean” and keep a close relationship. When we refuse, we are just giving God lip service, and using His name to impress others and deceive ourselves. Others may judge us on appearances, but God sees what is in our heart. And “in that day” (v. 22), He will not let imposters through the gates of Heaven.

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The Good News is that Jesus doesn’t leave us hanging in verse 23. He goes on to say, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house upon the rock..” (Matthew 7:24) Jesus is our Lord, but also our Savior and our Advocate. When we call on Him AS our true Lord, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins (1 John 1:9), and His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3a)

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The act of Baptism alone does not have the power to save us. The practice of prayer alone has no saving power. But the pursuit of a relationship with Christ depends on such acts of obedience, humility, and trust. And the other good deeds that come from that relationship will not only help others, but will please God and strengthen that relationship. Instead of hearing, “I never knew you,” we can hear, “well done!” Not because of what we’ve done, but because of the partnership we’ve developed in God’s work.

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May God bless all those who have recently taken the step of Baptism. And may we all continue to pursue that relationship of dying to self, being buried with Him, and rising to new life in Christ!

Shibboleth

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. (Matthew 7:15 KJV)
Behold, I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves; be wary and wise as serpents, and be innocent (harmless, guileless, and without falsity) as doves. (Matthew 10:16)
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1 John 4:1-6 NKJV)

(All Bible references, including emphases, via biblegateway.com)

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Hucksters, charlatans, con-artists, false prophets– we’ve all seen or heard them. Some are easy to spot; while others seem sincere. They “talk the talk”–they “Praise the Lord,” they pray, they quote scripture. How can we tell if they are “wolves in sheep’s clothing?”

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In the Old Testament book of Judges, two tribal groups had a battle. Afterwards, the victors set up a “test” for soldiers trying to cross the Jordan River. The Ephraimites spoke a dialect that did not contain the “sh” sound. When asked to say the word, Shibboleth, they could not pronounce it correctly, and so were unable to hide their identity as enemy soldiers, even though they looked just like the others waiting to cross.

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There is an old Irish prayer that says, “May those who love us, love us; and those who don’t love us, may God turn their hearts; and if He doesn’t turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles so we’ll know them by their limping.” God doesn’t always “turn their ankles,” but He will give us the wisdom to discern false prophets– If we ask and listen. Even those who “talk the talk” will speak with a worldly “accent” that gives them away. They will fail the test of “Shibboleth.” Their talk will be filled with spiritual-sounding words and phrases, but it will deflect honor away from the only One truly worthy of our worship. Their teaching is described in 2 Timothy as “having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.” (2 Timothy 3:5 NIV) Beware of teaching that proclaims the power of the Human Spirit over that of God’s Spirit; or speaks of God’s power being demonstrated only in terms of worldly success. They may not “limp,” but they will “lisp.”

When the Gileadites used the “Shibboleth” test, they were looking for a specific mistake in pronunciation to identify their enemies. When we are testing Christian teachers, we should also look for specific “mis-pronouncements.” And just as important, we should look for words that don’t match actions and attitudes. For example, anyone who wants to call themselves a Christian or Christ-follower, but won’t proclaim Jesus Christ– His ministry, life, death, and resurrection– should be suspect. Many people want to proclaim a Jesus who will appeal to the masses– a Jesus who will be your pal, your guru, your cheerleader, or your “life coach,” but NOT your Lord. Others will present Him as a Savior who is distant, whose love is conditional on abject obedience and blind trust. Neither of these are accurate pictures of the biblical Jesus Christ. We must also beware the teachers who present a Jesus whose lifestyle is nothing like the one they practice. None of us is perfect, but we should be living a life that testifies to God’s faithfulness, not our own popularity or power or purse.

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The best way to learn to detect imposters and false teachers is to spend time each day with “the real thing.” When I spend time reading scripture each day, it become easier for me to detect a “lisp” when someone misquotes it or takes it out of context. When I spend time asking God to reveal more of his character, I will learn to spot His character (or absence!) in those around me.

Father, may I have ears to discern Your voice and Your power today. May I be wise as I listen to those who speak of You. And may I not say, do, or write anything that doesn’t reflect Your Truth and Your Glory. Thank You for Your wise counsel, Your examples throughout Scripture and in those who desire to follow You faithfully, and for Your Spirit, who reveals Truth.

Nothing But the Blood

As I write this, it is still Sunday evening. This morning, we sang a classic hymn at church– “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus.” It’s an old hymn, and familiar; we often sing such hymns on auto-pilot and without really thinking of the wonderful words and truths coming out of our throats.

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“What can wash away my sin?– Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” “What can make me whole again?–Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” When I come to God in prayer, confessing my sins, it is not my prayer that makes me clean. Nothing I can say or do will give me right standing before God. I am a sinner, and I fall short of God’s glory. I also trespass against His holiness, and even His mercy. I am guilty, and there is no “magic” prayer that will heal me or exonerate me.

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Yet I come before a Holy God and make my confession. Not because He doesn’t know that I have sinned. Not because my words will save me. I come because I know that the Blood of Jesus Christ has, and will make me whole and justified. I have no need to hide the truth of my condition, or try to make my own justification or sanctification. Christ has done it all.

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Prayers of confession are not for God’s benefit, but for ours. To hide our guilt, or to excuse it, is to despise God’s amazing gift of Grace. When we confess to God, it is not because He wants to humiliate us or cause us additional guilt– though this is often the lie we tell ourselves. God is eager to remove our guilt and to guide us in His righteous ways. But He will not save us against our own will or without our permission. He will not conspire with us to hide our secret sins, or pass the blame on to someone else. To do so would be to submit to OUR will. WE are NOT God, though we sometimes act as though our ways are better than His.

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I’m so glad that God is God– that His ways are perfect, and that I can trust Him completely. Even when I fall short, I can trust that God has already paid the price to make things right– something I could never do, and something I find too wonderful to fully comprehend.

Nothing but the blood can save me. And anything other than the blood will fail to set me free. My prayers of confession– no matter how polished or pious or piteous– cannot unlock the mystery of salvation and restoration. But they acknowledge the marvelous reality that it IS FINISHED! God’s Grace is sufficient! Hallelujah!

“I Have Seen the Lord!”

18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

John 20:18 (NIV) via biblegateway.com
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Over the past few weeks, there have been images of Jesus Christ all over– Jesus looking very gentle and passive as He rides a donkey into Jerusalem; Jesus teaching vast crowds and looking wise and unflappable. Thousands of images of Jesus the Suffering Servant– bruised, bloodied, yet meek and forgiving–carrying a Cross through the streets, or hanging between the two thieves. And the images of a risen Christ–glowing and serene and unearthly.

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When Jesus makes His return to Earth, He will come as LORD– victorious ruler of His creation–judge and final authority. We make a grave error if we only see Jesus as the Lamb of God, and not also the Lion of Judah. Jesus was meek and humble as a man, but He was always fully GOD as well. When Mary Magdalene finally recognized the Risen Jesus, she recognized Him as “the Lord.” All those who saw the Risen Christ recognized Him, not just as their friend or even as their teacher, but as their Lord. No earthly authority dared approach Him, question Him, try to re-capture Him, or hold Him. He appeared at will to those who were waiting for Him. He stopped telling parables, and started commissioning His disciples to spread the Gospel. Even those who knew Him had trouble at first recognizing this “Risen” Christ. Do we?

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When we look at images of Jesus Christ, — when we pray “in Jesus’ name”–do we see a kind teacher? A humble servant? A “Good” example to follow? Someone willing to lay down His life for us? Those are all accurate descriptions– but do we recognize Him as The Lord? He is the King of Kings and the Ruler of All Creation. Do we speak to Him as we would to an earthly King or Ruler? Do we give Him the Honor we would give an earthly celebrity or hero? Do we seek to know everything about Him? Do we seek to please Him? Obey Him? Magnify Him?

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It is easy to get caught up in a “Jesus and Me” theology that celebrates the intimate and close relationship that Jesus offers to us, until we lose some of the awe and majesty of who we are really following. Was this what happened to Mary and the others after Jesus’ death on Good Friday? When they went to the tomb on Easter morning, they expected to see the dead body of their friend, not the glorified body of their Creator!

When we seek Jesus today, are we looking for a friend and counselor? Are we looking for someone to meet our needs or fulfill our longings? Or are we looking for our Lord in all of HIS Glory? Do we come away feeling better about ourselves, or are we “bowled over” by spending time with the Alpha and Omega? What a different testimony we might have if we could say, every day, “I have seen The Lord!”

Take My Life..

We have entered the Lenten season, and many of us have made plans to “give up” something for the 40 days leading up to Easter–chocolate, or certain meats, or a certain habit. It is traditional to use this time leading up to Holy Week to focus on preparing our hearts to receive the Gift of salvation that comes from Christ’s resurrection on Easter.

But, in a larger sense, there is nothing we can do to prepare for Grace– it is completely unmerited favor. My willingness to deny my sweet tooth for six weeks cannot make me ready for God to allow His wrath to fall on His Holy Son, so that I can be declared righteous for all eternity. It is no more than a gesture.

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God is not impressed by our Lenten traditions. This doesn’t mean that we should not make the gesture; it doesn’t mean that we cannot grow closer to God by such observances. But we must not place too much reliance on them. Jesus Christ is the Author and Finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). He gave up far more than we can imagine in order to rescue us from all that we deserve. Jesus not only gave up His human life on the Cross, He gave up His throne, His status, His omnipresence, and His omnipotence. He allowed Himself to be subject to human authorities, and He served those He had created.

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Jesus didn’t just “give up” something on His way to the Cross. He offered everything He was! May we seek to do the same. May we pray, along with Jesus in the Garden, “..not my will, but Yours be done..” (Luke 22:42)

God and Sinners, Reconciled!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Joy! Peace! Reconciliation! Eternity! Emmanuel!

And Wonders of His Love…

“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.

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But the ultimate Wonder is that of God’s Love for us:

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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.

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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)

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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.

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God Is Not Dead, Nor Doth He Sleep..

It was almost 160 years ago, during the darkest days of America’s Civil War, that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem “Christmas Bells” that would become the Christmas Hymn, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” His son had been badly wounded in battle; his wife had died just a few years earlier, and the nation was in ruins and chaos. No one knew how much longer the war would continue or what the final outcome would be; Longfellow did not know if his son would live, or if he would be paralyzed for life. As he listened to the bells of Christmas ringing from church towers, he poured out all his doubts and fears in verse. Yet he concluded, “The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Christmas is not just a celebration of “comfort and joy” that comes from tinsel and lights, cozy fires, or gifts under brightly lit trees. Christmas is about Hope in times of darkness. It is about promises kept; prophesies fulfilled, victory assured, even when it looks as though the Enemy has the upper hand.

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It is horribly tempting in troubled times to wonder and question God’s ways– does He hear? Does He see? Is He asleep? Does He exist? How can a “good” God allow such suffering and pain? And like Longfellow, we listen to our circumstances, and they seem to drown out the message of Christmas– “For Hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men.” The cannons of yesteryear may have been replaced with 24-hour news cycles or Facebook news feeds, with protests and lock-downs, COVID counts and contested elections, but the noise is still the same. There is hatred, deceit, destruction, and doubt in our world–it was present during the Civil War; it was present during the Roman occupation at the time of Christ’s birth. But that birth brought a singular hope– one that has become so familiar, and so casual as to be almost forgotten amidst the immediate urgent noises of the day.

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The trappings of Christmas sometimes hide the very Glory of Christ’s Advent. God CAME. He LIVED AMONG US. He was humble. He felt the cold and heat of long days and nights; his feet got dirty from walking. He laughed and cried. And, He DIED. He felt agony and shame and fear as he gasped for breath, naked and bloody and facing sneers and anger from the crowd. But God IS NOT DEAD–He conquered death; He rose again victorious. And He did it so that our suffering is not in vain– our suffering is not the end of our story.

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GOD IS NOT DEAD. Hope is not in vain. Nor does He sleep–even in the silence of our lonely nights, even in the noisy chaos of life in 2020–God has not stepped off His throne; He has not turned His back on mankind. “The Wrong shall fail–” though it may seem strong and strut arrogantly through the streets, shouting and threatening–God is the final authority. Nothing is hidden from Him. He sees every injustice, every secret sin; He hears every lie, every twisted truth, every deceit. And He has no favorites– there is no excuse, no “religious” exemption– ALL have sinned, and all will be held to account.

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EXCEPT– because of that one birth and death and resurrection–the debt is already paid. “The Right (shall) prevail with peace on earth, good-will to men.” For those who listen beyond the noise of battle, the bells of Christmas ring “more loud and deep” with the hope and joy and strength that overcome our pain and struggle. Longfellow found that truth– and I’m so glad he shared it. I hope his words will continue to remind us to listen through this season for the true message of Christmas.

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Holy Infant, So Tender and Mild

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

When Half-Spent Was the Night

‘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.

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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”…

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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!

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