Name Above All Names

We live in a wonderfully diverse world, filled with unique individuals. One thing that defines us to our families, neighbors, and friends, is our name. Names can be tricky–some are difficult to pronounce, or spell. Some names are shortened or changed to form “nicknames.” Others are changed by circumstances, like adoption or marriage. Some names are common to several people, or shared as “namesakes” of others, or shared between generations, calling for additions, like “Jr.,” or “the elder” or “the fourth.” Some people reject the name they were given at birth, preferring to use an alias, or going through a legal process to change it. Some names have become symbolic, or stereotyped, famous, or infamous, or iconic.

Civil Rights activist Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gesturing during sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church. (Photo by Donald Uhrbrock//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Even though many of us may share a common first name, or surname, (or even both), our name still represents who we are–it becomes a symbolic representation of all that makes us unique– our personality, our history, and our character. And it’s not just people who carry names. We name rivers and mountains, cities, houses, farms, cars, products, pets, works of art…the list goes on. It is deep in the human soul to name things. This is a God-given desire. All the way back in the second chapter of Genesis, God brought all the beasts of the air and land to Adam, to see what name he would give them. Adam and Eve chose the names for their sons– names with very personal meanings. Names are important and carry power; they should never be taken lightly.

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God recognizes each one of us by name. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah both refer to God calling them before they were even born! Before the great judge Samuel even knew how to recognize God’s voice, God called him by name. God often changes names– Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel, Saul of Tarsus to Paul, the disciple Simon to Peter (or Cephas). One reason God changes names is to show His power to transform people and give them, not just a new name, but a renewed nature and spirit.

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And when we talk to God, whose very name is sacred, He allows us to call on Him through the Name He gave to Himself/His Son– Jesus. There are many boys and men who carry this name, but when we pray in the name of Jesus, we are referring to the one and only Begotten Son of God the Father; the Jesus of the Trinity; Jesus the Virgin-born Messiah. HIS name is above all other names. There is power in every ordinary name, but THIS name carries eternal, sovereign, immeasurable power. It encompasses His holiness, His compassion, His wisdom, His goodness, His faithfulness, and His Love. There is no other name by which we are saved; no other name by which we can be made new. It is not a name to be taken lightly or in vain. It is a name to be honored, cherished, and exalted. JESUS. The name above all names!

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What a Waste!

The author of Ecclesiastes (presumed to be King Solomon) was a wise man. Yet he concluded that almost every aspect of life was meaningless– nothing more than “chasing after the wind.” Health, wealth, learning, entertainment, popularity, achievement– they can give pleasure and temporary satisfaction. But in the end, everyone dies, and their health is gone, their wealth goes to someone else, their learning is lost, their name and accomplishments are all forgotten and/ or destroyed.

In chapter 3, the author states that there is a time for “everything”– all the seemingly important activities of life–building, and tearing down, war and peace, living and dying…https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ecclesiastes+3&version=NIV And then he makes a curious statement in verse 11: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Solomon describes this as a burden– mankind can sense eternity, but can live and see only a brief span of it.

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So what are we to do?

First, we need to make an important distinction– Solomon explores the pursuits of life and finds them all meaningless. At no point does he say that life itself is without meaning. Nor does he say there is no difference between wisdom and foolishness, honest labor and laziness, or self-indulgence and connectedness. I know some people who, after a quick reading through Ecclesiastes, use it to justify a hedonistic lifestyle. “Nothing matters,” they say. But that’s not what this book actually promotes. It isn’t that “nothing” matters. Rather, it is that none of our personal pursuits produce meaning in and of themselves or beyond our own limitations.

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Next, we should be wise in light of the eternity that God has placed in our hearts. Even if our pursuits seem trivial and temporary, they have consequences that ripple through time– long after we are gone. We may not be able to see the future, but we CAN see the effects of wisdom and foolishness in the lives of others, and we can heed the advice of those who have come before us. Most of all, we have the wisdom that comes from God. Solomon’s wisdom, though incredible among humans, was limited to his own experience and learning. His frustration and despair came from knowing how limited it was!

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Finally, we must read Ecclesiastes in context. Solomon was wise, but he lacked the vision of his father, David, to fully anticipate the coming of Messiah. Solomon’s ambitions were for the span of his own earthly life. He did not have his hope firmly rooted in a resurrection and an eternal life shared with his Creator. For all his wisdom, he was found lacking in faith. After writing such wisdom (not just in Ecclesiastes, but throughout the Proverbs), Solomon ended his life in a foolish pursuit of relativism and compromise that ruined much of the strength and prosperity he had brought to his kingdom in earlier years.

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One thing remains– to fear God and follow His commands. God is eternal–and all that is done for Him and by Him and through Him will never be wasted. Solomon’s life may have ended with failure, but his words and wisdom live on. Our lives may be short; we may have wasted precious time in meaningless pursuits–God has promised that “all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 CSB) and that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6 NIV)

Are You Ready?

Someone asked me yesterday if I was “ready for Christmas.” They wanted to know if I had prepared for the holiday– had I bought and wrapped presents for the family, sent out Christmas cards, decorated the house, baked cookies, etc.? I had to admit that I was not ready in that sense. I don’t generally do much in the way of decorating, and I’ve cut back on the cookie baking, too. I’m not sending greeting cards this year, and I don’t have all the presents purchased or wrapped.

But I AM ready for Christmas– I’m ready to celebrate the coming of Jesus to Earth; His life, death, and resurrection; the new life and hope that resulted from God’s boundless love. I’m ready to sing carols and light candles and rejoice! I’m ready to be awestruck again by the ancient story of shepherds and angels and wise men from the East; of the little town of Bethlehem and the manger stall and a bright star; of a newborn child; the Lord of all Creation wrapped in rags; the Word of God willingly limited to unintelligible cooing and soft cries, to nakedness and infant human weakness.

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Being “ready for Christmas” means different things to different people. To many, it means surviving the stress of shopping, going to rounds of holiday parties, and trying to remember that it is supposed to be a season of “peace on Earth.” For others, it means watching the celebration from the outside looking in; facing loneliness, grief, regret, and envying or resenting those who have found joy when all they see is darkness. For some of us, it means reflecting on the amazing transformation we experience because of the coming of this single baby. We remember that there was a time when there was no Christmas– only a dim hope that God would someday send a Savior. Once the prophets could only speak of what had been promised, but not yet seen– could only remind people to “get ready” for something they had never known.

The world was waiting for the Messiah’s coming, yet it was unprepared for His actual arrival.

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But the story of Jesus Christ didn’t end with Christmas. It didn’t even end at Easter, with the glorious resurrection. We await the triumphant return of the risen Christ. He is Coming! He will return in an instant…no long period of Advent; no countdown calendars or lists of things to get ready; no angels or stars to announce His arrival; no Christmas pageant or Easter sunrise service–just a trumpet blast and an explosion of Glory. He will not arrive as a helpless babe, or a suffering servant, but as a conquering King. There will be no carols about little towns and sleeping cattle; no time to “let every heart prepare Him room.”

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Today, we prepare to celebrate Messiah’s coming. We spend time and money and energy getting “ready” to recreate the Advent of Jesus Christ. How much time have we spent getting ready for His return? I pray that this Christmas season will mean more than just a happy celebration of one event– even one as joyful as the Birth of Christ. Let us prepare our hearts to live out the joy of His Salvation, and prepare to receive our King in triumph.

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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Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

Christmas is a time of joy and light. But the time of Advent is often a time of somber reflection. We remember a time we have never known– a time before the coming of Christ the Messiah– a time before the mysteries of Heaven were revealed and before the victory of Salvation was accomplished. Advent reminds us of the spiritual darkness that existed before God, in human form, in humble obedience, and in sacrificial love, became the Light of the World, and the Hope of All Nations.

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Before the bells rang, and the angels sang; before the kings brought gold and the shepherds ran to tell the news; before there were Christmas Carols, Christmas decorations, or Christmas pageants– there was solemn silence, fear, dread, and waiting. God had been silent. The prophets had been silent. The world had grown hard and cold.

Jesus stepped out of the unfathomable glory of the Highest Heaven– surrounded by armies of angels all worshiping Him and ready to do His bidding. In an instant, He became a helpless fetus inside a helpless young woman, a subject of the Roman Empire, and at the mercy of her culture. Her fiance could have repudiated her; her parents could have disowned her; her community could have had her stoned to death, along with her unborn child. No one, even those who were anticipating the arrival of a Christ, was expecting this tiny baby growing inside the womb to change the course of history.

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He was born in obscurity, in ignominious squalor. He was the Lord of All Creation, wrapped in rags and laid in a feeding trough in an overcrowded city at tax time. There were no bells or carolers, no glittering trees or festivals of lights, no sounds of joy and celebration– not in that manger in Bethlehem. Instead, there were strangers pushing and shoving, shouting, and snoring in the inns and houses and streets, being watched by soldiers and pickpockets alike, as they made their way through narrow, unfamiliar streets and tried to lock out the worry and danger and dread. There may have been silence in the fields and valleys outside of town, but not near the stable where Jesus was born. No. The “silence” we sing about during Advent is the silence inside our own hearts– a call to “be still,” and know that this baby we celebrate is God Incarnate. He is the One to whom every knee will one day bow, and every tongue confess that He is LORD.

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In the stillness and silence of Advent, in the darkness lit only by candles and faint hope, we being to understand the contrast. We re-imagine what came before the joy and hope and eternal clouds of witnesses shouting, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” We remember the days and years before the angels sang, and the star danced across the night sky– before the shocking crucifixion and the glorious resurrection of this still unborn Savior.

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Let us spend these days of Advent preparing our hearts for the true wonder of Christmas. It doesn’t come in the wrapped packages under a festive tree, or in the feasting with friends or family. It doesn’t come with sirens and parades, or speakers at the mall blaring out favorite tunes. It doesn’t come in the majesty of a Cathedral ringing with the voices of a choir and organ. It comes when the silence and darkness of our sin and dread are pierced with the overwhelming glory of God With Us– Emmanuel is coming! But for now, for these moments, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.

Who Do You Say That I Am?

During Jesus’ ministry on earth, there were many discussions about who he was, who he said he was, and who others said he was.  The Bible is full of the names of God, of Jesus, and of the Holy Spirit– there are descriptive names, prophetic names, genealogical references, allegorical names, sacred names…but one of the pivotal questions Jesus asked of his followers was this: “Who do YOU say that I am”? (Luke 9:18-27; Matt. 16: 13-18)

We can ask ourselves why Jesus might pose this question to the disciples– was it some Socratic technique, or a trick question?  The disciples had heard several theories, descriptions, and names tossed about.  Was Jesus trying to determine how effectively he had presented himself to the Jewish people– and to his closest followers?   I don’t think so.  If that were his motivation, he could have asked, “Who to you THINK I am?”, or “Who WOULD you say that I am?”  Instead, he asked “Who DO YOU SAY  that I am?”

This is still a very relevant question today, and not just as a matter of recognizing him as Messiah.  Even when Peter gave an answer, Jesus did not say, “Good job, Peter.  You nailed it in one!  That’s the right answer, and your prize is that you will become “The Rock” on which I build my church.”  That’s how some people might read it, but that’s not the true story– Peter gave a correct answer, an inspired answer, but it was not a definitive answer.  Peter recognized who Jesus was supposed to be, but he had not experienced, and did not know, the fullness of who Jesus was.  Peter would later go on to deny this same Jesus, and say that he did not even know him at all!  Only after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension did Peter fully recognize and live out the answer he gave earlier.  His last years were spent demonstrating  in words and deeds that he had truly encountered “the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”

How does this relate to a pursuit of prayer in our own time?  What we say about Jesus involves more than just a pat answer.  To say, “He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God” is a correct answer, but what does that really mean to us?  What does it mean as we live as a witness before others?  Is he Christ and Savior, and Messiah to me? When I say he is the “Son of God,” is that just another of his many names to me, or do I understand all the richness of that title?  When I review the many names of God, do they resonate with personal meaning?  Do I pray to the “God who Sees,” to the “God who Provides,” the “God of my Salvation,” the “Almighty”, and the “God who Hears?”  Or am I praying to a “God I studied and know a lot about,”  a “God I heard about at Church,” or a “God I hope will hear me?”  If I pray “in Jesus’ name,” is that just an affectation?  Is it just a formality, or does that name, that person, inhabit my prayers and my life?  Am I praying in the name of the “Lion of Judah,” “Emmanuel”, “the Risen Lamb,” or just “a great teacher who talked a lot about love?”

These are not questions meant to trigger doubt about my salvation, but questions designed to challenge my commitment and my faithfulness.  I bear the name of Christ–what I think I say about him; what I think I believe about him; what I think others see of him in me– it matters.  It is of supreme importance.  I need to be sure that I’m not taking for granted that what I know about my savior is the same as Knowing Him, and that what I think I’m saying about him is clear, consistent, and true.

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What do my prayers say about Jesus?  What do my actions say about him?  What does my life say about him?  Hopefully, like Peter, the end of my story will bring honor and bear truthful witness to the Great “I AM” of scripture, the God of MY salvation, and the God who has heard me, loved me, corrected me, redeemed me, sanctified me, and welcomed me home to be with Him eternally!

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