I wanted to cap off this week of Christmas carols with this line from “O, Come, All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles)”
Oh, come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, Oh, come ye, oh, come ye, to Bethlehem. Come and behold Him, born the King of angels;
Refrain: Oh, come, let us adore Him, oh, come, let us adore Him, Oh, come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.
Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation; Oh, sing, all ye citizens of heav’n above! Glory to God, all glory in the highest;
Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning; Jesus, to Thee be all glory giv’n; Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing;
O Come, All Ye Faithful– Words by John F. Wade (Latin); translation by Frederick Oakeley.
The words of this hymn sum up an important pattern running through this week’s group of song lyrics. Worship, praise, obedience, wonder, joy– all come by way of invitation. Christmas compels us, not by force of law, or a show of superior power, but by beauty, generosity, humility, and Love. God gives the invitation; He draws close to the lowly and the broken-hearted; He dispels the darkness with starlight, and breaks through the silence with angelic choirs; He cries quietly from a borrowed stable. Shepherds leave their flocks to see him, Magi travel with treasures to worship him– but the rest of the world passes by, unaware and untouched. As this child grows, he continues to issue invitations– “Come unto me, you who are weary, and I will give you rest!” “Whosoever believes in me shall have everlasting life.” “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry. (John 6:35 a)” Jesus didn’t use threats and judgment to attract angry followers. In fact, when he spoke harsh truth, the religious and political leaders of the day plotted to kill him– and he knew of their plans but did nothing to stop them! Those who followed Jesus did so because he asked.
It is the same for us today. The invitation still exists– it is still valid. It is possible to ignore Jesus, to say, “No;” even to deny Him. Christmas is not a command. It is a communion. The wonder of Christmas– the miracle– is that God has not ignored us or denied us; He has not bound us in chains and forced our obedience or our worship; He has not abandoned us to the darkness. He reached out, He pursued us, wooed us, sharing our burdens and our woes, and promising us fullness of life and joy– IF we will accept the invitation.
Let us come. Let us worship and adore Him. Let no tongue on Earth be silent or sullen. Let nothing keep us in dismay and fear. Let our hearts prepare to receive this matchless gift of Grace. Let all that is within us praise His Holy Name!
“Of the Father’s Love Begotten” by Aurelius C. Prudentius, 413, cento Translated by John. M. Neale, 1818-1866 and Henry W. Baker, 1821-1977
1. Of the Father’s love begotten Ere the worlds began to be, He is Alpha and Omega, He the Source, the Ending He, Of the things that are, that have been, And that future years shall see Evermore and evermore.
2. Oh, that birth forever blessed When the Virgin, full of grace, By the Holy Ghost conceiving, Bare the Savior of our race, And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer, First revealed His sacred face Evermore and evermore.
3. O ye heights of heaven, adore Him; Angel hosts, His praises sing; Powers, dominions, bow before Him And extol our God and King. Let no tongue on earth be silent, Every voice in concert ring Evermore and evermore.
4. This is He whom Heaven-taught singers Sang of old with one accord; Whom the Scriptures of the prophets Promised in their faithful word. Now He shines, the Long-expected; Let creation praise its Lord Evermore and evermore.
5. Christ, to Thee, with God the Father, And, O Holy Ghost, to Thee Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving And unending praises be, Honor, glory, and dominion, And eternal victory Evermore and evermore.
Christ’s Humility and Exaltation 5 Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, 6 who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited.[a 7 Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, 8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death— even to death on a cross. 9 For this reason God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow— in heaven and on earth and under the earth— 11 and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:5-11 (Christian Standard Bible–CSB)
An early Christian poet penned the words for this Christmas Hymn over 1500 years ago. He was echoing the words of the Apostle Paul from 400 years before that. Paul’s “hymn” was expressing truths penned by prophets and songmakers stretching back centuries before his time. From the earliest recorded writings of Moses we see the same themes: God is eternal–eternal in existence, eternal in power, eternal in glory; God extends himself on behalf of his creation–giving, sacrificing, inviting, forgiving; God exalts the humble–he notices the overlooked, elevates the lowly, honors the meek.
These themes have not changed in centuries, but our interpretation and usage of them has. I still love this old hymn, and the passage from Philippians, but I see people, Christians and non-Christians alike, using phrases like, “Let no tongue on earth be silent,” and “Every knee shall bow” not as invitations or extensions of God’s glory and sacrifice, but as threats. I find this understandable, but not defensible– especially coming from Christians.
I think our modern world has lost much of its wonder and ability to see “honor, glory and dominion.” We spend our days “debunking” any idea or person who might seem worthy of respect or honor, but we replace them with ideas and people who are less worthy of respect, because they make us feel superior and smug in our own complacent, convenient lives. We are satisfied by glitter, instead of seeking glory. We have given the word “dominion” the same negative connotation as “colonialism” or “conquest”. We do not choose to honor humility or service– we celebrate what is brash, flashy, loud, and self-serving.
Some of our modern churches and worship services fall into the same trap. We give more honor to the worship band and the comfortable seats than we do to the creator of the heavens. We spend our money on t-shirts and CDs proclaiming the wonders of OUR faith, but we don’t have any money to share with those in need just two streets away. I am not saying that this is unique to our time, or that the early Church was without fault. But there is a very different feeling one gets in entering a medieval church or cathedral–they were not built for human comfort, but to inspire the sort of knee-bowing, tongue-confessing awe found in the ancient hymns. Jesus grabbing a cup of Joe and plopping down next to us in a climate-controlled, renovated movie theater does not have the same effect. We are sometimes left with the impression that Glory is ephemeral and glittery, and God is more interested in our comfort than in our transformation.
So when we read that God is eternally glorious and that every knee WILL bow and every tongue WILL confess– we see this as coming from a self-important little-g “god” who compels his creation to worship him out of a vain desire for imputed glory. In contrast, the Bible presents a God whose very nature IS Glorious. We worship him when we see him as he is. When we choose in this life to exalt ourselves and ignore God’s invitation, and the ways in which he reveals his glory here on earth, it doesn’t diminish his glory or change his nature.
Consider a beautiful sunset. There was a glorious sunset in our area last Saturday night. Several of my friends posted pictures of it– it was awe-inspiring! That was its very nature. But many people missed seeing it, or recognizing its beauty. After all, the sun sets every day. This sunset came and went like all the others. The sky didn’t force anyone to look at it, but it was visible to anyone who would see it. God’s presence, when fully revealed, will be stunning in its Glory and impossible to ignore. Every knee WILL bow and every tongue WILL confess– simply in awe of it. God invites us to open our eyes, to catch glimpses (like Saturday’s sunset) of the glory he imputes to even the most ordinary and humble things in life.
And so it was in the incarnation. God’s glory arrived in the form of a baby– one among thousands in Judea, His divine nature wrapped in the ordinariness of arms and legs, cooing and crying like any other baby, born in obscurity, yet announced from the beginning and heralded by the very hosts of heaven– Here HE is! Come and behold Him! Worship and adore Him! Evermore and Evermore!
What Child is this who, laid to rest On Mary’s lap is sleeping? Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, While shepherds watch are keeping? This, this is Christ the King, Whom shepherds guard and angels sing; Haste, haste, to bring Him laud, The Babe, the Son of Mary. Why lies He in such mean estate, Where ox and ass are feeding? Good Christians, fear, for sinners here The silent Word is pleading. Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, The cross be borne for me, for you; Hail, hail the Word made flesh, The Babe, the Son of Mary. So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh, Come peasant, king to own Him; The King of kings salvation brings, Let loving hearts enthrone Him. Raise, raise a song on high, The virgin sings her lullaby; Joy, joy for Christ is born, The Babe, the Son of Mary.
Words by William C. Dix
No other name in all history elicits such differing and intense responses. Jesus, the son of Mary Jesus, the Son of God Jesus, the Son of Man Jesus, the Son of David Jesus, the Christ Jesus, the Messiah
Who is this child– ruler of the universe, Laid in a feeding stall, In a simple stable, In a small town, In a captive land? Son of a carpenter (illegitimate, by some accounts), In the royal line of David (but so far removed as to be of no account).
Yet angel hosts sing “Gloria!” Kings and philosophers travel from distant lands for just a glimpse, Bringing priceless treasures and humbled hearts, While the beleaguered puppet king of a conquered people Prepares to destroy him.
Will he rise to take his place in Herod’s palace? Will he lead a revolt to free his people from Rome? Will he bring together rival factions among the priesthood? Will he … Die in agony, betrayed and scorned?
This, this is Christ the King; The Lamb of God. Savior and Sacrifice. “The Silent Word”, Pleading, Healing, Bleeding, Ascending. Even in his humble life and Ignominious death He rose to change the world– Stopping time and dividing it into All that came before and All that has happened since.
This is Christ the King Bruised for our sins, Betrayed by our selfishness Cheapened by our compromise and corruption.
Bring him incense, gold, and myrrh; He is more than our tinsel, jingle bells, and platinum charge cards. He is the King– He is a Babe; the son of Mary.
For God So Loved the World 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
John 3:16 English Standard Version (ESV)
From the very beginning, God has been a giver of good gifts. He created a beautiful world, teeming with life and joy. He gave mankind dominion over this beautiful creation, and even when we rebelled and fell short of our calling, God gave us promises of restoration and renewal. He gave His words and demonstrations of His character and goodness as He interacted with His chosen people. He took a childless man and promised to make him the father of many nations. He took His people through the wilderness and provided for their every need– from their heads to their sandal-shod toes.
God’s greatest gift was himself– and He gave everything He had to give.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1:14 New International Version (NIV)
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!
Many of us are celebrating Thanksgiving today– but there is great reason to give thanks every day for this indescribable gift!
Thanksgiving is so much more than turkey dinners or football on TV or shopping. It is a lifestyle and an attitude that recognizes the God who gives lavishly, lovingly, eternally, and to the very last measure.
A Psalm of David. 103 Bless the Lord, O my soul; And all that is within me, bless His holy name! 2 Bless the Lord, O my soul, And forget not all His benefits: 3 Who forgives all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases, 4 Who redeems your life from destruction, Who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies, 5 Who satisfies your mouth with good things, So that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. 6 The Lord executes righteousness And justice for all who are oppressed. 7 He made known His ways to Moses, His acts to the children of Israel. 8 The Lord is merciful and gracious, Slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. 9 He will not always strive with us, Nor will He keep His anger forever. 10 He has not dealt with us according to our sins, Nor punished us according to our iniquities. 11 For as the heavens are high above the earth, So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; 12 As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us. 13 As a father pities his children, So the Lord pities those who fear Him. 14 For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust. 15 As for man, his days are like grass; As a flower of the field, so he flourishes. 16 For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, And its place remembers it no more. 17 But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting On those who fear Him, And His righteousness to children’s children, 18 To such as keep His covenant, And to those who remember His commandments to do them. 19 The Lord has established His throne in heaven, And His kingdom rules over all. 20 Bless the Lord, you His angels, Who excel in strength, who do His word, Heeding the voice of His word. 21 Bless the Lord, all you His hosts, You ministers of His, who do His pleasure. 22 Bless the Lord, all His works, In all places of His dominion. Bless the Lord, O my soul!
Often in our churches, we focus on two factors of our relationship with Christ– worship and obedience. Worship focuses on His majesty and worth. Obedience focuses on His power and authority. But when the Psalmist speaks here, he is actually focusing on another element. Blessing isn’t so much about majesty or authority; it isn’t about obedience or worship. It is about communion. We bless and are blessed, not just by a word or deed, but by the speaker or doer–they bless us by what they say or do, but they ARE a blessing to us for who they are.
God is worthy of our worship and obedience, but he wants us to be a blessing– to come to him in Love and fellowship, and to be blessed by Who He Is as we meet with him.
Today, worship God. Obey Him. But let’s take time to bless Him and be blessed in return as we spend time with the Lover of Our Souls.
It’s homecoming season–in small towns around the area, high school football stadiums are being turned into parade grounds as students decorate floats, dress up, rally, and prepare for a chilly Friday night game. Hot cider, coffee, or cocoa, hot dogs, caramel apples, donuts; hats, scarves, and sweatshirts with team logos; scores of alumni in the stands to cheer on the home team and share memories of years gone by. Young and old will cheer themselves hoarse hoping for a victory, and the band will play fight songs, as the cheerleaders jump and shout with all their might. Fans will argue the calls of the refs, and discuss the plays and players. Some eyes will be glued to the action on the field, while others will be looking around for familiar faces, and greeting old friends.
Some people are more “into” sports than others, but there is a contagious excitement on Homecoming night for almost anyone. People are stirred up; pulses are racing, hope and anticipation run high.
What happens on Friday night should be what happens on Sunday mornings…
Do we “come home” to church with an air of excitement and anticipation? Do we expect victory? Are we eagerly looking for faces in the crowd? Discussing the “action on the field” of spiritual warfare? Do we pray with the same enthusiasm as we use to cheer on a high school football team? Do we even know the other members of our team? Or have we stopped showing up for the game, expecting defeat and shame, or shrugging our shoulders– “After all, it’s just a game…”
A few months ago, I went to the theater to see the movie “Paul, the Apostle of Christ.” It was an excellent movie, not the least because I found so much of it relevant to what is happening in the world today. The movie was centered around Paul’s time in prison in Rome; the upheaval and persecution facing the early church, and the looming certainty that Paul would be martyred and his words and leadership sorely missed. The church in Rome was facing division– some were militantly opposed to the corruption in Rome under Nero, and wanted to form a rebellion. Others wanted to flee Rome in hope of supporting outlying churches, starting new churches, or just finding a safer haven. Still others were losing hope and wanted to give up or hide.
The movie also covered (in a series of flashbacks) scenes of Paul’s earlier life. I don’t want to spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but this part of Paul’s life is covered in the Bible, so I will stick to the facts presented there, rather than the drama from the screen…
Saul of Tarsus was both a Jew and a Roman citizen by birth. He had studied God’s word intensely his whole life, and became a Pharisee. He had studied under some of the greatest scholars of his age–in today’s world, he would have been one of the greatest legal minds of our time– a superstar in the arena of law, philosophy, and logic. Of all the people in Jerusalem and throughout the Jewish world, Paul KNEW right from wrong. He KNEW the words of God, the laws of God, the traditions of God’s people. The result of all that knowledge was an obsession with wiping out those people (Jews, especially, but also Gentiles) who followed Jesus of Nazareth and “The Way.” Saul was a man filled with righteous anger, and a zeal to have everyone conform to what was “right.” He was a man of power and influence– a man to be feared and respected. In his letters, we can still see some of that intensity and the way he has of arguing both sides to their logical ends. But something happened to Saul..something that changed his entire future, including his name.
Paul, the Apostle of Christ, was still a Jew and a Roman citizen. He was the same man who had studied vigorously and knew the laws of Moses and God’s words through the centuries written by prophets and historians and psalmists. But the Paul we see in scripture, while still bearing the intensity of his youth, is a man of gratitude and peace. Here is a man who works steadily with his hands for honest but meager wages compared to what he might have made as a Pharisee. He is a man who boldly faces down even Peter and James in Jerusalem, but who nevertheless takes orders from a council made up of former fishermen and tradesmen. Paul undergoes flogging, arrests, prison, cold, hardship, physical pain, poverty, and disgrace with the kind of stoic acceptance, and even joy, that makes him a great hero of the early church. Never once does he return to the anger that drove him to persecute others who did not agree with him. Instead, he is willing to be the victim of persecution at the hands of those he used to serve.
I was scrolling through Facebook the other night, and I chanced upon posts from two women I know. Both are about the same age, both mothers of five children, and both are practicing Christians. The first woman was posting about two recent difficulties faced by her family, and how God had been faithful and gracious in spite of a huge loss and a tense situation that could have turned into another tragedy. She spoke of God’s answers to prayer, and how their family was reminded of God’s goodness as people came alongside at just the right moment, and the loss was not as great as it might have been. I was inspired and encouraged by the way she saw God’s love, and gave credit to all who had helped them.
The second woman spoke in vicious tones about how she would not associate with certain Christians who hold political and social views she sees as hateful. She cursed fellow followers of Christ for being “anti-Jesus,” and condemned several of her early teachers and pastors. I read her remarks with great sadness, because I remember her as a younger woman, eagerly memorizing scripture and being a loving and encouraging example to others. I also read her remarks with pain, because I think she includes me in the “hateful” group based solely on the type of church I attend.
It is not my place to say that one woman is a “better” Christian than the other– on another day, their FB posts might cause me to think very differently. And God sees more than just what we post on FB or say in passing conversation–He knows our every thought and motive. So I want to be careful–these women, though similar in some superficial ways, lead very different lives and have very different experiences of following God. But I saw in their posts two ways of “seeing” Christ.
When Saul of Tarsus, in his anger and zeal, traveled toward Damascus intending to kill people he may have never met, he was already a crusader for Jehovah– ready to mete out justice against anyone who didn’t meet his standards. He KNEW all about God. He knew what it took to be righteous.
But when he actually encountered Christ– he was knocked off his horse, blinded and overwhelmed by a vision. And when Christ spoke to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4), Saul didn’t recognize the voice of the very God he so proudly served. Saul remained blinded for three days, but his vision was never the same again.
As Paul, he became a man of prayer– his letters are filled with prayers for the well-being and spiritual growth of those he misses and longs to see. They overflow with doxologies and prayers of worship for the Savior he loves and serves with gladness. He can’t stop talking about God’s goodness– to him, to Israel throughout the centuries, and to the Gentiles who now have access to the throne of Grace. He still has harsh things to say to some of the followers who “don’t get it.” To those who want to compromise with sin or go back to legalism. But he pleads with them; he doesn’t throw stones.
It can be very frustrating in today’s world and in our society to see Christians who have very different ideas about worship styles, ways of interacting with others, even ways of living out the words of Christ. Sometimes, it seems that fellow Christians are blind to the needs of the poor, or the sins of their friends, or the hypocrisy in their lifestyle. I think scripture gives us a clear directive:
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.
Matthew 7:3-5 (English Standard Version)
We should not rush to condemnation, name-calling, and finger-pointing. Instead, we should do a “vision” test and see if we are looking and acting in love or in self-righteous hypocrisy.
God doesn’t want us to be blinded by the light of our own knowledge and self-righteousness. Instead, He wants us to walk in the light of His Word–His Word made flesh! May we live in the light of Paul’s example of prayer, loving correction, and running the good race.
15 Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.
Praise is an essential part of prayer– God is worthy of our continual praise and worship. He is eternally good and thoroughly righteous; all-powerful and all-wise. The author of Hebrews reminds us that we are to offer a sacrifice of praise–continually– to God.
This is more than just a simple “Praise the Lord” uttered when we are at church or surrounded by fellow believers. A “sacrifice” of praise implies more than just a gift or even an acknowledgement of God’s worthiness and majesty. It implies cost, and hardship; a giving up of something precious in the act of worship.
Sometimes, the sacrifice is small–giving up our right to take credit for God’s mercies; being thankful (instead of jealous) of our neighbor’s success. Other times, the sacrifice is painful– praising God in the aftermath of a daughter’s rape, or a spouse’s betrayal, or acknowledging God’s goodness after a diagnosis of cancer or dementia.
God isn’t looking for false and empty worship–He wants us to be real. Sometimes, the sacrifice isn’t eloquent, polished, or “pretty”; it comes with tears, tormenting questions, and anguish. Sacrifices are poured out, broken, or burned up– dreams that have been dashed, hopes and plans that have been abandoned, heartaches that crush the soul.
God wants these sacrifices– but not because He is a cruel God who wants to see us crushed and hopeless. God wants these sacrifices because only when we are ready to put them on the altar can He make the exchange– Beauty for ashes; eternal hope for temporary dreams; trust and security for our doubts and fears.
In the same verse (Hebrews 13:15), the author describes the sacrifice of praise as the “fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” The Hebrews to whom he was writing were making a huge sacrifice in just uttering the name of Jesus. They were beset on all sides– from the Jews who did not acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah; to the Romans who were using them as scapegoats for troubles within their Empire. In the midst of their troubles, God did not ask them to slaughter their enemies, or to create a separate society and live only to themselves. He didn’t ask for impossible deeds of daring–though many endured persecution and became martyrs for the Cross of Christ. God asked for the sacrifice of praise. God’s ways are not our ways– his weapons are not our weapons, and his words are not our words– God’s words are more powerful than any weapon or plan that we could ever imagine.
The practice of praying the various names of God and titles of Jesus and the Holy Spirit– Almighty, Father, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Counselor, I AM, Savior, Redeemer, etc.–is the essence of praise. In times of trouble, God’s attributes may seem hidden, but when we acknowledge what we do not see, we are harvesting the fruit of our faith and putting it on the altar.
Stand back– God has been known to set both the sacrifice and the altar on fire!