Wednesday, December 24, 2008

"hark the herald angels sing, 'Christ is born in bethlehem!'"

"born to give them second birth"

"now there was a pharisee, a man named nicodemus who was a member of the jewish ruling council. he came to Jesus at night and said, 'rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. for no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.'

"Jesus replied, "very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.'

"'how can anyone be born when they are old?' nicodemus asked. 'surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother's womb to be born!'

"jesus answered, 'very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. you should not be surprised at my saying, "you must be born again." the wind blows wherever it pleases. you hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. so it is with everyone born of the Spirit.'" (john 3.1-8 tniv)

i think i have a pretty good birth story. it goes like this...

when my mom determined that she was in labor, she and my dad called the doctor. he told them to make their way to the hospital, though there was no rush. try telling that to the man who is about to be a first time father! my dad drove way too fast to the hospital, so he and my mom had to wait in the parking lot for a while. because of insurance issues, they didn't want to register at the hospital until after midnight. three hours later, i was born.

while i have done my best to be a good person and live a good life, i have failed all too often. i have been petty and catty, impetuous and foolish, lazy and prideful, gluttonous and greedy, and that was just today! this is the kind of life we would be doomed to living until the day we died if it weren't for Jesus coming to earth.

when charles wesley writes that Jesus came to give us second birth, he is describing the greatest gift we could ever receive. from the time that i have recognized the relationship with God that i have available through Christ, i have experienced the transforming power of God's Spirit so that now i am not stuck in a rut of sin.

i now have the ability to live a life that includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Christ's coming and sacrifice meant that we all have this gift available to us. with this understanding of Jesus' birth, we are able fully to celebrate what Jesus was born to do.

"now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. for you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God." (1 peter 1.22-23 tniv)

for the kids: tell your kids your own birth story. if you like, you can tell them about the time when you first realized you wanted to have a closer relationship with God through Christ. talk about their own relationship with Christ. how would they describe it? for a project, cut out various fruit shapes. if you like, label them with the fruit of the Spirit. remember the new life that Jesus makes possible because of his birth.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"born to raise the sons of earth"

"for the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. after that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. and so we will be with the Lord forever. therefore encourage one another with these words."
(1 thessalonians 4.16-18 tniv)

when i was looking for some scripture passages to use for this reflection, i skimmed through the Bible passages that talk about a trumpet. what i noticed is that a lot of passages seem to refer to a trumpet sounding in times of war. in the life of israel, the sound of a trumpet could mean that an enemy was at hand and life was about to change for the worse.

i don't think we have the same kind of threatening sound today, at least not in the united states. our emergency broadcast system is so often accompanied by the message "this is only a test" that it is not as ominous as the trumpet must have been for israel.

in 1 thessalonians, paul says the sounding of the trumpet will have a different meaning in our future. when we hear the sound of a trumpet in the future, we will finally be able to be with Christ forever. all our cares, all the sins and griefs that weigh so heavily on us will fall away. we will be weightless with joy and gladness and freedom.

the glimpses of this joy that we have when we are gathered with loved ones, when we sing carols with a church congregation, when our kids say something that cracks us up, when our favorite sports team wins the championship . . . this joy will pale in comparison to the joy that we will experience when we are joined with Christ.

i am so thankful for the christmas season when in spite of all the hustle and bustle, i have moments that give me a taste for the joy we will have celebrating with all the world the soveriegnty of Jesus and the freedom from sin.

"praise the LORD.
praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens.
praise him for his acts of power;
praise him for his surpassing greatness.
praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
praise him with the harp and lyre,
praise him with timbrel and dancing,
praise him with the strings and pipe,

praise him with the clash of cymbals,
praise him with resounding cymbals.

let everything that has breath praise the LORD.
praise the LORD."
(psalm 150 tniv)

for the kids: talk about some of their favorite christmas traditions and experiences. if you travel to be with family, talk about the joy that comes from reuniting with family. what kind of feelings will they have when we are united with Christ? are they looking forward to that day? for a project, make a trumpet out of foam or felt (there is another idea here). remember the trumpet sounds victory that is ours through Jesus Christ.

Monday, December 22, 2008

"born that man no more may die"

"and i heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'look! God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. they will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death" or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.'

"He who was seated on the throne said, 'I am making everything new!' then he said, 'Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.'
" (revelation 21.3-5 tniv)

we went to visit bill's home church yesterday. i have been enough times now that i am starting to get to know a lot of the family friends. this year has been a little bittersweet because the longtime pastor of bill's church recently lost his wife to cancer. i can only imagine the pain and sorrow he is experiencing as he faces this first christmas without his beloved wife by his side to join in the celebration.

charles wesley reminds us that christmas is the time to remember that one reason Jesus as born was so that we would not be permanently separated by death. the triumphant words of isaiah 25 and revelation 21 (not to mention hosea 13) could not have been written if Jesus had not been willing to come to earth and die for us. the loved ones that we miss so sorely during these holiday gatherings and celebrations will be reunited with us in heaven because of Christ's sacrifice.

what an incredible gift we have been given in Christ's birth. we can get caught up in the purchasing of gifts for friends and family that will last for few years if all goes well. today we picked out a present for tate, and i wonder if he will play with it for more than a few days total. Jesus with his birth gave us the gift that blesses us and our loved ones for all eternity. we are released even now from our fear of death because of Christ's coming. even in the midst of our sorrow from a loss, we can rejoice in the birth of Christ and the gift of eternal life we receive as a result.

"on this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines.

on this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;

he will swallow up death forever.
the Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
he will remove his people's disgrace
from all the earth.
the LORD has spoken.

in that day they will say,
'surely this is our God;
we trusted in him, and he saved us.
this is the LORD, we trusted in him;
let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.'"
(isaiah 25.6-9 tniv)

for the kids: if you have experienced in your family, talk about how it feels to miss that person in our time here on earth. if they haven't experienced it firsthand, ask them to think about how someone else you know feels to be without a loved one. talk to them about how the birth made eternal life available to any who believe. what are they most looking forward to about heaven? for a project, make a gift out of a square of felt or craft foam. decorate with ribbon or another piece of foam or felt. remember the gift of eternal life that is available to us now.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

"mild he lays his glory by"

"[Jesus], being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
and being found in appearance as a human being,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father."
(philippians 2:6-11 tniv)

most days i am content enough with our life the way it is now. some days? not so much. our move to chicago meant giving up a regular teaching gig, several leadership positions and the status that a great circle of friends gives you. of course i try not to dwell on the sacrifice too much but i have my days.

any "sacrifice" i have made pales in comparison to the kind of sacrifice Jesus made. by leaving heaven, Jesus gave up his position in heaven, the recognition he deserved (isaiah 53.2-4), the glory and beauty of his surroundings and the close fellowship with God the Father. wow.

as if that weren't enough, he faced a squalid life on earth only to end with a humiliating and excruciating death. how did he do it? i know i couldn't do it. philippians tells us that Jesus did it because he was God. God's plan from the beginning of time was for Jesus to do this, so when the time came, he did what he was supposed to do.

the result was even greater glory than he previously had. and now we get to share in his glory ourselves. in fact, we have a responsibility to share in his glory by carrying on his work. we can sing all the more joyfully about Jesus putting aside his own glory because we now get to participate in his glory. and we can look forward to the day that every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.

"if the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! for what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. and if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!

"therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. we are not like moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. but their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. it has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. even to this day when moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. but whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. and we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit."

(2 corinthians 3.9-18)

for the kids: let them talk about how they feel when it is their birthdays. do they like being the center of attention? what is it that makes them feel special? then talk to them about how they feel when it is someone else's birthday. is it hard not to be the center of attention and not to get presents? talk to them about what it meant for Jesus to leave the place where he was special to come to earth where he was a regular guy like the rest of us. what happened as a result? for a project, i think this is the right time to make a cross. part of Jesus putting aside his glory was accepting the death on a cross. formerly a sign of humiliation, now it is a symbol of the moment of greatest glory for Christ.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

"risen with healing in his wings"

"'this is what the LORD says:
"your wound is incurable,
your injury beyond healing.

there is no one to plead your cause,
no remedy for your sore,
no healing for you.

all your allies have forgotten you;
they care nothing for you.
I have struck you as an enemy would
and punished you as would the cruel,
because your guilt is so great
and your sins so many."'"
(jeremiah 30.12-14 tniv)

hello. my name is melanie and i am a hypochondriac. at this moment, i'm trying not to think i have cancer that has spread from parts of my body into my lungs. if i don't have cancer, i may have emphysema or pneumonia (which you know bernie mac died from recently). i know i have a problem. maybe someday someone will create a cure for this illness i know i have.

even though i have these worries, i hate going to the doctor and put it off as long as absolutely possible. what i hate about going is that i feel like they can never really identify what is wrong with me. i want medicine to be an exact science: symptom a + symptom b equals this illness. take your medicine for 5 days and you will be well. but that isn't how it works. more often than not, they have some suggestions of possible problems which may or may not be the case.

when we read jeremiah, we get an exact diagnosis of a problem. the sin of God's people is so great, there is no healing available. we think life is rough now; add up israel's problems: no one can heal their sin problem; their allies have turned against them; and even God is acting against them as an enemy would. they were in a pretty sorry state at this time.

enter Christ. he comes to reveal God to us, to teach us how to live in a way that honors God, to die for our sins and bring healing to us spiritually and physically. Jesus is the cure for our illness.

the way that God's people are described in jeremiah is the way that we need to describe ourselves. we cannot find a cure for our illness apart from Christ. when we celebrate the birth and arrival of Christ on earth, we can celebrate God providing the means for our healing from an otherwise incurable illness.

"for this is what the high and exalted One says—
he who lives forever, whose name is holy:
'I live in a high and holy place,
but also with those who are contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
and to revive the heart of the contrite.

I will not accuse them forever,
nor will I always be angry,
for then they would faint away because of me—
the very people I have created.

I was enraged by their sinful greed;
I punished them, and hid my face in anger,
yet they kept on in their willful ways.

I have seen their ways, but I will heal them;
I will guide them and restore comfort to them,

creating praise on the lips of the mourners in Israel.
Peace, peace, to those far and near,'
says the LORD. 'And I will heal them.'"
(isaiah 57.15-19 tniv)

for the kids: talk about how they have felt when they are sick. what are some things your family does to help get over an illness? do you take medicine? go to the doctor? use some home remedies? talk with your kids about how our sin is like an illness. Jesus is the cure of our illness. he accomplished our healing through his life, death and resurrection. for a project, make a band-aid out of felt or craft foam. get as creative as you like with this!

Friday, December 19, 2008

"light and life to all he brings"

"in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. he was with God in the beginning. through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. in him was life, and that life was the light of all people. the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." (john 1.1-5 tniv)

"when Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, 'I am the light of the world. whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.'"
(john 8.12 tniv)

we were discussing with the girls the candlelight service that we would be attending in a few days. bill remembered a couple years ago when, in preparation for the lighting of the candles, all the lights in the big sanctuary were turned off. zoe turned to me and said in a loud whisper, "mom, it's kind of dark." the understatement of the year.

there is something so powerful about standing in a completely dark room and waiting for that moment when the match is struck and the first candle is lit. the light from the single candle is passed on until every candle is lit. soon the room is surprisingly light. what power the light has over darkness.

how appropriate that Jesus describes himself as the light. the darkness can seem so powerful, so full of bad and scary things until you turn on the light, and the darkness and all the shapes and shadows take their proper form. darkness can never overcome the light; light will always overcome the darkness.

after a particularly bad experience with onions and potatoes left forgotten in a dark cupboard, i was reminded of the significance that light has for living things. john tells us that Jesus is the source of life for all people. Jesus says that following him gives us the life-light we need to stay out of the darkness.

we picture so much of the birth story as happening at night. what a powerful picture of God's Light being born in the midst of the dark of night as the one who would forever overcome the darkness. he is the one who leads us to the forever life with no more night. when we put up our lights in celebration of christmas, what a wonderful reminder of the One who is the Light of Life.

"then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. on each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. no longer will there be any curse. the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. there will be no more night. they will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever." (revelation 22.1-5 tniv)

for the kids: turn off the lights and talk about the experience of being in the dark. light a match and talk about what a single match can do to the darkness. light a candle or more and talk about the significance of multiple lights. help your children to see the connection between one light that can give light to other (here the match and the candle(s)) and Jesus who is the one light that can give light and life to those who follow him. for an ornament, make a white christ candle out of felt or craft foam. if you want, you can write on there "i am the light of the world" from john 8.