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.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

"hail the Sun of righteousness"

"here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him
and he will bring justice to the nations.
he will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
in faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
in his law the islands will put their hope.
this is what God the LORD says—
he who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and all that comes out of it,
who gives breath to its people,
and life to those who walk on it:
'I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles,
to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.'"

(isaiah 42.1-7 tniv)

one thing i've noticed this december is that even while we are enjoying the celebrations that accompany this time of year, people seem to have a strong anticipation of the new year and the changes that hopefully accompany a new year. this coming year in particular, with a new president taking the reigns, promises everyone a change from the way things are now. most people seem to think that something magical will happen with a switch of the calendar, and our lives will start to go the way we've always wanted them to go.

i can understand how the people waiting for the Messiah would want to put all their eggs in the basket of the changes they thought he would institute. look at the promises that accompany his arrival: justice established on the earth, freedom for captives and light for those in darkness. who would be more worthy of a high position under God's "justice" than God's own people?

we can see why Jesus didn't fit the mold of their expectations. today we understand how much more Jesus came to do than just set up God's people with power and authority. we cling to words like the ones that speak of his gentleness ("a bruised reed he will not break") and his inclusiveness ("a light for the Gentiles").

in my reading of this passage, i appreciated the idea that justice (and its partner "righteousness") are the opposite of "chaos." here God is speaking of his servant (i believe this is Jesus) who will establish God's justice on earth through his righteousness. this means he is going to restore God's perfect order out of the chaos.

i don't need a new year. my resolutions rarely make it past the first couple weeks. i need a Messiah who can restore order from my chaos. his righteousness can right my wrongs. this is what i need and anticipate this holiday season.

"justice will dwell in the desert
and righteousness live in the fertile field.
the fruit of righteousness will be peace;
the effect of righteousness will be quietness and confidence forever.
My people will live in peaceful dwelling places,
in secure homes,
in undisturbed places of rest.
though hail flattens the forest
and the city is leveled completely,
how blessed you will be,
sowing your seed by every stream,
and letting your cattle and donkeys range free."
(isaiah 32.16-20 tniv)

for the kids: talk about some of the things they hope will be different in the new year. are there any changes or resolutions that they hope to make? this is a great opportunity to speak to them about how powerless we are to better ourselves on our own power. it is only through the life-changing, life-giving birth, death and resurrection of Christ that anything gets better. for a project, make a sun out of craft foam or felt. with the rising of the sun, and Christ's resurrection, we experience a new day and new life.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"hail the heav'n born Prince of peace"

"every warrior's boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.

for to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
and he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on david's throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
the zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this."
(isaiah 9.5-7 tniv)

of course this is not a place to get political, so don't think that i'm talking about politics when i say, "i hate war." it doesn't make any sense to me. bill loves to watch movies like brave.heart, t.roy, or 300. i just can't understand the mentality that says, "i know, the best way to handle our conflict is to throw a bunch of men at each other and see how can kill the most."

i know that there are women in the armed forces so (as well as not being political) i also don't want to be sexist. but i really think i lack what is a traditionally male mentality. when i watch a movie like braveheart, where these huge crowds of men go rushing at each other, i always try to picture myself being way near the back where you can look like you are really into the battle and like you really do want to fight but you aren't in any actual danger. is that weird?

as gory and graphic as it sounds, i love the opening verse of today's passage. we don't need any more warrior's boots. all the bloody garments can be burned. what is the cause of this good news? people thought this would be the case at other times: world war 1 was supposed to be the war to end all wars. who is going to put a stop to war?

a child will be born to inaugurate a new day, a new way of life. this isn't just someone like mother theresa, ghandi or martin luther king, jr, who has some good ideas and challenging speeches to make. this is someone who is going to take over the government of the world. a ruler who is wise and wonderful who accomplishes the defeat of enemies while loving his own children tenderly. he will be the Forever King, the one to sit on david's throne forever and ever. someone who is able to be both righteous and peaceful. this is the kind of ruler we need.

but how will this happen? Jesus has been born and we are still dealing with wars upon wars. isaiah tells us, "the zeal of the Lord will accomplish this." israel may have thought that God no longer cared, that he had abandoned them. isaiah says, "no;" God's zeal is stronger than ever and he will make sure all these things happen.

the same is true for us. with the failing economy, war, death and destruction all over the world, we might lose hope. we might think God is too hands off. we need to hold to the promise of isaiah that God is as zealous as ever. he is going to come and keep his promises to establish the Forever King who is also a prince of peace.

"He who testifies to these things says, 'yes, I am coming soon.'
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus."
(revelation 22.20 tniv)

for the kids: what do they think about war? what do they think about when they hear something about war on the news or they hear about parents of friends who have to go oversees? talk about the significance of Jesus' reign as putting an end to war forever. take some time to pray for people you know who are overseas during this holiday time. for a project, make a crown. you could write on it the names of Jesus that Isaiah lists here or makes symbols that represent each of the four titles (a dove for prince of peace, etc.).

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"Jesus our Immanuel"

"... an angel of the Lord appeared to [joseph] in a dream and said, 'joseph son of ddavid, do not be afraid to take mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. she will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.'

"all this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel' (which means 'God with us').

"when joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took mary home as his wife."
(matthew 1.20-24 tniv)

i remember listening to a story about jonah when i was growing up. two kids have an opportunity to experience the story alongside jonah. in the belly of the fish, they listen to jonah complain. the kids tell jonah how much easier it should have been for him to obey God since he got to hear God speak directly. jonah quickly retorts, "you hear your parents, don't you? yet you don't always listen to them, and God says to honor your father and mother." for some reason that thought has always stuck with me.

sure it would be great to hear God speak directly to me, especially when facing a particularly big decision or a great fear. what i love about this account of joseph is that he is so faithful. he is told to go ahead and marry mary and he gets up and does it. i want to have that kind of faithfulness. because of his faithfulness, he got to be the adopted father of Jesus here on earth. what an incredible responsibility as well as privilege.

from mark 6.3 we hear that people identify Jesus as a carpenter. that means that during the 30 years before Jesus began his public ministry, joseph faithfully trained Jesus to follow in his footsteps, just like he would a natural-born son. because of joseph, Jesus most likely had 30 years as a relatively normal human being. Jesus was our Immanuel ("God with us") in part because of joseph's role in giving Jesus a normal life.

as i think about preparing myself this advent season, i want to have joseph's faithfulness as a model before me. i want to take the things i know for sure that God wants me to do and faithfully obey. right away.

"you who bring good news to zion,
go up on a high mountain.
you who bring good news to jerusalem,
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of judah,
'Here is your God!'

see, the Sovereign LORD comes with power,
and his arm rules for him.
see, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.

he tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young."
(isaiah 40.9-11 tniv)

for the kids: talk about how good they are at obeying you! when they hear your words, do they do what you say? read the story of joseph. talk about the way he instantly obeyed what God communicated to him through the angel. obedience and faithfulness are two qualities we can develop as we prepare our hearts this advent. for an project, make a hammer out of craft foam or felt to remind us of joseph and his faithfulness in serving God as the earthly father of Christ.

Monday, December 15, 2008

"pleased as man with man to dwell"

(alternate title: "pleased with us as flesh to dwell")

"in bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. so Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. He says, 'I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters; in the assembly I will sing your praises." and again, 'I will put my trust in him.' and again he says, 'here am I, and the children God has given me.' ...for this reason he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted."
(hebrews 2.10-13, 17-18)

how often do we jump at the chance to be sacrificial? i would say there are some sacrificial things i am willing enough to do (babysitting to help out, listening when someone is hurting, cleaning up) and other things i would rather go to the dentist than do (making someone a meal tops that list!). but being "sacrificial" doesn't mean do something you love doing (although it is nice if it works out that way); in fact, part of the sacrifice might mean you do it because it needs doing, not because you love to do it.

as a mom, of course, i make a lot of sacrifices. i've been trying to figure out a way to communicate to my daughters that being a part of a family means serving each other even if you don't feel like it. i want them to know that i don't always enjoy cooking, cleaning, folding laundry, etc., but i do it because i love them. they will be better off if they can learn to have a spirit of sacrifice out of love for others as well.

of course, Jesus made the greatest sacrifice of all. i love to think about Jesus being excited to take on flesh and become one of us. the Bible doesn't say that specifically but at least we learn he isn't ashamed to call us brothers and sisters. hebrews tells us why it was so important for Jesus to become a man among us.

have you ever thought about what we gain because Jesus sacrificed his status in heaven to become one of us? we not only have a high priest at God's right hand interceding for us, we received a high priest who has experienced incredible temptation. he knows how hard this life can be for us and how tempting some pretty bad behaviors can be.

for some reason, Christmas can be one of the hardest seasons for me to feel sacrificial. i get a very bad case of "i want it." i look at what other people are getting for christmas: i want it. i think about all the things that i don't have and can't afford: i want it. i look at the ads for the latest and greatest with the newest modifications: i want it. but Jesus didn't say "i want it." he gave up everything, even his life, for us. i want to change my "i want it" attitude to be more like Jesus. what can i sacrifice or give up for someone else this advent season? please, God. open a door for me to share with someone else. help me to want what you want.

for the kids: how do they feel when they have to do something for someone else? is it easier to serve someone outside their family or someone within their family? is it easier to serve knowing there is a reward or with no reward? talk about the sacrifice that Jesus made. what kind of reward did he expect? talk to them about the kind of love that Jesus had for them to sacrifice his life and his status in heaven for them. for a project, i thought it might be neat to do a replica of the high priest's breastplate (for a simple version, look here). otherwise, make a small bowl out of clay or playdough and glue a scrap of towel in it to remind ourselves that Jesus came to serve us sacrificially and we can do the same this advent season.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

"hail th'incarnate deity"

"when [Jesus] reached the place where the road started down the mount of olives, all of his followers began to shout and sing as they walked along, praising God for all the wonderful miracles they had seen.

'blessings on the King who comes in the name of the Lord!
peace in heaven, and glory in highest heaven!'

but some of the pharisees among the crowd said, 'teacher, rebuke your followers for saying things like that!'

He replied, 'if they kept quiet, the stones along the road would burst into cheers!'”

(luke 19.37-40 nlt)

i have never really met anyone famous. i saw the chicago bulls pass by in the airport one time. i've met a couple of speakers i really admire (one of whom i chased into the bathroom). but no one really famous. i always wondered how i would act if i were around someone really famous. would i get tongue-tied? would my face stay red the entire time? would i babble incoherent nonsense?

the disciples got to live, sleep, eat and breathe in the presence of Jesus. for the most part, they knew who he was. i always wonder what it was like to be in the very presence of God.

one thing i like about the "triumphal entry" passage is that the crowds actually seem to get it. they've witnessed the miracles and, at this moment, they really believe that Jesus is the King, promised by God and finally present among them. the psalm they sing was used to welcome pilgrims to jerusalem, but here they welcome the King specifically.

the joy of this experience seems so tangible, especially when Jesus states that even the rocks would cry out if everyone else was silenced. whether or not people like the pharisees want to acknowledge Jesus' status as King, the fact that he is the promised King is a reality and creation itself will acknowledge that reality.

as i think about the advent season, i want to be watching for Jesus and ready to cheer with joy, the same way these crowds cheered for Jesus when he came. i don't want to lose focus because of "to-do" lists or family "to-dos." i want to be ready to throw down my coat and sing praises to the one who was promised.

"rejoice greatly, daughter zion!
shout, daughter jerusalem!
see, your King comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey." (zechariah 9.9 tniv)

for the kids: pick their current favorite hero. what would it be like for them to meet that person (or character as the case may be)? how would they feel to be in that person's presence? ask them how they would feel to be in Jesus' presence. what do they think it would be like to be one of Jesus' disciples? how can they show their praise to Jesus as King this advent season? for a project, make a donkey out of craft foam or felt. decorate it with a blanket or coats if you like. we often associate a donkey as ridden by mary at christmas. now you can use it to remember that Jesus rode a donkey to show his status as God's promised king.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

"veiled in flesh the Godhead see"

"Jesus answered, 'I am the way and the truth and the life. no one comes to the Father except through me. if you really know me, you will know my Father as well. from now on, you do know him and have seen him.'

"philip said, 'Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.'

"Jesus answered: 'don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. how can you say, "show us the Father"? don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? the words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.'"

(john 14.6-11 tniv)

i know the day is coming when my kids will be embarrassed to be seen with me. they are just going to have to put up with me though and you know why? justice. how many times are they an embarrassment to me in public? when they throw a temper tantrum on the floor of the grocery store . . . that is embarrassing. when they completely ignore someone who is trying to start a conversation with them . . . that is embarrassing. when they get hyper and start acting totally weird . . . that is embarrassing.

i try to tell myself that people are not judging me based on how my kids act or behave. but we all know that isn't true. of course people assume a parent has no control over their kids when they throw a loud and violent temper tantrum (and, of course, they are right). of course people think you haven't trained your child to have better manners when they ignore them in conversation. and as for the acting weird, we all know the phrase, "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree." my embarrassment is all the more extreme because i know that my kids' behavior affects others' opinions of me.

Jesus says we don't just know about the Father when we know Christ. we actually know the Father himself when we know Jesus. in the old testament God revealed himself through the law and the prophets. but that was only an imperfect understanding of God. when we see Jesus, we are seeing God himself.

i never like photographs of myself. i don't feel like they ever reflect me the way i see myself. something is always missing. the best way to get to know me is to get to know me. when God sent Jesus, he sent us the best way to get to know himself. sometimes people think they don't like the image of God they have from their understanding of the old testament. Jesus tells us we can't differentiate. what we see in Christ and his life on earth is the way God the Father is. we see God when we see Jesus because they are one and the same.

"come and see the works of the LORD,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.

he makes wars cease to the ends of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear,
he burns the shields with fire.

'be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.'

the LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of jacob is our fortress."
(psalm 46.8-11)

for the kids: ask them how they think someone could best get to know them. how would they describe themselves to someone? what is their favorite photograph of themselves? explain that the way God wanted us to get to know him was through Jesus. what have they learned about God from studying Jesus? for a project, cut out a wreath shape from a small paper plate or craft foam. on the sides write "son of God" and "son of man" to remind us that Jesus was both God and man. if you like, make a face of Jesus to put inside the circle.

Friday, December 12, 2008

"veiled in flesh"

"since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. for surely it is not angels he helps, but abraham's descendants. for this reason he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people." (hebrews 2.14-16 tniv)

one of my favorite stories came from a friend of mine at the camp where i spent four summers. this friend volunteered to lead the children's message at our church and shared this story that has stuck with me for all these years.

she talked about discovering a colony of ants that were doomed to destruction due to our work on a waterslide for the camp. "ants! you'd better move out of the way!" she claims to have said to them. "a lot of water is coming and you need to move your home to a new location!" she warned, but they just kept going on about their every day business. maybe they couldn't hear her; she would try to speak louder. "hey, you ants down there. you are in grave danger. please consider moving to a different place so you can survive the coming destruction!" yet they still did nothing.

finally, my friend concluded that the only thing to do would be to become an ant herself. she turned herself into an ant and explained to them that they their home was in danger and the safest option would be to relocate (at the time she made this sound like all this actually happened. i still feel a little disrespectful entertaining any doubt that this could actually happen). as a result of her "sacrifice" the ants decided to find a new place for their colony.

becoming an ant was the best way for my friend to communicate her message to the ants. in the case of humanity, God had communicated his message many times in many ways but nothing was effective for a significant amount of time. from the beginning of time, God knew that he himself would have to come to earth for us to understand the depth of his love for us and his desire for a relationship with us. hebrews tells us that it was when God became flesh in the form of Jesus that we finally had the high priest we needed: one who could teach us about God's mercy and faithfulness as well as one who could make atonement for our sins once and for all.

the infant Jesus reminds us that God did not reveal himself to us as a holy superpower. instead, from the beginning of the revelation, he wanted us to remember that God made himself flesh to live among us, in every sense of the word.

"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)

for the kids: ask them if they have ever seen God. what do they think he would look like if they did see God? talk about how Jesus is the way that we can see God while we are here on earth. what are some of the things that they know about Jesus that must be true about God? for a project, use popsicle sticks to make two figures (use craft foam for faces). try to glue them to be hand in hand. use fabric scraps for clothes. try using yarn for hair. one of the figures should be you or your child and the other one is Jesus. he became one of us when he came to earth.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

"offspring of the virgin's womb"

"'how will this be,' mary asked the angel, 'since i am a virgin?'

"the angel answered, 'the Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. so the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. even elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. for no word from God will ever fail.'

"'i am the Lord's servant,' mary answered. 'may it be to me according to your word.' then the angel left her."
(luke 1.34-38 tniv)

even though i try not to get too stressed out for the holidays, i definitely have to factor in the additional responsibilities of planning, shopping, baking, decorating, wrapping, and partying into my already fairly full schedule of cooking, cleaning, referreeing, showering, putting toys away, folding clothes, making beds, etc., etc. this means that each morning i set an agenda of what i need to accomplish that day. unfortunately, i haven't stuck to the agenda for december 1-10 so things aren't looking too good right now for getting everything done on time.

i try not to take out my frustration on the kids but since they are generally the ones getting in the way of total focus and concentration on the task at hand, they occasionally hear my not-so-sweet mommy voice. i find it hard to be pleasant when someone gets in the way of my own plans or agenda for the day.

imagine how mary felt after gabriel's visit. think about what this news would do to your plans. an unplanned, superhuman pregnancy is not exactly on the top of the list of things to do in most wedding planners. before the angel came, she may have been thinking about what she wanted to talk to joseph about the next day: lilies of the valley, or roses for the bouquet? candles or oil lamps? and she mustn't forget to make sure he had gone to get measured for his suit. suddenly her agenda was completely turned on its head. now she has to explain to joseph that someone unexpected will be joining them in nine months.

somehow mary, in the midst of what must have been shock and incomprehension, manages graciously to accept the angel's words. later, she tells elizabeth what a privilege and honor she has been given. i want to have that kind of attitude.

"may it be to me as you have said." nothing is impossible for God, and God can work out the details. things may not go the way you thought they would. God may not follow your agenda. i'm sure mary didn't expect to have to make the long trek to bethlehem or give birth in a stable. i want to have the graciousness of mary to accept what God sets before me with faithfulness and trust. this is the quality that i want to develop during this advent season. "may it be to me as you have said."

"and mary said:
'my soul glorifies the Lord

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,

for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.

his mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.

he has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

he has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.

he has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.

he has helped his servant israel,
remembering to be merciful

to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.'"
(luke 1.47-55 tniv)

for the kids: talk about what it is like when things don't go their way. how do they react? do they throw a tantrum or change plans easily? talk about what mary may have felt when gabriel told her she was about to have a baby that would be God's own Son. for a project, use a round wooden clothespin or peg to make a mary figurine. use some scrap fabric for a dress and head covering.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"late in time behold him come"

"but when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship." (galatians 4.4-5 tniv)

this fall, i dropped tessa off for her first day of school and rejoiced at my new freedom. granted, i still had tate to deal with, but having three kids makes having only one a piece of cake. besides, he still took a morning nap. think of all i would be able to get done.

of course, this was a day when he just didn't want to cooperate. i finally picked him up out of his crib and laid down with him on the couch for a bit. we both fell asleep. when i woke up, i thought about how good it felt to be holding my sleeping son without any other interruptions and how nice a morning nap felt. suddenly, the phone rang. "could you please come and pick up tessa?" oops. better dash.

thankfully tessa didn't seem to notice at all that i was 20 minutes late to pick her up. she was having a grand time helping her teacher with the clean-up. she obviously doesn't have the same makeup as her sister zoe who worries if i am one minute late to pick her up from the bus. imagine how the jews felt waiting 400 years to hear from God. surely they wondered if indeed he would keep his promises to them.

400 years of silence. imagine the passing of the generations. imagine watching leadership change from the hands of the persians to the greeks, being fought over by egypt and syria, and finally being dominated by the roman empire. when would God send his forever king to stand against this madness and be the righteous and powerful ruler God had described through the prophets?

i can imagine the different ways people would react to the passing of time. some would hunker down and pore over the Scripture, hunting for every detail and clue of the Messiah's coming. some would lose hope right away and pass on their disbelief and disdain to the following generations. some would believe that only extreme faithfulness to the Scripture would bring about the Messiah's coming. some would adopt the attitude, "i'll believe it when i see it." actually, these reactions aren't much different than what we can observe around us today.

paul says that God sent Christ at just the right time. it may have seemed late to the jews who were tired of being dominated by other countries. but God knew the exact perfect time to send his son to make redemption available to the world.

we might be tired of waiting ourselves. with the doomsayers moaning about the environment and failing economy, now might seem like a good time for Christ to return; but we can trust God to know the exact time for time to end. it may feel "late in time" but as we wait, we can trust that he will indeed come.

"we praise you, God,
we praise you, for your Name is near;
people tell of your wonderful deeds.

you say, 'I choose the appointed time;
it is I who judge with equity.

when the earth and all its people quake,
it is I who hold its pillars firm...'"
(psalm 75.1-3)

for the kids: talk to them about a time when they have had to wait for somebody (hopefully not for you!). what did they do while they waited for the time to pass? what did they think about? were they worried while they waited or confident? talk about what it is like to wait for Christ. advent is the time to think about waiting. while we wait, we get ready. what are some things that they can do to get ready for Christ to return? for a project, cut numbers out of a magazine and glue them on a circle of craft foam to make a clock.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

"Christ the everlasting Lord"

"of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
he will reign on david's throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
the zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this."
(isaiah 9.7 tniv)

i just read the headline that our governor has been arrested on federal charges. we have long suspected the corruption people allude to throughout chicago and illinois was more fact than fiction. with one governor in prison already, you'd think this one would have been on his toes a little more. meanwhile, our president's approval rating couldn't get much lower (is there lower than "zero" when it comes to approval ratings?). he seems to avoid directly answering questions regarding his integrity but it certainly makes one start to wonder, is there a trustworthy leader anywhere?

with all the disillusionment surrounding our own political system, it is not hard to imagine what it would be like to find out that after a string a really bad kings, God planned to give the people a forever king who would establish and uphold justice and righteousness. i would love to hear that one person would soon be ruling who would be completely trustworthy, a just judge and wise leader for the land. if he held a press conference, you could believe his words and have total confidence in his decisions. as if that weren't enough, there would be no term limits. finally, the right person would be in office and he would stay there forever.

a forever king. when we think about that in terms of our own sorry situation, we can experience a little more of the thrill of the promise than we might otherwise. no wonder the jews were looking for someone to overthrow the roman government and take his seat on an earthly throne. then their lives would really be grand.

God had a much higher plan in mind. we needed someone not just to rule us physically, but to rule us spiritually as well. the forever king is someone who rules over all aspects of our lives. this is someone who judges justly but who also shows us mercy and grace. this is someone who knows our hearts and minds, who loves us as we are but challenges us to be so much more than we ever thought we could be. this is the forever king to whom i want to submit myself. this is the forever king for whom i'm preparing myself this advent season, the forever king whose forever reign i'm actively anticipating.

"but the angel said to her, 'do not be afraid, mary, you have found favor with God. you will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. he will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. the Lord God will give him the throne of his father david, and he will reign over the house of jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.'" (luke 1.30-33 tniv)

for the kids: if they know enough about current politics, you can talk about various leaders our country has had, for good or for ill. otherwise, talk about teachers or other leaders they have experienced. ask them to describe a decision with which they may have disagreed. how did that make them feel? talk about the fact that Jesus is a forever king. what does it mean for them to have Jesus as king over their lives, even now before he takes over his earthly throne? for a project, make a crown using lots of glitter and stick on jewels.

Monday, December 8, 2008

"Christ by highest heaven adored . . ."

"then i looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. they encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. in a loud voice they were saying:
'worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!'"
(revelation 5:11-12)

tessa was sitting on my lap yesterday while i was looking through pictures to illustrate yesterday's reflection. some of her comments at what she saw were really cracking me up. we wondered why Jesus never had any clothes on. didn't he need a diaper? she was particularly concerned about a picture that showed the angels seemingly dangling above the stable. she noted how unsafe they were: "they could fall and get hurt." when she found out they were angels, it at least made sense to her but she was still concerned about their safety. then she wondered if they would be able to stand when they are on the ground. the mind of a three-year-old can be so fascinating.

it made me realize how little we actually know about the angels and heaven. what glimpses we get in the book of revelation may lead to more confusion rather than clarity. what we see in this passage is that the whole host of heaven joins together to praise and worship Jesus Christ.

the things is, we know that Jesus is worthy of praise and honor. but what we learn in revelation 5 is why he is worthy. as we celebrate christmas, we need always to keep in mind that Jesus didn't just come to reveal God in the flesh to us. he came with a distinct purpose: to die on the cross. Jesus came to be "the Lamb who was slain." this is what makes him worthy of praise from "the highest heaven."

as we prepare ourselves this advent season, let us not get so focused on the beautiful scene of the mother and child. let us remember the reason that all the angelic host praised his birth: Jesus was the only one who was able to accomplish our salvation. Jesus was born to die so that we could live. even though Jesus did not die for the angels, the angels worship Jesus for this reason. how much more reason do we who were saved through his death have to fall on our knees in worship.

"then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:
'to him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!'
the four living creatures said, 'amen,' and the elders fell down and worshiped."
(revelation 5.11-13 tniv)

for the kids: if you have any available, look at some of the famous paintings that have been made of the birth of Christ (i googled "nativity art" and found a variety). ask your children to pay particular attention to the angels in the paintings. ask them to think about what they are doing. why would the painters include angels in their paintings? talk about the angels worship of Jesus as described in revelation. make a lamb ornament using a white piece of felt or craft foam cut in a fluffy shape. glue cotton balls on the fleece, make a black face and black legs. if you like, make a crown for the Lamb to remember that Jesus is the Lamb who reigns.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

"with th' angelic host proclaim, 'Christ is born in bethlehem'"

"'But you, bethlehem ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.'"
(micah 5.2 tniv)

we've had quite an adjustment getting used to living in big city chicago. suddenly i have a ring full of keys, a back concrete (instead of a backyard), quarters on hand for a variety of needs and a new ability to parallel park. i've come a long way from the tiny hamlet (smaller than a village!) where i was born, a place that probably won't even be named on many maps.

if the jews were to name the city out of which the Messiah would come, somehow i doubt that bethlehem would be their top choice. even micah the prophet describes it as "small among the clans of judah." wouldn't somewhere glorious like jerusalem make more sense? like so many choices that God made for the arrival of the Messiah, the humble town of bethlehem must have been a surprise.

the town of bethlehem has incredible significance, however. it was the birthplace of david, an iconic king for israel. to david was made the promise that a forever-king would come from his line. what better place for the forever-king to be born than david's hometown? because of God's message through micah, we have one more clue to verify the identify of Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus was born in bethlehem, just as God said he would be.

for myself, the fact that Jesus is born in such an "average joe" kind of place makes me realize all the more that God himself came to earth as a man. he was actually born, as a baby in a very specific place, the town of bethlehem. the promise that has been so long awaited has finally been fulfilled. when i join "th' angelic host" to sing about Christ's birth, i want to remember that God was physically born in a physical place so that we could see God himself in the flesh.

"when he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 'in bethlehem in judea,' they replied, 'for this is what the prophet has written . . .'" (matthew 2.4 tniv)

for the kids: talk about the place where you grew up. what kind of impact did that place have on you (your values, your occupation, your favorite sports team, etc.)? talk about what it would have meant for Jesus to be born in bethlehem. people didn't think too much of the town itself yet God chose to present Jesus to the world there. for a project, create a town scene. let your creativity run wild in terms of the shapes of the buildings. on a circle of craft foam or felt, glue various building outlines cut from other pieces of foam or felt. add a big star to point out the significance of this very special town.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

". . . join the triumph of the skies"

"and again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says,
'let all God's angels worship him.'"
(hebrews 1.6 tniv)

for some reason, i was recently thinking about my labor and delivery of our daughter, zoe. when this event happened six years ago, we weren't even really sure i was in labor, so we went ahead with our plans to have some people over for lunch. my pains grew steadily worse as i tried to smile through the meal and be a good hostess. even as we arrived at the hospital, i was so sure they were going to send me home that i didn't bring our overnight bag in with us. 6 hours later they handed me a our new baby girl. we had fun making all the phone calls to let people know our good news.

bill's parents were so excited about the birth of their first grandchild that they surprised us by flying in the next day. we proudly showed off baby zoe and basked in the glow of their excitement. my parents came the next day after a quick shopping trip for some frilly dresses and a teddy bear from grandpa. in the weeks that followed her birth, we celebrated again and again with friends and family. it was quite an exciting time for a lot of people.

at the birth of Jesus, we also see a great deal of celebrating, even though mary and joseph were away from friends and family. i'm trying to imagine how mary would have felt when a bunch of shepherds came to see her in the stable. did she bask in the glow of the joy of the shepherds? were there others who came to see why the shepherds had abandoned their flocks to visit a stable? since joseph probably didn't have cigars to hand out, what was their celebration like?

the author of hebrews tells us that God commanded the angels to worship at the birth of Christ. what was it like to hear the hosts of angels give voice to their praise of God for the gift of his firstborn? charles wesley describes the "triumph" of their song. the arrival of Christ is a triumph over the bondage of sin experienced by all people and even the earth itself. just like superman appearing out of nowhere to catch lois lane in a fall that would have surely meant her death, Jesus appears to save the world from the fall that meant death for everyone. Jesus' birth is a triumph of Good over evil in every sense of the words. again, how can we not join in the angels song of triumph?

"praise the LORD.
praise the LORD from the heavens;
praise him in the heights above.
praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his heavenly hosts.
praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars.
praise him, you highest heavens
and you waters above the skies.
let them praise the name of the LORD,
for at his command they were created,
and he established them for ever and ever—
he issued a decree that will never pass away.
praise the LORD from the earth,
you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
kings of the earth and all nations,
you princes and all rulers on earth,
young men and women,
old men and children.
let them praise the name of the LORD,
for his name alone is exalted;
his splendor is above the earth and the heavens."
(psalm 148.1-6, 11-13)

for the kids: describe what it was like for you and your families on the day that they were born. let them know how excited everyone was and what they did as a result of their excitement. ask them to imagine the excitement of the different people who were involved with or witness to the birth of Christ. read the psalm out loud, reflecting on the extensive list of those who are to praise the Lord. for a project, make an angel garland to remember the heavenly host that announced the birth with triumph.

Friday, December 5, 2008

"joyful all ye nations rise . . ."

"simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
'sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the gentiles,
and the glory of your people israel.'" (luke 2.28-32 tniv)

i hated junior high. i really hated junior high. in elementary school, i had plenty of friends. i was closer to some neighborhood girls than others but i don't remember feeling particularly lonely or anything. suddenly, in junior high my friends got weird and made it plain that i no longer fit in with them. i remember feeling lost; who would be friends with me? what had happened that suddenly i didn't fit in anywhere?

high school was better. i finally found a group of friends who were similar to me. it felt great to fit in and feel a part of something. on a much larger scale, that is what happened for the "nations" when Jesus was born. in the old testament, God focuses his attention on a relatively small group of people. they are his chosen people, his treasured possession. they were supposed to use their chosen status to be a light and witness to other nations but you don't have to read far into the old testament to learn that they failed pretty miserably in that area.

with Jesus' arrival, suddenly the door was opened for the nations to come to God. jew or gentile, slave or free, male or female: all now have access to God through Christ.

God's people israel finally fulfill God's plan for them to be a light to the nations in the person of Jesus Christ. any person from any nation is welcome to God's table because of the work that Christ accomplished in his life and death. i would say that is something worth getting up on our feet to sing about!

"burst into songs of joy together,
you ruins of jerusalem,
for the LORD has comforted his people,
he has redeemed jerusalem.

the LORD will lay bare his holy arm
in the sight of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth will see
the salvation of our God."
(isaiah 52.9-10 tniv)

"great and marvelous are your deeds,
Lord God Almighty.
just and true are your ways,
King of the nations.
who will not fear you, Lord,
and bring glory to your name?
for you alone are holy.
all nations will come
and worship before you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed."
(rev 15.3-4 tniv)

for the kids: talk to your children about a time when they may have felt left out, whether from a game or a party or just a conversation. let them describe how that experience made them feel. talk to them about the significance of being included and explain that when Jesus was born it meant that we could all be included in the celebration. for a project, if you have a nativity scene, let them make a figure that represents themselves (out of a wooden peg or just cut out of paper with some kind of stand). let your child place his or her figure in the stable, a welcome part of the birth of Christ. if you want to make an ornament, you could cut out different colored hand prints and glue them together in a circle to represent the joining together of the nations in worship of God.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

"God and sinners reconciled"

i have an issue with my kids. sometimes they do something that goes against our family's rules just because they really want to do it. for example, almost every day i find tessa and tate jumping on the couch. they know they are not supposed to do this but it is so much fun they go ahead and do it anyway. when i speak to them about it in my gentle, loving, mommy voice i hear, "sorry" in a decidedly unsorry tone of voice. this only makes me madder. don't say you're sorry if you aren't sorry. i know that you are planning on doing it again as soon as my back is turned!

when adam and eve ate from the tree in the garden of eden, "sorry" just wasn't good enough. a rift was created between God and humanity that required something, or someone, superhuman to repair. enter Jesus.

"God was bringing the world back to himself through Christ. he did not hold people's sins against them. God has trusted us with the message that people may be brought back to him. so we are Christ's official messengers. it is as if God were making his appeal through us. here is what Christ wants us to beg you to do. come back to God!

"Christ didn't have any sin. but God made him become sin for us. so we can be made right with God because of what Christ has done for us."
(2 corinthians 5.19-21 nirv)

in this passage paul is actually giving us a mission to pass on the ministry of reconciliation. but he also explains exactly what God did through Christ. God reconciles us to himself. we are the ones with the problem. this is not a two-way street in terms of reconciliation. we are the ones who need to be reconciled to him. because God sent Christ to earth, we are "made right with God."

once we are made right with God, we are "new creation." since God's love has come to us, we are now opened to God's love and able to take an active part in the reconciliation of the world to God. for ourselves, we accept God's gift to us. in gratefulness, we work to offer God's reconciliation to others. Christ's death and resurrection does not end the process of reconciliation between God and the world. paul says our task is to participate in the ongoing process of reconciliation.

this is the part of the carol that can bring me to tears. how can God and sinners be reconciled? God hates sin doesn't he? "but God made [Christ] become sin for us so that we can be made right with God." incredible, isn't it?

this advent season, i hope you can take some time to reflect on "reconciliation." look it up in a dictionary. read through 2 corinthians 5 and romans 5. think about what it means that Christ fulfilled the requirement so that we can have a right and restored relationship with God.

for the kids: ask them to think about an argument or fight they had with someone. what did it take to make up and be friends again? talk about the fall of adam and eve and the rift that was made between all human beings and God. what does it take to heal that rift so that we can be friends with God? the life and death of Jesus Christ. for a project, cut out two handprints from felt or stiff paper. from blue and green felt or paper, create a globe to place in the hands. remember that God sent Christ so that the world could be reconciled to him.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

"peace on earth and mercy mild . . ."

"glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests."
(luke 2.14 tniv)

i don't know what christmas is like for you but "peace" is not the first word that comes to mind when i think of christmas. just as an example, bill brought up the christmas tree and all our christmas boxes tonight while i was finishing up supper. he left the girls alone with them while he went to lock up the storage area. in that short space of time, i heard "stop it!" "no! i want to do it." "no! you can't!" i walked down the hall to stop the fight before cherished items were broken. did someone say "peace"?

as i thought about the concept of peace for this reflection, i found myself getting more and more confused. just what kind of "peace" did the birth of Jesus bring? was it a feeling of rest and contentment? were we no longer going to fight, argue or go to war? would our minds stop whirling and twirling with crazy thoughts and cycles of near-insanity? (or maybe that's just me...) if this was the intention, i don't think Jesus' birth accomplished its purpose (particularly in the area of my brain).

obviously i needed to do a little more research. guess what i found? i used my favorite theological dictionary and learned something that seemed obvious to the dictionary's editors but was rather a surprise to me. peace is basically another word for salvation in both the old testament and the new testament. we may have a tendency to think of peace as something inward, whether something we achieve with God's help or some state we strive to achieve through meditation or some other mental exercise. in fact, most uses of the word "peace" in the old testament refer to a group, rather than an individual. this is the way that luke uses it here. Jesus' birth means peace or salvation has come to earth.

the glory of God in heaven and the peace on earth are connected. this is a kind of poetic parallelism. there is glory for God in heaven because there is peace or salvation for humanity on earth. those who are recipients of God's sovereign and gracious good pleasure will experience this salvation.

as much as i long for a peaceful household with kids who never argue, i am thankful that the Jesus was born to bring us salvation. i can't think of a better gift that God could have given us.

for the kids: ask your kids to imagine being lost in the store without knowing where to find you (maybe this has been an actual experience for them). what would/did it feel like to be so lost? what would it take for you to find them? when Jesus came to earth as a baby, he came to rescue those who were lost; he brought salvation. let them come up with implications for being "found" by Jesus. for a project, use a paper doily to make a lacy dove, a symbol for peace. if you want to include the element of salvation, you could cut out a small cross to put in the dove's beak.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

". . . glory to the newborn King"

"For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."
(isaiah 9.6 tniv)

for our family devotions, we have been reading the big picture story bible. we like it because it helps us think about the traditional Bible stories we read to kids in terms of what God was going to do and did through Christ's birth. from the time that we read about david being crowned king, we have been waiting for the forever King that God promised would come from david's line. every time we read about a good King, we wonder if he is God's forever King. when the people of israel are taken into exile, we wonder if God will keep his promise for a forever King.

isaiah gives a picture of what to expect from this forever king. this verse is so familiar, something we read on christmas cards or hear read at some point during advent. have you ever thought about the apparent contradiction that isaiah describes? how can a son be born who will also be "mighty God"? how can a "forever King" be a newborn?

with the birth of Christ, God gave the world exactly what it needed. Someone divine, perfect in every way and, at the same time, someone who is able truly to be "with us" because he is one of us. what better way could there be for us to experience "God with us" than to have someone just like us reveal God to us.

when the angels announce the birth of a "newborn King" they announce a reign that will be like no other. the question then becomes, have we allowed this King to reign over our lives? while we may wrestle with the idea of relinquishing control ourselves, isaiah makes it plain that we place ourselves in the best possible hands when we let Jesus be King over our lives. take some time today to think about the areas that you need to let Christ reign over your life.

"For a child has been born—for us!
the gift of a son—for us!
He'll take over
the running of the world.
His names will be: Amazing Counselor,
Strong God,
Eternal Father,
Prince of Wholeness.
His ruling authority will grow,
and there'll be no limits to the wholeness he brings.
He'll rule from the historic David throne
over that promised kingdom.
He'll put that kingdom on a firm footing
and keep it going
With fair dealing and right living,
beginning now and lasting always.
The zeal of God-of-the-Angel-Armies
will do all this."

(isaiah 9.6-8 the message)

for the kids: ask your kids to think about what it would be like to be a king or queen. what decisions would they make? who would they ask for help? would they like having that kind of power? talk to them about what it meant for Jesus to be born a King. even as a tiny baby, he was carrying out God's purposes. even as a tiny baby, he was the best King we could ever have. for a project, cut out a baby shape and wrap its body with white crepe paper for swaddling clothes. cut out and decorate a crown for the baby to wear to remember our newborn King.

Monday, December 1, 2008

"hark the herald angels sing . . ."

"at once the angel was joined by a huge angelic choir singing God's praises..." (luke 2.13, the message)

we have a familiar routine when company is coming. while bill and i do the last minute crazy-clean, we set the kids to watching out the front window for our guests to arrive. not only does that keep the kids out of the way while we clean, but we figure it will give us a little more advance notice that the guests have arrived.

when the door buzzer sounds, zoe runs to "buzz" them in (push the button to open the two front doors) while tessa and tate run to open the apartment door to welcome them to our aparment. together they do a good job "heralding" the arrival of our guests.

"suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God..."
(luke 2.13, new living translation)

when Jesus was born and lying in the manger, God didn't use just anyone to herald his arrival, he used a "multitude" of angels. when we dig deeper we learn that these angels make up the "armies of heaven" (see 1 kings 22.19, 2 kings 6.17 and psalm 148.2). with an army like this at his command, we get a glimpse of the sovereign authority and power of God.

their purpose was to herald the arrival of God's promised Messiah. luke tells us that they are "praising God." having just left God's presence to appear on earth, they continue to sing his praises. they know something very few others do: earth has just received a most incredible gift.

which leads me to wonder . . . are we conscious of the incredible gift we received through Jesus' birth? is our response to praise and worship God? as we enter the crazy-busyness of the holiday season, let's not forget to follow the model of the herald angels and make sure we praise God for his incredible gift.

for the kids: you can talk to your kids about what an incredible sight it would have been for the shepherds to witness: God's armies filling the skies above them. you might even want to read the story from 2 kings 6 as an example of the incredible power the angels had. for a project, make an angel ornament. trace and cut out their hands for wings. cut out a person shape to dress and decorate as you like. glue the handprints on the back.