Saturday, December 31, 2011

Christmas or Christmas Season? [2]

The old year is nearly gone and the New Year is almost upon us.  For many this conjures up thoughts of parties, a new beginning, bowl games and resolutions.  I must confess, for the past several years (10 or so) I have not been a fan of “New Year’s Resolutions”.  However, in light of the Christmas Season I have started to think of them differently. 

A reason I have had an aversion to New Year’s Resolutions is simple; why wait?  E.g., in 2012 I am going to 1) lose weight, 2) get organized, 3) spend less & save more, 4) quit smoking, 10) spend more time with family, etc.   I am not opposed to any of those things.  Yet in the past I would think, “If they are so important…why wait?  Why not start to change now…?”  Have you ever been around someone going on a diet – or gone on one yourself?  If so I am certain this is familiar, “My diet starts in three days (or next year)…so I have until then to eat whatever I want…”  Add into this way of thinking any New Year’s resolution and it can be twisted into a free for all time period because after all, "in 2012 I am going to do better."  However, after a week (estimates and statistics vary), three out of four New Year’s resolutions will have been broken (click on the 1/6/10 radio spot in the new window).  There are a variety of factors for why New Year’s Resolutions fail.  One is the simple fact that change is difficult.  Yet I wonder if a “last minute free for all” also sets us up for failure.    

Be those things as they may be; why am I having a change of thinking toward New Year’s Resolutions?  It is tied into the reality of the Christmas Season.  When our focus shifts from a day (or a few family gatherings) to a celebration of the Incarnation, and its implications, the stage is set for everything to change.  Indeed, it brings fresh meaning to “out with the old and in with the new” (cf. 2Cor5:17).

All that makes a New Year exciting in the minds of many needs to be brought under the Lordship of Jesus – the Christ.  After all, “New Year’s Day” is found within the Christmas Season.  Yet what difference does this make?  For starters, it ought to bring about a shift in some, if not all, of our resolutions.  Why not resolve to get to know a neighbor down the street (even next door) and begin praying – earnestly – for them to submit their life to Jesus?  Why not get accountability in this task of neighbor evangelism?  Why not, in light of the Incarnation, seek to live an incarnational life among people who really need to know God’s love?    

In other words, with a New Year nearly upon us, what changes for the sake of the Kingdom will you make?  Take some time today and reflect on the past year in light of the Incarnation.  What difference has it really made in me?  What would others say?  Have I loved those who are “unlovely” (e.g., a bad boss, an unfriendly neighbor, a social outcast, etc.) in the eyes of the world?  Have I loved what is unlovely in the eyes of God?  How has the reality of the Incarnation impacted how I have spent money?  Etc.

Yes, the Christmas Season changes everything – even the approach a follower of Jesus ought to take with a New Year upon us.  Oh yes, and as far as a “free for all” prior to making a big change at the start of a New Year, this is still problematic.  Yet if a change is to be lasting it must be empowered by the Holy Spirit of God…and this takes prayer. 

So how about something like this?  View Advent as a time of fasting and prayer as we long for the return of Jesus.  During this time I am certain the Holy Spirit will reveal some changes God desires in your life.  Next, view the Christmas Season as a springboard to put these godly changes into practice.  This sounds a lot better than the typical approach to the New Year and resolutions.  And you know what?  I bet a lot of the things in a typical “resolution list” will work themselves out as byproducts of growing closer to God. 

Merry Christmas – and let our hearts turn even more to having the New Year honor the One who owns all of time anyway.  

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Christmas or Christmas Season? [1]

Christmas Day has come and gone.  Since it fell on Sunday this year it allowed for families to have multiple “Christmases” on consecutive days (e.g., Friday evening, Saturday, Sunday and perhaps Monday if work/vacation schedules allowed).  I am certain these Christmas family gatherings were enjoyable for many; I am thankful for this.  Unfortunately more than a few gatherings were likely filled with stress and strife, but we will not focus here – yet.  Be that as it may be, unless you still have some family Christmas gatherings to go, it is quite possible the “Christmas Spirit” has been – or will shortly be – in decline.  Do you sense something wrong with this scenario?  After all, Christmas is (in the wrong way) built up for weeks on end.  Our culture seeks to trump up a festive and even family focused time – topped off with social gatherings, songs, drinks and oh yes…presents… and when all of that is “done” – what?  Well, we are programmed by culture to move on with our lives.  Again, do you sense something wrong with this scenario? 

If you if you have read recent posts on this blog you will remember Christmas is more than a day, it is an entire season.  The Christmas Season starts Christmas Day and lasts for 12 days with Epiphany attached to the end of it (January 6th).  At this point you may be wondering what this has to do with anything.  In other words, does it make any difference at all? 

Since the Christmas Season is just that – a season – and its focus is a celebration of the Incarnation of Jesus – not His birth so much – there are many of implications of this.  I want to be clear; I am not opposed to acknowledging/celebrating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth during this time of year.  However, a celebration of His birth ought to have a longer lasting impact on Christians than it appears to have in our culture.  In order to begin to see some of this we will briefly look at what is used in conjunction with the name Jesus in the Bible.   

The name Jesus is used 917 times in the Greek New Testament (920 times in the English Standard Version).  Well over a third of those occurrences have a title attached to Jesus (e.g., Lord or Christ).  Even on the surface this seems rather significant.  Yet the significance grows when we acknowledge the gospels alone have 566 uses of Jesus’ name in them.  As you likely know, gospels contain a lot of narrative.  This means we quite often read phrases like “Then Jesus came from Galilee” (Matt3:13) or “And when Jesus entered Peter’s house” (Matt8:14).  While these are uses of the name Jesus, they are from the vantage point of telling a story.  Granted, these stories do in fact point to His identity.  Yet I want to look at documents, written to Christians, in light of the known/asserted identity of Jesus.  Therefore, we will set the uses of Jesus in the gospels aside for now. 

This means in the rest of the Greek New Testament Jesus is mentioned 351 times.  Of those 351 uses of Jesus’ name, 330 of them have some combination of (in Greek word order) “Jesus Christ,” “Lord Jesus,” “Christ Jesus,” or “savior Jesus”.  In other words, outside of the gospels, 94% (330/351) of the time the name Jesus occurs, a title is attached to it.  This is not only significant, it is astounding.  It is significant because when we realize the implications of those titles – well, Jesus changes everything.  It is astounding because what those titles claimed in the ancient world is huge.  Therefore, well – the identity Jesus changes everything.  [Note: I will have a more statistically detailed blog in the future.]

This is where the Christmas Season becomes even more important as we celebrate the miracle of the Incarnation.  When we realize Jesus is a Savior and Lord and God’s Messiah (THE Anointed One – Christ), it makes a lot more sense to celebrate a season and not simply a day.  Indeed, the implications of the identity of Jesus have implications for the lives of individuals as well as every culture in the world.  

There is no need for the “post Christmas blues” in light of who Jesus is!!!    

Friday, December 23, 2011

Advent or Christmas? [4]

So how was Advent lost and Christmas distorted into a commercialized crock?  Granted Advent has not been lost for everyone, nor has everyone bought into the commercialization of Christmas.  Yet culturally speaking this is certainly the case.  This is vital to acknowledge because our culture impacts every single one of us. 

I want to be clear.  This is a struggle for me.  I have many good Christmas memories.  I enjoy being with biological family.  I enjoy a day off (sort of – if it falls during the week).  I even enjoy receiving (and of course giving) gifts.  Yet I cannot help but think Christians would really enjoy more people coming into the Kingdom of God.  I cannot help but think Christians would really enjoy seeing the bonds of oppression being broken.  I cannot help but think Christians would really enjoy seeing brothers and sisters around the world having provision for daily necessities in the name of Jesus.  I cannot help but think Christians would be overwhelmed with joy as the communities in which they live are transformed by the grace and love of God… 

With that stated (and many things being left out), I do not know the answer to my opening question.  However, I am quite certain it is tied to the economy.  I imagine most things in an affluent culture are.  The author of this post seems to think this is the case.  So what do we do?  I think pondering the principles and implications (which are more numerous than the few mentioned) of the previous three posts is a start.  There is certainly a need to evaluate and rethink what we do in light of what the Bible says.  This is necessary in being a part of a Kingdom which transcends and trumps all cultures. 

Yet as this is done, do not be legalistic.  When conviction comes to you that change needs to be made, seek godly wisdom in how to implement the change(s) in your family first.  As with any change, there will be a time of adjustment.  As your family changes, do not impose your change(s) on others.  Naturally this would be done with good intentions.  Sadly it often has disastrous results.  In fact, all legalism has disastrous results.  Yet by all means, share your new knowledge and some of the things it is leading you to do as you seek to follow Jesus more closely.  Yet do so with humility and grace. 

Please understand, this does not invalidate your change(s).  Neither does this say others should not make the same change(s).  What this does is acknowledge forced change is not lasting and godly change.  Our Christian walk is a journey and we are all at different stages.  I want to be clear again, this is not a call for complacency.  Rather, it is a call for grace and encouragement.  Changed lives lead to more changed lives as they are lived out in community.  However, simply telling others to change merely leads to closed ears and hearts.  For certain the miracle of Incarnation has shown us that… 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Advent or Christmas? [3]

The last post ended with a statement of how when we long for the return of Jesus during this time of Advent, it ought to reorient everything in our lives – finances included. 

Do you know what I find increasingly disturbing about this time of year?  In our consumer oriented society it is easy to think some “may not have much of a Christmas”.  Quite often those meant by the previous phrase are the ones pushed to the edges of society which includes – but is not limited to – the poor.  One problem with this belief is its gross historical inaccuracy.  It is foolish to think “the poor” and “the forgotten” cannot celebrate Christmas [see endnote].  It is true they may not be able to celebrate it in a culturally appropriate/normal way, but this is far different from thinking they cannot celebrate Christmas.  Indeed, given the distinction between Christmas and Advent, “those people” are actually in a better position to appreciate Advent and therefore truly get the Christmas Season more than many others.  

Did you know the Bible indicates Joseph and Mary were poor?  The sacrifice they presented for their purification in Luke chapter two was “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons” (Lk2:22-24).  By reading in the Old Testament we see this was an acceptable offering for one who was “poor” (cf. Leviticus chapter 12, especially verse eight).  Indeed, being “poor” did not stop them from experiencing the marvel of the incarnation.  Luke also tells us shepherds were among the first to know of Jesus’ birth.  While I cannot say they were poor – although the majority of people in Biblical times were – I can say shepherds were often despised by religious people.  Why?  They were looked down upon because their work kept them from participating in religious festivities (never mind the fact their work made many religious festivities possible; i.e., lambs to sacrifice). 

So the poor, along with those who were despised, overlooked, or taken for granted (however you want to say it) all got to experience the miracle of the incarnation.  Granted, neither the shepherds nor Joseph and Mary knew the full implications of Jesus at the time.  Yet do not miss this – the best news in the history of the world was made known to those among “the least of these” first. 

So what does this have to do with finances?  It is easy to think, at least in a culture where Christmas has been commercialized into a “Christ-mess”, that without finances one will miss out on this time of year.  Culturally there is truth to this.  However, a hard truth is financial stability far too often leads to being comfortable and complacent (it can also lead to worry and greed – but that is another issue).  When people are comfortable and complacent…there is not much urgency.  There is not much longing for Jesus to return.  I realize this is not a blanket rule – but our culture pretty much shows it is… 

So what can be done?  Since God’s rule includes provision for everyone…Christians ought to be turning loose of finances (and using other means) to help “the poor” and “the forgotten”.  This is a natural outflow of both Advent and the Christmas Season. 

Until next time, Holy Advent to you. 

Endnote: I am in favor of helping the less fortunate experience some happiness by being able to have and give gifts during this time of year.  In fact, this is an overflow of Advent. While we long for the return of Jesus, when all needs will be met, we (the body of Christ) rise up to do our part in meeting needs in the here and now.  Granted, Christmas gifts are not usually “needs” – but it is a way to show the love of God, which is a need.  Plus, things on the Christmas list for many of “the poor” truly are needs – things like coats, shoes, even a job…  In fact, some organizations (like World Vision and Christian Missionary Fellowship) have Christmas catalogues where gifts can be purchased for those in the two thirds world (commonly called in the past “3rd world countries”).  

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Advent or Christmas? [2]

With a very basic groundwork of Advent and Christmas in place, let us begin to look at some implications.

Quite often the holiday season (if I dare type that) is a difficult one for people.  Although our culture seeks to trump up a festive and even family focused time – topped off with social gatherings, songs, drinks and oh yes…presents – a variety of things make this season a difficult one.  A major difficulty for many during the holiday season is the unfortunate reality of death.  Have you ever lost a loved one?  Did you miss them the first time the holidays (or any special day) rolled around?  Sure you did.  In fact, you likely still miss the person even if it has been 20 years, or longer. 

So how can a focus on Advent help?  It can help because Advent reminds us this world is not our home.  This world will pass away and our sojourn here will be revealed as extremely short.  There ought to be no denying this world is a mess.  Horrific things happen here; people are oppressed and abused, forgotten and ridiculed, even murdered and worse.  Yet Advent reminds us none of those occurrences will have the last word.   

Let us move back to the reality that the death of loved ones often makes this time of year difficult.  Advent reminds us one day there will be no more death (Rev21:4).  Advent reminds us our King, Jesus, will one day return and everything will be made new (Rev21:5)!  We, along with our deceased loved ones in Christ, will receive resurrection bodies!  Indeed, the faithful in Christ on earth will meet the deceased in Christ who are currently with Him, and we all will come back to this refined earth together (cf. 1Thess4:13ff; 2Pet3:8-13).  At that point we will then, and forever more be, in the presence of God!! 

The truth and focus of Advent helps to take some of the sting out of missing a loved one.  Granted, grief is still real and memories will bring a mixture of happiness and sorrow.  Yet the neglected Christmas story of Revelation chapter 12 reminds us there is a cosmic battle raging all around us.  This battle is over the eternal destiny of humanity.  We will not get this message from the commercialization of Christmas in our culture.  Quite the contrary, our culture wants to lull us into complacency and put forth comfort after comfort, luxury after luxury, until we are so inundated with them that if we miss one we feel less fortunate and deprived. 

While we may still miss loved ones, a focus on Advent – longing for the return of Jesus – tempers this grief.  In fact, it gives us hope because one day things will be made right.  One day loved ones will be reunited (and the oppressed and abused will be healthy and whole, the forgotten and ridiculed will have God wipe away tears from their eyes as they realize – for the first time perhaps – they have worth and value) – what a glorious day it will be!!  The worth of Advent is immeasurable for the Christian community.  Indeed, Advent’s worth is immeasurable for all humanity.  As we long for the return of Jesus it ought to reorient everything in our lives; one of these areas is the realm of finances. 

May you continue to experience a Holy Advent.  

Friday, December 16, 2011

Advent or Christmas? [1]

Have you ever been upset about something and even “fought” for said thing, only to later learn you were either all worked up about nothing or worse yet, wrong?  Take the uproar caused by some (well meaning) people who will fight and even boycott a store which does not say “Merry Christmas” during this time of year.  While there is validity in trying to “keep Christ in Christmas,” unfortunately the whole thought process is standing on a faulty foundation.  In other words good intentions can be misguided, even harmful. 

Speaking from a historical vantage point, we are in the season of Advent.  Advent begins the Sunday closest to the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle, which is November 30th, and lasts four Sundays.  This year Advent stretches from November 27th until December 24th.  Christmas Day begins the Christmas Season, which always lasts 12 days until the 5th of January (the 6th being Epiphany).  This means Christmas is more than a mere day.  This makes sense as the implications of Christmas impact everything.  We all know a mere day can be easily lost in the shuffle of the busyness of our lives.  Yet the Christmas Season is a celebration of the Incarnation – a history altering event!  This also means saying “Merry Christmas” is not technically accurate until the 25th of December, but do not worry – you can keep saying it past the New Year! 

A variety of questions may come into one’s mind right now.  A few of them may be: Why does this matter? Who cares? How did this happen? Can we do anything about this? Should we do anything about this?   

Firstly it matters because ignoring history is not wise.  While we should not be shackled by history, we should at least allow it to inform us.  Better yet, we should seek to make use of the godly principles we can learn from it.  Our forefathers (the saints who have gone on before us) were wise in establishing a Church Calendar.  Sadly, many outside of the more “liturgical churches” ignore it.  For Christians to ignore history is unnecessary and dangerous – even foolish. 

Secondly, Christians ought to care about the Advent and Christmas distinction.  It is HUGE.  The word Advent is a Latin translation of the Greek word parousia (parousiva), which basically means coming or presence.  In other words, the focus of Advent is on the first and second comings of Jesus.  Obviously these are vital to the Christian faith, yet they also have implications for everyone – regardless of religious beliefs.    

Thirdly, we ought to do something about it.  Unfortunately far too many Christians have been duped by culture.  We have become placated with less than the gospel message.  This time of year is full of good intentioned Christmas stories and Nativity scenes.  The efforts behind these are noble, and all of them can be a vehicle through which God works.  Yet a focus on Advent helps us to remember things are not as they appear.  The Christmas story told by the writer of the Gospel of John makes this very clear.  Yet if you turn to John you will not find it.  No, to read his account you need to turn to Revelation chapter 12.  Indeed, thing are rarely as they seem to be…  

I plan to have a succession of posts fleshing out the importance of this distinction in applicable ways for us.  In the mean time “Holy Advent” to you and yours.  

Thursday, December 8, 2011

What Would You Do If...? [5]

What would you do if money was not an issue?

If you had asked me that question 10 or so years ago I would have answered the question with a few of my own...  Does this mean I am rich?  Am I retired?  Am I dead?  Do I have an unending line of credit?  Can you give me some more information please - I would like to make the most of this opportunity!?!  Questions like those reveal a major stumbling block for Christians in an affluent culture.  In light of this we need a strong dose of behold!!

Granted, we do not make frequent use of "behold" in our daily conversations.  This is likely why some Bible translations will say "see" or "look" instead of "behold".  I understand using modern language to communicate a thought.  Yet what I do not understand is why, at times, translations completely omit the word (e.g., the NIV in both Rev21:3 and Rev21:5).  Behold is used to prompt us to take our eyes off our present circumstances.  We are to (literally) look up...even see things (in part) from God's perspective.  [Maybe I will cover behold in another post, but for now back to...]

Again, the opening question - What would you do if money was not an issue?  I ask this question because of what John wrote in verses 18 and 21 (v18 The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, like clear glass....v21 And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass...).  Do not miss what is being communicated here.  While it is possible the streets of Revelation are actually made out of gold, this is not the issue - at least something deeper is being communicated [see end note #1 at bottom of post].  When we allow an image/symbol to breathe - well it is breathtaking.

One issue we see in Rev21:18,21 is a beautiful - and challenging - irony.  Gold is valued more than almost anything else on earth (especially for monetary worth - in John's day and even ours with the "bull run" gold recently).  Yet John tells us what people will trample and kill other people for here on this fallen earth is only good enough for the feet of the saints in the new heaven and new earth!!  That is beautiful - and challenging - at the same time.

It is beautiful because it reminds us all humans are made in God's image and therefore have inherent worth, value, and dignity (cf. Gen1:27).  It is challenging because finances surface often in Revelation.  The issue pops up in the oracles to the seven churches (Rev2-3) and with the beasts of Revelation 13.  It is present again in the destruction of "Babylon" in sobering ways (cf. Rev18-19).  In light of the low economic status of many to whom Revelation was addressed, God says they will have access to the "water of life without payment" (Rev21:6) - and yes gold is only fit for the feet of His people (Rev21:18,21).

In light of these things, how do you view money?  In your hands is it a tool with which you can truly bless the Kingdom by blessing others?  What would you do if money was not an issue?  

This is a timely topic as we are in the season of Advent - NOT Christmas - right now.  But alas, that is another post for another day...

So, what would you do if money was not an issue?

#1 Remember, Revelation uses symbolism to communicate truths - in profound ways (e.g., Rev21:12 a "great high wall, with twelve gates..." - this would communicate safety and security in the ancient world as gates were for defensive purposes.  Yet just a bit later, in Rev21:25 we read "and its gates will never be shut by day...".  So what gives?  Huge walls and gates for security that are never shut?  Exactly, there is no need to shut them because evil is gone (cf. Rev21:1).  When we allow a symbol to breathe is is breathtaking for us...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

What Would You Do If...? [4]

How else should the truths contained in Revelation 21-22 shape us?

What would you do if you knew you were loved and valued?  While it may seem like a frivolous question; the reality is the answer to this is foundational for human behavior.

Every single person I know walks with a limp.  In other words, things have happened to them...and they leave a mark.  Some of these "things" have been done intentionally by others to inflict hurt.  Other "things" have been done in ignorance by people who love them - yet they still hurt.  Either way the truth remains, what happens to us shapes us. As a result we look for significance and meaning in a variety of wrong places (e.g., material things, job titles, improper sexual fulfillment/attention, tearing others down, drugs, etc.).

Read again John's words in Revelation 21:9-11,
9 Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, 11 having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.

I am sure you noticed John is going to see the bride, the wife of the Lamb.  By taking concepts from other passages (e.g., Matt25:1-13; Eph5:25-32) we know "she" is The Church.  This deduction is made concrete here in Revelation 21.  Yet added to this picture is how the holy city Jerusalem is also the bride...which is The Church.  So, more than a place, the concept being communicated here is about a people - God's people.

Speaking of God's people, the first description is that of a rare jewel, like a jasper.  The first time this stone/jewel appears in Revelation is in chapter four, which is when John gets a picture of One seated on the throne (Rev4:2 - God) who is described as having the appearance of jasper... (Rev4:3).  In other words, the people of God (Rev21) look a lot like God Himself (Rev4).  How is that for value?  It sounds a lot like Genesis 1:27, So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.  Everyone has inherent dignity worth and value because they are made in God's Image.  Granted, this image has been distorted due to the Fall...yet God's people are destined to again look a lot like Him.  

Yet we need to remind ourselves that God has revealed these truths to us (e.g., Gen1:27; Rev21:9-11) so that our lives are changed.  He wants us to live our lives with no doubt about our worth and value.  If God's people truly did this it would ignite a revolution of sacrificial love and service.  The truth is undeniable; the more inadequate we feel the more we are led to dwell on how bad we are, go into depression, attempt to "achieve" in order to look important, etc.  Yet living out of an overflowing reality of who we are as God sees us sets us free from those things.  And when we are free we are able to more fully love others around us (which is exactly what God does).

The longer I serve God the more I love people.  If only people could see themselves as loved and precious (because you are), and therefore not seek attention in the myriad of ways it is touted by the world, the more addictions and destructive behaviors would be overcome...the more God's people (myself included) would truly live as redeemed people.

What would you do if... (how would your life be different) you knew you were loved and valued?  Those who are most secure in their identity love others all the more - just think of Jesus.