Thursday, December 31, 2009

All Things New

It happens every year: I have good intentions for the best possible new year. My intentions bring forth resolutions for a better life. After all, it’s natural to reflect upon the closing of one year and the possibilities of another. Everyone has hopes for a better year. We all instinctively realize that we have a role to play in shaping the year to come. So we resolve to try harder, act kindly, and become better people. Of course, New Year’s resolutions rarely last a week--or sometimes even the night!

The new year presents an opportunity to reflect on how real change comes. I’d like to suggest three pillars of change for Students of Jesus:

Redeeming Time: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) This is worth reflection: we live in time. God has ordained that we experience the passage of time one day after another. The days march by in succession, turning into weeks and months. Yet we are surprised by it’s passage: “What? Where did the year go?” Each day tries to command our attention and draw us into the urgent, the pressing, and the demands of everyday life. Each day cries out with a voice of authority, but it is the voice of an impostor. “Each day is a god,” Annie Dillard observed. Each day attempts to eclipse our relationship with the Lord: work, food, play, entertainment, even sleep. Could any human relationship flourish if it receives only the left-overs of the day? The Apostle Paul cautioned his friends in Ephesus: “Be very careful, then, how you live - not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:16) In fact, the King James version employs the useful phrase, “redeem the time.” True change comes to those who understand God’s gracious gift of time, and rule over that gift as God intends.

The Presence of the Holy Spirit: “All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.” (Isaiah 40: 6) Real change requires Incarnation. The importance of incarnation does not end with the Christmas story. We need the in-breaking of the Spirit in order to effect real change. The legacy of flesh is corruption. It’s not that flesh is evil, but rather that all flesh is subject to corruption. For example, imagine a perfect tomato: vine-ripened and red, resting on the kitchen windowsill. It’s flawless. You return to the kitchen the next day, and it remains firm and inviting. Now imagine that you leave that tomato on the windowsill for six months: it's no longer perfect, and definitely not inviting! It’s not that the tomato was defective: it simply decayed. This is the legacy of all created things apart from Spirit-infused life. Our plans are no different. “Perfect” well-intentioned human plans are always subject to corruption. We need the life-giving Spirit of God to give birth to our plans. The Apostle Peter reflected on the words of Isaiah and concluded that we need a reminder in order to be open to the Spirit: “you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” (I Peter 1: 23) The new birth implants the imperishable seed, but we can easily be distracted by the flesh: “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (Galatians 3:3) True change comes to those who insist upon the presence of the Holy Spirit in all their plans.

Responding to Grace: There is, indeed, a place for human effort. We are called to cooperate with the grace of God. The Apostle Paul recognized that receiving the grace of God was the initial step--God’s step, but there were steps for Paul to take as well: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them - yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (I Corinthians 5:10) How many of us associate the phrase “worked harder” with God’s grace? Make no mistake--Paul does not confuse his effort with God’s grace. He understands that his efforts come as a response to that grace. If we expect to experience godly change in the coming year, we must recognize where God’s grace is leading us, and then cooperate with his initiative. No amount of effort will replace God’s grace; we must have eyes to see what the Master is doing. We must also possess the courage to commit ourselves to his leading. True change comes to those who add their best to God’s kindness.

We turn the calendar page, but he gives new life. In the end, we will recognize the work of Jesus in our successes. “Behold,” says the Lord, “I make all things new.”

Monday, December 28, 2009

Monday's Meditation: From Child to Man

Matthew and Luke tell us the Christmas story--the drama and circumstances of the birth of Jesus. These accounts are rich in detail and paint a vivid picture of the Nativity. We know so much about the baby Jesus: his ancestry, his conception, his birth and the those who marked that birth. These events cover no more than a year.

What we know about the next thirty years can fit into a few spare words: Joseph and Mary took their child to Egypt for a time before returning to Nazareth, their home. In Nazareth Jesus grew both physically and spiritually, and participated in his family’s life, including their pilgrimages to Jerusalem year after year. In those years only one event captures the notice of the scriptures: as a twelve year-old his curiosity caused him to lose himself in the Temple grounds, seeking answers for his questions.

That’s it. We know little of his upbringing. We are given one snapshot event and a summary statement (Luke 2:52). And yet, these years must have been important. How did they contribute to the man he became?

Some might think the child Christ knew his identity from the beginning, in which case his childhood and adolescence were utterly unlike any life ever lived. Apocryphal literature from the second century contains fantastic stories of a wonder-working boy Jesus, capable of raising the dead and changing stones into living creatures. If these stories (which are not in the scripture) are true, then his life cannot be a model for ours.

The other possibility is that Jesus grew in awareness and understanding of his identity, discovering God’s call and destiny upon his life. How does any child find his God-given purpose? How did he find his? How do we find ours? And how can we meditate on these possibilities with so little guidance from the scripture?

If you are willing to wade into deep water this week, consider: how did he become the man he was?

Thursday, December 24, 2009


All language falls short of reality, but when we attempt to describe the mystery of the Incarnation, words fails utterly. Throughout history, words have poured forth profusely in an effort to explain a mystery so great that angels have longed to look into.

The Incarnation. It’s such a strange word, tinged with stained glass and solemn intonation. The word is not native to English. We inherited the word from Latin as that beautiful language tried to express, “to be made flesh.” So strange. To be made flesh. Not to be made of flesh, but rather rendered into flesh. Someone--God--was changed into flesh. No wonder the angels were curious.

Theologians raise objections: God cannot “become” anything because God cannot change. I’m not smart enough to be a theologian. I can only point to the witness of the Holy Spirit: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Although the words of men have failed for millennia, the Word became flesh. God describes himself as “the Word.” What is that Word? It is, simply, Jesus. The Word spoken was an entire life, and that life was the light of men. In that one Word/Life, we discover the glory of God, the grace of God and the truth of God.

In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God pitched his tent among us and showed us how to live. God wasn’t “slumming,” like some Hollywood star sleeping on the streets for one night. He left the most exclusive gated community in all creation and became a little lower than the angels. He lived among us--as one of us--without the benefits of his heavenly nature. The Christmas story comes to us filled with drama and pathos, but in our celebration of the Christ Child, the faith of his parents, the wonder of the Magi and worship from the shepherds it’s easy to miss the point: it’s the beginning of the gospel story, not the story in itself.

What does it look like for God to live like a man? It starts with humility, danger, and promise--not so different from each human life that comes from God. It starts with desperation and need but it continues day after day, month after month, year after year until God’s purposes are fulfilled. Jesus the baby became Jesus the child. And in the same succession of days we all experience, Jesus the child became Jesus the man. He showed us how it’s done. He took no shortcuts, he did not cheat on the exam of life. He was “tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hebrew 4:15).

For the past hundred years the divinity of Jesus has been under attack, and the church has rushed to defend from those attacks. Rightly so: he is the Son of God. However, decades of emphasis on his divine nature have come at the expense of an understanding of his humanity. Jesus lived his daily life in communion with the Father using the same means open to each one of us: prayer, openness to the Spirit, the witness of scripture, a listening ear, and the life of a disciple. The child Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52). It was no charade: Jesus was a man. If we grasp his humanity we can encounter the hope of Christlikeness for ourselves as well. The Incarnation is not only a theological teaching, it is a picture of what is possible for followers of Jesus.

An overemphasis on his divinity creates a picture of a saving God who is beyond our reach. An overemphasis on his humanity reduces Jesus to a beloved character who is easily marginalized by the changes of culture and time. It took the early church two centuries to come to an acceptable statement of the mystery—Jesus is at once 100% God and 100% man. The mystery is also the stuff of Christmas meditation.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Monday's Meditation: A Christmas Parable

God comes to us in unexpected ways. Our problem is that we are looking for him according to our expectations. This is one of the lessons of the first Christmas: God came to nation which eagerly longed for his coming, prayed for his return, and placed all their hopes in his presence. Yet most of the nation missed the hour of his visitation. Is this simply history, or a parable for our day?

The people of God known as Israel had looked for a “day of visitation” for at least 500 years before the coming of Jesus. The nation remembered the golden age of King David a thousand years before the days of Herod, a counterfeit king. David was the prototype of God’s chosen vessel, a unifying and conquering King who established Israel in peace, security, and prosperity. After David’s reign many the prophets began to anticipate a day when Yahweh, the God of Israel, would not rule through a representative king. Instead, God would come personally, take his place on earth and establish Jerusalem as the pinnacle of the earth.

The day of God’s visitation would be both glorious and terrifying. The oppressed (Israel) would be rescued and the oppressor (Persia, Syria, Greece, Rome--or whomever was on top at the time) would be cast down. The people of Israel were looking for their freedom and expected God to judge the rest of the world as well. They expected God would come to the Temple and establish his throne on the earth. They expected “The Day of the Lord,” both great and terrible--great for them, terrible for their enemies. These expectations were based on their understanding of the scriptures and the encouragement of their teachers. These expectations shaped their view of the world, and became the substance of their hopes.

Who could have imagined that when God came to earth personally, he would be dressed in frailty? Who could have imagined that God would indeed come to the Temple, only to declare that the true Temple was built of living stones? Who could have imagined that this King would establish his throne in the hearts of men? And perhaps most incredibly, who could have imagined that the Day of Judgment would indeed come, but that the Son of God would take the judgment upon himself in order to save the guilty?

Of course, in our day, we know these things. We can see clearly. But still the original question remains as a Christmas meditation: Is this simply history, or a parable for our day?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

God at the Margins

Hope, promise, and expectation live in the most unlikely places. The birth narrative in Luke’s gospel is peopled with unknowns—unknowns who possessed a rich history with God and whose stories are preserved for our instruction. Simeon is just such an example. He was an individual on the margins, unnoticed in his day but preserved for us in the scripture as an example of how to walk with God.

Just after the birth of their child, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was a massive complex of buildings, a religious marketplace at the center of Jewish life. The young couple expected anonymity in the crush of humanity flowing in and out of the Temple, but instead they encountered a man who had patiently waited to see the promise of God fulfilled before he died:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
"Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel. (Luke 2: 25 – 32)

Simeon’s actions and words are recorded for us not as a matter of historical curiosity, but rather to demonstrate how we can enter into God’s purpose in our day as well. Simeon had a dynamic relationship with the Holy Spirit. In just three verses the work of the Spirit is highlighted three times, and each mention points to a distinct aspect of the Spirit’s work in Simeon’s life:

• First the scripture says simply, “the Holy Spirit was upon him.” (v25) Simeon’s life was characterized by the presence of the Spirit in an abiding way: to know Simeon, to talk with him, was to taste something of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps you have met people like him. Their lives are permeated with the presence of the Holy Spirit. They radiate the attributes of Godly character, like the list of His fruit in Galatians 5: 22-23. In Simeon’s case other people may not have been able to define the source of his distinctive character, but they undoubtedly sensed the difference.

• Second, the Holy Spirit had spoken to Simeon personally that “he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” (v26) This is significant because no amount of study in the Old Testament could lead anyone to such a promise. It was personal. That means Simeon had trained not only his intellect but also his spirit to receive from God. Simeon combined both the ability to hear and the faith to hold on to what he heard. Can you imagine the raised eyebrows he would have encountered if he chose to share such a personal promise from God? Yet the promise was true because the scriptures assure us so.

• Third, Simeon followed the leading of the Holy Spirit in practical ways. He was “moved by the Holy Spirit” on a particular day to be at a particular place at a particular time (v27). Perhaps Simeon was consciously aware of the Spirit’s direction, or perhaps it was something less defined. But whatever level of awareness Simeon possessed it was sufficient to put him in the right place at the right time. Dallas Willard has observed that God’s leading isn’t always some explicit command. In fact, we may not be able to separate our thoughts from his—until after the fact, when we realize God was leading and guiding toward a particular moment. Although we do not know Simeon’s age at the time of the encounter with Jesus, the text leads us to believe he was a man advanced in years. His interaction with the Holy Spirit that day was not some robotic control. It was the result of years of heartfelt seeking and cooperation with the still small voice so characteristic of God’s ways.

Simeon’s relationship with the Holy Spirit placed him before the baby Jesus. Simeon’s response to the moment is instructive as well:

He knew his moment had come. When Simeon declares, “dismiss your servant in peace,” (v29) he is not waxing poetic. He welcomes death because he has experienced the faithfulness of God. He has witnessed the promise of God to Abraham, to Israel, and to himself. He has seen the hope of Israel.

Simeon saw what others did not. He declared, “My eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people” (vs 30-31) It was business as usual at the Temple that day. Priests, rabbis, and religious sorts of all kinds walked right past the King of Glory. Simeon saw a baby and witnessed the consolation of Israel. Here’s a difficult question: will I be held accountable for what the Father tried to show me, but I was unable to see?

Finally, Simeon understood that God’s purposes stretch beyond Israel to the entire world. There, in the shadow of the Temple, Simeon bore witness to the hope of the Gentiles. Most of the Temple was off-limits to women and pagans. But standing before Mary, and attracting the attention of a widow named Anna, Simeon declared that the court of the Gentiles now housed the presence of God. The God of Abraham had fulfilled a promise to bless the entire world. In our day, even among believers, we are tempted to think that God is at work on behalf of the few, when in fact his purposes include the many.

There is so much to celebrate in the Christmas story, but for followers of Jesus there is even more to learn.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Monday's Meditation Nine Months to Think

One day you go to work, encounter an angel, and receive the best news of your life. But it’s too good to be true, so you’re not sure whether to trust your heart to happiness. Then the angel gives you an assignment: keep silent for nine months and meditate on the work of God. This is the story of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. His story is also a part of the Christmas saga.
The angel who delivers good news to him is mildly offended at Zechariah’s inability to enter into joy and hope. This angel, Gabriel, has come straight from the presence of God, where the only news is good news. Gabriel’s response to fear and doubt is instructive: keep silent until it comes to pass. Then, nine months and eight days later, Zechariah’s voice returns. What would you say after nine months of meditating on the goodness of God?
Zechariah’s first words after nine months of silence are recoded in Luke 1: 67-80. Nine months of reflection. Nine months to consider the work of God. Nine months to travel from doubt to insight; from fear to hope.
Why not consider these seven questions this week:
  • Zechariah was “filled with the Holy Spirit.” His perspective had shifted from the everyday to the presence of God. (v 67) How many of us consider the need to dwell in the presence?
  • The God of Israel is in the business of redemption, both personally and corporately. (vs 68-71). How many of us consider that God’s redemptive purposes extend beyond our own need?
  • God’s saving action demonstrates his faithfulness to all generations, from Abraham forward. (vs 72-73) How many of us consider that God sees all of humanity before him at any given moment?
  • The purpose of God’s saving action is so that we can “serve him without fear.” (v74) How many of us consider God’s purpose in saving us?
  • John the Baptist’s ministry was solely to prepare the way for another. (v76) How many of us view ministry as releasing someone else to be the star?
  • Isaiah’s fingerprints are all over the Zechariah’s final words (vs 77-79). How many of us allow the scripture to inform our wondering and meditation?
  • Finally, the baby was only eight days old. Zechariah’s work was just beginning. (v80) How many of us see the fulfillment of God’s promise as the beginning instead of the end?
May these seven questions carry us to another Monday. Peace!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The God of Nobodies

When really important people come to town, everyone one knows it. NBA stadiums sell out months before LaBron or Kobe show up for game time. When Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson do a personal appearance, hundreds of screaming fans will show up hours ahead of time. When the President visits your city, you can be sure the mayor will meet him at the airport and school children will be there to give the first lady flowers.

But the Christmas story shows us that God does things differently. You might even call his way sneaky. The most important person in the history of the world snuck into town late one night and definitely did not stay in a five-star hotel. Actually, Jesus was smuggled into Bethlehem through the womb of a teenage girl, who gave birth in a barn. That’s different.

We all know the story of Christmas: the baby, the barn, the shepherds and magi. Hidden inside that familiar story is the surprising revelation that God’s way is to ignore the bigshots and use nobodies instead. Just count the nobodies:

Mary was a teenage girl from a small town. In Bible times women were not important people, and teenagers were even lower on the scale. Mix in her pre-martial pregnancy, and you’ve got a real nobody on your hands. But Mary was God’s choice. She conceived the baby Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. God considered her somebody important and gave her a pretty tough assignment!

Joseph was a nobody, too. He was just a working man across town from Mary’s family. He was faced with a choice between trusting God or protecting his small-town reputation. But reputations belong to important people, and most of the important people were in Jerusalem. Joseph said “yes” to shame, yes to love and yes to God, so God chose Joseph to act as a foster-father to the Savior of the world.

Shepherds are not important people, just the opposite: second-shift schmucks who work outdoors. Back in that day watching sheep was not exactly a rock-star kind of gig. Yet they were the first guests invited to the celebration.

The Magi? nothing more than rich pagan astrologers: it didn’t matter if they had money; they were foreigners. Foreigners have the wrong religion, the wrong clothes, and the wrong sacred books. Elizabeth & Zechariah: a kindly old couple engaged in harmless religious activity. They are the kind of people society ignores--unless they are driving too slow on a the highway. Anna & Simeon: Alone and elderly, they were two people almost completely invisible to everyone. Everyone except the Holy Spirit. One and all, they were people on the outside of society.

The secret message inside the Christmas story? God invites the nobodies. And when God invites you to the table, he provides everything you need. The powerful people, the beautiful people, and the cool kids might not make it to the celebration. They’re welcome, but they might be too busy building their own kingdoms. Meanwhile God’s kingdom is filling up with the people no one notices.

This season, if you are a nobody—rejoice! You are not far from the Kingdom of God.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Monday's Meditation Correct Answers and Cold Hearts

Knowing the right answer is overrated. A heart moved by the truth is beyond measure.

In Matthew’s account of the Christmas story three wise men (rich pagan astrologers, actually) follow a star to Israel. They know the star is the herald of a new king and a new world order. Because these men understand protocol and honor, they pay a visit to the current king of Israel. The Magi presumed Herod and his court would be aware of this epochal change:

Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written:
'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'" (Matthew 2: 2 - 6)

I have always been astonished at this passage. The Magi had gone as far as their knowledge could take them. They had already traveled a long way and were willing to go the distance. The chief priests and teachers of Israel--the religious professionals--could correctly answer the question regarding the birthplace of the king, but not one of them said to the Magi, “What?!? It’s happening now? We must go with you to see the king.”

Not a single scholar went to see the the hope of Israel and Savior of the world. They were content with knowing the correct answer, but their hearts were apparently unwilling to experience the truth first-hand. This Monday, this Christmas season, may God deliver us from right answers living in cold hearts.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Discipled by the Christmas Narrative

What we know of the birth of Jesus comes to us as divine revelation in the inspired words of the gospels. We get the Christmas story from the scriptures. These passages, found in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke, are some of the most well-known Bible verses in history.

Like countless other believers around the world, as I prepare for the Christmas season I will read these passages again and again. They are familiar and comforting, and perhaps that’s the problem: because I have come to these passages so often, I am tempted to think that there is nothing new for the Holy Spirit to reveal through these words. That would be a mistake, because the Bible narrative of the birth of Christ is not only inspired storytelling but also useful for training in right relationship with God. What better way to prepare for Christmas than to go deeper in our relationship with the Father?

Let me suggest that the birth narratives--like all scripture--are food for students of Jesus. These passages are filled with challenges to our faith, and filled with the encouragement we need to grow in God. Today I would like to share just four observations from the first chapter of Matthew.

1). Poor Joseph--God didn’t get his approval before acting. Can you imagine the real-life shock of these words: “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1: 18) Mary received an angelic visitation and the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. Joseph received the worst news of his life. God “drafted” Joseph into a difficult position--would the Almighty ever do the same to us? Have we ever considered the implications of God’s sovereignty? If we affirm that we belong to him are we willing to be drafted as Joseph was?

2). The narrative reveals the actions of a righteous man. In his confusion and pain, Joseph’s first concern was for Mary, he “did not want to expose her to public disgrace.” (1: 19) How many of us would have this priority? Perhaps this is why the scripture labels Joseph a “righteous man.” Scripture is demonstrating what true righteousness looks like in action. It’s revealing as well that the scripture describes Joseph's righteousness not in terms of his relationship to God, but in terms of his relationship to Mary. True righteousness extends two directions--toward God and man.

3). Joseph resisted the urge to act rashly. Even in his concern for Mary and her reputation he was still determined to divorce her (in modern terms, "break the engagement"). Yet verse 20 reveals that he took time to consider his actions. When Joseph was faced with the impossible, he did not rush to judgment. The scriptures do not indicate how long he waited, but he took time to consider his actions. And in that period of time, Joseph positioned himself to hear from God in a most unusual manner:

4).An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife.’” God gave Joseph a dream, a dream that would change his life forever. This must’ve been some dream, or Joseph must’ve been some righteous man, or both. Engagement, unexpected pregnancy, and an out-of-this-world explanation would be enough to give anyone dreams. But God chose a dream as the means to provide divine direction, and Joseph recognized the dream as God’s personal leading. In fact, dreams are mentioned no fewer than four times in Matthew 1 & 2. I believe scripture is teaching us that God can and does guide his children through dreams. Imagine: in an emotionally charged situation, just when we would be tempted to ignore our dreams as a product of our subconscious, God is present: leading, directing, and guiding--through dreams. By the way, there is no indication that Joseph heard anything else from God until after the baby was born. He remained faithful to God’s instructions for months, all based on one dream!

The Christmas season offers an opportunity to anyone who would become a student of Jesus. Can we imagine ourselves in these situations? Between Matthew and Luke's gospels the cast of Christmas characters is pretty large: Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon, Anna, the Magi and shepherds. They are the stuff of Christmas pageants, and cheesy dramas. They are also the stuff of God’s instruction to his disciples.