For the joy set before us … Hebrews 13

Joy, Unspeakable Joy – that has been our theme these two weeks and these three Sundays of Christmas 2015.

There is Joy at the beginning of that title, and Joy at the end. And in like fashion, there is joy at the beginning of time (the angels sang for joy at creation – Job 38:7) and at the end with the restoration of all things in the establishment of God’s eternal kingdom.

The problem for us, of course, is that we are caught now in the middle of those bookends. We experience seasons of joy, and there is a deep-seated inner peace and confidence that even in the sorrows and sadnesses, we know what the future holds. And any pain in this sojourn is worth it all in light of that greater truth.

So we should rejoice especially in this season and time on the calendar when these truths percolate again to the front of our minds and consciences. And even in a world that increasingly rejects truth, peace, and the king of peace, we should not fear or hesitate identification with Jesus.

In the passage that begins in Hebrews 12 (see yesterday) that talks about the joy set before Christ, the path to the joy involved suffering along the way. This too shall be our experience. And as the writer to the Hebrews brings this thought to a close in chapter 13, he encourages the readers (and us by extension) to be identified with Christ and his sufferings …

11 The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. 12 And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.13 Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. 14 For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

15 Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. 16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

In this world that hates Christ, yes, bear that disgrace. Don’t hesitate to be identified with him. Any city here, and gain or glory here, it is all fading … but another greater city is yet to come that will never perish.

In the meantime, be quick to openly profess Christ. And note also that immediately following this exhortation is the command to not fail to think of others in doing good and sharing with them. There’s a Christmas theme!

I’ll finish the series with this story. I was listening recently to a podcast by Dallas Seminary of a talk with a seminary professor in an evangelical school in Jordan. One can imagine the complications of being so openly Christian in that context. While noting the difficulties as very real, this theological scholar also said that there are many in that region of the world who are attracted to and are coming to know Christ. And he said that a big part of it is the wonderful Gospel message that stands opposite the theme of the majority religion in that corner of the earth. Whereas they have been told that they are to give up their lives for God to gain eternity, the Christian message is that God has come in Christ and given up his life for them. That is a message of incarnational joy.

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For the joy set before him … Hebrews 12

As I write this and schedule it to post in advance of the date you will see it or have it arrive to your devise, this date of the 17th of December is the day that I anticipate not one, but two grandchildren due to arrive. No, not twins — two different families.

Of course, given my passions in life, I am hoping these children (boys or girls) will prove to be great distance runners. The genetics on both sides would tend to favor that outcome. I’m convinced that God would be a marathoner as a sport of preference. Hey, give me all of the Bible references to soccer, football, golf, Nascar, whatever. Now think about the many passages that talk about running the race. It is a matter of Bible exegesis … I rest my case.

Speaking of running and my boys, one of my son’s collegiate coach had a phrase he would use in place of out-and-out cursing when something went wrong: he would simply blurt out “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!”

And yes, that’s who we have been talking about these past couple of days, looking at how Mary and Joseph and Jesus all quickly and fully obeyed God. In each case it would prove very difficult to do so, but they did.

Today’s passage is another of those that speak of life as running … of running with endurance. It tells us that Jesus did it and that we too should do likewise …

Hebrews 12:1 — Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Sorrows, difficulties and complications of life will find their way to every last one of our doors. It can even pile up sometimes, making us feel like just giving in or giving up.

But we can’t do that.

Thousands have gone before us and lived faithfully, and sufficiently and successfully, because of endurance and an eye on the goal at the end. Beyond that, we should consider again the ultimate model of the original pioneer of faith, of Jesus. Did everything go well at every turn of his life? Of course not, especially in the manner by which he would be the sacrifice for sin.

How did Jesus endure all that befell him in his life and death? The text says that it was “for the joy set before him.”  This joy would be the reward at the end of the process, the reward of life eternal and the inheritance of an eternal kingdom free of sin. The pain and scorn were all worth it.

In my life I’ve run and/or biked thousands of miles in training and competing. And though there were certainly times I enjoyed the process of running and riding (usually in the first 30 minutes of a long run or ride), by the time I am getting near the end, hey, I am really ready for it to be done. I’ll sometimes pick up the pace and effort just to get to the finish. And stopping is … well … in a word – “glorious.”  The reward of looking back was worth it all, and there would have been no reward in quitting halfway through.

So in life, double down with your godly commitment, even in the presence of pain and sorrow, because the reward at the end of it all is more than worth it. “For the joy…”  (This is the title of one of our special songs this coming Sunday – to be sung by Genesis Medina … it’s beautiful.)

Jesus’ tough assignment – Philippians 2

I am rather famous for my hatred of winter and cold weather. Snow is, to me, something that you really do want to see and experience once in your life, but beyond that, it is just annoying. You can’t play baseball in it or go cycling (at least not very well), so what good is it?  And to be theological about it, let me ask you this: how much snow was in the Garden of Eden before sin came upon the scene?

But having said that, there is something nice about a snow day. You are locked in at home, away from the pressures and responsibilities of a regular day. The house is warm, the fridge is full (because you beat everyone else to Walmart and cleared the shelves), and there is not a lot to do but just enjoy being at home.

BUT …

Then it stops snowing and that time has come to deal with the alleged “beauty” all over the ground, driveway, sidewalks, cars, etc.  And in my case there is about 1,000 feet of beauty between me and the road. Ugh … can’t I just stay inside and let it melt away on its own?

I’ve never been to heaven … no … I won’t be writing a book on it or making a movie about what I saw. I did see someone who saw into heaven!  My godly grandmother at the moment of her death — a lady who was about 90% blind in her latter years — sat up quickly in bed and looking off into the distance said, “It’s so beautiful.”  And then she threw her arms out in front of her and said, “He’s coming for me!”  And with that, she collapsed backward and breathed her last.

Heaven must be awesome!  Even better than a snow day at home. So, if you’re there in heaven, why would you want to leave it and go to earth? That’s not much of a promotion in life circumstances. But that is what Jesus did, as we read in Philippians chapter 2 …

2:1 — Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, 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 man, 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, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

By any measure, there has never been a tougher assignment than to be in a perfect condition in heaven, but being sent to earth to be human. That’s bad enough. But to also give yourself to death, and not just any death, but the ultimate execution on the cross … and not for anything you’ve done wrong, but for what everyone else has done wrong!

Tough assignment. But Jesus “humbled himself” and took on the assignment.

And as always when looking at this passage, we recall that the purpose (contextually) of Paul writing this is not first and foremost to teach incarnational theology, as awesome as that is. But rather, this section on Christ’s humiliation is as an illustration #1 of all-time illustrations … to teach the extent of attitude we as God’s people should have toward one another in terms of serving others.

Caring about the interests of others is a tough assignment, but aren’t you glad we have the ultimate example of it in Jesus Christ?

Mary and Joseph’s tough assignment – Luke 1, Matthew 1

About a half of a lifetime ago I was leading a music group to Scotland on a summer missions trip. I was being hosted by a lovely Scottish family, who in the course of conversation told me that they were still in a bit of recovery from having lost a five-year-old son in the past year to some disease that took him rather suddenly. Even in the midst of their grief, they modelled the joy of faith and life in Christ.

It was quite remarkable, and my understanding of their faith was informed by what the father told me of his experience. He said, “This is the thought that has given me the most comfort: If God had come to me six years ago and said, ‘I have this precious child that I need someone to give a home for five years, but then I’m going to take him back with me; would you be willing to do that?’”

And the father, with moisture gathering in his eyes, looked at me and said, “I would have certainly said to God in answer to that question, ‘Absolutely, YES, we will take that assignment.’  So why should I be angry about my loss when I have so much to be thankful for about the great blessing we received?”

That would be a tough assignment. It is difficult to give your heart away to uncertain situations. And that is what, for example, makes foster home parents such fantastic people in my book! But honestly, most of life is quite uncertain.

God sometimes gives people some tough assignments to carry out in the context of a difficult, sinful and fallen world. Mary and Joseph could justly say that God gave them a pretty tough job. Along with the issue of the social stigmatization of the pregnancy, there was the challenge of raising and having this unique child in one’s home. We see a taste of that when Jesus is accidentally “left behind” in Jerusalem, hanging out in the Temple playing Bible trivia with the religious leadership.

Beyond that we see that his brothers were essentially finding Jesus to be a bit “out there” in the early days of his ministry. It appears they sort of came to try to talk him down off the edge, get a more balanced view of self, and to come back home.

And finally, at the cross we see Mary … apparently Joseph had died somewhere along the way … watching her son on a Roman cross. Talk about a brutal assignment!

But both took the assignment from God … immediately … no doubting or delaying.

From Luke chapter 1 is the account of Mary hearing from God …

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 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, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 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. 36 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.37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

Mary’s Song

46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.

There is no waffling or but, but, butting … she just said, “Yep, bring it to me, I’ll do it. I am blessed among all people to be given this assignment.”

And then in Matthew chapter 1, we see the portion of the story about Joseph …

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, 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, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 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.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

So Joseph woke up and went and put into action what God wanted done. There was no doubting or second-guessing. The assignment was tough, but the rewards of obedience are better and higher.

There is an eternally timeless truth in that statement

Joy, even in dark times – John 16

Over the first 35 years of my life I had an uncle who was a very simple man. I saw him frequently, as his business shared the same driveway and property as the home in which I grew up. There were times I worked for him, especially in summers.

I later finished school and came home to that community as a pastor, and my uncle attended the church. In one of my Christmas musical productions that I had planned, I had one of the choir members act like he was angry after a happy sort of song. He threw his book down and said, “I’m sick of all this joy and cheerfulness and happy this and happy that. The world is a mess, and we’re singing about joy, joy, joy.”  And he went on to elaborate, illustrating about some global problems, etc., after which I pretended to settle him down in front of everyone … asking him to just consider the big idea of the next song — some version of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

I certainly thought it was pretty clear that the whole thing was a skit. But seeing my uncle the next day, he said, “Wow, that guy at church last night was really upset and made a scene; what’s his problem?”

The skit was lost on him!

But you know the song, and you likely know the feeling. A verse of the 1863 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow says …

And in despair I bowed my head; “There is no peace on earth,” I said; “For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men!”

There are several other verses of the poem that have never made it into hymnals — verses that speak specifically of the Civil War in particular, being written in the midst of that national upheaval.

Life is tough. The invasive nature of evil and injustice pretty much annually bring God’s people to have to ponder the celebrating of the joy of Christmas in a context of known miseries and despair.

Jesus knew it would be this way for his followers in a sinful world yet awaiting the final restoration of all things into a new heaven and new earth. As he neared his final act and pending return to the Father, he said to the disciples (Luke 16) …

16:1 — “All this I have told you so that you will not fall away. 2 They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. 3 They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. 4 I have told you this, so that when their time comes you will remember that I warned you about them. I did not tell you this from the beginning because I was with you, 5 but now I am going to him who sent me. None of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6 Rather, you are filled with grief because I have said these things. 7 But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.

Wow, doesn’t verse 2 sound like some of what is going on in the world today? The past two millennia have been replete with such times as these — times where evil abounds and wars increase and suffering multiplies.

But even so, there is a bigger picture. The joy of Christ’s incarnation and earthly ministry would later bring the sorrow, turned to joy, of the death and resurrection of Christ. His ascension to the Father made possible the great resource of the Advocate — the Holy Spirit — to come and indwell and sufficiently help us through our years and sojourn in a sinful world.

And the greater truth is that which also finished Longfellow’s poem — “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”

Until that final restoration which is our hope, we have these final words of John chapter 16, verse 33 … “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

The joy of God’s master plan – Hebrews 1, 1 Peter 1

On the radio today I heard a rather new book being advertised about how the Old Testament predicted the coming of Jesus Christ!  Really?!?  Wow … who knew? Breaking news! Astonishing findings!

I jest a bit, as actually the book is probably pretty good, though it is not from a theological scholar.

In fact, there are multiple hundreds of allusions to Christ the Messiah in the Old Testament. And a number of these are especially familiar to us in the Christmas story, such as:

  • Isaiah 7:14 — The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
  • Micah 5:2 — “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.”
  • Genesis 49:10 — The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his.

There was great anticipation of the coming of a promised Messiah in Israel, though most people looked toward a political sort of power solution, not to a baby born to a common family in the garage of a Motel 6.

God spoke through the prophets over and over about the coming of the Christ, and finally the pinnacle moment arrived, and God was speaking not through prophets or ancient texts, but through the Divine Son …

Hebrews 1:1 — In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.

After centuries of waiting and anticipating, the time had come. And it was the occasion of great joy, as Peter wrote of it in his day and era, just years after the work of Christ …

1 Peter 1:8 — Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

The joy was so great because the times were so dark. The promises of God were many, but the fulfillment was illusive and existed only in the faith and hope of those who believed in such assurances.

Even for God’s varsity “A” team — the Old Testament prophets, they had bits and pieces but not the whole picture. It was as if they had 300 pieces of a 1,000-piece puzzle, and no box cover!  The pieces were REALLY interesting. But exactly how did they go together … and when … and what did it look like … and how did the “kingly” sorts of pieces fit in with the “suffering” fragments?

Peter continued in this writing …

10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, 11 trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.

Now, with the history of the coming of the Christ child, his life, death and resurrection, now it all came together. And wow — what a story of grace, redemption and eternal life. Even the angels are amazed to see and understand fully these truths. So it is no surprise that they broke out into song …

Luke 2:13 — Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Our series of Sunday themes and songs, and our devotionals over these two weeks, are to connect you intellectually and emotionally to the unspeakable joy of the Christmas message. You may recall the scene in the Chronicles of Narnia (a place that was always winter but never Christmas) where a change is happening to the long-standing order of things due to the curse of the white witch. The snow was melting and crocuses were seen coming to life. And finally came a sled with Father Christmas, and he said…

“I’ve come at last. She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The witch’s magic is weakening.”

And Lucy felt that deep shiver of gladness that you only get if you are being solemn and still.

Feel that deep shiver of Christmas joy this year … that unspeakable joy.

The humble will be exalted – Luke 14

A favorite Christmas-oriented story that I have shared in sermons over the years (and surely have written somewhere else in our hundreds of devotionals on this site) is one that I was told by a seminary professor friend. He was also an elder in the Dallas church where I was minister of music, and he shared this story in one of my Christmas productions where I asked him to speak.

Dr. Harold Hoehner was a graduate / Ph.D. student at Cambridge University in England about four decades ago. You may recall that Prince Charles (in fashion uncustomary for British royalty) went to Cambridge. My friend was a resident student at the time that Charles was to arrive to begin his studies. His arrival was a big deal and much anticipated in the city. People lined the streets to greet the future king.

At the appointed time, several black limousines were seen coming into the edge of town from the direction of London, and the crowds followed these official-looking vehicles. But Harold and his friends happened to notice a black VW following at a distance that turned down a different street. And for some reason they surmised that perhaps the official vehicles were a feint and that maybe the prince was in the smaller car. Acting on the hunch, they crossed some fields and followed the VW and were indeed among only a handful of people to personally greet the future king on his arrival.

The incarnation of the king of kings was not in a fashion of grandeur that might be expected, and only a handful of people knew of the actual place of his arrival and were there to greet him. It was a group of humble people in the most humble of places.

As we shared in our second theme this past Sunday, as well as in yesterday’s devotional, there is a pattern of Christ coming to and choosing those who are — as the Christmas hymn puts it — “meek souls who receive him still.”  And that is good news for us in the Tri-State area, people who are far from grandeur and fame. But we can know Christ; we can be adopted by faith into the royal family of royal families … of the king of kings and lord of lords.

Think upon these thoughts as you today read these two accounts from Luke 14. This first is an exhortation from Jesus to be humble and prefer others, leading Christ to utter the phrase used multiple times in the gospel accounts … that the first shall be the last, and the last shall be the first. So be a servant of those most in need.

The second account, a parable, speaks to the timeless reality that the vast majority of mankind do not make room for Christ or the values of eternity. Rather, they are busy with all sorts of personal pursuits that turn their values upside down. It is generally not the up-and-outers of society who find eternal relationship with Christ, but rather it is those who by circumstance are most estranged from prominence and privilege … carpenters, shepherds, ordinary people beyond the suburbs of Washington, etc. People like you and me.

14:1 — One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way.

Then he asked them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?” And they had nothing to say.

When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. 10 But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. 11 For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

12 Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

The Parable of the Great Banquet

15 When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.”

16 Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. 17 At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’

18 “But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’

19 “Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’

20 “Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’

21 “The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’

22 “‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’

23 “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. 24 I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’”

God calls simple people – 1 Corinthians 1

As Americans who live in the land of opportunity where everyone is said to have the chance to become something great, we love to hear of rags to riches stories. Among some who have gone from bleak circumstances and difficult family situations are such as Jim Carrey, Shania Twain, and J.K. Rowling — each with a compelling story.

But honestly, most of those who have fame and fortune were born into it or have certain rare gifts of intellect, talent or beauty that fast-tracked their success.

Occasionally, people in these categories are folks who know Christ as savior and have a life of faith and gratitude for the grace they have experienced. But more often their confidence is in their portfolios of riches or fame. The world flocks to such people and hangs upon their words, opinions and endorsements. I’ve never understood why I should care whatsoever about what a Hollywood personality thought concerning international politics or leaders; yet many are interested in what they believe.

Not many of us are very famous. Actually, to be quite frank, none of us are very famous whatsoever. Beyond that, we don’t actually even know many very famous people. I one time on a Sunday morning asked people to think of the most famous person they knew who would also know them in return. Then I asked for a show of hands to see who thought they had a significant answer. Honestly, even those who had a famous person who knew them in return, the respondents had to explain to most of the others in the congregation that morning exactly why the person they knew was famous.

So, if we don’t even have any real relationships with people even of moderate fame or influence, what hope is there that the creator-God of the universe should care or even notice us? The Psalmist pondered this very question, saying “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?”

But the good news is that God has a special love and compassion for simple and humble people. Such are the type that God has used over and over in Scripture and throughout history.

And we see simple people being featured characters in the incarnation story of Christ. What was special about a carpenter or a young woman engaged to this fellow? Nothing, beyond trust and obedience and acceptance of God’s plans to use them.  To the angelic messager, Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled.”

Beyond Mary and Joseph, we see other simple people: Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna, and the shepherds.

So there is hope for even us. The way Jesus came into the world modelled what his ministry would be like, and what the Gospel message would produce — hope and life for the simple and ordinary people of the world … to those marginalized in society, or at best, those who lived day to day, week to week, and year to year in rather mundane lives.

How did you get to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, an adopted child of the King of Kings? Was it because you were smarter than the masses of people who don’t follow Christ? Is it because you had so much to offer the Kingdom by your great skills? Is it due to your high standing among the elites of America … born into a sort of American royalty?

No, at the end of any analysis as to how it is that Christ set His love upon you, how he opened your eyes and ears and heart’s interest to even hear or research the truth of God’s word, it is all because of what GOD did in your life 100% by grace, and 0% by what you contributed. Even your faith, Paul tells us in Ephesians chapter 2, is a gift of God.

If you find yourself chaffing a bit at this teaching, if you find it to be a bit over the top as excessively degrading, let me tell you what Paul said (in 1 Corinthians 1) about those who are found in Christ …

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus.

It was this way from the beginning … from the incarnation of Christ into this sinful world …

Being in the form of God, it says that he “humbled himself to take on human form.”  And the people chosen to be his mother, his earthly father … they were not of the aristocracy and powerful in Israel, but were rather simple working-class people, people who nonetheless would trust and believe and obey in an extraordinary way, even though it might bring them shame by the conventional standards of their world.

And so it is with us. We have heard his calling; we have been chosen and have thereby chosen to follow him. This is good news … unspeakable joyous news. The Gospel message is the story of Christ going from riches to rags, in order that we may go from rags to riches …

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

The Light of the World – John 8

What if you looked at my Facebook page and saw that I had a picture of myself against the background of the sky, with arms outstretched looking like I was flying through the air. But then the next picture would show a wider view and reveal that I had merely jumped off a step-stool. However, if the next picture had rather showed me about 10 feet off a cliff and diving into water 100 feet below, well, you’d be more impressed!

The context makes all the difference. And so it is in so many Scripture passages.

As we consider the joy of Christmas and the theme of Jesus as the light coming into this dark world, we cannot help but recall that Christ himself made the proclamation saying, “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)

So where and when did Jesus say this? As we look at John chapter 8, we see that it follows the story of the woman caught in adultery. Now don’t let this blow your view of the Bible to pieces (and I’ll save you the details for another time), but that account is not generally believed to be a part of the original text of the Gospel of John at this point. Therefore, to see the context of Christ’s proclamation, we need to go back to chapter 7, and there we see that Jesus is teaching in the Temple on the occasion of the Feast of Tabernacles.

In that immediate context we see this account of the temple guards not arresting Jesus as instructed …

45 Finally the temple guards went back to the chief priests and the Pharisees, who asked them, “Why didn’t you bring him in?”

46 “No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards replied.

47 “You mean he has deceived you also?” the Pharisees retorted. 48 “Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? 49 No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.”

50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, 51 “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?”

52 They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”

(An interesting angle here is to consider that Nicodemus had come to Jesus by dark of night, but now the light of truth was shining in his life.)

So Jesus was teaching at the Feast of Tabernacles, and his message was resonating with a considerable portion of the people. Earlier in the text, where it introduces this section, it said …

14 Not until halfway through the festival did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. 15 The Jews there were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?”

So it would seem that the words of Jesus that he was the light of the world were uttered in the Temple during the Feast of Tabernacles.

A part of this feast involved a ceremony called the “Illumination of the Temple.” In the Court of Women were four oil-fed lamps (menorahs) that were simply huge–75 feet high! The light produced was so bright that it was said to be sufficient to illuminate the entire city of Jerusalem. The meaning of this light and this ceremony (during Tabernacles) was to remind the people of God’s faithfulness in guiding Israel by the pillar of fire through their wilderness wanderings!

And with this incredibly bright light shining, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.”  Not just of Jerusalem, but of the world. Not just of the Jews, but of all mankind… recalling again the text from yesterday in John 1:9 — The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.

Yep, I think that is a pretty big deal. That is something to celebrate with Joy … Unspeakable Joy!

Light in the Darkness – John 1

What good is darkness? Think about it. What purpose does it serve?

I will say that I like darkness for sleeping and am in some way annoyed by light, even dim lights. There is a nightlight in the hallway of our home, as there is also in the master bathroom. It amazes me just how much light comes from these dim bulbs, and I am forever closing those doors to keep the light out. My clock on the nightstand displays the time in red numbers, and I hate how bright it is. I often turn it at an angle so that it does not catch my attention.

Have you ever worked with photographic development in a darkroom?  You have to go to extreme measures to be sure that light does not break through cracks in the doorframe, etc. There is a warning light outside the door to be sure nobody breaks in at the wrong moment, because the light will ruin everything you are working on.

I’ve shared this illustration before — from my (now elderly) mother-in-law who was a little girl during World War 2, and she vividly recalls being told in blackout drills how critical it was to keep every light off — that even a lit cigarette was visible at night from the air.

In the vein of the Geico commercials, if they personified one about light, it would read, “If you’re light, you penetrate darkness; it’s what you do!”

And yes, that is true. Darkness is passive; light is active. Light breaks into and dispels darkness. Long before dawn fully breaks, you can see the light making its inroads, beating back the night sky.

Light dates back to Day 1.  God separated the darkness and the light, as in Genesis 1:3-4 …

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.

The theme of light breaking the darkness and serving as the beacon and focal point of God’s presence is seen over and over in Scripture. After one of the curses on the Egyptians being that of the descent of darkness, the children of Israel followed a pillar of fire that represented God’s presence and guidance in in the wilderness. God was said to be the light of salvation for his covenant people (Psalm 27).

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah foretold the coming of a light into the world, and how that light would particularly come and shine to the people who lived in Galilee, people who were on the fringes historically of what was “happening” in the world and who were away from the center of worship. Isaiah said …

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

And so the gospel writer John picks up on these themes to speak of the coming of Jesus into the world. It was indeed at a time of history of great darkness and despair … of centuries of unfulfilled hopes and dreams and ancient promises.

1:1 — In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

What are the descriptors of the history of mankind? Are they not words like sin, poverty, injustice, war, disease, death?  And though advances in science, knowledge and technology bring measures of benefit for mankind, they also bring new ways for man to more effectively accomplish all of the aforementioned evils.

Man’s light does not dispel man’s darkness due to the curse of sin.

But there is a divine light that penetrates the darkness. And it is not just the overflow of God’s brightness spilling all over the place. Rather, it is the specific coming of that light in the form of humanity–in the person of Christ. And as the text says in John 1, this is the true light that gives light to everyone.

The incarnation is indeed the beginning of the pivotal event(s) of history. And though we have no command in Scripture to celebrate or particularly remember this, the significance is worthy of the focus. And the central feature of this penetrating light is to bring us hope and joy. Even unspeakable joy.