God with Us

God with Us

I haven’t always been a Christian.  I know what it is like to feel alone and feel like there is no God, as if I were in a deep, dark pit with no way out and no one there to hear.   I resonate with David in Psalm 40 when he said that God “lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.”

I have had many people have often asked me the question: “where is God?” in reference to their own slimy pit experience.  What I have learned since in my own dark night of the soul is that God was there all the time.  So, in response to that question of where God is, I can say with both confidence and compassion that he is right here, weeping with you; he is right here, walking alongside you; he is right here, sitting beside you; right here with you if you will have the eyes of faith to see.  I know God is here because it is Christmas; God came down and moved into the neighborhood with us in the person of Jesus, Emmanuel, which means God with us (John 1:14).

It was not just Mary that was pregnant with Jesus, but history itself was pregnant because the time had fully come for the kingdom of God to break into this world through a child who would save the people from sin, through an infant, Emmanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:1:21).

What I believe we need to know more than anything is that God is with us!  God is so great that he is not somehow trapped in heaven; he can come down; he wants to come down; he did come down, literally becoming one of us – he is Emmanuel, God with us.

God did not come to this earth with a big advertising campaign letting us know of the grand opening, or with a huge and expensive party to draw attention.  Neither did God come through a rich and powerful family.  Instead, so that he would fully relate to us, to genuinely be with us, he came in through a lowly stable.  There are many theologians and scholars who articulate this truth for all kinds of curious intellects of how this could take place, that God became man.  Yet, sometimes it simply takes a personal story, a testimony so to speak, to bring clarity.  Bono is the lead singer for the pop/rock band U2.  He tells of a time when he returned to his native Dublin, Ireland for Christmas and, on a whim, decided to sit in a church service.  At some point in the worship, he came upon the great realization, with tears streaming down his face, of what it is all about; he says,

“The idea that God, if there is a force of Love and Logic in the universe, that it would seek to explain itself is amazing enough.  That it would seek to explain itself by becoming a child born in poverty, in manure and straw, a child, I just thought, ‘wow!’  I saw the genius of picking a particular point in time and deciding to turn on this…. Love needs to find a form, intimacy needs to be whispered…. Love has to become an action or something concrete.  It would have to happen.  There must be an incarnation.  Love must be made flesh and dwell among us.”

God has descended to our messy, mixed up, broken world, standing with us in our suffering and shame, plunging head long into our pain and hurt and loneliness.  Biblical scholar, Paul Louis Metzger, has wisely pointed out that a God who is simply nice and decent would take pity and send some help, maybe an angel or a prophet – at least some sage advice for us.  And, we would respect that, maybe even be satisfied with it.  But the good news is that God went far beyond nice and decent.  On this very day God became a naked baby.  He was a fetus, then an unwanted pregnancy, then a slimy, screaming baby – he grew up and ended up a criminal, stripped naked, tortured by those who knew not who he was, and condemned to die.  There is nothing nice and decent about that!  It was done for us.

Perhaps you are not feeling close to God this holiday season, but rather far from God.  Perhaps this holiday season brings you more sorrow than joy.  Perhaps the weight of a situation that seems beyond your control has caused you immeasurable worry and concern.  Maybe you are wondering where he is.  I will tell you:  he is right here.  And he is waiting for you to respond to his coming, his Advent, his incarnation.  Throughout the New Testament Gospels Jesus is presented as God with us.  He was with the disciples when the storm struck and threatened their lives, and he rebuked the wind and the waves and saved them; Jesus was with his people as they were rejected by others for preaching that the kingdom of God had broken into this world through the Emmanuel.  Jesus is not an idea, not a myth, not a historical figure to be debated, not a nice guy with some pithy wisdom; he is Emmanuel, God with us!  And he is with us to the point that whatever happens to us, happens to him.

Since he is here, since Jesus is Emmanuel, now is the time to recognize him for who he is.  God with us means that God is here!  Since he is present with us, we can and must respond to his presence by admitting that we have made a mess of things through living by the illusion that we are in control of our lives and living as if he weren’t here at all.  But God is here, and he is looking for us all to center our lives on the person of Jesus, and to give up going our own way and instead pursue knowing God in Christ.

Maybe you are a person who has gone to church all your life, and like me years ago, are familiar with the baby Jesus and Advent wreaths and Christmas carols and worship services.  Yet, you have not come to the point in your life where you seriously and deliberately responded to the presence of God in Jesus and devoted your life to him so that everything centers on him and not you.  One of the realities of Christmas is that God is calling us all to feel the impact of the baby Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, and to let that joy fill our souls to overflowing.  The Christmas story is a story of invitation.  We are invited into the story of Jesus.  Come and see the angels singing glory to God; come and see the shepherds praising God for what they have seen and heard; come and see Mary and Joseph rejoicing in the birth of Jesus; come and bend down and see the smelly, lowly manger, and you will see God with us.   You are invited into a new life.

The Suffering of Christmas

candles

Christmas:  a time for joy and a time for cheer…  But, unfortunately, it is also a time of profound loneliness and a yearning of days gone by for many people.  A few years back, I received a call on Christmas Day.  One of my parishioners was stretching out to put the angel on top of the family Christmas tree, and fell over dead from a heart attack.  The family’s Christmas will never be the same again, a weird mix, a strange amalgam of both happiness and heartache.  Tragedy that occurs around the holidays makes all future holidays awkward and different.

I have also known folks who were expecting a juicy Christmas bonus, finding instead a pink slip and a surprise lay-off from their job.  Children of divorce probably know the strangeness of the holiday the most, being shuttled here and there obtaining more gifts than they need but more bitterness than they want.  For every one of us who look forward to Christmas Day, there is another who dreads facing another season with unpleasant memories of what happened and what could have been….

Whether Christmas is chiefly joyous for one or sorrowful for another, the bald fact of the matter is that we all suffer in some way.  Let me offer a definition/description of suffering for you to ponder:

Suffering occurs when someone or some circumstance acts against your will and damages either your body, mind, soul, spirit, or all/part of them, creating the great need for healing.

Suffering creates a portal, an opening to either love or hate.  It brings us to the point of decision:  We did not choose suffering; it chose us.  But the choice for healing is very much in our control.  Suffering is an event, maybe even extended over time, which will make us either bitter, or better – it’s your choice.

There are numerous people who will offer you a cup of bitterness, the sour wine vinegar which will dull the pain.  Jesus had such an offer while he hung on the cross, and he refused it.  Nothing was going to stand in the way of his full faculties experiencing the vicarious suffering for our sins.  Dulling the pain doesn’t bring healing; it only makes us forget for a time and just prolongs actual healing.

Instead, the wise choice is to take charge of your life and choose the hard path of healing.  There is a world of difference between the pain that is forced upon us, and the pain which we choose so that we become better and healthy.  The pain of violation must be followed with the pain of healing.

A major way you know your choice of healing is happening is when your heart and life open-up to love, when the shape of grace begins to mold your soul and brings a reception to people who benevolently wait to help with kind words and ways.  Your sight becomes different.  The world becomes brighter.  Decisions are motivated more by love than by protection.  There is the willingness to persevere and patiently complete the process of healing and see it through to a new maturity.  You cease trying to manipulate others and focus more on your own responses to people and situations.  Every day becomes a fresh opportunity to love God by serving others.

Because God is love, and we are created in the image of God, this means we were designed to receive and to give love.  We are love, as well.  To not love is to buck our inherent design from the beginning of time.  We are not just to grit our teeth and force-out loving words and actions; we are to tap into the originality of our souls and be love.  The great task of the Christian life is to awaken to who we really are, to become a whole person, complete and mature.  The only means for this to happen is through the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Jesus, our great professor in the faith, knows that suffering is a teacher.

Far too many persons are perplexed as to why they still struggle and hurt.  They have prayed.  They have read the Bible.  They have tried, time and time again.  Hurt and pain might and is very personal; but healing is communal – it demands more than our own efforts.  Unless we open ourselves to the love of others, and risk putting our souls on the line, we will not realize the peace we long for and the mending of our spirits.

The first step is speaking to someone who is safe, someone for whom you trust, and telling them where you are in your soul – not making yourself look better than you are, and providing a real picture of the state of your life – and, not diminishing the very real abuse which occurred against you by saying others have it harder than you.  In other words, be real.  Humility and honesty will always serve you well.

Yes, it’s Christmas.  How will you choose to deal with it?

Is There Hope?

manger

Every single hope and longing of your heart is to be found with a baby born two-thousand years ago.  The birth of Jesus Christ is the mid-point of history, the fulcrum on which the entire history of humanity hinges for its purpose and fulfillment.  Come and take-a-peek inside of a smelly room with stinky sheep and the distinct aroma of fresh hay – a dimly lit room which could be the place of any ordinary ancient family – and gaze upon the infant born.  The Christ child entered this world, this banal common space, just for you – to bring to fulfillment all your hopes and dreams.  The hope of the nations, the anticipation of peace on earth is just beginning….

Now your past, with of all its lack of direction, poor decisions, and missed opportunities can fade away.  “Joseph, the baby that Mary will have is from the Holy Spirit… name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21).

Now your present circumstances, whether good or ill, have meaning and are not random events with no purpose.  “And the star they [the wise men] had seen in the east went on ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.  They were thrilled and excited to see the star.  When the wise men went into the house and saw the child with Mary, his mother, they knelt down and worshiped him” (Matthew 2:9-11).

Now your future, which was so uncertain and filled with worry and anxiety, has direction and a trajectory in which to shape your entire life.  “With my own eyes I have seen what you have done to save your people, and foreign nations will also see this.  Your mighty power is a light for all nations, and it will bring honor to your people” (Luke 2:30-32).  “The Word became a human being and lived here with us.  We saw his true glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father.  From him all the kindness and all the truth of God have come down to us” (John 1:14).

I was once in the mass of people who were familiar with Jesus, knew the supposed facts of his birth, and gave no real credence to it.  After all, that was then, and this is now.  What has an ancient birth have to do with me today?  But I found within Jesus all that he claimed to be, and discovered that his words and ways were more than worth following.  What is more, I realized that forgiveness is real, grace is enough, faith is as epistemically sound as my five senses, and that the world really does revolve on the axis of love.  That is, if Jesus is at the center of it all.

This season, this most blessed time of year, is truly a call to all humanity.  It is a summons to awaken to God, to discern that he is there wooing you to himself through his Son, the Lord Jesus.  It is an invitation to forsake the old life and familiar path, to strike out and find your heart’s truest hope.  It is the chance to make a difference as a new person.  Your past does not need to define you forever.  Your present is awaiting your next move.  And your future can be bright.  Catholic nun, Sister Joan Chittester, has wisely said:

“The challenge of hopelessness is the challenge to re-enter the human race, to take our part in it knowing that it has as much our responsibility to shape life as it is for life to shape us.  It requires us to understand that misfortune is not failure.  It is at most simply a digression through life intended to make us reassess our course, our goals, our aspirations.”

            That reassessment is the opportunity to hope again with the real hope of Christmas and the Christ child.  It is not a call to a job, or necessarily to do something.  Rather, it is an appeal to becoming fully human and alive to the image of God within, awakened by coming to the manger.

Take some time and withdraw to a quiet place, either sitting down in your favorite chair or walk along a secluded path.  Use your imagination in coming to Jesus and see, smell, taste, touch, and hear the birth of the Savior.  What is the sixth sense of faith telling you as you ponder the scene?  How is Christ filling your heart?   Where are the places of your life Jesus is coming and enlarging?  Is there hope as you find an alternative way of sensing God in your life?

Galatians 4:8-20

           I wonder if any one of us could say, with the same confidence as Paul, this statement:  “I beg you to be like me.”  Paul was a committed follower of Jesus – so much so that he ached and longed for others to embrace a life of grace, just as he had.  “My children, I am in terrible pain until Christ may be seen living in you.”  Paul was referring to the same pain as childbirth.  In other words, he was laboring and working hard to give spiritual birth to those that would become like Jesus.
 
            If you are a person who has experienced a transformed life in Jesus, as if you have been born again by grace through the Spirit, then you likely feel and resonate with the travail of Paul.  Knowing the elixir of grace, you want everyone to drink it in and be inebriated with its effects.  You want it so bad that it hurts.  You desire it to the point of exclaiming, “I beg you to be like me!”
 
            You may be spending the upcoming Christmas with some family or friends that are strangers to grace.  Either they are stuck in the clutches of the law and are complete stick-in-the-muds because of it, or they simply do not know what they are missing.  Either way, let’s together offer our passionate prayers to God for the grace of Jesus to overwhelm us all.  Like old Ebenezer Scrooge, perhaps grace will change everything.
 

 

            Gracious God, may you weave your way into the lives of those who need you the most, so that mercy will be more than a theological idea.  Work in me in such a way that I can stand with Paul and encourage others to be like me.  Amen.

Smelling Christmas

 
 
When I think about the smells of the Advent and Christmas seasons, my nose immediately goes to my Grandma’s homemade Christmas cookies.  I would gladly spend an afternoon making the dough, rolling it out, using the Christmas cookie cutter shapes, and sprinkling red and green sugar in order to do some kid-serious kind of cookie indulgence.  And the smell!  Oh, my, the whole house would smell something of what I think heaven probably smells like.
 
            But the smells we might typically associate with Christmas (i.e. Christmas cookies, Christmas evergreen trees, and, Christmas presents) are a far cry from the smells of the first Christmas in Bethlehem.  When Christ was born, he was surrounded by animals.  Jesus was actually placed in a manger, a feeding trough.  Shepherds came to pay him homage.  I don’t know if you have ever been around shepherds.  To put it delicately, they usually stink.  In my first church in Michigan, our immediate neighbor was a shepherd.  He spent his days shepherding his sheep.  His name was Art.  Art always smelled bad.  Art smelled bad because he was constantly dealing with stinky sheep (not to mention that Art also never used deodorant – guess he thought that was pretty useless).
 
 
 
It is interesting that when Jesus grew up and began his ministry as an adult, he continued to associate with people of low position.  The guys he mostly hung out with were his disciples – a bunch of commercial fishermen.  If you put a shepherd and a fisherman side by side, I’m not sure which one would stink more.  But, to Jesus, shepherds and fishermen had the aroma of salvation on them.  Christ purposely sought out those who needed God.
 
After our Lord’s resurrection and ascension, his disciples continued his ministry of associating with stinky people who need Jesus.  It was the Apostle Paul who encouraged the church to “Live in harmony with one another.  Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.  Do not be conceited” (Romans 12:16). 
 
Jesus did not come to this earth as a privileged upper class king who demanded that others give him honor and obedience.  Instead, he humbled himself and became a servant.  He was born into the most humble of circumstances and never aspired to anything but doing his Father’s will.  As God’s people, we are to carry with us the aroma of Christ – not creatively finding ways to avoid others – but lovingly engaging those who need the message of Christmas.  How do you smell?  What aroma do you give off to others?
 
 
 
“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.  For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.  To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life” (2 Corinthians 2:14-16).
 
Jesus was a real baby.  There were times he smelled.  Changing diapers is just part of the deal with babies.  The very same baby, Jesus, who had to be cleaned-up and have a first century diaper change, was the person who would one day be stripped of his clothes and hung naked on the cross for the world to see.  There is perhaps no more terrible smell than the smell of death, especially death on a cross.
 
            I don’t know of anyone who actually likes dirty diapers, except maybe your dog.  You do those endless cleanings and put up with the smell of it because of love.  The reason Jesus came to this earth as a vulnerable little baby who was dependent on someone else cleaning him up, and the reason he became obedient to the horrible smell of death was because of love.  “This is love,” said the Apostle John, “not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”  And, because Jesus is our pioneer, blazing a trail of salvation love before us, we are to follow him as his devoted disciples.  “Dear friends,” John said, “Since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11).
 
 
 

 

            We would do well to remember and emphasize such gospel love, especially when Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, this year.  In our business and our busy-ness, let’s keep our focus on why we have a Christmas.  May your church season be filled with hope, peace, joy, and love as you anticipate the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Taste That the Lord is Good

 
 
            Throughout the past thirty-one years of Thanksgivings that my wife and I have celebrated together, many of them have included college students, co-workers, and church members – all with no family in the area.  On one particular Thanksgiving we had a young woman from India over to eat with us.  She was a Hindu from the highest caste in Indian society.  She looked like a real live Indian Barbie doll and carried herself like royalty.  She had never observed Thanksgiving and been with an American family to celebrate it.  It is always our tradition to go around the table during the meal and describe one thing we are thankful for in the past year.  I purposely made sure she was the last one to share, and let her know that she was not obligated to do so.  But she wanted to speak and said this:  “I never knew that there could be love like this amongst a family.  You see, in my culture we are always concerned about how we are displeasing one of our many gods and what we can do to appease them and solicit their help.  Love is not something we think much about.  I do have a question, if I might ask:  Why do you eat this food, and why so much?”  Yeah, good question!  Why dowe do that?  And why do we do what we do at Christmas?  Why do we hold to certain traditions and do particular things in the holiday season?
 
            I said something to her like this:  “The food reminds us that the God we serve is a good God who provides us not only with what we need, but graciously gives us beyond what we even ask or deserve.  This is what we call “grace.”  And the fellowship we share around the table reinforces the story of God – how we were once spiritually hungry – and God sent his Son, Jesus, to give us what we could gain for ourselves.  He satisfied us with the spiritual food of forgiveness and freedom to become the people we were intended to be from the beginning.  The food is symbolic and the celebration is a ritual that reinforces God’s grace to us in Christ.”  She left that day with many questions and lots to think about.
 
            God uses symbols to reveal himself to us.  For example, when he wanted to show us the ugliness of sin and the cost of forgiveness, he told his people, the Israelites, to kill an animal and sprinkle its blood on their clothing and on the altar.  It sounds awful.  But no worshiper ever walked away from that experience scratching his head and wondering what in the heck it was all about.  That’s because he encountered and tasted the drama of sin and redemption.  His senses saw it, felt it, smelled it, and tasted the meat from it. 
 
            Symbols have power.  God wants us to know him, and we cannot know him with only our minds.  We are not just brains on a stick.  We need more – we need ordinary events, like shared meals, that include symbols and rituals.  We need both words and sacraments.  That’s why holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas involve both verbal expressions of gratitude and love, and particular actions of love in giving gifts and sharing food.  Together, it all connects us to God, to one another, and to a history of God’s people.  Jesus met his disciples in the Upper Room to celebrate Passover together.  Jesus energized their time together by filling it with words and symbols of love and redemption.  Jesus did not just tell them about his upcoming death.  He spoke and acted symbolically.  “Take and eat – this is my body….  Take this cup – this is my blood – drink from it, all of you.”  The disciples did not sit around and analyze the bread and discuss the wine’s vintage.  They ate and drank.  They tasted real food and drink, but they also tasted real spiritual food.  It is one thing to speak of God’s presence, and it is another to experience that presence through an ordinary shared ritual of bread and cup.
 

 

The taste of bread reminds us of:  the life of Jesus who humbled himself and became a baby; the incarnation of Christ; Christ’s humiliation and death.  The taste of drinking the cup reminds us of:  the blood of Christ; the sacrifice of Christ; the drops of blood which Jesus sweated in Gethsemane; and, the beatings, floggings, nails, and crown of thorns that resulted in Christ’s bleeding.  Tasting the bread and cup when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper reminds us that:  our sins are forgiven; we are united to Christ; and, we are united together.  We are encouraged through word and sacrament to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ until he comes again.  Respond to God’s wooing invitation through his church to eat and drink, to taste and see that the Lord is good through repentance and faith in Jesus.

How Has Jesus Touched You?

 
 
Touch is one of those things that we likely take for granted.  Yet, touch is very important to everyday life.  Several years ago, Philip Yancey and Dr. Paul Brand wrote a book entitled “Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants.”  It is largely a biography of Dr. Brand who pioneered both the diagnosis and prognosis of leprosy.  He discovered that leprosy occurs because of a lack of feeling – an inability to sense touch.  The delicate nerve endings we all have in our fingers and toes are numb to the leper.  The lack of sensing pain in the extremities leads to small cuts or injuries, which would be immediately treated by someone who feels pain, becoming gangrene with the losing of fingers and toes.
 
            When it comes to the spiritual and the emotional, the ability to feel is vitally important.  A calloused unfeeling heart and soul does not realize the damage that is being done to it.  One of the greatest gifts we have as people is the ability to feel guilt, sorrow, disappointment, and pain – it is actually a gift.  It brings about attention to prayer and addressing the situation.  In Luke’s Gospel account, Elizabeth was a godly woman who was sensitive to God.  She was the wife of Zechariah the priest, and came from a family of priests.  Elizabeth was also old and childless.  She believed her opportunity to be a mother was gone forever, and it pained her (Luke 1:5-25, 39-45).
 
            But God specializes in the impossible, and Elizabeth became pregnant with John the Baptist.  My wife and I are definitely past the child bearing years.  If my wife became pregnant right now it would really be a miracle.  But, when I think about it, the real miracle might not be a conception but in having the strength and energy to raise a newborn, a toddler, and make it through the tweener and teen-age years!
 
            Mary, the mother of Jesus, was the niece of Elizabeth.  As soon as Mary approached Elizabeth, the baby within Elizabeth did not just move but leaped in her womb (Luke 1:41).  Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit – she felt the touch of Jesus.  Jesus touched Elizabeth’s life in ways she could never have dreamed.  Jesus changed her life.  Elizabeth was never the same after encountering this miraculous touch.  She knew great joy because she first knew great pain and sorrow.
 
            How has the touch of Jesus impacted your life?  As great as Elizabeth’s story is, and your story and my story, it really only points to a much larger and even more significant story:  the birth of Jesus and its significance.  All of our stories have meaning because of Jesus Christ.  Jesus is what made Elizabeth’s story such a great one.  Elizabeth’s response to being touched by Jesus was joy, thanksgiving, and blessing.  She blessed the whole thing.  To be “blessed” is to have God’s stamp of approval on your life.  There is an emotional component to the word.  It is to be happy.  In other words, to recognize God’s grace and goodness through his merciful approval results in the response of being happy and joyous.
 

 

            How has Jesus touched you?  What is your story?  How has that touch changed your life?  How, in response, have you touched Jesus and blessed his heart?  All of our stories are still being written.  Our lives aren’t over yet.  We still have the opportunity of using our lives in a way that will bless the heart of Jesus.  Having the courage and boldness to share our story with another, even in a church setting, has the possibility of not only affirming your own faith, but impacting someone else’s faith, as well.  May we believe that what the Lord has said will be accomplished in us.