Can we watch Elf? PLEASE?
Our grandchildren asked if we could snuggle on the couch and watch a movie before bedtime. Normally this invitation to grandparental bliss is met with a dignified “Why, yes, children!” while my inner 6 year-old is jumps for joy. But tonight I hesitated.
The request posed a deep ethical dilemma. They wanted to watch a Christmas movie on the Monday night BEFORE Thanksgiving. This is, of course, a clear violation of the Doctrine of Thanksgiving Precedence, that Thou Shalt Not Speak of Christmas Until Thanksgiving Hath Passed. Nay, neither Carol nor Glad Tiding shalt pass thy lips until the stuffed bird is a-roasting. Turkey before Tannenbaum. Pilgrims prior to Poinsettias. Feast of Fowl before Fa La La.
It’s the LAW.
I looked into their eyes and I saw a longing well beyond their years. Having experienced so few Christmases, they wanted a taste of its coming that would set their hope ablaze. They were longing to know that the promise of joy will be fulfilled and hear a story about how people with cold hearts open to love and people stricken with grief receive hope and even joy. They wanted a Christmas story.
We all need to hear the Great Story again and again, the story of how Someone is coming. That is what Advent means: someone is coming. He will come into our sadness to bring joy. He will come into our aged bitterness to bring childlike delight. He will come into our isolation to bring love. He will come into the wreckage of our past to bring hope for our future.
We who have seen many Christmases know that Christmas always arrives at just the right time. We are confident Christmas will come again because we have seen Christmas come before. But our little ones need assurance that hope is worth the wait. A little foretaste of joy in a silly Christmas movie is their catalyst of hope.
We know Jesus is coming again because Jesus has come before. Each Advent speaks to us both of His love for us in this present moment and the hope of greater joy when He comes again. At Christmas God speaks tenderly to us: I’ve got you. Hold on to hope. I’m coming for you. The word of the LORD stands forever!
This advent, can we hold our traditions lightly and give each other grace?
Where will you place your hope? This is perhaps the most important question any of us will ever answer.
Deep down each of us feels dissatisfaction with this life, with this world, with ourselves. We long for more. Countless voices come at us from all directions, claiming to have the answer to that longing. Yet it seems most of those claims lead only to disappointment.
King Solomon of Israel, one of the wisest men who ever lived, was no stranger to unfulfilled longings. The author of Proverbs 13:12 also wrote in Ecclesiastes about his vain pursuit of fulfillment in the pleasures and achievements of this earth.
As broken people in a broken world, is there any hope of our longings being truly satisfied?
Solomon’s choice of imagery here in Proverbs 13:12 is no accident. When he mentions a “tree of life,” perhaps he has in mind the dawn of human history. In Eden stood the Tree of Life…and the forbidden Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:9). Already, our race was faced with the question of where to place our hope. The choice our first parents made (Genesis 3) brought about the ultimate sickness of the heart. Our enemy had convinced us that our longings would be fulfilled not by our Maker but by our own hand, reaching out to take what seemed on the surface to be good and beautiful and life-giving. The result was death.
But hope was not lost! Even as God closed the door to the tree of life, He spoke of a day when that deceitful enemy would be crushed by a descendant of the very ones he had deceived. That descendant has come – and will come again. He came to pay the price for every way we have misplaced our hope; every way we have eaten from our own Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. He will come again to reopen the door to the Tree of Life (Revelation 22:2). When that time comes, as we His followers reign with Him, the deepest longings of our hearts will find their ultimate and eternal fulfillment.
In what things are you placing your hope this Christmas season? What steps can you take to place your hope ultimately in Jesus, the One who came to bring true fulfillment to our deepest longings?
God’s people had been waiting. And waiting.
Generations had come and gone. Empires had risen and fallen. Still they waited. The Savior would come…wouldn’t He?
Waiting is among life’s most strenuous trials. It’s in the waiting that we learn what we’re truly longing for, in the waiting that our hope will wither away or stand resilient.
No doubt the hope of many in Israel had become fragile. The prophets of old had spoken of a coming Messiah who would rescue His people. But by now it had been four long centuries since any such message had been proclaimed. In the silence, the expectations of a nation hung tenuously.
Even at the moment that promise became a reality, the world spun on obliviously. Humanity didn’t know God had just become one of them; didn’t know the story of the universe had just crossed a threshold. The sun went down on a day that had felt like any other day.
There were, of course, a few exceptions. An angelic choir told the news to a group of humble shepherds. Magi from the east somehow discerned that the King of Kings had been born. And in the temple in Jerusalem, an old man and an old woman – still clinging desperately to hope after years of seemingly fruitless waiting – were granted a personal audience with the child who would save the world.
Simeon was called a righteous and devout man, one who was waiting for the consolation of Israel. As he took little Jesus in his arms, he knew that consolation was arriving.
The prophetess Anna was among those waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. As she saw this same little child, she knew that the process of that redemption had begun.
The waiting of Simeon and Anna and many others did not actually end that day. They had been given a glimpse of their Lord (and that glimpse was precious!), but the consolation and redemption of God’s people was yet to be achieved. The child would grow up to die for sin, rise again to conquer death, and ascend back into heaven with a promise of return. Since that time His people have been waiting.
Generations have come and gone. Empires have risen and fallen. Still we wait. The Savior will come back. In the meantime we cling to hope,and we savor each glimpse we’re given of who He is and what He offers.
What are you eagerly waiting for this Christmastime? What glimpses of Jesus are you seeing in the waiting?
The terrified old man falls on his knees in the graveyard, staring at the marker bearing his name: Ebenezer Scrooge. The silent Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come has shown him the consequences of his life’s choices: greed that begets eternal poverty, disdain for community that ends in eternal loneliness, and pride rewarded with eternal insignificance. Broken by such terrible facts, Scrooge finally repents:
I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.
And, in an instant, his world changes. The terrible phantom has vanished. The old man awakens with only a bedpost in his death grip. The disappointments of his past and the bitterness of his present give way to the only thing that truly matters: grace. Scrooge accepts the free gift of grace and the new beginning grace conveys.
Scrooge awakens to Golden sunlight, a Heavenly sky, sweet fresh air and merry bells. But Scrooge still lives in Dickens’ city, a place of both wealth and misery. Scrooge dashes outside on Christmas Day to make a great many back payments. Repentance, like love, is a verb. Grace becomes gratitude, gratitude becomes giving, giving becomes giddy joy: this is the true circle of life.
The Apostle is digging at the same idea in our passage from Romans. The hour has come for you to wake from sleep. Our pasts, like Scrooge’s, are a mix of disappointments and joys, failures and victories, but it is the painful stuff that we remember most sharply. Earlier in Romans we read that all have sinned. We are all villains and victims struggling with regret and resentment. In that struggle we build emotional barricades just like Scrooge, cutting ourselves off from love. Some of us dive into all sorts of anesthetics, anything that helps us stop feeling. (Fun holiday tip: you only end up feeling worse.)
The scriptures tell us the night is far gone. In Christ, we are children of the dawn. The day is at hand! The golden sunlight of God’s grace is pouring over us. The heavenly sky of our eternity is opening to us. The merry bells proclaim the imminent end of sin, death and sorrow.
This Christmas, when we feel the blues come on, can we look to the dawn of our Lord’s coming?
We don’t really know what we want.
We think we know what we want. We have surface desires, shallow hopes for temporary solutions to eternal problems. We have impulses from these tainted earthly bodies in which we live, and a twisted sense that following such impulses will lead to ultimate satisfaction. Beneath the flurry of these futile pursuits, the truest longing of our hearts often lies neglected.
But when we pause long enough to dig deeper, we discover what we want – not what we think we want, but what we really want at the core of our being. In these moments of clarity, we recognize what this psalmist recognized: Our fallen selves may long for momentary pleasures and quick fixes, but our souls long for the Lord’s salvation.
The very concept of salvation stands in sharp contrast to the system of this world. We are surrounded by religions, ideologies and philosophies, each with its own proposed answer to our longings, and it can feel impossible to discern which offers true hope. But when, like the psalmist, we understand this core longing, one solution rises clearly, brilliantly above all others. The Gospel of Christ alone speaks to this ultimate need. While countless voices give conflicting directives about how to be what we should be, it is Jesus alone who offers to make us what we should be when we cannot. No other belief system offers a Savior like this; no other belief system even acknowledges the need for one.
Consider that Psalm 119 was written many centuries before that promised Savior would come. Here was hope based not on what was felt or what was seen but on what God had said. This is the hope that never disappoints. The psalmist longed for the Lord’s salvation; One was coming whose name means “The Lord is Salvation.” The psalmist put his hope in God’s word; One was coming who was God’s Word made flesh. He is what the psalmist truly wanted – what each one of us truly wants, if we will only realize it.
What do you feel like you want this Christmas season? What lesser desires are getting in the way of your ultimate desire for your Savior?
2 Timothy 4:8
Picture a man in a cold, cramped prison cell. He has been on trial and now awaits his inevitable sentencing. Many of those who worked alongside him over the years have now betrayed and abandoned him. Winter approaches, but he has no extra cloak to keep warm.
Despite being miraculously delivered from situations like this in the past, something tells him he won’t escape this time.
The Apostle Paul preached the Gospel faithfully for many years. Now, as a direct result of that faithfulness, he finds himself in chains awaiting his execution. And yet in this moment Paul writes some of his most hopeful words. He rests confident that he has fought a good fight and kept his faith (2 Timothy 4:7). He knows the Lord will save him, even if he dies (4:18). He’s certain that when he is gone the truth of Christ will march on through the work of good men like his spiritual son Timothy.
And he knows the One who appeared to him on the Damascus road and changed the course of his life will appear again (4:8). On the eve of his death, it’s not release from prison Paul longs for, nor a stay of execution, but the sight of His Savior’s face.
Though most of us have not been granted a dream or vision of Jesus, something stirs in us at the thought of someday seeing him face to face. “Though you have not seen him, you love him” (1 Peter 1:8). Much as we may desire it, we can’t go back in time to see that baby born on the first Christmas. We can’t join the shepherds as they bow to Him, or the magi as they present their gifts to Him; can’t watch Him as he teaches and heals; as he surrenders himself to the cross; as He walks out of the grave; as He ascends back to heaven. We picture it all in our mind’s eye, and even that moves us.
But one day we who now live for Him by faith and not by sight will see Him – not just with our minds or our hearts (as wonderful as that may be) but with our eyes. And “when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Like Paul, we wait in a dark, cold, lonely world, longing for that day.
What “prison cell” are you sitting in right now? What causes you to long for Jesus to appear?
This prophecy from Isaiah is fulfilled in John the Baptist, ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness’, as John proclaimed the coming of Jesus.
In his call to prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight, John was telling the people to be ready! Be ready for the good that is coming, because it is certainly coming, and coming soon! But our paths don’t always appear to be straight. Sometimes they seem anything but straight.
In each of us is a deep longing for a straight path. We long in our hearts to be prepared, to know what is coming next and to plan accordingly. Instead, life generally gives us a path filled with twists, turns, and varying speeds.
Even worse, at times it may even feel we are drifting in the wrong direction. We may be doing ‘good’ by praying, reading Scripture, living the best we know how, and yet things still seem to be falling apart, and we feel lost on a winding path.
Everyone’s life is filled with unexpected events, and it can feel that what we do and why we do it are maybe ‘not enough’. Sometimes it feels like we are swimming hard against the current and inching backwards. But God is faithful to give us a nudge in the right direction when needed, and is faithful to remind us that He is gently guiding us forward down a straight path.
When I think about being prepared, and making a straight path, I think of the unexpected nature of that first Christmas. When Mary and Joseph were engaged, we can reason that they were not thinking about a virgin birth, a long journey to Bethlehem, angelic appearances, or how they would go about raising the Savior of the world in their humble home.
Yet they lived lives in submission to God. They acknowledged him in all they did, even in the hard situations, and in doing so, they prepared a way for the Lord to work in and through them.
They made a straight path.
When we prepare the way of the Lord, we do not suddenly have all the answers or see everything that lies ahead. In what ways can you prepare yourself to be used by God, to be available and ready for whatever work he is planning to do in and around you?
In the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, Bedford Falls is the hometown of George Bailey, a man who is longing for purpose and not finding it. George sees Bedford Falls as a nothing town, and feels his talents, passions, and goals are all being wasted there. George dreams of seeing the world, building ‘skyscrapers a hundred stories high’, ‘bridges a mile long’, and doing amazing things he has only read about in magazines. He envisions his purpose as being filled with excitement and adventure, and those things simply don’t exist in Bedford Falls.
George never gets to do these things, and he never leaves Bedford Falls. Not even for his honeymoon. Instead he ends up taking his father’s place working at the Building and Loan, a small office that to him represents the exact opposite of anything he longs to do.
Have you ever felt like this? Trapped, and devoid of purpose?
The story of George Bailey is an enduring tale because it teaches a lesson that everyone can relate to. Most of us have felt that we are missing out on our purpose, that we somehow missed our calling, made the wrong decisions, and got ourselves stuck in a place we are not meant to be. When we feel this way, the longing for something else can be almost unbearable, and lead to depression and sadness.
For George, it leads to wishing that he had never been born, and it is at this low point in his life that the movie really gets going. George is given ‘a great gift -a chance to see what the world would be like’ without him. As he sees the world without his influence, George begins to realize that his purpose is what he was doing all along, helping those in his community, being a friend, husband and father, and sharing his life with others around him. George realizes that that his life has more meaning and purpose than he could have ever imagined.
In this advent season, let us be mindful of the fact that God has placed us exactly where he wants us to be, doing what he wants us to do, and as we keep our eyes focused on him, prepared for what he is doing in and around us, we too will realize that we really do have a wonderful life. Pray about seeing ways that God completing his purpose in your life. In what ways is he at work in you?
2 Corinthians 4:16 – 5:4
Think about a time when it seemed all you could do was look up and say, Why, God?
Maybe for you that time is right now. Why cancer? Why divorce? Why the death of a loved one or the death of a relationship? Why the loss of a job or of a dream? Why this gut-wrenching longing that God isn’t fulfilling?
Why does it have to hurt so much?
God welcomes such questions. He even invites them – consider how many of the Psalms prompt us to recite prayers like these. In the middle of your affliction, let your heart’s honest cry rise to your Father in Heaven, who listens closely and comforts tenderly. And while that comfort may not usually include specific answers to our questions (would we be able to receive those answers anyway?), let one profound promise be your anchor in the storm: Your pain has a purpose.
In 2 Corinthians 4:16, the Apostle Paul tells us “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…” Unless we read and reread carefully, we might miss his point: He is not simply saying our suffering will end (which it will), or that heaven will be better than this (which it will); he is saying our suffering now has a direct positive effect on our time in heaven. Our affliction is literally “preparing” – or “achieving,” as the Greek term may also be translated – glory for us.
The pain you’re feeling in this life is forging something wondrous for you to enjoy in the next life. Your affliction is an artisan chiseling a beautiful sculpture, an architect sawing and hammering away at the lavish home in which you’ll one day live. During that process, as Paul says, we groan (5:2). Each blow and cut makes us wince and feel our mortality. But through it all, a day of immortality is being created.
At Christmas we remember the One who willingly entered our world of affliction; who knew more than any of us will ever know what it is to groan; whose sufferings prepared ultimate glory. It is through Him, our conquering Savior, that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life (5:4).
What affliction is making you groan this Christmastime? What kind of glory might God be achieving through it?
I love Sunday mornings.
Sunday mornings are a special time in the life of a church, and as Christians, Sundays hold a unique place in our collective memories. For the last two thousand years, believers have been gathering together on Sundays to worship, to encourage one another, and to remember the goodness of the Lord.
As a worship pastor, I enjoy being among the first people in the building on Sundays, praying in anticipation for what God is about to do among us. There is an expectancy in the air as believers walk through the doors, and an excitement as non-believers join us and experience the joy of worshipping our Lord.
As we are regularly reminded, each Sunday across this globe of ours there are millions of others who gather to worship the One True God in joy and reverence as we sing, pray, and hear the word of God proclaimed.
But then comes Monday.
Monday puts us not in a sanctuary with fellow believers, but back into the world doing what the world does. On Mondays we strive to live like Christ among others who may or may not understand what that means. Monday sees all the stress of the hectic week return once again, and those burdens we laid down Sunday morning often find their way back upon our shoulders.
Yet, within us every day is a longing for God, a longing to worship!
It can be easy to go through an entire day, even an entire week without spending time with God. When that happens, we can find ourselves unwittingly worshipping something else: activities, work, you name it. We find ourselves trying to fix our own problems instead of trusting our Creator, who so loves the world that he wrapped himself in human skin on that night in Bethlehem long ago.
At the core of our being is a desire for God, a longing of the heart that seeks to know and be known by him. Yet what we find is that as we move our worship away from God and onto other things, we become like one who drinks seawater; the more we drink, the more we thirst for true living water which alone can satisfy our needs.
What are we worshipping when we are not gathered together? How can you prepare your heart to worship God during the week?
Have you ever fallen asleep in public? It is one of the most embarrassing things that can happen. Falling asleep in a meeting, falling asleep at a movie, falling asleep when praying, falling asleep anywhere in public is a bad thing. It is humiliating to wake up startled and realize that life has been going on around you, with no idea of what you missed out on.
I am more of a night owl than a morning person, and it is because of this that I have found myself falling asleep in public. When the house gets quiet, the mood is just right to think and create, and I can stay up too long. Sometimes it is just nice to take a bit of down time and catch up on tv shows, and other times it is a late ball game that keeps me up and going.
There is nothing wrong with being a night owl, but the problem is that is can be hard to stay awake the next day. Morning has a habit of inching closer and closer, and if we aren’t prepared for it, the next day can be a little rough. Even for night owls, it is important to sleep and prepare for the morning that is coming. The Bible teaches that Jesus will return at an hour we do not expect. As we celebrate his first advent, we also look forward to his second advent. Let us not forget that he is coming again, and he expects us to be prepared and awake when he comes!
It is clear that there are those who were not awake and prepared for his first coming. The leaders who knew all the answers and studied the Scriptures still did not have ready hearts. They didn’t expect Jesus to come when he did, or in the way that he did, and they were caught asleep.
In the same way, we can be distracted by everyday life, and lose sight of the fact that at any moment our Messiah could be coming. We do well to not waste time, and fall asleep when we should be awake, but rather to prepare and plan for what is coming.
What does it mean to ‘be awake’ in waiting for Jesus, and how can we stay awake in preparing for his return?
1 Corinthians 2:9
Christmas and preparation go hand in hand. Our preparations are extensive: We get presents for each other, we decorate the tree and the house, we pack up to travel or get ready to host those travelling to us. In our more spiritually-minded moments, we prepare to experience Jesus in new ways.
But the greatest preparation associated with Christmas is not our preparation for Him but His preparation for us. This is the Gospel – not that I must do the right things for God but that I must gladly receive the things He does for me.
Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 2:9 that we cannot imagine what God has prepared for those who love Him. It’s almost a dare. Take a moment and try to imagine what eternity in God’s presence will be like: the natural beauty of the remade world; the splendor of a great city without a trace of poverty or injustice; bodies that don’t age or get sick or feel pain; flourishing relationships untainted by selfishness or confusion; everything – everything – wrong made right.
As a voice in your head tells you these fantasies are too good to be true, God is telling you they actually fall far short of the truth. Even in their wildest moments our imaginations are finite, unable to fathom a future created by an infinite Lord. The One born in Bethlehem that first Christmas told His followers He was going to prepare a place for them…and that was over two millennia ago. We stagger contemplating what even sinful, limited humans could create in that amount of time. And yet Jesus wasn’t just getting started – He was continuing the kingdom preparation process which had begun “before the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34).
We will spend eternity with eyes wide, mouths agape, hearts exhilarated as we take in more and more and more of who He is and what He’s prepared for us.
With this realization, we turn back to our temporary lives in this temporary place, and we laugh at the smallness of it all. While we don’t cease making plans or preparations for the things of this world, we do so with a light heart and an upward gaze. Like God’s faithful followers of old we look beyond this world to a place whose designer and builder is God Himself (Hebrews 11:10,16) – our true home, though we have not yet been there.
How are you experiencing God’s preparation in your own heart this Christmastime? What do you look forward to most about the place He’s prepared for you?