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?
We believe strongly in the pursuit of happiness, one of those unalienable rights mentioned in our Declaration of Independence. Perhaps at no time of year is this value more vocalized than Christmas. We’re told repeatedly to have a merry Christmas, to have happy holidays. On the radio they’re singing about “good cheer,” that it’s “the season to be jolly,” that “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.” “From now on,” so it’s claimed, “our troubles will be miles away.”
Carefree innocence, or glib sentimentality? If I sing along, am I a naïve optimist? If I roll my eyes, am I a jaded cynic?
There’s no denying the innate desire for happiness. We all have it. God put it there. The question is not do we or don’t we, should we or shouldn’t we, have this longing. The question is, Where will we take it?
King David’s answer in Psalm 16 could not be clearer. “I have no good apart from You” (16:2). This is not a grudging confession – it’s a declaration of discovery. We do have him, and, because He is all that is good, we need depend on nothing else to fulfill us. We can savor even the smallest, simplest gifts of the season because we look beyond them to the Giver.
The pursuit of happiness is a glorious one when it becomes, as it must, the pursuit of God – the One who first pursued us and offered us His fulness of joy (John 15:11). We can have a merry Christmas, a happy Holiday, because we have Him. Our “holly jolly” moments are not invalid, because we have Him; our moments that are anything but jolly are not in vain, because we have Him. Because of what He has done for us, one day all our troubles – sin, pain, death, everything that falls short of His beauty – will be miles away, never again to be remembered. While other “joys” are offered to us, it is in His presence alone that we find fulness of joy; while other pleasures are available to us, it is at His right hand alone that we find the forevermore kind of pleasures (Psalm 16:11).
This Christmas, what happiness will you set aside in order to make way for the Forevermore happiness Christ alone offers?
On the night Jesus was born, these words rang out across the Judean hillside, spoken by an angel, heard by shepherds who were the first to know of the Messiah’s birth.
In the 1965 TV special ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’, these words rang out again. In the climactic scene when Linus recites “what Christmas is all about” from Luke 2, he drops his security blanket at the very moment he utters the words, “fear not”. No one could ever make Linus let go of that blanket, but the very thought of the angels saying, “Fear not” causes him to drop it.
A few years ago I wrote about this ‘Drop The Blanket’ moment in a Charlie Brown Christmas, and discovered that millions of people relate to it; that many know the feeling of fear, and that the freedom to ‘drop’ our fears that can only be found in Christ.
According an article in Christianity Today, the most popular Bible verse of 2018 is Isaiah 41:10: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God, I will strengthen you and help you.”
The question is, what is it that we are so afraid of?
Now more than ever, we are daily surrounded with the uncertainty of not knowing what the future holds. Social media and instant headlines only add to the fact that we have little certainty to lean on, little that we know for a fact will withstand whatever chaos the world throws at us next.
We go to sleep at night and wake in the morning only to have our smartphones telling us how horrible the world is.
Yet we are reminded that in Christ, we have an answer to our fears; that he was born a poor child in a chaotic world, lived in a troubled land oppressed by a dictatorial regime, existed in a society that was overtaxed, overworked and longing for someone to make all things right, to make all things new.
Which reminds me that God gets it.
The birth of Jesus frees us to drop the false security we have been grasping so tightly, and cling to Him instead.
He came to us to redeem us, and he understands every deep longing of our hearts. He came for us once, and he is coming again.
Whenever they enter the room, the whole atmosphere brightens. Whenever we see them, something in us is drawn powerfully to them. Whenever they’re present, joy and goodness and healing seem to be present with them. Whenever they speak with us, we walk away feeling uplifted.
We all know people like this. Maybe not many, but a few.
Think about someone you know who fits this description. Now think about someone who is the opposite. As you compare and contrast the two, what conclusions can you draw? Chances are both of them have had ups and downs. Both have had losses and gains, failures and victories, pains and pleasures.
The fact is, it’s not our experiences that define us but how we receive what God offers us in those experiences.
In Psalm 30 we hear the words of someone reveling in his joy. It’s not a joy created by ideal circumstances, nor is it a joy contrived to mask the struggle of painful circumstances. It’s a joy that fully acknowledges the struggle…and overcomes it. The writer no a stranger to desperation, but in that desperation he cries to God (30:2). He is no stranger to weeping, but he knows joy will come with the dawn (30:5). He is no stranger to mourning, but God has turned that mourning into dancing (30:11). He is the foreshadowing of our Savior, who knew both sorrows and joys beyond that of any other – the despair of the Father’s back turned to Him; the ecstasy of walking triumphantly out of His grave.
The dark times have not defined the narrator of this psalm. Rather, the God who sustains him in those dark times has defined him. God, he declares, has clothed him with gladness (30:11). Notice gladness here is not portrayed as an emotion but as a garment. Emotions come and go without our permission, but garments are put on. If you are a follower of Jesus, the garment of gladness hangs available in your closet in every season. A Holy tailor has woven it specially for you and stands ready to clothe you with it as He did the psalmist. Will you choose to receive it?
The people who brighten the room, who capture our affection, who speak life to us, have made their choice. What will yours be?
When I think of the Psalms, I generally think of David. Through his writings, King David has left us a legacy that probably even he probably could have never imagined, and his Psalms were truly inspired by God.
However, Psalm 84 is not a Psalm of David, but is attributed to ‘the sons of Korah’. So who were they, why were they writing Psalms, and how does this relate to Advent?
One of the things we know about the sons of Korah is that they served in the temple and are associated with music, specifically as authors of several of the Psalms (42-49 and 84; 85; 87-89). They are also mentioned in II Chronicles as standing with the Levites “to praise the LORD, the God of Israel, with a very loud voice”.
So, along with King David, the sons of Korah were servants of God in the temple, actively writing music to be used in worship. Judging by the Psalms they wrote, they were passionate for God, and were writing new songs that Israel would use to worship before the Lord for generations.
This Psalm is deeply personal, and expresses a longing for the presence of God; “my soul longs, yes faints for the courts of the Lord”. When reading this Psalm, it causes me to ask myself if we also long for God this deeply. Each of us is wired for worship, and are filled with a longing for the presence of God. Whether we know it or not, the peace, joy, hope and love that we all seek is fully found in him and in his presence. When we realize this, we will also begin to find ourselves longing for the courts of the Lord.
The Psalm goes on to say, “my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God”.
Every human heart is a longing heart. When we are passionate about something, we long to speak about it, shout it, even to sing about it! Singing is a natural form of expression and one of the ways that we are created to worship and express our desire for God.
All the longings of our heart are fulfilled in him and through him.
In what way do you long to be in God’s presence, and how can we find ways to worship in his presence daily?
At Christmastime we think and talk and sing about our joy – as we should. What greater cause for rejoicing than the coming of the One who would Save us from our sins and reconnect us forever to our Loving Father?
But there is another joy worthy of equal (perhaps even greater) consideration this time of year: God’s joy over us.
That statement alone causes many of us to recoil. It’s difficult enough getting my fallen heart to rejoice in a God I know is worthy; but accepting that God’s heart rejoices in me, one utterly unworthy? That feels downright scandalous.
And yet it is what God tells us, and tells us repeatedly. He rejoices over His people with gladness and exults over them with loud singing (Zephaniah 3:17). It was for joy that Christ came to endure the cross for us (Hebrews 12:2). He rescues us because He delights in us (Psalm 18:19).
What causes us to dismiss the overwhelming evidence of God’s joy over us? Maybe it’s because those on earth who should rejoice over us have not. Maybe it’s a twisted theology we’ve been taught, as though Christ’s sacrifice were enough to deliver us from God’s wrath but not quite enough to deliver us from His irritation – as if we still need to endure a partial payment for our sin. Maybe it’s because we’re fixated on what we see in the mirror, figuratively or literally, and notice nothing delightful in ourselves.
But this Christmas God invites us to look away from all these things and look to Him; to see in His eyes the true joy He has in us, those He chose to create in His image and to purchase with the infinitely valuable blood of His Son.
The Child born in Bethlehem was not a concession God grudgingly made; a reluctant act of sheer divine duty. No, a devoted Father was pursuing His children. The Good Shepherd was going after His sheep. The lover was coming for his beloved. Isaiah 62 portrays Him rejoicing over his people as a groom rejoices over His bride, delighting in her and cherishing her as a crown of beauty, making her glorious in the sight of the world.
If you have believed in Jesus, that means you. If you have not, that is what you are being invited into.
Joy to the World, the Lord has come!
Pretty much everyone knows at least the first phrase of Joy to the World. Even folks who have never been to church are generally familiar with it. The song has been embedded deep enough into our culture that the lyrics are inscribed on our collective hearts.
From a musical perspective, the song is amazing in that the first, best-known phrase is simply a basic musical scale. Anyone who has taken piano lessons can tell you that the first part of learning piano is learning scales. The first line of Joy to the World is simply a basic eight-note scale, played straight down the piano keyboard. Anyone can play it. Just like the timeless truth it proclaims, the melody is accessible, simple, brilliant, and is perhaps the most meaningful truth ever paired to a simple eight note scale.
When we consider the message and meaning of this beautiful yet simple song, it is certainly a cause for great joy and great celebration. The Lord Has Come! Just like the melody, the truth is simple, accessible, and meaningful to all who hear it. It is a reflection on the most important event in all of history, and also looks forward to the day that the earth truly receives her king. It anticipates that day when he comes again, just as he said, when all that is wrong is finally made perfectly right.
Sadly, we tend to seek out our joy in other things. We seek joy in money. We seek joy in entertainment, in careers, in material things, and when we seek joy in anything other than Christ, it always leaves us empty and unfulfilled. Yet, while we find ourselves empty and broken from seeking joy from that which is temporary, the truth and grace that he offers brings us joy beyond our circumstance.
He truly rules the world in truth and amazing grace!
We can find joy in knowing victory has been won and truth and grace will overcome.
This is the joy that causes the apostle Paul to rejoice, even as he is imprisoned.
This is the joy that causes families to overcome and persevere.
This is the joy that leads us to give more than we receive.
In what things other than Christ are we seeking joy? How can we find our joy in Christ?
When I was a boy, Christmas Eve, was both a great day and a boring day. It was a great day because Christmas, the greatest day of the year, was just a day away! It was a boring day because every Christmas Eve, my brother and I knew exactly what would happen that evening. We would go to Christmas Eve services (they seemed to be the same year in and year out….think “What Child Is This” sung badly every annum), then go to our grandparents house for dinner and the opening of one present. The reason the day was so boring, was the predictability of the service, the meal and the gift. Pajamas…matching…then pictures! For red-blooded pre-adolescent males, this was torture! Was there something similarly torturous for you? The good news was that Christmas morning was just around the corner and something new would be unwrapped and discovered! There was anticipation and hope and mystery and everything that made the day exciting! For us, it was “Let’s go see what we got!” As we got older, Christmas became more about who we would spend it with. Family and friends were treasured, and should be. “Let’s see who shows up”, was the what captured us. It was both fun and sometimes frustrating to find who our companions were to be. There was some predictability in who would come, what we would eat and how we would worship, but as we know, life does move along and even family changes. There are delightful additions by marriage and birth and sad losses as relationships dissolve and loved ones pass into eternity. We can hang on to the focus of “Who we spend it with”, but it gets harder, doesn’t it? And so our focus, while always loving those who are present in our life, must change. The focus must move to the Who Christmas is about and the statement becomes, “Let’s go see what has happened in Bethlehem!” What happens when that becomes the most important criteria of Christmas? The Who we discover, once again, is Jesus. He always has something to say to us, He is the Word of God. He is always with us, He is Immanuel. He always bringing understanding, He is the Light of Life. He is always worthy of our worship, He is God. Come let us adore Him!
In 2004, one of my dearest friends had a beautiful new Mini Cooper which she parked in front of my house. As we talked, I watched through the window with horror as my neighbor’s guest backed her SUV right into it!
The experience of making a mistake and facing the one you’ve hurt is familiar. We expect their displeasure, but the possibility of enduring reckless anger is dreaded. So, with breath held we hope for patience, kindness, and forgiveness which are undeserved, but desperately needed.
We long for goodness. Even from strangers. Think of your experiences on the highway for example, or in a crowded store this week! This goodness we deeply long for and wish we could depend on is the gift of love. But we don’t expect it. If love were natural or common, we wouldn’t hold our breath in dread.
The first associations usually made with the word “love” are about romance, Valentine’s Day, and Hollywood’s version of it. But 1 Corinthians 13 describes love quite differently – as goodwill sacrificially given to people’s vulnerable hearts and exposed weaknesses.
God says he is love. Christ’s coming, life, and death demonstrate love. And his death and resurrection answer our deep longing for love by making it possible for us to receive it, be transformed by it, and become able to give it.
Christ left heaven and embodied flesh in the most non-threatening way, vulnerably, as a baby. He made himself accessible and approachable living an ordinary life. He gave himself wholly in friendship to people who couldn’t understand him or reciprocate what he gave. He traveled many miles on foot, teaching, healing, and serving countless people, finding places to sleep and ways to eat along the way. He chose this, allowed himself to be misunderstood, used, reviled, accused, scourged, and crucified. None of this was for his benefit. But all of it revealed the nature of love.
When the lady ran into Joy’s car, everyone present was immediately and fully aware of the scarcity of love in our world. Yet, love is recognized instantly when it’s given, when it fills a void, as fear dissipates, when liveliness returns, and breath comes easy again. Love stirs deep longings in our hearts, so deep it can be called need.
It is a need not only to be loved, but to be able to love. Christ came into the void so that he – Love Himself – could fill it – and then leave it – by embodying us.
“It’s just a car. It can be fixed.” That’s what Joy said.
Even though we’ve never seen him we know he’s somewhere out there, far away and yet somehow always watching us like a hawk, keeping track of our naughty deeds versus our nice deeds and preparing to reward or punish us accordingly. Children call him Santa Clause.
We adults call him God.
It’s human nature to sense that life is based on a system of deserving. What goes around comes around. If you want it, you have to earn it. God sits at the controls of this system, blessing the good people and zapping the bad people. To live within this behavior-based mindset is slavery. I will weary myself trying to get into the “good” category, or perhaps rewrite the rules and tell myself I already am…or give up trying because I know I’m not and never will be. In those moments I feel good about myself, God is a jolly old elf who eats the cookies I’ve left for him and mercifully moves onto the next person; in those moments I feel badly about myself, he is shaking his head at me in disappointment – or maybe even getting a sick sort of pleasure from dealing out my recompense, snickering as he puts the proverbial coal in my metaphorical stocking.
In way, our assumptions touch upon something accurate. We are accountable for our actions. There are consequences for our behavior.
But above and beyond this system of conditional results, another much more powerful force is in place: the force of unconditional love. Isaiah tells a rebellious people that Gods longs to be gracious to them. They deserve judgment; He will show them compassion. They deserve His wrath; He will give them His love. Can they receive it?
When Jesus was born, unconditional love was breaking irrevocably into the world of earning and deserving, and flipping it on its head. As we laugh at the naivete of children who worry about Santa’s evaluations, let’s not forget about our own more “mature” naivete that clothes God himself in red hat and white beard. He writes our names not on the Nice List or the Naughty List but in His Book of Life, and our place there is secured not by our behavior but by our Savior.
What behaviors are you beating yourself up for lately? Can you accept the unconditional love God is longing to show you?
1 Thessalonians 2:17
The Advent season, at its core, is defined by longing. It is the longing of the world for a Savior, the longing for all things to be made new, a longing for a day when we finally, truly see peace on earth, good will towards men. It is a time when we remember the fulfilled longing for a Messiah, given to us in a baby boy in Bethlehem, born to save us from our sins. It is also a time that we reflect on our longing for the day that he returns, and justice and holiness are finally restored on earth as it is in heaven.
In a similar way, the days leading up to Christmas overwhelm us with memories of the past, and December comes to a close, we weave those memories into the hopes and dreams we long to see fulfilled in the New Year.
In the midst of all this longing is a longing for people; a longing to be with those we love. No month is filled with more nostalgia for people and memories of people more than the month of December. More than any other season, we listen to music, watch movies, and look through pictures and decorations from decades ago, in our longing hearts, thoughts of those we love and long to be with are brought to the forefront.
This longing is timeless. The Scripture passage for today reveals Paul’s longing to be with those he loved. Even Jesus, while he was on earth, longed to be with those whom he loved and were close to him, spending time with friends such as Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Simply put, we are designed for relationship with others.
In December our mailboxes may find themselves filled with Christmas cards from friends and family who are now far away, often with updates of what they have been up to this year. We go to parties and celebrate friendships and community with one another. We think of those who have gone before us, remembering sweetly the moments we shared together, and we take time to honor the past, ensuring that their memories will not be forgotten.
As we long to be with those we love, we remember that in Christ we are never truly separated. In Christ, we are united in his love and in His peace.
In the longest chapter of the Bible, Kind David spends one hundred seventy-six verses talking about…rules. There were a lot of them to talk about; God had given more than six hundred of them to His people through Moses. For most of us, reading through those laws leads to boredom at best, and to despair at worst.
But David gives us another perspective on the rules. Over and over again in Psalm 119, he says he delights in the rules; he longs for them; he rejoices in them; he loves them.
Human nature abhors the rules. We say they are made to be broken, and we are ready to oblige. Even those of us with compliant personalities do not keep the rules out of love for them but out of fear of consequence; we are more than ready to secretly stray from the narrow path in any way we feel is beneficial for us.
In short, we cannot relate to the words of Psalm 119…unless God miraculously changes our hearts. Which is precisely what He does. He did it for David, and He will do it for us. He will put his rules inside of us, writing them upon our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33).
With God’s help, we learn to love His rules. We love that Christ has empowered us to follow them, and paid the price for every time we don’t. We love that in obeying those rules there is freedom and life and peace, and the wisdom to recognize that in breaking them there is only slavery and death. We love that they reflect the character of the God who gave them – a God of order and goodness and beauty. We love that this God became one of us, perfectly embodying and fulfilling for us all that those rules were. We love that, because of Him, we walk in the path of those rules not in order to get to God but as a loving response to the God who already came and got us.
With God’s hep we say, along with David, “I run in the path of your commands, for You have set my heart free!” (Psalm 119:32).
What rules of God feel burdensome to you? How can you embrace the goodness of those rules, and the One who gave them to you?
“How great a chasm that lay between us.” This lyric from Phil Wickham’s song Living Hope is the description of life without the Advent of Jesus.
At the center of Advent is the Gospel, and at the center of the Gospel is Jesus and the truth that God longs for a relationship with us. The beauty of salvation is not only that accepts us, but that he wants to know us, and us to know him.
This desire of God to have a relationship with us is essentially the main storyline of the Scriptures. In the Garden of Eden, God desires to have a relationship with Adam and Eve. He talks with them, knows them, and clearly has a desire to interact with them in a personal and intimate way. Throughout the Bible, through Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and until the day of Christ’s birth, we see that our relationship with God had been broken by sin. Through Jesus, that chasm was finally closed, and we can again know God in a personal and real way. Even the name of Jesus reveals this.
For centuries before the birth of Christ, the true name of God that was given to Moses at Mt. Sinai was considered too holy and sacred to be spoken. One of the ten commandments was to not take the name of the Lord in vain, and so avoiding it all together was seen as a good way to avoid breaking that commandment.
The name Jesus, however, is not like this. Because of Jesus, God is no longer inaccessible and far away, and His very name signifies this. Because of Jesus, we have a great High Priest who can relate to us in every way. Because of Jesus, there is no longer anything separating believers from God. Because of Jesus, we have a Savior who was tempted as we are and yet did not sin.
Jesus is the name above all names, and the name by which we are saved, but it is also the name chosen by the God who loved us, humbled Himself to be one of us, dwelt among us, and gave Himself up for us that we might have eternal life. If we only accept him for who he is, the unspeakable may now be spoken, the unknowable is now known, and we can truly live the full, forgiven life that God intended.