Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Full Circle

Below is an article written by our Cube sports director Chris Allen.  It is an amazing account of how the ministries of our community outreach at the Cube are having an impact:  

Looking back at my life so far, I can trace God’s hand through every friend and activity I’ve been involved in, and I know nothing has been accidental. He has been very determined to bring me to the place I’m at in life now. I grew up in and was baptized in church. But as I got older, I thought following my older brothers was the right thing to do and slowly found myself running from God rather than to Him.

That changed during my junior year in high school when I got invited to a place called the Cube. I thought it was just a facility for people to come play basketball. Little did I know it was a mission field that some church had built in the heart of this community. To this day, I thank my buddies for inviting me to play basketball at the Cube.

Bruce Caplinger, who was the Cube Director at that time, was the first person working there who immediately welcomed me in. He honestly wanted to get to know me. I was amazed when he took me to dinner, paid for it, and told me that my money wasn’t allowed. That was one of the first times that I saw how ministry works, and it meant everything to me. Bruce introduced me to CRBC staff member Chris Wall, not knowing that God had a plan for me here. Chris invited me to some camp called Falls Creek. I had no clue to what I was agreeing to by telling this stranger that I would ride to camp with him and spend the weekend there. While at camp, I remember meeting people but being afraid to be myself.

Several months passed, and as Bruce went onto serve in foreign missions, Chris Fetters transitioned into his role of Cube Director and began to be a light to the guys from the community by spending time with them and sharing the Gospel. I didn’t know it yet, but God was preparing me for that same role.

That next summer, I re-dedicated my life to Christ at Falls Creek. I felt God tugging on my heart when the speaker asked if anyone wanted to dedicate his life to ministry. I took the stand and went forward.

Chris Wall started to disciple me and showed me what it meant to be a follower of Christ, and how we should share Christ with others. I now get to do that on a daily basis. I used to be the kid playing pick-up ball at the Cube before some guy invested in my life. I am now blessed to continue the work of those before me.

Lately we have started halftime devotions during the pick-up games. We stop the games mid-way and share the Gospel with the athletes that come to play on a day-to-day basis. The idea came from CRBC attendee Charlie Collins, who asked what could be done to reach the guys. There are anywhere from 20-40 guys who play on Monday afternoons because we run the clock, and that means they get more games in for their time. They have been very receptive to what we are doing. Over the past two weeks, 10 guys from the community have received Christ as their personal Savior!

In the future, we want these new Christians to begin to share their journey with the other players and the new friends they continually invite. We would love for them to disciple their friends. I think back to when Chris Fetters was running the Cube and told me that someday he could see me ministering to the guys in this community. I told him he was crazy, and that he had the wrong guy in mind! I didn’t know that God had a plan for me to share the Gospel with the community through pick-up basketball. It is amazing to look back now and see that God’s plan for me has come full circle.
I live my life according to Ephesians 4:1 which says, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”

I am grateful for this calling and grateful for a place like the Cube to live it out.

Monday, December 22, 2014

How the Old Testament Prophets Revealed the Coming of the Christ Child

From "The Long Expected Jesus":

Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing
    without revealing his plan
    to his servants the prophets.
(Amos 3:7)

Perhaps you’ve heard the modern parable about the man who was trapped in a flood and prayed that God would rescue him.  

The man heard the voice of the Lord tell him that he would save him; so with this assurance in mind he sat on his front porch and watched the water rise and waited for the Lord’s salvation.  Before long a man in a four wheel drive truck drove up and told him to get in.  

“No worries” the man shouted to him, “God will save me!.”  

As the waters rose above the man’s porch, a second man in a boat came by and pleaded with the man to get in, but again the man on the porch refused because as he told his earlier rescuer, “God will save me!” 

Finally the waters rose above the man’s house and now he was relocated to the roof.  A helicopter came by but with the same predictable result.  The man refused to get in because he was waiting for the Lord’s salvation.  

Of course the man drowned and when he got to heaven, complained to God that his salvation never came.  But the Lord told him, 

“I sent you a truck, a boat and a helicopter, you were obviously too stubborn to save!” 

I’m sure you’ve guessed the meaning of the parable is that God often works in our lives in ways we don’t comprehend, but we are too stubborn or maybe too inattentive to see it.  But for our purposes in this book I want to apply another meaning. 

Over the course of our journey to discover the many ways Jesus is predicted and foreshadowed in the pages of the Old Testament, we have seen that God has used different means to deliver His message of a coming salvation. He has used stories, and types of Christ, the law, covenants and psalms.  And as we will learn in this chapter, He used prophecies as well.  In fact, when we think about the many ways down through the centuries that God has delivered His message of a coming Redeemer, it almost seems impossible to miss.

But like the man on the porch in the parable, most people miss it. 

Do you remember back in the third chapter when I told you about mathematician Dr. Peter Stoner who has calculated the chances of someone randomly fulfilling 8 prophecies in the way Jesus fulfilled them and it worked out to a probability of less than 10 with 17 zeroes?   As a reminder of the improbability of that ridiculously big number, I again quote Dr. Stoner’s analogy:

If you mark one of ten tickets, and place all the tickets in a hat, and thoroughly stir them, and then ask a blindfolded man to draw one, his chance of getting the right ticket is one in ten. Suppose that we take 10^17 silver dollars and lay them on the face of Texas. They'll cover all of the state two feet deep. Now mark one of these silver dollars and stir the whole mass thoroughly, all over the state. Blindfold a man and tell him that he can travel as far as he wishes, but he must pick up one silver dollar and say that this is the right one.

In other words, to prove that all of these prophecies came about in history just out of coincidence would be a mathematical impossibility. But now that we have come to the end of our journey, we can see that there were much more than just prophecies that pointed to the coming of Jesus.   

But my objective isn’t to just show you the overwhelming probabilities or even to convince you to get into the boat.  Like the man in the story, it is up to you to make that decision on your own.  My purpose is to show you how Jesus was anticipated hundreds of years before the advent and the variety of ways that message was delivered.  And that objective would not be complete if I didn’t point you to the many prophecies about the birth of Christ. 

But before we look at those prophecies, I need to tell you some things about the Old Testament prophets.    

First, Old Testament prophets prepared the way for the coming messiah

God installed Moses as His first official prophet to Israel because the Israelites were too terrified to hear directly from God.  Although there were many prophets throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites knew there was a greater prophet yet to come.  It was Moses who first pointed to that prophet in Deuteronomy 8:15:

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites.  You must listen to Him.  (Deuteronomy 18:15)

Second, Old Testament prophets spoke not for themselves, but for God

The message of the prophet did not come out of their own sense of reasoning or creativity or bias, but directly from the Lord God.  In this sense, the prophet was the mouthpiece of God.    

I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him.”  (Deuteronomy 18:18)

Third, the prophetic office was ultimately realized in Christ

The third thing I want to tell you about prophets is that they were all imperfect.  But their inadequacies and imperfections served to remind people that one day a perfect prophet was coming. David Murray makes this observation:

“Every deficiency or inadequacy in the Old Testament prophets contrasts with the fulness and perfection of Jesus Christ, the prophet of God.  We see that looking back, but the Old Testament believer also saw that looking forward.”  (Jesus on Every Page)

As I stated in the third chapter, there were more than 50 different prophecies in the Old Testament that were fulfilled by Jesus in minute detail.  But instead of going through each of those prophecies, I want us to concentrate on ten that deal directly with His birth:

Jesus would come from the line of Abraham. 

Prophesied in Genesis 12:3:

I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Fulfilled in Matthew 1:1: 

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. (Matthew 1:1)

 Jesus would be born of a virgin:

Prophesied in Isaiah 7:14:

14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.   (Isaiah 7:14)

Prophesied in Matthew 1:18-23:

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
23  Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”   
(Matthew 1:18-23)

 Jesus will be a descendent of Isaac and Jacob.

Prophesied in Genesis 17:19 and Numbers 24:17:

19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.  (Genesis 17:19)

I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near:
a star shall come out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;
it shall crush the forehead of Moab
and break down all the sons of Sheth.  
(Numbers 24:17)

Fulfilled in Matthew 1:2

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers. (Matthew 1:2)

Jesus was born in Bethlehem: 

Prophesied in Micah 5:2: 

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.  (Micah 5:2)

Fulfilled in Luke 2:1-7:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

 Jesus will be called out of Egypt.

Prophesied in Hosea 11:1:

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
(Hosea 11:1)

Fulfilled in Matthew 2:13-15:

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”  (Matthew 2:13-15)

 Jesus will be a member of the tribe of Judah:

Prophesied in Genesis 49:10:

The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him; 
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
(Genesis 49:10)

Fulfilled in Luke 3:33:

The son of Amminadab, the son of Admin, the son of Arni, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah. (Luke 3:33)

 Jesus will enter the temple: 

Prophesied in Malachi 3:1:

“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.

Fulfilled in Luke 2:25-27

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law,

 Jesus will be from line of King David

Prophesied in Jeremiah 23:5;

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

Fulfilled in Matthew 1:6:

And Jesse the father of David the king.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.
(Matthew 1:6)

 Jesus’ birth will be surrounded by suffering and sorrow:

Prophesied in Jeremiah 31:15:

Thus says the Lord:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.”

Fulfilled in Matthew 2:16:

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. (Matthew 2:16)

Jesus will be presented gifts by kings:

Prophesied in Psalm 72:10:

May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores bring tribute to him. May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts.  (Psalm 72:10)

Fulfilled in Matthew 2:11

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (Matthew 2:11)
As we can see from this sampling of prophecies and their fulfillment, the birth of the Messiah was foreseen over and over again throughout the course of Old Testament witness.  Each one on their own may not be that convincing, but taken all together they make an impressive list.  

He came at just the right time and place in history

In addition, the Bible teaches that Jesus came at just the right time and place in human history (Galatians 4:4).  And in fact, His coming in the first century coincided with a startling number of innovations and world political and economic realities that gave unprecedented opportunity for the spreading of the gospel.  For instance, in the first century A.D.:

The world had it’s first common language (Greek)
The world had it’s first protected road system (Via Romana)
The world had it’s first sustainable political situation (Pax Romana)
The world had it’s first global economic trade system (Roman Forum)

Consequently, for the first time in human history, people could carry goods and services and with them philosophies and world views, from one end of the known world to the other in relative safety, and they could do it utilizing a common language.  The Romans were brutal conquers and overlords, but they were also excellent road builders because they needed a way to transport their massive armies. Consequently one effect of their rule was opening the world to the gospel.  

Former president of New Orleans Seminary Landrum Leavell was a mentor of mine when I was a young pastor.  One day we were talking about how to discern the will of God and he told me:

“The only way I have ever been able to fully discern the will of God in my life, was looking back on it.”

That perspective has always been helpful.  By looking back we learn many things about the perfect will of God.  When we look back on the circumstances of Christ’s birth and see the many prophecies that pointed to His coming combined with the moment in history in which He was born, we see how the perfect will of God was accomplished.  

The “long expected Jesus” made His appearance at exactly the right time.

That reality became increasingly clear to the followers of Jesus.  It is clear that the early disciples were deeply moved by what they found in the Old Testament scripture concerning Christ.  They believed with all their heart that Jesus was not only the resurrected Messiah, but that His coming had been foreseen and expected. Paul the Apostle put it like this:

 But God has helped me to this very day; so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen— that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would bring the message of light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”  (Acts 26:22-23)

My hope and prayer for you as we come to the conclusion of our journey in looking together at the “long expected Jesus” and all the many ways the message about His coming has been delivered to us, that you would be able to say with the disciple Phillip: 

We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also in the prophets wrote - Jesus of Nazareth- the Son of Joseph!  (John 1:45)

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Promises of God Find their Yes in Him

For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.  (2 Corinthians 1:20)
On March 11, 1942 as the Pacific War raged in the months after Pearl Harbor, the  Philippine Islands were invaded by the Japanese.  Faced with overwhelming enemy resources, US General Douglas MacArthur was ordered by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to leave his adopted home of Corregidor and transfer his base of operations to Australia.  

It was a heart wrenching journey for MacArthur, as he knew he was leaving behind hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Philippine citizens and 90,000 American troops to an uncertain fate. When he arrived at the US army base in Australia, a loud speaker was hastily set up for the tall imposing American general to address his troops and the world.  It was here that he first spoke the words that would later be immortalized in American folklore and in the famous Fallen Soldier statues on the Philippine Islands. He said with his patented authoritative voice, 
“I have left the Philippines but I shall return!” 
It wasn’t long before all of the Philippine Islands fell into the hands of the Japanese and 70,000 American troops were captured, most of whom suffered mightily at the hands of their captors, including over 6,000 who were tortured and killed. 

For two long years MacArthur would repeat those words over and again. He campaigned for the Philippine cause not just with the Joint Chiefs and the administration, but with the American people as well.  The American press began to publish emotionally charged stories of the atrocities of Japanese imprisonment on the Islands, including the horrific “Batan Death March” which resulted in 60,000 Philippine and American dead.  Finally the Pacific War began to turn as the American forces gained an upper hand at Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands and MacArthur received the go ahead for his long awaited plan to invade the islands and recapture his former home base.  

On October 20, 1944, after successful US campaigns in the initial invasion, MacArthur waded ashore the Island of Leyte in the Philippines and announced in a nation wide radio broadcast:
I have returned. By the grace of Almighty God our forces stand again on Philippine soil -- soil consecrated in the blood of our two peoples. We have come, dedicated and committed, to the task of destroying every vestige of enemy control over your daily lives, and of restoring, upon a foundation of indestructible, strength, the liberties of your people.
As they say, the rest of the story is history.  MacArthur and the American forces did indeed liberate the Philippines and the war was won. 

The reason this story looms so large in American history is it captures a very important value.  The value of “promise kept”.  We all have great admiration for a man who stands in front of the world and makes a promise, and then focuses all his passion on keeping that promise. 

This brings me to the next important topic I want us to focus on as we continue our journey to discover the many ways the Old Testament points us to the advent of Christ.   In the Old Testament text.  The Lord God made a very important promise to His people.  The promise was not unlike the promise MacArthur made to the Filipino people on that fateful day.  The promise was in affect, 
“A day of liberation is coming!”  
The biblical story makes clear the desperate condition we are in. The enemy has established temporary control over our lost world.  This story line is emphasized over and again throughout the Old Testament text.  But within the text there is a divine promise.  

It is important to understand the meaning of that promise as we think about the reason that Christ came.  Because it is not just significant that many signs and stories point us to His coming, it is also significant to understand how His coming fit into the eternal purposes of God.  Those purposes were made clear in His promise.  That promise is alluded to several times in the biblical text and restated over and again in His covenants.  So Christmas is not just about a baby in a manger, it is about God fulfilling His promise that a day of atonement is coming.  The first advent is a celebration of that promised liberation.  And so in this way the Christmas season is about more than a miraculous birth, it is our way of declaring that "all the promises of God find their Yes in Him!" 

Monday, December 08, 2014

The Power of Stories

The following is an excerpt from chapter six of my new book, "The Long Expected Jesus, How The Old Testament Reveals The Coming Of The Eternal Son of God": 
These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:39-40)
One thing I have learned through the years as one who makes a living as a public speaker is the power of a good story. In my teaching I could go on and on about this textual nuance or that historical fact, but if I go too long in that direction, people’s eyes start drifting away from my eyes and attention spans begin to wain. Believe me, I’ve heard all the jokes about preachers putting people to sleep!  My dad, who was also a pastor, used to say, “One time I had a dream that I was preaching, and then I woke up and realized I actually was preaching!”  

People get worn out by too many words. 

But the minute I start telling a story, people’s heads start popping back up and eyes start locking back in.  There is great power in a story. I believe that this is the reason the Bible is filled with one compelling story after another. God gave us stories to help us to understand what is most important in life.  He gave us stories to keep our attention. This is why it is so vitally important to study the underlying meaning of all of these stories.

The Bible is Not a Morality Play

But we also have to be careful with the stories. It is tempting to view the Bible and especially the Old Testament as a giant morality play.  As parents and teachers we are tempted to look to various stories within scripture and point out a particular moral to teach our children.  We look to Joseph as an example of how to resist temptation and to David for courage to face giants and to Joshua for leadership in crossing the Jordan and so on.  Although there is certain value in helping children learn valuable lessons from biblical texts, it is a big mistake to read the Bible as one would read Aesop's fables.  Aesop’s famous stories were written as a way to point children to particular values.  The stories themselves were fantasy but the value in them was to bring about a strong moral lesson.  In a similar way, some people see the Old Testament stories as nothing more than a good way to teach moral lessons.   The primary problem with this approach to reading the Old Testament is that it ignores the bigger issue each of these stories address and can point instead to a kind man centered religious moralism.  

The biblical stories are not fantasy but a historical account of God’s providential purpose.  Unless one sees that the entire Bible is the story of how God has fulfilled His redemptive plan and how that story will conclude in a final culmination of His work at the end of history then many of the stories taken individually would actually send a conflicting moral message.  Because after all, there is really only one true hero in the Bible, and that is God Himself. 

One of the most compelling things about the Bible is how honest it is about the main characters.  Adam was a passive husband, Cain was a murderer, Noah was a drunk, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were considered the fathers of Israel, and yet each of them had serious moral failures.  Jacob was a deceiver, Moses had anger issues, David was an adulterer, Eli was a workaholic and a terrible father. Jonah was a rebellious prophet who was angry with God while reluctantly carrying out God’s commands.  Reading the patriarchs and the prophets is a sordid tale of strange behavior and blatant disobedience even as God was using them to bring about His message of redemption.   

It is as if the Bible goes out of it’s way to show what sinful slouch’s men are and how gloriously forgiving and gracious God is. If there is a moral to each of these stories it is that man is a complete failure when it comes to obeying God. Though we can learn certain moral lessons from each of these stories, they all point us to a bigger story. The stories tell us something significant about ourselves and about God, but it is not your typical Aesop morality ethic.  Because in every story man is the problem and the only solution is found in God’s redemptive plan.

God’s Love Story

So instead of reading the BIble as a giant morality play, it is better to think of the Bible as the story of God’s love.  Each of the stories within the Bible point to the one overriding them of His plan to redeem His creation out of His great love for us. That is its meta-narative.  When we know the meta-narrative, or the underlying reason for the stories, they come alive to us in a much deeper and powerful way.  The great 19th century English pastor Charles Spurgeon put it like this:

"I have never yet found a text that had not got a road to Christ in it, and if I ever do find one that has not a road to Christ in it, I will make one; I will go over hedge and ditch but I would get at my Master, for the sermon cannot do any good unless there is a savor of Christ in it."

As you read the stories of the Old Testament, you should always keep in mind that God has a story to tell and you and I are a part of that story.  How our story intersects with His is of ultimate importance to each of us.  In the following pages my hope is to show you how none of the wonderful stories we read in the Old Testament can be fully understood unless they are seen within the context of the greatest story of all. 

Wednesday, December 03, 2014


The following is the first chapter of my new book, The Long Expected Jesus:

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.”
(Luke 1:50-55)

As I look back at my life now I can think of those moments in time that have the greatest significance and clarity.  I remember like it was yesterday when my wife and I first learned that she was pregnant with our first child.  It all seemed so surreal, so exciting and yet scary all at the same time.  I was a relatively young man and she even younger and we both felt somewhat overwhelmed by the weight of responsibility.  Were we really prepared for this journey ahead?  It seemed as if in that moment something significant and powerful had changed in us.  

Of course, the biggest change would be in Teri, as she was carrying a new life inside her, but at the same time I was carrying something as well.  As strange as it may seem, when I first heard the news from Teri I could immediately feel myself changing with her.   I was not carrying a baby but I was carrying a new responsibility as a man who would support and take care of my wife and growing family.  Together, we would prepare for the coming of this child and plan out our lives ahead.  We began to prepare a room in our home and friends and family rallied around us.  

The weeks and months ahead were filled with anticipation and expectation.  Would the baby be a boy or girl?  What would he or she look like?  Would the baby have blond hair like Teri or brown hair like me?  Brown eyes or blue?  Olive skin or freckles? Teri and I would speculate about everything from the baby’s size and shape to personality type and intellect and athletic ability.  We obsessed over the details of taking care of a baby.  Baby showers reaped an abundant harvest of baby blankets, clothes, toys and diapers.  I remember the day the doctor looked at the sonogram and told us our baby was a boy.  How our hearts flooded with anticipation at the news!  To say that we were “expectant parents” was an understatement! 

What is true for expectant parents obsessing over every detail of the coming of a child can also be said to be true of the coming of Jesus.  But more than the joy and anticipation of Joseph and Mary, Jesus was anticipated on a much grander scale.  Jesus was anticipated from the beginning of time itself to be the One who would bring about God’s redemptive plan for all of mankind.   

What we will see in the pages ahead is that like obsessive parents preparing and anticipating the coming of a child, the ancient script written in ages past by the patriarchs, poets and prophets of the Old Testament pointed to the coming of the Anointed One.  Truly, He was the long expected Messiah, and the anticipation of His coming was written on every page.  

The Christmas hymn that inspired the title of this book was written in 1835 by Charles Wesley and aptly expresses that point in this way:

Come, O long-expected Jesus,
Born to set your people free;
From our fears and sins release us
By your death on Calvary. 

Israel's strength and consolation,
Hope to all the earth impart,
dear desire of ev'ry nation,
Joy of ev'ry longing heart.
Born your people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a king;
Born to reign in us forever,
Now your gracious kingdom bring. 

By your own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By your all-sufficient merit
Raise us to your glorious throne.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Why Thanksgiving is more than a holiday

One of the most challenging passages to actually live by is in 1 Thessalonians 5: 
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus."  (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
It is almost as if the scripture is commanding us to live in a dream world filled with fairy dust and unicorns- 

"Rejoice ALWAYS" -really?  "Give thanks in all circumstances"- seriously?  

I can think of many tragic events in life for which it would be difficult to give thanks.
  • Like my dad dying of stomach cancer
  • Or of the child of a friend who recently succumbed to a long and painful illness
  • Or of another friend and young father who recently found out he has ALS
  • Or how about the rioting in Ferguson or the beheadings in Syria or the Ebola virus? 
  • World hunger?
  • Orphaned children?
The scripture seems unrealistic if we apply it in the wrong way.  But what the instructions of 1 Thessalonians 5 are actually saying to us is that our lives should be captivated by the grace of Christ in spite of circumstances.  The Bible is teaching that as our hearts are transformed by the realization of God's love, we are to see life differently. It is saying to us that the reality of His great love and grace demonstrated on the cross is a truth that informs and instructs everything else.  We are to give thanks IN all circumstances, not FOR all circumstances.

So it is not DENIAL of reality that causes me to rejoice, but an AFFIRMATION of the most important reality of all-  that the God of the universe loves me and has demonstrated that love through the work of Christ. 

So in this sense gratitude is actually an affirmation of my faith.  It is natural discipline of the Spirit of Christ living in me.  And as such it has a transformative affect in my life. 

The more I give thanks, the better my attitude and the happier I feel.  

By the way, this has actually been proven in scientific experimentation.  In a November 2011 issue of Harvard Medical Review a study was cited in which it was found that individuals who wrote about things for which they were thankful each week were measurably more optimistic about life and more happy in general than another control group that wrote about things that irritated them.  The studies conclusion?  Thankful people are more optimistic and happy.  Perhaps this is the reason the scripture says that it is "God's will concerning you in Christ Jesus."  God wills us to be thankful and when we abide in that will, it transforms us spiritually and emotionally.  Thankful people are rejoicing people. 

On the other hand, people who are always complaining and never thankful inevitably descend into darkness.  This leads me to another one of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes: 
“Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others... but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God "sending us" to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE hell unless it is nipped in the bud. ”
So on this week of Thanksgiving, at a time when life seems so crowded with bad news, it is a helpful reminder that for the follower of Jesus, the act of gratitude is not just an event, it is a discipline of the spiritual life.  For us it is not just thanksgiving, but should be thanksLIVING.  

Here are some suggestion on how to make thankfulness a lifestyle and increase your optimism and joy about life:

1.  Start your day by counting your blessings. 
2.  Write thank you notes to the people in your life who you care about and who have impacted you.
3.  Look people in the eye and say "thank you".
4.  Tell people about those things for which you are thankful- who knows, maybe you will start a trend! 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Meaningful Christmas Season Requires Intentionality

Now is the time to start planning how you will spend Christmas.  I'm not talking about a destination as much as I'm talking about a spiritual condition- not the state your will be in, but the state of mind you will be in.  This year why not make Christmas a season instead of just another holiday?

To accomplish this, you will need to be proactive and now is the time to get your reindeers in a row.   Here are a couple of things that will help you accomplish it:

1.  First of all, FOCUS.  It is important to embed the concept of a season into your heart.  To make this happen you will need to discipline yourself each day and TAKE THE TIME to reflect on what the season means.  When I say "take the time" that is literally what I mean.  You will need to aggressively take possession of your own time.  You will need to create space within your day to reflect on what is most important about life and do this without having any form of media within reach.

The internet immersion culture we live in is giving us all a dose of attention deficit disorder. For example, studies have shown that couples who are in close proximity to cell phones have less meaningful conversations with one another.  You only have a certain number of hours in your day and a certain number of brain cells to focus on what is in front of you.  Time and attention spent in front of a blue screen is time and attention away from the things that really matter.  Advent begins December 1 and ends December 25.  Within those brackets is enormous opportunity for change that could greatly impact your spiritual life.  If you force yourself into a season of reflection you can effectively reclaim some of the spiritual territory you may have lost as a result of spiritual priorities being sucked away by thousands of other less meaningful distractions.

A season is a period of time in which we intentionally remind ourselves of some aspect of our Christian belief. In the case of advent, we focus our attention on the incarnation event in which God Himself came to us in human flesh.  There are numerous aspects to this doctrine that should be continually emphasized in the Christmas season.  These themes are hit upon in the great Christmas hymns and sermons of advent.  Get yourself a good advent devotional that hits on these themes and take your family or community group through them (I just happen to know of a good advent devotional  here.)  Make the season a time in which you come to worship and involve your family and children in worship in your local church.

2. Secondly, it is important that you SACRIFICE in order to make the kinds of changes necessary to bring meaning into the season.  The only truly meaningful things in life are those things we gain through sacrifice.  The divine incarnate theme is one of sacrifice and humility. Again, this is a concept that runs against the grain of culture.  The mantra of which is that life is all about SELF.  We are a product-driven me-centered entitlement society that forces a consumeristic mentality into all of life. This way of thinking is deadly to the soul.  C.S. Lewis observed that a persons "hell" begins with a grumbling mood.  The more entitled we feel about life, the more lifeless we become.

As Christians, we have been redeemed by the blood of Christ and are set free from the bondage of our sinful condition.  But that doesn't mean we are not susceptible to all the temptations of the culture we live within.

The only hope we have of breaking free from this bondage is the discipline of self denial.  Advent is a season to start giving things away and I'm not just talking about Christmas gifts.  We need to give away our time, our desire for more, our need for attention and affection.  We need to give away our selfish hearts, give away our anger, give away our petty demands and senseless expectations of others. We need to give away our desire for comfort and convenience that hold us back from meaningful ministry and new relationships.

How is this accomplished?  How do mere mortals learn to sacrifice in this way?  The answer of course is to rely on the grace of God and the work of His Holy Spirit within us.  But a sense of awareness of that grace has to wash over us in order to bring about so radical a change.  In this regard, I agree wholeheartedly with Tim Keller:
Humility is only achieved as a byproduct of understanding, believing, and marveling in the gospel of grace. But the gospel doesn't change us in a mechanical way. Recently I heard a sociologist say that for the most part, the frameworks of meaning by which we navigate our lives are so deeply embedded in us that they operate "pre-reflectively." They don't exist only as a list of propositions, but also as themes, motives, and attitudes. When we listen to the gospel preached or meditate on it in the Scriptures, we are driving it so deeply into our hearts, imaginations, and thinking that we begin to instinctively "live out" the gospel.
I guess the major point I am making in this post is that a meaningful Christmas season is something that has to be nurtured.  You have to seek it to find it and knock for it in order for it to be opened. These things may not be the whole answer to a meaningful season, but certainly focus and sacrifice are a big part of the answer.