December 24, 2017

Christmas Poem, 2017: In the Morning, Joy and Light

Here is this year's Christmas poem.  Keep in mind, as always, that these poems have a good deal of reading between the lines in them ... as I try and place myself into the history and wonder about the sorts of things that may have gone through the minds of the various players in the incarnation accounts. I'm wondering these things aloud, not to try and re-write the story (much less to assert that my imaginings are factual), but simply as a way of getting at the narratives afresh, and trying to draw some lessons from them.

You can listen to the poem here, or read it below the page break.

December 18, 2017

"You shall call His name ..."

A lovely theme in Matthew’s telling of the Christmas account is his emphasis on what the Child of Bethlehem is called. Have you ever noticed it? Three times Matthew points out what this special Child is, or was to be, called. And each name or title is instructive.

First, we are told in Matthew 1:16 that this Jesus, born of Mary, “is called the Messiah.”* And who was the Messiah? He was the Anointed One, the Redeemer, the coming King that the Old Testament and the Jewish people had long been anticipating. The Messiah was the seed of the woman (Genesis 3), who would come and crush the devil’s head. He was the seed of Abraham, in whom “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 22). He was the Son of David, who would someday reign on His ancestor’s throne. He was the longed-for child of Isaiah 9, who would bring light into darkness and peace into war. He was the suffering servant, who would be “pierced through for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53). He was the one toward whom all “the fullness of the times” was gestating! The culmination of God’s great redemptive purposes! “Jesus … who is called the Messiah.”

And then, not only does Matthew point out His Messianic title, but also His personal name: “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins”* (Matthew 1:21). The name “Jesus” is our English version of the Hebrew name Joshua, or Y’shua. And this Hebrew name, Y’shua, means the LORD (Yahweh) saves. And that is precisely what this Child of Bethlehem came to do – to “save His people from their sins.” Jesus “became flesh”; and He was “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin”; and He “bore our sins in His body on the cross”; and He rose on the third day; and He is coming again, someday soon … all in fulfillment of that marvelous name, and of the heavenly mission of salvation that lay beneath it! “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins”

And then notice, thirdly, that Matthew points out, from the prophecy of Isaiah, another name by which this Child would be called (Matthew 1:23): “‘They shall call His name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us.’”* What a name! This babe in the manger is indeed truly human – very man of very man! But He is also very God of very God! “God with us”*. This, in fact, is why He is able to “save His people from their sins”! For “who can forgive sins but God alone?” No one! And so praise God that this baby is, indeed, Immanuel! That He is, indeed, “God with us.”* And praise God that He came to be “with us” – to walk among us, and to take upon Himself our nature, “sympathiz[ing] with our weaknesses,” entering our temptations, and dying our death. What a name, Immanuel!

Consider what the baby of Bethlehem is called, this Christmas. And in addition to all, I hope that, by faith, you can call Him yours!

*Bold or italicized emphases within biblical quotations have been added by this article’s author, and are not part of the original biblical text.

December 12, 2017

Uncomfortable Christmas

We’d all like our Christmases to fit quaintly, picturesquely, onto a holiday postcard. A fresh layer of snow blanketing the ground, and spread perfectly, like icing, on every ledge of the house. Warm light glowing from the windows. The scent of apples, cinnamon, and warm meat lingering, enticingly, in the air. All the family gathered happily ‘round the fire or the tree. And, of course, cards mailed and presents bought and wrapped, well in advance! This is Christmas, as many of us envision it. It’s certainly how I like my late Decembers to look and feel. I long for my family to have our own little “silent night, holy night” on which “all is calm, all is bright.”

But maybe I import a little of my own Christmas longings, expectations, and traditions into the scene in Bethlehem. For, while there surely were parts of that holy night that fit right in with Joseph Mohr’s famous description of it (“silent”, “calm”, and “bright”) … let us also remember that, for Mary and Joseph, the night was probably less-than-quaint in a good many ways, too! They were living out of a suitcase on that holy night in Bethlehem. And few of us like to do that. Let’s not forget, either, that Mary was nine months pregnant, which comes with its own set of discomforts (which are usually not the portrait of Christmas cheer and charm, for the mother!). And that’s before we think about the process of actually giving birth! Remember, too, that things hadn’t quite worked out as well as the young couple might have hoped with the whole lodging situation. And so they weren’t staying at the Holiday Inn, or at a warm little cottage in the snowy woods, or even at grandma’s house! Surely it was, in many ways, an awkward and uncomfortable first Christmas, there in Bethlehem! Had we lived through it ourselves, methinks it would have seemed anything but picturesque!

And yet it was into a scene like this – not the one on the postcard, but the one in which a young couple is seriously roughing it – that Christ came to be Immanuel, “God with us”! It was on an uncomfortable first Christmas that God chose to send the world His joy, and peace, and hope, and mercy, and salvation in Christ! Why? I think as a reminder that God, in Christ, offers hope in the midst of our own less-than-picturesque lives! Sin has left us roughing it! And Christ has come as a Savior, not into a scene from Currier and Ives, but into the dirty snow cast up by the ever churning wheels of our brokenness.

Does that mean I am intentionally going to try and make my Christmas more like uncomfortable Bethlehem, and less like a Thomas Kinkade painting? No! But it does mean that, if this holiday season is awkward, lonely, difficult, nerve-wracking, painful, marked by failure, or in any other way lacking in traditional charm, I need not think that I have missed Christmas. For Christmas is about the coming of Christ! And this Christ chose to show up, that first Christmas, not in the postcard, but in a scene lot more like our own scrambled Christmases than we are sometimes prone to remember! And this Christmas (as in all the other seasons of our muddled lives); this Christmas, whether “all is calm and bright” or not – and precisely because, in reality, it is not – Christ will come to His broken people still.

December 4, 2017

Christmas and Missions

Every year at Pleasant Ridge, our missions emphasis overlaps with Christmastime. For good reason, Southern Baptists collect a Lottie Moon Christmas Offering®. Taking a cue from the Methodists of her day, the great Southern Baptist missionary, Lottie Moon (the offering’s namesake), pointed out to her own denomination how Christmas, the time of giving, is an appropriate time for giving, specifically, to world missions! And so Christmas and missions have long gone hand-in-hand for Southern Baptists!

But missions and Christmas overlap, not just because Christmas is a great time for giving, and specifically for giving to missions. Christmas and missions overlap theologically, as well! For one thing, as my friend David Bass reminded us in a sermon many years ago, Jesus, in His incarnation and earthly ministry, was the great missionary – leaving His home in heaven, and going on mission to lost and dying people who needed the good news! That’s what missionaries do, isn’t it? They leave home, and go on mission to some needy place, for the sake of the gospel! And that is what Christ did in entering the womb of Mary and the world of men! He was the greatest missionary! Christmas is about a missionary journey!

And not only that; not only was Christ’s coming to earth a mission trip, in itself … but it was the foundation and impetus for many centuries more of missionary endeavor; many centuries more of getting the gospel to the far reaches of the planet. The angels, at Christ’s birth, announced “good news of great joy … for all the people” (Luke 2:10, emphasis added). And Micah prophesied that the child of Bethlehem “will be great To the ends of the earth” (Micah 5:4, emphasis added). Wrapped up in the incarnation, in other words, is the expectation of world missions; the expectation that the news of Christ will get out, the world over!

In fact, we sing this expectation every year, too, don’t we? “Joy to the world”, Isaac Watts taught us to exclaim … because Jesus “comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found”. And, to “our long-expected Jesus,” Charles Wesley has taught us to cry, “hope of all the earth Thou art.” The birth of Christ, as John W. Work Jr. has taught us, compels us to “go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere” (emphasis, through this paragraph, is added).

And so I urge you to always keep these two things together – Christmas and missions. Let the thought of Christ’s mission to this desperate and needy world set your sights, and prayers, and desires, and generosity on the parts of it that are still desperate and needy for the “good news of great joy” which comes only in Christ!