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Monday, 02 December 2019 22:11

The Christmas Gospel

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”  (Matt 1:18–23 ESV)

 

            Almighty everybody knows that story, some very well. It is precious to some, and puzzling to others. Christmas is everywhere. The celebration is becoming more secular, that seems clear. Many of the activities may have little to do with worshipping Christ, the new-born king. Even so, His story remains at the center of Christmas.

            The music of the season is full of the gospel story. Admittedly, there are plenty of generic, non-religious songs we hear this time of year. Chestnuts regularly roast on an open fire. We still promise to be home for Christmas, if only in our dreams. Almost every year, I hear at some point the alarming news that grandma got run over by a reindeer…again!

            Some of the music is different. In public, un-expected places we notice the name of Jesus. We are exposed to the story of his birth, and even some pretty deep thinking about why Jesus came into the world.

            One of my favorite Christmas carols is “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” Some of its lines include:

           

Peace on earth and mercy mild

God and sinners reconciled"

 

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see

Hail the incarnate Deity

Pleased as man with man to dwell

Jesus, our Emmanuel

 

Light and life to all He brings

Ris'n with healing in His wings

  

Mild He lays His glory by

Born that man no more may die

Born to raise the sons of earth

Born to give them second birth

           

There is something very profound here. The words might run past us, unnoticed, like festive wallpaper. If we take the time to really listen, we will be led to the good news of Christ our Savior. In Jesus, God and sinners are reconciled. He is born that we might be born again.

            May this Christmas be filled with the joy of Christ, who brings light and life to us.

      

Tuesday, 16 April 2019 22:20

Resurrection

21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” (John 11:21–27 ESV)

The hope for heaven is very real for many people. There is widespread belief that there is some kind of life after death. I think I remember hearing polls saying that was true for 80% of people in our country. Of course, there are many different ideas about what heaven might be like. Will we have bodies? Will we recognize one another? Where will it be? Who will get there? These are important questions. Where can we look for answers?

The Bible tells us that God made us to live with Him and to share in the blessings of His Kingdom under His rule. But human beings have rebelled against God, preferring to be in charge of our lives. Human history reveals that we have not done a very good job of it. According to God’s plan, and at just the right moment, God sent His Son Jesus into the world. He called people to turn away from their rebellion and to believe in Him as the King and Rescuer sent from God.

In the passage quoted above, Jesus talks with a woman, Martha, about the death of her brother, Lazarus. It is a very human scene, and most of us can identify with her thoughts and feelings in some way. In times of grief, the question of heaven looms large. Like most people, she believes her brother’s life will continue, in some way, after the grave.

Then Jesus boldly claims that he is the resurrection. He is the one who can make it happen. He is the door to heaven that we enter through believing in Him, entrusting ourselves to Him, following Him. A few days later, Jesus was killed on a cross. Three days after that, He rose from the grave! That’s the good news of Easter.

As we struggle with life, with meaning, with hope in the face of pain and death, this is the amazing fact we must consider. If Jesus is risen, as the Bible announces, then everything is different. Our hope is no longer based upon a wish to escape our fears. Our hope is founded on the actual, historical, physical resurrection of Jesus.

For those of us who believe this is true, the resurrection story is cause for joyful celebration. For those who are doubtful or indifferent, it is cause for careful consideration. Nothing could be more important than to get this right.

Spend some time in the Resurrection story told in the Bible. Read one of the gospels yourself, or with a friend. Join in worship, where these passages are read and explained and sung and celebrated.

May God help us all to find the hope that Martha found, trusting in Christ, the Son of God.  He is Risen!

Monday, 07 January 2019 22:56

Big Questions

At the beginning of this year, many churches in our area are participating in an initiative known as “Explore God Chicago.” This is an effort to address the big questions that people have about life, about God, and about faith. Many churches from many different denominations are taking seven weeks in January and February to address these key questions:

  1. Does life have a purpose?
  2. Is there a God?
  3. Why does God allow pain and suffering?
  4. Is Christianity too narrow?
  5. Is Jesus really God?
  6. Is the Bible reliable?
  7. Can I know God personally?

These are good questions. They may be things you have wondered about. You surely know people who are asking these things. It will be good for us look in the Bible together explore the answers together. We will investigate these topics during Sunday morning worship, and discuss them further during Wednesday evening Bible study.

Paul told the religious questioners in Athens that God has made us to seek Him; to feel our way toward Him and find Him (Acts 17:27). Let’s keep asking key questions and learning about God’s answers, so that we can grow in our faith, and encourage others in their seeking.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018 23:24

Jesus is Love in the Flesh

7   Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:7–12 ESV)   

 

            During the season of Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, we celebrate the coming of Jesus. Jesus is God Incarnate, God in the flesh. We come to know God our Father when we look to His Son, Jesus Christ.

            The 19th century poet, Christina Rossetti, wrote a beautiful poem that is set as a Christmas hymn. The first stanza runs:

Love came down at Christmas,

Love all lovely, love divine;

Love was born at Christmas;

Star and angels gave the sign.

            Rossetti’s poem inspired the title of a new book by Sinclair Ferguson. In “Love Come Down at Christmas,” Dr. Ferguson writes a series of Advent devotionals on 1 Corinthians 13. He helps us learn about love by examining the well-known “Love Chapter” in 1 Corinthians in the light of the incarnation of Jesus. “He shows us what love is. Love is simply being like him.”

            We have heard the words of 1 Corinthians many times. They are often read at weddings. The passage describes the character of genuine love. They apply to the love of a husband and wife, but also of our love for others, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. And they put into words the kind of love that our Heavenly Father has for us.

            If the “love chapter” describes the character of Christian love, Jesus himself demonstrates that love. He came in the flesh so we could see what this love looks like when it is put into practice.           I am enjoying reading Ferguson’s Advent devotions. And I am looking forward to learning about love this Advent as we think on love described in 1 Corinthians, and love demonstrated in Jesus. The Father sent the Son into the world to manifest His love, and that we might live through Christ, who is Love Incarnate.

 

Wednesday, 25 April 2018 11:53

Clap Your Hands and Shout!

1         Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!

2         For the LORD, the Most High, is to be feared, a great king over all the earth. (Psa 47:1-2 ESV)

Last month, I wrote about the blessings of singing hymns as a part of our worship, and how the hymnal is a great help in doing that. I am so grateful for this blessing. We are incorporating newer music on Sunday morning as well (some of those new songs are actually hymns!)  It was wonderful how our worship band could put the refrain of “He Will Hold Me Fast” into our hearts and minds.

Hymnals are useful tools. They help us worship together. There are other tools we can use. We can print words, even music into the bulletin. We can sing from memory. The book of psalms is the God-inspired collection of hymns that has been in steady use for centuries. In older times, God’s people would have them memorized.

We can also project the words on a screen. That seems to be what most congregations are doing these days. We project words occasionally at our church, but we are not really set up to do it well.  It is another tool.

Last time, I quoted extensively from an article by Tim Challies. He makes the point that there are pros and cons to our choices in how we present our music. As most have shifted from hymnals to projectors, there are some things that are lost, and some things that are gained.

In April, I shared his thoughts about what we lost. Here is what we gained. These are excerpted from the full article, which you can read here. (Note: he uses “PowerPoint as shorthand for any projection method.)

  • We gained immediacy. Not all of the good songs are old songs...yet hymnals made us wait years or even decades before we could add them to our services... projection reduces the lag between great new songs and updated hymnals.
  • We gained posture. We had to hold the hymnal… and look down at the words…hymnal posture was stiff and fixed. PowerPoint posture is open and free which may be a superior posture for worship, and especially for worship that is physically expressively—something the Bible seems to allow or even advocate.
  • We gained variety. Hymnals promoted certain kinds of songs while holding off others. Yet the Bible gives us freedom to worship in “songs, hymns, and spiritual songs”, to praise God in every variety of song. PowerPoint helps us do this.
  • We gained portability. There is a convenience and portability … that is missing in hymnals. Not only that, but the cost is lower. Two hundred and fifty hymnals will cost around $6,000; a laptop and projector can be had for a fraction of that.
  • We gained spontaneity. PowerPoint allows a kind of spontaneity that may not be present when relying on hymnals.
  • We gained service. Our hymnals reflect a vetting process where hundreds of thousands of hymns were whittled down to just a few hundred..We…serve future generations by singing a variety of today’s songs and, as we do so, filtering the good from the bad and the best from the rest.

We enjoy some of these advantages by using bulletin inserts. I wonder what our singing would be like if we could be looking up, hands free. We couldn’t sing parts as well (although some do that by ear), but we might sing out, and with different kind of togetherness.  Do I dare mention clapping? That needs another article. But, exactly how do we sing Psalm 47?  It’s worth thinking about.

Tools are tools. They have pros and cons. They need to be used thoughtfully and faithfully. Whether the words are in our minds, in hymnals, on bulletin inserts, on screens, on clay tablets or vellum scrolls, we must praise the Lord our God with loud songs of Joy! Sing out!