HCC Informer: 3/19/2020

Good Morning HCC!

Even though our in-person ministry gatherings have been suspended until April 11, we are committed to continuing communication and updates throughout this time!  With that in mind, here is the regular Thursday update for this week from HCC.
 
Our message this week comes from Romans chapter 8:19-30 and is called “What Hope is There?”  It will be released early Sunday morning in a similar format to last week.
 

First,

I want direct your attention to a new song that was just released by one of my favorite Christian artists and Hymn writers, Keith and Kristyn Getty: “Christ Our Hope in Life and Death.”  It is such a timely song for our situation today and it is written based on the first question and answer of the Heidelberg catechism.
 

Second,

I want to remind everyone of our communication tools. Sermons will be posted in many of these places as well as continual updates from HCC.
 
Communication:
We will be stepping up our efforts to be in communication with you.  This will largely be through an online format.  If you know individuals within the congregation who do not use this, please help us by spreading the word.  Some of our main communication avenues are:
HCC Informer: subscribe by emailing Inform.HCC@Google.com
REMIND Text messaging: subscribe by texting “@hopkinscom” to 81010
Facebook Page: Like us at the following link: https://www.facebook.com/HopkinsCommunityReformedChurch
Facebook Group: Request to join here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/306932216002349/
 
Prayer Requests:
Please email prayer requests to sandystearns@chartermi.net or to inform.hcc@gmail.com and we will be sure that they are circulated.
 

Needs:

If you find yourself in need of anything, please reach out to Pastor Jon via phone or email (jonathonvanderwall@gmail.com) or a consistory member and you will get a call-back either from him or someone from the consistory.
 
Also, I want to remind you that the consistory will begin calling those who are a part of the church over the next couple of days to talk about communication, needs, and the best ways for us to keep in touch!  I hope these moments of connection will be fruitful and meaningful for each of you!
 

Third,

I want to address the topic of giving one more time.  There is a new page on our website specifically designated toward giving information.  https://www.hopkinscommunitychurch.net/giving/
On this page you will find information about a new online giving option called “Tithe.ly”.  This, for the first time, allows for people to give through online or electronic means, or through an app and will be very helpful in the coming days and weeks as we continue to be physically apart from each other.  The app is available for all smartphone users.  When you download it, it will automatically search for the nearest church that uses it so many of you will likely see Hopkins United Methodist Church first.  You’ll have to search for “Hopkins Community Church” to get the right place.  It’s super easy and user friendly.
 

Finally,

Remember that church has not been “canceled.”  In this time, now more than ever, the world will be looking for hope and for help.  Where “hard ground” once was, we may find loosened and tilled soil.  I encourage you to continue to be in prayer, that the Holy Spirit would reveal to you the places that He is working and directing you to work as together we act as the Body of Christ here in the Hopkins community.
 
The Lord is with us!  He will never leave us or forsake us!  He will fight for us and He has sealed us as His sons and daughters for redemption, salvation, and eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord!


HCC Informer: COVID-19 response (3/14/2020)

Good Afternoon Hopkins Community Church,

This morning, the consistory met to discuss the current situation surrounding the Coronavirus known as COVID-19 and what our response should be for this week.  We had a very productive and helpful discussion that ultimately led us, quite clearly, to the decision that HCC will be suspending all in-person and face-to-face large group meetings for the coming week.  This includes our worship service, Discipleship Hour, Youth Groups, GEMS, Cadets, and a postponement of the Mission Trip Fundraiser Auction this Saturday.

What this means:

As a church, we are called to minister to and care for the people within our church family as well as the community that we are a part of.  Sometimes this means ministry programming, meetings, Sunday worship, etc.  In the current situation, the consistory feels that this means protecting people by following the guidelines and advice of the Government and health organizations (Romans 13:1).  In doing so, we aren’t just protecting ourselves, we are also helping to protect all those we interact with and the people they interact with and so on.  We do not make this decision out of fear or in any form of panic, but out of prudence and care for those around us (Proverbs 27:12).
 
Tomorrow’s message from Philippians 4:6-7 called “The Calm Assurance” will be available online tomorrow morning.  Due to the nature of our licensing, we are not able to offer any sort of live-streaming music from our praise team.  Links will be available on the youtube video for suggested possible worship songs.  We encourage you to worship with your family tomorrow, at your own pace, using the provided content or seek your own alternative for the day.  There will also be a time of guided prayer for you to consider as we turn our faces toward God in this difficult and unprecedented time.  I’d even encourage you to consider taking communion with your family (more on that in the message).
 
The consistory will still meet on Monday evening, as scheduled, to discuss further options both for the organization and in how we can respond as a church to aid the community at this time.

What this does not mean:

This suspension of activities does not mean that we are “canceling church.”  You are the church.  We are the church.  God does not change.  Our calling has not changed.  You cannot cancel people.  And so you are encouraged to begin brainstorming ways that you and your family can represent Jesus to the people around you at this time.  The consistory will talk more about our corporate response to this and how we can minister to this community on Monday as well.  We would welcome any thoughts or suggestions!
 
I would, also, personally challenge you to not let this moment detur any of the challenges that you have received from the Holy Spirit in the past couple of weeks.  Francis Chan writes in his book The Forgotten God that, essentially, sometimes we need to be made uncomfortable so that we have more need of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, to work in us.  I have no doubt that even the staunchest among us are a bit uncomfortable at this moment.  Lean into it!  See what the Spirit brings up!

Some other details for you:

Small Groups: As you often meet outside the norms of church life, we encourage you to use your best judgment regarding this.  Obviously we are not going to try and dictate what you do in your own homes.  We encourage you to meet in the spirit of love for one another and with each other’s best interests in mind.
 
Financial Giving:  There are a couple of options here.  First, you can use the old “snail mail” and send your tithes and offerings to the church (please do not send cash).  Second, you could sign up for ACH auto-withdrawals using the attached form (fill it out with a check and take a picture of it and email us here – we will need the original though so save it please).  We are working on the possibility of opening up another avenue for financial giving as well.  As always, we encourage you to give in the spirit of generosity, joy, trust, and worship of God our provider and sustainer.
 
Communication:  We will be stepping up our efforts to be in communication with you.  This will largely be through an online format.  If you know individuals within the congregation who do not use this, please help us by spreading the word.  Some of our main communication avenues are:
HCC Informer: subscribe by emailing Inform.HCC@Google.com
REMIND Text messaging: subscribe by texting “@hopkinscom” to 81010
Facebook Page: Like us at the following link: https://www.facebook.com/HopkinsCommunityReformedChurch
Facebook Group: Request to join here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/306932216002349/
 
Prayer Requests: Please email prayer requests to sandystearns@chartermi.net or to inform.hcc@gmail.com and we will be sure that they are circulated.
 
Needs: If you find yourself in need of anything, please reach out to Pastor Jon via phone or email (jonathonvanderwall@gmail.com) or a consistory member and you will get a call-back either from him or someone from the consistory.
We close this message with the following Scripture from Ephesians 6:10-20,

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for [us], that whenever [we] speak [or whatever we do], words [and actions] may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that [we] may declare it fearlessly, as [we] should.

 

May the Lord Bless you and keep you,

May the Lord make His face to shine on you and be gracious to you,

May the Lord turn His face toward you and give you peace, now and always,

Amen.



Take Christ Out of Christmas!

Reading

Read John 17

Meditation

I have heard, particularly in the circles that I find myself in, a phrase that is consistently spoken during the holiday season: “Don’t take Christ out of Christmas!”  Largely this has been a response to what is seen as a movement toward ‘politically correct’ speech that acknowledges that there are other holidays, even holy days, that people celebrate.  There are a number of celebrations that take place across different religions, ethnicities, and cultures.  No attempt will be made to list them all for fear of missing one.  Each, however, is important to the people group that celebrates it.
 
The fight to not remove Christ from Christmas is important, to an extent.  Certainly, Christ-followers believe that the Incarnation is more than just a special birth.  We believe that the coming of Jesus heralds God’s great work of making salvation possible for us.  Jesus, Himself, says that He is the only way to the Father.  Christians should, by that standard, uphold the importance of this event we celebrate on December 25.
 
That said, I also think that we should take Christ out of Christmas.  I do not mean we should celebrate a holiday only called “mas”, which is arguably more appropriate a name for a holiday fraught with materialism and consumerism.  What I am advocating for in, in fact, Christians making a concerted effort to have Christ in their everyday lives.  We should be fighting just as hard for Christ at Christmas as we should for Christ on December 26 or May 8.  Our Savior deserves the primary place in our everyday lives.

 Action

So how do we do this?  I’m sure there are many ways that we could make this a reality for our lives.  One way I suggest, for this upcoming year, is committing to a Bible reading plan.  God’s Word for us is His revelation of Himself to humanity.  So, for us to keep (or place) God at the center of our lives, we need to be in His Word.
 
The following link is to a year-long reading place.  It follows the story of Scripture in a Chronological way.
 
 
This link is an invitation.  It is a space to read together through this journey and to talk about what we are hearing.  There is no pressure to make it through in the designated time, no shame for missing a day.  This is simply an opportunity to read together, to talk together, and to take Christ out of Christmas and keep Him with us each and every day.
 
Will you join me?


Advent Day 25: Incarnation

Reading

 Meditation

At the risk of being over-repetitive, the Incarnation of the Word is one of the top three events that creation has ever experience.  Though I wouldn’t dare rank them, as the other two would be the death of Jesus and His resurrection, I would argue that these other two wouldn’t have happened without His birth.  The events we celebrate at Christmas set all of Jesus’s life in motion.  They pave the way for Salvation to be won for humanity.
 
While we often celebrate the fact that Jesus has “come to us,” we must also be wary of such language.  The angels announce to the shepherds, “unto you is born this day…”  We, when hearing this, and in our celebrations must be careful.  Contemporary Christianity has pushed a sort of individualized religion, one that puts the emphasis solely on ourselves.  This can be quite dangerous.
 
When we think about the reality of God becoming flesh, we must not uncouple it with the mission of God either.  Certainly, we can say with confidence that Jesus came for “us.”  We must, however, never forget that Jesus came for “them” as well.  This is the reality of the Incarnation.
 
As the Word of God “puts on flesh,” He doesn’t just come to those who “have it all together.”  He comes precisely because no human does.  We are sometimes tempted to differentiate ourselves as those who have “the true meaning of Christmas.”  Those who don’t believe, or perhaps aren’t like us, are forgotten.
 
Yet this is the exact opposite message of the Incarnation.  God had every right to keep His distance from humanity.  Instead, though, He jumps right in.  He becomes like us in every way, the writer of Hebrews says.  What would happen if we took on that same outward-focused love?  Like Paul, who “became all things to all people, in order to win some for Christ,” would we be willing to go out from “us” to “them” in the name of our Incarnate, loving, Savior?
 
Maybe that is what Christmas is really all about.

 Prayer

Almighty and Everlasting God,
No human language possesses an adequate expression of thanks for what You have done for us.
The true meaning of Your Incarnation is truly beyond our comprehension.
Yet, even in the magnitude of this event, we recognize You becoming one of us.
You took on our flesh and our life, and eventually our sin on the cross.
Even while we were still Your enemies, You came for us.
Help us to remember this true meaning of Christmas,
and to see those around us, those who we may tend to avoid,
with Your loving eyes and Your heart of mercy.
May we always seek to bring the message of Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior,
to all those within the spheres of our lives,
and those outside of those spheres as well.
Amen.


Advent Day 24: Born to Reign

Reading

 Meditation

On Christmas Eve, my family would often find ourselves reflecting on the Luke 2 narrative of Jesus’ birth, whether at church or as we celebrated with our family.  It was a good moment for us to meditate on the events that we celebrate every Christmas.
 
It is, however, this passage in Isaiah, as well as other prophecies throughout the Old Testament that help to paint the bigger picture of the significance of the Incarnation of Jesus.  God didn’t come to earth to set up some manner of earthly Kingdom.  He didn’t come just to throw off an oppressive government or dispose of some tyrannical leader.  Jesus didn’t follow the pattern that was set down in many of the mythological stories of demi-gods and the like.
 
Rather, Jesus came to restore the justice and righteousness that was originally created in and for this world.  Instead of riding in on a white horse, armed for war, Jesus arrives as a helpless infant.  His goal, unlike the human rulers of the world, was to serve.  His mission was accomplished through his sacrifice.
 
The names that Isaiah gives this Messiah ironically contrast our human expectations.  The Mighty God humbled Himself to become human.  The Everlasting Father became mortal, subject to death by those He created.
 
Though He brought peace to the world, He was despised and rejected.  Yet despite all of this, His greatness is unparalleled and unmatched.  He meets all of our needs, the provider of all things in heaven and on earth.  And He will continue to as well, for all eternity.
 
As you think, reflect, and remember Christ’s birth this year, think beyond the manger in the stable.  The true picture of Christmas is world-changing.  From this point, nothing would ever be the same because salvation has come.

 Prayer

Jesus Christ, Wonderful Counselor,
We thank You for coming into the world for us.
You are the great King, the whole earth bows before you.
As we meditate on Your birth this Christmas,
help us to see the greater picture of all You have done and continue to do in our lives.
We worship You, the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Our voices join with the angels singing “glory to God in the highest.”
Continue to establish Your Kingdom, Your Righteousness, and Your Peace in us,
each and every day of our lives.
Amen.


Advent Day 23: Timing and Purpose

Reading

 Meditation

Paul does a lot of work throughout his writings in the New Testament to interpret and apply the life and teachings of Jesus.  In doing so, he lays out for us exactly what the impact that Jesus’ life has on the world and, particularly, in the life of believers.  Here, we read some of his interpretation and application of what we celebrate as Christmas.
 
As we have seen over the past couple of weeks, the timing, arrival, and events of the birth of Jesus were perfectly orchestrated by God to fulfill all of the prophecies in scripture about Jesus.  God did not leave out a single detail.  Mathematically speaking, the odds of Jesus fulfilling all of the prophecies about him are astronomical.  Some people have placed this statistical probability at greater than 1 chance in 10 to the 157th power.  That is a 1 with 157 zeros behind it!
 
To put this in perspective, the chances of winning the lottery are roughly 1 chance in 302,600,000.  Additionally, the chance of getting struck by lightning twice in a lifetime is only 1 in 9,000,000.  So, for one man to fulfill all of the prophecies of Scripture about the Messiah, the chances are inconceivable and practically impossible.  Yet, for God, nothing is impossible; He makes the impossible possible.
 
Along with this, Paul also points out that Jesus’ birth happened at just the right time.  God had been working toward this for a long time, over 2,000 years in fact.  All that time was spent working out the events of history and the necessary details for Christ’s arrival.  Though it seems like a long time for us, with God a 1,000 years is like a single day.
 
While it is amazing to see God’s work over a long period of time in Scripture, we don’t always enjoy the waiting and patience that are often required in our own lives for God to work.  Once again, though, we see very clearly the faithfulness of God.  His promises are true and certain.  For us, what we see in God’s past work gives us assurance and hope for the ultimate accomplishment of His work in us and in the world.
 
Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection are all living proof of this.

 Prayer

Everlasting God,
In You, all things life and move and have their being.
The whole universe exists by You, for You, and to You.
We thank you for creating us, for providing for us, and for being faithful to us.
You have shown us the fullness of Your love in sending Jesus to this world.
Through Him, You adopt us as Your own children and give Your Spirit to us.
Help us to be constantly and consistently aware of Your work,
and of Your loving and guiding presence in our lives.
May our lives reflect Your love for us and the Good News of salvation through Your Son, Jesus Christ.
Amen.


Advent Day 22: Great Gifts

Reading

 Meditation

Anyone familiar with the Biblical account of Jesus’ birth knows that the gifts that the Magi brought were that of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  The significance of these gifts, though, has been lost for us over time and cultural context.  With the rise of the use of Essential Oils in our culture, things like frankincense and myrrh are readily available to anyone.  In a booming economy, and in an increasingly cashless society, obtaining gold seems unnecessary and rather old school.
 
Yet, for Jesus and His family, these gifts had incredible value.  Frankincense and myrrh were both rare spices that had a variety of uses.  Gold, back then, as it is supposed to be even now, was the base and foundation of currency.  These were indeed great gifts.
 
More than that, however, is the reality that their bringing these gifts was also a fulfillment of prophecy.  Psalm 72:10 says, “May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores bring tribute to him.”  Isaiah 60:6 prophecies to this event saying, “…and all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.”  Both foretell the eventuality of the Magi’s presence and presents to the coming Messiah.
 
Myrrh, especially, was an oil of great value in those days.  Scripture records it as a gift that is “fit for a king.”  Incidentally, the women who wrapped Jesus’ body after His death also used myrrh as they prepared to bury Him.  Could this have been a foreshadowing of something to come?  It certainly seems possible.
 
One thing that Matthew would have wanted the reader of His Gospel to see, though, is that Jesus was the Messiah, the true King of the Jews.  His majesty and royalty have divine acknowledgment.  Gentiles and Jews alike come to worship Him and offer gifts.  Though His birth is humble, and the location almost humorous, all of the “normal” nods of divinely appointing kingship are there.

Prayer

Lord God,
All authority, dominion, and power belong to You.
Only You can grant these to another, and You have done so to Your Son, Jesus.
At His arrival here on earth, the angels sang,
kings and peasants alike bowed down.
Even in the highest heavens, stars shown out there light in glory to Him.
We worship You, today, Lord as the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Help us to acknowledge Your Lordship in our lives,
and live You at the center of who we are.
In Jesus Name, we pray, Amen.


Advent Day 21: Ulterior Motives

Reading

 Meditation

Scripture records the conversation between Herod and the Magi, not revealing at that moment what Herod’s goal actually was.  For the early hearer of this narrative, especially hearing for the first time, this would have cast Herod in a positive light or created some suspense.  We, however, know very well that Herod’s intentions were ultimately to kill young Jesus.  Doing so would have eliminated any threat to Herod’s power or throne.
 
I find it interesting, here, that God even allowed for this to happen.  Certainly, the star could have led the Magi in a different direction.  At the very least, the Magi, in Jerusalem, could have sought out religious leaders rather than the tyrannical and homicidal King Herod.
 
God, however, does not stop or inhibit the interaction between Herod and the Magi.  Herod is now aware of the existence of Jesus and the place in which He was born.  Perhaps we can be thankful, though, that Herod only sent the Magi rather than going with them.  Tomorrow, we will also read that God does eventually intervene, sending the Magi home by another route, thus thwarting Herod’s sinister plans.
 
The question that Scripture raises here, even if it is peripheral to the narrative, is why God would allow for this in the first place.  It seems like allowing for these interactions to take place jeopardizes the young and seemingly helpless life of His Son.
 
We journey through life experiencing similar questions.  Addressing the question of evil in the world when we worship and all-powerful God is certainly beyond the ability of this single reflection.  It is enough to say, however, that evil’s reality in the world, and its impact on our lives is undeniable.
 
If we are to read this narrative and note the question of evil’s presence, we also must recognize the reality of God’s providence.  Why God allows for the Magi to talk to Herod is somewhat of a mystery.  Later we will see that Jesus’ family must go to Egypt to fulfill prophecy.  At the moment, though, it seems somewhat dangerous and counter-productive.  Yet God IS still at work here, and out of this comes yet another fulfillment of God’s promises.
 
Sometimes it is hard to see in the difficult moments of our lives, but God is always at work.  What He is doing can be hard to see and articulate.  Usually, it is after the fact that we get a clearer picture.  In fact, in our lives, looking back on God’s faithfulness in the past can help us to trust Him in the future.

 Prayer

Faithful God,
You are the great Provider and Sustainer of all things.
Jesus points out that, just as You provide food for animals and adornment for flowers,
and that for us You always give us all that we need.
We are blessed far beyond what we could ask or imagine.
Thank You for your faithfulness in our lives through good times and bad.
Help us, as we experience trials, to remember your steadfast presence in the past.
May it give us assurance of your continued provision and work in our lives,
both for the present struggles and for those to come.
You hold us in the palm of Your hand and never let us go.
We thank You for this, Lord, in Jesus’ name, Amen.


Advent Day 20: Herod

Reading

 Meditation

Herod the Great was the ruler of Judea from 37 to 4 B.C.  He is widely known for the major building projects he undertook during his reign to improve the country and also to expand the area of the second Temple in Jerusalem.  He is equally known for a tyrannical rule fraught with suspicion, executions of his only family members and wives, and the Matthew 2 account of the executions of possibly hundreds of baby boys in an attempt to kill Jesus.
 
Why then, we have to ask, would the Magi visit such a person?  Quite simply because Jerusalem and even Herod himself would have been the natural starting place in a search for the next “King of the Jews.”  In the same way that if we were to look for the next president, we would (perhaps sadly) start our search in Washington D.C.  Being that the Magi were from out of town, they may not have known the true stories or nature of King Herod either.
 
Regardless, what was once a secret to Herod was now made known and his goal was to capitalize on it.  Being known for executing anyone that was a power threat, we assume that this was Herod’s plan for Jesus as well.  Interestingly, however, is how Herod’s evil plan plays right into God’s plan and the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.  More on that in the coming days.
 
God uses Herod and others in the Jerusalem context in a couple of ways, not the least of which is a direction for the Magi.  Once again, though, we have to note God’s use of people that are evil.  No depth of depravity can spoil God’s will.  In fact, we see confirmed, here again, Jesus’ fulfillment of His prophetic birthplace.  And, as we will see, God’s use of the enemy’s evil intent to bring about His will once again.  No matter how dire the circumstance, God can and will use each situation to work His will for the world.

 Prayer

Sovereign God,
Even in the darkest of times, you are at work.
From nothing, you created everything,
out of tragedy, You bring greatness and fulfillment beyond comprehension.
We praise you for Your constant and vigilant work in our lives and in the world.
Thank You for Your constant faithfulness to us,
and for How You have worked to bring to fulfillment everything that You have promised.
Help us to recognize Your hand at work in us,
and use us to accomplish Your will in our lives and in the world around us.
We pray this in the name of Your son, Jesus Christ, Amen.


Advent Day 19: Wise Men

Reading

 Meditation

I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a nativity set that doesn’t include the addition of Three Wise Men as part of the scene.  In fact, the toy nativity that we bought for our kids includes them but doesn’t have any shepherds.  We have sheep, two donkeys, and a camel, but no shepherds.  This, to me, is laughable.
 
Scripture records the events of the night that Jesus was born which included angelic visitations to the shepherds, as we have recently seen.  We know that Mary and Joseph were also there as well as, obviously, Jesus.  These Magi, however, were probably not there.  In fact, many people think that it is entirely possible that they arrived somewhere up to two years after Jesus’ birth.
 
The obvious question that follows this line of thought, then, is if Mary, Joseph, and Jesus lived in a stable for this amount of time.  Most of us are quick to answer “no” to this and would be correct.  After two years, most of the people who had returned for the census would have left.  Furthermore, the reality that we must recognize is that Jesus and His parents had likely been with their family since the beginning.
 
Being that Joseph was from Bethlehem, his return would have been to his ancestral home.  The stable, which was probably similar to the modern-day equivalent of a garage or shed, would have been a part of the family home.  It likely wasn’t the stand-alone structure that we are all used to seeing.  Many of Joseph’s relatives would have returned for the census thus leading to the “no room” comment.  The “inn” that we are all familiar with, was probably more like a guest room or spare room in the family home.
 
All that to say, when the Magi showed up, they weren’t hanging around in a barn with the animals.  More than likely they worshiped and interacted with a toddler, Jesus, in the guest home of Joseph’s family in Bethlehem.
 

Why does this matter?

Perhaps it doesn’t in the grand scheme of things. I think, though, that in our approach to Christmas, we need to be aware of our preconceived ideas.  Culture and tradition fill us with images and illustrations that tell us what the incarnation was like.  It is important, as we consider these things, to not lose the wonder of what actually happened.  Don’t put this moment in a box, thinking that you know what it was like.  As you consider the nativity this season, allow the Holy Spirit, through Scripture, to fill you with wonder at the great event of God’s incarnation.

 Prayer

God, our Father,
We stand in amazement at the coming of your Son, Jesus.
Too often, we pass by this moment as just another trivial fact of our faith.
We fail to realize the profound impact that Your incarnation had and has on the world.
Help us to not lose sight of this and help the deep meaning of Christmas to permeate our lives.
Thank you for coming to this world, for becoming human for us.
May we carry this truth with us far beyond the holiday season,
into a world that is desperately in need of Your love and presence.
Amen.


Advent Day 18: Pondering

 Reading

 Meditation

My wife, Bethany, will be the first person to tell you that I greatly despise doing family pictures at every holiday gathering.  While it is a thing that her family does and even treasures, to some extent, regular holiday pictures are not something I grew up with.  They have reminded me that this helps us to “preserve the memories,” but it seems like all I remember in those moments it lining up to take pictures, often while our kids are protesting.
 
With that in mind, I reflect on Mary’s reaction to all that took place on the night of Jesus’ birth.  Scripture tells us that, despite the visitors and all the excitement, Mary spent time reflecting.  Though there is no greater explanation of this, I get the sense that the moment was not lost on her.  She paid attention to what was happening, especially, I think, because of what had happened.
 
I’ve often heard that when families come through difficult times, things like holidays are infused with more meaning.  This is true when families experience loss too.  We remember, rather acutely, the person missing and feel their absence to a greater extent than normal.  We wake up to the moments we have and the meaning contained within them.
 
Scripture says that God knows every moment of our lives, even before one of them came to be.  In some sense, God pays attention to every second He gives us.  Scripture invites us to do the same, following Mary’s example here.  It shouldn’t take a tragedy for us to think this way.  Rather, God’s call is to be awake to the life we live, actively participating in every moment and with every person we are around.  In a world of distractions, we are called to be present in each moment in the same what that God is present to us in the Incarnation.

 Prayer

Incarnate Lord,
In the greatness of your immensity, You are also very personal.
In Your infinity, God You are also intimate with us.
You know our every thought, You see our every need.
We confess that we often go through life in a sort of “waking sleep.”
Rather than being present, we are distracted and absent to those we love.
Help us to wake up, following the description of Mary in Scripture,
pondering and treasuring the moments of our lives and the people in them.
In doing so, we honor and glorify You who gives us all of the blessings of our lives.
We thank You for Jesus, for coming to dwell among us.
May our presence and love reflect Yours.
Through Jesus Christ, our Lord, we pray, Amen.


Advent Day 17: Go and See

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The term theophany means a “physical manifestation of the divine to humans.”  Certainly, we can agree that the shepherds in the fields, on the night of Jesus’ birth, experienced that and then some.  Luke gives us no indication of how long this angelic worship service went on for.  Nor does he tell us how long it took for the shepherds to recover.  What we see here, though, is that when this experience was over, the shepherds were moved to action.
 
They did not simply sit on the hillside and talk about it.  Instead, they got up and left their sheep to go and see this great thing they had just been told about.  In a more contemporary cultural context, they didn’t snap, tweet, facebook, or Instagram a hashtag from the hillside, they went to see it for themselves.
 
In our culture, being a part of something often means little more than reposting in social media.  We create hashtags for events both positive and negative.  Our solidarity with abducted girls in Africa and our celebration of our friend’s marriage often garner the same response.  Worse, though, is that our reactions to the Good News of the coming of Jesus, our Savior, is much the same.
 
God’s work, however, at this moment in history is active and deserves an active response.  He put on Human flesh; He came to dwell among us.  This action single-handedly begins a march toward the cross, the grave, and the resurrection that paves the way for our salvation.  It isn’t a peripheral element of the season.  The incarnation is not just another news story.  God, the eternal, all-powerful, creator of the universe, came to earth for us!
 
How should we respond?  How will you respond?  What action is God calling you to take here and when will you make that move?  Will you tell others?

 Prayer

God, our Father,
In Jesus Christ, you acted on our behalf.
You opened the way to redemption, reconciliation, and salvation for us.
What was once impossible for us is now possible through You.
We confess, Lord, that this great reality is often placed on the periphery of our lives.
Rather than being our focus, Jesus is just another aspect,
reduced to one of the many things we have in our lives.
Help us to not ignore the great truth or significance of Your saving love,
so that we may live into it and speak out about it,
that others may see and hear and be amazed by You.
In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.


Advent Day 16: Angel Choir

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 Meditation

For us, in western culture, the notion of a spiritual realm that we cannot see, but exists alongside our physical world is something that people struggle with.  There are many Biblical narratives that include both angelic and demonic activity.  We also read a great deal of fiction that involves a spiritual world.  Sadly, for many people, the great reality of God’s work in and through this invisible reality seems like just that: fiction.
 
We live in a world and a culture where, if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.  Though interestingly, many people still believe in ghosts and, loosely perhaps, in supernatural events.
 
Regardless of what people believe, however, the Bible paints a very clear picture of God’s “behind the scenes” work.  In fact, Scripture is clear that God is the creator and ruler of all things, visible and invisible.  And, while angelic encounters are certainly more of the exception than the norm, at this moment, God was pulling out all the stops.
 
As if to accent the point already made of the Savior being born in the village nearby, a whole host of angels suddenly appear.  One angel would probably have been enough.  An army of angels singing certainly drives the importance of this event home.  Part of me wishes that Luke would have recorded the additional responses of the Shepherds when the heavenly host appeared.  I can’t even imagine what this would be like.
 
These shepherds witnessed something that few people have ever seen.  When the curtain between the physical and spiritual words is pulled back, God’s glory is on full display.  We get a sense, here, of what that looks like too as we are invited into the angelic worship of God.
 
The Apostle John invites us into a greater understanding of this in the book of Revelation.  Around the throne of God, the angels are always worshiping.  We, too, are invited to come and worship Christ the risen King.  We join our voices with the angels when we worship God.

 Prayer

Almighty and Everlasting God,
Your holiness is beyond our comprehension and your greatness is more than words can express.
We glorify and worship you, the One and only True God.
As we read about the experience of the shepherds,
help us to recognize our own encounters with You in our lives.
Move us to prayer and worship in the name of Your Son Jesus,
and transform our hearts through those moments through Your Holy Spirit.
Thank You for the great gift You have given us.
May we never lose sight of Your love.
Amen.


Advent Day 15: Shepherds and Angels

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One of the great ironies surrounding the narrative of Christ’s birth is the manner in which God announces the birth of His Son and the people to whom He announces it.  We have already considered Mary and Joseph, though in the bloodline of David, neither are royalty by human standards.  Mary, in particular, is visited by Gabriel, one of the Archangels that stands in the throne room of Heaven.  By all worldly standards, the truly appropriate people would be royalty, and the place a palace.
 
Instead, however, God has chosen to work through some of the “least of these” to bring about His plan of Salvation.  Following suit, God’s announcement on the night of Jesus’ birth comes to those we would least expect.  Shepherds were the lowest of the so-called “totem pole.”  These truly were the least of all people by human standards.  Dirty, cheating and untrustworthy were their titles.  Even this is ironic seeing as the people of Israel were settled away from the Egyptians, in the land of Goshen, because they were indeed Shepherds.
 
Despite their outcast status, God sends a host of heavenly angels to announce the birth of His Son specifically to them.  Though their appearance is certainly startling, their message of peace and the birth of the Messiah have impacted the world for generations.
 
Interestingly, God’s message to the shepherds is somewhat of a microcosm of His plan of Salvation.  We who are outcasts because of sin, hear the message of Salvation through the Gospel message.  When we hear this message, we encounter God in a very real way.  Though it may not be the light of angels piercing the darkness of night, our encounter is no less divine.  The question we all face, though, is: what are we going to do about it?

 Prayer

God of Love and Mercy,
You reach down into this world, into our lives,
pursuing us when we are far from You.
Even when we were Your enemies, You showed us Your love
by sending Your Son into this world as our Messiah.
We thank You for Gospel truth and for calling us to Yourself.
Help us, each day, to continually respond to Your love,
and to tell others about Jesus so that they may encounter Your love too.
Amen.


Advent Day 14: The Time Came

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I’ve often wondered in the narrative of Jesus’ birth, did Mary carry to full term?  We know that she was “great with child” as the old Scriptural language suggests, but what does that mean?  Was she late in her delivery or was she early?  We probably don’t get this much thought as we default to the “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger” songs of how perfect things were.
 
While this question seems relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, at its core, the question really has to do with how God actually brought about the birth of Jesus.  As we said yesterday, God’s timing is perfect.  So when the time comes for things to happen in our lives, God will make them happen.  Of this, we can be certain.  But I do have to wonder what would have happened if Mary and Joseph left a day or two later?
 
Granted, it probably wouldn’t have changed the date of our Christmas celebrations.  December 25 is widely considered not to be the date of Jesus’ birth.  Rather, it was a pagan holiday taken over by early Christians and turned into a celebration of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
 
That said, when we boil this down to its roots, we are left to trust in God’s sovereignty over every situation.  Similar questions for the timing of Saul’s conversion, Peter’s vision of unclean animals, or even the call to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles in Acts are all valid.  They all address the same theme and have the same answer: God’s timing brings about God’s purposes according to God’s will.
 
Though we may think we know the right timing in the growing seasons of our lives, God knows better.  He has a purpose to bring about His will for us.  And let’s be honest, God’s good and perfect will is better than anything we could come up with.

 Prayer

Faithful God,
You cause the sun to rise and set and the seasons to change in their times.
All of creation is perfectly ordered by You and exists for You.
You grant us seasons of growth and seasons of rest as well.
As we journey through our lives, seeking to follow You,
help us to trust Your will for us.
Whether the road of our life is smooth or rocky,
may we know that You are faithfully there with us.
You never leave us or forsake us, You are our refuge and strength.
Thank You for your faithfulness.
In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.