Friday, December 22, 2017

A Thrill of Hope, Part 2

Back in high school a friend pondered a question aloud that had never occurred to me: Why do Christians celebrate Christmas so big? Her premise was not so much a negative reaction to Christmas, but that as believers, she reasoned, shouldn't our focus be primarily on Easter?  "When I have a family I'm going to send Easter cards and Easter presents."  As Christians who have been saved only by the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ and His resurrection from the dead, shouldn't our attention be on celebrating that?

I absolutely agree, Easter should be made much of - much more of than it often is, if you ask me - but something gnawed on me about the question.  "Why do Christians celebrate Christmas so big?" For 20 years I've been mulling it over, and for 20 years the Holy Spirit has been leading me to an understanding: it's all about redemption. The climax of the story is the cross, but the story of redemption started long before that. 


A Thrill of Hope, Part 1


A Thrill of Hope, Part 2

God promised: He is coming. God promised: He is coming. God promised: He is coming.  And they waited, and they waited, and they waited.  And if you have ever waited for something that was promised to you, you know that in the waiting comes excitement, anticipation, hope, desire… But as time goes on and the waiting continues new feelings creep in: fear, doubt, wonder, confusion, anger, worry, frustration, discouragement...

What if I misunderstood? What if He couldn't do what He thought He could do? What if God just lied?

And they knew they needed it.  Adam and Eve knew from the very moment they chose sin that they had no hope without this promise. And as the generations came and went they knew more and more that without this One that God promised He would send to redeem them, they were hopeless.  And they longed for that promise to be fulfilled.  They were desperate to know that what they were believing was true - that they did have a hope because God did actually have a plan to redeem them.

And they waited, and they waited.

And then God was silent.  For 400 years He did not remind them of His promise.  For 400 years there was no encouragement of "He is coming." And for 400 years they wondered if He would still send the One He had promised in the beginning to redeem, renew, and revive what they broke.  It was their only hope.

And they waited, and they waited.

It is in that quiet, lonely longing that we find some shepherds in a field. The night is quiet. The night is normal. The night is dark in every way.  And we've heard this story so many times, too many times, because I think we're able to read it without being astonished at what happens.  So let's slow it down and try to soak in what these shepherds heard and saw, keeping in mind that they have waited and waited and waited for God to keep His promise.  Try to push out of your mind Linus' voice, and any Christmas pageant you were in as a child, and forget the phrase "sore afraid".  Try to hear it as one who has been waiting your entire life for these exact words.  And remember, these shepherds have never read Luke chapters 1 and 2.  They don't know about Mary and Joseph, about the angel's visits or that the census has brought this expectant couple just down the street.  They have maybe heard about Zechariah's vision (because finally someone had heard from God!).

Read this as a weary shepherd in a deeply longing world.

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  And the angel said to them, “Don't be afraid, for I bring you good news.  News of great joy that will be for all people.  For unto you… is born this day in the city of David a Savior, and he is the Promised One.

He is here. He. is. HERE.

If you have ever been on the receiving end of a promise fulfilled you know how that news affects you.   You know what it stirs inside of you.  I think back to my engagement, how with each word Nate said my face got a little more flush, my heart pounded harder, and I couldn't even hear the words any more because my ears were muffled and people's faces got blurry.  Why? It wasn't because of the restaurant he chose, or the ring he bought, or the words he said (because I didn't hear any of them).  It was because I knew what it all meant.  I knew what was happening, and I knew what was coming after that. I was THRILLED.  He was giving me what I longed for.

Did you see how many promises were fulfilled in that one statement from the angel?
"I bring you good news that will bring joy to all people" as God promised Abraham.
"I bring you good news that a child has been born to you" as God promised Isaiah.
"I bring you good news that He is in Bethlehem, the city of David" exactly as God promised He would be.
There was no more "He is coming, he is coming, he is coming."  He is here. God promised and He did it!

They were hearing exactly what they had longed to hear - exactly what their parents had longed to hear.  And their grandparents.  And their great great great great grandparents. And every generation all the way back to Adam and Eve.  "He has come. He is near. Go and see!" And they did.  They left immediately to find him and see if it was all true.  And when they saw everything exactly as they had been told they would they knew what it all meant.  They knew what was happening, and what was coming.  They were THRILLED.  God was giving them what they longed for. And they spread the news and sang and rejoiced and praised God because He promised, and He did it.

So back to the question of why Christians celebrate Christmas so big when our salvation hinges on the death and resurrection of Jesus.  It is true Jesus' death on the cross paid the penalty that we could not pay to give us a righteousness that we could not earn, but redemption did not begin there.  And it is true that the resurrection of Jesus defeated death and made a way for us to live forever with the God of creation, but redemption did not begin there.  Redemption began when the virgin conceived and gave birth to Emmanuel.

God made a lot of promises about the One he would send to redeem this broken world - about how he would be born, how he would live, how he would die, what would happen after that -  and every one of those promises He kept in the person of Jesus.  If even one of those prophecies had been unfulfilled or even just a little bit inaccurate His death on the cross would have been insufficient because either Jesus was not the One God had promised or God was a liar about who the Messiah would be. But because Jesus accomplished everything God promised that the Messiah would accomplish, we can be sure that God is true and that what Christ has done is fully sufficient for us. God proved that every promise He makes He keeps.  He faithfully did what He said He would do in the past and He can be trusted to do what He has promised for the future.  He is completely trustworthy and completely sufficient.

And it all started when the virgin gave birth in Bethlehem to the hope of all mankind, the son of David, the son of Abraham, the son of Adam and Eve, and the son of God.  We celebrate Christmas so big because that is when redemption began.

That was their thrill of hope.  Jesus Christ came to redeem what was broken. God promised, and He did it.

And friends, that really should still thrill us, too.

O holy night,
the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear savior's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Fall on your knees.
O hear the angel voices
O night divine
O night when Christ was born.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Thrill of Hope, Part 1

Reader 1: In the beginning, the world was perfect. We were perfect.  There was no need for hope, because there was nothing to hope FOR.  Life was full.  Completely, perfectly full. Mankind walked with God in the cool of the day.

But sin - sin was an option, man and woman made their choice, and that which was perfect became broken.  Now there was a need, and God graciously promised to send One in which humanity could hope. One who would redeem, renew, revive that which was broken.  To the serpent He said:

Reader 2: 
“I will put enmity
    between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
    and you will strike his heel.”

Reader 1: God promised: He is coming.

Reader 1: Generations passed.  Adam lived, and he died.  Abel lived, and he died. Seth lived, and he died. Enoch, Methuseleh, Noah…they all lived. And they all died.  Fathers lived and fathers died.  No man was the One that God had promised. 

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (violin)

Then God chose a man named Abram.  A man who was not a father.  A man who was beyond the age of child-bearing.  And again He promised.  He told Abram that through him He would keep the promise He made in the beginning - One who would redeem, renew, and revive that which was broken. To Abram He said:
Reader 2: 
…all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.

Reader 1: God promised: He is coming.
Reader 1: Abraham. Isaac. Jacob.  They all received the promise.  
Reader 2: He is coming. 
Reader 1: They told their children- 
Reader 2: He is coming.
Reader 1: Their grandchildren believed-
Reader 2: He is coming.
Reader 1: Moses, Joshua...
Reader 2: Decades came and went. 
Reader 1: Deborah, Gideon, Samuel...
Reader 2: Centuries passed. Thousands of years…
Reader 1: Years of thriving, worship, and rejoicing!
Reader 2: But he did not come. 
Reader 1: Years of famine, suffering, and oppression…
Reader 2: Still, he did not come.
Reader 1: But they heard, they believed, and they waited for what God promised. 
Readers 1 & 2: He is coming.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (violin)

Reader 1: David - a man after God's own heart - became king, and to him God extended His promise.   To David He said:
Reader 2: Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.
Reader 1: David, the youngest son of Jesse, would have a kingdom and throne that would last forever.    And from his tiny, insignificant town would come the eternal King.
Reader 2: 
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
    one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
    from ancient times.”

Reader 1: From the little town of Bethlehem God would send the One who would redeem, renew, and revive that which was broken.  
But David died.  Solomon died. And the nation of Israel was divided in two.  Idolatry, murder, wickedness and war defined the nations of Israel and Judah.   But still, God promised: He is coming.  To Isaiah He said:
Reader 2: The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

Reader 1: Emmanuel: God with us. Born of a virgin. Sent by God.  Again, to Isaiah He promised:

Reader 2: For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this.

Reader 1: A child. A counselor. God, Father, Prince, and King. A man of strength and peace. Just and righteous forevermore. God promised:

Readers 1 & 2: He is coming.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (violin)

[10-15 second pause]

Reader 1: Then God was quiet.  No more visions.  No more prophecies.  Silence.  For 400 years God remained quiet.  
One to crush the serpent's head? 
Reader 2: He is coming.
Reader 1: One to bless the nations? 
Reader 2: He is coming.
Reader 1: Born of a virgin? Bringing peace? God…with us
Reader 2: He is coming.
Reader 1: Bethlehem is small and weak. 
Reader 2: He is coming.

Reader 1: They heard. They believed. They waited.  
Readers 1 & 2: He is coming.

Reader 1: Then God broke his silence.  Zechariah had a vision, and his barren wife felt a life inside her.

Reader 2: He is coming?  
Reader 1: He is coming. 

Reader 1: An angel visited a young girl - a virgin - and told her she had been chosen.  She would carry Emmanuel.

Reader 2: He is coming? 
Reader 1: He is coming.

Reader 2: But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” 
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” 
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God."

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (violin)

Reader 1: She believed God.  Her betrothed believed God.  The child that was promised grew inside her. They heard. They believed. And they waited. A census took them to Bethlehem - the town of David. And there, God would come to be with us.

Reader 2:
 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.

Reader 1: The One that was promised from the very beginning - the One who would redeem, renew, revive that which was broken - the One who was the son of Adam, the son of Abraham, the son of David - the promised Christ, the Messiah, God with us…
Reader 2: Our Hope...
Readers 1 & 2: He has come.

Friday, August 26, 2016

When Worship Rips Your Heart Out

I am 38 weeks pregnant with our fourth boy. In August.  In Dallas.  I'm hot, swollen, tired, and addicted to Tums.  I think God makes the end of pregnancy utterly miserable as a grace to women so we won't be so terrified of labor.  Even so, we are excited to meet our newest little gentleman and welcome him into our home.  We can't wait to see if his cheeks are really as fat as they looked on the last ultrasound, if he has the Hoff nose, and I have one son in particular who's dying to know if his newest brother will match his straight hair or the curls of the other two.

Two weeks feels like too long to finally get to greet this gift God is giving our family.

As I waddled around the house this morning trying to get my husband and Boy #1 out the door for school a song came on my husband's phone.  I hate this song.  I skip this song every time.  It's a beautiful song, and up until this morning I haven't been able to stand it.  It's a worship song, taken straight from Scripture, and it fills my heart with pain every single time I hear it.

But in the hustle of this morning I forced myself to sit and listen.  I'm 38 weeks pregnant.  I needed to hear it. I needed to face this battle head-on.

You see, the words to this song flood my heart with gut-wrenching memories of our last year.  A very painful year.  A year where we saw many things that we held dear get flipped around or lost altogether.  A year where we saw God's mighty hand of faithfulness sustain us, but needing His faithfulness stung.  Deeply.

Part of that painful year happened last May when we miscarried.  It was early in the pregnancy, it was an unexpected pregnancy, but our hearts yearned for the life that was lost.  We named our baby Micah, which means "Who is like the Lord?" and we chose these verses as a tribute to him or her.

Oh the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God.
How unsearchable His judgments, His paths beyond tracing out.
"Who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been His counselor?
Who has ever given to God that God should repay Him?"
For from Him and through Him and to Him are everything.
To Him be the glory forever!  Amen.
          ~Romans 11:33-36

From Him comes every gift.
Through Him comes every joy.
To Him belongs every thing.
Everything.  Including our Micah.

We've known all our lives that everything we have comes from God and everything belongs to God.  As parents we have constantly laid our children before God to do with as He willed.  But when it came to losing our precious baby - so soon after loving it - we understood on a new level what it means to truly live in submission to God.  To treat things like they belong to Him.  To treat Him like He truly can do whatever He chooses with "our" life. To submit and respond to that in worship, not in anger or bitterness.

Worship means bowing down before someone to show their honor and our humility.  And sometimes that hurts really, really badly.

I am so excited about this new baby.  I can't believe God has given us another life to nurture.  I can't wait to kiss his tiny fingers and smell his dark hair in just a couple of weeks.  But my heart is filled with a pain that is hard to explain.  I want my baby back.  I wanted to kiss his fingers.  I wanted to smell her hair.  I wanted to know if he was a he or a she and if they had the same Hoff nose.

But from Him, and through Him, and to Him are everything. And although that hurts - still, a year and a half later - I believe it now more than ever.  My life is humbly bowed down before Him.  These children are not my own. This life I've built is not mine to do with as I please.  I live for more.

God's glory is at stake here.

My heart breaks today for my baby Micah.  I will probably never understand why God took what was His so soon.  And mixed in the joy of welcoming Josiah in a few weeks is a bitter longing for the baby that would've made this little one's life impossible.  It's confusing.  It's hard.  It hurts to think about.

But to God be the glory forever! Amen.

So I listened to the song today and let it ruin my morning.  Then I listened to it again, and again, and again after my guys were out the door.  I wept.  I broke.  I wrote my thoughts out.  And I worshiped God.  I gave Him what was His.  And it hurts.  And I hope He gets glory, because sometimes worship is really hard to do.

Here is the song that ruined my day in a painfully beautiful way.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

An Ever-Steady Shadow

Yes, it was technically 25 minutes earlier than his bedtime, but I decided to put my two-year-old (and the rest of us) out of his misery a bit early tonight.  As he collapsed in a limp, defiant puddle on the floor just outside of his bedroom I asked him if he wanted to sing.  With the holidays and visitors the last few weeks we've been out of our bedtime routine, and I suspected he would welcome a snuggle and a song.  I was right, and he perked up immediately and came running.

It was one of his more tender moments today, to be sure.

I gathered my little fleece-laden sweetness into my arms and started swaying in his dark room as I tone-deafly sang an old favorite.

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God, My Father!
(he starts mumbling a toddler version of the lyrics)
There is no shadow of turning with Thee.
(His head pops up and he points to our shadow on the wall made by the night light. "Yes, that's right!  Shadow!" I naturally keep watching our shadow as we sing.)
Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not.
(Our shadow-selves sway back and forth, looking more like one melted being rather than two separate entities.)
As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be.
("Yeah, I caught it, God.")

Today is January 2.  A new year.  A new start. And already things have popped up that are making my blood pressure spike.  So much for easing our way in, huh.

Last year was a really tough one.  The kind where the first thing you say to your husband in the morning on New Year's Day is "Well, Babe, we survived 2015."  We had more challenges, new challenges, bitter challenges last year than I would call "fair", and through it all God proved Himself faithful time and time (and time a thousand times) again.

Back to the song.  The line "there is no shadow of turning" has always made me think of Indiana Jones.  (Hang with me here.)  Remember when Indy and his dad were riding on the blimp away from Germany, but then the shadows start moving around the room, and they realized they were headed in the opposite direction?  It was the turning shadows that clued them in they had to hightail it out of there.

But there is no shadow of turning with God.  He never does that.

Instead, like my shadow with my cranky baby, He sways back and forth, holding us tight, and making it hard to see where His arms end and our life begins.  He is so faithful.  Always faithful.  He has always been, and He always will be.  His shadow will never turn around.  He will never lead us the wrong way.  And His gentle arms will never let us go.

Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.