Archive for Christmas



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There’s a lot of pressure that comes with finding out you’re about to have a baby, not the least of which is what to name it. My wife, who is a school teacher, and I set forth specific ground rules for what name to pick. It couldn’t be the name of someone either of us had dated. I couldn’t be a name that could be easily made fun of on the playground. It couldn’t be the name of a naughty school child or a difficult church member. Once all of those names were ruled out we were in business.
We even went so far as to purchase a couple of those “baby name” books to see what particular names meant.

Of all the names associated with Christ at his birth, the most familiar by far is the name Jesus. The name Jesus appears some 700 times in the New Testament. Unlike us, Joseph and Mary didn’t have to come up with that one. God instructed them before his birth what he would be called.

“Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”
(Luke 1:30-33, NLT)

When we had each of our children, the first question we got was “What did you name the baby?” When the Deatrick’s have a baby, it gets a name. When the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have a baby, people want to know what it shall be called. That may seem like splitting hairs for us in North America, but its a big deal among countries that still have monarchy’s. To the royals, babies are “called.” Its a formal act that is replete with character, reputation, and dignity. That’s the idea behind the naming of Jesus. It’s not just a name. Its the right of royalty.

The name Jesus itself means “Yahweh saves,” which would have reminded the original readers of Luke of all kinds of Old Testament salvation stories. Matthew 1:21 takes it one step further and explains, “for he shall save his people from their sins.”

This baby would be great, literally megas, from which we derive our English word mega. While we generally use the word great loosely, there is a more formal understanding of the word from the world of mathematics. In mathematics, the word mega denotes 10 to the power of 6, or one million. That is something that is quantifiable for us, but the greatness of Jesus exceeds even our basic math comprehension. So how then, is Jesus revealed to us as great? There are three manifestations of Jesus’ greatness that Luke calls out.

First, he is great in his relationship to the heavenly Father. He is “Son of the Most High.” This points to his divine sonship. He is great because he is the Son of God. He is great because he is God.

Next, he is great in his role as the Messiah. Luke’s references to throne and rule points to his Davidic Messiahship. Jesus’ sonship precedes his Messiahship.

Finally, he is great in his rule as the everlasting king. His kingdom knows no end. The sonship yields the Messiahship, which in turn yields the Kingdom of God. This kingdom is not the geo-political kind, but a spiritual movement where God rules in the hearts of humankind and his will is actually done on earth as it is in heaven.

So what does that mean for you on the Christmas Day? Who is Jesus in relationship to you personally? The fact that Jesus is great reveals that we are not and cannot be without him. One of the greatest dangers that Christmas presents to each of us is the temptation to leave the baby in the manger. Yes, Christ was born as a baby in Bethlehem long ago. But if you leave the baby in the manger you miss the entire point of why he came. Because he is the Son of God the has the authority to serve as the Messiah sent from God to be the Savior of the world. As Savior, he has the right to rule in your heart and mine. I don’t want to rob you of the joy of Christmas in the slightest. But if you leave the baby in the manger, all you’ll end up with at the end of your life is warm sentimentality and not a relationship with the creator and redeemer of the universe.

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When my wife went into labor with our third child things progressed more rapidly than we anticipated. By the time we arrived in the birthing suite it was time to deliver. The nursing staff called the doctor whose office was just a few blocks away. When she returned, she calmed stated, “The doctor is near.” At that moment, nearness offered little if any comfort. My daughter would be brought into the world by a complete stranger, a doctor on call that we had not seen before or since.

There is a big difference between being near and being here. That difference is the calming promise of Immanuel, “God with us.”

In 734 BC, the people of Judah were under duress. The armies of Israel joined forces with the armies of Aram to overtake Jerusalem. The prophetic word of encouragement from Isaiah was not what King Ahaz was not what he was expecting. “The Lord himself will give you a sign. The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14) That prophecy came to Judah during a dark time of adversity. The most comforting words the prophet could offer was, “God is here.”

Fast forward seven centuries and we learn that little had changed for the people. Under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire, people were looking for hope and comfort. Again, the word of the Lord came to them. “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a Son, and they will call him ‘Immanuel,’ which means ‘God with us.'” (Matthew 1:23)

When God came to us through Jesus, he didn’t come as hoped or expected. Messianic expectations were focused on a military leader like David who would deliver the land from the unrighteous Roman rule. Jesus came to meet the deepest needs of the people, the needs far deeper than geo-political freedom and restoration. How does he meet our deepest needs?

I believe Isaiah 9:6 sheds light on the kind of presence God offered then and now. “And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

As Wonderful Counselor he is available to reveal the ultimate root causes of our need and point to the appropriate remedy.
As the Mighty God he has the power to enable us to experience the true transformation we seek.
As the Everlasting Father he reminds us that we belong and that we are loved unconditionally.
As the Prince of Peace he provides the true peace we need, peace with God.

The Gospels emphasize the presence of God in our lives. In fact, God’s presence bookends the story of Jesus. At his birth, he is Immanuel, God with us. At his ascension his parting words were, “And lo, I am with you always.” (Matthew 28:20)

The Christmas story is about, in part, the fact that God is not near. He is here.

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The Word

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Art can be difficult to understand. Since my daughter is an art student, I’ve had the opportunity to visit two of the Midwest’s finest art galleries. As I wandered through those quiet halls, I felt immersed in the paradox of knowing what I viewed but not really knowing what I viewed. While I appreciate art, I need help to understand it. For example, I once read that Vincent Van Gogh used the color yellow to symbolize the divine. That insight brought to life his famous painting, “Starry Night.”

The Gospel of John is like that for me. Matthew writes with the precision of a tax accountant. Mark displays a unique understanding of the humanity of the story line. Luke pens his witness with the care and concern of a physician. John, however, writes with an artist’s paint brush. While his words sometimes seem clouded, they should have resonated to some degree with his Jewish audience.

John’s Christmas narrative is not like that of Matthew and Luke, who cite times, locations and people. John’s version of the Christmas story goes like this.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-5, 14)

The first thing that John points out in his Gospel is that Jesus is the Living Word. We know about words. Words are a means of communication; the expression of oneself to another. So the first thing John wants us to know about Christmas is that God is trying to say something to the world. God is speaking. So what is God trying to communicate?

God wanted us to know that Jesus is divine. He wasn’t created at birth, he was pre-existent before time and space came to be. To emphasize this, John reminds us that Jesus played a vital role in the creation of the world that he has come to reclaim and redeem.

God wanted us to know that Jesus offers us tremendous possibilities. “Words create worlds,” as my friend Bryan Rose likes to say. The Word brought forth life, and from life comes light. John is reminding us that the first day of creation was the creation of light. Light is important because it reveals. That is true of any light from the nightlight in your bathroom to the surgical lamps of the operating room. Light reveals what is there and what is not, and enables us to see to take the next step.

Finally, God wanted us to know that the Living Word is filled with promise. He came full of grace and truth. Jesus’ unfailing love and faithfulness offers two things to us this Advent season. In Jesus, God is promising that he will never stop loving us and that he will never abandon us. No matter who we are, where we are, or what we have done, his grace and truth is relentless.

In order to make all of this happen, “the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Or, as Eugene Peterson wrote in The Message, “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” That’s what Christmas is about. The Word becoming flesh and moving into the neighborhood.

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I can remember the first thing I ever wanted. I couldn’t have been more than 5 years old. I don’t really know how I came to want what I wanted. It could have been that a kid in school had one that he proudly displayed. It could have been that I saw it in the Sears and Roebuck “wish book.” I don’t know where the desire came from, but I know what I wanted. It was a Mickey Mouse watch. It had a bright red wrist band with a clock faced that bore Mickey’s iconic image. I could see myself wearing it, watching as his gloved hands would move perfectly across the clock to report the time of day.

When Christmas time came, I was alive with anticipation. I opened my presents, looking for the watch. One box in particular caught my attention. I eagerly opened the package to find a Cinderella watch.

It wasn’t what I expected. The store had made a shipping error, and within a few weeks I received the Mickey Mouse watch but it wasn’t quite the same.

That memory came to me this year as I re-read the story of the visit of the Magi to see the baby Jesus. These far eastern astrologers had seen a star and made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem to see the new “King of the Jews.” Upon their arrival in Jerusalem they made their way to the palace and then on to the throne room of Herod who received their visit. Imagine Herod’s surprise to hear of their inquiry about a new king. Imaging the Magi’s surprise to hear of his ignorance of such matters. Officials looked into the matter and discovered the prophecy that declared that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem and Herod sent them on their way. When the Magi arrived they found a baby in a cradle, housed in a simple, small home. They followed a star, and at the other end of that star did not find what they expected.

We’ve all had those moments where we have followed stars and found cradles. Perhaps you followed a career path that looked promising only to have been downsized. Maybe you stood at a wedding altar with the love of your life only to stand before a judge’s bench. Possibly you ate in moderation and exercised regularly only to discover a threatening disease. You provided for and nurtured a child who wasn’t valedictorian, or captain, or homecoming queen.

What do wise ones do when they follow stars and find cradles? What did the wise men do?

First, when wise ones do not find what they expect they look for God. Wise men and women of every generation don’t panic when met with disappointment. They remain steady and say, “God is somewhere in this place.” Every major character in the Bible had the same experience that we’ve had. Remember, strong faith sees God in every situation be it good or bad. Weak faith only sees God in the good.

Next, when wise ones do not find what they expect they offer their very best to God. The wise men brought gifts for the new king. When the star led them to the simple home of a carpenter, attending to a young teenage mother and child, they didn’t withhold anything. They gave all without measure.

Finally, when wise ones do not find what they expect they change the direction of their lives. The story reports that the wise men returned home via a different route. And when we find God and give him our best, like the wise men we will discover that God will change the direction of our lives as well.

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Great Things from Small Places

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In the 19th century the whole world was watching the campaigns of Napoleon with great concern. There was talk everywhere of marches, invasions, battles and bloodshed as the French dictator pushed his way through Europe. Babies were born at that time, but who had time to think about babies or to care about cradles or nurseries when the international scene was filled with such turmoil? Between Trafalgar and Waterloo there stole into the world a host of heroes whose lives were destined to shape history. But who had time to think of babies while Napoleon was on the move?

Take the year 1809. All eyes were on Austria because that is where the blood was flowing freely. In one campaign after another, Napoleon swept through that nation. Nobody cared about babies in 1809, but when you check history, your realize that some special people were born that year. Take for example William Gladstone, destines to become one of England’s finest statesmen, and Alfred Tennyson, who would one day make a profound mark on the literary world. Oliver Wendell Holmes was born in Cambridge, and not far away in Boston, Edgar Allen Poe began his eventful albeit tragic life. It was also 1809 that a physician named Darwin named his baby Charles Robert. And in that same year, the cries of a newborn infant could be heard in Hardin County, Kentucky, where Abraham Lincoln was born.

If we could turn back time and read the headlines from 1809, they would say something about how the destiny of the world was being changed on the battlefield of Austria. But was it? It’s funny, but only a handful of history buffs could probably name only two or three of those Austrian campaigns today. Looking back, history was not being shaped on the battlefields of Austria. It was being changed in the nurseries of England and America.

In 4 B.C., no one in the Roman Empire could have cared less about babies either, especially the birth of Jewish ones in small towns like Bethlehem. Rome ruled the world and history was being made. But was it? About 7 centuries before Christ was born, a prophet named Micah predicted to Israel that their future hope lie in the coming of Messiah. As they surveyed the devastation of the nation, Micah gave words of assurance that God did have a plan for their redemption and restoration. His prophecy seemed strange to some, for he announced that the greatest would come from the least. The Messiah was to be born in the humble town of Bethlehem.

Bethlehem means, “house of bread.” In history it was the setting for the book of Ruth—the famous love story. Later it would be the birthplace and childhood home of a boy who would become Israel’s greatest King—King David. Other than that, Bethlehem was known for two other things. It was a place where sheep were raised. Most of Bethlehem’s labor force was involved in breeding and raising sheep. It was also known as a place of shelter. Only 5 miles from Jerusalem, it was a popular overnight stop for weary travelers. Bethlehem was a town of no significance. But when Jesus came to town, it became transformed into a place of greatness. Today the town has worldwide fame. That’s a wonderful analogy of the transformation that Jesus brings. Christ takes the ordinary and transforms it into something significant, valuable and meaningful.

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Do You Hear What I Hear? (part 2)

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How did God speak to the shepherds? What can we learn that will help us as we learn to hear from God?

1. God speaks to us where we are.
That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby… (Luke 2:8)

2. God speaks to us as we are.
…guarding their flocks of sheep. (Luke 2:8)

3. When God speaks we don’t have to be afraid.
Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. (Luke 2:9-10)

4. When God speaks He speaks with clarity.
The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased. (Luke 2:11-14)

5. God’s speech is an invitation to respond to Him.
When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. (Luke 2:15-16)

6. God speaks to us so that our lives may be changed.
After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them. (Luke 2:17-20)

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Do You Hear What I Hear?

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Advent has always been a prominent part of the worship of the church. Some of my earliest memories of worship are of cantatas, pageants, living nativities, and candlelight Christmas Eve services. During my elementary age years the choir would prepare and perform songs that the children of the church would act out. Our volunteer children’s leaders would assign parts to the kids and organize rehearsals that would meet during Sunday School. Our simple costumes consisted of dad’s bathrobe; accessorized by a towel and necktie that would be fashioned into head wear. I always wanted a leading role, but usually ended up as a shepherd.

Perhaps we have romanticized the shepherds a bit much. Looking back in history, shepherds were often dishonest, unsavory men of poor reputation. No one in the first century would have trusted a shepherd, let alone have honored one. Part of their problem was that due to the nature of their work they were spiritually marginalized. They spent their lives, according to legend, tending the sheep that would be sacrificed in the Temple at Passover. As keepers of the Temple sheep, they could not observe all of the Jewish purification rites and rituals. They were an unclean sector of society that were a necessary evil. Imagine the irony of raising sheep for sacrifice in a Temple they could not enter.

Yet when Jesus was born the shepherds were the first to receive the news. Does that surprise you? It reminds me that the overriding theme of Christmas is that Jesus came to give his life for the down and out as well as the up and in. When the shepherds heard the good news they seized the moment. God spoke to them and he speaks to us. What can we learn from the shepherds about hearing God’s voice? Tomorrow I’ll post some observations about how we can hear God’s voice from the shepherd’s experience long ago.

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Advent Bulletin Graphic

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Check out our new worship bulletin graphic that we’ll be using for Advent. It is an original design by one of our talented members, Mark Marturello. Mark has served as an illustrator for the Des Moines Register for 25 years. Thanks Mark!

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Love Provides Justice to the World

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His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
He has brought down princes from their thrones
and exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away with empty hands.
He has helped his servant Israel
and remembered to be merciful.
For he made this promise to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children forever.”
(Luke 1:51-55, NLT)

In yesterday’s post I observed that God’s love brings joy to our lives because its rooted in his character. God does loving things because his character and nature is love. The same is true of his mercy and holiness. His love is certainly our greatest source of joy.

But his love not only produces joy in our lives. It also provides justice for the world. Notice the reversal in Mary’s song of love. Those who are proud, mighty and wealthy do not have the last word. When Jesus came he turned the social order on its head. No longer would a person be defined by their culture, their environment, their economics, education or ethnicity. The proud and powerful would be humbled and the humble and weak would be exalted. Jesus did not just come to provide joy for our lives. He also came to provide justice for an unjust world.

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Love Produces Joy

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Mary responded,
“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One is holy,
and he has done great things for me.
He shows mercy from generation to generation
to all who fear him.”
(Luke 1:46-50, NLT)

The first element of Mary’s love song is the abundant joy she feels in her heart. This fourteen year old virgin was certainly overwhelmed with the news of her pregnancy, but even more by the idea that God had chose her to be theotokos, “the God-bearer.” Every joy that is shared is a joy that is doubled in intensity, so the joy she felt because of her pregnancy was multiplied as she shared it with Elizabeth.

One can’t help but notice that her joy was focused on the character of God. In the above text she is overcome by God’s salvation, holiness, power and mercy. God’s character is the foundation for all of his thoughts and actions. Mary recognized that all that God was doing was based on who He was, just as all of God’s activity today is based on who He is.

We all have our moments of fear and doubt when we wonder if God is going to act or how He will act should he choose to do so. We cannot perfectly anticipate what God will do in any given situation, but one thing we do know: He will always act according to his character. Mary may not have had anyway of anticipating that salvation and mercy would come through God incarnate as an infant. But she could count on the fact that God would do something because that’s who He is. The more we learn of the character and nature of God, the more we will be comforted when fears rise and doubts swell.

Categories : Advent, Christmas
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