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Archive for Christmas

Dec
09

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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Nov
26

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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Dec
28

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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Dec
27

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.

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Dec
23

The Song of Love

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Does anyone do a love song better than country music? Here are some famous and infamous song titles from the world of country western music:

* Don’t Cry on My Shoulders Cuz You’re Rustin’ My Spurs
* Her Teeth was Stained but her Heart was Pure
* How can I Miss You if You Won’t Go Away
* I Changed Her Oil and She Changed My Life
* I Been Missin’ You but My Aim is Gettin’ Better
* If Love Were Oil I’d Be About a Quart Low
* I’m So Miserable Without You It’s Almost Like Havin’ you Here
* Mama Get a Hammer There’s a Fly on Papa’s Head
* My John Deere was Breaking Your Field While Your Dear John Was Breakin’ My Heart
* She Made Toothpicks Out of the Kindlin’ of My Heart
* Tennis Must Be Your Racket Cause Love Means Nothing to You
* You’re the Reason Our Kids Are So Ugly

The answer is yes! Check out the lyrical content of The Magnificat, Mary’s song of love.

“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.
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 1:46-55, NLT)

This week I’m going to post some observations about this wonderful text. Check back in when you get the chance.

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Dec
17

The Song of Joy

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That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. 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. 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.” 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. 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 2:8-20, NLT)

The third song of Advent is the Song of Joy. What can we learn about joy from this interaction between the shepherds and the angelic choir? First, joy is available to everyone. It doesn’t surprise us that angels arrive singing songs of joy. What is surprising is that the shepherds would also experience joy. They were ceremonially unclean, which didn’t allow them to enter the Temple for worship. They were stereotyped as unreliable and untruthful, which meant that they were forbidden from giving testimony in a court of law. Shepherds were among the most marginalized people in the community. They were so marginalized that when the angels appeared their response was one of terror. Why would God come to them? Why would they be privy to such a grand announcement? Their only concept of God was of a God who judged sinners, yet the angels brought them good news.

The second thing we learn is that joy is an “inside” job that finds its source in Christ. The person of Christ brings joy. Through this encounter the shepherds realized that they were included, valued and loved by God. Is there anything that appears more innocent than a baby? Look at the contrast: the innocent baby Jesus and the guilty shepherds. Jesus was enough to satisfy their need for joy. Is he enough for you?

Next, joy is the by-product of grace and peace. God’s grace brings God’s peace which results in joy. The apostle Peter described this joy as “unspeakable and full of glory.”

Finally, we see that joy is not limited to experiences or events. Joy is available regardless of your personal circumstances. The shepherds found joy at the manger, but they didn’t leave their joy in the manger. Nothing externally changed for the shepherds: they returned to the same job in the same fields taking care of the same sheep. All on the same day. But they returned with joy.

If joy is available to everyone and its not dependent on our circumstances, they why is there so little joy in our day to day lives? Here are two possible suggestions:

1. The absence of joy in my life could be due to the lack of grace and peace. You can never know grace and peace until you personally experience Christ.

2. The lack of joy in my life is could be due to my focus on finding joy from external sources. At some point we need to become honest with ourselves. The next job, the next house, the next toy, the next car, the next outfit, the next relationship, the next “you fill in the blank” will not produce joy in your life. The stuff of today is nothing more than the stuff of garage sales tomorrow.

May this Christmas season fill your heart with songs of joy as you consider the grace and peace he has brought to your life.

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Dec
12

The Song of Peace

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At that time there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon. He was righteous and devout and was eagerly waiting for the Messiah to come and rescue Israel. The Holy Spirit was upon him and had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. That day the Spirit led him to the Temple. So when Mary and Joseph came to present the baby Jesus to the Lord as the law required, Simeon was there. He took the child in his arms and praised God, saying,
“Sovereign Lord, now let your servant die in peace,
as you have promised.
I have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared for all people.
He is a light to reveal God to the nations,
and he is the glory of your people Israel!”
(Luke 2:25-32, NLT)

The setting of the story is the Temple, the locus of God’s presence; the intersect between human and the divine. There are parallel plots at work, as the story opens with Joseph and Mary bringing the baby Jesus to the Temple on the 8th day of his young life. According to Jewish law, the first born male child was to be presented in dedication. The parents would offer a sacrifice and the baby would receive circumcision. It was a religious act of devotion, and the devout observed these rites of passage with great care and deliberation. It so happens that there is an old man in the Temple named Simeon. We don’t really know anything about him, except that he is described as a righteous and devout man. There is no mention of his life, his family, or his vocation. We get the sense that he is a frequent worshipper at the Temple. On more than one occasion the text tells us that he was directed by the Spirit of God. As the story goes, Simeon is “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” He’s living atop a promise. Here in the Temple courts, we find the divine intersect: The hopeful meets the fulfillment of the promise. Simeon takes the baby from the surprised parents, holds him, and begins to sing.

As people of faith we live atop the promises of God. They sustain us and move us along in a Godward direction. God makes promises that he always keeps. Faith is more than believing the promises of God, it is embracing the maker of those promises. Simeon’s faith enabled him to see God even in the smallest, least expected way. I’m sure you noticed Simeon’s spiritual sensitivity. On this very ordinary day, most of the people stood and watched just another young couple dedicate just another baby boy. Most of those who were there didn’t notice anything extraordinary whatsoever. But Simeon saw the extraordinary. He saw God at work in a baby. He saw God.

Do you see God at work? Do you expect to see God at work? Do you believe that God is at work even though you may not perceive it as such? We can learn something from Simeon. The lesson we learn is that God is at work in the daily, ordinary, and the routine.

What happens when you see God at work? You receive his peace. Any time you encounter God we receive peace. One of the reasons we lack peace is that we seek peace for the sake of peace. Don’t look for peace, look for God. He brings his peace with him.

When you see God at work you not only receive his peace, you become free. The word “dismiss” was used to describe the release of a slave. It means to discharge one from service and was used as a colloquialism for death. When you’re free you’re not only free to live, you’re free to die.

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“…just as he promised through the holy prophets long ago. Now we will be saved from our enemies and from all who hate us. He has been merciful to our ancestors by remembering his sacred covenant–the covenant he swore with an oath to our ancestor Abraham” (Luke 1:70-73, NLT).

One of the reasons Zechariah could sing a song of hope was his belief that God always keeps His promises. Check out the phrases from the text:
• “Just as he promised…”
• “…Remembering his sacred covenant…”
• “…(his) oath to our ancestor Abraham…”

Zechariah reached all the way back to Abraham to recall the promises that God had made and fulfilled. In his thinking, hope is built upon God’s continual faithfulness. Recognizing that God has been faithful in the past provides confident hope in the present that God will continue to be faithful and keep his promises in the present.

Sometimes the best remedy for despair in desperate times is a history lesson. For the believer, that history is not limited to God’s faithfulness during our lifetime. It includes the entirety of human history. After all, God’s faithfulness in human history is your history too.

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“Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has visited and redeemed his people. He has sent us a mighty Savior from the royal line of his servant David” (Luke 1:68-69, NLT).

Zechariah was so enthused about the birth of his son John (the Baptist) that he broke out in song. His song was filled with hopeful optimism because he realized that God had not forgotten his people. The interesting thing about Zechariah’s song is the verb tense. God HAS visited…God HAS redeemed…God HAS sent a mighty Savior…” It’s important because he sang his song before the birth of Jesus. That’s hope!

The writer of Hebrews defines faith as “the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about the things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1, NLT). Zechariah is a good illustration of one whose hope is confident about God’s faithfulness to remember his own.

Many times we may wonder if God has forgotten us. We cannot interpret God’s silence with inactivity. God is always at work and he never ever forgets his children.

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Dec
03

The Song of Hope:: 1

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Christmas is incomplete without music. Some of the most memorable music comes from the Advent season. Songs that inspire and encourage. Songs of Hope. Songs of Peace. Songs of Joy. Songs of Love. If you enjoy classical music, you have Handel’s Messiah. If you are a traditionalist, nothing beats a good Christmas carol. If you’re a parent you’ve heard more than your share of Alvin and the Chipmunks. I don’t know how to categorize those who enjoy, “Grandma got run over by a reindeer!”

This Advent I’m teaching the Songs of the Season from the gospel of Luke. Luke’s account of the Christmas story contains the lyrical content of four songs that were inspired by the first Christmas. This week I’m going to begin with Zechariah’s song from Luke 1:67-79. If you participated in choir during high school or college you may recognize the text as Benedictus. Benedictus is the Latin word for “blessed,” which is the first word of the song in the KJV.

The Christmas story represents God’s first word in 400 years. That thin sheet of paper that separates Malachi from Matthew spans four centuries of divine silence. This silence was broken by God’s best plan of action…a birth announcement! That doesn’t sound like much, but as you recall, some of God’s greatest acts in history began with babies.
• When Israel needed a deliverer, we are introduced to baby Moses.
• When Israel needed a great prophet, we are introduced to baby Samuel.
• When Israel needed a king to build a Temple, we are introduced to baby Solomon.
God had been silent for 400 years. Decades of dry religious conformity had left the people filled with despondency. There was little, if any, real hope in the world. No wonder Isaiah would speak of this time by saying, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2).

How does a baby inspire a song of hope? Check in this week and find out!

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