By / Dec 3

If you’ve had kids and know how they make all sorts of requests, then you’ll also know the favorite parental answer: “Maybe; we’ll see.” When one of our sons was four and received this reply, he said to my wife, “Just say, ‘Yes,’ mom, that’s much better.”

Yet saying “No,” often feels like better parenting. I find myself occupied with protecting my kids from whatever might harm them. We’re vigilant because the dangers are real: the risks of social media, of online pornography, of politically-correct indoctrination, of bad friends, etc. We don’t want our kids to be hurt physically, spiritually, or emotionally. So we teach our children what (and why and how) to say “No” to ungodly worldviews, actions, and temptations.

Yet the impulse to say “No”—to keep distance between those we love and what God hates, must be joined by the impulse to say “Yes”—to keep together what God loves and sin separates. Ever since the fall, sin has created division. Like a wedge, it has put distance between God and humanity, between humans and the natural order, and between human beings themselves. 

Lessons from Isaiah

Yet through Christ, God is restoring all that sin ruined. He’s uniting in Christ what sin divided. That’s not only the message of Ephesians, for example. It’s also a lesson we find in the prophecy of Isaiah.

 Let’s help the next generation take in the vastness of God’s work and Word—a plan that spans spiritual and physical, old and new, encompassing both justice and mercy.

The book of Isaiah is packed with prophecies about Jesus the Messiah. Some examples, especially familiar at Christmastime, include Isaiah 7:14; 9:6; 11:1–2; 25:8; 40:2–5,11; 53:1–6. I hope you’ll take time to discuss some of them with your family this Advent season. As you read, notice what Isaiah’s prophesies are doing, uniting what we might tend to keep apart.

  1. Connecting the spiritual and the physical. Isaiah’s prophesies speak of virgins,  infants, trees, and fruit, wolves, lions, roads, and roots, mountains, valleys, flocks, and shepherds. God is at work in the real world. Sometimes our Bible lessons might seem like God is only interested in character qualities or spiritual truths, but he came to Earth as a real human with hunger pains, tear ducts, sweat glands, and blood vessels—to save real humanity. If we talk to our kids as if God and Jesus and the Bible are good for the invisible world—for the heavenly realm—but not for real life, then we’re not only miscommunicating God’s Word, we may also be communicating that what God says is not real. Instead, let’s help our children see that God’s Word describes the real world.
  2. Connecting the Old Testament prophecies to the coming Messiah. When the New Testament authors quote the Old Testament, they cite it as the very Word of God. It’s not just that God said something (in the past tense), but that he continues to speak through those ancient Scriptures (in the present tense) today. For example, Matthew writes that Isaiah “says” (Matt. 13:14 citing Isa. 6:9); Luke writes that the prophet Isaiah “says” (Acts 7:48–49 citing Isa. 66:1–2), and Paul writes that Isaiah “says” (Rom. 10:11 citing Isa. 28:16). When we read Isaiah to our families, we hear him pointing to the Messiah. And we hear God speaking to us today. As such, the Bible has never mainly been a book that we examine. Instead, it’s always been a book that examines us. So as you read Isaiah to your family, remind them that all of God’s Word, both Old and New Testaments, speaks to us today with God’s own authority.
  3. Connecting actions and accountability. Some of Isaiah’s most striking prophecies contain stunning metaphors of judgment. A stubborn donkey refusing to obey (1:2–3); the stench of rotten fruit (5:1–2); a tree stripped of its fruit (17:6); a swimmer attempting a run away from God (25:11). Isaiah paints dark and terrible pictures of the person who rebels against God. If the sinner does not turn back, he will face judgment, the kind that is as terrible as it is unavoidable. There’s an unbreakable connection, then, that exists between the responsibility of human actions and the justice of God’s response. If somehow we paper over this livewire, we neglect to serve the next generation well. Yet even this does not cover the breadth of his plan.
  4. Connecting weakness with strength, freedom with forgiveness. Isaiah’s prophesies startle us not just in their statements of judgment but in their promises of mercy. Who among us would ever have created a hero who is also weak and unattractive, disfigured and despised (52:14–53:3)? Yet this is the One who saves the day—a baby, not a warrior (7:14), a tiny shoot out of the dry ground (11:1–2; 53:2). Our human nature wants the mighty and majestic to win. That’s why we feel good about ourselves on our good days, and bad on our bad days. We traffic in the currency of what we feel we’ve earned. Yet the one who came in weakness and misery meets us where we actually are. We don’t have to become strong to meet the Strong One; and we don’t have to become attractive to access the Beautiful One. He meets us and forgives us not because of who we are or what we deserve. Therefore his forgiveness is completely free—wine and milk without money and without cost (55:1).

So let’s keep together what God has put together. Let’s help the next generation take in the vastness of God’s work and Word—a plan that spans spiritual and physical, old and new, encompassing both justice and mercy. As we read the ancient prophecies of Isaiah this holiday season, let’s help our children hear God’s own voice of authority and love. A voice that always says “Yes and Amen” in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).

By / Nov 27

In a year when every circumstance seems to conspire against feeling festive, traditions have a star role to play. You may not have the typical budget for buying presents; may not have the energy to cut out cookies, take a family photo, or address 100 cards; and may not even be permitted to celebrate with friends and family, but there is one wise custom with the power not only to direct our emotions regardless of our circumstances, but also to fill us with hope. That ritual is the intentional observance of Advent.

I have good memories of “doing Advent” as a young girl. I remember my parents bringing down a centerpiece wreath from the attic and lighting the candles incrementally each Sunday as they read from the Bible. They impressed on me the joy of marking the weeks leading up to Christ’s birth, building expectation. I knew they were intent on teaching us that when it came to Christmas, what mattered most was the birth of mankind’s Savior.

From Jesus to Santa

For generations, Advent was a central part of the liturgical calendar. Christians marked the days, preparing to glory in the birth of Christ. This was the most important part of Christmas. 

Not one to miss an opportunity to sell something, retailers have gotten in on the Advent action. My favorite grocery store tried a few years ago when it introduced a pricey, high-end chocolate Advent countdown calendar. While it’s true that imported Swiss, Dutch, and Belgian chocolates would be a vast improvement over the cheap waxy stuff behind the mini-doors in most dollar-store Advent calendars, they missed the point entirely. Getting serious about Advent has nothing to do with confections, or counting down days till Santa comes, but with conviction: teaching children to eagerly anticipate, and celebrate, the baby who came.  

In the West, Advent is increasingly being viewed from a commercial standpoint. (You might think I’m being a little harsh toward the Advent calendar makers, but lately I’ve even seen calendars for dogs and cats!) We’re letting the world steal away a prime opportunity for teaching children the truth about Jesus’ birth. 

Rethinking priorities

December has often been marked by the flurry of getting more baking done, rushing to the mall before the sales end, and the looming Dec. 25 deadline—that’s what Christmas can feel like: a shopping deadline. What if I don’t have an equal number of presents? What if they sell out of that must-have toy? What if I run out of money before I finish buying for everyone on my list?  

For all our “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” sentiments, we tend to do what we most value. Some years I think I must have most valued being busy. Doing the most. Social media only adds to that pressure to perform, and perform in picture-worthy ways. But suddenly that expectation has vanished. No one will expect proof of large, stylish gatherings this year. Quite the opposite. 

No matter what happens between now and the start of the new year, showing our children unwavering hope in the God who took on flesh is the best gift we can give them.

The question remains, what will we do with this upheaval?

How we feel about canceled parties and limited travel will reveal a lot about what we value most. Some sorrow over not being able to carry out all of our traditions is natural. But rather than mourning your way through a disappointing December, why not use the opportunity it offers to take measure of what’s most important to you? If you find that worldly ideas about celebrating Christmas have crept in, replace them with hope-filled truth.

Let this be the year we change course. Rather than complaining about all we can’t do this December, embrace this Christmas as a great opportunity to focus on what we can

Trees, books, songs

Wanting to give our own kids more than visions of too much sugar and materialism, we sought to celebrate Advent intentionally early on. The first few years, we read Old Testament prophecies and New Testament fulfillments. Then we added some homemade ornaments to accompany the readings and adorn a small tabletop tree. We’ve used family devotionals that include Scripture with a short reflection (Scott James’s The Expected One) as well as a story (Arnold Ytreeide’s Jotham’s Journey), and one that suggested related carols (Christopher Ash’s Repeat the Sounding Joy). 

There is a host of faithful resources to choose from with even more being added this season. Books from John Piper, Paul David Tripp, Barbara Reaoch, Marty Machowski, David Mathis, and Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth come to mind. For younger ones with busy hands, an activity like Truth78’s Good News of Great Joy, or a do-it-yourself Jesse Tree, or felt-and-ribbon countdown can help build the anticipation children feel as they look forward to Jesus’ birthday. 

The most important aspect of a Christian Advent is that it anticipates Jesus. “For four weeks, it’s as if we’re re-enacting, remembering the thousands of years God’s people were anticipating and longing for the coming of God’s salvation, for Jesus,” says Noel Piper. “That’s what advent means—coming.”

When deciding how to structure your study, look for books and activities that fit your children’s ages. It’s best to keep your readings and activities concise and regular, bearing in mind the attention span of your youngest children. A little every day for 31 days is better than an hour on Dec. 1 that leaves everyone weary of trying again on Dec. 2. Unlike many Christmas traditions that are annual one-time events (think Christmas Eve service, watching your favorite movie, lighting the tree), Advent’s repetition, daily (or weekly) meditation throughout the month, is part of what makes it powerful. The rhythm and routine have a formative effect on children.  

Powerful patterns

In his Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis described ritual as “a pattern imposed on the mere flux of our feelings by reason and will, which renders pleasures less fugitive and griefs more endurable, which hands over to the power of wise custom the task (to which the individual and his moods are so inadequate) of being festive or sober, gay or reverent, when we choose to be, and not at the bidding of chance” (Oxford University Press, 1952, p. 21).

If ever there were a Christmas at risk of being hijacked by our feelings, it’s Christmas 2020. Returning to the rhythms of Advent traditions––and if you’ve never had them, starting them––is more important than ever. The earth may tremble, the mountains may fall into the heart of the sea, but we will not fear if God is our refuge (Ps. 46:1-2). No matter what happens between now and the start of the new year, showing our children unwavering hope in the God who took on flesh is the best gift we can give them.

By / Nov 26

In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg tells the story of how football coach Tony Dungy turned around the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Leading the Bucs was Dungy’s first head coaching job, and when he arrived in Tampa in 1996, Tampa Bay was among the worst teams in the league. Previous coaches had trained the Buccaneer defense in several complex formations. Defensive captains would try to read what the offense planned to do and then choose the best defensive strategy. They were trying to make the smartest decision possible in the moment and then get their teammates lined up correctly. 

When Dungy arrived, he didn’t bring a more complex playbook. Instead, he simplified Tampa Bay’s approach, building on habits they’d already put in place. His defense had fewer and less complicated formations. And instead of waiting for their captains, he taught every player to read the offense. He wanted them to line up in a split second as a matter of habit. The result was a defensive unit that began to play with greater confidence, began winning, and even made the playoffs the following year.

A simple approach to developing habits

Children’s ministry leaders and family pastors want to equip parents to teach the gospel to their children. But it can be tempting to overthink our approach—to try to build complex ministry programs and strategies for family discipleship. But what if we took Tony Dungy’s simpler and more habit-driven approach? What if we simplified our strategies? Moms and dads, what if we all built little discipleship habits on top of the family rhythms we are already keeping? 

Much of how we respond to life is rooted in our habits, and there may be no time when habit and tradition shows up more clearly than at the holidays. As a matter of tradition and habit, we gather with the family for turkey and the fixings on Thanksgiving and then settle in the family room to watch the football games over the course of the weekend. We set up the tree, hang the stockings and lights, and put on the Martina McBride Christmas album—at least that’s the habit in our house. 

For me, the holiday season was also the time when I learned how to lead my family devotionally. A pastor shared a devotional website with our family, and then we set up a tiny one-and-a-half-foot Christmas tree from the discount store in our living room. As the devotional challenged us, we hung a laminated paper ornament for each day of Advent. Each ornament on the tree corresponded to the story of a person from Jesus’ family tree. By reading through the devotionals I printed out and hanging the ornaments, we developed a habit of reading the Bible together as a family that stuck with us beyond that first year. 

And here’s the thing. I’m not always consistent with family devotions throughout the year, but the Advent season always seems to draw our family back to time in the Word together. After all, that devotional Christmas tree and other Advent devotionals we’ve collected over the years are kept with our boxes of Christmas decorations. And when the kids see them, they ask, “Which book are we reading this year? Are we going to hang the Bible story ornaments?” Then, as a matter of habit, we’re beckoned back to our habit of discipleship—to the kind of rhythm that the prophet Jeremiah describes as a “well-worn path.”

Much of how we respond to life is rooted in our habits, and there may be no time when habit and tradition shows up more clearly than at the holidays.

Does your local church or family have a devotional path that you walk each Advent season. If not, take advantage of this holiday season to build new discipleship habits on top of the family traditions you’re already keeping. Here is a list of resources that I think you’ll find to be helpful. It includes great picture books to read with preschoolers, devotional adventures—including a few with Bible story ornaments—for grade school kids, and two great books to read with your teens or your spouse. 

Four picture books for preschoolers

Lizzie Laferton’s There’s a Lion in my Nativity! (Good Book Company, 2020) tells the story of a school nativity play. The girl playing Mary thinks she is the star of the show, but as the play goes on, she finds that every scene has been stolen by an unlikely character or object—a tent, a phone, a lion! With warm and colorful illustrations, this rhyming book unpacks the true meaning of Christmas.

Dan DeWitt’s The Bright Light and the Super Scary Darkness (B&H Kids, 2020) reminds kids that the light of the gospel will win in the end. This excellent book for the Advent season emphasizes how Jesus came at Christmas as the Light of the World. It reassures preschool age children who struggle with fear and anxiety and offers them courage in the truth that Jesus’ love remains strong no matter how dark life may seem.

My friend Annie Kratzch’s Just Nicholas: A Story Older Than Santa (Matthias Media, 2015) is one of my favorites. It tells the true story of Saint Nicholas of Myra, the man who gave what he had to help others because he was grateful for what God had given him. As a young boy, Nicholas learned the story of Jesus from his parents. When he grew up, he lived out his Christian faith in a unique and selfless way that we still celebrate today.

Also, my newest Christmas book, Jesus Came for Me: The True Story of Christmas (New Growth, 2020) is a durable board book that teaches toddlers and young preschoolers that Jesus Christ, our great God, was born as a little baby, and his birth is good news and great joy for all people! The book begins with the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth to Zechariah and ends with the visit of the wise men. The book’s three stories can be read to young toddlers and ready by first readers. They’ll help your little one know that Jesus is always present, and that he helps us to believe and wait for him.

Four devotional adventures for school-age children

Our friend, Scott James, has written The Littlest Watchman (Good Book Company, 2017), which tells the story of a boy named Benjamin who watches for the fulfillment of the “root from Jesse” prophecy. The book has an accompanying Advent calendar and devotional that includes instructions for making craft ornaments.

Unexpected Gift by Annie Kratzch and Tessa Janes (10Publishing, 2020) tells the story of the incarnation and the story of the people who hear that news. The accompanying activity book includes 25 hands-on crafts and 25 Bible verse ornaments that will help children to prepare for Christmas day. 

Ronnie Martin’s The Best Gift Ever Given: A 25-Day Journey Through Advent (Harvest House, 2019) teaches kids that toys and games are great, but the best gifts are from God, because they last a lifetime and beyond. This devotional will help your family understand the Bible points toward Jesus. Each day kids learn a key Scripture passage, interact with modern illustrations that correspond with the passage, answer open-ended questions that help to apply the day’s reading, and read a prayer that reinforces the Bible passage’s key truth.

Marty Machowski’s Prepare Him Room (New Growth, 2014) unpacks one Old Testament prophecy about Christ’s coming during each week of Advent. The accompanying family activities—which include baking cookies and taking them to the neighbor with the best Christmas decorations—are a great way to form family habits, and the accompanying four-week children’s ministry curriculum can help groups of churches use it during Advent season as well.

Two books to warm the hearts of teens and adults

Daniel Darling’s The Characters of Christmas (Moody, 2019) helps us take a fresh look at the Christmas story by introducing some of the minor characters that played a part in Jesus birth. His book can help your teen to slow down and engage their imagination. And the discussion questions and Christmas song suggestions at the end of each chapter make this book perfect for engaging your whole family.

Finally, Russ Ramsey’s The Advent of the Lamb of God (IVP Books, 2018) reminds readers of how for centuries God’s people awaited the coming of a Savior. In the midst of a world of trouble, they hoped for one who would deliver them from evil and restore them to true life. The story encompasses the whole of the Old Testament and all of human history, unveiling God’s long-suffering, loving pursuit of his people.

By / Nov 11

The Bible is very clear that Mary conceived the boy Jesus before she had slept with any man. She was engaged to Joseph but had not slept with him (Luke 1:27); she would not sleep with him until after they were married and Jesus was born (Matt. 1:25). She was a godly young woman; Joseph was a righteous man. They lived in a culture that valued virginity before marriage, in a way that is foreign to our society but right and beautiful. They knew as well as we do that babies are not conceived except by the natural process of human procreation.

So, when Gabriel tells Mary that she will conceive a baby, she is very surprised. Very, very surprised. “How will this be . . . since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34).

The virgin conception of the Lord Jesus is both wonderful and meaningful; it points us to at least three facets of the incarnation. 

1. God is sovereign

This miracle makes it clear that the sending of Jesus was entirely the sovereign work of God himself. The astonishing births of Isaac, Jacob, and Esau, and then others in the Old Testament all the way down to John the Baptist, at least involved both a father and mother who wanted a child and—as we put it—were “trying for a baby”. But this most astonishing conception of them all involves no human desire or intention or involvement; God simply does this miracle by his own sovereign decision in the womb of the very surprised Mary (and to the surprise of the uninvolved Joseph).

The apostle John writes that Christians are given “the right to become children of God—children born [spiritually] not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will”; instead we are “born of God” (John 1:12-13). What becomes true of us spiritually by new birth (entirely the decision and initiative of God) echoes what was true of the Lord Jesus’ supernatural conception: no human desire or husband’s will was involved. No human beings did anything to help God send Jesus; God decided to do it, and he did it. There is no room for spiritual smugness on our part.

This miracle makes it clear that the sending of Jesus was entirely the sovereign work of God himself.

2. God did not adopt Jesus

The virgin conception of Jesus proves to us that God did not adopt Jesus as his Son. Sometimes people suggest that Jesus was a remarkable man, and so God decided to adopt him as his Son, perhaps at his baptism or at his birth. But the virgin conception means that from the very first moment of his human existence, Jesus was (and had always been) the eternal Son of God. Indeed, in that instant the One who had been God the Son from all eternity took upon himself a human nature: “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). 

This moment—this hidden, unwitnessed instant in the womb of the virgin Mary—was the most astonishing miracle in all of human history. 

3. God became man

The virgin conception of Jesus points to the mystery that this boy was at the same time both fully human—inheriting a fully human nature from Mary—and also fully divine. In some astonishing way that we can never completely describe or analyze, Jesus Christ was, and is, fully man and fully God. He is fully human, and yet without the taint and defilement of the sinful, spoiled nature that each of us inherits from our father and mother.

This matters. It means that, standing in heaven now at the right hand of the Father, there is a perfect high priest who is able “to feel sympathy for our weaknesses”, who “has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Heb. 4:15). Jesus understands that loss of temper with your housemate, that selfish decision for your own comfort over serving others, that lustful or covetous thought. He knows. And yet he was without sin; and so he can save you out of it all.

No wonder Christians down the ages have stood in awe and wonder as they—and now we—have contemplated the miracle of Jesus Christ, the Son of God made flesh.

This is an excerpt from Christopher Ash’s new Advent devotional Repeat The Sounding Joy. This devotional will help you to celebrate afresh the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah in history, and learn what it means to wait for him with joyful expectation today.

By / Dec 18

Each Advent season, I find myself reading through a Gospel. There is just something about revisiting the story of Jesus in the weeks leading up to Christmas that is good for my soul. This year, I’ve been especially helped by that practice as I reflect back on the tumultuous events of 2017.

Chaos and conflict

This has been a year of chaos and conflict. Natural disasters brought on devastating flooding in Houston and Puerto Rico, historic wildfires in northern California, and earthquakes, monsoons, and mudslides that affected or displaced countless thousands of people across the globe. Add to this the acts of terror we’ve witnessed this year, including bombings, multiple mass shootings, and vehicular assaults, all of which have heightened our collective sense of fear. And as we wind down the year, we do so beneath the looming shadow of a very public confrontation with the disturbing, predatory culture of sexual aggression that has for too long defined many of our nation’s most preeminent institutions. All of this, without mentioning the unceasing chaos of politics in our divided and uncertain time.

These things take their toll on us. After receiving word of another shooting, witnessing the devastation of a violent storm, watching the next prominent figure be publicly disgraced, or experiencing any number of personal tragedies, we are repeatedly forced to grapple again with common questions. We ask how God could let this happen. We ask how much more we can take. We ask who is next. And in all of this, we search desperately for some reason not to despair.

In the wake of such a difficult year, one filled with so much brokenness and so much pain, the most pressing question that arises is also very simple: is there any hope?

Nothing reminds us of the brokenness of our world like tragedy. And sadly, tragedy is all around us. In ways both big and small, our lives are filled with constant, and often painful, reminders that something isn’t right; things aren’t they way they are supposed to be. In the wake of such a difficult year, one filled with so much brokenness and so much pain, the most pressing question that arises is also very simple: is there any hope?

Advent and Incarnation

Every year, as we take stock of the events that mark the past and make our plans for the days ahead, Advent comes around again. In God’s providence, the very time of year when we are most inclined to reflect and remember is full of reminders of the coming of Jesus. This is not by accident.

As a millenial who didn’t grow up celebrating Advent, I find the practice to be both strange and important. Advent is strange because it signifies a period of waiting. Anyone who has spent more than five minutes with a millennial—myself included—is aware that we aren’t accustomed to waiting for anything. So, I find the practice strange because it runs against the grain. Coincidentally, this is the same reason I believe it is so important.

Advent is a season of waiting and expectation. As we count down the days to Christmas, these weeks are filled with anticipation. And in the midst of our year-end reflections, Advent points us toward a hope that transcends even the worst of circumstances. Jesus was born into chaos so that he might bring peace.

Jesus, after all, was not delivered in a hospital room or even inside of someone's home. Instead, he made his entrance into the world among the beasts of a manger. And as an infant, he and his parents fled to a faraway country, seeking refuge from a wicked despot who sought to take his life. At the Incarnation, God’s perfect Son came into our broken world to become Emmanuel—God with us.

Our waiting isn’t in vain

It is fitting that the biggest question brought on by tragedy is answered at the incarnation. This is because the sense of waiting and anticipation we feel at Advent is similar to the longing and expectation born out of tragedy. In the midst of our darkest days and deepest sorrows, we long for respite and relief. More than that, we long for a time when these horrible events that mark our years will finally come to an end—an end to cancer, an end to sexual assault, an end to earthquakes and hurricanes, an end to racial hatred, and an end to violence of every kind. Advent teaches us that our waiting is not in vain.

We all experience days when the darkness seems too strong, and hope feels far away. The Incarnation reminds us that light has pierced that darkness and has become our living hope (John 1:5; 1 Pet. 1:3). There is an infinite amount of hope bound up in the Incarnation. No matter how desperate the circumstance or deep the darkness, nothing is more powerful than the truth that, in Jesus, God came for us.

Jesus took on flesh and suffered a brutal death on the cross so that our suffering might come to an end. Even now, he is still Emmanuel, and he is with us in every moment of our pain. As we long for deliverance, we remember Jesus’ coming. Though the world is full of darkness, Jesus is the true light who has come into the world. Though we are tempted to despair, we remember Jesus is our blessed hope. And though we struggle in this life, we eagerly await the fulfilment of his promise, that surely he is coming soon (Rev. 22:20).

Even when life is most peaceful, there is never any shortage of evidence to remind us of how fallen and broken things are. Reading through the Gospels each year at Advent reminds me that Jesus literally stepped into our brokenness. I’m not sure there is a better hope than that.

By / Dec 23

There is something really wonderful about the word, advent. We know this word from other contexts besides religion. We say things like, “Since the advent of the automobile…” Or “Since the advent of the modern era…”

Advent signals something new is coming. The dawn of a new and better era. This is really what Christmas is about, isn’t it? It’s the celebration of the coming of a new era. God broke into time and space and entered our world. He is Immanuel, God with us. He broke in the midst of the sin and clamor and the fallenness. He came as a vulnerable baby in a poverty-stricken town to ordinary people, in a time of great political unrest. Advent–Christ’s Advent–means that God sees us in our distress, in our sin-ravaged condition, in all of our helplessness.

We’d like to think we can save ourselves from ourselves. We’d like to think with a few tweaks here and there, we can create the Heaven we long for. We’d like to think with a bit more progress and education we can overcome evil. But alas, we know we cannot. Tragic news stories in 2016 remind us that evil invades even the safest, most beautiful environments on this earth. But the hope of Christmas tells us that Christ invades even the most evil, sin ravaged places on this earth.

The first Advent is worth celebrating with great joy because it tells us a new day is here. Christmas is the dawn of something to come. It fills us with hope that the endless cycle of sin, violence and hopelessness of human history will someday be reversed. The curse that was put on mankind, on the universe, is not forever. God broke in as man and God. By his life, death and resurrection, he defeated sin and death. As hymn writer Isaac Watts wrote:

No more let sins and sorrows grow,

Nor thorns infest the ground;

He comes to make His blessings flow

Far as the curse is found,

Far as the curse is found,

Far as, far as, the curse is found.

We should celebrate Christmas joyfully with gifts, with food, with singing and with festive decorations because Jesus has come. God is with us. And the First Advent signals a second advent, a coming of a King whose Kingdom will end all other kingdoms and whose rule will create the world we all long for but can’t create. His glory will spread through the earth and sin, sickness and death will be no more. The enemy will be forever silenced.

So, celebrate Christmas, not as a scrooge, not as a scold, but with overflowing joy. Because the Lord has come.

By / Dec 26

Time was full, ready to give birth.

A promise had been given and many had whispered of it afterward when they walked along the road and when they tucked their children in at night and when the world groaned with labor pains. 

“Through your seed all the nations shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:3)

There were years and there were signs of pregnancy: examples and types, heralds and spokesmen, lone voices.

Foreshadowing.

And waiting. Waiting upon waiting. For some, too long waiting on seemingly empty promises.

Habakkuk, one lone voice among the waiting, cried out in the night: “O LORD, how long shall I cry, and You will not hear?” (Hab. 1:2)

Violence, plundering, strife, and iniquity prevailed. Perverse judgment proceeded. The waiting people were suffering. How long, O Lord?

God called to mind the original promise. “Look among the nations and watch–be utterly astonished! For I will work a work in your days which you would not believe, though it were told you.” (Hab. 1:5)

And then there was silence. Physical eyes saw the continued rise of strife and struggle. Of evil. 

The people were waiting, the whispered promise almost forgotten.

But God.

He was silent, but he was working, knitting in the womb of time. 

His hands upended the world map, raising first the Babylonians to conquer and scatter God’s people, who in turn built synagogues in far-flung outposts. Then the Greeks rose to center-stage, bringing with them a love for words and ideas and creating a common world language. Finally, the Romans appeared, conquered the known world, building roads and throwing open borders.

Outpost synagogues where people gather to hear news and ideas? In a language all can understand? Brought by messengers through open borders and able roads? 

“For I will work a work in your days which you would not believe, though it were told you.”

The womb of time grew heavy under God’s steady hand. 

“When the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth his Son . . .” (Gal. 4:4)

The womb of time burst open. Silence gave way to the Word. The cries from lone voices of long ago rang with truth, and their prophetic utterances fell in quick succession–born of a virgin, a son of Bethlehem, wrapped in swaddling clothes. 

The angels sang. The wise men sought. Mary pondered. And then . . .

He was hidden because Herod was hunting.

Silence.

Waiting. 

Time seemed pregnant again.

Finally, a lone voice broke the decades-old silence, proclaiming to anyone who would listen that the kingdom of God was at hand.

The water turned to wine. The fish and loaves multiplied. And The Word started speaking, but his words were so . . . unexpected. The crowds pressed in on him, trying to knit him according to their desires. He fled them, knowing their expectations and that time was premature.

John, in prison, sent men to Jesus with one question: “Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?” (Matt. 11:3)

Violence, plundering, strife and iniquity prevailed. Perverse judgment proceeded. The waiting people were suffering. How long, O Lord? 

But God was knitting in the womb of time. The labor pains grew increasingly intense; those who had eyes to see and ears to hear followed them closely. Jesus vocalized what was to be birthed– “I have come that you might have life.”–and the means by which God would do so.

Death.

The crowds gathered, waving palm branches over their expectations, but soon after turned away, having misunderstood the whispered promise.

“For I will work a work in your days which you would not believe, though it were told you.”

There would be no earthly kingship. There would be no toppling of Roman rule. 

There would only be death.

Are you the coming One, or do we look for another?

Silence and grief. Waiting and helplessness. Scattering and sorrow.

But Jesus.

He labored unto death, tore the veil from top to bottom, and rebuilt the temple in three days.

The angels announced. Women ran to tell. The Holy Spirit fell. And then . . .

Time became pregnant again.

A whispered promise. “I will come again and receive you to Myself.” (John 14:3)

Waiting. We are a people waiting.

The world has filled up again with darkness. Violence, plundering, strife, and iniquity prevail. Perverse judgment proceeds. People are suffering. 

How long, O Lord? 

“For I will work a work in your days which you would not believe, though it were told you.”

And God labors, bringing forth the fullness of time, when time will give way to eternity.

Until then, we wait in perpetual Advent, with eyes open to see and ears cocked to hear. 

The labor pains are increasing, reminding of us his words: “Surely I am coming quickly.” (Rev. 22:20)

The waiting people, whispering the promise to our children, say, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”

Originally posted here.

By / Dec 25

“This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about . . . “ (Matthew 1:18-25).  With those words, the Bible begins the story of Christmas, an event that has become the most widely observed cultural holiday in the world.

Here are five facts you should know about the annual commemoration of the birth of Jesus:

1. No one knows what day or month Jesus was born (though some scholars speculate that it was in September). The earliest evidence for the observance of December 25 as the birthday of Christ appears in the Philocalian Calendar, composed at Rome in 336.

2. Despite the impression giving by many nativity plays and Christmas carols, the Bible doesn't specify: that Mary rode a donkey; that an innkeeper turned away Mary and Joseph (only that there was no room at the inn); that Mary gave birth to Jesus the day she arrived in Bethlehem (only that it happened "while they were there"); that angels sang (only that the "heavenly host" spoke and praised God); that there were three wise men (no number is specified) or that the Magi arrived the day/night of Jesus' birth.

3. Rather than being born in a stable, Jesus was likely born in a cave or a shelter built into a hillside. The hills around Bethlehem were dotted with small caves for feeding and boarding livestock. The exact site of Jesus' birth is unknown, but by the third century, tradition had established a probable cavern. Constantine's mother, Helena, erected the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem over the small space.

4. The X in Xmas was not originally intended, as some people believe, to "take Christ out of Christmas." The written symbol X was frequently used to represent the letter in the Greek alphabet called Chi (the first letter in the Greek word Christos). In many Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, X abbreviates Christos (Xristos). This practice entered the Old English language as early as AD 1000 and by the 15th century, "Xmas" was widely a used symbol for Christmas.

5. Origin of Christmas terms: "Christmas" is a compound word originating in the term "Christ's Mass," derived from the Middle English Cristemasse

Other Articles in the 5 Facts Series:

Cuba  •   Modern Slavery  •  HIV and AIDS  •  Thanksgiving • Cooperative Program  •  Military Suicides • Gambling in America • Truett Cathy • Hunger in America • Suicide in America • Christian Persecution • Civil Rights Act of 1964 • Supreme Court’s contraceptive mandate decision • Fathers and Fathers Day • Euthanasia in Europe • Marriage in America • March for Life • Abortion in America • ‘War on Poverty’

By / Nov 24

Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly . . . . ‘Tis the Season to Be Jolly.”

‘Tis the season again—the season when “wars” break out over Christmas.

These wars are fought on several fronts. Private businesses and retail stores decide what greetings to use, and pro-Christmas forces counter attack with boycotts and lists of naughty and nice businesses. In public institutional settings, such as public schools and courthouse squares, officials select music pieces for programs and symbols for public displays, and pro-Christmas forces campaign in opposition, sending threatening letters, drafting legal memoranda, and filing lawsuits. In these engagements, the law and the courts can become instruments of force strategically employed in the combat.

Without a doubt, many within our society actively oppose Christianity and expressions of Christian faith in public settings. Some certainly seek to secularize the Christmas holiday season, remove Christian symbols from public places and institutions, and chill Christian witness. The mayor of the city of Houston, Texas, recently demonstrated with unmistakably clarity the eagerness of some public officials to use the coercive powers of government and law to intimidate and silence Christian speakers. Furthermore, the forces of secularism are especially busy during the Christmas holiday season, which is the second most important holiday season in the Christian calendar. In some cases, however, decisions and actions may be motivated by more benign factors, such as a heightened sensitivity to the religious pluralism found throughout American society.

The Christmas wars stir us to think about important legal, constitutional, and social issues raised by these battles over greetings at cash registers, Christmas carols in public schools, and religious symbols in public squares. But, before we resume our engagement in the Christmas wars, let us pause to reflect on a larger issue that remains a perpetual concern for Christians—how do we relate to the world around us? Our answer to this question will shed light on the aims we seek to achieve through our participation in the Christmas wars and the tactics we employ, and the greatest insights into our answer were provided by Jesus in words he spoke in the days just before his crucifixion.

“Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne and Thy Kingly Crown, When Thou Camest to Earth for Me.”

We can begin to answer this question by placing Christmas in a broader context. In the Western Christian calendar, Advent is the first season of the liturgical year, and the first Sunday of Advent (November 30th this year) is the first day of the liturgical new year. The Christmas season follows the Advent season, and it begins on December 25 (Christmas day) and lasts for 12 days into January. Christians have set aside Advent as a season of preparation and hope for the first and second comings of Christ and Christmas as a season of celebration of the incarnation of the Lord and the kingdom of God.

We see thus that the Advent and Christmas holiday seasons focus our attention on the coming of our Lord and the coming of the kingdom of God. In coming as a man and being born a defenseless child, the Son of God “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being found in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:7, NIV) He left his throne in heaven to live among us in a world in rebellion against him, but he did not come simply to be born and live among us. He came to make the kingdom of God present among us, to suffer and die at our hands, and to rise from the dead for our salvation. As Matthew wrote, he came “to serve” and “to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28, NIV) Consequently, the seasons of Advent and Christmas direct our attention to Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday and to the seasons of Lent and Easter, which are set aside in the Christian calendar as seasons of repentance, preparation for Jesus’s death and resurrection, and celebration of salvation in Christ and his victory over sin and death.

During the days leading up to his crucifixion, Jesus provided some clear teaching regarding the kingdom of God and the place of his followers in the world. When he appeared before Pilate, Jesus was asked whether he was the king of the Jews. He answered: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36, NIV) In response to Pilate’s observation that Jesus was a king, he responded: “You say I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into this world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 18:37, NIV)

One day earlier, in his high priestly prayer for his disciples, Jesus prayed:

I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.

(John 17:13-19, NIV) In his statement regarding his kingdom and his prayer for his disciples, Jesus revealed a paradox: his followers remain in the world, but they are not of the world. They do not belong to the world, and they are not citizens of this world. Rather, their citizenship is in the heavenly kingdom. The Apostle Peter amplified this point when he wrote of Christians as “exiles” and “foreigners” in the world. (1 Peter 1:1, 2:11, NIV) The writer of Hebrews also observed that the people of faith honored in Hebrews 11 understood that they were “foreigners and strangers on earth” and that they “long[ed] for a better country—a heavenly one.” (Hebrews 11:13, 16, NIV) For them, God “has prepared a city.” (Hebrews 11:16, NIV)

Jesus’s teaching on the kingdom immediately before his death built upon his earlier instruction regarding the heavenly kingdom. He taught that, with his coming, the kingdom of God broke into history, becoming present in the here and now. (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15) He taught that this kingdom will, as the gospel is preached, grow throughout the world until completion. (Matthew 13:31-33, 24:14) Jesus thus revealed that the kingdom of God is already here and that it is still to come. (Luke 16:16, 17:21, 22:16, 18, 29-30)

Jesus’s teaching regarding the two kingdoms that are present in this age gives us critical insight into how we answer the question of our relationship to the world. Jesus drew a sharp distinction between the earthly or worldly kingdom, which includes civil rulers and social institutions, and the heavenly or spiritual kingdom, which includes the redeemed who in faith receive God’s grace and submit to his rule. Although those who follow him may live in the world, their citizenship is in his spiritual kingdom, and thus they are not truly at home in the world.

“Truly He Taught Us to Love One Another; His Law Is Love and His Gospel Is Peace.”

Our recognition of this fundamental distinction gives us insight into our work and our engagement with others in the world. Over two centuries ago, during the American revolutionary period, the prominent Baptist minister Isaac Backus discussed the two kingdoms and some broader implications. In his Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty(1773), he wrote:

[Our Lord] declares, that the cause of his coming into the world, was to bear witness unto the truth; and says he, Every one that is of the Truth heareth my voice. This is the nature of his kingdom, which he says, is not of this world: and gives that as the reason why his servants should not fight, or defend him with the sword. John. 18.36,37. And it appears to us that the true difference and exact limits between ecclesiastical and civil government is this, That the church is armed with light and truth, to pull down the strong holds of iniquity, and to gain souls to Christ, and into his church, to be governed by his rules therein; and again to exclude such from their communion, who will not be so governed; while the state is armed with the sword to guard the peace, and the civil rights of all persons and societies, and to punish those who violate the same. And where these two kinds of government, and the weapons which belong to them, are well distinguished, and improved according to the true nature and end of their institution, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other: but where they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued; of which the Holy Ghost gave early and plain warnings.

Reprinted in Daniel L Dreisbach & Mark David Hall, eds., The Sacred Rights of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American Founding 209 (2009).

The weapons used to advance the kingdom of this world—aggression and violence, striving for, seizing, and exercising power, and obtaining and extending dominance—do not advance the heavenly kingdom. Rather, Christ’s kingdom is built and extended through the preaching of the good news of God’s love that was revealed in Christ. The “weapons” used to advance Christ’s redemptive kingdom are prayer, truth, and righteousness, faith and salvation, the gospel of peace and the word of God. (Ephesians 6:10-18) Through the Holy Spirit’s work in their lives, Christians are equipped with such qualities as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23) The contrast between the weapons used by citizens of the world and those used by citizens of the heavenly kingdom should be stark—so stark in fact that Jesus’s disciples are identifiable in the world by their love. (John 13:35)

Christians do, nevertheless, live their lives in this fallen world, and they engage in social and cultural activities. They work to order relationships and societies justly and to promote peace among all people. The lives Christians live and their good deeds in the world are meaningful and important. As the salt of the earth, they have a flavoring and preserving influence. (Matthew 5:13) As the light of the world, they illuminate those around them, and their good deeds point to God. (Matthew 5:14-16) In their cultural and social activities, they collaborate with other bearers of God’s image in creating and ordering, and these activities reflect the truth, goodness, and beauty that are deeply imprinted on their being by their creator.

But, their lives and their good deeds in this fallen world are not, in themselves, redemptive, kingdom-establishing, or kingdom-building. Rather, in such efforts, Christians faithfully serve according to their callings and participate in God’s providential governance of his creation, doing all for the Lord and his glory. (Colossians 3:17, 23-24) Although such efforts in the world may not come within the realm of God’s redemptive rule, God may use some of their good deeds for redemptive purposes in building his kingdom.

It is thus important that we not conflate the two kingdoms or confuse the nature of our work in the world. We need to refine our understanding of our lives and our work in the world based upon the two distinct realms of God’s rule—his spiritual, redemptive rule of his people and his providential rule of the temporal world he created.

“Lift High the Cross, the Love of Christ Proclaim, Till All the World Adore His Sacred Name.”

Yes, ‘tis the season again. But, before we reengage in the Christmas wars and become engrossed in the range of important legal, constitutional, and social issues that come with them, let us pause and reflect more broadly on our participation in these wars.

We can keep the Christmas wars in perspective by viewing Christmas in the light of Easter and recalling Jesus’s teachings regarding his kingdom and the place of his followers in the world. Jesus, the Incarnate Lord, came to suffer and die in this world and to rise for our salvation. He was clear that his kingdom is not of this world. Additionally, he taught that we, his followers, are not of this world. We need to remember that this world is not our home; rather, we are citizens of his redemptive kingdom. We have been left in the world to be his witnesses, telling the good news of God’s loving and redemptive work in Christ, and it is through the preaching of this gospel that Christ builds his kingdom.

Another key to having a proper perspective is to acknowledge that the two kingdoms use fundamentally different weapons and are advanced by different means and to understand that many of our efforts in the world are not within the realm of redemption, but rather within the realm of God’s providential rule of his creation. It is also important to remember that this world is hostile to God’s rule, that this world is temporary, and that life here is quickly passing. Consequently, civil government and social institutions have temporal ends, and our work in this world and our efforts to promote justice and peace through social institutions (while important) are provisional.