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Remember Who We Celebrate

Advent is a good time to read about the tiny child born in a manger, the humble beginnings of a remarkable life. But I am reading the omega of that story.

Let’s not pass thoughtlessly by the images in the Book of Revelation. Let’s not glaze over when we read the uncompromising declarations of Who He Is.

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,” says the Lord,

“who is

and who was

and who is to come, the Almighty.”

“One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band.  His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire;  His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters;   He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength.  And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead.”

I am the First and the Last.  I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death.

“Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth.”

“To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood,  and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever.”

And that’s only the first chapter!

The passages are visually astounding. The book is so visually strong. When we read Revelation, we feel like we’re strangers dropped off in a foreign country. That’s because we are. We are meant to feel overwhelmed, awed, small, lost. It is the place to open the eyes wide and be quiet, and to listen.

There are no grey areas in the declarations of His identity.

This Jesus-God from Revelation is the baby whose first cradle was a feeding trough. The all-powerful one is who He is now, without the disarming personas  He wore in his obedience and humility before His Father while on the earth. This One of the Book of Revelation is the One with whom we must make our peace.

There is only one response possible in heaven toward this One.

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands,  saying with a loud voice:

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain
To receive power and riches and wisdom,
And strength and honor and glory and blessing!”

 And every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, I heard saying:

“Blessing and honor and glory and power
Be to Him who sits on the throne,
And to the Lamb, forever and ever!”

 Then the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the twenty-four elders fell down and worshiped Him who lives forever and ever.

Jesus of Nazareth was among us on earth as a humble wanderer, a simple teacher who yet could not be suffered to live by the powers that were. These are the things He told us:

“As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you

You are my friends if you do what I command.

This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”

Let us remember Whose incarnation we are celebrating at this joyous Christmastime.

He came first as a newborn baby, as helpless and meek a creature as possible, in order to become one of us. The people of the world are at a disadvantage when we celebrate the lowly child’s birthday. It’s a comforting image; whether we regard the manger story as myth or history, we feel good about celebrating the poor underdog babe and congratulate ourselves on our insight about the disadvantaged child who would become the great teacher.

In the carol “We Three Kings,” each of the magi tells of his gift to the promised king. This verse from the third foreshadows Jesus’ life as a man:

Myrrh is mine: it’s bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

We who believe celebrate the tiny babe. And we remember that he is also the simple teacher, the willing martyr and the Resurrected One. He is the one to whom we are absolutely accountable. Ultimately we must remember the One who revealed himself to John and showed us who He is and will ever be.

He will not be disregarded by anyone. This babe is really the one with all power, the One who will be the Judge of all the earth, the one with the Keys to Hell and Death.

Kiss the Son lest He be angry,
And you perish in the way,
When His wrath is kindled but a little.
Blessed are all those who put their trust in Him

Why Shepherds?

The heavenly announcement that Immanuel had arrived first came to the least likely people. Shepherds were loners, spending most of each year outside of the cities and communities, keeping watch over sheep. They were an essential component of society but they were nevertheless part of an unsightly profession. They were probably the most remote, least social, most invisible people to spend this news upon.

The message came not to the important nor the socially connected. Not to the centers of city and government but to the forgotten wilderness. Why?

Consider that they were shepherds! Christ called himself a shepherd: we are his sheep. He lays down his life for the sheep. His sheep hear his voice and follow him. They trust him and only in him do they find comfort and safety. These men understood the role of the shepherd, and to shepherds first this Shepherd became known.

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There is a simple principle in Scripture, and in God’s economy. The least will be greatest; the last shall be first. The father knows that it is the neglected, the humble, the poor who are likely awake to his message.

The shepherds were awake. Jesus Christ was born deep in the night. Most people were in every way asleep. The most significant announcement in all of human history did not put on an extravaganza in the palace of the most powerful ruler. Only these lonely shepherds, wide awake and vigilant, experienced an angel’s announcement and a heavenly host’s praise!

Note that we are commanded more than once to be, like the shepherds, “awake.” This piece of news was not anticipated nor expected. There had been no prophets for 400 years. Aside from Holy Writ, God’s voice had remained silent for generations. How astounding was it that these few overnight shift laborers encountered such a message! Almighty God opening his intentions to the world, sending a message of hope and comfort, through these humble men. What a privilege.

God has always commissioned humble messengers. The rich and powerful were rarely chosen to be the bearers of his message. The shepherds— poor, outcast, possibly unkempt — ran and told what they had seen and heard to everyone who would listen. They presented a challenge to their hearers! One had to meet their news with one’s own measure of humility in order to believe their story, and to join them in becoming “awake.”

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Christmas Thoughts Still

Angels from God announce the births of John the Baptist and of Jesus the Christ. We marvel at Mary’s great faith when she humbly consents to the angel’s commission. We contrast her attitude with Zechariah’s, a request for proof from the angel. Both say something like, “How can this be?” But he is questioning the truth of the message while she is humbly asking how it could be accomplished (how can I have a baby, since I am a virgin? I am the Lord’s maidservant, but how?)

Given that Scripture records every person who is confronted with a heavenly messenger needing to be reassured first: “Do not be afraid,” both responses are remarkable.

Here is Zecharaiah, faced with an angel straight from the presence of God, overwhelming, terrifying. Yet he finds it appropriate to question whether the message could be true, and whether it will be possible for God to accomplish His will.

For Mary, the angel’s presence is enough. His appearance to her obliterated any need for proof, any doubts about what he would have to say. He is an emissary straight from God!

For Mary, the angel’s message is daunting but at the same time, reassuring. His words are straight from the God who sees her, knows her, blesses her above every other woman. She is one who honors God and she chooses to hear what He has to say in perfect trust.
Of the two, it is her response which is the more reasonable.

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The world will not blaze a path for you because you are commissioned with God’s work. Think of Mary again. Wasn’t it enough, she might have complained silently, that I bore for a time the shame of unmarried pregnancy, that I bear this child, but I must be present NOW so far away to be accounted like a sheep? The census decreed by Augustus was timing’s perfect storm for Mary. She rode ninety miles on a beast of burden just before it was her time to give birth.

Many of you remember what that nine-month burden feels like: heavy, awkward, the “dropped” baby lying full weight on your bladder. Now imagine riding on a donkey for ninety miles just like that. Make no mistake—that was real misery. No doubt Mary bore the unbearable circumstances better than most of us would have.

It is enough to say this fallen world will only make it harder to do right, much less to bear the greatest burdens that the Lord asks of us.

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Nothing Shall Be Impossible

To Mary:

For with God nothing shall be impossible.

To the disciples:

What is impossible with man is possible with God

when they wondered how a rich young ruler could send a camel through a needle’s eye.

Christ entering the womb of a virgin:

a baby where no baby could be.

Life created in an empty space

God living in a woman’s womb!

Christ entering the heart of each person:

Holiness, love, justice where

those things are not.

God present out of nothing, because we add nothing at all to God in our hearts.

But have we forgotten?

Creation.

God spoke life into a barren void

just like a virgin’s womb

like a human heart.

Thoughts on Christmas #Forever

This year in our part of the world, there was a shortage of live Christmas trees. We didn’t know about this until we went out on the evening of December 19 to buy one. Some lots were closed, sold out, some had six sad trees. We had to settle this year for the first time ever, for a short tree with its top lopped off and sparse, thin bottom branches. It seemed dry too.

We are not purists who must have the perfect tree. We delight in it, decorating it together is a special event, and this year was no exception. It’s only around for about three weeks anyway.

My sister in law once had a tree lose all its needles by Christmas Day. But we have never had a tree fail to last through the first full week of January, at least. Our ugly little tree is still going strong. Decked with lights and ornament, loved and enjoyed. It’s evergreen.

The baby in the manger. We pass over the Christmas scenario quickly, pushing on toward more serious devotional thoughts once the week is over, or once Advent concludes on Christmas Day. But I think the Incarnation bears reflection every day of the year. It’s evergreen.

Imagine you have never heard about the Nativity. Imagine hearing the news that The Creator of the Universe, Almighty God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the I AM…had been born a little human baby. What would your reaction be then?

Some key points:

1. A human newborn is helpless, weak, dependent, powerless. Jesus was fully man, submitting to all the limitations that we must, so he was fully a baby. Not a silent, wise, powerful baby. A baby. God chose to be as vulnerable as a person can be, utterly dependent on his earthly parents, at the mercy of mundane general harms, and exposed to malicious dangers arrayed against him personally.

2. The Incarnation was not symbolism. It was not a stunt, a metaphor, or an illustration.

The experience— committed to, seen through, walked, lived— was every second real. He was not performing, backstage while he performed the mundane, on stage when he performed the moments written down for us. Every minute had real significance, first because the Second Person of the Godhead had taken on flesh like ours and had submitted himself to everything we endure. But also:

 Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from what He suffered. And having been made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him

There was purpose embedded in every minute Jesus lived; He was not marking time or simply demonstrating. We cannot comprehend how the All-Sufficient could be in a position to learn, but we can recognize that the moments of his life lived were real and meaningful to Him, and that every second had perfect purpose.

3. I am still trying to comprehend the Incarnation. That The God of the Universe chose this way to express His Nature. This way— physical, messy, fraught with danger. Actually absurd! Think how He chose the way of service and total selflessness. He came to serve us in the most humble and humiliated manner possible.

In this way, He expressed his love and mercy toward us. He came close to us.

Here is stanza of a poem by George Herbert.

O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
Wrapt in night’s mantle, stole into a manger;
Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right,
To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger:

Furnish & deck my soul, that thou mayst have
A better lodging than a rack or grave.

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Thoughts on Christmas #3

First a Christmas thought. The third member of the Godhead, the eternal Creator, the Son, actually became Jesus of Nazareth, the man, at  certain time, in a certain place. It was real.  He was born a helpless baby, needy and dependent. As precious and sublime as any new child, and exposed to every danger and despair common to man. Uncommonly, death and hatred overshadowed his cradle the moment he was in it.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.

Why did he do it? If to reconcile all things to himself— No deus ex machina, no magic wand, no jedi mind tricks. He came. He became. He fully committed. He submitted to fetus, birth, baby, growing up, living a particular life, walking this sad world as a human being. Being misunderstood (but actually understood), dismissed, condemned, hated, pushed away, cast out, abandoned, tortured to death.

In order to reconcile all things to himself. For that is where all things belong, reconciled to him. It is where you and I belong too. He made us and our proper state is in reconciliation with him, in harmony with him, at peace with him.

That precious baby in the starry night is a pretty picture. Let us not forget all that it holds within.

A new routine. I get out of bed, I go downstairs in the dark. I light the tree only. I read on my ipad from an advent calendar (ccca.biola.edu) which accompanies its devotionals with art and poetry. I google more art from Medieval and Renaissance, mostly. I am intrigued by some insight, or several, in what I’ve read and seen. So then I write, and make a connection between the thoughts and the pictures.

It’s shamefully easy. Not like the life-wasting processes which produced the works, their creators to be compensated inadequately and the work seen by few. I lazily shuffle them together and present to the world via internet. Genius.

Nevertheless, I think My Father has been using this stingy bit of focus I achieve to speak to me. The centerpiece to each day is Scripture. I honor Scripture as the inspired Word from the lips of the Creator. So I give the Word its central place, and I see the connections from the art and the words leading to Scripture. They are reflections of it, illuminating it, illustrating it, bearing its Truth. And so the artists from hundreds of years ago still have much to say, thinkers throughout the ages can connect to what is said there and produce insights, meaningful synergies happen. The artists and scribes did all to the glory of God. And Glory to God, the works of hands and of ancient pens and of thoughts from last month proclaim the good news as if the Incarnation happened yesterday.

The news is relevant, fresh and still astonishing. Its meaning touches on everything, makes meaning where before we could see none. The Nativity is not a pretty children’s story, an old myth meant for simpler people, nor, thanks to God, a meaningless cultural trope.

Merry Christmas 2018, and a Happy New Year 2019.

Thoughts on Christmas #2

An Advent devotional I’ve been reading points out the clash between two simultaneous events: the census under Caesar Augustus and the birth of the Saviour. The census was an impersonal process, a bureaucratic measure of people as masses. The birth was a unique event wherein a particular person, more unique than most, was born in a certain place at a certain time. The census was an expression of government power over populations, the birth an expression of powerlessness embodying significance, and a single person’s investment in all human creatures as individuals.

It seems the birth happened just after Mary and Joseph’s arrival, the registration in the census after that. So that means that Joseph, Mary and their newborn were counted in the census.

Think about the implications.

The newborn babe, Jesus of Nazareth, was included in a counting of all the human beings in the empire.

From the moment of his birth, Jesus Son of Man identified with us and became one of us.  He was counted as just one more number in the numbers of persons to be ruled and taxed. Throughout his life, he exposed himself to every possible indignity, for being numbered is an indignity, a reminder of one’s subjection to power, a threat to keep one’s place. The Son Of God and The Son of Man, upon birth, became an undistinguished number on an official government record.

He exchanged omnipotence for complete dependence. He exchanged ultimate authority for grinding subjection. He exchanged glory and honor for dismissal and oppression.

But also note God’s thoroughness: it is recorded that Jesus was a real person, registered under duly established government. For God is a playwright whose scripts are real and perfect.

Merry Christmas.

 

 

Don’t We All Want Peace?

And suddenly there appeared with the angel a great multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,” Glory to God in the highest, and peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

I wonder at people now, who seem to want desperately to keep the pot stirred, who immerse themselves all day and night in the turmoil and hate of today’s social media world, who join in eagerly to add their voices to the screams of  cultural warfare. We are going to wear ourselves out, or have strokes in our rages.

Ours is a culture of overstimulation. But aren’t there moments, now and then, when we’ve had enough? Don’t we all really want some peace?

At Christmas we are celebrating a happening in real time and space, when God decided to come to earth, our dwelling place, not as a conquering overlord or incoming ruler, but as helpless a human being as can be. Almighty God, the Creator, actually became a newborn baby from a very poor family in an oppressed underclass, under downright primitive circumstances.

And it wasn’t a cameo appearance. He meant it. He committed to being that baby, living that life, seeing it through to its horrible end. He really became one of us and experienced all the anguish and grief we do, and much more than we do.

Can you imagine his perspective? He created a perfect—perfect universe—and then found himself living smack in the middle of what we had made of it. It was fallen, broken by our sin, harsh, hostile, unjust. What he had made but distorted and diminished and deranged.

He suffered. He experienced a horrible death both as a human man and as God. We cannot conceive of his suffering; his death was the result of allowing himself to be subject to the derangement and sin we had made of his world.

He did this so that he might save us from the hate we had wrought, that we might escape the consequences of our own evil. He took the blame for us, and his Father accepted the sacrifice, giving to us freely his holiness and guiltlessness.

At Christmas, we celebrate that time that God chose to become one of the least of us, and truly became one like us and among us. That is love.

And about that peace:

He said this:  Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. John 14:27

And suddenly there appeared with the angel a great multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,” Glory to God in the highest, and peace to men on whom his favor rests!”

God was announcing peace with us.  Personal peace, reconciliation, a restored personal relationship. Nothing on your ledger. This meant that we as individuals can have peace with God, a permanent remedy for our personal resistance against him. Peace with God.

We are meant to share that peace with our fellow earthlings. A community of those at peace with God surely creates peace on earth, a blessed refuge. Do you know another way to have peace?

If we find ourselves exhausted by all the strife, thinking that maybe we could find a little quiet place and feel peace for a little, we surely can have it. And much more. Our loving and merciful God wants us to come aside from the world and indulge in his peace. Merry Christmas.

Thoughts on Christmas

I am going to repeat a series I wrote back in 2018, with some revision. Here’s the first.

A few thoughts among many. I have been encouraged lately by art and writing inspired by The Christmas Event, that happening in real time and space when God the Son became one of us.

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A helpless newborn baby overpowers all the mighty socio-political powers and stratagems of the reigning authorities. The tiniest and most defenseless child thwarts the machinations of Herod and all that he represents. Herod’s ham-fisted response to the coming threat, though he wildly misunderstands what sort of threat he is, is to feign to get on board: sure I want to worship the greater-king-than-me, too — then to kill every possible suspect. But Herod and all his like were totally defeated from the moment the baby made his appearance.

The tiny child had help, of course, but that’s the point. He is the true authority, the Creator, the ultimate King. But as he is a helpless babe, his mother and earthly father have been appointed by God Almighty to nurture and protect him. Angels without number exclaim and His Father watches. His Father can but watch as The Son has chosen the long terrible road of the Incarnation.

His angels cannot help but rejoice so exhuberently that those who are waiting can see and hear them; they must announce the great news to all who will listen. His Father will be well pleased with His Son. He will accept his self-sacrifice on our behalf. He will raise him from the dead! His kingdom will have no end because his kingship is founded on his willing humility in relation to His Father and his total love for human beings.

So the defenseless baby’s birth sets off a series of events ending in the utter defeat of all the plans of God’s enemies.

The announcement comes to those who are awake in the night. These are social outsiders who spend their lives in the wilderness outside town, keeping the flocks safe. They are poor, unimportant loners. But they are awake to the news. The shepherds’ response to seeing for themselves that which the angels have announced is to go and tell everyone who will listen. One way or another, those who look for God’s graceful intrusion into human affairs hear the good news.

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.”

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This is The Nativity and Annunciation to the Shepherds, from the 13th century. I love this little illuminated illustration because its straightforward simplicity reflects the humble happening with the momentous glory hiding within.

I am an artist who often rails against the idea that art is a panacea to the negatives of this world. I tend to think art is, in practical terms, ineffectual to provide real help to us. But this Christmas, I have been encouraged a great deal during the peculiar stresses I during this season. God has graciously spoken to me through ancient and modern paintings,  poems, and music. I have been drawn to consider what this real event, the birth of Christ, means. And the artists behind these arts have become many voices, used by God, to bear me up and lead me to a quiet but real joy.

Merry Christmas.

Dehumanization

Do not dehumanize.

Are you finding yourself listening to someone who wants you to dehumanize any group of people? Are you obeying?

It was in grade school way back in the 1960’s that we learned that it was sloppy thinking, and wrong, to generalize. To assume that everyone who you perceive as belonging to some group is the same. If you’re swallowing any of the political water we swim in, if you are agreeing with your activists of choice, you are probably assuming a lot of bad things about huge communities of people, and about everyone on the “other” side.

You may be assuming that people you are supposed to love have thrown in with bad people and bad beliefs. You may not be checking with your loved ones to find out if they have; you may simply accept the word of public figures who don’t know you or your loved ones. You may be building a case which is not true. If you are wrong, then you have betrayed the people you’re supposed to care about and defend.

What if you are correct about your loved ones holding to beliefs you judge deplorable? How do you respond then? Let’s think about it.

Dehumanization is nothing to make light of. It is choosing to believe that everyone in an “other” category is less than— less than the best people, less than your tribe, less than you. Eventually you decide they are less than human.

It starts innocently, or does it? It starts with jokes! It starts with generalizing people into a group. Informing yourself about them using confirmation bias. Ridiculing them, then marginalizing them, then dismissing them, but alternately reserving the right to pull out those straw men to get angry at. Then you’re alright with disenfranchising them, excluding them, and eventually you’re alright with killing them, or seeing them killed.

Soft and harmless dehumanization is the seed of all atrocities and genocides. At the very beginning, it is hate. We cannot claim we have blind eyes to turn.

How do we avoid dehumanizing?

I must see each person as an individual, look them in the face and agree that they are as relevant, as valuable, as unique, as I am. That doesn’t mean accepting without discernment everything they do or say. It means I look past stuff which actually is not my business and value the person.

My job is to treat them fairly, as I would want to be treated. Really, my job is to love them. As they are, with their shortcomings, and with sympathy, since I’m not holy either. I can recognize that someone’s sins are objectively awful but that I am not the reconciler of all things.

As a follower of Christ, I should see a triangle here. As I stand in spirit facing another person, I am at one lower angle or corner of the triangle, the other person stands at the other lower corner, and God is at the top corner. I am on equal ground with any other person and God is the one we each need to be reconciled to. I cannot travel the other person’s upward angled relationship to God and he cannot travel mine. That person has no burden to to prove himself human to me, and I have no authority to to give or withhold the status of humanity from him.

That person is flawed just as I am, but he is an image bearer of God. God loves him so I must orient my valuing of him accordingly. He is a unique creation. We are both of immense worth.

We each must work out our relationship with God; every single human being has one. Although we might see each other’s faults, we can only exhort and encourage, advise and support. I can share with them, I can hope for them, and I can pray for them. I cannot judge, condemn, or execute consequences; I have no right to do so.

People deserve to be seen as individuals, on a personal level. As humans, as images of God.