Wednesday, November 30, 2011

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

John Mason Neale, in 1850, translated an ancient advent song (in Latin, "Veni Immanuel") into English to give us "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." Although he took it from a French Franciscan nun's processional, used in Lisbon, Portugal--it
probably dates back to the 8th century as a chant. I still hear the haunting echo of it's ancient roots every time I sing it.

The song throbs with the messianic expectations found in Old Testament prophetic passages. A dark and lost world yearns for the hope of the coming deliverer.

The inspiration for the first verse is Isaiah 7:14, the sign of the son born to a virgin, to be called "Immanuel" which means literally "God is with us." Of course, in Matthew 1:23 we are told that the birth of Jesus is the direct fulfillment of this prophecy.

The second verse refers to the "rod of Jesse" which is the shoot or branch that will grow from Jesse's tribe, mentioned in Isaiah 11:1. The promised Messiah will come from David's house to reign over God's kingdom.

The third verse refers to the "dayspring," which is also part of Zechariah's prophecy in Luke 1:78. The Messiah's coming will be like the rising of the sun of righteousness prophesied in Malachi 4:2. The light of His coming will dispel all darkness and burn away all iniquity.

The fourth verse calls the Messiah, "the Key of David," a reference to Isa. 22:22, "what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open." The Messiah will open the gates into God's eternal kingdom.

The final verse directly refers to Jesus as "Adonai" but in most modern versions "Wisdon from on High." The verse indicates that Jesus was the Lawgiver on Sinai. Revealing Him to be God Himself incarnate.

What a blessing that this wonderful Advent chant has been preserved for us to sing the ancient, wonderful and deep truths about the Messiah, whose incarnation we are preparing to celebrate in a few short weeks. Remember to meditate on him as you sing it:

"O come, O come Emmanuel; and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appears.

"Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel."

"O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free thine own from Satan's tyranny; from depths of hell thy people save, and give them vict'ry o'er the grave.

"O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here; disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death's dark shadows put to flight.

"O come, thou Key of David, come, and open wide our heavenly home; make safe the way that leads on high, and close the path to misery.

"O come, O come, Adonai [or-thou Wisdom from on high]; who in thy glorious majesty, from Sinai's mountain clothes in awe, gave thy folk the elder law."

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Jesus Loves People

Jesus loves people. Everything he did points to this fact.

In Philippians 2: 5-8, Paul tells us that Jesus, although equal to God, rather than using his position to acquire more power for himself, poured himself out for us, becoming a human being. And not just any human, a humble and obedient servant. And not just any servant, but one who made the ultimate sacrifice of himself in the most shameful form of execution ever invented--crucifixion. Jesus' work of salvation was motivated by love.

Another way that Jesus demonstrated his love for people was through his healing ministry. The Gospel writers constantly tell us that Jesus was "moved with compassion" and then performed a miraculous healing. The underlying Greek word for compassion is powerful. It literally means "gut-wrenching." In other words, Jesus felt a deep pang of empathy in his bowels. That's why the KJV translates this as "bowels of mercy." Jesus' healing ministry was motivated by love.

Matthew tells us, "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Matt: 9. 36). Jesus saw the crowds as disoriented, dejected, dispirited--like a flock of sheep without the guiding, protecting and providing presence of their shepherd. Love for people moved him with compassion.

So, what did Jesus' love motivate him to do this time?

Out of compassion, he authorized and empowered his twelve disciples to take on his own kingdom ministry and then sent them out, two-by-two, into the harvest field to extend his ministry (Matt. 10). And Luke tells us that he sent out 72 others as well, in order to extend his kingdom ministry even more.

Love motivated Jesus to send US into the harvest field as well. The book of Acts describes the sending out of the church to "Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth" (Acts 1: 8).

Jesus says in Matthew "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the Harvest, therefore, to send out workers out into his harvest field (Matt. 9: 37-38).

Do you love people enough to be sent into the harvest field? Let us pray for the compassionate love of God for people to be poured into our hearts--and for God to send us.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Romance, Disillusionment, Joy

Last year I read an article in Time magazine on the results of a study of different professions in the USA. Surprisingly, the profession of "pastor" turns out to be one of the most stressful. Caring for people can be emotionally draining, especially with all the other hats we must wear (landlord, accountant, public relations, etc.). We want to nurture spiritual growth, but cannot help getting caught up in the drama of peoples' lives.

Pastoring is a difficult business. John Wimber used to say to pastor wanna-be's, "If you can do anything else, do it." Of course, the romantic view of pastoral ministry is hard to erase with a few simple words. A starry eyed romantic hears those words, but then thinks inside, "Yes, but I'm different."

Eugene Peterson, in his wonderful book, Under the Unpredictable Plant, says that so many of us in the pastoral ministry hear the call of God, like Jonah. The call sounds good as long as we are going to exotic Tarshish. Then we find out that ministry actually happens in messy, undesirable Ninevah.

Romance gives way to disillusionment. Or put another way, "reality bites."

The transition from journeying to Tarshish to actually doing ministry in Ninevah is hazardous to a pastor's own spiritual life. We must be wary of becoming cynical. Like Moses when he has gotten fed-up with Israel's complaining. Instead of simply speaking to the rock, he shows his frustration with Israel, "Listen, you rebels! Must we bring you water out of this rock?" (Num. 20: 10). Moses then, in complete disobedience to God's instructions, strikes the rock two times. The miracle happens and Israel's needs are met. But Moses never gets to enter the promised land.

The really difficult step we must make is to embrace ministry where it really is--in Ninevah. When we can actually accept that pastoral ministry is difficult and stressful, but IT IS WORTH IT--then we will begin to experience joy. The joy that comes, not because we have built a big cathedral, or have a big budget, or our attendance numbers are huge. The joy comes from being in the center of God's will.

Romance becomes disillusionment and finally turns to joy.

What's interesting is that, in that same Time article, pastoral ministry was rated highest in job satisfaction. Stressful--yes--but oh, so very worth it.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Christ as the Head of the Church

Several years ago, the senior pastor of the church at which I worked had to step down from his position. The resulting leadership vacuum was not instantly filled. The staff met almost daily, sometimes for half the day, to discuss decisions and what we needed to do to help the church function and go through the process of recovery. It became very clear to me how debilitating it was not to have a clear leader at the helm to steer the ship.

I must confess that during this interim period, I made some decisions and signed some approvals that no one had given me permission to do, but I knew that everything would grind to a halt if someone didn't keep the machinery greased. When the new senior pastor arrived, I gently let go of the power that I had temporarily (and benignly) assumed.

An old Latin proverb has often been quoted through the ages: "Power abhors a vacuum."

And yet, I am aware of several churches that have not only survived, but thrived under a kind of shared leadership. One person is the administrative elder, another the teaching elder, and another the pastoral care elder. By conventional wisdom, they should have crumbled or succumbed to a power-grab by someone. What makes them different?

I believe that, in their case, Jesus is the head of the church and they are all subject to his leadership. They are serving a greater vision that was planted in them when the church was founded and they are simply seeking to implement that vision under Christ's direction.

In Ephesians, Paul says that part of the maturing of the church is to begin to operate with Jesus as the Head. "From him, the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work" (Eph. 4: 16).

A way I have often thought about this is that the church is the perpetual motion machine, defying the second law of thermodynamics (that all things tend towards disorder or decay). It works when two things are in place: 1) Christ is the head, and 2) love is the lubrication.

John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard, used to share his conviction that Jesus wants to be the head of the Church.

To use the picture of vine and branches that Jesus gives us in John 15, "Apart from me, you can do nothing" (John 15: 5). Each of us, when we are vitally connected to the life-giving vine, will not only receive life from him but produce fruit.

Are we willing to get out of the way and let him lead us? Are we willing to let his leadership fill the power vacuum?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Hanging In There

I've gone through a lot of shaking this year. Five of our members have passed away, plus my own father and two former co-workers at the Anaheim Vineyard. Quite a few people have left our fellowship for various reasons. A few of them were understandably frustrated with me during this time of shaking. But more of them simply moved out of the area.

In Hebrews 12, the writer comments on Haggai's prophecy about God shaking Israel. He says that God shakes everything so that the things that need to be removed are removed and so that the things that are supposed to remain permanently, remain.

Despite all the loss, I am greatly encouraged. I sense that God is indeed on the move. That the losses are a kind of pruning that will result in growth. I have even found myself feeling an unexplainable joy as I pray about all these things.

My wife loves roses. When it comes time to prune her rose bushes, she seemingly hacks them back to nothing. If I didn't know better, I would think they were dead. Just a gnarled stump with a couple of thorny sticks. Yet, when spring comes, the bushes come to life and the resultant display of blooms is spectacular every time.

I think of 1 Cor. 15: 58:
"Therefore, my dear brothers [and sisters], stand firm. Let nothing move you. [Hang in there--sit tight.] Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain."

Here, Paul is saying, with all the deaths of believers, don't get discouraged. The resurrection is a real hope that means your work for the Kingdom is not a waste of time.

I began blogging a year ago and have kept it up with some consistency. Perhaps the rhythm of putting my thoughts down in pixels has helped me through the shaky times. I hope you have been blessed, challenged or comforted by something I've written. And I am going to continue to write. If you are touched, please share your thoughts with me or forward the link to someone else who might be blessed as well.

And remember--hang in there, because your work in the Kingdom is not a waste of time.