Thursday, December 27, 2012

Learning from Christmas for the Whole Year

I had a different kind of Christmas this year. I went through a lot of my normal rituals: putting up the decorations; making my special Almond Butter Toffee; buying and wrapping gifts; reading Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and then watching several of my favorite movies, etc. But a few things were also different.

First, our former church closed at the end of March and we are currently working on gathering leaders for our new church. However, this means we did not do our usual free gift-wrapping outreach. Nor did we have a Christmas Eve candlelight service. Nor did we put on a special service on the Sunday before Christmas. So, my church routine has been disrupted. (Now, we did have a couple of new Christmas experiences with our new and growing church family. So, the promise of new traditions is awakened.)

Second, we did not have any celebration with either my family or my wife's family. I realized that this was the first time in my life that I did not spend time with some part of our extended family, ever.

Third, I opened only one gift on Christmas day--and I had both purchased it and wrapped it myself (although the label said it was from my wife).

Now, please don't get me wrong. I am not complaining--just observing. I am not sure if this means something, but it does feel like a kind of life-passage.

As I thought about it on the day after Christmas, I realized that it was one of the nicest Christmases I've had in awhile. My wife and I read the Christmas story to one another on Christmas Eve and we were  both overcome with a lot of emotion. Tears flowed. The wonder of what God has done for us washed over us.

Then we had friends join us to watch The Nativity Story and--more tears.

I had gotten gifts for friends and their children who seemed to really enjoy them. I played Scrabble with three young'ns for whom it was a first time. I had a blast.

In Acts 20: 35, Paul quotes Jesus (from an unknown source), "It is more blessed to give than to receive."

Perhaps this is really the "true meaning of Christmas". God gave the greatest gift of all time. As Paul says in 2 Cor. 9: 15: "Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!"

In The Nativity Story, Mary says to the old shepherd, "We have all been given a gift." God's generosity overflowed to all mankind. And we have all been given the greatest of all gifts.

And at the same time, we have been shown what a blessing true generosity can be. In the end, it is not about what we get, but about what we give. Our generosity is a reflection of the very heart of God:
"For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich" (2 Cor. 8: 9).

Don't let such godliness wait only for the Christmas season. Let us determine to grow in the coming year so that we "excel in this grace of giving" (2 Cor. 8: 7) all the time.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Newtown, Longfellow and Christmas

On Friday, a young man in Newtown, Connecticut, shot his mother, leaving her dead. Then he took his mother's guns and proceeded to Sandy Hook Elementary School where she had worked and shot and killed 20 young students and 6 adults. Finally, he turned the gun on himself.

A shocked nation reacted with increasing anguish over a weekend of non-stop news coverage. And this week, each day, there are multiple funeral services with undersized coffins and grieving parents who will never get to see their precious innocent children bloom into firemen and teachers and business owners and pastors and parents themselves.

Perhaps making the grief more severe is the fact that we are so close to Christmas. The holiday that promises to lift our spirits and to help us bond to our extended families. Most of us feel compassion and empathy for the families for whom the season will probably just be a reminder of what they are missing.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of the greatest American poets, experienced incredible pain in his life. His first wife died when he was young, leaving him to grieve for the next seven years. His next wife bore him five children. But in 1861, she was tragically burned to death. Longfellow hated the Civil War that followed shortly thereafter. His oldest son enlisted and was seriously wounded in battle and sent home to recover.

Tending to his son's injuries and seeing so many other wounded soldiers, he began to anguish over the tragedy of the war. It was on Christmas Day, 1863, that he listened to the church bells of Cambridge ringing. He asked the question, "Where is the promise of 'Peace on earth' that was announced by the angels on the first Christmas?"

And so he wrote a wonderful poem that explored that very question. In the midst of National grief, violence and tragedy, where is the peace that God promised? When it was set to music almost ten years later, it was hugely popular in both America and Europe (omitting the 4th and 5th verses specific to the Civil War--but included here):

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along th'unbroken song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.

And in despair I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men."

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn, the households born
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, goodwill to men."

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day--
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men!

No matter what you encounter during this season, "God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, so--Peace on Earth; Goodwill to Men!"

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Jeremiah and Christmas Trees

When I was a student at UCLA (many moons ago), I took a very literal approach to the reading of scripture. We might today describe this as a "fundamentalist" way of reading the Bible. Such an approach says that, if I can read the words and they mean something in my current life situation, then there is no further reason to study. The choice is simply to obey it.

That is how I used to read Jeremiah 10: 3-5:
"For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good.'"

I read this and, since it sounded somewhat like the description of a Christmas Tree, I knew that I must simply obey. I stopped participating in this tradition. And the feeling of spiritual superiority that came from taking such a stand was self-authenticating. I didn't have a Christmas Tree for about seven years.

The problem was that my understanding of Jeremiah was based on bad exegesis. (Exegesis is the science of interpreting what the writer meant when he wrote so that we can draw proper conclusions.)

George Eldon Ladd, former professor of New Testament Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena describes the Bible as "the Word of God written in the words of men (people) in history."

The Word of God...
We know that the scriptures are "God-breathed" (2 Tim. 3:16), and therefore, the Bible is God's authoritative and unique Word to us and is His faithful guide for all faith and practice. We do not look to tradition or church hierarchy or new words of prophecy in the same way that we look to the Word of God. This is perhaps the key distinguishing feature of the Protestant Reformation--sola scripture--meaning that we depend solely on the Bible for our authority.

...written in the words of people...
Yet, God did not write the words in the Bible directly (except the Ten Commandments and the words on the walls of Babylon). He used people--apostles and prophets--to write the 66 books. Therefore, we talk about the five books "of Moses." Jesus talks about Moses and David writing material. That is why we can tell the difference between Luke and Paul's writing styles--because God used human vessels to write the actual words, even though they reflect His Word to us. history.
Finally, those words were written at a time in history. Moses wrote his books to a nation delivered from slavery, needing to understand their own history and national identity and unique calling to be the People of God. Paul wrote letters to specific churches who were going through struggles. For instance, 1st Corinthians is obviously written in response to oral reports and a letter describing specific ethical and theological problems in Corinth--lawsuits, incest, eating meat offered to idols, etc.

So, let's look at Jeremiah. The tradition of the Christmas Tree came out of Germany in the 15th or 16th century. And Christ was not born for hundreds of years after Jeremiah. So, what was he thinking about when he wrote this verse?

Idols were figures that were carved out of wood and then covered in gold or silver leaf. Then, they were nailed in place on a family altar or temple altar. Sometimes they would be paraded through the streets. They represented gods that were worshiped by the pagans or even the spirits of departed relatives.

So, Jeremiah was obviously mocking the ludicrous practice of worshiping something made by human hands. I don't know about you, but I have never worshiped a Christmas Tree. It might be more likely that people are worshiping their new car than their tree. Instead, our tree has a decorative purpose for the holidays. And, topped with a star, it becomes a reminder of the Christmas story and the blessing of the incarnation of the Son of God over 2000 years ago.

So--enjoy your Christmas Tree this year. But always use it as a way to remember the glorious and blessed arrival of Immanuel, God-With-Us.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Manger and Cross

"While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in [swaddling] cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn" (Luke 2: 6-7).

My Italian grandmother came to America when she was 20 years old, so her English was very broken. At Christmastime, we would sit down to a great dinner and she would say, "Mangia! Mangia! Y'eat! Y'eat!"

The English word for a feeding trough is "manger" which comes from the French manger, which means "to eat."

On the surface, the story seems to simply tell us the humble facts of the incarnation of the Son of God. The poor and desperate couple, traveling under great duress, must make do with whatever is at hand to accommodate the new baby. I have heard modern stories of parents using shoe-boxes or dresser drawers in a pinch for the same purpose. Whether the manger was a crude wooden crib, or a stone trough carved into a cave wall, the point is that the parents needed to improvise with what was at hand.

But every time I gaze on the nativity scene that I set up every year in my living room, I think of the profound truth that is conveyed to us in this simple word "manger." And I am sure that our loving God was painting a living picture that conveys so much more than Mary and Joseph could have intended or even known at the time.

Jesus, in John's gospel, tells us: "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world" (John 6: 51). This important passage is John's commentary on the Eucharist. Jesus' body is the manna from heaven which is given to sustain the life of the world, a truth that is re-enacted every time that Christians eat the communion bread.

And it is no coincidence that the city of David, where the Holy Child was born, is called Beth-lechem, which literally means "house of bread."

Paul, in the earliest "words of institution" for commemorating "the Lord's Supper," says, "'This is my body, which is for you...'" (1 Cor. 11: 24). So often we mentally insert the word "broken" or, as in Luke's gospel, "given." But these are notably absent here.

Jesus' body IS for us. That is, the incarnation itself, the en-flesh-ment of God the Son, was accomplished for our sakes. The manna from God that we needed to give us real life was totally for our sakes. And God showed us this reality by placing the Bread of Life in a manger, the place of eating.

Of course, the bread is only half of the Eucharist. There are two elements: bread AND wine. This baby, laid in a feeding trough, is destined to spill His blood in order to reconcile the world to God. And so, Christmas is the first part of the frame. The picture will not be complete until the second frame is completed, the pouring out of the blood of the new covenant on the cross.

"Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink...This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever" (John 6: 54-55, 58).

And that is the picture of our salvation. Bread and wine. Body and blood. Manger and cross.