This Easter season I wanted to share not only the songs that we will use in worship but a window into the heart and meaning behind them, so that, as the apostle Paul says, we can “sing with understanding” (1 Cor. 14: 15). We open our Easter worship with a classic hymn from the pen of Charles Wesley. The text, drawn in part from Mt. 28:5-6 1 Cor. 15:55 and is celebration and declaration. Christ’s resurrection is both our joy at Easter and our hope now and in eternity to come.
God is Able can helps us not only celebrate the resurrection of Christ but help remind us of how that truth brings life, power and strength for us every day. The song borrows from the words and images of Paul in Romans 6:5 & 8:31f “ For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.” “If God is for us, who is against us?” “Who will separate us from the love of God?” God who raised Jesus from the dead He is able to do far more in our lives than anything we can ever ask or think.
Philippians 25-11 paints an incredible picture of Jesus and His redemptive work. The writer reminds us not only of Jesus’ resurrection but his exaltation. jesus is the one whom God exalts and gives a name which is above every other. It is at the name of Jesus that we and indeed all of creation will bow before in worship. This refrain is echoed in Revelation 5:12 “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” and in 5:16 “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” May we come before Him in passionate worship this Easter.
A fitting “Amen” to our worship is to sing this closing song which in part echoes the words of Paul to the church in Galatia. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20). It in is the reality of Jesus’ resurrection that we are called to go forth from Easter Sunday to share the life that we have come to know in Him. We who were once dead in sin and without hope in this world have found forgiveness and new life. (John 11:25-26) His resurrection is our hope for not only today but for tomorrow as well. The Easter message is good news so let us run to tell others of what we have found in Christ.
According to statistics Identity Theft is the fast growing crime here in the U.S. In 2014 alone more than 17 million people were affected at a cost of over 16 billion dollars. Victims of this kind of crime find their credit ruined, their money depleted and face the daunting challenge of restoring their financial life. What makes Identity Theft so hard to combat is that it takes place while the victim is unaware they have been targeted. While there are precautions to be taken on our own perhaps the best protection is found in in subscribing to one of several reputable identity theft protection services to provide constant monitoring of all that is you.
But what of one’s Spiritual identity? Can that be stolen from us and is there any way we can find protection and rest at ease? The answer is yes. There is a very real enemy of our soul who comes in unawares and steals from us our true identity causing us to live an identity we were never intended. This thief leaves us spiritually bankrupt and rob of life and joy. In much the same way as an earthly identity monitoring service I believe God has provided tools for us to use to help us monitor our spiritual lives. One of the most important can be found in practicing Sabbath.
8-11 Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Work six days and do everything you need to do. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to God, your God. Don’t do any work—not you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your servant, nor your maid, nor your animals, not even the foreign guest visiting in your town. For in six days God made Heaven, Earth, and sea, and everything in them; he rested on the seventh day. Therefore God blessed the Sabbath day; he set it apart as a holy day. (Ex. 20:8-11 MSG)
Our culture trains us for motion and multitasking—not for slowing and simplifying. It says to us that adulthood is mostly about getting things done, that one can’t rest until the work is done or at least done better than at present. The truth is if we never rest until we are finished we will never rest until we die because only then will we be finished. There is great danger in resting in this false identity, it will only leave us restless. Busyness robs you of being present with God and with others. Busyness leaves no margin for God, for others or for the blessings of life.
God points us to the remedy in the Sabbath for such a false identity of work and no rest. The call to Sabbath is a call to REST. The word itself means to rest, to cease or to remove. God who is infinite knows that we are not. We are finite people made of dust and so God demonstrates a life pattern for us to follow. If we will imitate divine example of work and rest so that we might receive the divine blessing. Practicing Sabbath helps keep you from being robbed of the joy of being present with God, with others and with His creation. We must learn to rest, for as Augustine reminds us “man’s heart is restless until he finds his rest in God”.
- 28-30 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest.” (Matthew 11:28-30 MSG)
Hope: to look forward to with desire and reasonable confidence.
Followers of Jesus should be people of Hope. Not pie in the sky-wishful thinking people but people of confident Hope. As the song writer of old penned ‘we have a Hope within our soul, brighter than the brightest day.’ Our Hope is in Christ himself, in all that He has promised including the promise of eternity. As the scripture writer states ‘if we only have Hope only for this life then we are a people to be most pitied.
The confident hope of an eternity with Christ is not only that which causes us to look forward with desire but it is also that which anchors us in the here and now. It is not a Hope that ignores the very real challenges, pain and heartache that often marks our earthly journey. Christ himself never promised that we would be free from it. But those difficulties can serve to remind us that we are not created for this life only. Singer/songwriter Laura Story describes it this way “What if my greatest disappointments, or the aching of this life, is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy?” C.S. Lewis talked of heaven in his book The Last Battle. His character describes it “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…” Our hope is in the reality that our citizenship is in heaven. We are not a citizen of earth hoping to make it to heaven. Rather we are citizens of heaven who by and through the hope of Christ make our way through this life and world.
God desires to give you this kind of Hope. Not just a reasonable confidence but a divine, unshakable one. Christ is the object of our faith and hope and He is also the source of our faith and hope. Hold tight to Him.
18 I am sure that what we are suffering now cannot compare with the glory that will be shown to us. 19 In fact, all creation is eagerly waiting for God to show who his children are. 20 Meanwhile, creation is confused, but not because it wants to be confused. God made it this way in the hope 21 that creation would be set free from decay and would share in the glorious freedom of his children.22 We know that all creation is still groaning and is in pain, like a woman about to give birth.
23 The Spirit makes us sure about what we will be in the future. But now we groan silently, while we wait for God to show that we are his children. This means that our bodies will also be set free. 24 And this hope is what saves us. But if we already have what we hope for, there is no need to keep on hoping.25 However, we hope for something we have not yet seen, and we patiently wait for it.” Romans 18-25
“O what a blessed day that will be when I shall . . . stand on the shore and look back on the raging seas I have safely passed; when I shall review my pains and sorrows, my fears and tears, and possess the glory which was the end of all!”
― Richard Baxter
In additional to the shepherds there is another group of ‘outsiders’ that reflect the heart and center of the advent story. These travelers, wise men from the east, would journey long and far guided only by a star in the heavens. It was a journey of utmost importance, one that they were committed to complete. There seemed no hesitation in setting out, they were compelled to go.
What was the impetus for such a journey? What would elicit a commitment of the resources and time required for such an endeavor? Nothing short of a truly historic moment, to worship before the king. The gospel of Matthew records that the star in the heavens that prompted their journey eventually led them to the city of Jerusalem where they seek out information from the city’s present ruler. When asked by King Herod about their quest, they responded “Where is He born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and we have come to worship Him.” Herod, a deeply suspicious person was troubled by the news of a potential rival to his throne. The fact that this unexpected news came from foreigners from a distant land was especially unsettling to Herod and therefore to all of Jerusalem. The inhabitants of Jerusalem were well acquainted with the kind of violence that arose from Herod’s jealousy and suspicion. Upon leaving Jerusalem the wise men continued to follow the star on towards Bethlehem ‘until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. At last they had arrived at the goal of their Advent journey, their quest was over. Upon seeing the Christ-child “they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
Most scholars believe that the journey of the wise men brought them to the Christ-child perhaps as much as 2 years after his birth. However, their journey points to a reality greater than a simple baby in a manger. At the center of the first and every Christmas lies the one born King of the Jews, ruler of Israel and King of all creation, Lord of all. Herod missed out on the joy of Christmas because he would not relinquish his throne to another. May we not do the same. Let us bow our hearts and lives along with the wise men and worship “Christ the newborn King”
O come let us adore Him.
Many times it is the attractiveness of the destination that compels, motivates or brings excitement to the journey. We can hardly wait until we arrive. We fix our eyes on the end of the journey, put on our blinders to keep us focused and free from distractions and we press on, often as fast as we are allowed, toward the finish line. All that matters is what lies at the end of our travel. Sometimes our yearly advent journey can be much the same way. From the first day of the season and the first steps of the journey our singular focus and destination is Christmas day. We can’t wait to get there and we look past anything that may distract us with anything along the way. If that is our approach what details might we overlook? What sights might we miss along the road? So let’s slow down for a bit and take time to look around us and explore some.
Bethlehem, an insignificant place described by the Old Testament prophet as “only a small village among all the people of Judah”. Joseph and Mary made the journey there near the end of her pregnancy just to be counted in a government census. Bethlehem, an unexciting destination and an equally unexciting reason to travel there. It is a town off the beaten but yet one at the center of the advent journey and part of the richness of the advent journey’s details.
Imagine seeing billboards or historical markers at the edge of the city limits or perhaps looking over a travel brochure about this quaint little village. If we would slow down enough to read them we would be reminded that Bethlehem is the birthplace of King David. David was one of the greatest kings of God’s people and scripture spoke of a day when ruler would come from the house of David. This new king would lead God’s people to redemption and restoration. Joseph was a descendant of David. God’s Messiah was to come from the line of David, his lineage recorded in Matthew and Luke’s gospels. Out of Bethlehem Micah foretold “out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
No detail of God’s unfolding advent story is meant as filler. Every sight along the way is an essential detail not to be missed and pregnant with meaning. Take time this advent to slow down and drink them in, to ponder them in your heart.
Today on our Advent journey we look to Mary and Joseph who stood nearest the center of the very first advent. Newly engaged, I suspect their days were filled with the excitement of wedding plans and the hopes and dreams of life together as husband and wife. Each day brought them another step closer to the fulfillment of the promise to be wed.
But as is often God’s way, He would break in and alter the path and destination of their present journey. God sent an angel messenger to Mary to announce to her that she would carry a child who was the Son of God, the promised Messiah. Pregnant out of wedlock, by the power of the Holy Spirit and an angel messenger, who would believe her? Could she believe it herself? And what of Joseph?
Mary’s husband-to-be struggles with this unexpected and unbelievable news and ponders how he might break off the engagement quietly and save both of them the negative implications of such a pregnancy and such a story. In the midst of his questions God comes to him in a dream to speak peace to his troubled heart. God provides Joseph with the courage to take Mary as his wife and God affirms in him the hope that this child would indeed be the Savior of the world.
Could Mary & Joseph fully trust in dreams and angelic announcements? Did they still carry a flicker of hope in God’s long ago promise of a coming Savior and that He had chosen them to play a key role in His plan of redemption? These questions and many others could have easily caused Mary & Joseph to forgo the journey ahead and move away from the center of a relationship with God and participation in His divine rescue plan. However, though the path before them was cloaked in shadows they chose to begin the journey. They chose to step out in trust and faith. Their first steps, taken in the hope and peace. This Advent, do not fear the darkness that may cover the way before you, take heart, the One who is The Light is coming.
Every journey regardless of its distance must begin with a single step. The Advent journey is no different. Each year we make this journey as a way to prepare for the birth of Christ so TAKE TIME to consider each step and take in every detail. However, before the gospel writers would describe those more well known Advent steps leading to Christ’s birth, one would pen an opening prologue setting the stage for that journey. In the first chapter of Luke’s gospel we find a couple named Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth. Luke describes this couple as folks who were both righteous before God and obedient to all of His commands. Yet in spite of all their faithfulness to God they remained childless. Well past the childbearing years they held no hope of becoming parents, no expectation that God heard their prayers for a child.
As a member of the priesthood, Zacharias had regular scheduled times of service in the temple and during one of those occasions God sent an angel messenger with the promise of a son, a son who would play a key role in the Advent story. However, along with this message came the words God so often speaks to His people when the way before them seems uncertain, “Fear Not!” ‘Though the way seems unbelievable or impossible, “do not be afraid”.’ To Zacharias and his wife it all seemed too good to be true. Surely there was no way in their old age that they could conceive a child. Yet it is to those with dwindling expectation that God sends good news. To those whose hopes are dimmed He promises peace, joy and gladness.
This invitation to the Advent journey as filled with as much uncertainty as the journey of those who would follow after them yet Zacharias and Elizabeth stepped out in expectation, hoping in God. They stepped out trusting not only for the promise of a son but in God’s promise that he would be the forerunner of the promised Messiah whose coming is the heart of our Advent journey. This advent season will you TAKE TIME to make the journey. Perhaps you feel too tired and stale to make it or you have dwindling expectation that there is any value to it at all. God has good news for you! TAKE TIME to allow your heart and life to be centered in the hope of Jesus and the deep joy of His birth? Begin that journey today.