Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Where's the catch?

He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy (Titus 3:5).

Snow. How can something so pretty be such a nuisance? Snow protects vegetation from the harsh cold of winter. Snow covers brown fields and leafless trees with brilliant, sparkling white. But heavy snow is hard to shovel. Snowdrifts form in the most inconvenient places. Snowstorms make it dangerous to travel. As a child I loved the snow; as an adult, I have decidedly mixed feelings about it now.

Of course, most things in life are a mixed bag of good and bad. That wonderful person you married turned out to have some very annoying habits. The best-tasting foods are usually full of salt, fat, or sugar. The money you worked so hard to earn causes no end of frustration as you wrestle with taxes and investment strategies. Your precious children can make you feel guilty, shopping for new clothes can make you feel overweight, and buying a house saddles you with endless repairs and maintenance. No matter how wonderful it is, everything in life seems to come with a ‘catch.’

Because this is our experience, people curious about Christianity usually wonder ‘what’s the catch?’ God sent His Son to die for me, and I don’t have to pay him back for that? To be forgiven, all I have to do is tell Jesus I’m sorry? To get out of the grave and into heaven, all I have to do is believe in Christ? That can’t be all there is to it—what’s the catch?

There is no catch—God doesn’t expect us to repay Him for the suffering Jesus endured to set us free. God does not demand restitution as a condition of His mercy. Access to heaven is not earned by scoring ‘brownie points’ with God. Forgiveness, help in life, rescue from the grave—it all comes to us freely because God is loving and generous.

But aren’t Christians supposed to change how they live—turn away from sin and serve God and each other in love? Yes, Jesus wants us to be changed by His love. But that’s not a condition; the new and better life that Jesus offers is not earned or repaid by our efforts at being ‘good.’ And anyway, sin is a bad thing—it gets us into trouble with God and each other. Giving up sin is not a drawback to Christianity, it’s a blessing! The only downside to being a Christian is that it makes the devil your enemy—and it’s not like he’s ever had your best interests at heart anyway.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Red and green

The blood is the life (Deuteronomy 12:23).

We’re at the point where people start taking down their Christmas decorations. As you put things away for another year, take note of the dominant colors. Unless your taste for decorations runs against the norm, most of the things you have probably emphasize both red and green.

Red and green are the colors of life. Green plants often bear red fruits or vegetables. During the colorless days of winter, ancient Britons decorated their homes with holly, because unlike other plants it stayed green throughout the darkest months of the year. The red berries were a reminder that spring was coming.

Christians saw something different in the holly. The prickly leaves made them think of a crown made from thorns; the red berries looked like drops of blood. For the follower of Christ, holly reminds us of why Jesus was born on Christmas—He came among us so that He could die on the cross.

Red and green are Christian colors. Red is the color of Jesus’ blood, blood that stained the cross that was used to execute Him. But that blood was more than just human blood; it was the blood of God’s own Son. As such, that red liquid is the blood of life for those who are touched by it. John says, the blood of Jesus…purifies us from all sin (1 John 1:7). Jesus’ bloody death was absolutely necessary, because the Bible says without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22).

And yet Jesus’ death results in life. Because of the blood that flowed from Him, we are washed clean of our sins. Because He died and then rose to life again, we are promised that the grave will not be the end of us, but that one day we will spring to life once more. In Christ, red is the promise of everlasting green.

With Christmas behind us, the winter ahead looks long and dreary. But you can be heartened by the promise of the holly; may the red blood of Christ give you hope for green days ahead, days that will not be ended with death but will continue forever in paradise the blessed.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Isaiah: prophet of Christmas

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder. For as in the day of Midian's defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Every warrior's boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this (Isaiah 9:2-7).

The prophet Isaiah spoke many wonderful things about the coming of our Lord Jesus, but the passage above is perhaps one of the most beautiful. In just six verses, Isaiah sums up what Christmas is all about. So let us consider the true meaning of Christmas according to Isaiah the prophet of God.

He begins, The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. Right away, we think of the opening verses of the Gospel of John: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. Both Isaiah and John use the imagery of darkness to describe man’s lost and hopeless condition. Light gives life; a houseplant near a sunny window will grow, while a plant in a dark basement shrivels and dies. Anything forced to live in perpetual darkness will gradually curl up and perish. In the Bible, darkness represents ignorance of Jesus and His saving love; to live in spiritual darkness is to slowly wither in the shadow of death. In the 23rd Psalm, David picks up this imagery when he writes, Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for Thou art with me. David hoped in the deliverance of the Lord, the same deliverance Isaiah speaks of when he writes, on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. David, Isaiah, and John all find hope in the light of life that God reveals to believers through His Son, Jesus Christ.

You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder. Isaiah intends us to think, not of an earthly harvest, but the spiritual harvest that the angels of the Lord gather as saints are brought into heaven. It is the people of the world, who are hungry for the light of God’s love, that Jesus speaks of when He says, The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field (Matthew 9:37-38). The nation of God rejoices as the harvest is brought in, as sinners see the light and are saved; Jesus said, I tell you that…there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent (Luke 15:17).

Heaven also rejoices as men rejoice when dividing the plunder. Our Lord Jesus has been fighting a war with Satan since Adam and Eve fell into sin. But when Jesus died on the cross, He won the victory over sin, death, and Satan. By paying the blood-price for our sins, Jesus freed us from the grasp of darkness so He could take us to heaven as His treasures of war. The kingdom of God rejoices because we have been liberated from the devil’s control.

For as in the day of Midian's defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Midian was the mighty country that Gideon faced with a much smaller army. Any general would have said that Gideon faced impossible odds; but with God on his side, his small force of 300 men killed 120,000 of the enemy and freed God’s people from oppression. Isaiah predicted that in the same way, God would provide a Savior who, though appearing vastly outnumbered and overpowered, would shatter the yoke that oppressed God’s people. That yoke was the yoke of sin. Think of the Charles Dickens story A Christmas Carol; remember Marley’s ghost? He was forever burdened by the weight of the money that he lusted after in life; his sins of greed were a constant yoke that held him back. All sin is a burden. That is why Jesus said, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30). The yoke of Jesus is a life that rejects sinful pleasures and follows Him, eager to serve. The reason that His yoke is easy is because He bears it with us; He walks at our side every day, shouldering most of the burden for us.

Every warrior's boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. Because of Jesus’ victory over sin and death, the war with Satan is nearly over. When Jesus died in your place, He destroyed the only weapon that Satan could actually harm you with—guilt. With your sins forgiven, the devil can no longer go to God and say, "He is a sinner! He deserves to be in hell with me." As soon as Satan tries to accuse a believer of anything, God replies, "it is true that he has sinned, but I have forgiven those sins at my Son’s request." With our guilt off the table, the only weapon Satan has left is temptation, and Scripture assures us, God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it (1 Corinthians 10:13). James tells us, Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you (James 4:7-8). Satan has lost the war, and very soon Jesus will return to send our wicked foe to a place where he can never tempt us again; when that day comes, the clothing soiled by war will be taken off and burned, because we will never have to struggle against the enemy again.

Isaiah goes on to identify the person who will do these wonderful things for us. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. Our Savior will come as a lowly child. The government will be on His shoulders; the responsibility of governing heaven and earth will be His.

He will be called Wonderful Counselor. Every human king needs a few counselors he can turn to for help in making wise decisions; every president needs the officials of his Cabinet. But the Savior who comes as a child doesn’t need counselors, because He is the Wonderful Counselor—He is the Wisdom from on High, who shines the light of truth to dispel the darkness of lies and ignorance. His wisdom is beyond our comprehension. Only He understands the universe, only He understands the human heart; He alone can rule wisely. And so we pray to this Wonderful Counselor for good sense when making decisions, because only He can see clearly the best path to take. The Wonderful Counselor cares deeply about each and every one of us, and He is happy to share His wisdom through the words of Holy Scripture.

He will be called Mighty God. Although an ordinary-looking child, the Savior is actually God’s all-powerful Son. This child will tell storms to be quiet, command fevers to leave the sick, and call the dead from their graves. This child will feed 5,000 people from five loaves of bread and two fish, and He will feed believers everywhere with His own body and blood through the miracle of Holy Communion. This promised child will endure the torments of hell for the sake of fallen humanity, and rise from the grave that our countless sins buried Him in. This child is our Mighty God.

He will be called Everlasting Father. The Savior of mankind is much more than a prophet—He is the equal of His Father in every way. Jesus said, I and the Father are one (John 10:30). Like the Father, Jesus is everlasting; He was with God in the beginning (John 1:2). Christ shared in the work of creation with His Father; through him all things were made (John 1:3). God forgives our sins at Jesus’ request, and the Son of God has been given authority to judge us when He returns at the end of time. And Jesus shall reign over all creation forever; of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. This means that we can put our trust in Him, because Jesus isn’t going anywhere; our Savior will always be here to help us.

He will be called Prince of Peace. Without faith in Jesus, we are allies of Satan and enemies of God; but when Jesus puts faith in our hearts, He frees us from Satan’s domination and brings us into the army of heaven. We are no longer at war with God; as a result, we have a peace that no one else has. Because we are at peace with God, we know that our guilt is removed. Because we are at peace with God, we can let go of lingering grudges and be at peace with those who have hurt us in the past. Because we are at peace with God, we know that death, as unpleasant as it is, is no worse than the pain of childbirth; death is a pain that leads to glorious, unending life with God. The Prince of Peace makes it possible for us to live in confidence, not fear.

He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. God made David king over the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people. And God promised David that one of his descendants would rule God’s people forever. Jesus is that child. Through His human parentage, Jesus was a descendant of King David, the heir to the throne over God’s people. But today, God’s people are found all over the world; they are the members of His Church. Christ’s eternal reign has already begun, and it is based on justice and righteousness. It is our Lord’s justice that demands that all wrongs be redressed; those who refuse to repent and believe in Jesus as their king will be condemned forever. It is our Lord’s righteousness that led Him to the cross to redeem us, so those who trust in His mercy and submit to His will might be saved.

Isaiah concludes, The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this. God’s love for us is not a passive love, not a quiet love. Our God loves us fervently, actively. God did not wait for us to come to Him; Paul writes, God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). When we were still enemies of God, God loved us, and He did something about that love—He sent His Son to be born a baby and cradled in a manger, so that the sins that kept us away from God could be forgiven and we could love Him in return. God’s love reached out to us in Bethlehem, and it continues to reach out to us today. A zealot is passionate in pursuing the thing He loves, and our God loves us that way—it was this zeal of the Lord Almighty, this passionate love, that rescued us from our sins and promises us peace in heaven.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A precious gift

God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

Because it was small, Jimmy had saved this present for last. Inside the little box was a single gold coin. His father explained that the coin was valuable and could be used to buy something expensive. But being a little boy, Jimmy was more fascinated by how shiny the gold was. He played with it for a few days until he eventually lost it.

We have many precious things in our lives, yet how often we lose them through carelessness. This is how marriages fall apart; a man mistreats the woman he used to love passionately, and she leaves him. This can happen to our relationship with God as well. Christ gives us a wonderful treasure—He suffered and died so that we can be forgiven our sins. Yet people take this gift for granted; they revel in sin so much that eventually faith dies, and the gift of salvation is lost. God is traded away for something that looks shinier—a lifestyle of big spending or being the center of attention. Or maybe God’s salvation loses its luster during a time of great difficulty. But you don’t play with gold coins, and you don’t play with God’s mercy offered through Christ.

A true gift is given without expectation of being repaid. Salvation is God’s free gift offered to us in Christ. We did not earn it; we do not deserve it; we cannot pay God back for what it’s worth. In Christ, our guilt for causing hurt is taken away. In Christ, we find the courage to forgive others and repair damaged relationships. In Christ we have hope for life beyond the grave, life in paradise among God’s blessed people.

This gift came wrapped in a very ordinary-looking package. God’s Son was born in a stable; a feeding trough was His first bed. Jesus was the first son of a lower-middle class family, and there was nothing outwardly remarkable about Him. Yet hidden behind that ordinary appearance, God’s holy Son walked the earth. He came to shine us up—clear away all the scratches and grime and corrosion caused by sin so that we can reflect God’s wonderful light into the lives of everyone we meet.

Jesus is the greatest gift ever given. Treasure it always, because this is one gift you can’t afford to lose.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Christmas without Christ?

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 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 cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told (Luke 2:1-20).

I’d like you to imagine a Christmas with no decorations. No Christmas tree. No lights strung on the porch. No garland or tinsel. No Yule logs or mistletoe. No Santas or reindeer.

What would we lose by having a Christmas without these decorations? Christmas trees did not come into use until the year 1510. Christmas lights weren’t available until 1920. Yule logs and mistletoe were first used by Norsemen and druids in their religious ceremonies before they found their way into Christmas. Santa, as he is known today, got his first publicity from Washington Irving in 1809, and Montgomery Ward introduced Rudolph to the world in 1939. Although the decorations are pretty, they have not always been part of the Christmas experience.

I’d like you to imagine a Christmas with no holiday treats. No cookies. No eggnog. No candy canes.

What would we lose by having a Christmas without Christmas treats? Well, we might lose a few pounds! But once again, Christmas treats are not as old a tradition as you might think. Candy canes were first given out by a choirmaster in 1670 to keep the children quiet during long church services. The recipe for eggnog was finalized just 150 years ago. The earliest Christmas cookies were ginger, spritz, and krumkake, all of which first became popular in the 1500s--and cookie-cutter shapes did not become common until the 1930s. Sweets are enjoyable, but they haven’t always been a part of Christmas.

I’d like you to imagine a Christmas with no pre-recorded music. No songs on the radio. No music in the stores. No Christmas specials on TV. No animated plastic snowmen mangling carols with a hissing synthetic voice.

What would we lose by having a Christmas without pre-recorded music? Music could not be recorded and reproduced until the 1870s. Prior to that, making music was a live event. Christmas music could only be heard in church, from groups of wandering carolers, or when families gathered around pianos in their homes. Music has always been a part of Christmas, beginning with the angels singing Good News to the shepherds. However, making music was always a group event.

I’d like you to imagine a Christmas with no shopping. No Christmas cards. No Christmas presents. No Christmas dinner.

What would we lose by having a Christmas with no shopping? Well, for one thing, we would lose a huge credit card statement come January. But once again, this is a tradition of recent times. The large Christmas dinner dates from the Middle Ages. Christmas cards weren’t invented until 1840. The interest in giving elaborate gifts on Christmas started with a Macy’s holiday promotion in 1867, and modern holiday shopping habits developed during World War II when retailers urged customers to ‘buy early’ so that gifts mailed to troops serving overseas would arrive in time for Christmas.

Some people have the mistaken idea that the tradition of gift giving started with the Wise Men bringing gifts to Christ. Not so! When a person comes to meet royalty, it is customary to bring a gift. The Wise Men came seeking ‘The King of the Jews’; their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh were intended to show respect to the newborn King. Modern gift giving is completely different; instead of giving our gifts to the King, we give our gifts to each other. Our pattern of gift giving is not based on the example of the Wise Men.

No decorations. No treats. No pre-recorded music. No shopping. Strip these all away and Christmas would look different—in fact, it would look like Christmas as it was first observed in the fourth century. In those days, the Roman Empire was made up of both Christians and non-Christians in large numbers. Many non-Christian religions celebrated the end of one year and the beginning of the next on the date of the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. To encourage unity among the citizens, Emperor Constantine promoted December 25th as the date for a holiday that could be holy both to Christians and to the followers of other religions at the same time. From the beginning, Christmas has shared December 25th with the false religions of the world.

Which brings us to today. Now I’d like you to imagine a Christmas without Christ. No church services. No nativity scenes. No Christmas carols. There are trees and lights and Santa. There are candy canes and cookies and oyster stew. There are songs like ‘Frosty the Snowman’ and ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer’ and ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.’ There are stacks of cards and piles of presents and a table groaning under the weight of food. But there is no Jesus.

This describes many peoples’ Christmas. This is the kind of holiday our world is moving towards with increasing speed. Many retailers have banished the words ‘Merry Christmas’ from their promotions for fear of offending any potential customers; now it’s ‘Happy Holidays.’ Christmas trees are being replaced with ‘holiday trees’. There have been efforts to combine Christmas with Hanukkah, creating a new holiday called "Chrismukkah," and African-Americans have offered the alternative of Kwanzaa since 1966. More and more, Christ is being edged out of Christmas.

What do we lose by taking Christ out of Christmas? First of all, we lose the chance to meet God. Hebrews chapter one tells us, The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being. To see Jesus is to see His Father—in the 14th chapter of John, Jesus says: Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. Indeed, the only way to see God is through His Son; our Lord states: No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well (John 14:6). When we take Christ out of Christmas, we lose the ability to see our Creator.

This is a dangerous loss. If we cannot see God, we cannot know how to please Him. Have you ever drawn names for a gift exchange and been absolutely stumped on what to buy for the name you got? When a person is a stranger to you, it is impossible to know what kind of gift will please them. So it is with God. It is Jesus who reveals the Father to us; it is Jesus who tells us what God enjoys, what His priorities are, and what provokes His anger. Without Jesus, it is impossible for us to please God. And to anger God has terrible consequences, as death will only be the introduction to suffering.

When we take Christ out of Christmas, we lose the offer of forgiveness. Jesus came among us to do more than just teach us about God; He dressed Himself in the body of a human being so that He could suffer and die. The sinless Son of God assumed responsibility for all our sinfulness; Paul writes, God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21). The eternal Son of God became human so that He could shed His blood for us and bring us freedom from a lifetime of mistakes; Ephesians chapter one verse seven states: [God] is so rich in kindness that he purchased our freedom through the blood of his Son, and our sins are forgiven. Without forgiveness, life is nothing but an ever-increasing heap of guilt over foolish words, broken promises and missed opportunities that we drag along with us like a mortal version of Marley’s ghost. Without forgiveness, life can only grow more depressing with each passing year. And without forgiveness, we cannot find welcome in heaven when we eventually die.

When we take Christ out of Christmas, we lose the promise of everlasting life in paradise. Our Lord came to earth to die so that we might escape the grave; just before He raised Lazarus from the dead, our Master said: I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die (John 11:25-26). Jesus promises to rescue His followers from the grave, and once raised by Him, they will never die again. Not only that, but the life that awaits His followers is eternity in paradise; Jesus said, Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me (John 12:26). Every painful memory will be pushed aside by a never-ending life of peace and happiness, a bliss that we can scarcely imagine. Without the promise of paradise, life becomes little more than a mad scramble to stay away from the grave at any cost, while filling every waking moment with pleasures meant to distract from the specter of death.

Imagine a Christmas without Christ: a constant stream of lights and wrapping paper and food and canned music, all of it trying to conceal our problems. But Santa can’t tell us what’s right and wrong as we wrestle with difficult decisions. An expensive present cannot undo the hurt that we’ve inflicted on a loved one. The words of ‘Blue Christmas’ cannot give us hope as the flipping of the calendar brings us another year closer to our last holiday season here on earth. Without Christ, Christmas cannot offer any of the things that we really need--a moral compass, forgiveness, and hope in the face of approaching death.

This is why we need Christ in Christmas. Only He can guide us through the complexity of life and help us make decisions that are good and constructive and God-pleasing. Only He can give us release from our guilt and lift us up when we have made a mess of things. Only He can take the black hole of despair that is our grave and make it a doorway to eternal life, eternal happiness, and eternal love. Only Christ can satisfy our deepest, most important needs.

Keep Christ in your Christmas. Everything else is shiny and fun, but ultimately little more than a distraction. Welcome Christ—welcome Him into your home and into your heart. May you have a most blessed Christmas.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Christmas Tree (part 5)

I am the light of the world (John 8:12).

When you decorate your Christmas Tree, do you top it with a star? Many people do. The Christmas star is a very special decoration, because it reminds us of God’s Son.

Jesus refers to Himself as the bright Morning Star. The nighttime sky is filled with many points of light, but the brightest of them all is the planet Venus. As dawn approaches, all other stars fade from sight; only Venus remains visible. Because of this, Venus has been called the Morning Star, because it heralds the start of a bright new day.

How appropriate, then, for Christ to be called the bright Morning Star. Our world was shrouded in the darkness of sin, a terrible night that just went on and on. But hope was coming; that hope was sent down to earth by the God of the heavens. He sent His Son to be born among us, bringing hope to the hopeless. Jesus’ arrival heralded the dawn of a new day, a bright future where sin is forgiven, death is conquered, and heaven is opened. Christ was born to close the rift between sinful man and holy God. Jesus said, I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. He is the light in the darkness promising the arrival of a bright new day. He is our bright Morning Star.

In view of this, it’s really not surprising that wise men from the east were led to the newborn Savior by following a star. That Christmas star brought them to the presence of God’s own Son, where they offered precious gifts and knelt to worship Him. The Christmas star invited them to approach God and be welcomed.

John writes, The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it (John 1:5). Sadly, we forget the significance of the bright Morning Star. We still live in a world darkened by sin. We get wrapped up in seeking pleasure and dealing with pain.

We forget that Christ has changed our lives, and that worldly pleasures and hurts are temporary shadows that will soon disappear. And so we need the Christmas star to point us back to Christ this year and every year. He is the bright Morning Star that changes everything by ushering in a new day—a day when the darkness of sin is banished forever by God’s magnificent light. That is the message of Christmas.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Christmas Tree (part4)

He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1:13).

What is a Christmas Tree without ornaments? You probably have some that represent your interests, your cultural background, or important events from the history of your family. If I were to look at the ornaments on your tree, they would tell me something about who you are.

Jesus suffered and died on the tree of the cross, and there was an ornament on that tree that explained who Jesus was. Nailed above the Savior’s head was a sign that read, Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews (John 19:19). This sign was intended as an insult, but it actually spoke volumes about the man who was dying beneath it.

Even though He did not look the part, Jesus was a king. Our world needs kings. Our world is flooded with sin and death. Throughout history, God has given kings power so that they can hold back the forces of evil, like sandbags hold back floodwaters. Of course, sandbags are a temporary solution to a much bigger problem; in the same way, no earthly kingdom can uphold justice and security forever.

We live in a world of temporary kings, and kingdoms that are on the verge of collapse. There is no political solution for the problems of sin, death and the devil; we must contend with these forces of darkness until the end of time. Unfortunately, these enemies are so powerful and frightening that sometimes we forget that we have a king who cannot be defeated—Jesus of Nazareth. Instead of trusting in Christ, we throw our hands up in despair, fearing that everything is out of control and can only end in disaster.

Things certainly looked hopeless when Jesus hung bleeding on the cross. It appeared that He couldn’t even save Himself, let alone anyone else. But Jesus went to that tree of shame willingly; He set aside His royal privileges out of love for us. Because of our fascination with sin, we were condemned to death and hell. Only the king can commute a death sentence, and that is what Christ did when He chose to die in our place.

Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. No ornament hung on a tree has ever spoken a more important and reassuring message. I hope that you remember that ornament as you decorate your tree this year.

Friday, December 11, 2009


Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. The LORD has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations. He has remembered his love and his faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music; make music to the LORD with the harp, with the harp and the sound of singing, with trumpets and the blast of the ram's horn--shout for joy before the LORD, the King. Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity (Psalm 98).

The Christmas season is supposed to be a time of joy--smiling faces, happy songs, unstinting generosity and good will towards all. But take a careful look at the people you see around you every day--how many of them are filled with joy? How many are stressed by a calendar full of things to do? How many are frustrated by long shopping lists and long lines? How many are depressed at the thought of being separated from loved ones during the holidays? How many are worried about ever-increasing bills and not enough money to pay them? During this season of joy, many people seem to be anything but joyful.

Sometimes we need a reminder to be joyful. Psalm 98 is one such reminder. In this Psalm we are reminded that regardless of what is going on in our lives, we have been given something so wonderful that rejoicing is our only sensible response. God has done something marvelous; His Right Hand and His Holy Arm have worked salvation for us. He has made His salvation known to us and revealed His righteousness to the nations. He has remembered His love and faithfulness to His people, and all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

We desperately need to hear this Good News. Our lives are awash in sin--our own sins and the sins of everyone around us. We make ourselves miserable with our bad habits, our desire for dangerous thrills, and our inability to keep a tight rein on our temper. We are made miserable by people who lie to us, who break their promises, who use us to make themselves feel good. Sin destroys our relationships and fills us with self-loathing.

Even worse, our sin had separated us from God. Sin had erected a wall between us and our Creator, a barrier that hid God from us and left us shivering in the dark, helpless prey to the forces of darkness. We were in deadly danger, and we had no way to protect ourselves.

But God remembered His love for us and He sent us a Savior, His personal representative. This rescuer was the Son of God Himself, born miraculously from the womb of a virgin. God's Son came to make His home among us, that He might tear down the barrier of sin that separated us from His heavenly Father. He would do this by dying for our sins, having assumed responsibility for our every evil thought, word and deed. Because He died, we have been spared the eternal, hellish consequences of our sin. And to top things off, Jesus rose from the grave alive once more, alive to open the gates of heaven and lead us to the Father's forgiving arms.

This offer of salvation is for all people. Jews were summoned to the Christ-child by an angelic choir; Gentiles were invited to follow a miraculous star to the Savior's bedside. God revealed His righteousness and salvation to all nations, and He continues to do so today--every December, believers and unbelievers alike are publicly invited to kneel at the manger and welcome the Babe of Bethlehem into their lives.

Jesus is our release from sin and our promise of life beyond the grave. Jesus is our light in darkness, our protection from evil, our offer of hope when things look their bleakest. No wonder the Psalmist says, Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music. Jesus is the holiday gift that will always give you joy; Jesus is the source of happiness that cannot be spoiled by sin.

Psalm 98 tells us to live a life of rejoicing. What does such a life look like? Well first of all, a joy-filled life is a life of freedom. We are freed from worry and complaining. Worry and complaining happen when we think we need something that we don’t have. But when Jesus reconnects us to God, we realize that our Father will give us everything that we need; we have no reason to worry or complain. In Philippians chapter four Paul writes: I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. And in Matthew chapter six Jesus tells us: do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?' or `What shall we drink?' or `What shall we wear?' For the unbelievers pursue all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

A joy-filled life is a life that is free from competition. In Mark chapter three, Jesus speaks of how we are all one family through Him: A crowd was sitting around [Jesus], and they told him, "Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you." "Who are my mother and my brothers?" he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother." When we are rescued by the Savior, we are brought together into one family as fellow children of God. This being the case, there is no reason to be envious of each other, to gossip about each other, or to feel superior to anyone else. We are all the same, sinners who have been given new life by the precious blood of Christ, shed on the cross. Each of us can be joyful because we are special, but we are only special because Jesus has made us so.

A joy-filled life is a life of forgiveness. Jesus taught us to pray forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. We have been given an incredible gift—release from responsibility for the mistakes of our past. The joy that we experience from this freeing gift is a joy that begs to be shared. There is no joy in holding a grudge, but there is much joy to be gained by extending Christ’s forgiveness to others.

A joy-filled life is a life of service. Jesus dedicated His life to take care of our needs; as His followers, He looks for the sense of service in us. In John chapter 13 He gave the following instruction: "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." Our Lord did not mean that we should just feel warm and fuzzy towards each other. His love for us resulted in a sacrificial death on a cross to free us from eternal condemnation; His love resulted in the ultimate act of service on our behalf. To love is to serve—this is how Jesus wants us to show His love to each other. And such service brings joy to our lives.

Most importantly, a joy-filled life is a life of faith and trust. Without faith in God, it is impossible to be confident of anything. But when you trust in God’s promise to take care of you, you can live life with confidence because the Lord prompted Paul to write: we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). We can have the same inner peace as the writer of Hebrews who said (in chapter 13), "The Lord is my helper, so I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?" When we trust that God is in charge, we can be freed from worrying to live life with joy.

Now you might be thinking, "that’s all fine and well, but how can I change my life to experience such joy?" It’s important to remember that such joy only comes as a gift of Christ; the closer you are to your Lord, the more joy you will find from His being in your life. So if you want to experience true joy, commit yourself to spending more time with Jesus. Commit yourself to worshipping Him every week. Commit yourself to reading a devotion every day. Make time with Christ your first priority. Also make a point to involve Jesus in your daily life. Commit yourself to praying every day. Ask for His leadership before making decisions; read His word regularly so that you better know how He thinks and how He wants you to think. Let Jesus take the lead as you live life. When you are ‘in tune’ with Jesus, joy will be the result.

To experience greater joy, you can ask Jesus to help you focus on the positive. In Philippians chapter four Paul gives this excellent advice: Fix your thoughts on what is true and honorable and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. In Deuteronomy chapter eleven we are told, commit yourselves completely to these words of mine…Talk about them when you are at home and when you are away on a journey, when you are lying down and when you are getting up again. In his explanation of the 8th Commandment, Martin Luther wrote: "explain everything in the kindest way." Don’t focus on the negative. Don’t assume the worst. Look for the best possible interpretation of events. Looking for God’s hand in every situation will help you resist the temptation to be pessimistic.

Finally, develop a habit of gratitude. Take time every day to thank God for the gifts of life, food, and shelter. Take time every day to thank God for the good things you have and the opportunities He gives you to show love to others. Take time every day to give Jesus thanks for coming among us 2,000 years ago at Bethlehem, for going to the cross for us, and for ending sin’s domination over us. Develop an ‘attitude of gratitude’, which will help you to resist the temptation to grumble and complain.

This is the prescription for a life filled with joy—treasure God’s gift of His Son, keep your attention on God’s generous care for you, and make thankfulness your daily habit. Let Jesus fill your life and direct it, and you can experience the true joy of Christmas.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Christmas Tree (part 3)

Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow (Isaiah 1:18).

When decorating a Christmas tree, most people use strands of tinsel. Tinsel comes in all sorts of colors, but some of them don’t show up as well as others. Favorites tend to be rich shades of red, silvery white, and sparkling gold. These three colors all serve to remind us about the Savior who was born in Bethlehem.

We are sinners; we ignore God and hurt the people in our lives. We need forgiveness. But the Bible says that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. That is why Jesus came down from heaven; born as a human being, He could shed His blood for us when He died on the cross. The blood of Christ frees us from our sins. Red tinsel makes us think about the blood of Christ.

Jesus’ blood acts like bleach. Bleach removes stains and makes fabric white. In the same way, the blood of Jesus removes the stain of sin from us, leaving us looking white. When John was given a Revelation of heaven, this is what he saw in chapter seven: there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands…These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. White is the color of purity, a purity that is only possible when Jesus takes away our sins. White tinsel makes us think about the purity that becomes ours through Christ.

Jesus died for us, but He did not stay dead for long. He rose from the grave alive on Easter morning, and a few weeks later He returned to heaven. While we were sinners, heaven was locked to us; but when Jesus takes away our sins, the pearly gates stand open in welcome. When we arrive on the day we die, Jesus will be waiting to escort us inside, and there He will bestow the best gift of all. Jesus says, be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life (Revelation 2:10). No one wants to die, but like Jesus we will rise from our graves to live in paradise forever. Gold tinsel makes us think about the crown of life that Jesus promises to all His faithful followers. The redness of Jesus’ blood makes us white, and prepares us to be crowned with gold forever.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Christmas Tree (part 2)

I am the light of the world (John 8:12).

When most people set up a Christmas Tree, the first thing they do is put on the lights. Even without ornaments, a lit Christmas Tree brightens the room; no matter how beautiful they are in the box, ornaments and tinsel look their best when sparkling with reflected light.

Our world started in darkness. When God began the process of creating, the first thing He made was light. People fear darkness. How many times have you woken up to a strange noise in the night, but were too afraid to get out of bed and investigate because it was dark? Severe weather is always frightening, but the terror gets much worse when storms come at night and knock out all the lights.

Talk of darkness makes us think of bad things, things that make us afraid. The Bible equates darkness with sin and evil. Scripture says, God is light; in him there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). If a person rejects God, he rejects the light. Jesus describes hell as a place of utter and eternal darkness, a fitting place for those who don’t want the light of Christ in their lives.

But our Lord does not want us to live in darkness. That is why Jesus was born in Bethlehem so long ago; He came to bring God’s light to us. Jesus said, I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. Jesus fills each of us with light that comes down from heaven, light that pushes back at the sin which darkens our lives. He took our darkness upon Himself; during those terrible hours when He suffered for our sins on the cross, darkness fell across the land. The light did not come back until Christ died, showing that our Lord had successfully overcome the darkness of our sins. Then Jesus rose from the dead to open heaven to us, so that when we die we can live in God’s magnificent light forever.

When you look at Christmas lights, remember what they represent. Sin has made our world dark; Christ came to bring back the light of life. That light glows within every heart that trusts in the Savior; like a string of Christmas lights, God shines through us to push back the darkness of the world with His beautiful light.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Preparing to meet the Savior

The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul. The decrees of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The commandments of the LORD are right, bringing joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are clear, giving insight to life. Reverence for the LORD is pure, lasting forever. The laws of the LORD are true; each one is fair. They are more desirable than gold, even the finest gold. They are sweeter than honey, even honey dripping from the comb. They are a warning to those who hear them; there is great reward for those who obey them.

How can I know all the sins lurking in my heart? Cleanse me from these hidden faults. Keep me from deliberate sins! Don't let them control me. Then I will be free of guilt and innocent of great sin. May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be pleasing to You, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer
(Psalm 19:7-14).

Christmas is only a few weeks away. Are you ready to celebrate the coming of our Lord? The people in Jesus’ day were not ready; they were preoccupied with their jobs, their families, and their social standing. Their attention was focused on making money, being popular, and living life to the full. In other words, they were like us.

God sent John the Baptist to prepare the people for Jesus’ arrival. John did his ministry far away from the distractions of city life; those who came to listen to him would find no fancy worship center, no beautiful banners or scented candles. The man who stood before them was not dressed fashionably, nor was he concerned that his message be politically correct. This simple man, standing in the barest of surroundings, gave a simple yet profound message: repent!

This simple message was what the people needed to hear before Jesus came among them. Repent! This simple message is what we need to hear before we celebrate the anniversary of our Lord’s coming among us. Repent! Before you do your Christmas shopping, repent! Before you get involved in Christmas parties, repent! Before you make your holiday travel plans, repent! Strip away all the paraphernalia that distracts you from the coming Christ; focus on the one thing needed to prepare for His coming—repent!

Sadly, we don’t repent as we should. To repent is to change your mind about your sin, to make a 180-degree turn in your attitude. When you repent, your heart should be saying, "I never, never want to do that again." But our repentance is often only half-hearted. It’s like when your parents made you apologize to your brother or sister. You may have said "I’m sorry", but what you really meant was "I’m sorry that I got caught." You weren’t truly sorry; you had no intention of behaving differently in the future. You just apologized to get your parents off your back.

That is often the way that we apologize to God. We know that it makes Him mad when we skip church. We know He gets angry when we forget to pray to Him. We know that it is not smart to rile God up by disrespecting our parents, getting into fights, experimenting with sex outside of marriage, taking things that are not ours, spreading gossip, and being selfish. To make God angry is to invite His discipline in life and risk damnation in hell. So we apologize to God to keep Him happy.

But do you think the Lord is really fooled when our repentance is not sincere and heart-felt? Jesus repeatedly showed His ability to see into the human heart; one example is found in Matthew chapter 9: Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, "Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts?" Jesus is well aware of the times when our "I’m sorrys" are nothing more than empty words. Our Lord knows us better than we know ourselves. In Psalm 19, King David says the following words: How can I know all the sins lurking in my heart? Cleanse me from these hidden faults. The fact of the matter is this—part of the reason we don’t repent properly is because many times we aren’t even aware that we are sinning!

How many times have you found out that someone was mad at you for something you don’t even remember doing? We are sinners through and through—sin blinds us by distracting us. We get so wrapped up in pursuing some goal that we don’t notice the pain our actions are causing others. People cut each other off in traffic; often times the offender doesn’t even see the look of fright or anger on another driver’s face. Bosses change things at work to increase profitability, not realizing that the changes are causing stress for the employees. Husbands and wives make decisions without first consulting their partner, and are surprised when resentment is the result. It’s like being on a lake when a speedboat roars by; even though the boat doesn’t hit you, the waves from its passing make the water choppy for everyone in the area. In the same way, sin urges us to zip about our business, heedless of the resultant troubles caused by our wake.

Sin also blinds us by keeping us in the dark. Psalm 19 says, The decrees of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The commandments of the LORD are right, bringing joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are clear, giving insight to life. Do you have a question about what is right and wrong, what is ethical and unethical? God provides the answers in His holy Bible. But sin doesn’t want you spending time with God’s Word; sin wants to keep you ignorant. That way, when you sin, you won’t even realize that you’ve done wrong. If you don’t know that God hates divorce, then you might suggest splitting up to a friend whose marriage seems to be on the rocks. If you don’t know that God expects us to forgive everyone as He has forgiven us, you might feel perfectly justified in holding a grudge against someone for years. If you don’t know that God speaks of life as beginning at conception, then you won’t see anything wrong with working for a doctor who performs abortions. You can be sinning, all the while thinking that you are behaving properly.

Life is confusing. God tells us that everything is black and white—God-pleasing or evil. The world, on the other hand, keeps throwing ‘ifs’ at us—the words ‘but what if…’ muddy the distinction between what’s right and wrong. The world wants us to believe that there is no black or white, just shades of gray. We are constantly being told that there is no such thing as absolute truth—what is true for you might not be true for me—each person must find his own truth.

Of course, this is hogwash. Jesus said, I am the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6). The only place where the problems of life can be seen clearly for what they are is in the light of Christ’s wisdom. But sin is so much a part of our lives that even at the best of times, the light of God’s truth looks like headlights on a foggy night. Our sins always obscure what ought to be clear. So we must say with David, How can I know all the sins lurking in my heart? The answer, of course, is that we cannot. Our sin blinds us to many of our own failings. And so true repentance must include these words—‘Jesus, forgive me for my hidden faults.’ This is why, when we gather in worship, we ask Jesus to forgive us for all our sins—both the sins that are troubling us, and the ones we aren’t even aware of.

David speaks of another kind of sin as well; he prays: Keep me from deliberate sins! ‘Deliberate’ means intentional, something that you decided to do. We are not merely helpless slaves to our sinful impulses; much of the time, we are willing, eager partners! Frankly, sin is fun. Sin feels good. If sin brought no pleasure, no one would be tempted to disobey God. It’s fun to share gossip. Sex feels good, whether you are married are not. And who doesn’t enjoy pigging out on chocolate?

The world around us is filled with opportunities to make yourself feel good. And most of the time, you are encouraged to make yourself feel good. Nike’s commercials crystallize into one short sentence the urging of sin: Just do it! Go ahead and tell your parents what you really think—getting them to shut up and leave you alone will make you feel good. Go ahead and beat down that person who annoys you, either with your words or with your fists—it will make you feel powerful. Go ahead and have sex now—why should you wait for marriage to enjoy yourself? Go ahead and cheat on your test—the easier it is to get a passing grade, the better you’ll feel—and on top of that, it’ll give a you thrill to outsmart the teacher! Go ahead and tell another lie—the truth is often painful, but lying can keep things going your way. Go ahead and fill your mouth with generous amounts of alcohol, nicotine, sugar or marijuana—you’re tough, your body can handle some serious fun.

Sin can be fun, but there is a price to pay for sinning. Arrogant people rarely gain true respect from others. People who enjoy fighting never find rest from conflict—Jesus said, all who draw the sword will die by the sword (Matthew 26:52). Sex with multiple partners can result in a life-changing disease. Those who lie or cheat or steal find themselves worrying that they are being played for fools by those whom they would like to trust. People who abuse their bodies find themselves facing large medical bills and a shortened lifespan. Sin always comes back to bite you in some way.

You would think that the painful results of sin would teach us to stop—but we have selective memories. Just as a new mother quickly forgets the pain of childbirth, so we quickly forget that the pleasure of sin comes with a painful price—all we can see is the promise of pleasure right now, so we go ahead and enjoy ourselves, heedless of the price we will inevitably pay.

And there is an inevitable price for sin. That price is God’s righteous anger which results in damnation to hell. No matter how much we kid ourselves, sin will result in the worst loss imaginable—the loss of all hope forever. Hope is what makes pain bearable; a man suffering from stomach flu finds some comfort in the knowledge that in a few hours, the nausea will subside; a woman in labor holds on to the hope that she will soon hold a baby in her arms. Hope gets us through suffering.

But hell is the one place where there is no hope. Once in hell, the door to happiness is closed forever. The pain, the regret, the frustration, the terror and loneliness of hell will be never-ending. That is the price for sin; that is what we must bear in mind each time we decide whether or not we will commit a sin.

If we could just resist sinning, we’d have it made! God would be pleased with us, and life would continue for us beyond the grave, free of everything that spoils our happiness. But when we honestly look at our lives, we see that such a thing is impossible—we’ve already committed more sins than we could ever count, and our prospects for a better future are doubtful at best. David also realized the impossibility of his situation. That’s why he prayed, Cleanse me from these hidden faults. Keep me from deliberate sins! Don't let them control me. He knew that he could only be freed from the guilt of his past by God’s gracious hand. He knew that he had no hope for a better future unless God intervened in his life, changing his joy of sinning to hatred of evil, and strengthening him to better resist each temptation.

You and I must also pray these words to God: "Cleanse me from these hidden faults. Cleanse me from the guilt of all my mistakes for the sake of Jesus, who suffered Your anger at my sins and died the death that I deserved. Keep me from deliberate sins! Don't let them control me. Change my attitude about my sins; fill my heart with disgust for the evil that I have foolishly loved, and help me to resist the enticement of pleasures which You have said are hurtful and wrong."

John the Baptist wanted the people of his day to repent of their sins, so that when Jesus came they would welcome His offer—His offer of forgiveness and a new start as God’s children. John’s words come to us across the years to prepare us for our Lord’s final return, when He will send everything evil to hell and restore paradise for the children of God. Repent, so that you too might find joy in the Lord’s forgiveness and a new start as a child of God. There is no better thing you can do to prepare for the coming of the Savor, than to repent.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Christmas Tree (part 1)

The tree of life (Revelation 2:7).

This time of year, most people set up Christmas Trees even if they aren’t Christians. As a child, I loved going along with Dad to pick out a tree for the living room; as I got older, I sometimes wondered why millions of people in this country were in the habit of bringing a tree into the house? I guess it goes to show that we don’t think too deeply about long-held family traditions.

But a Christmas Tree can be more than just a simple holiday decoration. For the Christian, that tree can be a reminder of why Christ came into our world 2,000 years ago. From the very beginning of time, trees have been important in the relationship between man and God. In the Garden of Eden, God planted two very special trees—one offered eternal life, the other demanded that Adam and Eve respect God’s rules by leaving it alone. But our first parents made a tragic mistake; they wanted what was forbidden, and they were willing to break God’s law to get what they wanted. They failed God’s test of loyalty; they became sinners and were ejected from paradise as a result. Without access to the Tree of Life, they and all their descendants are now doomed to die.

In that ancient Garden, one tree was a test and the other was a blessing; by failing the test, the blessing was forfeit. Those trees are lost to history; there is no going back to set things right. Thankfully, God Himself set things right using another tree. He sent His Son Jesus to join us on earth as a human being. The Son of God had His own tree to face; that tree was the cross of Calvary. Jesus was hung on that tree by nails through His hands and feet. That cross was a tree of death; on it, Jesus endured the punishment that we deserve for ignoring God and His laws. But that cross was also a tree of life, because Jesus used it to free us from our sins and open the gates of heaven to us. In Galatians chapter three Paul writes, Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree." And so Peter tells us, He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:24).

When you look at a Christmas Tree, remember what it represents. Jesus was born among us to die on a tree; by that sacrificial death, He has forgiven our sins and reopened paradise to us. That is the meaning of Christmas.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Christmas gifts

The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23b).

It’s hard to believe that Christmas is coming in just a few more weeks. Of course, retailers have been pushing the holiday season at us for a long time now; many stores set up their Christmas section at the same time that they start selling Halloween decorations. They have to, because much of their business depends on Christmas shopping. A recent news report said that in some cases, revenue from Christmas sales makes up 50% of a retailer’s annual profits. A season of poor holiday shopping can drive some stores right out of business.

This seems foolish to me. If our economy depends this heavily on gift giving, there is way too much money being spent on non-essentials. If the bulk of our purchases were things that we truly needed, sales figures among retailers would remain fairly consistent throughout the year. If we spent less on gifts, we would have more money to put into savings or investments, money that we could retire on, or bequeath to our children.

Americans spend way too much money on gifts. Some do it out of guilt—the father who did not get custody of the children, the mother who works long hours outside the home. They buy expensive gifts to make up for the time they aren’t spending with their children. Other people give piles of gifts out of the theory that if a few presents are good, lots of presents are even better. Their giving is motivated by love, but they don’t consider the possible harm that can come from spoiling a child.

We are starting the season of Advent, the time of year when we prepare for the arrival of Christmas. On Christmas, God gave us a present because of guilt. But God wasn’t the one who felt guilty; we are the ones who wrestle with shame. We are ashamed of our behavior; we are ashamed of the things we say; we are ashamed of the ugly cravings that dominate our thoughts. And so on Christmas, God gave us a gift—just one gift, but oh, what a gift it is! God gave His Son to the cross so that you can be forgiven. God gave His Son to the grave so that you can be raised to eternal life. God sent His beloved Son to live with us on earth, so that Jesus can take you by the hand, lift you up from your troubles, and guide you into happiness. Christmas is not about burying people under a heap of gifts; Christmas is about God’s gift of love, given to us through Christ.

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