Animals and Advent

I’m following an Advent reading plan right now distributed by Olive Tree, and today’s reading included Isaiah 11:6-9.  This is the familiar “the lion will lay with the lamb” passage, but the verses that jumped out at me were the one that says “the cow and the bear will graze together” and then, “An infant will play beside the cobra’s pit,
and a toddler will put his hand into a snake’s den.”


Right now our girls have a very real fear of snakes; and whether it’s true or not, every time they wake up with nightmares they tell me it’s because they are dreaming of snakes.  So the thought that children and snakes will co-habitate just fine is quite an amazing promise to me. But verse 9 is really the one that spoke to me this morning: “None will harm or destroy another on My entire holy mountain, for the land will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the sea is filled with water.”

Lion-And-Lamb-Picture-HD-Wallpaper-1024x574A few days ago one of our dogs got out of the backyard early in the morning and I spent (literally) 30 minutes driving the neighborhood in the rain searching for her.  I finally had to come back to the house without her so I could get ready for work, and the whole time I was thinking two things.  First, how was I going to explain to the girls that she was gone.  Second, I kept asking the Lord if he could bring her back.  My fear was that she was going to get hit by a car, attacked by a wild animal, or dognapped by someone who wanted a free dog.  When I turned the corner onto our street I literally saw her standing in the middle of the road in front of the neighbors house.  When I got out of the car she looked at me and ran toward me with a look of, “Oh good, daddy, I was looking for you for the past 30 minutes.  Where have you been?”  Gotta love how dogs can switch the perspective.

I’ve blogged before about how much I love nature and animals, so a promise of how God will make the lion and lamb, the bear and cow, and children and snakes all live together without fear is absolutely amazing to me.  To consider that there will be a world where “none will harm or destroy another” seems too good to be true, until I consider the one who promised it.  Two years ago I wrote a blog post about visiting Sea World and watching the dolphin show, so I’m going to close by simply referring to that post without actually copying it here.  Maybe, just maybe, this picture will actually happen in the New Earth – a place I am looking forward to seeing.



Why I Love Tradition

One of the things I love about the Christmas season is that regardless of wherever you attend church, chances are you’ll sing some traditional Christmas carols.  I love Christmas carols; and I love hymns.  It seems that Christmas is the only time of year that those churches who sing only modern music will actually break from the mold and pull out the old hymns.

In the past two weeks we’ve sung (sometimes in a modern arrangement) songs like Joy to the World, O Come O Come Emmanuel, and What Child is This.  There’s something about singing a song that dates back the Civil War (What Child is This?), or a song older than our country (Watt’s Joy to the World from the early 1700’s), or even back to Medieval times (O Come O Come from the 9th century A.D.).  It’s a connection worth remembering.

Don’t get me wrong – I attend what many would consider a modern church, so I having nothing against modern (contemporary?) music.  Yet at the same time, and perhaps it’s because I spent my elementary years attending a liturgical church or my school years attending a Christian school largely influenced by more liturgical churches, I find the traditions of the historical church something special.  There is, after all, a wonder that comes from reciting the Lord’s Prayer with a room full of believers, or a sense of family that is created by the regular participation in communion (Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, whatever you want to call it), or a sense of historical communicated through the words of songs that are centuries – even millenia – old.  It’s a reminder to me that the Church, the body of Jesus, extends not only beyond myself but also beyond the four walls of the building I’m standing in when I worship.  It’s an acknowledgement of community and connection with my brothers and sisters around the globe who may attend a different church than I do, but who, none-the-less, belong to the same Church as me.

One of my struggles with modern Christianity is the emphasis and stress on the individual.  Again, don’t mis-read me here – I believe that we are saved through an individual relationship with God through Jesus.  And yet I’ve seen what I consider simply an infection of the church by the American consumerist mentality that “church is about me”.  If we don’t like the style of music that is played, or the amount of times communion is observed, or where the offering is placed, or even the time of the service or the dress code of the congregation, we leave to find another church because, well, we can – there’s a church on every corner competing for our attendance, and we’re bound to find one that fits “my needs”.  But sometimes – often times – we forget that when we come together corporately we are to worship corporately.  And that looks different than worshiping as individuals.

Which is why I appreciate the institution of traditions in the service.  Not just traditions that are traditions for an individual body (such as, “Since our church was founded 35 years ago we’ve celebrated Homecoming on the 2nd Sunday in September”), but also – and perhaps more-so – the traditions that extend throughout history.  Singing “O come, o come Emmanuel” helps me see myself in that long line of saints that Hebrews talks about.  It takes me back to the the time of the medieval monks, and I realize that I’m singing in a choir that transcends not just space but also time.  I see the body of Christ become much larger than anything I’ve ever imagined.  Traditions help us do that.

Now the extreme of this is to over-emphasize tradition, which is what the Pharisees did and for which Jesus condemned them.  Or the other extreme is to ignore all traditions in an attempt to not over-empahsize them, and we become just as legalistic yet in a different sense.  I’m not advocating either of these.  These thoughts, in fact, are directed more towards those who tend to disregard the importance of tradition than those who over-emphasize it.  Traditions aren’t always bad, in fact they serve a greater good.  I can’t over-emphasize this fact: traditions connect us with the church beyond space and time and helps us identify with the Church – the whole church – in a way that “new” can not.  They must not be practiced to the exclusion of “new”, but neither should “new” (modern/contemporary) be practiced to the exclusion of the old.

In this season of Advent it’s easier to remember tradition and practice it because we see it around us in the secular world: Christmas trees, stockings, outdoor lights, etc.  And as a Church we find it easier to incorporate it into our worship services because, well, who doesn’t like a good ol’ rendition of Hark the Herald Angels Sing – even Charlie Brown sang it!  But traditions shouldn’t be limited to just a couple weeks a year.

Advent, another “tradition”, reminds us that we are eagerly awaiting the return of our coming King; it’s the beginning of a new year, not in our calendar but in the Church’s calendar; it’s the reminder that we are in the world but not of it.  It’s a connection, beyond space to time, to those saints who live around the globe but also who lived throughout history.  And when we dismiss, downplay, or forget that, we do ourselves (and our Savior) a great disservice.

Let’s not forget what Jesus said in Matthew 13:52: “Then you see how every student well-trained in God’s kingdom is like the owner of a general store who can put his hands on anything you need, old or new, exactly when you need it.” (The Message)


The Invasion (Part II) (4.10)

If Christmas is an invasion (see last week’s devotional), then how are we to understand passages where OT prophets prophecy the Messiah is promised as one who will bring peace, where Jesus himself talks about giving peace, and we read numerous references throughout the NT where peace is referred to as a present reality?  I believe it begins with a proper understanding of the term “peace”.

I think there are at least two types of peace, and I’ll refer to them as intrapersonal peace and interpersonal peace.  Intrapersonal, or internal, peace is that peace we have within ourselves, whereas interpersonal, or external, peace is the peace we have with others.  When Christ told his disciples, “Peace I leave with you” (John 14:27) and Paul spoke of the “peace that passes understanding”, (Phil 4:7) I believe he was partly talking about this peace on the inside that we sense as Christians – the peace we talk about and hear about when someone is going through a difficult time in life but they say, “And in all of this I have this peace that everything is going to be all right.”  It’s something that’s inside them and has nothing to do with peace between peoples (or nations).

The second type of peace, interpersonal, is the peace I believe Martin Luther King, Jr. was referring to when he said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.” (incidentally, this quote was used in the 1997 movie Air Force One in reference to peace between a country and a terrorist organization).  This type of peace is not yet present in our world, and it won’t be present until evil is vanquished, Satan is completely overthrown, and sin (and its consequences) are gone.

And it is the conquest for that peace in which we find ourselves today, a time of war between the spiritual and unseen powers that surround us.  We are the middle of a war, a war that is striving to restore justice, and until justice is restored by the Prince of Peace we will always have this tension in our lives: while Christ has given us peace, we still must fight for ultimate peace until he returns and restores it.

There is one more type of peace that I haven’t mentioned yet, and this is the peace that Christ provides us today for those who believe, and that is peace with God.  When we sinned we joined Satan’s side in the war he waged against God.  The great mystery of the Christian faith, however, is that when we become Christians we switch sides: because of Jesus we can have peace with God and we now fight on his team against our former commander – and make no mistake about it, God’s team is the winning team.

Until we understand and view life through this lens (understanding) of peace, war, and justice, we will never fully understand all that is happening around and to us.  We have an enemy, and enemy who seeks to devour and destroy us.  Which means we are at war.  Christmas was the Great Invasion, the day God turned the tide and allowed us to be on his team in this war.  The angels proclaimed, “Peace on Earth” at the annunciation of his birth, but the peace they proclaimed was only “to those with whom God is pleased.” (Luke 2:14).  There will come a day when peace is offered to all – when justice will rule and evil will be vanquished for eternity.  Until then, we are warring “against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:12).

The invasion has begun.  Which side are you on?

The Invasion (Part I) (4.9)

“Christmas time is here,
Happiness and cheer
Fun for all that children call
Their favorite time of the year

“Snowflakes in the air
Carols everywhere
Olden times and ancient rhymes
Of love and dreams to share

“Sleigh bells in the air
Beauty everywhere
Yuletide by the fireside
And joyful memories there

“Christmas time is here
We’ll be drawing near
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year…”

So we are reminded by the Peanuts Gang…  Even one of our songs (my favorite Christmas choral song of all time), Christmastide, proclaims that Christmas is a time when “Peace, and love, and hope abide.”  Who doesn’t think of Christmas as a time of peace and tranquility?  Certainly that’s what we see portrayed in movies, read about in stories, and hear sung on the radio.  But “Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more…”  So suggested one of the greatest philosophers of our day: Theodore Geisel (more commonly known as Dr. Seuss).

I think too often we allow non-scriptural references to infect our doctrine (I was having a conversation about this yesterday with someone, actually!), and our understanding of Christmas (and it’s impact) is no different.  Too much of our belief about what Christmas was (and is) are drawn more from Silent Night and Away in a Manger than they are from Scripture.  Read how the birth of Christ is described by the Apostle John….

Then I witnessed in heaven an event of great significance.  I saw a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet, and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant, and she cried out because of her labor pains and the agony of giving birth. Then I witnessed in heaven another significant event.  I saw a large red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, with seven crowns on his heads.  His tail swept away one-third of the stars in the sky, and he threw them to the earth.  He stood in front of the woman as she was about to give birth, ready to devour her baby as soon as it was born.  She gave birth to a son who was to rule all nations with an iron rod.  And her child was snatched away from the dragon and was caught up to God and to his throne.  Then there was war in heaven.  Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and his angels.  And the dragon lost the battle, and he and his angels were forced out of heaven…And the dragon was angry at the woman and declared war against the rest of her children—all who keep God’s commandments and maintain their testimony for Jesus.  (Rev 12:1-5, 7-8, 18)

What happened in Matthew when the King learned of the birth of Jesus?  “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.”  (2:16)

John Eldredge writes, “The birth of Christ was an act of war, an invasion.  The Enemy knew it and tried to kill him as a babe.”  This morning Pastor quoted Matthew 16:18 when Jesus said to Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  This is not an image of defense for the church, but of offense.  Too often Christians think this verse paints the picture of us standing inside a walled city, resting in peace and tranquility, and that Satan can’t get through the defenses (so we respond by relaxing in some tropical paradise).  But that image couldn’t be further from the truth!

The image is one of war – of a fierce battle, where we are soldiers on the offense attacking the walled fortress (we’re on the outside) – and it’s a promise that the “gates of Hell” won’t withstand the onslaught!  It is not an image of resting in a tropical paradise, but of residing on a battlefield deep behind enemy lines – a place where most of us have never been and those who have would tell us we don’t ever want to go.  Yet that is exactly where Christ (and Christmas) places us.

When was the last time you ever thought, read, or heard about that understanding of Christmas?  We’ll look at this a little more next week.

Hope for Eternity (Advent III) (3.14)

As a conclusion to my thoughts on Advent, I’m going to again refer to the reflections of Dennis Bratcher; I hinted at this reflection in last week’s devotional and I’ve been thinking about it ever since, so I figured I should just share the whole thing!

We live in a world in which bigger and better define our expectations for much of life. We have become so enamored by super size, super stars, and high definition that we tend to view life through a lens that so magnifies what we expect out of the world that we tend not to see potential in small things. But as the prophet Zechariah reminds us (Zech 4:10), we should not “despise the day of small things,” because God does some of his best work with small beginnings and impossible situations.

It is truly a humbling experience to read back through the Old Testament and see how frail and imperfect all the “heroes” actually are. Abraham, the coward who cannot believe the promise. Jacob, the cheat who struggles with everybody. Joseph, the immature and arrogant teen. Moses, the impatient murderer who cannot wait for God. Gideon, the cowardly Baal-worshipper. Samson, the womanizing drunk. David, the power abusing adulterer. Solomon, the unwise wise man. Hezekiah, the reforming king who could not quite go far enough. And finally, a very young Jewish girl from a small village in a remote corner of a great empire.

It never ceases to amaze me that God often begins with small things and inadequate people.  It certainly seems that God could have chosen “bigger” things and “better” people to do His work in the world. Yet if God can use them, and reveal Himself through them in such marvelous ways, it means that He might be able to use me, inadequate, and unwise, and too often lacking in faith that I am. And it means that I need to be careful that I do not in my own self-righteousness put limits on what God can do with the smallest things, the most unlikely of people, in the most hopeless of circumstances. I think that is part of the wonder of the Advent Season.

I am convinced that one of the main purposes of the incarnation of Jesus was to provide hope. While most people today want to talk about the death of Jesus and the Atonement of sins, the early Church celebrated the Resurrection and the hope it embodied. It was a proclamation of a truth that rang throughout the Old Testament, that endings are not always endings but are opportunities for God to bring new beginnings. The Resurrection proclaimed that truth even about humanity’s greatest fear, death itself.

It is not just hope for a better day or hope for the lessening of pain and suffering, although that is certainly a significant part of it. It is more about hope that human existence has meaning and possibility beyond our present experiences, a hope that the limits of our lives are not nearly as narrow as we experience them to be. It is not that we have possibility in ourselves, but that God is a God of new things and so all things are possible (Isa 42:9, Mt 19:26, Mk 14:36)

God’s people in the first century wanted Him to come and change their oppressive circumstances, and were angry when those immediate circumstances did not change. But that is a short sighted view of the nature of hope. Our hope cannot be in circumstances, no matter how badly we want them or how important they are to us. The reality of human existence, with which the Book of Job struggles, is that God’s people experience that physical existence in the same way that others do. Christians get sick and die, Christians are victims of violent crimes, and Christians are hurt and killed in traffic accidents, bombings, war, and in some parts of the world, famine.

If our hope is only in our circumstances, as we define them to be good or as we want them to be to make us happy, we will always be disappointed. That is why we hope, not in circumstances, but in God. He has continually, over the span of four thousand years, revealed himself to be a God of newness, of possibility, of redemption, the recovery or transformation of possibility from endings that goes beyond what we can think or even imagine (Eph 3:2). The best example of that is the crucifixion itself, followed by the resurrection. That shadow of the cross falls even over the manger.

Yet, it all begins in the hope that God will come and come again into our world to reveal himself as a God of newness, of possibility, a God of new things.  This time of year we contemplate that hope embodied, enfleshed, incarnated, in a newborn baby, the perfect example of newness, potential, and possibility. During Advent, we groan and long for that newness with the hope, the expectation, indeed the faith, that God will once again be faithful to see our circumstances, to hear our cries, to know our longings for a better world and a whole life (Ex 3:7).  And we hope that as he first came as an infant, so he will come again as King!

My experience tells me that those who have suffered and still hope understand far more about God and about life than those who have not. Maybe that is what hope is about: a way to live, not just to survive, but to live authentically amidst all the problems of life with a Faith that continues to see possibility when there is no present evidence of it, just because God is God. That is also the wonder of Advent.

Dennis’ reflections speak to a special place in my heart.  As I’ve shared before, Christmas is in many ways a time of mixed emotions for my entire family as we are reminded of the passing of my sister and her funeral and burial on Christmas Eve.  Even as I write this, though, that hope shines through.  I use the word “passing” – and I really believe the word – as a faith that Erin is still alive, just in a different form.  She resides in a much better place than any of us – she stands in the presence of the King of Kings and Lords of Lords, free of her sickness.  Her only cries now are of worship to the great God whom she can now see and also petitions to fully release the rest of us “down here” from the full influence of sin on us as individuals and as a world.

And that hope – that faith – reminds me that I will one day stand there before my God as well.  One of the most touching songs to me in the entire cantata we’re doing is Christmas in Heaven, but the one filled with the most hope is The Story Never Changes.  As the song reminds us, “The story never changes, yet it changes everything.”

May you have a Christmas filled with hope – not wishful thinking, but authentic, faith-filled, God-sized hope, the kind of hope that fills your life and points you (and others) closer to Jesus, our born, lived, crucified, and risen savior.

The Hope of the World (Advent II) (3.13)

Last week I looked at the beginning of the Advent season, and this week I want to continue that theme.  I’m going to begin by quoting Dennis Bratcher again:

Advent is one of the few Christian festivals that can be observed in the home as well as at church.  In its association with Christmas, Advent is a natural time to involve children in activities at home that directly connect with worship at church.  In the home an Advent wreath is often placed on the dining table and the candles lighted at meals, with Scripture readings preceding the lighting of the candles, especially on Sunday. A new candle is lighted each Sunday during the four weeks, and then the same candles are lighted each meal during the week. In this context, it provides the opportunity for family devotion and prayer together, and helps teach the Faith to children, especially if they are involved in reading the daily Scriptures.

It is common in many homes to try to mark the beginning of Advent in other ways as well, for the same purpose of instruction in the faith. Some families decorate the house for the beginning of Advent, or bake special cookies or treats, or simply begin to use table coverings for meals. An Advent Calendar is a way to keep children involved in the entire season.  There are a wide variety of Advent calendars, but usually they are simply a card or poster with windows that can be opened, one each day of Advent, to reveal some symbol or picture associated with the Old Testament story leading up to the birth of Jesus.  One unique and specialized Advent calendar that can be used is a Jesse Tree.  (for a copy of one ask Tom and he’ll locate it online)

At our house, some of the ways we have celebrated Advent (both past and future) include:

  • Lighting an Advent wreath during dinner and having family devotions;
  • Keeping an Advent calendar;
  • Reading devotionals on the history of Christmas traditions and symbols;
  • Reading through Advent devotionals as a couple or family;
  • Setting up a Nativity set but not putting Jesus in it until Christmas morning

All of these are things we have done to help reinforce the concept of waiting for Christmas and building in ourselves that longing for the coming of Christ.  It also serves to reinforce hope, perhaps what I consider one of the key words of the season.  Mr. Bratcher makes the comment that it is “What the world needs now is, not love, but hope. Without hope, without some sense that this is not all there is, that there truly is a God who will come and restore all things, there will never be much love, at least not the kind of love that is truly Christian.”  I think he hit the nail on the head.

Longing can bring hope, something we all need.  We can’t have a resurrection without a cross, and we can’t have a cross without a birth.  And we can’t have a birth if there is no need for a savior – it all starts with hope.  And Christ came to offer Hope.  Here are some definitions of “hope” I found today:

  • a person or thing in which expectations are centered;
  • to look forward to with desire and reasonable confidence;
  • to believe, desire, or trust.

Jesus came not only to offer hope but to be our hope.  Think about this: our hope rests in the God of the universe being who he said he is, doing what he said he will do, and loving us as he said he will.  If you can’t have hope in Him, what will you hope for?

Advent reminds us of God’s promises made millennia ago that he faithfully began fulfilling in the birth of a baby boy.  As members of his family we can also rest in the hope that what he has laid out for our future will also come to pass at the ordained time.  By observing Advent as a family we can reinforce this hope for ourselves and instill it in our children.