fbpx
All the Fitness He Requires

All the Fitness He Requires

There’s a group exercise place close to my house that I have been wanting to try out. I have several friends who go there and love it, and when my kids were younger, I really loved working out with others. One of my friends has said she will take me whenever I want to go for a trial class. She has said this for over a year. But I have never taken her up on it, and it’s just for the dumbest reason. I don’t think I am in good enough shape to go to the place that is supposed to whip me into shape. I keep thinking that what I need to do is get into a really rigorous workout rhythm at home for a good 6 weeks and THEN I will be ready to go! So basically, once I don’t need the class anymore, then I will be ready to join. 

 

An Open Invitation

There is another open invitation that we tend to view the same way, which has deeper and more lasting implications beyond an exercise class. In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus invites us to come to him…all of us who labor and are heavy laden, which feels like all of us, and he will give us rest. I know this, we know this, and yet…there are so many times when I continue to feel like I have to get my act together in order to be loved and accepted by my Savior. There are so many times when I am striving and struggling and instead of accepting the rest that Jesus offers me, I just double down. I turn to productivity books, reorganize my schedule and just plain try harder. I will get my act together and then come to Jesus, once I somehow achieve that rest that he so freely offers. Accepting grace feels more difficult than continuing to throw myself at a (metaphorical) brick wall. 

Works-based religions just make so much more sense to me, even though they are soul-crushing. In our Western culture, we are self-made women and men! We pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. All we have to do is dream bigger and work harder and keep hustling, and all our American dreams will come true! We don’t want to owe anyone anything, we have our pride. Even when asking a friend for a favor, sometimes I find myself doing a quick mental calculation…have I asked this person to do more for me than I have done for them? Is the “favor scale” tipped too far in the wrong direction, do I owe them more than they owe me? If so, sometimes I won’t ask for what I need and what they would happily and lovingly do for me. Because then I would feel like a burden, a drain. 

 

Rest and Peace

And then there is our God. He has done everything for us – created us, given us everything that we have, died for us…there is nothing I could ever do to balance those “favor scales.” And all he wants is for me to come to him; he is standing there, arms open, waiting for me to give him my burdens, my worries, my fears, my sins, my shame, my pride (along with my joys, praise and my loves). And exchange it for his rest, his peace, his presence. 

I have loved Jesus as long as I can remember, and I still struggle to turn to him first, to continue to turn to him each and every day with each and every struggle and burden. I suspect I am not alone in that. But I think, just maybe, I am willing to set aside my pride and admit my need a little quicker than I did a few decades ago. Church, may we be a people who realize that clinging to our pride and self-sufficiency is a fool’s game. We are just causing ourselves such needless heartache and misery. Our God offers us rest, true rest. May we reach out and take it. 

Come, Ye Sinners

Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
full of pity, love, and pow’r

Come, ye thirsty; come and welcome,
God’s free bounty glorify;
true belief and true repentance,
ev’ry grace that brings you nigh

Let not conscience make you linger,
nor of fitness fondly dream;
all the fitness he requires
is to feel your need of him.

Come, ye weary, heavy laden,
lost and ruined by the fall;
if you tarry till you’re better,
you will never come at all.

I will arise and go to Jesus!
He will embrace me in His arms
In the arms of my dear Savior,
Oh, there are ten thousand charms

Three Resources for Connecting with Jesus Daily 

Three Resources for Connecting with Jesus Daily 

At Christ Community, we want to be a local church that helps you connect Sunday to Monday — a church that helps you follow Jesus more faithfully where you live, work, and play every day. 

As a follower of Jesus, I’ve found that setting aside time each day to read the Bible, pray, and listen for God’s voice is the keystone habit that shapes my life more than any other. 

But it’s not easy. I find myself wondering what I should read in my Bible next or thinking I want to pray but feel stuck in a rut. 

Whether you’ve been connecting with Jesus for years or just getting to know him, I wonder if you’ve found yourself stuck in similar ways. 

Here are three resources (plus a bonus) that have helped add depth and new life to my times of connecting with Jesus each day.

 

theFormed.life

TheFormed.life website and the companion journals available at any Christ Community campus provide a daily framework for reading the Scriptures, prompts for prayer, and practices for connecting with God and serving others. TheFormed.Life is tied to the current sermon series, so you have the benefit of connecting with God individually and gathering and connecting with others on Sundays who are focusing their attention on the same texts and practices.  

 

Be Thou My Vision: A Liturgy for Daily Worship

Have you ever had the experience of needing to write an important email, paper, or proposal and found yourself paralyzed by the “blank page”? You stare at that empty word-processing screen with the cursor winking at you, not knowing how to start. Sometimes our moments of connecting with Jesus can feel the same way. 

A bit like a conversation starter at a gathering of friends or family, a resource like Be Thou My Vision can serve as a jumping-off place to get the “talk” going. It is arranged in a monthly cycle of Scripture, prayers, and historic creeds. It has been a regular companion for me since it was published. I don’t always have time to do every element included each day. But it is a gift to sit down with my coffee, open the book and start with prayers and Scripture right in front of me on the page.

 

Teach Us to Pray: Scripture-Centered Family Worship through the Year

This tool is similar to the previous resource but designed for families to use together. It has a two-page spread for all 365 days of the year that allows you to open the book with absolutely zero preparation and use it with your kids around the dinner table or at bedtime. 

It employs wonderful pedagogical techniques and is developmentally appropriate across a wide span of ages. My 4, 6, and 9-year-olds enjoy it but it is also interesting and encouraging for my wife and me.

 

Bonus: When the Soul Listens: Finding Rest and Direction in Contemplative Prayer

This last resource isn’t like the others. It isn’t a daily resource but provides a beautiful and compelling picture of the “why” behind connecting with God. I highly recommend this resource if you find yourself wanting to pray or not feeling drawn to God in prayer. Maybe there was a season in life where you “felt” God and connected with him easily but now feel he is distant or that you don’t desire him as you used to. 

Early in the book, the author, Jan Johnson, who worked closely with Dallas Willard, warns of the danger of conflating devotion to tools (like the three listed above) with devotion to God. She writes,

Eventually we develop a devotion to the tools. Persistent and regular use of certain activities becomes a guarantee for so-called success. For example, people say, “Read your Bible and pray. You’ll be fine.” So we push ourselves to finish today’s reading plan or at least get to the bottom of the page of a reading, instead of seeing the goal as to meet with God today and Bible reading as a means to that end. Essentially we are trusting tools and our human efforts to use them well, instead of trusting a loving, self-giving God who listens attentively to us and is eager to do whatever is needed to draw us deeper into a discipling relationship with the Trinity. Differentiating between devotion to God and devotion to spiritual tools may seem trivial, but this was a primary difference between Jesus and the Pharisees.

 

When I read that I immediately recognized myself. There have been many times in my life when completing the reading plan or working through each page of the devotional, liturgy, or journal became the functional goal. What’s the result then? When I succeed, I feel good about myself. When I’m failing, I feel bad about myself. In both cases, I end up focused on myself rather than enjoying Jesus enjoying and loving me. That’s the goal of all these tools. They are to be a means to the end of knowing and being known by the One who made you and gave his life to rescue you.

My hope is that these resources will help you find deeper joy in knowing and being known by the Triune God of the universe. He loves you and he is waiting for you. Go to him today.

Who Will Lift Up Your Arms?

Who Will Lift Up Your Arms?

Lately, I have been unable to stop considering Galatians 6:2. 

It contains one of the most fascinating “conditional statement commands” in all of the Bible, and is eminently applicable for the persisting difficulties we’re all still facing. It starts off, “Bear one another’s burdens.” 

That’s the command, one of the more than 40 “one another” commands in the New Testament, which are designed to give shape to the emerging community of Jesus followers. Maybe you’ve seen those “In this house we…” signs that then go on to list certain characteristics (whether actual or aspirational) of the family who put the sign up. Whenever you come across a “one another” command in the New Testament, just imagine it on a sign like that for the family of Jesus followers. “In this house we… bear one another’s burdens.”

And how beautiful is that, by the way? 

But also, how necessary is that? 

The image that comes to my mind upon reading that command is a weary traveler, burdened down by long miles and a too-heavy load. What does that person need more than anything else? Someone to come alongside them and take up part of what they are carrying. Someone to “bear their burden.”

Here’s the truth: at different times, we will ALL find ourselves weary travelers, burdened beyond what we can bear. But thankfully, in the family of Jesus followers, there is a design for this inevitably. A surpassingly simple solution: don’t try to go it alone. Humble yourself enough to accept the help of others, to allow them to bear whatever portion of your burden they can. Friends, even Jesus himself needed help bearing the burden of his cross to Golgotha (Luke 23:26). Are we more capable than he? I pray we have enough humility to answer that question correctly.

Exodus 17:8-16 contains a beautiful example of Galatians 6:2 in action. God’s people, the Israelities, have come under attack by the people of Amalek. Moses, as the leader of God’s people, bears the ultimate burden of this “heavy load.” But he immediately and humbly invites help in bearing the burden, delegating the task of leading Israel’s warriors to Joshua. He also recognizes that he must ultimately depend on the strength of the Lord for the victory, so he crafts a plan that puts God at the center via his divinely blessed staff. Moses retreats up the hill, staff in hand. When he lifts it above his head, Israel gains ground in the battle below. But quickly, the staff becomes a literal burden that is too heavy for Moses to bear. And here is the surpassingly simple, Galatians 6:2 solution. Exodus 17, verses 12 and 13, “But Moses’ hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. And Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the sword.”

Friends, who will lift your arms when they grow tired? Who will help bear your burdens? 

Recently, my family and I underwent a very intense six-week stretch of life. It quickly identified itself as a “burden too heavy,” but I am humbly eager to report that the family of Jesus followers we do life with at the Shawnee Campus showed up in a major way to “lift our arms.” To help bear this particular burden. It was extraordinary. Meals. Prayer. Texts of support. A constant stream of “How can we help?” and “What do y’all need?”

We were overwhelmed by, well, love. And that’s how we circle back to the last clause of Galatians 6:2. I started by saying that Galatians 6:2 is a “conditional statement command,” but so far, we’ve only discussed the command. 

Here’s the full verse, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Pretty important conditional statement, wouldn’t you say? But it leads us to ask, what exactly is the law of Christ? Thankfully, we are not left to wonder. We have a clear answer. In John 13:34-35, Jesus is addressing his disciples, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

When we bear one another’s burdens, when we lift up one another’s arms, what we are ultimately doing is loving as Jesus loved. And what could be better than that? 

How to Rediscover Lost Values with MLK

How to Rediscover Lost Values with MLK

One of my personal traditions is to listen to my favorite Martin Luther King, Jr speech each year on MLK weekend. While not as popular as “I Have a Dream” or “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” my favorite speech, entitled “Rediscovering Lost Values,” embodies the compelling moral vision of King and the broader African-American church that we celebrate each year on MLK day. This speech was actually a sermon delivered at Detroit’s Second Baptist Church before the Montgomery bus boycott that elevated him to a national stage. It reminds us that before King became the renowned activist and public persona, he was a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was his deep faith commitments of the latter that propelled him to become the former. The sermon’s correct diagnosis and searing critique of modern western culture’s moral relativism, in both theory and practice, is as relevant today in 2023 as it was in 1954.

King begins by asserting that, as modern people, “the means by which we live, have outdistanced the spiritual ends for which we live.” The profound problems we face in our world today cannot be solved by more information or more economic resources, both of which we have more of today than any society in human history. No, the problem lies within the hearts and souls of human beings and results from leaving behind the value of there being a God-given moral fabric to our universe. King likens this to the story of Joseph and Mary accidentally leaving behind Jesus as a boy in Jerusalem while returning to Nazareth (Luke 2:41-52). If we are to move forward as a society, we must go back to rediscover these foundational spiritual and moral values.

The problem is that we have forgotten that God created our universe with moral laws every bit as true as physical laws. Even if you don’t understand Newtonian physics, you know that if you jump off a tall building the law of gravity means that you will fall to the ground and die. Certain things are right and certain things are wrong, in every time, place, and culture, precisely because God made it so… 

It’s wrong to hate. It always has been wrong and it always will be wrong! It’s wrong in America, it’s wrong in Germany, it’s wrong in Russia, it’s wrong in China! It was wrong in two thousand BC, and it’s wrong in nineteen fifty-four AD! It always has been wrong, and it always will be wrong! It’s wrong to throw our lives away in riotous living. No matter if everybody in Detroit is doing it. It’s wrong! It always will be wrong! And it always has been wrong. It’s wrong in every age, and it’s wrong in every nation. Some things are right and some things are wrong, no matter if everybody is doing the contrary. 

Yet, King points out, we think we can disobey God’s moral laws and not face the consequences. He says that we live by an 11th commandment that supersedes the other 10… “Thou shalt not get caught.” You can break any command you want, so long as you don’t get caught and face negative consequences for it. We have deceived ourselves and forgotten the biblical truth that “You shall reap what you sow” (Galatians 6:7). This is the result of forgetting the moral foundation of the universe, and the God who upholds it.

At this point you may be amening just like the congregation at Detroit Second Baptist back in 1954. This is when King shifts the focus from our broader culture to the church. He observes that even believers can unintentionally forget God and leave him behind, just like Jesus’ parents accidentally forgot him back in Jerusalem on their way back to Nazareth. It is easy for Christians to “pay lip service to God and not life service.” We create false gods out of materialism or political ideologies that affirm us and how we want to live, and we use those idols to distract ourselves from the real God of Scripture who places moral demands on us and holds us accountable. 

All too often, Christians are passionate about either personal holiness or communal justice, while neglecting the other. King and others in the African-American Christian tradition show us there is a strong moral foundation that should lead to both. There is much the broader church can learn from them. We should seek to know the God who created this moral universe, and follow him by his grace.

This MLK weekend, I encourage you to take some time to read or listen to one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermons. Let’s remind ourselves of the moral foundation of God’s created order, and how we follow the God who upholds it.

 

More Resources:

Rediscovering Lost Values

Remembering to Remember

Remembering to Remember

With the beginning of a new year we often pause from the hustle and bustle of busy schedules to reflect on the speedy passage of time. As the years pile on, we increasingly marvel how the past year has flown by with such breakneck speed. We hear in our hearts with increased beckoning the psalmist prayerful words, Lord teach us to number our days that we may apply our heart to wisdom.  Seeking to live more wisely in the new year, we may consider priority adjustments that require attention; life pace that needs slowing, more consistent sabbath rests, curiosities that need fostering, or relationships that call for greater deepening. Yet, there is a reflective question that we may overlook, one a life of wisdom requires. What may we have forgotten that we dare not forget?

 

The Peril of Forgetfulness 

We often call them “senior moments,” those frustrating gaps in our memory as we age. It may be someone’s name we just can’t recall, a computer password that simply has vanished from our memory, or an important anniversary date. Forgetting is embarrassing, unpleasant, and even annoying, but it can also prove perilous. A missed deadline can lead to an IRS audit, a doctor’s prescription not taken can lead to hospitalization, a burning candle left lit can burn an entire house to the ground.  But perhaps the greatest danger we face is in forgetting God’s manifest presence, his bedrock promises and his great faithfulness to us.

Martyred German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us of the evil one’s temptation strategy to get us to forget God in our daily lives. Bonhoeffer puts it this way in his book Creation and Fall, Temptation, Two Biblical Studies: “At this moment God is quite unreal to us, he loses all reality, and only desire for the creature is real; the only reality is the devil. Satan does not here fill us with hatred of God, but with forgetfulness of God.”

Forgetfulness is not something we take as seriously as we ought, yet it may well be the most perilous obstacle to our spiritual formation in Christlikeness. Just a cursory glance of the Bible reminds us over and over again of the peril of forgetting as well as the crucial importance of remembering. In this new year, as we seek to live an increasingly wise life, perhaps few things are more important than remembering to remember. What do we need to remember to remember? What must we dare not forget?

 In a very dark moment in redemptive history, the writer of Lamentations encourages God’s covenant people to remember to remember. “This I call to mind and therefore I have hope. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning, great is your faithfulness.” Lamentations 3:21-23  In The Message, Eugene Peterson paraphrases this text beautifully. “But there is one thing I remember and remembering I keep a grip on hope. God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out, his merciful love couldn’t have dried up. They’re created new every morning. How great your faithfulness! I’m sticking with God (I say it over and over). He’s all I got left.”

 

Remembering God’s Unfailing Love  

As we enter a new year, let’s remember to remember God’s unfailing love to us. Others will let us down, disappoint us and fail us, but God will not. His promises are golden. His presence is never in doubt. He is always there for you. He will never leave the room on you. As his son or daughter, he simply, purely, and utterly delights in you. The prophet Zephaniah describes God’s loving presence with sheer delight for his covenant people. “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save, he will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.” Zephaniah 3:17 (NIV) What this coming year will bring we do not know, but we can truly know God’s unfailing love will be there for us both as individual apprentices of Jesus as well as a faith community. Nothing, or no one, can ever separate us from God’s unfailing love.

                                   

Remembering God’s Past Faithfulness

In this new year, let’s also remember to remember God’s past faithfulness. Few things build more hopeful buoyancy in our hearts and minds than remembering God’s past faithfulness. It is seen in his loving protection of our lives, abundant provision for our needs, his guiding and comforting presence even in the midst of suffering, and the many good things he showers on us simply for our delight and joy. How has God shown his faithfulness to you this past year? When God’s covenant people crossed the Jordan river into the promised land, God instructed them to carry with them twelve memorial stones of remembrance so they would not forget God’s past faithfulness in the forty years of rugged wilderness living. What might be a tangible way you can better remember to remember God’s past faithfulness in your life this year? Where are your stones of remembrance? How will they help you not forget what you dare not forget?

 

Remembering Christ Together

Remembering to remember is not only an individual endeavor, it is woven into the hopeful and joyful fabric of local church community. When we  make weekly corporate worship a high priority, together in the power of the Holy Spirit we are remembering to remember God’s good news to us, Christ’s work for us, his unfailing love for us, his faithfulness to us and his manifest presence with us. When our Lord Jesus instituted Holy Communion for his local gathered church, he placed it in a frame of remembrance.  Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” This year will you join me and our Christ Community family on Sundays with greater regularity and more joyful expectation of remembering to remember our wonderful Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? He is the one who has forgiven us, given us new creation life, and welcomed us into his already, but not fully yet kingdom. If we are going to live a life of increasing wisdom in this new year, let’s remember to remember what we dare not forget.

Behold Your King (Who Died): Putting on God’s Corrective Lenses

Behold Your King (Who Died): Putting on God’s Corrective Lenses

I awoke one morning unable to see because blocked tear ducts had glued my eyes shut. It was frightening. After a deep breath, I tried to make a calm assessment of the situation. I splashed water and carefully rinsed my eyes. Thankfully that was all it took to restore sight to the “blind” in this situation.

To the spiritually blind, however, it takes quite a bit more to restore right vision, as the apostle Paul’s conversion story illustrates so well in Acts 9:1-18. In many ways, true discipleship might be measured by how willing we are to acknowledge our spiritual short-sightedness and receive from Jesus a clearer vision of God, ourselves, and the world. Disciples of Jesus are not the only ones to see everything rightly, but rather those who know they need to receive sight from Another in order to see things as they truly are. Our rally cry as believers in Jesus is not “I’ll believe it when I see it,” but a practiced, humble posture, “I believe it, so only now do I see it.” 

In the last half of his gospel, John places a special focus on what Jesus’ disciples ought to believe, and so become empowered to see, about Jesus’ kingship. Is Jesus king? How so? What does his rule as king challenge regarding our human rulerships? How do we see Jesus reigning on earth when the sin-scarred world is so opposed to God that we sent his Anointed One, the Christ, to be crucified? 

The answer, beginning in John chapter 12 and reaching a climax in chapter 19, is that we see Jesus as king precisely when we see him on the cross. This king reigns over all by becoming a servant of all, even to the point of death (Mark 10:41-45, Philippians 2:5-11). This indeed has been the centerpiece of God’s kingdom-advancing plan all along, as we read in Ephesians 1:7-10: 

In him we have redemption through his blood (emphasis mine), the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 

John’s Gospel displays Jesus’ cross-bearing kingship in a visceral, experiential story, inviting readers to step into it and believe what John believes about Jesus, and see what he sees. This is a theme we can trace all the way from Jesus’ entry into the city of Jerusalem to his death on the cross. 

In John 12:12-15, Jesus is welcomed into Jerusalem as the long-awaited messianic king, complete with prophetic fulfillment and all manner of pomp and circumstance. John inserts an “as it is written” quotation, confirming the crowd’s appraisal of Jesus as king by citing Zechariah 9:9: “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming….” 

For the disciples, the experience of entering Jerusalem must have included quite a heavy dose of cognitive dissonance. Only the evening before, as written in John 12:1-7, Jesus and his disciples attended a dinner hosted by Martha, Mary, and their once-dead-but-now-alive brother Lazarus. While there, Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment and Jesus declared his imminent death: “she has kept it for the day of my burial.” (John 12:7, Christian Standard Bible). 

The King who is coming…comes to die? The disciples must have been puzzled. In fact, John tells us explicitly in 12:16 that the disciples decidedly did not understand what was going on. 

John 19:35 is a disciple’s pronouncement that the world will never be the same once you see the King of the Universe crucified. After reporting the mixture of blood and water that flowed from the dead Jesus’ pierced side, John says, “He who saw it has borne witness–his testimony is true, and he knows he is telling the truth–that you also may believe (emphasis mine).” (John 19:35).

John wrote his gospel to communicate that God came in the person of Jesus Christ, he came to die on the cross, and we can only see Jesus’ kingship rightly, over and above other rulers that might call for our allegiance, once we believe. There is a desperate urgency inherent to this faith claim–nothing less than everlasting life hangs on whether you trust it or not (John 3:16).

Life on planet earth is a clash of kingdoms. Who rules your world? When life is thrown off balance, and your best-laid plans crumble beneath your feet, when expectations of what should be are exploded by the detonation of what is, who steps in to become your savior? What becomes raised to messianic heights in your heart? Rather than seeing our King lifted up on the cross, victorious over every deathly sting from this world by succumbing to death itself, do we instead resort to near-sighted grasping for lesser rulers around us? 

As Psalm 115:8 warns, “Those who make [idols] become like them; so do all who trust in them.” They reign over us, subverting God’s rightful rule and overthrowing our own delegated authority on earth (Psalm 115:16). 

What, then, do we need? Where can we get the right corrective prescription for our soul’s ocular malady? Our divine optometrist has bestowed on us the greatest corrective lens in the universe: his very own Word. This is what the Gospel of John, from beginning to end, bears witness to. 

“Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” (Psalm 119:18). This is the prayer we need. It is only by God’s power and initiative that our eyes will be opened to behold him and his world as it truly is. 

We need help to see the King clearly and follow him fully. This is the act of faith that every other act of faith, great or small, is built on. Let us trust God, humanized forever in the person of our crucified King Jesus, and behold him together as he’s revealed himself in the Gospel of John. 

“Hey! Unto you a child is born!”

“Hey! Unto you a child is born!”

According to the original Brandes family (my family of origin: my dad David, mom Janice, and sister Annie), The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is, hands down, the best Christmas story ever.

A short novella written by Barbara Robinson in 1971, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever casts the six Herdman siblings as the extremely unlikely heroes of their local church’s annual Christmas pageant. Rough and tumble with a difficult home life, the Herdman children only darken the door of the church because they hear false rumors of an exorbitant snack situation in Sunday School. 

The snacks don’t materialize, but the Herdman siblings fill every material part in the pageant. From there chaos and hilarity ensue. But as the Herdman children come to understand the fresh wonder of Christmas for the first time, humility and joy also ensue. Deep, abundant joy. 

One of the climatic moments in the book comes in the midst of the actual performance of the Christmas pageant. Designed to be an opportunity for the church to quietly contemplate the wonder of Christmas, the only character with a speaking part is the Angel of the Lord, who announces the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. Gladys Herdman, the youngest and most unruly sibling steps to the front of the stage to fulfill that role. And, at the top of her lungs, shouts at the audience:


“Hey! Unto YOU a child is born!”

Departing after the pageant, one previously cantankerous church member comments to another, “It was so nice to actually be able to hear the Angel of the Lord this year!”

To which I say, amen! The message of the Angel of the Lord from Luke 2 should be SHOUTED from the rooftops:

[The shepherds] were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,

 “Glory to God in highest heaven,
    and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

Two hundred years before Barbara Robinson drew upon this passage for The Best Christmas Pageant ever, Charles Wesley, the prolific hymn writer, brother of John Wesley, and one of the co-founders of Methodism, also found inspiration in the same passage for what he originally called “Hymn for Christmas Day.” 

A couple decades later in 1758, Wesley’s original was given an update by another founder of Methodism, George Whitfield, eventually resulting in the version we know and sing today, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” The first verse displays clear allusions to Luke 2:9-14 (and to The Best Christmas Pageant Ever):


Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn king;
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled”

Joyful all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”

Hark! The herald-angels sing
“Glory to the new-born king”

“Hark” is an old English word that means listen. It is an entreaty and invitation to stop all other affairs and pay attention to what comes next. Or, in Gladys Herdman’s shorter, gruffer version, “Hey!”

And what comes next IS a big deal. What comes next WILL bring “good news of great joy.” The long-awaited Savior Messiah has been born! The final verse of “Hark! The Herald Angels SIng” teases out the enormous implications of this good news proclamation, revealing why it is that the Herdmans experienced so much joy upon learning the truth of Christmas for the first time:


Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth

This Christmas season, it is my hope and prayer that you experienced the same joy and wonder that the Herdman siblings did. Because “Hey! Unto YOU a child is born!” 

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

It is difficult to comprehend the long anticipation for the coming of the Messiah experienced by the people of Israel. In our twenty-first century instant gratification world, we really have no imaginable category to equate the centuries of frustration and longing endured by generations of God’s people. And although we commemorate the season of Advent in the Christian calendar each year, even the congregations most committed to adhering to this season of waiting only experience it in a performative manner. We can’t fully immerse ourselves in such a posture because in the back of our minds we know that Christ has come. As much as some of our greatest Christian calendar enthusiasts try to commemorate it and we try to convince ourselves, we can never emulate that same kind of longing. 

This may be a contributing factor to the lack of Christian hymns and carols that meaningfully capture the Advent season. Therefore it is important to consider those Advent hymns that have endured. One of the most familiar is “O Come Emmanuel,” with text originating over 1,200 years ago and a chant-like melody that shifts from a minor key in the verses to a major lift in the refrain “Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” 

Aside from these aesthetics, the most compelling reason for its longevity may be the deep sense of longing for the Messiah’s deliverance beautifully woven with rich biblical allusions to Jesus Christ and the expectant hope of his coming. Each verse of the song begins with an invitation that highlights a particular biblical attribute of Christ, then describes a new reality once the Messiah comes. 

Considering the lyrics verse by verse provides a better understanding of their meaning and strong Christological foundations. 

__________

 

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel;
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.

 

The first verse begins with an invitation from a waiting, exiled people looking forward to the coming Messiah’s rescue. It also alludes to the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 that “…the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”


O come, Thou
Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.


The invitation in the second verse references Isaiah 11:1 regarding the lineage of Jesus: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” 


Both of these stanzas focus on the Messiah’s expected liberation of God’s people. In the first, the deliverance is from Israel’s physical reality. When the Messiah comes, the text infers, he will bring deliverance from earthly suffering and oppression. The second verse calls for spiritual and emotional deliverance from the schemes of Satan, the grips of hell, and the sting of death as described in 1 Corinthians 15:56-57. “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” 


Come, the first two verses say, and set us free!


O come, Thou
Day-Spring, come and cheer,
Our Spirits by Thine Advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.


Zechariah’s prophecy in Luke 1 finishes with these words “…the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” This phrase, “sunrise from on high,” is translated as “Dayspring” in the King James Version and refers to the Messiah as one who brings a new dawn (The Christian Standard Bible translates the sunrise as the “dawn from on high”). As the sun ushers in a new day, so the Messiah will bring new life to our spirits, will cover the darkness with light, and push the darkness of death away. 


Come, verse three shouts, and bring new life and light!


O come, Thou
Key of David, come
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.


In Isaiah 22:22 the prophecy refers to the Messiah as the “Key of David”: 
“And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” We see this phrase again in Revelation 3:7, when Jesus is referred to as “the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.” Jesus, our Messiah, is the one who opens the gates of heaven to those who believe and, in doing so, closes the path that leads to death, providing the way to eternity with him. 


Come, we sing in verse four, and lead us to our eternal home with you!


O come, Thou
Wisdom from on high,
And order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.


When the fifth verse refers to Christ as “Wisdom from on high,” it not only draws language from Jeremiah 51:15 but also from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians when he refers to Christ as “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). The last two lines of the verse are almost directly lifted from Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” 


Come, verse five calls, and teach us to walk in your ways!


O come,
Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.


The final verse of “O Come Emmanuel” refers to a phrase used in the prophecy found in Haggai 2:7 (KJV) “And I will shake all nations, and
the desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts.” Christ, Paul writes in Ephesians 2:14, “himself is our peace.” He knocks down the dividing walls between us and reconciles us to God in one body through the cross.


As we sing the last verse we invite the Messiah to come and bring peace to the world. 


Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.


Each verse ends with this refrain. Rejoice. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)  Rejoice because the Deliverer
has come and is coming again to make all things as they ought to be!

Why I Can’t Stand Christmas Music but Love This Carol

Why I Can’t Stand Christmas Music but Love This Carol

Confession time…I’m not a huge fan of Christmas music. Maybe that’s because I get tired of hearing the same tunes every year. Maybe it’s just because “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” or “dreaming of a white Christmas” don’t evoke the same nostalgia for me as they do for others. These songs don’t resonate with my experience growing up in Africa. Or maybe it’s because the quaint sentimentality of many Christmas songs feel out of touch with my life and the concerns of a broken world. Call me a ‘Scrooge’ but I don’t plan on voluntarily listening to much Christmas music this year.

That being said, when I get past my personal music tastes and really pay attention to the lyrics of many traditional Christmas carols, I find them to have a deeply rich theology. One such song is It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. This carol was written by Edmund Sears in 1849 during the aftermath of the Mexican-American War and popularized during the Civil War. The lyrics draw out the disconnect between the announcement of peace from heaven at Christ’s birth and continuing war and suffering on earth.

It came upon the midnight clear,
that glorious song of old,
from angels bending near the earth
to touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
from heaven’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
to hear the angels sing.

This opening stanza references the angels’ announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds (Luke 2:14). The carol doesn’t treat this pronouncement as something only given one time in the distant past, but envisions how this message is continually proclaimed. This happens despite the discord and division among humans, referenced by an allusion to the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). 

Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel-sounds
The blessed angels sing.

The next stanza is often omitted in contemporary hymnals, but it is my favorite. Unlike many sentimental Christmas songs, this carol is not unaware of the suffering and brokenness still experienced in this world. Even two thousand years after Christ’s coming, sin and death still reign in our world. Even still, the lyrics call us to hush the messages that lead us to strife and focus on the message of the Promised King.

 But with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring; –
Oh hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!

The beauty of Christmas is not found in sanitized and picturesque images of an ideal nativity scene, but rather in God’s entrance into the broken messiness of human life as a real baby to save us. He is the one “who redeems your life from the pit” (Psalm 103:4). This song names those messy experiences of pain and suffering we have, and it invites us to look to Christ in the midst of it.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing; –
Oh, rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing!

This carol captures the profound tension of the Advent season. We are caught in the already-not-yet, looking back to Jesus’ first coming with joy, and also looking forward in faith to his second coming, when he will make all things right. Unlike out of touch Christmas tunes, this carol connects with that enduring and timeless struggle.

For lo! the days are hastening on
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When Peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Listen to the recording of this beautiful carol performed by our campus worship pastors. As the music washes over you, may you experience God in the midst of pain, disappointment, and brokenness. He doesn’t ignore the pain you are in, but instead sees you there and enters into the mess to redeem it.