John Alan Turner

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach, Facilitator

Filtering by Category: Holidays

Lenten Reader -- Day 35

On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived. When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”

The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:21-35)

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After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied. (Isaiah 53:11)

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The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. (John 10:17)

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Easter begins at Christmas. Joy to the world! For unto us a child is born; unto us a Son is given. Away in a manger. Silent night. This is where it begins.

And yet we know the rest of the story. This baby was born for one primary purpose: to die.

Surely, Mary and Joseph would have been a bit worried, as all first-time parents are, that their newborn would be healthy. They probably experienced relief that he survived his unorthodox birth and lived to his eighth day when they could present him in the temple. And, though they had not been told exactly what it meant, they believed the angel’s words -- that this baby would somehow save his people from their sins.

The angel did not tell them that he would cause trouble. And so it must have come as some shock to hear the words of the old man Simeon. Their son, their only son, whom they loved, would bring pain. People would stumble over him. People would speak terrible things against him.

As Jesus grew, he understood this, hinting to his friends that his destiny would not be a pleasant one. But they failed to understand. Eventually, he stated it explicitly. He would be condemned and murdered, but he would return.

One of his closest friends shouted, “Never!” But Jesus was resolute. This Christmas baby was born to be subjected to brutality and humiliation. He would lay down his life, so that he could bring life to us all.

Joy to the world, indeed.

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Sovereign Lord, I am mystified by the Incarnation of your Son. Who would have thought of this? God taking on flesh, emptying himself? The Creator of all entering into his own creation, becoming one of us? This is astonishing. The incredible lengths to which you have gone in order to save us all from Satan’s power, providing a means of reconciliation for those who were alienated and estranged from you. It is too marvelous for words. Only you could have conceived this. Only you would have willingly offered the life of your Son in exchange for ours, transferring our sin to him, imputing his righteousness to us. Knowing he would be betrayed, rejected and murdered by the people he came to save, he still came. May I always be thankful for your glorious gift and recall the awful price you paid to make it possible to bestow. In Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

I Must Decrease

The sun will go down in a little while here in Texas. It’ll be completely dark outside, and it'll happen earlier today than any other day this year. It’s the Winter Solstice — the day with the least amount of sunlight. Every day for the next six months will gradually grow longer and longer.

The early church faced some big decisions with what to do about certain pagan holidays. These holidays were so deeply embedded in their culture that people who had left behind their pagan ways and converted to Christianity would often revert to pagan revelry on these special days. Church leaders thought that if they could establish new holidays to paste over the old ones, maybe that might help.

And so the idea of celebrating the birth of great people in the Bible came about. But where on the calendar should they put something as significant as the birth of Jesus?

They actually decided on it a little backwards. First, they decided to celebrate the birth of John the Baptist on the Summer Solstice. It’s the longest day of the year. Every day after that has gradually fewer and fewer hours of sunlight. This reminded them of John’s statement that “I must decrease so that Jesus can increase” (John 3:30).

If Jesus is the light of the world, it makes sense to celebrate his entrance into this world on the shortest day of the year. The Winter Solstice fell on December 25 in the Julian Calendar. Christmas — the celebration of the birth of Jesus — was placed on that date.

I know all about the Feast of Saturnalia, and I’ve heard all the theories about early Christians just wanting to Christianize the population. But after this week, there will be gradually more and more light in our world. At least there’s supposed to be. Today has been the shortest day of our year. I am looking forward to more sunlight tomorrow and more the day after that.

I am looking forward to seeing how this Christ-child born in such a lowly estate is going to continue to increase in my own life and eventually light up the sky of this darkened world.

So, in one sense, today has been dark. Children will go to bed tonight hungry and cold. Disease is tearing apart an entire continent. People are lonely and afraid and bound by rigid legalism that robs them of their joy.

But in another sense, we could say that we have made it through the darkest part. The light has broken through and may only exist in small pockets here and there — slivers of light shining through the cracks of the walls. But broken through it has. And tomorrow will have more light than today.

A New Nickname for Christmas

Let's be honest about something: Looking at the genealogy of Jesus can be downright scandalous. I mean, there are people in there that really should not be allowed to mix with regular folks. Have you read Genesis 38? It's enough to make Jerry Springer blush! And then there's Rahab. Again, can we be honest about something? People never refer to her as simply "Rahab" -- nope -- she has a nickname, doesn't she? She's Rahab the Harlot (or "prostitute" for you new-fangled NIV types).

Now, having a nickname is not an unusual concept -- even in the Bible. For example, everyone's heard of John the...? That's right Baptist! And there's a character in the Old Testament known as Uriah the...? Hittite.

In popular culture we know about Dennis the.... Dora the.... Kermit the.... (Menace, Explorer, Frog)

These nicknames give us some clue about the character and nature of the person. Dennis is a menace. Dora loves to explore. Rahab was...well...Rahab was a prostitute -- a hooker -- a harlot -- she ran the best little whorehouse in Jericho. No reason to be bashful about that. It's a matter of historical record (despite the best efforts of well-intentioned folks who may try to convince you otherwise).

Sure, Rahab stopped turning tricks at some point in time. In fact, she eventually settled down, got married and had a baby. But still she had that nickname; she'd earned it.

The big question -- again -- is why Matthew felt the need to put her in the list of names there at the beginning of his version of the Jesus story.

Well, Matthew had a nickname too, didn't he? He was Matthew the...(tax collector). He knew what it was like to have earned a bad reputation and a moniker to go with it. And Matthew knows what it's like to be caught red-handed in your sin by Jesus (who earned a few nicknames of his own -- including "friend of sinners"). He was, after all, collecting taxes when Jesus called him to become a follower.

It would make lots of us feel more comfortable if Jesus had told Matthew, "First, get up and walk away from that table. Promise me you'll never do something like this again. Now, go and do something nice and see if you can earn a new nickname for yourself. Then you can come and follow me."

But that's not what Jesus said.

He said, "Come and follow me right now."

"But I have a bad reputation, Jesus."

"You think I don't know that?"

"But I'm wearing this name tag that says 'Matthew the Tax Collector'. It's kind of a nickname. I'm not really proud of it."

"I can see your name tag, Matthew. I'm not blind. Bring it with you. And go and get some of your friends. Tell them they can come, too, and I don't care what people call them."

See, Jesus knew that you can't change your nickname on your own. It takes time. It takes help. And it only comes after you've agreed to follow him.

So, how about it? Anyone want a new nickname for Christmas? You can have one. You bring your old one to Jesus and exchange it for something like "Forgiven", "Accepted" or "Beloved".

Freedom "From" vs. Freedom "For"

As we approach the 4th of July here in the good, old USofA, I'm thinking a lot about freedom. As Americans, we love our freedom. We value and cherish our freedom. Soldiers are willing to die to protect our freedom. We go to great lengths to make sure that the freedom we currently enjoy will be passed down to the next generation. We love freedom, but do we really understand it?

The concepts of slavery and freedom are deeply woven into the Story of the Bible. Beginning with the 400 years in Egypt, God demonstrated his desire to see his people free. But there was a particular reason why he wanted them free: He wants them to be set free so that they can worship him (see Exodus 5:1; 7:16; 8:1; 9:1; 9:13; 10:3). In other words, the Hebrews were set free from one thing (Egyptian slavery), but they were also set free for something (to worship YHWH).

Like those Hebrew slaves, we find ourselves enslaved, as well. Without Jesus, we are enslaved to sin and self to such an extent that we cannot free ourselves (see John 8:34). Because of our bondage, we are unable to live the life God created us for.

In the Bible, freedom is always from something, but it is also for something. God wants to set us free from our bondage to anyone or anything that keeps us from living life in his kingdom. God wants to set us free for a lifestyle characterized by what he calls "the fruit of the Spirit," that is, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (see Galatians 5:22-23).

Freedom from....

Freedom for....

The apostle Paul was adamant about this. All who place their faith in Christ have been set free from sin and are now free to live life in the Spirit (see Romans 8:1-11; Galatians 5). God has set you free from your sin, free from your past, free from religious convention, free from regret and guilt and shame and fear and anxiety. But you're not just free from all that; you're free for some things now. God has set you free for a life of worship, a life of service, a life of joy and peace and love and generosity.

The important thing to remember is that if you never engage in the thing you've been set free for, you'll end up enslaved again to the thing you've been set free from. If you never move forward into worshiping God by living a life of freedom in the Spirit, you'll end up enslaved to sin and self all over again.

Value your freedom. Cherish that freedom. Fight for your freedom. Protect it and guard it. But know that it's not complete until you move into the life you've been set free for.

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This post is adapted from my book The 52 Greatest Stories of the Bible -- which, as it turns out, is still selling pretty well thanks to people like you.

Living Between the Holidays

Until I’m done with the book I’m currently writing (which should be tomorrow), I’m posting some of my favorites posts from years past. Here’s one from 2004: Living Between the Holidays

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is the oddest time of the year. Do you go back to work? You’re all out of sorts in terms of your schedule. Everything is just weird.

But life goes on for the living. Right now there are children being born. Right now there are families gathered in hospital rooms saying goodbye. Somebody got married today. Somebody else got divorced.

It seems like a lot of my friends are in pain this week. One friend’s mother had a stroke. Another friend’s mother is in the hospital with Alzheimer’s. One friend is struggling with addiction. One friend just lost a baby. One friend is suffering from some mysterious illness, suffering chronic pain that keeps him awake at night.

In the midst of all our Christmas spirit, we dare not lose sight of the Passion of the Christ. The strangeness found between Christmas and New Year’s Day is similar to that found between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. We live on Saturday. We live between the holidays.

In those in-between times is life — life with sickness, life with suffering, life with sorrow and confusion. Life as we know it. We yearn for the dawning of a new day — a day filled with promise — a day that will certainly be better than today. And that day will come; that much is certain.

But for now, we cling to the hope that the next holy day is on its way.

Now What?

Until I’m done with the book I’m currently writing (which should be before the end of the year), I’m posting some of my favorites posts from years past. Here’s one from 2006: Now What?

If your home is like ours, the post-Christmas hangover is in fullswing. We spent most of yesterday (and by “we” I really mean “my wife”) digging out from under all the boxes and bags and paper that managed to pile up in every imaginable nook and cranny. We cleared a path to the television first. Then we cleared a path to the fireplace. Then we actually got to where we could see the floor. It’s amazing how much space wrapping paper can take up!

One of my girls had a slight fever, so we spent a lot of time yesterday laying around and not doing very much. It was cold and damp most of the day, so there wasn’t much of an opportunity to go outside and play. There were a few games learned. There was a new movie watched. There was lots of doing nothing. Believe it or not, there were few complaints about being bored.

There was, however, a slight sense of anticipation. Christmas is over, now what? What’s next? When’s the next big event?

I went out to the grocery store for some juice, and I found all the New Year’s decorations up everywhere. Champagne and finger foods. Party hats and confetti. I guess that’s what’s next, and the world seems ready to move on now. Traffic was thick with post-holiday shoppers out trying to redeem gift cards or find that perfect item at the annual after-Christmas sale.

But I couldn’t get into any of it. I’m not ready to leave behind Christmas just yet. It’s like the feeling when you’ve eaten something wonderful right before bed. You’re not ready to brush your teeth and banish the aftertaste just yet. You want to linger over the taste and texture for a few minutes more.

My mind went to something in the Christmas story I’ve never thought of before: the day after. The Bible is silent about what happens after Jesus is born. Nothing more is known except that he was circumcised on the eighth day and redeemed in the temple in Jerusalem sometime before the one-month anniversary of his birth. There are a lot of gaps there for someone with a healthy imagination.

We know he was born. We know shepherds came to see him the night of his birth. I imagine they must have stayed in Bethlehem for a few days — Mary was probably not in any condition to climb back onboard a donkey for the trip home to Nazareth. I guess Joseph would have spent some time trying to find them better accommodations. Perhaps he found some family where they could stay.

It was traditional for family and friends to gather round and sing and celebrate for most of the first-born son’s birth week. They would slowly build towards the day of his circumcision — the day on which he would be officially named as well. Then they would throw a big feast.

We don’t know if anyone came to see the firstborn son of Mary and Joseph. The circumstances surrounding her pregnancy were suspect. Maybe the shepherds brought some of their friends. Maybe there were others who saw or heard the angels. Maybe Elizabeth came with her newborn son.

We just don’t know.

What probably happened was something normal. Jesus’ early life was remarkably normal. That’s one of the reasons people didn’t believe he was who he claimed to be. He was too much like the rest of us. His life smelled too mundane.

The day after Jesus’ birth, Joseph probably cleaned up the cave. After all, two unprepared novices would have made something of a mess trying to bring their baby into this world. He would have gone looking for food. He may have gone in search of something suitable to dress the boy in. Perhaps Mary needed a change of clothes as well. He would have seen something of the same hustle-and-bustle I encountered yesterday. People on the go. People looking for deals. People moving about, searching for whatever comes next without realizing that something miraculous, something earth-shattering had just happened.

As a society, we’re not very good at the day after. We’re too quick to tear down the decorations and move on to what’s next. As soon as the champagne corks pop there will be people somewhere putting up Valentine’s Day decorations. As soon as the Valentine cards are opened, there will be people somewhere putting up pictures of shamrocks and leprechauns.

St. Patrick’s Day will give way to Easter. Easter will give way to Memorial Day. Memorial Day fades into The Fourth of July fades into Labor Day gives way to Halloween and Thanksgiving and we’re back to Christmas before we know it.

But were we ever really at Christmas in the first place?

In our haste for what comes next, in our search for an answer to the never ending question (“Now What?”) I wonder if we’ve missed what just happened.

I hope not.

Welcome to Our World

“Welcome To Our World” by Chris Rice Tears are falling, hearts are breaking How we need to hear from God You’ve been promised, we’ve been waiting

Welcome Holy Child Welcome Holy Child

Hope that you don’t mind our manger How I wish we would have known But long-awaited Holy Stranger Make Yourself at home Please make Yourself at home

Bring Your peace into our violence Bid our hungry souls be filled Word now breaking Heaven’s silence

Welcome to our world Welcome to our world

Fragile finger sent to heal us Tender brow prepared for thorn Tiny heart whose blood will save us

Unto us is born Unto us is born

So wrap our injured flesh around You Breathe our air and walk our sod Rob our sin and make us holy Perfect Son of God Perfect Son of God

Welcome to our world

Sleep in Heavenly Peace

In the beginning, God created absolutely everything, and it was all perfect. When everything was ready, he took a deep breath and said, “Watch this.” A man and a woman blinked their eyes at each other, and the grand romance was set in motion. But people ran away for some reason. And God spent the next several thousand years chasing down his beloved. Every time he’d catch them, they’d cry and have a grand reunion. But it never lasted long. Pretty soon, people would get bored or just tired of the same, old thing.

But this God — he never gave up.

And when the time was perfect, he actually came down here — wrapped himself in an earthsuit and planted himself as a tiny seed in a teenage girl. It was a rough and bumpy landing, to be sure. Nothing would be very smooth for him during his brief stay here. But he did it.

And because he did, people — not all of them — but some of them — finally relented. He has won our hearts, this tiny baby born in Bethlehem.

Tonight, I pray that you will enjoy perhaps the greatest gift of all: to sleep in heavenly peace.

A Baby?

Until I’m done with the book I’m currently writing (which should be before the end of the year), I’m posting some of my favorites posts from years past. Here’s one from 2007: A Baby?

God does a lot of things — many of them seem strange to our admittedly limited perspective. Without a doubt, the single most unsettling, irrational, illogical thing he ever did was come to earth…as a baby!

If God came to earth as a fully-grown man, we could understand that a little better. If he came to earth as an angel, a ghost, an apparition or a disembodied voice, it might make more sense or fit our expectations a little better.

But a baby? He was totally helpless. He couldn’t feed himself or talk or walk or control his own bladder.

And have you ever been to a live birth? There’s blood and sweat and mucous and screaming…and that’s just the dads! The whole process is uncomfortable to say the least. It’s unseemly. It’s unsanitary. As much as we may not want to think about this, birth — for all of its wonder and amazement — is a yucky process, and there are parts of it that we don’t even like to think about, let alone imagine.

This is how God chose to enter the world.

He could have chosen any way he wanted — something miraculous and exceptional, regal and majestic. But he chose the ordinary way.

Worse than that, he chose the peasant’s way. He could have chosen a major city with doctors, nurses or midwives and their sterilized equipment. Instead he chose a barn in a backwater town with no one but a carpenter’s rough and calloused hands to usher him into the world. There were probably more animals than people present at his birth.

No, this doesn’t make much sense to many people. The God of the universe humbling himself in such a way, emptying himself of so much to gain so little in return.

We would understand if royal officials were there eagerly awaiting his arrival. No one important showed up save a few dirty shepherds — oh and some strange men from the east that got there several months later.

But the Bible leads us to believe that this is exactly the way God wanted it.

A young couple, miles away from home, are unable to find a decent place to sleep. They’re forced to spend the night in a stable when she goes into labor and delivers this baby that has caused so much pain and would cause even more in his attempt to bring true peace, true healing, true joy. She wraps him in strips of cloth to keep him warm as her husband makes room in the feed trough. They’re both unaware that magi are headed their way or that shepherds are receiving the shock of their lives in the form of a heavenly chorus.

This is our God, this tiny baby with fists for hands and squinting eyes, depending upon and trusting in two scared newlyweds for his survival. He risks everything in order to maintain his own integrity and rescue the people who have never been able to keep their promises to him.

The storyline doesn’t make much sense to us, because it is we who are so out of synch with the way things ought to be.

The Shortest Day of the Year

Until I’m done with the book I’m currently writing (which should be before the end of the year), I’m posting some of my favorites posts from years past. Here’s one from 2005: The Shortest Day of the Year

The sun went down a little while ago here in Atlanta. It’s completely dark outside, and it happened earlier today than any other day this year. It’s the Winter Solstice — the day with the least amount of sunlight. Every day for the next six months will gradually grow longer and longer.

The early church faced some big decisions with what to do about certain pagan holidays. These holidays were so deeply embedded in their culture that people who had left behind their pagan ways and converted to Christianity would often revert to pagan revelry on these special days. Church leaders thought that if they could establish new holidays to paste over the old ones, maybe that might help.

And so the idea of celebrating the birth of great people in the Bible came about. But where on the calendar should they put something as significant as the birth of Jesus?

They actually decided on it a little backwards. First, they decided to celebrate the birth of John the Baptist on the Summer Solstice. It’s the longest day of the year. Every day after that has gradually fewer and fewer hours of sunlight. This reminded them of John’s statement that “I must decrease so that Jesus can increase” (John 3:30).

If Jesus is the light of the world, it makes sense to celebrate his entrance into this world on the shortest day of the year. The Winter Solstice fell on December 25 in the Julian Calendar. Christmas — the celebration of the birth of Jesus — was placed on that date.

I know all about the Feast of Saturnalia, and I’ve heard all the theories about early Christians just wanting to Christianize the population. But after this week, there will be gradually more and more light in our world. At least there’s supposed to be. Today has been the shortest day of our year. I am looking forward to more sunlight tomorrow and more the day after that.

I am looking forward to seeing how this Christ-child born in such a lowly estate is going to continue to increase in my own life and eventually light up the sky of this darkened world.

So, in one sense, today has been dark. Children are going to bed tonight hungry and cold. Disease is tearing apart an entire continent. People are lonely and afraid and bound by rigid legalism that robs them of their joy.

But in another sense, we could say that we have made it through the darkest part. The light has broken through and may only exist in small pockets here and there — slivers of light shining through the cracks of the walls. But broken through it has. And tomorrow will have more light than today.

For Those Who Don't Really Feel Like Celebrating

Until I’m done with the book I’m currently writing (which should be before the end of the year), I’m posting some of my favorites posts from years past. Here’s one from 2004. This really captures what I'm feeling right now and what I'd say to me if I wasn't me (hope that made sense): For Those Who Don't Really Feel Like Celebrating

Christmas is nearly on top of us now. We’re in the home stretch. Last minute shoppers are frantically searching for that perfect gift, every night brings another of those animated Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, the airports are packed to the rafters and my kids are actually counting the days.

And here’s something I’ve noticed this week: Some people are really looking forward to Christmas. Life is good. Jobs are terrific. Finances are secure. The kids are healthy, making good grades and keeping their rooms clean. Blood pressure and cholesterol are down. Stocks are up. It’s been a great year for them, and they’re really looking forward to next Friday.

But not everyone is.

I’m thinking of my friends who just found out that they’re going to lose the baby she’s carrying. It’s just a matter of time. They’ve told everyone she’s expecting. Now they have to go back and tell everyone their tragedy. Their only prayer now is that it won’t happen on the 25th.

I’m thinking of the family who ex-communicated their son several years ago. They were following the advice of their church — make of that what you will. But now they’ve just discovered that their son has been killed in Iraq. They didn’t even know he was there. And now he’s gone.

I’m thinking of the father who wonders how in the world he’s going to do Christmas with his kids now that his wife is gone.

All around us people are busy shopping and decorating and baking and attending parties. On the surface we may join in the festivities, but deep down we just don’t feel like celebrating this year. Many of us find ourselves resonating with old Scrooge’s sentiments:

“What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ‘em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?”

Some of us are struggling through relationships and wondering if we’re going to make it through the holidays intact or stay together in the new year. Some of us are out of work and nervous that we might not be able to pay the mortgage. Some of us are facing illnesses and worried that this might be the last Christmas we spend with someone we love. Some of us are battling addiction and the added stress of the holidays seems to make it impossible to resist.

Seven hundred years before Mary and Joseph ever thought of going to Bethlehem, the world was also crashing down and falling apart. The nation of Israel had divided into two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah, with its capital — Jerusalem — in the south.

Armies from conquering nations were forming an alliance to destroy Jerusalem and carry the people off into captivity. Ahaz, who was king in Judah, had turned away from God. The situation seemed hopeless, and the people were in distress.

Into that scene God sent the prophet Isaiah with a promise. Isaiah began by declaring that despite how horrible and hopeless the situation seemed, “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who are in distress” (Isaiah 9:1).

How could he say that? Because here’s the promise: “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” (Isaiah 9:2).

Notice who the promise is for: People walking in darkness — people living in the land of the shadow of death — people who probably wouldn’t feel very much like celebrating.

That describes a lot of us. We are often the people walking in darkness, the people living in shadows. We need light desperately because in so many ways we live in a dark world. We live in a world of poverty and hunger, violence and death. We live in a world where nations oppress people — where war and terrorism are a part of everyday life for too many.

We live in a world where people steal and are unable to control their sexuality — a world where abuse occurs and families are torn apart. This is a world where people step on others in order to get ahead, people lie to win cases in court, people cheat and lie and hurt. People intimidate and disappoint. People are full of selfishness and pride and bitterness.

We could go on and on, but the Christmas story promises that in this land of darkness a light has dawned. A few verses later, Isaiah describes what that coming light would look like: “For unto 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” (Isaiah 9:6).

Wonderful Counselor. Mighty God. Everlasting Father. Prince of Peace. When you think about it, isn’t that exactly what we need? Aren’t these the things that we hope for and long for, but sometimes fear that we’ll never find? Perhaps you feel like you’ve been waiting a long time for wisdom or acceptance, for an experience of God’s power and peace. At times we feel like we’ve been waiting such a long time for the dawning of the light Isaiah promised. Some of us are waiting in darkness, clinging by a narrow thread to this promise that the dawn will come.

But now the waiting time is over. The Christmas Story tells us that the Light of the World has stepped out into the darkness with unfailing love and full redemption so that the hopes and fears of all the years are met in him. And the good news of Christmas is that the light Isaiah promised is available to you and me right now. The Light is here for those who are merry and for those who don’t really feel like celebrating.

The Irony of the Incarnation

Until I’m done with the book I'm currently writing (which should be before the end of the year), I’m posting some of my favorites posts from years past. Here’s another one from 2006: The Irony of the Incarnation

How bizarre it is that the thing that makes Christmas so magical for you when you’re a child is the very same thing that threatens to ruin it for you when you’re an adult.

I’m talking about expectations.

When you’re a kid, you have such high hopes for Christmas. At some point in time you find a catalogue and circle a number of items, hand it off to your mom or dad and wait. In that long and drawn-out period of waiting, all sorts of expectations form in your mind. You dream about what it will be like to come downstairs, wiping the sleep from your eyes, to find a pile of presents. Or maybe you dream of a smaller, more sedate Christmas, choosing to avoid the feeding frenzy atmosphere in favor of a quiet and modest one.

But you just know that the one thing you want most of all is going to be there. Your parents may play some sort of trick on you. You know, the kind where they wait until all the other presents are opened before saying, “Hey, what is that over there hiding behind the television?” But you know it'll be there.

You have these expectations for Christmas when you’re a kid. And it seems (maybe there’s some false nostalgia at work in memory) that Christmas always meets or exceeds your expectations.

At least it does when you’re young.

When you’re a grown up you still have these expectations. And they often go unmet. That’s when Christmas gets difficult. What do you do when you’re forced to admit that Christmas just isn’t everything you hoped it would be? Or what do you do when Christmas looks like it’s all going south?

Lots of folks move into control mode and try to force people into meeting their expectations at that point. Others just try to pretend that everything’s fine while they’re secretly dying inside. Still others resolve to be miserable and to take as many people down with them as possible.

Those expectations that make Christmas such a magical time in a child’s life threaten to ruin the whole Christmas season for grownups.

But here’s the real irony: All the dysfunction, all the brokenness, all the baggage and hostility — all of that is why there’s a Christmas in the first place.

At this time of year, there’s always a lot of debate over the true meaning of Christmas. You’ll hear it on Larry King and Glenn Beck. They’ll argue about it on the evening news and in the editorial pages of The New York Times. And lots of people will fall back on the old bumpersticker slogan: Jesus is the Reason for the Season!

And there’s probably some merit to that. But it’s not the whole story.

See, all that junk, all that jealousy, the lack of forgiveness and understanding that we experience, the distance between those who are supposed to live in intimacy, the war, the politics, the every-other-Saturday, the she-started-it-and-if-she-wants-to-apologize, the commercialism, the anger, the bitterness — that’s the reason for the season, too.

If you ever were able to have the perfect Christmas, where everyone got along perfectly, where no one complained or grabbed or got jealous or greedy or bullied or got abusive or passive-aggressive, if you were ever able to pull off world peace, there wouldn’t be any need for Jesus to come to earth.

So, this weekend, when that special someone starts really grating on your nerves, when you’re tempted to say, “See, this is what I was talking about. It’s always like this. I hate it when people do that.” — think to yourself: That person who is driving me nuts is the reason for the season.

When you get cut off in traffic and the person flips you off for honking at them, remember: that driver is the reason we have Christmas.

When you look in the mirror and can’t believe you ate the whole thing, remember: your lack of self-control is one of the major reasons why Jesus came.

Your mother-in-law who criticizes your cleaning. Your brother-in-law who always asks to borrow money. Your sister-in-law who wants to show you her new diamond. The cranky guy next door who complains about the cars parked on the street. The wayward child who ran a thousand miles away from home and won’t come back even for a visit. George W. Bush. Nancy Pelosi. Oprah. Rosie. Bono. Perez Hilton. Pat Robertson. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Tiger Woods. Sam Harris. Richard Dawkins. You.

These are all the reason for the season.

That’s the irony of Christmas.

I pray yours is merry and bright, and that you remember why it exists in the first place.

Pax Romana vs. Pax Christiana

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m up against my deadline for the book, so that’s eating up all of my time lately. Until I’m done (which should be before the end of the year), I’ll post some of my favorites from years past. Here's one from 2006: Pax Romana vs. Pax Christiana

When Dr. Luke tells us the Christmas story, he gives us some background information to set the stage. He begins, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world” (Luke 2:1).

Caesar Augustus was a fascinating character who did two remarkable things. First, he had himself declared “Savior of the World”. That takes some…uh…guts.

Second, he declared World Peace (it was known as the pax romana). In 27 BC he closed the temple to the Roman god of war, and, in doing so, made a statement: There will be no more war.

Interestingly, the way he maintained the peace was to kill anyone who stepped out of line in the most violent ways imaginable.

We’re going to have world peace if I have to kill every last one of you!

That’s one way of doing things. And it continues in some places today. I don’t just mean governmentally or militarily. I’m thinking of households where peace is kept through manipulation, bullying and violence.

We all want peace in our homes. We want peace on earth this Christmas. And one way of going about it is to simply declare it and rule with an iron fist. But there is another way — a better way.

Later in the same chapter, Luke tells us about the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. You remember that part, right? It’s the part Linus reads in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. Notice what the angels say to the shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).

Peace to whom? Those on whom his favor rests.

Jesus comes into a world where the people in charge are screaming, “We will have world peace if I have to kill every last one of you!” And the One who is the true Savior of the World brings peace through acceptance, unmerited favor, grace.

Who deserves this favor from on high? Absolutely no one.

Who gets this favor from on high? Absolutely everyone who will receive it.

Caesar Augustus offered to kill in order to get this peace.

Jesus of Nazareth offered to die in order to get it.

Guess whose peace is still around.

Have a Scandalous, Stress-Filled Christmas

I'm sorry I haven't been posting here on the blog regularly. I'm up against my deadline for the book, so that's eating up all of my time lately. Until I'm done (which should be before the end of the year), I'll post some of my favorites from years past. Here's one I wrote just after I started blogging: Have a Scandalous, Stress-Filled Christmas

No one ever wishes you that, do they? But that’s one I can handle. It’s one I could actually accomplish without much effort.

I’ve had lots of conversations lately about how simple Christmas should be — how we’ve made too much of a production out of it. Maybe it’s time to reform Christmas.

But in doing so, are we running away from something fundamental and inherent in Christmas itself? Think about how stressful that first Christmas must have been for Joseph. He’s a good guy — “a righteous man” the text calls him. He was known among the people in the village for how strictly he upheld the Law. It was more than just a descriptive term; it was a title. Joseph was a tsadiq — a “righteous one”.

But now he’s got a problem: his fiancee is pregnant, and he's not the father. That’s unacceptable. The text literally says, “Being a righteous man, he wanted to avoid a scandal.” Most translations miss this and end up making Joseph nicer than he was and less upright at the same time. Probably the best way to translate that sentence is: “Although he was a righteous man, he didn’t want a scandal.”

Talk about stress! Joseph knew that the right thing to do (under the old system) was to expose the scandal. Sinners should be excluded, standards should be upheld. The righteous people should be separate from the sin and the sinners.

Yet, in spite of the fact that he was a “righteous” man, Joseph couldn’t bring himself to do it. He would just divorce her quietly. That way he could avoid a big mess and still maintain his status as a righteous man.

But Joseph, with the help of an angel, decides to embrace the scandal. He does this knowing that his reputation may never recover from it…and it doesn’t. By marrying the girl who got pregnant while they were engaged, everyone believed what we would believe today: Joseph did it.

So, this very first Christmas probably wasn’t much like we imagine: quiet and peaceful. Obviously, unexpected — unimaginable — blessings came in the wake of this stressful scandal, but don’t kid yourself. It was stressful and scandalous, and it leads me to a theory.

I have a theory — it’s probably not original to me. But I think I know what Jesus may have written in the dirt when they presented him with that adulterous woman in John 8. I think he may have written one word:

Mom.

Maybe in that moment, Jesus thought back to a scared 13-year-old pregnant girl in a scandalized village. Maybe he thought of a strong young tsadiq who gave up his reputation in order to stand by that girl’s side.

Maybe this is what he had in mind when he said, “I tell you the truth. Unless your righteousness (your tsadiq-ness) exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

G.K. Chesterton on Easter

“My love is like a red, red rose” does not mean that the poet is praising roses under the allegory of a young lady. “My love is an arbutus” does not mean that the author was a botanist so pleased with a particular arbutus tree that he said he loved it. “Who art the moon and regent of my sky” does not mean that Juliet invented Romeo to account for the roundness of the moon. “Christ is the Sun of Easter” does not mean that the worshiper is praising the sun under the emblem of Christ. Goddess or god can clothe themselves with the spring or summer; but the body is more than raiment. Religion takes almost disdainfully the dress of Nature; and indeed Christianity has done as well with the snows of Christmas as with the snow-drops of spring. And when I look across the sun-struck fields, I know in my inmost bones that my joy is not solely in the spring, for spring alone, being always returning, would be always sad. There is somebody or something walking there, to be crowned with flowers: and my pleasure is in some promise yet possible and in the resurrection of the dead.” G. K. Chesterton, A Miscellany of Men

Slowing Down for Holy Week

I posted this a couple of years ago, but I think it has some relevance still:

It had been a busy week, and it was just Wednesday. Things had started off with a bang and a parade, Jesus looking more like a comic rendition of a conquering king — riding into town on the back of a donkey with hundreds (perhaps thousands) of peasants throwing down their coats before him and waving palm branches. It looked like the Messiah was coming to claim Jerusalem.

But all was not well.

The Pharisees complained about the level of excitement (Pharisees frequently do). Can’t you get those kids to calm down and be quiet? Jesus goes toe-to-toe with the religious establishment and refuses to back down. They lack the popular appeal and the official power to enforce their demands and can only stand there red in the face.

Jesus, however, does not rejoice in his temporary victory. Instead, he weeps over the city of Jerusalem. This is the last time he’ll see the city like this. In a few short decades, the city itself will be ripped to shreds by the Romans. And he knows what this passionate week will cost him. So, he sobs. Undignified, gut-wrenching sobs.

Bright and early Monday morning, Jesus and his disciples make their way to the Temple. On the way there, he curses a fig tree. Once he gets there, he turned over the tables and benches. People and animals scrambled this way and that. The Sadducees must have joined the Pharisees now in the anger and hatred of this man. But he had the people on his side. If they tried to stop him, they might have a real fight on their hands. And the ever-present Romans were not too far away, hands on swords, watching and waiting for their cue to quell a potential rebellion.

Tuesday was a day of conversation. Following two days of action, everyone wants to talk to Jesus now. Some Greek people. Members of the Sanhedrin. Herodians. Sadducees. Pharisees. The people. Everyone wants to hear Jesus talk about who he thinks he is and what he intends to do. They question his identity, his authority, his politics, his eschatology, his ethics. The whole series of conversation builds to a fever pitch as Jesus launches into a diatribe against the Jewish leaders (specifically the Pharisees).

Afterwards, Jesus breaks down in tears again.

But Tuesday ends on a positive note. As he is leaving the Temple, he sits down in the court of the women and watches people as they approach the 13 trumpet-shaped bronze receptacles. Each was labeled, telling what the money would go towards. Jesus sees wealthy people casually tossing money, the coins sliding down the bronze, clanking metallically, attracting attention.

That’s when he sees her. Unnoticed by anyone else, an unassuming widow drops two tiny coins in the coffer.

Jesus gets so excited that he calls his disciples over to tell them her story. It must have seemed strange to them, given the scale of everything else that’s been happening this week, that Jesus would get this worked up over a mere shaving of metal. But to Jesus it’s a big deal.

The week has been full to overflowing, pregnant with meaning and import. It will get heavier as we move towards the finale: the brooding tune of Thursday evening’s meal, the somber note of devastating loss that is Friday afternoon, the silent and uncertain pause that is Saturday, the eternally resonating major chord of victory that is Sunday morning.

But before we get there, Jesus, it would appear, takes a day off. Nothing is recorded about his whereabouts or activities on Wednesday. Perhaps he was making plans with the cryptic man who appears to Peter and John carrying a water jug. Perhaps he was watching Judas wrestle with the demons that eventually prompt him to do his dastardly deed. Perhaps he spent the day praying and gathering his thoughts.

Regardless, it’s instructive enough that Jesus — knowing full well that he had less than a week to live — chooses to do nothing the biblical writers deemed noteworthy on one of his days.

Given my normal level of activity and busyness, I should probably follow Jesus more closely — especially when it’s Jesus’ day off.

Because the economy has recently forced me out of my job, I've had the chance to look around at my friends who serve churches from a slightly different perspective. This is a week filled with all sorts of frenetic activity. Extra services to plan. Egg hunts to coordinate. Rehearsals. Videos. Sermons. Guests. So many of them seem to be running at breakneck pace.

I wonder how many of them would be willing to follow Jesus in taking some time to sit and do nothing productive or remarkable for a while.

A Christmas Poem

"Christmas Bells"by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I heard the bells on Christmas Day Their old familiar carols play, And wild and sweet The words repeat Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come, The belfries of all Christendom Had rolled along The unbroken song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

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

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

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

And in despair I bowed my head; "There is no peace on earth," I said; "For hate is strong, And mocks the song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: "God is not dead; nor doth he sleep! The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Light and Life at Christmas

When we talk about the birth of Jesus, we always turn to Luke's or Matthew's Gospels. That's where we read about angels and shepherds, a star and a stable, wise men and visitations. That's where all the familiar images of Christmas have their origin. Mark's Gospel skips the beginning and starts in the middle of the story. John's Gospel goes too far back, to before the beginning of anything, and is hard to read and understand. So, John and Mark don't get much play during December. They don't smell enough like a stable.

But by the time he wrote his Gospel, the apostle John had had a lifetime to reflect on the events surrounding the life of Jesus. He had been the one asked to look after Mary, Jesus' mother, so (assuming she had become part of his family) they must have spent time talking about Jesus' birth and all the craziness surrounding it. Her face, her laugh, the way she turned phrases -- these things may have been reminders to John of what Jesus was like.

When John family sat down to write his version of the story, he must have thought about where to begin. His mind must have played and replayed the details of that night in Bethlehem. Instead of starting there, though, he went beyond it and beneath it. His version begins by telling us about the One called the Word and how this Word came into a dark and dying world. In fact, as we read through the prologue to John's Gospel (1:1-14), two words surface more than any others: Light and Life.

Jesus is many things to many people, but to John he was Light and Life. The apostle must have remembered where Jesus was standing and what he sounded like when he referred to himself by those words.

"In him was life," John wrote (v. 4). Jesus wasn't just alive; he was Life. Life was in him. More than just a being with a beating heard and contracting lungs, Jesus produced beating hearts and contracting lungs. He was Life, so Life was his to give. John's Gospel reminds us that giving life was what Jesus had come to do. Jesus was the bringer of life.

"That life was the light of men," John continued. What was going through John's mind as he read back over his own words? He could recall watching men and women who were dark and full of death coming to Jesus, and then seeing how one touch, one word from him sent them away forever changed -- forever filled with the Light and Life of the One who came to conquer our fear of death and beat back the darkness. He could remember how that Light broke into his own darkness with a simple question: "What do you want?" Jesus had asked (see John 1:38).

Life and Light...that was Jesus.

There is a little inkling of the birth to be found in John's Gospel after all. It is one short sentence, but it says as much as Matthew or Luke do (without the gory details): "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (v. 5).

This verse should be read before Matthew and Luke. It prepares us to receive the full version of the story. The Light that is Jesus shines in, around, through, behind, beneath, beyond the darkness of the manger, the darkness of the stable, the darkness of the world, the darkness of our own hearts.

And yet we still do not understand it any more than the shepherds or the wise men did. Who can grasp the idea of Light and Life being contained in a body?

Like those first witnesses to the Christ-child, we are left to worship, adore and ponder the mystery. We pray for his Life to come to life in us. And we ask for his Light to shine forth from our hearts forever.

———-

This is an excerpt from my latest book, The 52 Greatest Stories of the Bible.

Messy Christmas

Question: If you were a shepherd 2,000 years ago and were outside watching the sheep one night when an angel showed up with a message from God, well...what would you do? Answer: Panic!

Shepherds were not highly regarded in those times. It wasn't considered a very noble profession. You practically lived outside with animals (stupid animals, at that). You were constantly coming into contact with...animal stuff.

"Unclean" was not merely a description -- it was a condition. Shepherds were unclean hygienically and ceremonially. They weren't allowed to testify in court. They weren't allowed in the synagogues or the Temple. Ironically, the lambs they helped come into the world -- the very animals that would be sacrificed for Passover -- rendered them unfit to make sacrifices in the Temple.

So what must they have thought when they saw the angel? They probably thought, Oh, no! What did we do now?

They had been told that God didn't like unclean people, so they might have assumed the angel was there to tell them God was mad at them -- or worse. Maybe God had finally reached his limit with all the uncleanness in the world and was ready to do something about it -- starting with them!

But instead the angel began with these words: "Fear not." It's a familiar refrain if you've read much about angels, who were always having to preface their conversations with people this way.

"God's not angry," the angel continued. "In fact, I've got Good News for everybody -- even dirty shepherds like you. You know all the stuff that's wrong with the world, all that stuff you wish could get fixed but looks hopeless? Well, God's going to do something about it. He's sending Someone to save the day. This Savior is also going to be the King. You can go see him now if you want. Here's how you'll know him when you see him...."

Okay, wait. Don't hurry on here.

If you're that shepherd, how do you think that sentence should end? Think about it: This is the one sent from Almighty God to turn everything that is upside-down right-side-up. This guy is supposed to deliver. He's going to be the greatest King you've ever seen. How will you know him when you find him?

"He'll be wrapped in satin and lying in a hand-carved ivory creche. In his hand will be a golden rattle, and in his mouth will be a silver spoon." Right?

Wrong!

"He'll be wrapped in rags, lying in a feed trough, surrounded by stinky animals -- kind of like one of your shepherd kids would be." In other words, here's how you'll know the Messiah when you see him: You'll find him in the middle of a big mess.

The whole reason this is Good News -- to the shepherds that night and to us right now -- is that we're all messy people. Every night, people appear on television (under the label "News") and tell us how the world got a little messier today. We manage to mess up every single area of life: relationships, finances, work, family, the environment, the Church (especially there), our conscience, our habits. There's not a single place we haven't managed to mess up. And we can't seem to fix any of it. Try as we may, we cannot put Humpty together again.

So the angel says, "Here's the Good News: God is not afraid of your mess."

Our God doesn't care how messy your life is. It couldn't be any messier than his was. He was born in a mess -- wrapped in rags, laid in a manger -- and he died in a mess -- stripped of his rags, hung on a cross.

And in between his first day and his last day, he mostly hung out with messy people.

We make Christmas really pretty, with red velvet bows and evergreen branches and all that. But the real story of Christmas proves that you don't have to clean up for him. Cleanliness, it turns out, is far from godliness. If anything, it's in the middle of our messiness that he shows up.

———-

This is an excerpt from my latest book, The 52 Greatest Stories of the Bible.

The Astonishing Humility of Christmas

God does a lot of things -- many of them seem strange to our admittedly limited perspective. Without a doubt, the single most unsettling, irrational, illogical thing he has ever done is come to Earth as a baby! If God came to Earth as a fully-grown man, we might understand that a little better. If he came to Earth as an angel, a ghost, an apparition or a disembodied voice, it might make more sense or fit our expectations a little better.

But a baby?

He was totally helpless! He couldn't feed himself or talk or walk or control his own bladder. And have you ever been to a birth? There's blood and sweat screaming and mucous flying everywhere...and that's just the dads!

The whole process is uncomfortable, to say the least. It's unseemly. It's unsanitary. As much as we may not want to admit it, birth -- for all of its wonder and amazement -- is a yucky process.

And this is how God chose to enter the world.

He could have chosen any way he wanted -- something miraculous and exceptional, regal and majestic. But he chose the ordinary way.

Worse than that, he chose the peasant's way. He could have chosen a major city with doctors, nurses or midwives and their sterilized equipment. Instead, he chose a barn in a backwater town with nothing but a carpenter's rough and calloused hands to usher him into the world. There were more animals than people looking on.

We would understand if royal officials were there eagerly awaiting his arrival. But no one important showed up save a few dirty sherpherds -- oh, and some strange men from the East several months later.

It doesn't make much sense to many people -- the God of the universe humbling himself in such a way, emptying himself of so much for so little in return. But the Bible leads us to believe that this is exactly the way God wanted it.

A young couple, miles from home, are unable to find a decent place to sleep. They are forced to spend the night in a stable when she goes into labor, where she delivers a baby that has already caused so much pain and will cause even more in his attempt to bring true peace, true healing, true joy. She wraps him in strips of cloth to keep him warm as her husband makes room in the feed trough. They are both unaware that, even now, magi are headed their way from afar and shepherds are receiving the shock of their lives in the form of a heavenly chorus.

This is our God, this tiny baby with fists for hands and squinting eyes, depending on and trusting in two scared newlyweds for his survival. He risks everything in order to rescue the people who have never been able to keep their promises to him.

The storyline doesn't make much sense to us because it is we who are so out of synch with the way things ought to be.

———-

This is an excerpt from my latest book, The 52 Greatest Stories of the Bible.