Tag Archives: Christmas

Christmas Movies and the Gospel

movies

This Christmas at my house we watched “Elf,” “Christmas Vacation,” “The Santa Clause,” “Christmas with the Kranks,” part of “White Christmas,” “A Christmas Story,” and the “Miracle on 34th Street.” Movies are some of our culture’s most familiar texts for interpreting the meaning of this season. And I predict that they will only grow in importance in the future as fewer and fewer people go to church and publicly identify themselves as Christians.

buddySomething Christmas movies buffs like to discuss are their favorite characters. Online you’ll find lists and lists of people’s favorite characters in Christmas movies – Buddy from “Elf,” Ralphie from “A Christmas Story,” George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Clark Griswold or Cousin Eddie from “Christmas Vacation,” or any one of the characters from “A Christmas Carol” — Jacob Marley… Tiny Tim… Ebenezer Scrooge.  The character from a Christmas movie that I personally find most spiritually intriguing is “old man Marley” from “Home Alone.” Old man Marley is the across-the-street neighbor of Kevin McCallister, the kid, who through a series of blunders, gets left behind when the rest of his family flies to France for the holidays. We are introduced to old man Marley in “Home Alone” when Kevin sees him shoveling the snow on his sidewalk.  Kevin’s older brother, Buzz, has convinced him that old man Marley is “the South Bend Shovel Slayer,” a man who had infamously murdered his family with a snow shovel, and so every time Kevin bumps into old man Marley early in the movie, he yelps, turns, and runs away.

HomeAloneThe best scene in the movie, in my opinion, is when, alone and afraid, Kevin slips into a dark church where a children’s’ choir is rehearsing for Christians Eve and old man Marley, who is also there, alone and afraid in the dark, slips into the pew beside Kevin. Their conversation eventually gets around to their families, and old man Marley tells Kevin that he’s there listening to that children’s choir rehearse because it was the only way that he could hear his granddaughter sing.  You see, old man Marley hadn’t murdered his family, they were estranged, they hadn’t talked to each other for years.  Old man Marley lived his life in the pain of this isolation, and poignantly he told Kevin, “You can say hello when you see me. You don’t have to be afraid.  There’s a lot of things going around about me, but none of it’s true.”  These are the words of someone who’s been pushed away and who just wants to belong somewhere, to somebody.  There’s Gospel in these words.  Paul told the Ephesians that Jesus Christ came to specifically bring people who felt pushed away back into the circle of God’s care and concern. “He is our peace… He broke down the barrier of the dividing wall… He came and preached peace to those who were far away” (2:13; 17).

shadowsIn Luke’s familiar version of the Christmas story, the shepherds are old man Marley. They were the ostracized ones, the people who were pushed away and lived in the shadows. Shepherding was hard and dirty work. Living with their flocks in the open fields, shepherds stank of sheep.  Nobody wanted to be around them, and not just because of their poor hygiene. Daily contact with blood, manure, and dead animals rendered shepherds unclean spiritually. And so they were excluded from the community of faith, and from the ceremonies in the Temple.  They didn’t belong.  They weren’t fit to be with God, and they weren’t fit to be with other people. They were the “far off” ones, and then on the night when Christ was born, Luke tells us that they were the very first people to be told of it and to be invited to come and see it.  This is not an insignificant detail of the story. The way that Luke tells us his story of Jesus, God makes His way in Christ to all of those who have been pushed away – the poor, the sick, the different, the unclean, the needy – and He invites them all back into the embrace of His love.  And here’s a secret that we all live with, every single one of us — in some way we’re all old man Marley.  In some way, we’re all the shepherds.  In some way, we’ve all been pushed away.  In some way, not one of us really feels like we quite belong.

hollowhillsIn her book, The Hollow Hills, the novelist Mary Stewart told the story of a young man who had been raised in one of the great households of Northern England. But deep inside, he knew that he didn’t belong there.  He’d been told the story for as long as he could remember about how he had been left in a basket at the gate of the castle as a baby.  He was unknown and unwanted — illegitimate, an embarrassment, an object or shame and scorn. He belonged to no one; no one belonged to him. He knew all too well the pain and fear of being pushed away. And then one day, unexpectedly, he was brought to the court of the king.  And as he stepped into that royal hall, the king stepped down from his throne, and gathered that boy up into his arms.  With tears in his eyes, the king explained that he was his son, his first-born, the heir of the throne, the next in line to become the king of the realm.  The king explained how he’d had to send him away at birth to shield him from the plot of an enemy who sought to destroy him, but that now the time had come to finally restore him to his rightful place, and this story is ours.

Somewhere deep inside we all feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for. There are painful ways that we have all been pushed away. We’re all familiar, in our own way, with the pain of not fitting in, and with the fear of never belonging to anyone, anywhere.  And then, in that darkness we’re told about a little baby born in Bethlehem to be our Savior, and we’re invited to come and see Him for ourselves.  And it’s there, kneeling at the manger that we discover that we are in fact wanted, that we are in fact loved, that we are in fact accepted, that we do in fact belong.  In Christ the “far off” are brought near (Ephesians 2:13-17), and that’s me… that’s you… that’s us… Merry Christmas!  DBS +

babyjesus

 

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The Gospel in Christmas Cards

I remember the great care that my parents took every year with their Christmas cards. Early in the fall there was always a trip, and sometimes more than one, to the stationary store where together they poured over those big sample notebooks for hours looking for just the right Christmas card.  Mom and dad certainly had their standards.  It had to be traditional and not contemporary, religious and not secular, show Jesus and not Santa, and be about Bethlehem’s manger and not about Christmas trees, or reindeers, or snowy forests.  I learned my appreciation of Christmas cards from them, in fact, through the years I’ve become a kind of Christmas card connoisseur. While I appreciate every Christmas card that I’ve ever received, and honor the spirit of friendship and affection that they signal, purely on the level of image, symbol and art, I have my favorites.

card

Years ago Mary Lynn and I received a Christmas card that was a print of Pieter Bruegel’s painting “The Census at Bethlehem.” It shows a typical 16th century Flemish village on a cold winter’s day.  There’s nothing distinctively “religious” or “Christmas-y” about it, except for a “wreath” over an open window where a crowd has gathered and seems to be conducting some kind of business with the official looking people inside the building. In the middle of the picture there’s a man with a basket of tools on his arm leading a donkey with a pregnant woman sitting on it toward the crowd at that open window, and only gradually does it dawn on you that this is Bethlehem and that is Joseph and Mary!  Mary Lynn and I liked this Christmas card so much that we later bought a print of the painting, had it framed and it now hangs in our home.

egypt

Another favorite Christmas card of mine is one that shows Mary cradling her infant son against the cold of a winter’s night. Now that’s a familiar enough Christmas card image, isn’t it?  What makes this one so unique is where Mary and her baby happen to be.  You see, on this card she sits in the lap of the Sphinx in Egypt cradling the Christ, reminding us of the flight of the Holy family from Herod’s brutality.  It’s a powerful image, one made even more powerful today as a reminder that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were political refugees who had to flee the violence of a Middle Eastern tyrant and who found a home in a different culture where they were welcomed.

baby jesusI think my favorite Christmas card image is the one that I have of the baby Jesus reaching up from His manger to touch the head of a lamb with both of His hands. In my mind and heart, this is the perfect picture of what Christmas means. Now, technically, the Bible says nothing about there being any animals at the manger in Bethlehem.  Oh sure, we have them prominently positioned in our crèche scenes on the mantle at home, and they regularly show up in the Christmas carols that we sing in church.  But technically, there are no references to animals of any sort in the Bible’s story of the first Christmas apart from Luke’s note that the shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night (2:8).  But that wasn’t in Bethlehem at the manger.  No, that was in the fields outside of town.  The Bible actually says nothing about animals being present at the manger. Nevertheless, it seems perfectly logical to me to conclude that animals were there.

angels

In fact, when you go to Bethlehem and visit the church at the shepherd’s fields on its walls you will see a series of three wonderful frescoes that tell the story of the first Christmas, and prominent in them is another animal, a dog. In the first panel where the angels are making their announcement of the birth of Christ that dog cowers in fear behind a rock. In the second panel where the shepherds are shown going to Bethlehem see this thing that happened, that same dog runs ahead, leading the procession.  And in the third panel, that dog reverently sits at the side of the manger adding his devotion to that of his masters for Him who was born to be the Savior of all creation.  And as whimsical and attractive as all of this is, it is nevertheless a fanciful addition to the story.

We can only talk about sheep at the manger with any degree of Biblical certainty. And the symbolic significance of this for the Gospel comes later in the New Testament’s story of Jesus Christ when John the Baptist identified Him as “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29; 36).  Gary Burge, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, says that he once asked a mature Christian why Jesus is called “the Lamb of God.” The answer given was this: “Because Jesus is so gentle and nice.” But this is the wrong answer.  The right answer is that Jesus was called the Lamb of God because in the world of the Bible lambs were the animals of choice for sacrifice.  We’ve never seen an animal sacrifice, and would probably be horrified if we did.  And the problem with this is that sacrifice was an enormously important part of the Biblical world, and if we can’t get our heads wrapped around what sacrifice meant in the Biblical world, then we will never understand what John the Baptist and the rest of the New Testament means when it tells us that Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God.

lambIn ancient Israel sheep drove the economy. Their wool kept people clothed and warm.  Their meat kept people fed.  And so, when it was time to show God just how much He meant to someone, or just how desperate a person really was for God’s help, then something of real value to that person would be offered in sacrifice.  And nothing was of greater value to the people of ancient Israel than were their sheep, especially an unblemished male lamb.  That was your money maker.  His reproductive capabilities was the key to one’s prosperity, and so when offered up in sacrifice, that lamb became a powerful outward and visible expression of the intensity of the inward and invisible intentions of a person’s heart.

In the ancient ritual of sacrifice no gesture was more important than the laying on of hands. “You are to lay your hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on your behalf to make atonement for you,” is what the Law prescribed (Leviticus 1:4).  This point of contact, this physical connection between the animal being sacrificed and the person who was offering it as an expression of what was in his heart, this is what made this whole ritual of sacrifice personal.  And in that picture on my favorite Christmas card of the Son of God reaching up from His manger to touch the head of a shepherd’s lamb what the artist was symbolically telling us that just like the lamb that He touched, Jesus Christ came to be our Savior through an act of sacrifice.

adoration

Now, the Christmas Card that I really want to receive is the one with Benedetto Bonfigli’s (1420 – 1496) painting – “The Adoration of the Kings, and Christ on the Cross” (The National Gallery, London) – on it. This painting expresses my Christmas faith as powerfully and concisely as any image I have ever come across. The way that it surprisingly brings together Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the manger and the cross, the Magi’s Messianic gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh with Messiah’s self-offering on the cross reminds me of Dag Hammarskjold’s famous observation in Markings (1964) that – “the Manger is situated on Golgotha, and the Cross has already been raised in Bethlehem.”  Rodney Clapp argued that the best way to keep Christ in Christmas was by always keeping it clear that Easter and not Christmas is the central Christian holiday. He said that when Christians are known “for our Easter, then we will have our Christmas back.” And that’s why I love this image.  That baby who sits on Mary’s lap is the Savior who will die on Calvary’s cross (Matthew 1:21; Luke 2:11), and when this is clear, so is the Gospel. DBS +

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O King of the nations…

O King of the nations and the fulfillment of their longing,
you are the Cornerstone and you make all one;
you formed us from primeval clay:

o-jpg

Come, and save us!
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christmas“What do you want for Christmas?”

That’s the question of the hour isn’t it? Soon it will be Christmas morning and all those people in your life who have posed this urgent seasonal question will have done their loving best to get you just exactly what it was that you told them that you wanted.  I once heard an “expert” say that if you really want to get somebody the perfect gift for Christmas, then it’s really a very simple matter — just get them what they told you they wanted!  One’s longings are a pretty reliable guide to their happiness.

It was C.S. Lewis who first introduced me to the idea that our deepest “longings” as human beings are actually a God given mechanism by which He tethers us to Himself. He called this idea “Sehnsucht,” a German word that means “longing” or “desire.” He described it as “that unnamable something, the desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire — the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves” (https://blog.logos.com/2015/08/c-s-lewis-ingenious-apologetic-of-longing/). Perhaps C.S. Lewis’ most memorable statement about “Sehnsucht” was this one –

 csThere have been times when I think we do not desire heaven; but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else. You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words… Again, you have stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what you have been looking for all of your life… Are not all life-long friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling of that which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? (The Problem of Pain)

Peter Kreeft, the Roman Catholic Philosopher who teaches at Boston College, is the ablest interpreter of this argument from longing that I’ve come across today.   In his 1980 book Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing (Ignatius), Peter Kreeft said that our hearts  are “haunted” by an innate awareness of God, and that the desires of our hearts are really just  expressions of our desperate need for God.

carWe think that if we could just get this, or achieve that, that then we’d be truly happy: a spouse, a job, a car, a house, and then, it’s a different spouse, a better job, a newer car, a bigger house. This cycle of desire never ends.  There’s always more.  There’s always more “different.” There’s always more “newer.” There’s always more “bigger.”  And there’s always more “better.” And so St. Augustine prayed – Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

Spiritually, our reach as human beings will always far exceed our grasp, and that’s because what we are always reaching for is God, and what we grasp, no matter how good and valuable they might be in and of themselves, are always going to be less than God, and therefore they cannot finally or fully satisfy our deepest human longing. I believe that some of them can certainly be sacraments of what’s ultimate, outward and visible signs of the inward and inviable object of our longing, but finally even they must fade as we get lost in wonder, love and praise.

So, what do you want for Christmas? And however you answer that question, whatever it is that you say you want, behind and beneath that desire is something even more basic, and the petition and affirmation of the sixth “O” Antiphon prepares the eyes of our hearts to be able to see it –

aO King of the nations and the fulfillment of their longing,
you are the Cornerstone and you make all one;
you formed us from primeval clay: Come, and save us!

God has indeed made us for Himself forming us “from primeval clay,” and He has filled us with a longing for Himself which is experienced by us as a profound ache for unity – to be brought back into the harmony of the original shalom (what’s pictured for us in the Garden of Eden) in which everything and everyone fit together perfectly like the pieces of a beautiful puzzle under the gracious sovereignty of God’s reign.

So we say that what we want for Christmas is a brand new smart phone, but what we really want, what we deeply want is to be meaningfully connected with others. We say that what we want is that piece of jewelry, but what we really want, what we deeply want is to know that we are valued and loved.  We say that what we want is a big screen TV, but what really want, what we deeply want is just to be happy.  And we say that what we want for Christmas is that new piece of exercise equipment, but what we really want, what we deeply want is to have life, and to have it more abundantly.  Our longing for community, companionship, contentment and wholeness are all expressions of our longing for God, and Christmas is about when and where and how God actually went about fulfilling them.

cross

Come, Desire of nations, come, Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed, Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display Thy saving power, Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.
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“Hark the Herald Angels Sing”
Charles Wes­leyHymns and Sac­red Po­ems – 1739, alt

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“What does Christmas mean to you?”

popeThe late Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Basil Hume, a monk of the Ampleforth Abbey, said that he was at a Peace Rally in Trafalgar Square one year right before Christmas.   He was on the platform as one of the dignitaries, and had offered a prayer.  When it was all over and he was making his way through the crowd to his car, he was approached by a reporter who asked him, “What does Christmas mean to you?”   The question caught him off guard.   He was someone who was accustomed to being in the public eye, and so he always had a few remarks carefully prepared by his staff for media sound bites that would be relevant to the immediate event.  Had they asked him about peace, he was ready to go with something wise and eminently quotable to say.  But they asked him about Christmas instead, and he had to react right then and there on the spot, saying the very first thing that came into his head.

“The great and awesome God became man for me, that’s what Christmas means to me” is what he said, and with that, the reporter smiled, nodded his head, said “thank-you” and was off.  Apparently it wasn’t what he was hoping to hear from the Cardinal, but Basil Hume said that after he had gone fifteen yards are so from the point of that encounter, that he stopped dead in his tracks as he thought about what he’d said.

“Here was a familiar truth which I had known my whole life,” he explained, “but at that moment the simple truth that God had become man seemed to me quite staggering, and I realized that I was looking at this familiar truth in a new way.”

And then he added –

It is so easy to celebrate Christmas and miss the main point, or to become so familiar with the Christian teaching about it that it fails to make its impact. …Christmas is a feast at which we celebrate God’s entry into our world as man. He entered into our world in order to enter into our lives.

Now, the thought of this isn’t necessarily comforting. You’ve no doubt heard the old “good news/bad news” joke — the “good news” is that Christ is coming back, the “bad news” is that He is really mad at you!  Before dismissing the thought, remember that virtually every part of the Christmas story that Luke tells begins with angels telling human beings not to be afraid. Our spiritual mothers and fathers, the Jews, with their heightened sense of right and wrong got it. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

Just to say that God shows up in our world and in our lives – what Basil Hume called the “Christmas truth” – doesn’t tell us whether this is good news or bad news for us.  What determines that is the nature of the God who shows up.  I once heard the Evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer say that if God was more like Attila the Hun than Jesus the Christ, then what could we do about it?  So, here’s the good news of Christmas — the God who shows up in our world and who makes His way into our lives is a God who is love.  And “this is why I have come to treasure each Christmas” Cardinal Hume wrote.

babyI have come to realize more intensely that the birth of Jesus in that stable in Bethlehem is where all my questions begin to get answered. If I want to look on the face of utter love, if I want to see what the lover will do for the beloved, I have to take myself to the Christmas crib and look at the image of the Christ child lying in the manger.

“Emmanuel” – “God with us” – that’s what the Christmas angel told Joseph the baby miraculously conceived in Mary would be called. God gets focused for us in Jesus Christ.  Again, something Cardinal Archbishop Basil Hume wrote proves helpful.

To imagine that we still cannot “put a face” to God, that we are still in the dark about the reality of divine love and compassion, is to ignore perhaps the blindingly obvious, and it is to fail to linger long enough on the features and the personality of Jesus Christ.

poemsChristmas is about how God shows up in our world and in our lives, and what we learn from that encounter is that God is love. As Christina Rosetti, my favorite English devotional poet, put it –

Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas, Star and Angels gave the sign.

We used to sing a chorus when I was a kid in youth group that said – “Love, love, love, love; the Gospel in a word is love, love thy neighbor as your brother, God is love.” And I have always thought this to be a pretty good summary of Biblical Christianity.  Jesus said that our love for each other would be how the world would know that we are His disciples (John 13:35).  “See how they love one another,” was what people said about the very first Christians.

But in the New Testament, before something gets laid on us as was a moral or spiritual obligation, it first gets offered to us freely as a gift, and this is where Christian Rossetti’s poem comes into play.   “We love,” the Apostle John explained in his first letter, “because He first loved us” (I John 4:19).  And how we know that He “first loved us” is because He came to us in Jesus Christ, born in a manger, wrapped in swaddling cloths.

Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas, Star and Angels gave the sign.

Love is the fundamental truth about the God who is there, and how we know this to be true is Jesus Christ – it is the fact established by His birth, life, death and resurrection. The God who shows up in Christ and who makes His way into our world and lives is a God who loves us.  It is the truth of Christmas that “the great and awesome God became man” for you, and for me, and for all.  That’s the Gospel truth that strengthens us in life and that sustains us in death, so don’t miss this staggering truth in the familiarity of the season and in the routine of its celebrations.

Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas, Star and Angels gave the sign.

Merry Christmas!

    DBS +

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Open the Doors of Mercy…

pope

That the King of Glory shall go in!
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This past week Pope Francis opened the Door of Mercy at the Vatican to signal the beginning of a Jubilee Year on the church calendar.

The notion of a Jubilee Year has its roots deep in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Every seven years, by Jewish Law, there was to be a Sabbath Year. Just as God commanded one day of rest each week, the Sabbath, to remember the priority of His presence, power and provision as the key to their well-being, so God also commanded His special people to observe a Sabbath Year every seventh year.

The Lord said to Moses on Mount Sinai, say to the people of Israel, when you come into the land which I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its fruits; but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord. (Leviticus 25:1-13)

For six years you may sow your land and gather in its produce. But the seventh year you shall let the land lie untilled and unharvested, that the poor among you may eat of it and the beasts of the field may eat what the poor leave. So also shall you do in regard to your vineyard and your olive grove. (Exodus 23:10-11)

At the end of a cycle of seven Sabbath years – the 49th year – the seventh Sabbatical year would be followed by a special “Jubilee” Year in the 50th.

And you shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall be to you forty-nine years. Then you shall send abroad the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement you shall send abroad the trumpet throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family. A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be to you; in it you shall neither sow, nor reap what grows of itself, nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines.  For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat what it yields out of the field. In this year of jubilee each of you shall return to his property. (Leviticus 25:8-13)

In the Nazareth synagogue early in Jesus Christ’s public ministry when He read from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah and announced the fulfillment of its words in their midst, many scholars believe that Jesus was announcing that the great Jubilee of God’s salvation was breaking in upon them in Him.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19/Isaiah 61:1-2)

The Jubilee Year of Jewish Law became a powerful way for early Christians to think and talk about God’s saving work of redemption and release that they had experienced in Jesus Christ, and the church has ever since used this idea to call for special seasons of active grace in her life and ministry. This is what the Pope did last week, and symbolic Doors of Mercy are being opened, not just at the Vatican in Rome, but in every cathedral of the Roman Catholic Church around the world to signal the beginning of a year of special grace when people are being intentionally invited to come in.  Of course, this is supposed to be the stance of every church in every place at every time, but sometimes special gestures like this one that the Pope made last week in Rome, and that is now being repeated all around the world in churches this week, have a way of reminding all of us who are Christians that mercy is really our only currency.

The harshness of recent rhetoric in this political year needs a strong counterpoint. In fear and anger the sound of doors being slammed shut resound right now in our culture.  There are voices calling for the doors of our society to be closed to Muslims and refugees, and especially to Muslim refugees.  The anguish of our African American brothers and sisters after Ferguson bears painful witness to their experience of the doors of justice and opportunity being closed to them and locked tight for generations.  Our gay and lesbian family members and friends hear the doors of the church still slamming in their ears even as the door of equal protection under the law in the larger society has just begun to open a little bit wider.  And the mentally ill continue to be hidden away behind the closed doors of misunderstanding and isolation in both church and culture as they always have been.

yanceyPhilip Yancey in his book, What’s So Amazing about Grace, says that as a part of his research that he conducted an ongoing informal survey of the people he sat beside on airplanes and who stood with him in line with at Starbucks. “What’s the first word that comes to mind when I say the word ‘Christian’?” he wanted to know from them.  And he said that he heard words like “judgmental,” “harsh,” “angry,” “hateful,” “prejudiced” and “mean,” but never the words “graceful,” or “kind,” or “gentle,” or “loving,” not even once.  The Doors of Mercy need to be opened at church, and not just so that “they” can come in, but so that “we” might come in as well.  But even before we start to think and talk about how the church’s Doors of Mercy have to be open to all people everywhere, we need to make sure that those doors of the church have been opened to Jesus Christ.

I have long been haunted by the dream that A.J. Gordon (1836–1895), the American Baptist preacher, described at the very beginning of his spiritual autobiography – How Christ Came to Church (1895).

AJDr. A. J. Gordon was pastor of the fashionable Clarendon Street Baptist Church of Boston. A secular worldly spirit dominated the congregation. The pews were rented. They hired unsaved singers from the opera who rendered music that was spiritually dead. The deacon dared to print a leaflet which said, “Strangers Welcome.” But he was rebuked by an elder, “Why, you might get the wrong kind of people in here and run the right kind out!” Of course, everyone knew who the “right kind” were.  The pastor’s heart was deeply burdened over this situation. Pastoring became a drudgery that pressed him to the point of desperation. His people needed to repent and turn to Christ. He, therefore, spent more time on his sermons. Disappointment followed when few, if any, were converted by a week of solid toil in sermon building. Prayer meeting was dead, too. If he could only get the people together to pray. Yet in spite of all he could do, very few even attended prayer meeting. Those who did come never rose to really pour out their hearts to God for new life in the church. About that time the administration of the church began to come unglued. Opposition developed among some of the church officers. Then he had to work hard trying “to get the members to vote as they should.” Those who should have helped actually wound up hindering. That led to discouragement, sleepless nights and pressurized living. At last, he made a trip to the doctor who called for absolute rest as the only remedy for such strain and stress. While struggling to minister on such hard rocky soil, Dr. Gordon fell asleep one Saturday night while preparing his sermon. He had an unusual dream. “Not that I attach any importance to dreams or ever have done so”, he wrote. “I recognize it only as a dream; and yet I confess that the impression of it was so vivid that in spite of myself memory brings it back to me again, as though it were an actual occurrence in my personal ministry.” He dreamed he was in the pulpit just about to begin his sermon before a full congregation. At that moment a stranger entered and passed slowly up the left aisle of the church looking for someone who would give him a seat. Half way up the aisle a man offered him a place which was quietly accepted. Gordon’s eyes were riveted on this visitor. He wondered, “Who can that stranger be?” He determined to find out. After the sermon, the stranger slipped out with the crowd. The pastor asked the man with whom he sat, “Can you tell me who that stranger was who sat in your pew this morning?” In the most matter of fact way he replied, “Why, do you not know that man? It was Jesus of Nazareth.” Seeing the pastor’s great consternation, the man assured him, “Oh, do not be troubled. He has been here today, and no doubt he will come again.” Gordon was filled with an indescribable rush of emotion and self-examination. Why the Lord Himself was here listening to the sermon today! “What was I saying?” he asked himself. “Was I preaching on some popular theme in order to catch the ear of the public?” With a sigh of relief he remembered that he was preaching Christ. “But in what spirit did I preach?” his conscience demanded. Was it in the spirit of one who knows that he himself is crucified with Christ? Or did the preacher manage to magnify himself while exalting Christ. For the first time in his life, A. J. Gordon was electrified with the truth that Christ himself had actually come to church! He could never again care what men thought of preaching, worship or church. “If I could only know that He was not displeased, that He would not withhold His feet from coming again because He had been grieved at what might have been seen or heard.” All of Pastor Gordon’s priorities were turned around. His life and ministry would never be the same after this. He fell at the feet of his Lord in worship and turned the administration of the church over to Him. He then taught his board and his people to let the Holy Spirit take charge. The revival that transformed A. J. Gordon’s ministry and changed Clarendon Street Baptist Church into a powerful lighthouse had begun! That same revival awaits any church that will let the Head of the church take charge.

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Condensed from How Christ Came to Church, The Spiritual Biography of a A.J. Gordon.
http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/bpf/lguide/appendix03.html

In two weeks it will be Christmas – our annual celebration of God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ and dwelling among us full of grace and truth. Recently, as I was listening to Handel’s Messiah as part of my regular pre-Christmas spiritual discipline, I was struck by the power of one particular chorus – “Lift up Your Heads” – #33.

“Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in. Who is the King of Glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in. Who is the King of Glory? The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory.” (Psalm 24:7-10).

And it made me wonder – if we haven’t opened the doors of our hearts for the King of Glory to come in, then when we open the doors of our churches to others, what is it that they will find? Because the world today so desperately needs mercy, I am glad that the Pope opened the Vatican’s Doors of Mercy.  It reminds all of us who are Christians about what it is that we have to offer.  And because the world is becoming a more frightening, anxious and harsh place with every passing day, I’m especially glad that this Pope opened the Doors of Mercy during Advent.

As you know, Advent is the season of the church year to get us ready for Christmas. This is when we are encouraged to make room once again in our hearts for the coming of Christ.  And this is when we are asked to open the doors of our churches to let Christ in all over again.  By opening the Doors of Mercy in his church this Advent, the Pope has reminded all of us who are Christians that if the world is going to find mercy when they step through the doors of our churches, then our churches are going to first have to be very intentional about opening their doors to Christ, so that the Lord of Mercy might come in.  DBS+

 

 

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Christmas in a Time of Violence

collage

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about “cheap grace” in his classic book The Cost of Discipleship (1937). He defined “cheap grace” as –

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Most of us heartily concur, but there is a “cheap peace” as well that is no less insidious, and it gets widely promoted this a time of year in both culture and church.

The connection of peace with Christmas is one that the Scriptures clearly make.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”

– Luke 2:14

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 For to us a child is born,  to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder,  and his name will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,  Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

– Isaiah 9:6

To create peace – peace with God (Romans  5:1), peace within ourselves (John 14:25-27), peace with one another (Ephesians 2:13-18), peace between the nations (Revelation 22:1-5) and peace in all of creation (Revelation 21:1-5) – is one powerful Biblical way of explaining the meaning of the Christ event, and this is a truth that we celebrate in the carols that we sing in worship.

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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 th’angelic host proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! The herald angels sing,“Glory to the newborn King!”

Silent night, holy night, All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and Child.
Holy Infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth!

Ricky Balthrop posted a provocative blog [https://rickysplace.wordpress.com] on “Peace and Christmas Songs” back in December of 2012 in which he contrasted the theologically thick lyrics of the church’s traditional Christmas carols with the sentimentally thin lyrics of the Christmas songs that are so popular in our culture.

I adore traditional Christmas music, whether it’s the Old English Christmas Carols or the non-denominational Christmas songs that began to the music market with Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.”  I’m as happy singing “O Holy Night” as I am singing “Here Comes Santa Claus.” Christmas songs give me a huge endorphin rush.

There’s one class of Christmas song, though, that just revolts me, and that’s the modern “Peace” genre. Those vapid paeans to navel-gazing peace leave me cold. It is true that the old Christmas carols also shared a vision of peace… but that peace is tied to a formalized religious doctrine that envisions both spiritual and behavioral commitments. In other words, this peace isn’t cheap. Jesus Christ made a terribly painful sacrifice to further this peace, and it is each Christian’s obligation to make that sacrifice a meaningful and essential part of his (or her) spiritual life and daily practices… There’s no guidance there and no belief system. The whole song is just a muddled assurance that peace will magically happen if we say that it’s a good thing…  Peace is brought about by vaguely proclaiming that you approve of peace.

The violence of recent weeks from Paris to San Bernardino shatters the illusion of “cheap peace.”  Peace will not be brought about by “vaguely proclaiming that you approve of peace.”  Something more sturdy is required, which is why I find myself turning to the steely-eyed realism of Henry Wadswoth Longfellow’s Civil War lament “I Heard the Bells of Christmas Day” this Christmas.

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.

I 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.

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.’

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.

This lyrical journey moves us from the familiar “thin” seasonal invocation of peace in the first two stanzas to the realistic acknowledgement in the third stanza of the violence that still plagues creation despite the coming of Christ to the renewal of a “thick” faith in the last two stanzas.  It seems to me that this is the perfect carol for Christmas for a year like this one that we find ourselves observing, and it’s the fourth stanza of the poem that demands our attention.

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.’

The author of the book of Hebrews provides us with our basic Biblical definition of faith. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).  This parallels Paul’s observation in 2 Corinthians that “we walk by faith and not be sight” (5:7).   Spiritually we get into trouble whenever we forget that God’s saving action in Jesus Christ is as of yet incomplete.

The South African Missiologist David Bosch noted in his magisterial work Transforming Mission (1991) that the saving work of God in Christ unfolds in a series of six acts –

1. Christmas – “The Word becomes Flesh and dwells among us” – The Incarnation
2. Good Friday – “Christ died for our sins” – The Atonement
3. Easter Sunday – “Christ was raised… newness of life” – The Resurrection
4. The Ascension – “Christ at the right hand of God the Father” – The Kingdom
5. Pentecost – His Spirit “poured-out” – The Empowering Presence
6. The Parousia – “And He shall come again in Glory” – The Second Coming

By this understanding, God has already done everything necessary “for us and our salvation” except for #6 – The Parousia – The Second Coming.  And as George Eldon Ladd put it, without this last Divine act our salvation remains “forever incomplete.”  Practically what this means is that we live in-between the “already” of Christ’s first coming and the “not yet” of Christ’s Second Coming.  The theologian Oscar Cullman, in his book Christ and Time, used the gap of time between D-Day (June 6, 1944) and VE-Day (May 8, 1945) to talk about what this means for the church and the world.

D-Day was when the Allied forces landed in Normandy and established a beachhead. The strategizing generals on both sides recognized that the outcome of the war was decided on that fateful day in June 1944. They understood that if the Nazis had driven the Allies back into the sea, they would have won the war. But because the Allied armies prevailed at Normandy, they sealed the eventual doom of the Nazi cause.

But between D-Day and V-Day—marking the surrender of the enemy and the Allies’ liberation of all of Europe—there’d be many months of suffering and struggle. There’d be horrendous battles as the Allied armies, little by little, pushed back the Nazi forces.

The Cross and the Resurrection were God’s D-Day. God in Jesus fought and won the decisive battle. [And now] Christ, through the church, is driving back the forces of darkness. God’s V-Day isn’t yet here. But because of God’s triumph on D-Day, we know how it all will end. (http://www.christianitytoday.com/moi/2007/002/april/after-d-day.html)

And this is what gives the last stanza of Longfellow’s poem both its context and its content.  Its context is eschatological – the final saving acts of God in Christ at the close of the age, and its content is ethical – how then we are supposed to live.  Because we know “how it will all end” – with the restoration of God’s “Shalom” in the new heavens and new earth through Christ the “Prince of Peace” – we start acting like it as Christians and working for it right here and now.

In his 1974 book The Jesus Hope (IVP), the British New Testament scholar Stephen Travis listed six implications for Christian living that arise out of our awareness that “the end is not yet.”  This list gives us some guidance for our “peace-making” and our “peace-keeping” mandate as Christ’s disciples (Matthew 5:9).

cross

  1. A Life of Prayer

If God’s final kingdom is something which He Himself will bring, and not something which we will achieve on our own, then the most significant thing we can do to prepare for its coming is to pray.   As the Lord’s Prayer puts it: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be dome on earth as it is in heaven.”  When we pray like this we are saying, in effect, “…We long for the day when your kingdom of righteousness shall finally be established, and people shall love to do your will.  This is something that only you can bring to reality.  But we believe that, as we live in dependence on you, we may experience in part the blessings of your final kingdom.”  God will not receive the full honor of which He is worthy, nor will His will be perfectly done, until Jesus comes again to establish His final kingdom. And in all our prayers we will experience this tension.  When, for instance, we pray for peace between nations …while we know that our prayer will be completely answered only when Christ returns… we (nevertheless) trust God to restrain people’s hatred and national aggression (now).    (103-104)

  1. Spiritual Warfare

Secondly, to live as a Christian…in a world where there is no final victory until Christ comes again…  means that we will be involved in an unceasing struggle with the principalities and powers (Ephesians 6:10-20). …If we know that this struggle is underway, (the) we will be better able to understand some of the things we are experiencing …this tension of “living between the times.”  …It’s like the pain we feel when we come from a walk in the frosty air into a warm room.  Our ears and hands tingle as cold confront warmth.  The sensation is not pleasant, but we endure it cheerfully because we know it’s better to be warm than cold. (104-105)

  1. A Life of Faith

That brings us to a third point: the Christian life is a life of faith.  That may seem obvious, but it needs saying because we all have a natural craving to escape from the uncertainties of faith into the comfortable security of sight.  …(But) to know the future and to know the answers to all our questions is less vital for us than to be known and loved by God, who holds our future in his hands. (106)

  1. A Life of Evangelism

The gospel of hope is a message to share… A church that is dedicated to mission… is open to the powerful blessing of the Holy Spirit (and it is the Spirit who makes visible and present the future that God has promised). (107-108)

  1. A Life of Service

God’s mission doesn’t just mean inviting people into the kingdom.  It means serving and caring about people of all kinds – just because they are people whom God created and loves. (110)

  1. “The world will make you suffer”

One final thing about living in the present age: Jesus promised suffering for His church. “When Christ calls a man,” wrote Bonhoeffer, “He bids him come and die.”  Becoming a Christian doesn’t lead to a superficial happiness and an instant solution to all problems.  It leads to costly obedience and a life which involves suffering instead. …If we genuinely aim to become like Christ in this world we shall inevitably find ourselves getting into hot water as He did… we shall find it coming to us if we really seek to follow Jesus in every area of our lives… But in this we will be “in union with Christ Jesus,” and this will be our deepest consolation. (112-113)

And this is where the fifth stanza of Longfellow’s poem “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” gets concretely lived out.  The angel’s song of peace on the first Christmas is not just a promise the fulfillment of which we hope for at the close of the age (eschatologically), it’s a challenge for our living here and now (ethically), a reality to be taken into consideration in the choices that we make each and every day. DBS+

 

 

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“Be Born in Us Today”

                                                                                bird

A Christmas Pentecost
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Christmas, by itself as the birthday of Jesus, could lend itself to a great deal of sentimentality, which is most welcome in winter time…  In the light of Pentecost, however, we are not left to ourselves in our effort to cheer up a cold world torn apart by human strife and suspicion.  The child Jesus, born in Bethlehem, grew up to be a man.  He died and rose again.  He has come back in the Spirit who was given on Pentecost… [and this] Christ must be born in us.  This is the decision before which Christmas places us… we are asked to make up our minds whether we will continue in our own spirit or in the Spirit of the Christ child.

Evangelism and Contemporary Theology (98)

                                                                                      Pieter De Jong – Tidings – 1962

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Back in 2009 I read a fascinating blog written by a United Methodist minister (“Christmas Christians, Easter Christians, and Pentecost Christians” – Rev. Dan Dick – “United Methodeviations” @ http://doroteos2.com/about/).  He identified “Christmas Christians, Easter Christians, and Pentecost Christians” not by when they show up in church for worship, but by the distinctive emphases of their particular version of Christianity. He summarized them this way –

cradleChristmas Christians form a deep relationship with Jesus, wanting to know Jesus personally, follow Jesus’ teachings exactly, and live life in a way they believe is pleasing to God.  Right belief is a driving force for Christmas Christians.

grassEaster Christians seek to understand the risen Christ, to live lives that reflect the power and presence of Jesus the Christ in the world today.  Behavior pleasing to God in the form of mercy, grace, justice, and love shape this worldview.

                                                                                                                                                                     

orangePentecost Christians seek to be the incarnate body of Christ in the world, guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit.  Shunning legalism and exclusion, this worldview embraces a future grounded in the vision of the realm of God, and refuses to be bound by the past.

David Bosch in his book Transforming Mission (Eerdmans/Orbis 1991) expanded the categories by naming the six “salvific events” of Christ’s life and the corresponding kinds of Christians that each one of these saving acts produces – (1) Christmas Christians who emphasize the Incarnation of Christ; (2) Good Friday Christians who emphasize the Atonement of Christ; (3) Easter Christians who emphasize the Resurrection of Christ; (4) Ascension Christians who emphasize the Lordship of Christ; (5) Pentecost Christians who emphasize the continuing indwelling and empowering Presence of Christ; and (6) “Parousia,” or Second “Coming” Christians who emphasize Christ’s return in Glory and the establishment of His Kingdom that will have no end.  With Rev. Dick, Dr. Bosch agreed that the saving work of God in Jesus Christ is more than just one thing that solves more than just one problem, and that different Christians, by emphasizing one or another of these saving aspects of the work of Christ, have different “flavors.”  But none of this should be taken as the endorsement of one dimension of Christ’s saving work over some other aspect of His saving work.

Just because we tend to pick and choose doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to.  In fact, by approaching Christianity like the cakeserving line at Luby’s Cafeteria, it’s real easy to wind up with an unbalanced meal of nothing but desserts. Some of my Pentecostal friends used to call themselves “full Gospel” Christians, and I really liked that language, only I’d take it even further than they did.  To them being “full Gospel” meant that Pentecost needed to be added to their Christmas/Good Friday/Easter Christianity. I’d use “full Gospel” to refer to a Christianity that embraced all six salvific Christ events.  It seems to me that to be a Biblically balanced Christian you need to have a Biblically comprehensive faith, and so to the question, “Are you a Christmas Christian, an Easter Christian or a Pentecost Christian?” I’d answer “Yes, I am,” and then I would quickly add, “And I am a Good Friday Christian, an Ascension Christian and a Parousia Christian too.”  It is only by embracing the fullness of Christ’s saving work that I receive the fullness of its benefit.  Only when taken altogether, the “full Gospel” touches my head and my heart.  In the objective events of salvation history that are true resides the potential for subjective experiences of faith made real.  In his 1907 book – The Heart of the Gospel – James M. Campbell explained –

The ground of salvation is in the historical Christ. His death for human sin is an accomplished fact, an objective reality, standing out on the canvas of history. In gospel preaching the objective side of things must be explained, for it is from the objective truth that the subjective experience comes. If the outward revelation is discarded, inward experience withers and dies… Those who… have tried to rise to a position in which they would become independent of the outward revelation, have in kicking away the ladder by which they have risen cut themselves off from connection with the solid facts upon which all experience must ultimately rest. The Christian grows in grace by growing in the knowledge of His Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He gathers strength by transmuting objective knowledge into subjective power.  Before the saving work of Christ can attain its end, the objective gospel must produce certain subjective effects, and its historical facts become spiritual forces. The work which Christ has done for us must have as its counterpart a work that He does in us.

We need this power of a subjective experience of the objective Gospel.  The truth of who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ has done for us needs to become real in our lives and in our world, and for this to happen we need the “full Gospel,” especially what Pentecost brings to the party.  This has been driven home to me with particular force this Christmas season.  Reading through the Gospels again as part of the Advent spiritual discipline to which we were called as a church, I began to become aware of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in a new way.  And then an article by the folks at the Calvin Institute for Worship at Calvin College up in Michigan brought things into forceful focus for me –

Our Christmas cards, crèches, and storybooks are filled with the characters of the Christmas drama: Elizabeth, fire.jpgZechariah, Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, angels, shepherds, magi, even Simeon and Anna. But the biblical account of Jesus’ birth in the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke refers repeatedly to another participant in the Christmas drama, the Holy Spirit. Though often unnoticed and uncelebrated, it is the Holy Spirit who comes upon Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah, and Simeon. Similarly, the Old Testament prophecies that foretell the in-breaking of God’s kingdom frequently speak of the coming of the Spirit of the Lord, though these texts are strikingly underrepresented in most Advent worship services. The Holy Spirit is the forgotten participant in the Christmas drama.  This omission is seen not only in the Christmas card selection at Hallmark, but also in music for the season. There are dozens of shepherd carols, magi carols, angel carols, and Mary and Joseph carols, but precious few that acknowledge the work of the Spirit. http://worship.calvin.edu/resources/resource-library/a-pentecostal-christmas-lessons-and-carols-2002

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One of the most beloved carols that we sing each Christmas includes the petition: “Cast out our sin, and enter in; be born in us today.”  This is a reference to what the church has traditionally called the “Middle Coming” of Christ.  The season of Advent is when the church focuses on the coming of Christ.  And historically the church has talked about not just one coming of Christ, but three: the first Coming of Christ in humility at Christmastime, the Second Coming of Christ in glory at the close of the age, and the Middle Coming of Christ into the hearts of the faithful, initially at conversion (John 14:23; Acts 2:38), and then repeatedly throughout the life of discipleship, our “long obedience in the same direction” (Ephesians 5:18).   And it is the indwelling and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit that facilitates this “Middle Coming” of Christ. It is the Holy Spirit’s assignment in the economy of our salvation to take the objective finished work of Christ, His death, Burial and Resurrection, and to subjectively apply it to each one of our hearts individually. Or, to put it another way, Christ could be born in a thousand Bethlehem’s, but until and unless He is born in our hearts, it really doesn’t matter that much to us.  And so this Christmastide pray for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit in your heart, our church and this world.  This is something for which Jesus Christ specifically told us to pray. God gives the fullness of the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him for it (Luke 11:13).  A good prayer to start with, to “prime the pump,” is a prayer that anyone who has ever been on a Walk to Emmaus knows by heart –

christmasCome Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created, and You shall renew the face of the earth.

O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.

 

 

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