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Conquering Hope meeting Fear on Christmas Eve

What are your hopes tonight?  What are those things you most want?  Who are the people you miss, those you desire to see, to be in the presence of or perhaps the one you desire to love?

 

What are your fears tonight?  What were they as a child, as a young adult, or what do you think your fears will be in the future?

 

We all have hopes and fears.  I know, you might think this is an odd question on Christmas Eve, but wouldn’t it make sense to face the negative in the midst of an even greater “positive?”  This is the most “positive” time of the year!  If ever there was a time appropriate to face our fears and to gain more hope, this is it!

 

The Christmas hymn, O Little Town of Bethlehemwas written by Phillip Brooks in 1867, two years after he had visited the Holy Land and had ridden from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve 1865 to participate in a five hour service at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem!  

 

The hymn has not merely endured through the years, but it has come to be one of the most favorite of all of the hymns of this season.  The words Brooks wrote so vividly describe the city of the Saviors birth.

 

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!  Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.”  We can even imagine the six-foot-six-inch Brooks descending from the hillsides on horseback into the town with only candles and fires for illumination.  The stars slid across the night sky in the matching silence that was evident in the town.

 

Yet the imagination of Phillip Brooks is all too evident in the first stanza of this beloved song: “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

 

There it is again, “the hopes and fears.”  It isn’t merely the hopes and fears we each have with us tonight, it is the “hopes and fears of all the years.”  Brooks understood the majesty of the gift given at the point in time which literally split time in half: the birth of the Savior Jesus Christ.

 

Jesus, the Living water, the Bread of life and the Light of the world—it is this Jesus, our Messiah who provided the everlasting light within the dark streets of Bethlehem over 2000 years ago.

 

The Creator of all which exists, the Lord of this Universe came as a baby, was placed in a feeding trough in the midst of livestock.  He will never come to this world again in such a helpless and vulnerable state.  The angels told the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into Heaven?  This Jesus, who was taken up from you into Heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into Heaven.”

 

His mother was carried to Bethlehem on a donkey, but when Jesus the Messiah returns it will be on a white horse and He will destroy those who oppose Him through His Word—have you ever wondered why the Bible refers to itself as the sword of Truth!

 

Think now of all of our hopes and fears—indeed, think of all of the hopes and fears of all time, from people everywhere!  Every single hope is made real in the person of Jesus Christ!  Hope isn’t a mere idea, it is a person.  We hope, we trust, we know what will happen, not just because this is what we want, but because it is promised in the person of our Lord!

 

In the face, in the midst of such incredible hope, how can any fear yet remain?  What fear can stand in the brightness of an “everlasting Light?” You’re afraid of darkness?  He is the Light of this world!  You fear fire?  He is living water, quenching heat, thirst and dryness of the body and the soul.

 

Are you afraid of hungering for something you cannot have?  He is the bread of life which satisfies every spiritual hunger which often motivates our physical ones.  Fear lack and financial ruin?  He tells us of mansions He is building in Heaven, how our treasure is there, and no moth or rust can ever destroy it!

 

We celebrate the greatest valentine ever given on Christmas Day!  Because God so loved the world, He sent His one and only Son to give us the ability to live eternally with Him!

 

Just as the gifts under the tree are no good until they are taken and opened, until they are used, until the change how we live, and then those gifts which make the most difference, we never cease to give thanks to the one who gave them!

 

Tonight, we come to prepare our hearts for the greatest gift ever given.  Unlike the gifts under the tree, this gift will remake all who accept it.  It will never grow old, never wear out, and it will always amaze those who have it.  Its power split time in half, it changes us from orphans to adopted sons and daughters.  And there is nothing we as humans can ever get another which will give us life everlasting like the gift the Father has given to this world.

 

There are those who find this thought silly, even unsophisticated.  Yet in this is a sad truth: Those who have this gift, know; those who do not have it, do not know.

Me, Myself & I against God!

Forgiveness.  Easy to say yet more difficult to actually achieve. Why is forgiveness so hard?

 

I’m into my third decade as a pastor now.  Over the years I have met people—good people who know the Lord—yet they have no problem telling me there is someone they know, someone with whom they have had a relationship in the past and now, because of something they did, they said, or they caused and now they cannot forgive them, ever.

 

There is a huge difference between what we know and how we feel, our responses to circumstances. What we know is what is reality. Does reality change?  It certainly does.  Yet the changes to reality are much slower and more deliberate. Interestingly, the root of “reality” is “real.”

 

So, does this mean that what we “feel” should be automatically discounted and disparaged? Not at all.  Feelings are always a response; a response to people, to circumstances and even to thoughts—ours mostly.  Unfortunately, feelings are ephemeral, they change, have no solidity (or reality) and how we “feel” often soon changes as soon as the pizza we have eaten is digested.

 

I am not surprised when those who do not have a relationship with God through Christ do not forgive.  People who are lost or pagan have not been “recreated” as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17. They are acting according to their created order; they are not less than believers because believers were once just like them.

 

Yet believers in Christ are to look like Christ and act like Him!  Paul makes it very clear that “those whom He [God] foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29, ESV).  What God foreknows and predestined is reality; it is what is real.

 

Of course, those who are more attentive and observant immediately realize there are many people who profess Christ as their Lord and yet they do not either “look” or “act” like Christ. How can this be if the reality is that God has made us to look like Christ?

 

The same God who made us to look like His Son also gave those He made this way true freedom and will. Those who do not forgive have made the choice to purposely disobey and to not forgive!

 

Paul in Colossians 3:13 commands, “as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive.”  Paul informs the Ephesians in Ephesians 4:32 that forgiveness is a mark, is actually evidence that we are actually saved.  “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

 

In Luke 6:37-38 is perhaps one of the most often misunderstood, misapplied and misquoted verses in all of the New Testament.  There Jesus lays out three parallel concepts which make it crystal clear how God applies justice in this world: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven…For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”

 

People who are judgmental will themselves face judgment.  People who are constantly condemning, will themselves face condemnation. People who forgive will find forgiveness.  The way we act and live will be the “measure,” the means by which our lives will be measured and judged by God.

 

Oh, and try not to oh-so-quickly state, “Hey, this has nothing to do with salvation!”  You are correct; it does not.  Yet this does apply to our eternal reward as believers!  I know some people who tell me how much they love Jesus, how long they have been in church and all they do for people, yet they are often cranky, mean-spirited, angry and demonstrate very little of Jesus in their life.  God will make sure they are rewarded accordingly.

 

There are people who have literally lost brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers and other family because of the actions of an individual.  I’ve heard them tell me they “will never forgive that person.”  The longer I know the Lord, the more I understand they are destroying their rewards and robbing themselves of blessings in the here and now.

 

Who do we think we are as believers when we make such statements?  God’s One and Only Son paid for our sin, and then the Father because of that payment has forgiven us.  Do we actually think we are “bigger” or more important than God?  I’ve actually had people say, “God has blessed me the way I am.”  Okay, but how much more could he have blessed you if you were obedient to Him?

 

In my life, Me, Myself and I are the most self-centered, often evil and selfish persons I know; I know them because I am them!  As I age, and as I mature in my relationship with Christ, I am more and more amazed that God the Father has forgiven me and especially Jesus Christ has also forgiven me. Especially Jesus; as my Advocate, He knows all of my Issues whereas the Father only sees Jesus!

 

Praise God!  Because I am forgiven, I can now forgive!

In re de somnium (The dream of Reality)

We’ve all said something like this: “They are their own worst enemy.”

What motivates us to make this kind of observation?  Usually it’s due to individuals who seem to be captive of their own weaknesses which they either cannot see or cannot overcome.

Yet even while we may shake our heads as we walk away from someone who should have known when to stop talking, we must always keep this in mind: we are no different than they are.  There are times in everyone’s life when we are simply unable to determine where we are or what we’re doing.

No matter how aware we believe ourselves to be, no matter how we may even pride ourselves on our ability to understand the consequences of our actions, time and again we demonstrate our inability to often see what is proverbially directly in front of us.  It is almost as if our brains seem to work against our efforts to interpret our circumstances.

There is an old Chinese proverb which says, “If you want to understand water, do not ask a fish.”

Here’s the scenario: your wife has sent you upstairs to get a particular cleaner out of the closet (usually due to the fact you had the audacity to appear to be “un-busy” while she is busily “doing something”).  You are familiar with this cleaner; you know what colors the bottle has on it, you even are familiar with the size and shape of the bottle, so off you go to check another victory off your list!

Unfortunately, the cleaner isn’t in the closet.  You looked.  It wasn’t there.  So, you inform your wife that it isn’t in the closet (usually by increasing the volume of your voice so it will reach your wife who is still downstairs).  After mere moments have passed, your wife comes to you.  Of course, you are prepared for your vindication.  You are confident of your situational assessment.  You are prepared to receive your prize (trust me, this is a guy thing).

Reality, in these moments, becomes simultaneously displeasing and disappointing.  Your wife reaches into the closet and turns to you and places the cleaner into your disbelieving hands.  She then goes back downstairs while muttering an esteem-destroying narrative which further weakens one’s grip on one’s man-card….

So, you are standing there with the bottle of cleaner, attempting to process the reality of your ignominy, and you cannot fathom how you could be so wrong!  And judging by the continued muttering of your wife downstairs, neither can she.

If your inability to have seen the cleaning bottle was a physical issue, this would have been referred to as a scotoma, a physical blind spot in one’s vision which makes one unable to see anything in the center of one’s vision.  Yet very few people have a true diagnosed scotoma; while everyone has a blind-spot in their field of vision, few have the debilitative sort.

The reason our “man” example could not see the cleaner was a kind of scotoma, a mental one.  I’ve done this very thing.  The reason we do not see the very object for which we are searching is our minds have given us an image for which we were looking!  If what our “eyes” see does not match our mental image, our brain immediately dismisses what is before us.

We are seeking.  We desire to find a particular object.  Yet because of what we are thinking our brain says it isn’t there!

It happened.  We’re in the water but we don’t know it.

We have become our own worst enemy.

For the believer in Jesus Christ, this should cause us great chagrin and even alarm.  If our minds so readily dismiss the reality in which we live simply because we have the wrong image of reality, how can we know we know?  How can we avoid being our own worst enemy?

In Romans 8:26, the Apostle Paul informs us through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (ESV).

Because God created us and because He knows us completely, He has placed His Spirit within everyone who has a relationship with Him through the Son Christ.  One of the most overlooked benefits of the presence of the Spirit in the life of a believer is the Spirit, who is God, knows what we need—and what we should know—better than we do.

Perhaps we should remember the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in the 1990 movie Total Recall: “How do we know this isn’t a dream?”

There is great power and strength in our relationship with Christ!  No, this doesn’t mean we must all live in fear of spoiling our relationship with Him because of what we could do.  A few verses after the above reference, Paul adds that nothing in the list he gives “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39 ESV).

So the next time you are looking for something you know you should be able to find, remember the gift God has given us so we can always find Him, we can always know His will and we will never be able to make any decision which will separate us from the love He has given to us in Christ through His sacrifice.

We will have defeated the enemy within us: ourselves.