The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada recently co-sponsored a report on the state of faith of the younger generation, entitled Hemorrhaging Faith. The young people who were interviewed for this report were divided into engagers, fence-sitters, wanderers, and rejecters. Since we have focused our Christmas Offering on our ministry to youth in our community, I preached this message on some conclusions about the Hemorrhaging Faith report and how the church can respond to the hemorrhaging faith of our youth. Based on 2 Timothy 1.1-14, you can listen to the message by clicking here. View the PowerPoint slides (in .pdf) here.
In certain high church traditions, today is marked as the “feast of holy innocents”, that is, the day that commemorates the slaughter of young children undertaken by Herod when he learned that Jesus was to be born King of the Jews. He was a bit insecure, so not wanting any competition from a toddler (!), he had a bunch of young male children killed, in the hope that among them would be this special child (see Matthew 2.16).
The slaughter of innocent children remains fresh in our minds following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps this is a good reason to take a look at a passage of Scripture that often is glossed over by the church: the slaughter of innocent children is a real, if unpalatable, part of the Christmas story. It’s not often part of Christmas plays or pageants, but that ugly side of human nature existed even in the story of Jesus’ birth and early childhood.
Herod clearly did not have a clear picture of this young Monarch-in-waiting, however. It’s understandable that he would have thought that he could outwit a pretender to his throne, but he wasn’t dealing with any pretender here, but Almighty God himself. How does Matthew report it? “When they (the Magi) had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod” (Matthew 2.13-15a, NIV).
God was not about to let his plan for the salvation of humanity be thwarted by a man’s insecurity. He spoke to Joseph in a dream and had him take Mary and Jesus to Egypt – a place that was not always safe for Jews to go! – until Herod had died. Surely Herod will have self-satisfyingly assumed his plan to eradicate his competitor was successful. But God had other plans.
There can be times when we think that God’s plans can be thwarted, or at least delayed or set aside, by our actions. But the Lord knows better. His plan to save the human race from sin would not be set aside by any monarch. Still today, his plan to save the human race from sin remains: God’s heart to save us, made in his image, remains as strong as when Jesus was taken to the safe haven of Egypt.
God’s plan to bless and keep you in his perfect peace will not be foiled! As you look toward a new year, may you know God’s blessing and the assurance of his love.
As I sit to offer you a word of encouragement today, I don’t know where to begin. So much has happened and converged around this time! There was the mass shooting in the school in Connecticut last week; Christmas is just around the corner; today is the first day of winter; and if you’re reading this, there’s a better-than-reasonable probability that the Mayans got it wrong when their calendar came to a screeching halt on this day. If there is any commonality here, it is time.
Perhaps the best word I can offer you came from the teacher, Qoheleth, who wrote the book of Ecclesiastes: “Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. So I concluded there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can. And people should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of their labor, for these are gifts from God” (Ecclesiastes 3.11-13, NLT).
The older we get, the faster time seems to fly (unless we’re standing in a queue at the Licence Bureau, or something like that). For those school children and teachers, their time is now measured in eternal units. Christmas is not just a day to be marked with the sharing of gifts, but is a lifestyle to be lived throughout our lives. The shortest day of the year – therefore, the longest night of the year – arrives with this day, yet we have much to which to look forward. And the Mayan “prediction”? Well, Jesus told us that nobody knows when the end will truly come, when he will come again to consummate time as we know it. Our job is to be ready.
As the season of Advent draws to a close, we are reminded that it not only prepares us for Jesus’ first coming, but also for his second coming. Too often, we ignore this in our preparations for Christmas, don’t we? Jesus will come again. He will judge the world. He will receive his faithful people to himself. And for followers of Jesus, there is great comfort in this truth.
God has made everything beautiful for its own time. We measure time with our watches and calendars, but God can see all time with absolute clarity. What better reason is there to trust him with our lives?
I wish you and yours the merriest of Christmases, the richest of blessings, and the deepest prayers for a new year filled with hope and peace. Celebrate the coming of our Saviour in these days. Pray for those for whom this season is devoid of meaning because they have no relationship with God. And allow God to use you in the answering of your own prayers as you invite friends and loved ones to experience the joy of the Lord in the life and worship of the church.
As a follower of Jesus, you know that the month of December, at least in North America, is unlike any other time of year: for eleven of twelve months, much of society won’t acknowledge the Lord except in their litany of curse words; but for one month in twelve, folks will acknowledge him! They’ll sing about him, and even recognize his birthday!
Yes, December is a month unlike any other. And we are wise to take advantage of that. But how? How can we maximize the potential that December brings?
There are two main things we can do, as I see it. The first is to live out the real meaning of Christmas by not getting caught up in consumerism. This can be really difficult to do, especially if you have children. (My sister-in-law, when her children were small, had them convinced that any toy that had to be advertised on television was obviously not worth having! But that ploy probably would not work with most kids today.) By celebrating Advent, and using the four weeks prior to Christmas as a season of hope and anticipation, we can pay less heed to the consumeristic side of the season. When we give gifts, we can be careful to choose gifts that will be meaningful for the recipients; quality over quantity can have a real impact on others. We can decorate our homes in Advent in ways that show our anticipation of the birth and second coming of Christ. We can celebrate the true meaning of the season.
The second thing we can do is be intentional about inviting our friends and family to worship. At no other time of year are people as open to an invitation to church as they are in December – particularly around Christmas Eve. There is still something of a cultural tolerance – acceptance, even – of going to church at Christmas time. As the church, let’s harness that as fully as we can. Whatever church community we’re involved in, let’s encourage our pastors and church leaders to present the message of the gospel at these services so that people can hear the true meaning of Christmas, even as they see it lived out in us.
Do all you can to make Isaiah’s prophecy true for your friends and neighbours: “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine” (Isaiah 9.2, NLT). God’s best as you serve as vessels of the Spirit for making Jesus’ birthday all it can be!
Yesterday was the celebration of the feast of St. Nicholas. He was a bishop in the church in some of Christianity’s most formative years, during the fourth century. Many people who know the story of Nicholas’ aid to the poor think that is all he was about. Yet he is better known as a staunch defender of orthodox Christian faith.
Without getting armpit-deep in theological jargon, Nicholas played a pivotal role in advocating for Jesus’ full divinity and full humanity. He was present at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, which forged the Nicene Creed; and he gave Arius, the heretic who refused to assent to Jesus’ co-equality with God the Father, a run for his money in debate. (Apparently, he slapped Arius and got into quite a bit of trouble for it.)
This picture of St. Nicholas looks quite a bit different than the one that has morphed into our contemporary Coca-Cola commercial Santa Claus, doesn’t it? Yet it is this 20th-century version of the great saint that is worshipped by most people at Christmas nowadays. Christmas shopping, it seems, is not about symbolic gift-giving in honour of the greatest Gift ever given, but is about guilt, obligation, and propping up the economy. It’s about tradition and romanticism.
Santa has replaced Jesus, even though his “inspiration” defended Jesus’ identity and role as God’s Son to the death.
Let me encourage you to treat this season as a time to speak about the real Jesus: not the Jesus who is trapped in a feeding trough, unable to cry, stuck in a post-Victorian memory, but the Jesus who was born holy, and born for a holy purpose. Exalt the Jesus who was born to die and rise again. Had he been merely a created being subservient to God, as Arius believed, then he would not have been born to die. No, he went to the cross fully God and fully human. He went to the cross as the final perfect sacrifice for the sins of the human race. Because he was fully God and fully human, his death atoned for our sins, once for all. Because he was fully God and fully human, his resurrection paved the way for us to experience eternal life. As the angel Gabriel announced to Mary, “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1.31-32a, NLT).
We cannot leave that Baby trapped in the manger. Don’t “keep Christ in Christmas” – let him out! Let him be the God he is, who longs to reign in our hearts all year, not just for a month. Treat the real St. Nick as your inspiration, and live out your faith biblically. (No trips to the mall required.)