In this Christmas worship gathering, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and hear a message from Luke 2.1-20 on how the church can achieve peace on earth and goodwill toward others. You can watch the message below, or the whole worship gathering below that.
God is with us…are we with God?
My preaching series this Advent season has centred around this pivotal verse from the Bible:
“Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel,
which means ‘God is with us.’”
(Matthew 1.23, NLT)
And as the season of Advent wraps up with our celebrations on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we do well to be reminded that in the birth of Jesus, we know that God really is with us.
The question that remains is this: are we with God?
Often, in English parlance, when we say that someone is “with God”, that usually means the person is dead. You know, “Great Aunt Hortense is with God” is a spiritualized equivalent of the idiom, “She’s pushin’ up daisies.” She’s deceased. She ain’t comin’ down for breakfast.
But I’d like us to think of being “with God” in a different light.
We take great comfort in the belief that in Christ, God became human and really is with us. With the coming of the Holy Spirit, God lives in and through all followers of Jesus.
The challenge comes in our response: God is with us, but are we with him?
We can give nodding acceptance to the notion that God is with us in Christ. We like it; it’s like a warm blanket.
But if we do nothing about it, is it really all that comforting?
If we’re honest, most church-going people are quite content to think about this in a very universal way: “God with us” means “God with everybody”, which in turn means “Everybody’s going to heaven.” Trouble is, Scripture is pretty clear that this is not the case.
Yes, Jesus came for all. “God so loved the world,” said Jesus in the famous John 3.16.
But Jesus’ coming really only matters for those who respond: “…that everyone who believes in him will not die but have eternal life” – that’s how the famous verse concludes. Everyone who believes in him.
And those who believe in him do so in practical ways, starting with active faith: “If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved” (Romans 10.9-10, NLT).
God is with us in Jesus; that’s what Christmas is all about. It is through active faith that we are with God.
So when you attend Christmas services, come with faith. Come with your heart; that’s what Jesus really wants. He came so that we could be with God.
(If you’re looking for Christmas worship opportunities, you’re welcome at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton on Christmas Eve at 7:00 p.m. and on Christmas Day at 10:00 a.m.
Merry Christmas! God is with us…let’s make sure, by faith, we are with God.
Jesus is not part of the story of Christmas…
We are just completing the first week of the season of Advent. Advent is a word that means “coming”, and is a four-week time of preparation for the birth of Jesus.
Among all the traditional Christian ‘seasons’, it was the last to be adopted (even though it’s the first in the Christian calendar). And originally, like Lent, it was a season of penitence, where people often engaged in physical deprivation as part of their spiritual preparation for the birth of the Saviour.
Nowadays, even the church has transformed Advent into a season of anticipation and joy, perhaps in an attempt to keep up with the secular season of “Christmas” that begins at various times, depending on what store you’re visiting. (In Costco, it tends to be late September; in some other places, after Hallowe’en; and in others, after Remembrance Day. The retail side of Christmas still beats out Advent every time, chronologically.
Happily, though, the church has not transformed the season into complete compliance with the world; secularism can have its mountains of presents, but the church still has the greatest gift of all to offer in Jesus Christ. After all, he is what Christmas is all about. I saw an unusual post on social media the other day that illustrated this. It was what I would call an “Orthodox meme”: it was a meme, in the sense that it was an image that had text around it; and it was Orthodox, in that the image that was at the centre of the meme was an eastern Orthodox icon, depicting the incarnation! Its message was this:
Jesus is not part of the story of Christmas.
Christmas is part of the story of Jesus.
Whatever you do to celebrate this season of preparation and celebration leading up to the nativity, put Jesus at the centre of it. He’s not just part of the story of Christmas; Christmas is part of the story of Jesus.
Central to our anticipation of his birth is this truth, prophesied in the Old Testament and proclaimed in the New:
“Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel,
which means ‘God is with us’” (Matthew 1.23, NLT).
No matter what you are going through – and this is a tough season for many – God is with us in Jesus Christ. That’s what it’s all about.
Busy isn’t always better
Does December feel a bit different this year?
I could have asked that question last year and gotten a resounding YES! out of most any reader. But what about this year?
Despite rising case numbers and the advent of the Omicron variant, this month leading up to Christmas seems a bit more normal than last year, for many people. After all, stores are open, people are shopping, traffic jams in mall parking lots are there – but does it feel the same as in the past?
For those of us in church life – staff or volunteer – last December showed us how different it could be. Commonly, our churches have been bustling with activity, from pageants to suppers to services. Combine that with family obligations, and a lot of Jesus’ followers were pretty worn out by the time it came to celebrate his birth.
Last year was different. Where I live, anyway, we were in lockdown at Christmas. Activities were curtailed. Family gatherings were discouraged. Services were online-only and, in many cases, pre-recorded.
This year, unless things change drastically in the next two weeks, we’ll be able to have limited activities, gatherings, and services, all face-to-face. But my sense is that the pace is slower. The tension is lower. The frenetic level of activity around this holy season has been reduced.
To me, it feels more…human.
After all, this scurrying about that we do in December is all in celebration of God who became human. That’s what incarnation means.
When John, the Gospel writer, gave his version of a birth narrative, he proclaimed that “the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son” (John 1.14, NLT).
In this version of the New Normal (and, we sense, there will be at least one more version yet to come), we have a bit more time, amid our celebrating, to behold the unfailing love and faithfulness, the glory of God, who became human and made his home among us.
I hope, in these weeks that remain before Christmas, that you will embrace that opportunity to behold those things…because busy isn’t always better.
Supply chain issues
The pandemic has taught us all kinds of new terms, hasn’t it?
Perhaps the most popular has been pivot. We’ve all had to pivot in some ways to make do during this interesting season of life.
Another that we may have learned, more familiar to those in the inner working of business, is supply chain.
Until recently, most of us didn’t know or care how things got to the stores where we bought them; it just happened.
But these days, we hear of all kinds of things that are in short supply because of supply chain issues.
For example, I was getting the oil changed in my vehicle the other day. My lease is coming due in the new year, so I thought I’d spend some time in the showroom at the dealership while I waited.
There was one vehicle in the showroom. One.
When I inquired of a salesman about my options with my lease contract coming to completion, I was told that if I ordered a new vehicle that day, I might have it by May. And this is for a vehicle that is made in Canada.
Crazy, isn’t it?
It all has to do with microchips that are, apparently, in short supply because of the pandemic. It’s a supply chain issue.
On the radio yesterday, I heard that people should go out and buy their Christmas gifts now because many of the things we might like to buy for our loved ones may be hard to find, because of – you guessed it – supply chain issues.
Thankfully, we’re not talking about essentials like toilet paper, which was in short supply during the early days of the pandemic, but that wasn’t a supply chain issue; that was a hoarding issue.
All this reminds, me, though, that Christmas will happen whether there are supply chain issues or not. It’s appropriate to give gifts at Christmas as a symbol of the greatest gift ever given to the human race in the incarnation, the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. But that doesn’t mean there has to be a huge number of gifts sitting under the tree on Christmas morning.
Perhaps a shortage of the usual gifts may serve as a reminder that there really is one Gift that will never be in short supply. The gift that is Jesus will always be available. Indeed, he is waiting for us to embrace him today.
If only we would embrace the Lord Jesus with the same haste and enthusiasm with which we seek to purchase things that will last only a while. Faith in the One who came to redeem us from sin on the cross and bring us eternal life through the empty tomb is ready to receive us into his family by faith.
Yet the time will come when the proverbial supply chain will dry up, when Jesus will return to receive his own to himself, and then…then it will be too late if we have waited.
The media tell us not to wait to buy things. I encourage you not to wait to embrace the One who bought youwith the price of his life. Trust him today.
“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10.13, NLT; cf. Joel 2.32).
The Birth of the Firstborn
In Advent, we anticipate the birth of Jesus – something that happened more than 2,000 years ago. Yet it has been commemorated annually by his followers for centuries. What makes it a birthday worth getting ready for?
Jesus was no ordinary baby. I’m pretty sure, though, contrary to the carols that proclaim “Silent night,” and “no crying he makes”, that his birth was a fairly normal human birth, with all the liquid and drama and emotion that go with it.
Mary, his mother, knew he would be different. An angel of the Lord had told her as much. But we can’t be certain when that different-ness became obvious to either Jesus or his mother.
Still, the birth was special, because Jesus was no ordinary baby. The Apostle Paul would write later that “He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation” (Colossians 1.15b, NLT). Other translations render that as Jesus having been the firstborn of all creation.
No wonder he would later say to the Pharisees, “Before Abraham was even born, I AM!” (John 8.58, NLT).
There’s definitely something special about celebrating the birth of One who has existed since time began, One who was present at the very creation of the world.
Whatever your seasonal celebrations look like this year – and I’m sure they will be different than in years past, at some level – there is definitely a reason to keep them special, since we’re celebrating the birth of no ordinary baby.
What will you do to make it special this year?
All about family?
Yesterday was Thanksgiving Day in the US. Today is Black Friday. This Sunday begins the season of Advent, as we count down the days to Christmas.
And we’re still in COVID.
Many people say – reinforced by countless television commercials aimed at selling you something neither you nor your loved ones need – that “The Holidays are about family.”
I’ve been saying for years that this statement misses the mark significantly. And this is the year to find out if that’s true.
I’m astounded – nay, gobsmacked! – at the attitudes I see on social media with respect to the pandemic and family gatherings. These days, I see photos of some of my American friends, gathered in large crowds for Thanksgiving, as if they are unaware of the risk that if even just one person in a gathering is carrying Coronavirus, the whole group could be infected. Why are they taking this risk? Because “the Holidays are about family.”
In other words, maintaining a tradition is more important than preserving life.
We are entering what is usually the most socially-packed month on the calendar. This year, that may need to be handled differently.
This may be the year that you prove that the Holidays are not really all about family.
It is possible to be thankful without having The Whole Gang present in the room.
Christmas parties can take place virtually, or in physically distanced settings.
We can still celebrate the birth of Jesus when it’s just our own household.
I don’t want to pretend I’m anybody’s Medical Officer of Health, and I’m certainly not trying to engender fear in anyone. We serve a God who is bigger than any virus! But as Advent begins, I think this is the year we can demonstrate, once and for all, that the Holidays are not all about family.
In this year of craziness, let’s focus on the One (in the) Stable: let’s remember the Reason for the Season.
Whatever shape your Advent and Christmas celebrations take, be safe. And let Jesus be the Centre of it all.
“Christ is the visible image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1.15a, NLT).
Are you ready?
The kids will be finished school today.
Maybe, you’ll be finished work today.
Christmas is coming. Are you ready?
Well, I still have baking to do, and a turkey to buy, and presents to pick up for…
No, are you ready?
Despite what the culture teaches us, being ready for Christmas has less to do with making sure the tree is decorated and the table is set for dinner than with making sure your heart is prepared. That’s what the season of Advent has been all about.
This coming week, we will celebrate the birth of the Son of God in a hewn-out cave behind a Bethlehem motel. But it’s not just about an historical commemoration.
The nod to the newborn Jesus lying in a manger is vested with its deepest meaning when his birth in Bethlehem is replicated in our lives. As we plead in one of the old Christmas carols:
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today.
When Jesus is born in us, that’s when his birth in Bethlehem’s stall becomes most meaningful, and when we are truly ready.
Let Christmas be significant for you this year. You still have a few days to get ready! Invite Jesus to be born in you. It’ll be like being born again.
Wait a minute, I’ve heard that somewhere before…oh, right:
“I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God” (John 3.3, NLT).
Christmas has the most meaning when Jesus is alive in our hearts.
If you’re looking for a place to worship the newborn King this Christmas, I invite you to join me at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton. It would be awesome to see you.
It’s great to be back in the saddle! Thanks to all who prayed for me while I was on Inter-Mission/Sabbatical. It means so much! I will be talking this Sunday about one important aspect of my experience that is applicable to all of us (you can join us at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton or catch the service on YouTube later), and bits of my experience will trickle out over the course of the next while, including through Encouragement. Stay tuned!
This week begins the season of Advent, which many Christians mark as a time of anticipation for the birth of Jesus. Outside certain churches, it’s not widely practised in western society. Why?
I think it’s because we have learned to expect everything according to our timetable.
Waiting is not our strong suit.
Yet anticipation, if we stop to think about it, actually heightens our excitement over what we wait for. If you don’t believe me, let me ask you how much time you spent deciding what you were going to buy today…Black Friday. (Many of you probably won’t buy anything on Black Friday or Cyber Monday, but sales statistics suggest that not all of us will resist.)
The fact that we are not good at waiting is noticeable even in the church, where there are overt suggestions (if there is no overt pressure) to sing Christmas carols well ahead of Christmas Eve. I get this; they’ve been played on the radio and in the malls since the day after Remembrance Day (or sooner); let’s enjoy them while we can.
But if we wait, it heightens our anticipation of what is to come.
True, the scenario ends the same way each year: Jesus is born! But this rhythm of time centred around the salvation narrative is so different from what we experience out in the world that I think it helps strengthen our faith. (Granted, there are many ways to make that happen.)
So this year, don’t open all the boxes on your Advent calendar in the first week. Don’t sing “O come, all ye faithful” just yet. Don’t buy everything you want for Christmas so that there are no surprises greeting you under the tree, symbolizing the greatest gift of all – the Lord Jesus Christ, who is God with skin on, breaking into history to redeem us from sin from which we couldn’t hope to save ourselves.
“For a child is born to us,
a son is given to us.
The government will rest on his shoulders.
And he will be called:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9.6, NLT).
The Saviour…all year
I hope you enjoyed a blessed Christmas! This week between Christmas and the new year is always a nebulous week for me. For pastors, it’s a time of recovery from what is often a lot of worship celebrations in a short period of time (five in three days for me…but I knew that when I signed up!). For families, it’s a balancing act between visiting relatives and keeping kids from being bored or fighting with their siblings; now that Christmas is over, “naughty or nice” has gone out the window for some children! For some people, it’s a heavy travel time, with highways busy and airports crowded. And for some of us, the week gets clouded even more because our birthdays fall during that week. (Mine happens to be today.)
Too often, amid all that, the Reason For The Season gets left behind. Christmas helps us to focus on Jesus as our Saviour. But if we’re not too careful, as time goes on, Jesus gets relegated to a lesser place than he deserves.
In my message this Sunday at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton, I’m going to say something I think bears repeating more widely. I’ll quote Old Testament scholar John Oswalt, who said, “When we think the solution to our problems is to be found within ourselves, we are liable to think of God as an assistant or a fall-back device.” And in this state, we think we do not need a Saviour. We may need a teacher or a friend, but we do not need a Saviour. That’s why, in part, Christmas has become this strange combination of consumerism and romanticism.
Jesus has become ancillary to the celebration of Christmas, because the concept of a Saviour seems unnecessary. We, as the church, will be used by God to turn that around, because humanity is in deep need of a Saviour, in deep need of the Saviour, the one who is called Jesus the Christ, who came to save us from our sins. We may be saved by grace, but we still sin (well, at least, I do).
So, as the memory of Christmas services fades into the past for another year, and a new year stands on the horizon, let me encourage you to keep Jesus’ place as Saviour in the forefront. Remember that you need him as Saviour. Remember that your loved ones who are far from God need him as Saviour. Remember that “this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3.16, NLT).
I wish you a happy and blessed new year. And may you know the delight of Jesus as your Saviour all year.
Encouragement From The Word returns on January 11.