As we conclude our series on the Old Testament book of the prophet Malachi, we learn that there is a reference that will remind us, of all things, of Christmas! You’ll find that the message from Malachi 3.16-4.6 is both a challenge to those who are far from God and an encouragement to those who follow and obey the Lord. You can watch the message alone below, or the whole worship gathering below that.
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?
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).
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).
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.
At this notoriously busy time of year, let me encourage you simply to stop for a few minutes, amid all that’s going on around you, and spend some time chewing on this passage of Scripture.
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.
His government and its peace
will never end.
He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David
for all eternity.
The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
will make this happen! (Isaiah 9.6-7, NLT)
Let each name for Jesus in this prophecy wash over you, comfort you, and encourage you as we celebrate the most miraculous birth of all time.
Merry Christmas! I invite you to worship at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton on this special weekend. Service times are printed below. God’s best!
When I talk to folks around this time of year, I discover one fairly common trait: stress.
Whether it’s preparing for guests at home, or preparing to go and be guests in someone’s home; whether it’s fearing poor driving conditions or flight delays; whether it’s trying to get all the work done or trying to make peace with the fact that it won’t be all done, people are stressed.
It’s a sad irony, really.
Jesus’ followers read Isaiah 9.6 as Messianic prophecy, and it says that he would be “the Prince of Peace” – yet even his followers struggle to find peace at this time of year.
What can be done?
I think the answer is to be intentional about honouring the Prince of Peace with our own sense of peace. That can, sometimes, mean making difficult decisions. At other times, it simply involves choosing to have peace.
A very basic way to make that happen is – and this may sound overly simplistic – to breathe. Pay attention to your breathing. Take deep breaths. Decide that a challenging situation will not stress you out.
The latest update to the operating system for the Apple Watch includes a reminder to stop and breathe. Some call it ‘mindfulness’, but you and I can call it prayerfulness. Breathe in the grace of God; he’s got this, whatever it is. Breathe out your stress.
So, amid the kitchen prep and the house cleaning, breathe and pray. If you’re sitting in traffic or waiting on a late flight, breathe and pray. While trying to get all your work done before the weekend, breathe and pray. God’s got it.
And have a merrier Christmas.
It’s a week before Christmas, and four days before the first day of winter here in the northern hemisphere. That means the days are short and the nights are long. Where I live, there have been many cloudy days lately, too, which have left some of us feeling like it might get dark by noon!
Perhaps this is one reason why many people – even irreligious people – put up beautiful displays of lights at this time of year. For example, there is someone who lives near me who does not go to church at all (despite repeated invitations!), but who has a gorgeous light display outside his home, to which he adds week by week. Is it for Christmas? Probably. Is it to bring some light in the darkness? Almost certainly.
Maybe these lights are symbols of Jesus himself, who came to be the Light in our darkness. That’s how I’m going to take it, anyway.
This may be a dark time of year for you, for one reason or another; look at the Christmas lights you see out in your neighbourhood, and give thanks that God saw fit to break into history in the form of Jesus, the Light of the world.
“Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, ‘I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life’” (John 8.12, NLT).
Last week, I wrote about waiting. We all find it hard, being used to getting what we want when we want it. But waiting, along with being a reality of life (and of Advent!), is a spiritual discipline. Among the fruit of the Spirit, according to the apostle Paul in Galatians 5.22-23, is patience. And it takes patience to wait.
Where I live, the only hints of the season are decorations and sales at the malls. There is no snow to remind us that Christmas is coming. We want to “get into the season”, so we sing carols and hope that will make us sufficiently festive. But maybe – just maybe – waiting even to sing carols is not a bad thing.
Advent is not only a season of waiting, but of preparation, even penitence. What, we can ask ourselves, have we done to make ourselves spiritually ready for Christmas? We’ve learned how to be ready by other standards, after all: shopping for all the right people, arranging our calendars to fit in all the necessary gatherings, etc. But are we ready spiritually?
I’ve always been fascinated by C.S. Lewis’ statement in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe about what it’s like in Narnia under the evil witch: “Always winter, never Christmas.” I can’t remember where I read it, but not long ago, I read a twist on that quotation that I think applies to our culture at this time of year: “Always Christmas, never winter.”
Breathe for a moment, and ponder that: “Always Christmas, never winter.”
For those who find Christmas an especially difficult time because of the death of a loved one, that saying may make more sense than to others, for they experience a greater degree of ‘winter’ as they process the reality of a special time of year bereft of someone who mattered deeply to them. But to much of society, there is an innate desire to skip the ‘winter’ part and move directly to Christmas. (This same desire transports people immediately from Palm Sunday to Easter, skipping over the ‘winter’ of Good Friday, but that’s a topic for another day.)
I think Christmas becomes more meaningful when we endure a bit of ‘winter’, whether with snow or not. And Advent can help us do that. It doesn’t mean we have to endure profound suffering, but a ‘winter’ experience can help us look at our spirits in the mirror and see what we need to do to be spiritually ready for Christmas.
Will you take some time to experience ‘winter’ before Christmas?
“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life” (Psalm 139.23-24, NLT).