Christmas, Devotionals, Faith, Family, Life, The Bible, Time, writings

Too Busy Getting Ready

In our house, I typically do the cooking on holidays. On Thanksgiving, I’ll have multiple alarms on my phone for the turkey, the dinner rolls, when to start boiling the potatoes, and how long to chill the cranberry sauce. It’s not exactly an art yet, but I’m working on it. Christmas morning is usually the same: I’ll be working on biscuits, eggs, bacon, and hashbrowns, and getting the ham ready to put in for lunch. I’m getting a little hungry just writing about it.

The end result is usually the same: a delicious meal and a worn-out cook. There have been a couple of years that I’ve been so occupied, anxious even, over the cooking that I couldn’t enjoy the meal, let alone any festivities afterward. I’ve wanted so much to have a good meal, a proper holiday tradition, that I exhausted my nerves, and usually those of the people around me.

It’s funny how preparing for something can cause us to actually miss out on the event itself. You hustle around the house to make it look presentable to guests you’ve invited, only to find yourself relieved when they leave. You feel like you need a vacation after simply trying to get everyone ready and out the door in the morning. Or how about that Sunday morning drive to church, where you’ve threatened everyone in the vehicle with indentured servitude if they don’t behave, only to try and calm down before entering the church building.

Luke 10:38-41, only a few verses, have such a telling story for us:

38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

Martha was doing good things, things that needed to be done. And she was getting more than a little perturbed that her sister wasn’t helping. Martha was so preoccupied with preparation and activity that she missed the most important thing: Jesus.

We all have a lot going on during the Holidays. It’s the nature of the beast. But part of preparing your heart for Christmas means not letting all the other preparations get in the way of the most important thing this season, and every day: Jesus

Maybe this year you don’t need the 3-course meal. Maybe cut back on an event or two. Perhaps this is the time to just sit back, either alone or with your family, and focus on Jesus. He is more than the baby in the nativity set, He is the King of kings.

Christmas, Devotionals, Faith, Life, Ministry, The Bible, writings

Course Correction

An experienced pilot was flying from New York to LA. He had thousands of hours of flight time. He knew how to fly in good weather and bad. He just seemed at ease in the cockpit. On this particular flight, he decided that he wasn’t going to use autopilot, he was just going to fly the plane himself and enjoy the trip. After all, he knew where he was going. But along the way, they hit a little turbulence. Not much, just jostling the plane around a bit. But the pilot felt his way through it and kept the plane headed west.

He was so confident that he didn’t even bother to check with air traffic control. He didn’t need their help. He knew what he was doing. Or at least he thought he did. As he descended to approach for a landing, he realize that instead of the Hollywood sign of LA, he was seeing the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco. Apparently, the turbulence was just enough that without checking, his course changed slightly to arrive in the wrong city. It didn’t help that he wasn’t communicating with the ground.

Turns out that you and I sometimes need some guidance. Someone to point us in the right way. Even though we’re sure we know what we’re doing, from time to time we end up on the wrong course. For God’s people of the Old Testament, this was commonly the function of prophets. We often think of prophets as some old dude with a scraggly beard telling us the future. But more often than not, prophets spoke of the present need for course correction than the future.

Around the time of the first Christmas, Israel was different than what we might imagine from reading the Old Testament. Most Bibles go from Malachi to Matthew with only a cover page between them that says “The New Testament”. And so if we turn the page like any other book, it just seems like a new chapter to the same story. But a lot is different.

Perhaps one of the greatest differences was that for nearly 400 years, Israel had no prophet. The book of 2nd Baruch (not in our Bible but rather considered a pseudepigraphical work of the 1st century) says this in chapter 85:1-3:” Know, moreover, that in former times and in the generations of old our fathers had helpers, righteous men, and holy prophets: 2 Nay more, we were in our own land and they helped us when we sinned, and they interceded for us with Him who made us, because they trusted in their works, and the Mighty One heard their prayer and forgave us.

3 But now the righteous have been gathered and the prophets have fallen asleep, and we also have gone forth from the land, and Zion has been taken from us, and we have nothing now save the Mighty One and His law.

Despite this darkness, this time of spiritual depression, they looked forward to the time when God would once again be active and fulfill his covenantal promise.

Fast forward to the days of King Herod. Herod, who was not Jewish, but of Moabite descent, became king of Judea with the help of the Romans. He was king from 40 BC until his death in 4 BC (yes, this means that Jesus was born 4 years “before Christ” but that’s another story). We have this man named Zechariah who was a priest. Luke tells us that he was righteous before God, but he and his wife Elizabeth had no children.

One day while Zechariah is in the Temple serving, an angel appears to him and tells him that they are going to have a son. Sorry to spoil the story, but he doubts and is struck mute until the child is born and named John. Our focus here is on what the angel said in Luke 1:16-17: “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

For the first time in nearly 400 years, the people of God will have someone to give them needed course corrections. Now, for my fellow protestants, one of the questions that immediately comes up, or at least for me does, is “Adam, are you saying we need ‘prophets’ today? Isn’t that dangerously close to saying that I can’t understand God’s Word and will for myself?” And no, I am not saying that at all. Today we have God’s Word available to us in ways that the common person did not have access to. We also have the Holy Spirit dwelling in the hearts and minds of believers, and He will guide us into all truth (John 16:13).

But one thing we all often need is a correction. Sometimes we think that we have this whole Jesus & God thing figured out. Like the pilot in the story, we may feel at ease at the controls. But without communication, and by just feeling our way through life, we get on the wrong flight path. John is tasked with bringing people back to the Lord. 

So, my question is two-fold today: Who has God used to bring you back? And who can God use you to bring back to Him? Many churches are having special Christmas services this year. Invite someone. Better yet, have a cup of coffee and ask someone to tell you their story and then share with them how God brought you back to Him.

Christmas, Devotionals, Faith, Family, Life, The Bible, writings

Getting Ready

When you have 4 children, it feels like you are always getting ready for something. Getting myself ready for work. Getting the kids ready for school. Making sure the youngest can find his shoes. Making sure that the kids have coats on before we go outside. Getting ready for basketball practice or cheer practice. Always getting ready. Add in some holiday preparation and it seems like life is in full-blown chaos mode. Surely I’m not the only one, right?

It really isn’t fair to place all the blame on the kiddos. I probably make 3-4 trips back between the house and the car every morning before I leave for work. I’ll start to turn around in my driveway and realize I forgot my work bag or more importantly, my coffee. What’s really bad is when I get anxious over trying to remember if I took my anxiety medication. Man, this whole getting ready thing is for the birds!

So what does it mean to get ready for Advent, for the coming of Christ? In my background, that usually meant a revival service, an evangelist preaching on the “end times” and a full altar call. While I’m not sure that’s an inherently bad thing, I’m also not sure that’s a full picture of getting prepared for Jesus. To be frank with you, this idea of preparation is one I’d rather gloss over. But I think there is some value for us to dig down into this idea of being ready for the Lord.

In Isaiah 40:3-4, the prophet writes, “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.’” Just as an aside, I wonder if these are the theme verses for the state highway department.

The voice in the wilderness is describing people getting ready to meet God. Because God is holy, all who meet him need to be holy. So this person is encouraging people to make provision for the time when all people will meet the Lord. He uses the analogy of constructing a royal road. Before a King or high official would come through, an advance party would make sure the road was free of obstacles, that any low places were filled in, and that there were no uneven grades of travel. Pre-modern heavy equipment operators and civil engineers if you like.

Now we know that God cannot be hindered physically. No tree across the road is going to stop his progress, and no pot-hole is going to make him detour. So what or who is this referring to? Matthew, one of the 12 and a writer of a Gospel account tells us that it was referring to John the Baptist (Full discloser, I prefer to call him John the Baptizer because it’s a more accurate rendering of the original and we might get confused thinking he was a Baptist in the modern usage, he was not.).

John was in the wilderness, the desert, preaching “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” See, he’s not preparing a road for the King to traverse as he is preparing the people for the arrival of the King. Now many of us know the story of John and his own miraculous birth, which we will get into later, but how is his ministry applicable to us today?

I mean, if Jesus has already come, if he has already died and risen, what, if any, need is there for John’s message of preparation? Especially if we have accepted Christ, made him our master and Savior, what need do we have of preparing? I can easily see some of my Christian friends thinking that because they are “saved”, they have no need for this preparation nonsense. And in some respect they are right. One doesn’t need to go through Advent, or any preparation, to follow Christ, as long as they have a sincere conviction and repentant heart.

At the same time, while I know that I am “born again” and that I am following Christ, I also know that sometimes I stumble and sin. No, thankfully because of Christ, I don’t need to go through a ritual of confession or start the salvation journey all over again, I am still the Father’s child. But it’s as if I have placed a stumbling block before myself. For my sin dampers the fellowship I have with God.

Now maybe you don’t have any un-repented-of sin in your life. It’s been ages since you last swore at the person who took your parking space and at least 6 months since you last contemplated smothering your spouse with a pillow as they snored. Progress is good. But maybe in your heart, you are harboring some bitterness. Some anger. Some unforgiveness towards someone who did you or a loved one wrong. John would tell us to rid ourselves of harmful emotions. I think he would warn us that bitterness is robbing us of true joy this Christmas.

So yes, Advent, waiting, and preparation can be very beneficial to us as followers of Christ. It’s like the time of reflection before taking the Lord’s Supper. It’s the daily examination of our spiritual journey. It’s the time of preparing our hearts to daily do our Master’s will. This is one “getting ready” that is worth it!

Christmas, Devotionals, Faith, Life, The Bible, writings

Preparing for Christmas

Well, we’ve made it through the first week of Advent! We focused a lot on hope during the first week, and we may come back to it from time to time, but now we’re going to focus on a new word: Preparation. That word doesn’t sound so snazzy, does it? I mean, no one sends a Christmas card with the word “preparation” written in a glittery font, do they?

But preparation is part of waiting, part of Advent, and a big part of the Christmas story. Our word prepare comes to us from Latin via French and it means to procure beforehand. Today, the dictionary says that prepare means “to make ready beforehand for some purpose; to work out the details of the plan in advance; to put together”. And when you look at the first coming of Jesus, all those definitions work in some way or another.

God the Father had been preparing for the appearance of God the Son since before the beginning of time. Imagine how strange it would have been if Jesus just randomly showed up? Nobody would have believed him. There would have been nothing to confirm his identity as Messiah. He would have seemed to have been just another in a long line of deranged false messiahs.

But God is wise beyond our comprehension. Starting in Genesis 3:15, right after sin entered Eden, God began showing that He was sending a savior. Interestingly, Genesis 3:15 promises that there is coming the “seed” or “offspring” of Eve, the woman. If you didn’t do so well in biology or Jr. High health class, let me tell you that women do not possess “seed”. They are unable to fertilize on their own the egg they carry for a child. Most Bible students, yours truly included, believe this to be a prophecy of not just a coming Messiah, but a virgin-born Messiah.

But it’s not just in Genesis 3 that we find God preparing the minds of humanity that a savior is coming. The entirety of the Old Testament is pointing ahead to the person and the ministry of Jesus Christ. It is actually the preparation and fulfillment of this preparation that gives us hope in God’s many promises.

One particular prophecy helps us to be “prepared”. And that is found in Malachi 3:1- “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” Isaiah 40:3-5 gives us more detail on this messenger- “A voice cries ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’

There is a lot to unpack there. Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to do that today. Instead, I want to zoom out a little. There are several difficult things about reading prophecy in the Bible. First, it’s largely poetic in nature, using figurative language. In other words, most of the time, you cannot take prophecy to be 100% literal because it’s not meant to be taken that way. You have to consider the environment, language, and understanding of the author.

Secondly, we spend a lot of time trying to understand specifics about prophecy that is yet to be fulfilled when often it is clearly seen through hindsight. What I mean is the people of Jesus’ day may not have understood fully that he was the “Root of Jesse”. But afterward, it would become clear as day to them. In our day, so many people are looking for specific clues in the Bible and in the news to try and pinpoint how and when Jesus is coming back. That is simply foolishness. The point of Jesus telling us signs of the future isn’t so we’d be careful to not roll out the red carpet for a coming “anti-Christ”, but rather to show us the need to always be ready.

This passage in Isaiah is calling the Jewish people to be ready and to be anticipating a day when a messenger comes to prepare the way for the Messiah. So what about us today? You don’t have to search very long for people who have made false claims about the return of Christ. Jehovah’s Witnesses took a failed prophecy (of theirs) that Jesus was to return in 1914 and changed their minds after the fact to say that Jesus returned invisibly (and Jesus told us his return would be visible). Harold Camping promised several dates, with the last being in 2010.

No, friends, the call for us today is to be ready for Christ’s coming. That means that we should be connected to Christ, following him, and sharing the Good News of Jesus with others. We have work to do. Let’s be prepared.

Christmas, Devotionals, Faith, Family, Life, The Bible, writings

Wiping Away the Tears

If you know me well at all, you know that Christmas is my all-time favorite holiday. I mean, it’s not even close. I think that is one of the reasons I have been drawn to more liturgical and traditional celebrations of Advent and the Christmas season because they last longer and give me the excuse to keep my music and decorations going. But while I love all things Christmas, I understand that for many people Christmas, and the Holidays around it, are challenging seasons.

I currently work at a funeral home /cemetery combination and every day I work with families who are grieving a recent loss. They are facing their first Christmas without their friend or loved ones. I spoke to a lady the other day who is going through her first holiday season in over 55 years without her husband. She told me, “It just won’t be the same.” I grieved with her. I gave her the answer that “the firsts are always the hardest” and again assured her of my support. Some of you reading this are experiencing, or have experienced, similar emotions.

I am incredibly blessed to have my parents, my brother, and my wife and kids with me. I’ve not experienced that kind of loss yet. But I will admit that at Christmas, as much as I love it, I tend to get melancholy. Part of it is the low amount of sunlight. Part of it is the emotional low after such emotional highs. And part of it is the bittersweet memories of seasons gone by.

I often think of my grandmother Will, or Mamaw. The 5 Will boy cousins would spend Christmas Eve at her house with her. We’d watch a Christmas comedy before bed. We’d wake up to a nice Christmas breakfast before going to our respective homes. Mamaw always made Christmas special. I can still see her wearing a sweater with a big red cardinal emblazoned on it. I have a few Christmas ornaments that she made, and those are very treasured possessions.

Or I think of playing on Christmas morning with the toys I got as a child, listening to my dad play Manheim Steamroller on the giant stereo system. And then we would listen to Reba McEntire’s recitation of “The Christmas Guest”. I remember Christmas cards from great aunts and uncles who have passed away. I think of Emma & Adrian, who always came to every Christmas event at Church dressed in their finest, Adrian with usually a goofy Christmas tie.

I think about how my kids will never get to open up a quilt on Christmas made by my either of my grandmothers. Or smile when they opened that card from Uncle Philip. You see, Christmas makes me smile while a tear rolls down my cheek. That’s the paradox of it all. A little sorrow mixed with thanksgiving. Hope for the future mixed with nostalgia.

When I read through the Old Testament prophets, I find similar emotions. No, they aren’t longing for grandma’s molasses cookies, but they recount how God had done amazing things for His people. How the Lord made them a people, brought them out of slavery, established them as a nation, and a golden age during the reigns of David & Solomon. But now a new generation has forgotten and because of the judgments of God, they will never experience the joyful celebrations at the Temple. They’ll not know what it means to celebrate the Feast Days as they sojourn in a foreign land.

But the prophets offer hope in the midst of the sorrow, a light in the darkness. They point to the future, where, as Philip Brooks would write, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Isaiah wrote of such a day in Isaiah 25. Look at what He says in verses 8-9:

He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from the earth, for the LORD has spoken. 9 It will be said on that day, ‘Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.’

You see, even as we think about those who will be physically absent from our gatherings this year, because of Jesus, we have hope. Hope because Jesus has defeated death. And while for now we still feel its pain, it is only temporary. We have hope, a promise, that because Jesus has risen from the dead, we can have eternal life with Him in paradise. I don’t know where heaven is or much about what it is like, but I know that Jesus will be there and that He will wipe away every tear.

These verses will find their fulfillment in Revelation 21:3-4 which say, “And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’

This is our hope. This is our God that we are waiting for. Salvation is worth the wait. The making-all-things-new is worth the wait. The sorrow that we endure for now will someday give way to a glorious revealing of Christ Jesus and our dwelling with him forever. So as you reflect this season on things sorrowful and joyful may you be encouraged to hope on Jesus, the Hope of the World.