Fear Not

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Luke 2: 10 – “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy . . .”

It was dark. The sheep were doing whatever it is that sheep do once night falls. The shepherds were keeping a watchful for eye for any signs of danger, as shepherds had done in this region for centuries. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared them. The glory of the Lord illuminated the area around them. Think about it. In the dark shadows of the night, the invisible suddenly becomes visible. The veil that separates heaven and earth is pulled back and they see something few mortals have ever seen. There was nothing in their collective experience that would have prepared them to make sense out what was happening. In the face of this unexpected and supernatural occurrence they were understandably overcome with fear.

How comforting it must have been that the angel’s first words were, “Fear not!”. It was exactly what they needed to hear to stop them in their tracks, calm their hearts and keep them from running. There must be something viscerally terrifying about an encounter like this, because these were also the first words uttered to Zechariah when the angel appeared to him. He spoke these words because he knew something neither the shepherds nor Zechariah knew. Somewhere on the eastern frontier a boy was born who would be their Savior!

Life can be terrifying. It’s full of uncertainty. Bad things happen to people we love and care about. We are mugged by circumstances that are beyond our control. People we count on disappoint us, even betray us. It’s easy to be overcome by fears from within and by fears from without. After all, the world is a very dangerous place and there is no lack of evidence to belie our concerns. It’s in these moments that I need to hear the words of the Angel of the Lord echoing in my heart and mind saying, “Fear not! … For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

The birth of a boy in a manger in the city of Bethlehem announced to the shepherds the good news concerning the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. The arrival of the One who brings true healing, renewal and peace has come to pass. Expectation has given way to fulfillment. As we celebrate Advent, all the scenes and signs of the season are pointers to this new reality. The true King of the world has come! He is the one will rescue us from the curse of sin and death. And if we are His, we have nothing to fear. May we hear the voice of the Spirit shouting those words, “Fear not!” in the face of all our fears.

Jim Mckee

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God’s Time and Place

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It would be hard to overemphasize the importance of Christmas to Christian theology. While the death of Jesus on a cross has become the global symbol of Christianity, his arrival in Bethlehem is no less important.  The stories of Jesus’s birth in the gospels give shape to much of our understanding of who God is, who we are, and even how we do theology. The apostle Paul writes in Philippians 2:6 that the incarnation (that’s the fancy word to describe God taking on flesh and becoming a man) demonstrates that God is, by nature, a being who gives himself in love for his creation. In Jesus’s birth and life, we see the kind of life humanity was made to have – one of dependence and submission to God that leads to fullness of life.

The arrival of God in a specific town, at a specific time and place, shows that God does not exist in a vacuum. Place and time and culture matter. Context matters when we do theology. So today, as you think about what Christmas means, take a few minutes to enjoy a tour of modern-day Bethlehem with one of my favorite video tour guides.  It isn’t the same town it once was, and that matters.

There’s no going back – and that’s ok. Because the incarnation of Jesus paved the way for God to come to you today, in your place and your context…even if the world has changed in the 2000 years since his first coming.

Dan Passerelli

The Story of ‘O Holy Night’

Take a few minutes to be blessed by the story and history of one our most beloved and favorite Christmas Carols.

 

O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
O’er the world a star is sweetly gleaming,
Now come the wisemen from out of the Orient land.
The King of kings lay thus lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friends.
He knows our need, our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!

O Holy Night” (French: Cantique de Noël) is a well-known Christmas carol composed by Adolphe Adam in 1847 to the French poem “Minuit, chrétiens” (Midnight, Christians) by a wine merchant and poet, Placide Cappeau (1808–1877) Translated into English by John Sullivan Dwight (1855)

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Great Expectations Come True

vannessblogI was told by my mother that one of the last wishes of my grandmother was to live long enough to meet her first great grandchild. Marilyn and I had the great honor of fulfilling that wish when we introduced her to our son, Joshua, about four years before her death. As I recall, she commented that all was well because he had ten fingers and ten toes. Twenty-eight years later, our daughter had the same honor of introducing my mother to her first grandchild, Kayla Joy. Like my grandmother, there was an unmistakable sparkle in my mother’s eyes when she met and held her first great grandchild.

As I consider my grandmother’s wish I am drawn to Simeon, a more obscure character in the story of the Incarnation. He too, looked forward to the birth of a baby. Unlike my grandmother, however, he lived with the promise (Luke 2:26) that he would one day see the Messiah, or as the New International Version translates it, “the Lord’s Christ.” He didn’t have to hope this would happen, he lived in expectant faith that he would one day see Jesus. When that much anticipated day finally arrived, Simeon “took him in his arms and blessed God and said,

‘Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.’” (Luke 2:28-32)

As I recall my grandmother’s introduction to Josh, I can easily picture the quiet joy, wonder, and excitement of Simeon when he embraced Jesus. It was a deep inexpressible joy as demonstrated by his jubilant prayer of thanksgiving to his Heavenly Father. For Simeon and for all who will embrace the Christ child as Savior, Jesus’ birth is the culmination and reality of God’s one-way covenant to mankind as declared throughout the Old Testament.

As we ponder and celebrate the reality of the Incarnation and what it means for us, we can join with Charles Wesley who beautifully captured the desire of Simeon when he penned the following words:

Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free;

from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee.

Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art;

dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.

 

Born thy people to deliver, born a child and yet a King,

born to reign in us forever, now thy gracious kingdom bring.

By thy own eternal spirit rule in all our hearts alone;

by thine all sufficient merit, raise us to thy glorious throne.

(Come Thou Long Expected Jesus)

 Joy to the world, the Lord has come! Jesus has come to rescue us in our sin. He has come to give us freedom from the penalty and power of sin, and one day will deliver us from the very presence of sin. This is “good news!”

Rob Van Ness

Making Room

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“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Luke 2:10

On Thanksgiving Day I noticed on Facebook that a friend in ministry, along with his family, were hurting because they serve far from home. So without thinking (translation: without first checking with Katherine!), I invited them to join us and ten others who would gather to celebrate. When I got home I informed Katherine, who responded as I assumed she would (‘yes master’ – yeah right!) – Graciously and warmly.

It is no accident that the first announcement of the birth of Jesus came to shepherds in a field outside of Bethlehem. Working outside the city symbolized their plight. Shepherds were social and religious pariahs. They could not testify in court, and were considered ceremonially unclean, and therefore unfit for temple worship. The irony is that they were likely tending the sacrificial lambs that would be used for the Passover celebration of the Jews.

But in the gospel, God makes room. To the marginalized, the discarded and the outsider.

Last month our congregation enjoyed what has become an annual tradition of 24-hours of fasting and prayer beginning on Sunday evening. Those who come stop at stations throughout the facility in order to pray for specific ministries, people and needs. Together we intercede for our missionaries, church planters, sister churches, visitors and members, those who are battling insecurities at work, illness and unbelief, along with our babies, children, young people, college students, adults, and anything from exploding families to dying loved ones.

Our Young Adults prepare the evening with great care. This year, what most caught my attention and heart, was that even in the signage they made room for our Korean sisters and brothers.

After all, isn’t this the story of the gospel, most beautifully evidenced in the Christmas narrative – that in Jesus, God has made room – for all? That there are no barriers of alienation, unbelief and fear through which His love cannot penetrate?

Oh and by the way, my friend declined the invitation, but later that evening, after our home emptied, Katherine and I looked at what was left over and acknowledged that had they come, there was plenty.

I guess I’ll leave it there. With Jesus, there is always plenty of room and plenty of love.

What good news of great joy…

Mike Khandjian

Even Santa Needs a Savior

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“He’s making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice….”

The songs and folklore of Christmas tell us that Santa is not only a mystical altruistic giver of gifts to children around the world, but that he is also a vigilant watchman or ‘big brother’ keeping his eye and taking notes on the morality of every boy and girl around the world.

But did you know that Santa has some skeletons of his own in his closet? In studying the history of the man behind the legend, Saint Nicholas, a little fascinating story can be found.

Nicholas of Myra was born in the third century in a province called Lycia, which was a part of the Roman Empire. Today ancient Lycia is a part of the country we know as Turkey. Nicholas is believed to have died December 6, 343 A.D.

Stephen J. Nichols, president of Reformation Bible College and Church History specialist tells us of a time Santa got into some trouble…

“Bishop Nicholas was present at the Church’s First Ecumenical Council at Constantine’s summer palace in Nicea in 325. Hundreds of Bishops gathered there to refute the false views of Arius, a presbyter from Alexandria. Arius denied Christ’s deity. At one point while Arius was addressing the council, Nicholas’s rage got the better of him. According to some of his biographers, Nicholas stood up, crossed the floor to Arius, and promptly punched him in the face.”

According to Nichols, for this assault, Bishop Nicholas was arrested and put in jail. And more than likely found himself on his own ‘naughty’ list.

You see Bishop Nicholas was human like you and me, prone to the same temptations, impulses and passions. As benevolent and caring he was, Nicholas was also a sinner and in need of rescue.

Jesus was also a human, but he was unlike Nicholas, or any of us. He was God made flesh and although he faced the same temptations and pressures we do, he was without sin. That is why Jesus is the only who could be our savior, through his death our sins were paid for and his righteousness made ours.

So as we celebrate this Christmas, be reminded friends that the baby that was born in a Bethlehem stable was and is the only hope for sinners like you, me and even Santa.

This truly is good news! Merry Christmas.

Steve Dallwig

His Presence

At a pivotal point in The Horse and His Boy, one of the books in the well-known series The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan reveals to a young boy Shasta that he was not only with him throughout his journey to escape slavery, but he had also been guiding and protecting Shasta along the way.

“I was the lion.” And as Shasta gaped with open mouth and said nothing, the Voice continued. “I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.”

– C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy

This beautiful picture of how God meets us where we are can also be seen in the lives of the characters in the Christmas story. The shepherds, Joseph, Simeon and Anna, and the Wise Men were in completely different life situations when God revealed Himself to them. God, however, knew where they were and used their circumstances to meet them in unique ways.

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, …” (Luke 2:8,9). The shepherds were doing what they did every day, and God reached them in the mundaneness of their everyday life.

“Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream …” (Matthew 1:19,20). Joseph’s plans had been shattered. Although he reacted with grace, the pain of what he was experiencing is not minimized by this passage. When the woman who he had planned to marry cheated on him (or so he thought), God used a dream to quiet his fears and clarify the future.

Because of the familiarity of the story, a mere mention of other characters reminds us that God revealed Himself to them where they were. Mary was simply living in the town of Nazareth when the angel Gabriel appeared to her. Simeon and Anna were in the temple when Jesus, the promised Messiah for whom they had waited, was brought to them. The Wise Men were far from where Jesus would be born, yet God met them in their distant country and led them directly to Jesus, even providing necessary instruction for their journey home.

Do you wonder how God will enter the commonplace aspects of your everyday life? Remember the shepherds. Are you experiencing hurt, not knowing how you will overcome it? Remember Joseph. Are you praying and waiting for something that you think will never come? Remember Simeon and Anna. Are you worried that you are far from God’s reach? Remember the Wise Men. God knows where you are, and He will meet you there.

Hopefully, these reminders from the Christmas story will help you to patiently rest knowing that God will provide you with the guidance you need in His perfect time.

Prayer:

Gracious God, thank you for the Christmas story that reminds us that you meet each of us where we are and in unique ways. Please reveal yourself to us. Give us peace that you are guiding us even when we cannot see your hand. Give us patience to wait for your direction.

In Jesus’ name – Amen.

Monica Dombrowski

 

A Homebody’s Christmas

Settle down, it’ll all be clear

Don’t pay no mind to the demons

They fill you with fear

The trouble it might drag you down

If you get lost, you can always be found

 

Just know you’re not alone

‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home

Phillip Phillips,  Home

House

Being a homebody, I still get emotional thinking of home at Christmas time. I still remember those big retro screw-in colored bulbs on our tree. And one year I drove sixteen hours through the night to get home from college in time to help decorate the tree, only to fall asleep while the rest of the family decorated.

When Katherine and I lived in a tiny furnished apartment in Mississippi while in seminary, along with the lights, we also attached those clip candleholders to the tree, and nearly burned down the place!

Through the years, sharing the season with our children has brought immeasurable joy – It was always about our family experiencing the season together.

At Home.

Home is where all our stories begin.

But sadly it does not conjure good memories for everyone, in fact for some the opposite. So as precious as home is for me, it can’t possibly be the big story.

And it isn’t.

The crazy thing about the first Christmas is that it had all the elements we celebrate – except for home!

Apart from the absence of a tree, wise men brought gifts. Angels lit the sky and sang. And hey, there was no need for a nativity set, because… well, you get the idea.

But no home.

Christmas is the story of a displaced young couple whose lives were turned upside down by an unexpected pregnancy and a decree that dislodged them from their hometown.

And I think this is the point – Because between Jesus’ coming and our longing for something dearer and sweeter than this life offers, God has announced that in that holy Newborn who invaded that couple’s world by leaving His, the Father’s ‘casa’ has become ours.

In Jesus we have found our home.

What good news of great joy…

peace.

Mike Khandjian

Bad Memories and the Anticipation of Christmas

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So Christmas is always a time of anticipation, right? We look forward to the parties, the food, the presents, the beautiful candlelit midnight service.

One of the things I always enjoyed as a kid was the model train sets. I couldn’t wait to help my dad go up in the attic and pull down the musty boxes of trains, track, village scenes and miniature trees. The smell of the boxes was distinct, and, while it was probably caused by some mixture of mold on the boxes, old Spanish moss on the miniature trees, and toxic fumes from the fake snow, whenever I smelled it I would get a shiver of excitement because it meant Christmas was around the corner. I still can’t see a bag of Spanish moss without being flooded by memories of hours spent building and running the train set.

Last night I was at my parents’ house, and my father had set up an old train for my nephew – a set that my grandfather had set up in his basement when I was a kid. I couldn’t resist – I bent down and turned the switch on the transformer, sending the train racing around the track. But then I caught a whiff of another smell – electric train. I don’t know what causes it, and I don’t know if it’s all model trains or just this one, but there was a strong electric odor, and it took me back to my grandfather’s basement and many happy hours watching the trains. And then a rather unpleasant memory surfaced.

This particular train set was made well before consumer protection laws required products to come with warning labels or non-toxic paint (come to think of it, maybe that’s where the smell comes from). In order to make things as realistic as possible, red and green lights were placed next to the section of track that allowed you to switch the train between two different tracks. The lights were large, and even 30 years ago they looked very old, with cracked and pealing paint. But they were so cool – cool enough that I wanted to touch them. So one day, I did…and promptly burned my finger. Like I said: consumer safety wasn’t a top priority, and those bulbs got extremely hot. I’m sure I had a small burn for a few days, but the emotional scar of being hurt by the very thing I loved so much and looked forward to every year has stayed with me.

Come to think of it, I have so many bad Christmas memories, it’s a wonder I look forward to Christmas at all. There was the time I got sick after eating too many shrimp at Christmas Eve dinner. There was the year I had Mono and had to sit-out a family ski-vacation over Christmas week. Once I spent an entire Christmas Eve service in severe agony because my wool outfit, while cute, was also itchy. I broke a glass ornament I had bought for my mom over my brother’s head one year because he was being annoying…that incident ended in tears for all parties involved. Frozen fingers while trying to pick out a Christmas tree, presents that broke after the first use…

And yet, every year, I look forward to Christmas. I think the anticipation in the face of mixed past experiences is baked right into the story. The first Christmas certainly was a mixed bag, what with angels and lavish gifts right alongside smelly animals and lack of hotel space. But it’s more than that. It’s about the good news that will be for all people – the savior has been born. And that means we have something to celebrate now, but also something to look forward to. It means there’s hope that everything will be right one day, even if, year after year, we’re reminded that things aren’t right just yet.

Dan Passerelli

A Light

ii_151929b60106a543One of my favorite Christmas memories from childhood is driving around after the Christmas Eve service to look at all the Christmas lights. The lights at Christmas are so magical, aren’t they? It’s as if the whole world decided to light up in celebration of the season. It is truly one of the most beautiful parts of Christmas.

Have you ever noticed how dark it seems after Christmas? Driving home after 5pm suddenly seems so much gloomier. The celebration ends and it’s time to put away the light.

But Christmas tells a different story. Jesus’ light didn’t shine only for a season, only for a month before it was put away – it continues to shine now, even when we can’t seem to see it through the fog of our sometimes-gloomy world.

And so dear friend, when the lights are put away, don’t let the darkness of our world take over the light that Jesus brought to us on the first Christmas. He is “the true light that gives light to everyone” (John 1:9), our long-awaited King, the Savior of our hearts, and he’s here!

Maybe you need to be reminded of that light today, or you know someone who could use a little light. That’s the thing about light – it draws you in.

“A Light” by The Brilliance

Jessica Bates