Stress Test

A stress test, also called an exercise stress test, shows how your heart works during physical activity. Because exercise makes your heart pump harder and faster, an exercise stress test can reveal problems with blood flow within your heart. A stress test usually involves walking on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike your heart rhythm, blood pressure and breathing are monitored. Or you’ll receive a drug that mimics the effects of exercise. Whichever way it is done, the issue is how strong is your heart?

Jesus was under a lot of stress. For forty days he was in the wilderness alone, tempted by Satan. The Gospels tell us that immediately after his baptism, the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tested. Whether Jesus knew what was awaiting or not, we do not know. Jesus was hungry and tired from fasting when the devil tempted Jesus to abandon God’s plan for his life and to take matters into his own hands. Three times Satan sought to derail God’s plan for Jesus’ life by tempting Jesus to choose an easier path. Yet, with each temptation, Jesus stood firm in his conviction that he would be faithful to God’s will, even if doing so would me suffering to accomplish it. 

As followers of Jesus, we too encounter the same temptation to choose other than God’s will for our lives. From the first couple in the Garden of Eden to the present, Satan tempts us to forsake God’s will for our lives and to chart our own course a part from God’s influence. More often than not, we fall for the lie, and seek to live our lives on our own terms. Yet, our track record is not too great when it comes to choosing to live apart from God. One read of a daily newspaper will remind us of the mess we make when we succumb to Satan’s message of going it alone.

This is not a one and done decision. Every day, indeed, every moment, we have to choose to live out God’s will and reject the temptation to live otherwise. When the people of Israel were about to enter The Promised Land for the very first time, Joshua challenged them in Joshua 24:14 with these words: “Choose this day whom you will serve. God will not impose his will on anyone. Each person is given the freedom to choose and make this decision on their own. Jesus would be faithful to God’s will his entire life. Indeed, Jesus is the only one to ever get it completely right. 

However, even though we daily stumble in our sinfulness, we must continue to seek to live out God’s will for our lives. Some days we will get it right and other days we will fall woefully short. Yet, even in our falling, God’s grace will continue to give us the opportunity to choose his will again. So, on the days we fall short we ask for forgiveness and try it again. The key is to never give up trying. Each moment we can decide whom we will serve. Choosing God’s way can be stressful at times, but in the long run it will make all the difference in our lives, for now and for eternity. A heart anchored in Jesus Christ will stand the stresses of living in this world with its myriad of temptations because when our hearts are in Jesus Christ, then God’s grace will flow through our veins.

It Only Takes a Spark

During this winter season, I have enjoyed starting a fire in the fireplace each evening after work. Not only for the heat, but also for the warm orange and yellow flames that seem to dance around on, under, and around the logs. Once the fire starts, I am able to keep it going throughout the night by just adding more wood. 

Several days ago, an online ZOOM meeting prevented me from adding more wood. In time, the fire I had begun died out. The fireplace grew dark. After the meeting was over, I decided not to try to start it again. However, a few hours later, the fire that had died, or at least I had thought had died, was ablaze again. It surprised me because I had just assumed that there was no life left in it. Somewhere amid the ashes there had obviously been a spark that I did not see.

During the life and ministry of Jesus, he had a way of seeing the spark in individuals that other people did not see. Over and over again in the gospels, Jesus encountered individuals who others had written off as good as dead or hopeless. Whether it was because of some sin in their lives, like the woman caught in adultery, or because of some disease such as leprosy that had left them unclean, Jesus saw beneath these ashes. Jesus knew that with God’s love these individual lives could burn brightly again. Jesus saw the possibility of new life in those that other had written off.

In our modern society, we are guilty at times of writing people off as beyond hope, helpless, worthless, and lifeless. For multiple reasons we just assume that there is really no chance for their lives to improve or be restored. With such a conclusion reached, we then just ignore them or forget about them. They are left isolated and alone in the ashes. 

As Christians, we are called to see others as Jesus saw them. We have to look beyond the ashes of other’s lives and realize that no person is beyond reigniting by the love of God. God’s love is able to fan into flames the lives we often judge as being without hope. So often, a person is just a spark away from become a burning flame alive in God’s Spirit. God’s love is able to take the darkest life and bring forth new life and light to his glory. Indeed, with God’s love, it only takes a spark.

Lane Ends, Merge Right

One of the road signs you sometimes encounter when driving your car is one which reads “left or right lane ends ahead.” Two lanes will soon become one lane. What drives me crazy is when people don’t merge until the very end. Even though the sign says merge, they go to the last possible second to move over, trying to squeeze in. If they had only merged when they first saw the sign, then they would not be in this position of having to squeeze end at the very last moment. The decision for me is, do I let them merge in front of me, or do I speed up to keep them out. Will I be gracious or not?

In the scriptures, God is described as a God of grace. In Psalm 86:15 we read, But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. While we may ignore, anger, and disappoint God, God refuses to give up on us. God does not cut us off, but God offers grace and mercy to us even in our stubborn sinfulness. While we may push a situation to the limits, and even when the lane is about to end, God’s grace is limitless. The Psalmist would also confess: “You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer. (Psalm 4:1) God makes room for us, even at the last moment. God lets us merge into His abundant love and mercy.

In the sending of God’s son, Jesus, into the world, God’s grace paved a new lane for us to come home. In Jesus, God invited us to merge over, receive his grace, experience his love, and live in his presence. No longer would we have to travel the road alone, but God came to travel with us. God’s grace opens the way for us to new life and abundant life. God doesn’t promise us the perfect life, but rather a life where we live with the assurance that God travels with us. Someone once said, “we are not on a journey to God, but we are on a journey with God.” We don’t arrive to God at the end of the road, but God is on the road with us.

Regardless of where we might be on life’s journey, we can trust that our God continues to go with us. God continues to invite us to merge into his grace and to trust him with the road before us. And even when we push life to the limits, God will always make room for those who choose to merge into him. God will not force the merge, but God, out of his grace, provides the room for us to do so ourselves. Yet, we don’t have to wait till the last moment. We can merge into God’s grace anytime.  So, what are waiting for?  God is making room for all of us to merge.

Your Final Answer

When the game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, premiered on ABC on August 16, 1999, it quickly became a hit. Television viewers across the nation tuned in each episode to see if contestants could answer 14 multiple-choice questions. If all 14 questions could be answered, then the contestant went home with one million dollars. Most contestants did not get that far. Yet, when someone did complete the challenge, everyone celebrated. 

With each question, the audience watched as the contestant talked through the four possible answers. Viewers were able to witness them ponder each choice. Sometimes they could use a “lifeline” to get help from the audience or friends or family members. Once they came to a decision, the host would ask them one last time, “Is that your final answer?” Right or wrong, they had to affirm that a decision was made.

We make a lot of decisions every day. Many are inconsequential that go unnoticed; what to wear, what to eat for breakfast, etc. We make a decision and then move on. Yet, there are those times when a decision stops us in our tracks. The decision that we make will have huge implications for our lives, such as who we marry, our occupation, where we live, etc. Such decisions are not easily made but often take time and much thought. And if you are a person of faith, it might take a lot of prayer.

In the book of Joshua, the people of Israel were preparing to enter the long awaited Promised Land. After their miraculous deliverance from slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel had finally arrived at their new home. Joshua, their new leader, challenged the people as they prepared to enter. The people were entering a land where they would be tempted to follow other gods rather than the God who had delivered them. Joshua calls for the people to make a decision. In Joshua 24: 14-15, we read, “But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” This would be Joshua’s final answer. Now the people had to decide whom they would follow.

When Jesus began his earthly ministry, he called people to follow him. Jesus never forced or compelled anyone to do so. Jesus simply invited. Jesus offered an invitation and allowed people the opportunity to choose. Some like Matthew quit the work they were doing and walked off the job to follow Jesus. Like the rich young ruler, others walked away from Jesus’ invitation deciding to live his life apart from the Lord.

Each of us must give a final answer to Jesus’ invitation to follow him. Jesus calls us to step away from our lives and enter a relationship with him whereby our lives are now founded, guided, and directed by this relationship. We surrender control of our lives over to our Lord so that every decision we make in life is now made under his influence. We make decisions about our lives that will strengthen this relationship and glorify God. And while we may make our initial decision to follow Jesus, we must still decide every day whom we will serve. When we say yes to Jesus, then we enter the promised land of real life. Hence, every day we must respond to Joshua’s statement to the Israelites, “choose this day whom you will serve.” What will our answer be?

Our Daily Diet

The proverbial saying “You are what you eat “is the notion that you need to eat good food to be fit and healthy. Your daily diet of food consumption will affect your body and impact the overall health of your body. If your diet is healthy, then the assumed conclusion is that your body will be healthy. Some people can maintain a lifestyle with this philosophy, while for many, we still tend to eat things at times that we know are not good for us. For folks like this, that bag of chips or box of doughnuts are hard to pass by. Nevertheless, maintaining a healthy diet is the goal of most individuals.

However, one’s diet is not only what you eat. It is what you watch, what you listen to, what you read, who you hang out with, and the like. Like the food we consume, these outside influences have a way of shaping our lives, informing our daily living, and affecting who we are. As a people of faith and followers of Jesus, we should be mindful of what we take in daily, because these outside influences can often run contrary to the way of Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote of these concerns in his letter to the Corinthians where he stated, Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honor God with your bodies. (1 Corinthian 6: 19-20) 

When we enter into a relationship with God, our bodies become temples of the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit now dwells in us and should be evident by the kind of lives we live. The more we open ourselves up to God’s Spirit in our lives, then the greater our lives will honor God. Similarly, if we continue to consume those things that are contrary to God’s will and make them a part of our daily diet, then our lives will not match the lives we confess to belong to God. 

Thus, it is vital that we daily evaluate our diet of what we bring into our lives. We should recommit ourselves to those things that honor God and rid those things that bring dishonor. This daily diet check will keep us attuned to God’s will for our lives and grow and develop our faith. By focusing on the things of God, then our lives will reflect these things to others. In Philippians 4:8, we read these words from Paul: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” We become what we take in, what we focus on, and what we live out in our daily living.  Hence, we should consider our daily diet for our relationship with God and with one another.  Are we consuming, processing, and growing in a way that honors God.  We are what we eat in more ways than one.

A Mouth Full

One of the lessons that my parents taught me was not to talk with my mouth full. When eating, I should swallow my food before beginning to speak as no one wants to see food chewed while the person is talking. Talking while eating can lead to food accidentally falling out of your mouth as you talk, which most of us would rather not see.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus speaks about our lives as being either being a good tree or a bad tree and that a person is known by the fruit in their lives. Likewise, a good tree does not bear bad fruit, and a bad tree does not bear good fruit. For Jesus, what is in a person’s heart will eventually rise to the surface of a person’s life in their words and their deeds. Thus, Jesus concludes, For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. (Luke 6:45) According to Jesus, our choice and use of words say a lot about what our hearts are full of. Simply put, words matter.

In sports, we often use the phrase “trash talking” when it comes to competition. Trash talk is defined as saying insulting things, especially to an opponent in a contest or a game. In the spirit of competition, players on opposite teams try to hype their ability or pull down their opposition’s ability. It is usually good-natured fun. The problem, however, is when trash-talking is part of our daily conversation. When we use words to degrade, humiliate, or shame another person, we reveal our hearts’ nature. Whether calling people names, using derogatory labels, or merely bad mouthing another person, such word choice demonstrates the deeper parts of who we are. Our word choice reflects our character and cannot be separated. Nor can we justify ours or someone else’s word choice by simply saying that’s just the way they talk. For as Jesus says, “our mouths speak what our hearts are full of.”

As followers of Jesus, our choice of words should demonstrate our relationship with Jesus. We cannot claim to live in a relationship with our Lord but then use hurtful words to others. In everything we say, whether in conversation, on social media, or any other outlet, we should ask ourselves, “world Jesus say it?” At times, I know that Jesus must be disappointed in the words that come from my mouth because they do not match the one who supposedly lives in my heart. Words indeed matter whether they are coming from our mouths or another. 

As a follower of Jesus, we should preface everything we say with the prayer of the psalmist who said, Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14) God’s grace should filter everything we say. And when we filter our words with God’s grace, then our words will demonstrate the nature of our hearts. Otherwise, we are just trash talking, and this is not the way of our Lord. Our words matter to God, and our words should matter to us as well.

Stable Time

We live by the clock. That is, time matters. As the clock hands turn so do our lives. Time let us know what we are supposed to be doing at any moment: it’s time to wake up, it’s lunchtime, time for work, time for my doctor’s appointment, time for my show on television, time to go to church. We make a lot of plans based on the time so when the time comes, we will know what we are to do.

There are also uncertain times in our lives. These are those moments when everything that is predictable is thrown out the window. Something happens which throws our timing off. It could be a sudden illness or death, a crisis within our families, a loss of a job, a wrecked relationship, and the like. In these moments life can descend into chaos and the very ground beneath our feet seems to be shaking. Often at these times, we are uncertain of what to do next as we are simply trying to hold on.

God knew that the time was right to send Jesus into the world at Christmas. The Apostle Paul would write in Galatians 4: 4, But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman.” God has chosen the time to enter into our world and bring peace to our troubled times. Jesus is God’s response to the uncertainty and chaos that often leads us gasping for air. In Bethlehem’s manger God offered to us “stable time.”Born in a stable for animals, God came to bring hope to our lives. The birth of Jesus is God’s way of anchoring us to his presence so that when our times are troubled and uncertain, we can trust that God is with us. 

The psalmist would write, “But I trust in you, Lord; I say, You are my God. My times are in your hands.” (Psalm 31:14-15) In Jesus, God extends His hand to us and invites us to take hold of it. God offers us His presence to us for all time. Regardless of what time it is in our lives, we can live with the assurance that God is holding us in His hands. Just as Mary and Joseph cradled the newborn Jesus in their arms, God desires to cradle us in his love and grace. There is no time now in which we are separated from our Lord. Jesus is with us all the time. Hence, we can live in stable time even when the times are uncertain. It’s Christmas time and this makes the difference for all time.

We live by the clock. That is, time matters. As the clock hands turn so do our lives. Time let us know what we are supposed to be doing at any moment: it’s time to wake up, it’s lunchtime, time for work, time for my doctor’s appointment, time for my show on television, time to go to church. We make a lot of plans based on the time so when the time comes, we will know what we are to do.

There are also uncertain times in our lives. These are those moments when everything that is predictable is thrown out the window. Something happens which throws our timing off. It could be a sudden illness or death, a crisis within our families, a loss of a job, a wrecked relationship, and the like. In these moments life can descend into chaos and the very ground beneath our feet seems to be shaking. Often at these times, we are uncertain of what to do next as we are simply trying to hold on.

God knew that the time was right to send Jesus into the world at Christmas. The Apostle Paul would write in Galatians 4: 4, But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman.” God has chosen the time to enter into our world and bring peace to our troubled times. Jesus is God’s response to the uncertainty and chaos that often leads us gasping for air. In Bethlehem’s manger God offered to us “stable time.”Born in a stable for animals, God came to bring hope to our lives. The birth of Jesus is God’s way of anchoring us to his presence so that when our times are troubled and uncertain, we can trust that God is with us. 

The psalmist would write, But I trust in you, Lord; I say, You are my God. My times are in your hands.” (Psalm 31:14-15) In Jesus, God extends His hand to us and invites us to take hold of it. God offers us His presence to us for all time. Regardless of what time it is in our lives, we can live with the assurance that God is holding us in His hands. Just as Mary and Joseph cradled the newborn Jesus in their arms, God desires to cradle us in his love and grace. There is no time now in which we are separated from our Lord. Jesus is with us all the time. Hence, we can live in stable time even when the times are uncertain. It’s Christmas time and this makes the difference for all time.

The psalmist would write, “But I trust in you, Lord; I say, You are my God. My times are in your hands.” (Psalm 31:14-15) In Jesus, God extends His hand to us and invites us to take hold of it. God offers us His presence to us for all time. Regardless of what time it is in our lives, we can live with the assurance that God is holding us in His hands. Just as Mary and Joseph cradled the newborn Jesus in their arms, God desires to cradle us in his love and grace. There is no time now in which we are separated from our Lord. Jesus is with us all the time. Hence, we can live in stable time even when the times are uncertain. It’s Christmas time and this makes the difference for all time.

Ordinary Days

In the Christmas story, as told by the Gospel of Luke, we learn of shepherds who were in the fields watching over their sheep at night when angelic messengers informed them of Jesus’s birth. When the workday began for them, I doubt any of them imagined that the day would turn out the way it did. Most of us don’t go about our daily activities, thinking today might be the day of a divine interruption. We tend to focus on the tasks at hand and not what God might be up to.

However, it just seems that God has a way of stepping into ordinary days and transforming them into something extraordinary. God is always working behind the scenes to bring about His will and purposes for our lives and our world. While we are caught up in the rhythms of day to day life, God is actively seeking to create in our lives extraordinary moments where we experience God in surprising ways. God is always stepping into our lives to awaken us to His presence.

We might not experience an angelic encounter as the shepherds did, but God makes himself known to us every day in various ways. We might encounter God in the smile of a child, the hearty laugh of a friend, a falling tear of someone we love, the orange sky of a sunrise, the melody of a song, or a silent night of contemplative thought. God is always reaching out to us to make Himself known with a message of good news, just as God did with the shepherds.

The challenge for us is, will we take time to notice these divine interruptions? The shepherds paid attention. They left the fields and their sheep and traveled to Bethlehem to see what the angels had told them about. They would not let this moment pass them by. They would extraordinarily experience God’s presence. We, too, can experience God in meaningful ways when we receive His divine interruptions with open hearts and lives. When we open ourselves up to God’s revelations, then our lives will be changed, renewed, and recreated. These shepherds would never be the same again. So, let us pay attention to those moments when God has something to share with us, and when we do, we will never be the same.

Over the Hills and Through the Woods

“Over the River and Through the Woods” was originally published in 1844 as a poem written by Lydia Maria Child. The poem was published in Child’s book of poems Flowers for ChildrenVolume 2, and was originally titled “The New-England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day.” In time, Child’s poem was set to music by an unknown composer, and over the years many children have grown up singing the song in school or community holiday programs. The familiar lyrics state, “Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go. The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh through the white and drifted snow.” The family in the story is on their way to grandma’s house for a family gathering. Although there is drifting snow, they are willing to travel the distance.

We learn in the Gospels that Joseph and Mary traveled from the town of Nazareth to the town of Bethlehem for the Roman census. Because Joseph belonged to the line of David, Bethlehem would be where he would register for the census. This would not be an easy journey. Most scholars believe that they would have had to travel about 90 miles to the stable where Jesus was born. Mary was nine months pregnant at the time. Thus, a stressful and challenging journey was even more so. 

There are times in our lives in which our journey becomes challenging. We can find ourselves traveling through life on cruise control, when all of sudden something happens that causes our journey to become difficult. An unexpected sickness or death, a financial crisis, depression and sadness, family division, and the like can disrupt our travel plans. Life can become difficult in the blink of an eye. It is often during these times that we wonder if we can continue on. We can feel overwhelmed and exhausted.

We can only wonder what the trip was like for Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. Their lives had been turned upside down from an unexpected pregnancy. Now, they were on the road realizing that any moment a baby could be born. What did they talk about as they traveled? What was their emotional state? We simply do not have answers for these questions as the Bible does not tell us. Yet, while in Bethlehem, the time came for Mary to give birth and Jesus was born. Despite the challenges and difficulties of getting there, God’s plan would be fulfilled.

In our lives, we can trust in God’s plan. While life can leave us wondering at times about the future, we can trust that God will bring us to the place we need to be. Likewise, in God’s time, God can bring forth new life and birth new hope into our lives. We do not journey alone. With each step we make, our God walks with us along the way. 

Full Hearts

Often after eating a big meal, people will respond, “I’m full.” It means that their stomach has reached its capacity. Generally, human stomachs have a volume of about one liter, which is a little more than one quart. Since the stomach has the ability to expand, it can hold much more food. The human stomach can be distended up to four liters, which is more than one gallon. When the stomach reaches its limit, we confess, “I’m full.” Indeed, during the Christmas season this can easily occur as we tend to eat more than usual because of all the baking, the parties, and the get-togethers. 

Christmas can also lead to a full heart. One might say that the birth of Jesus was God’s response to empty hearts. Ever since human sin entered the picture, our hearts ached because of our emptiness. We were created with a full heart. But sin punctured that heart of fullness and drained us empty. As St. Augustine would confess, “our hearts became restless.” We realized that something was missing. There was an inner emptiness. Regardless of how hard we tried, we could not seem to fill that emptiness. We tried to fill our hearts with wealth and possessions, pleasures, power, people, and a host of other substitutes. Yet, nothing seem to fill the emptiness of the heart.

At Christmas, God offered to us His son. A son who would be our Savior and once again fill our hearts. The old Christmas carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem, says it this way, “So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven.” At Christmas heaven came to earth to take up residence within us. The Bethlehem manger is none other than our individual hearts. Hence, empty hearts became full of the very life of God. The Apostle Peter in the book of Acts would confess this truth when he said, You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence. (Acts 2: 28)

We do not have to live with empty hearts. Nor do we have to settle for poor substitutes to fill that emptiness. Instead, in Jesus, our lives can be filled with God’s presence. Emmanuel can live within us, thus imparting His life into our own. In Galatians 2:20 the Apostle Paul would write, I have been crucified with Christ. I dont live any longer, but Christ lives in me. Now I live my life in my body by faith in the Son of God. He loved me and gave himself for me.” Christ can now live in us as we open our hearts to Him. Every heart is a potential manger. We simply have to respond in faith and trust in the one who can fill our hearts with life, hope, love, and joy. This is heaven’s blessing God desires to impart to every human heart. It is an incredible gift. We can live with full hearts thanks to God.

The Sights and Sounds of Christmas

There is no doubt that our senses are heightened during the season of Christmas. As our world magically transforms into the holiday season, we are greeted with the sights and sounds of this time of year. Darkened spaces are covered in bright lights. Buildings that you might not usually notice are lit up. Trees covered in lights stand proudly for others to see in our windows. The daily music we might listen to on our radio shifts to seasonal songs that celebrate both the sacred and secular of Christmas. Walk in any store at this time of the year, and Christmas music can be heard in the background. 

On a quiet hillside outside Bethlehem, shepherds were watching over their flock when they were greeted with a heavenly display of angels. A host of angels, basked in light, announced to them the good news that a Savior had been born. Their announcement rang out like a song, Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace to those on whom his favor rests. (Luke 2:14) With their senses awakened, the shepherds go to Bethlehem to see for themselves what the angels had told them.

In Bethlehem, they find Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus. Their story was indeed amazing, and Mary pondered their words in her heart. What a dramatic tale they shared. The scriptures then tell that they left glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen. (Luke 2: 20) The sights and sounds of that first Christmas would forever impact their lives. Experiencing what they had experienced would be transformative in their lives. Two thousand years later, we are still telling their story.

How has the Christmas story impacted our own lives? Have our senses been awakened by the angelic announcement and the baby in a manger? The sights and sounds of the first Christmas continue to offer us an invitation to experience the birth of Jesus anew in our lives. We, too, can live our lives glorifying and praising God for all that God has done. Like the shepherds, our stories can be transformed by Christmas. This is the good news that is offered to all people. May our eyes and ears be open to the sights and sounds of the season and our mayo our hearts be opened to the Bethlehem child.

Christmas’ First Word

Most people remember what their children’s first words were. In many cases, it is some form of mom and dad. Once heard, parents will try to get their child to repeat it so others can listen too. And as time moves forward, parents wait excitedly to hear what the next word will be. And as time continues to move forward, the child will put words together to form sentences, which will eventually lead to conversations with others.

Mary unexpectedly found herself in a conversation with an angel. This young teenage girl from Nazareth suddenly found herself in the most important conversation she had ever had. This angel had come with a message to the young girl. God had chosen her to become the mother of God’s son through the Holy Spirit. Whatever conversations Mary had had that day, they dissipated in the light of this revelation. Here she stood before a heavenly messenger who had just informed her that she was favored by God and would soon to be the mother of God’s son. 

Yet, Mary is a virgin. Virgins don’t have babies. This is not how biology works. Thus, we hear the first word of Christmas spoken from Mary, “how?” Mary asks the angel, “how can this be since I am a virgin?” The first word we ever hear Mary speak is “how.” Standing before the angel, Mary is full of questions. How is all of this going to work?

In our faith, “how” is also a question that we pose to God as well. As we consider our lives, we often wonder “how” God is working in them. We believe in God, but how does God work in our lives? Life can be complicated, messy, and challenging at times. We can sometimes look at our lives and wonder how anything good can come out of a current situation. How in the world is God going to pull off something good amid such a time? Hence, we are often left wondering how, why, when, where, what, and who in our relationship with God. We know God is working; we just don’t know how. In the book of Isaiah, God speaks to the prophet, saying,

For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways, my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so My ways are higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55: 8-9)

Indeed, grasping the mind and workings of God is too much for us as humans. We will never be able to fully grasp the mind of God on this side of eternity. But to all our questions to God, God replies, “trust me.” Mary would trust God even though she had very few answers to her questions. She would trust that God knew what was going on, and that was enough. Thus, as the conversation comes to an end, Mary confesses, Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me, according to your word. (Luke 1:38). Like Mary, to all our unanswered questions, we must trust God and respond, “Let it be with me according to your word.” 

In Those Days

The Gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus’ birth as Mary and Joseph travel to the town of Bethlehem for the census. Luke begins his story with “in those days.” Luke then sets those days in a historical context. Caesar Augustus rules over Rome, and Quirinius is the governor of Syria. Luke had already written at the beginning of his gospel that he wanted to give an orderly account of Jesus’s life. For Luke, those days are real-time days. Luke doesn’t begin with “once upon a time,” as we might expect in a fairytale, but Luke is grounding the story of Jesus in the real world. 

However, the story of Jesus’ birth and the rest of his life is not stuck in those days. Instead, the story of Jesus intersects our own lives today. The Bethlehem manger transcends times and speaks to us just as it did to shepherds on a hillside. The good news of Jesus’ birth moves beyond its historical point in history and enters our stories today. As a result, we are more than the audience watching it on a stage, but we participate in the story. Like the shepherds, we are invited to travel to see this thing that has taken place.

The story of Jesus is also a story that transforms us. Ordinary days become extraordinary ones as Jesus remakes our stories into something new. Jesus now defines the days of our lives and the stories we live in. Immanuel, God with us, now shapes our stories, our past, present, and future. Indeed, when God is part of our stories, then our stories take on an entirely new life. Those days now become the days of our Lord.

Because of Jesus, we are now able to proclaim with the Psalmist, This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118:24) The joy of the Lord now finds a home in our everyday living. It doesn’t mean we will not have bad or tough days; that is simply the reality of living in a broken world. But now, “the joy of the Lord is our strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10) The joy of our Lord now guides us through these days with the promise of a future day where life will completely be transformed into an eternity of endless days.

The Christmas story is not trapped in the pages of history, but His story now becomes our story. We live now with meaning and purpose. These days are now part of God’s great plan for all of creation. It is a Gospel story for yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Every day is now the day of our Lord.

Leap for Joy

When’s the last time you got excited about something? So excited that you can barely contain your enthusiasm. We all have those experiences where the excitement of the moment makes us feel as though a volcano of joy is about to erupt from within. It’s more than a good feeling; it is a great feeling. Whatever has occurred, joy is stirring within you.

After Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit, this soon to be mother went to visit another soon to be mother, her cousin, Elizabeth. Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, were much older than Mary. Elizabeth was beyond childbearing age. Yet, she was pregnant now with another promised child. Her baby boy would grow up to be the forerunner of Jesus. He would be known as John the Baptist. The Gospel of Luke tells us that when Mary and Elizabeth met; the sound of Mary’s voice caused Elizabeth’s baby to leap for joy. Like any pregnant woman can tell you, she felt her baby move.

Indeed, joy should be our response to the good news of Jesus that we celebrate at Christmas. As the old carol reminds us, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come.” With the arrival of Jesus, God’s heavenly joy is poured out upon the world and into the hearts of all those who receive Him. This joy should stir our lives to praise. Our lives should bear witness to this inner joy that can only come from Jesus. While many things in the world can bring us happiness, Jesus is the only one who can bring us joy.

The joy of the Lord cannot be contained. Instead, joy should radiate from the believer’s life as a light into the darkness of a sometimes joyless world. The psalmist would proclaim, Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.” (Psalm 32:11) The psalmist calls us to shout for joy. But why shout? We shout with joy because the world is deaf to the joy that comes from God alone. Many people live never realizing the deep joy that comes from a relationship with Jesus Christ. As a people of faith, like John in the womb of his mother, we must leap for joy. 

Christmas is a natural opportunity to leap out in joy. Christmas brings a message of love and hope that combined create an inner joy that cannot be contained but must be shared with the larger world. The birth of Jesus creates the ultimate joy. So, during the season of the year, let us take a leap in joy with this good news, so that the world around us might experience the joy of the Lord. “Joy to the world, the Lord has come!” May this message stir within each of us a deeper joy.

Christmas Time

During the Christmas season, it seems that we become more conscious of time. We have to pay attention to time, especially when it comes to not running out of time to do everything to get ready for Christmas day. How much time do we have left to shop? What is the latest time you can have something shipped to arrive by Christmas? When do I need to get my Christmas cards into the mail to arrive on time? What time are the different religious services at church and the like? It’s Christmas time.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he writes, But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Galatians 4: 4-5) According to Paul, God sent His Son into the world to save us at the right time. God decided that there was a specific time in which He would act. We might call it the most decisive moment in all of history. In the birth of Jesus, God entered human time as one of us, altering time forever. 

From the moment that Mary birthed this holy baby in Bethlehem, our world has never been the same. We now see time in a new way. Time is now understood in light of the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus tells us what time it truly is. As Paul suggests, we have been redeemed in Jesus from our sinfulness and born anew into the family of God. As God’s children, our time is now marked by the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This fullness of time tells us who we are at the present time.

Jesus also brings us into a timeless eternity. The time now has no end for those who place their faith in Jesus Christ. We can now live with the assurance that we will be with God for all time. The fullness of time in the Bethlehem manger has spilled over into eternity and brought us with it. We now understand the present time in light of eternity. Christmas time makes a difference for all time. The good news of Jesus’ birth is where time took on new meaning, new purpose, and new hope. Christmas time is now our time, for we are now children of the eternal living God. 

Photo by Any Lane on Pexels.com

Great Expectations

Sometimes we enter into an experience with great expectations. We may be on our way to a new vacation spot, and our expectations are high for what it will be like. We can have great expectations about books and movies, events and activities, and even people. Leading up to the experience, we are hopeful that it will live up to our expectations.

We also know what it is like to be disappointed—disappointed because something or someone did not live up to our expectations. We had expected a lot, but we were let down when all was said and done. Unfortunately, life is filled with disappointments. Our hopes and dreams do not often work out the way that we wanted. We find ourselves saddened by expectations that did not live up to all we had hoped for.

The people of Israel in the Bible had great expectations of a King who would rule them and restore them to greatness. Yet, time and time again, Israel’s kings fell short. While some may have shown promise, no king ever met their expectations. They lived in ongoing disappointment. They had grown tired and weary in having their expectations crumble again and again. When would there be a true King?

At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Israel’s King and our world’s Savior. In Jesus, we discover the realization of everything that God had promised; a king of righteousness and justice, mercy and love, strength, and might. Jesus fulfilled every expectation. In the classic Christmas carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem, we sing, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Jesus comes to us as the one true King and one who does not disappoint. In reality, Jesus exceeds our expectations. In Jesus, God gave us His best because He gave us himself. 

As we celebrate the Christmas season, there will always be disappointments along the way. Not everything this season will be the way we had hoped. But by the time we come to Bethlehem’s manger, we receive the good news: “the hope and fears of all the years are met in Jesus.” Jesus will never disappoint.  

Christmas Sleep

Most people at one time or another know what it is like to toss and turn in bed at night and unable to sleep. For whatever reason, you cannot get comfortable and relax. Often this sleeplessness occurs because something is weighing heavy on our minds. While our body tries to enter sleep, the mind will not give up its frantic thinking, worrying, or anxiety. We may take a sleep aid, count sheep, read a little, or watch television trying to make ourselves sleepy. It’s not that we are not tired, because we are. We just can’t fall to sleep.

In the classic Christmas carol, Silent Night, we sing the refrain in verse 1: “Sleep in heavenly peace.” But what does this mean? What is heavenly peace? As a people of faith, heavenly peace is found when we trust God with the stresses of our lives. In faith, we let go of all that causes us anxiety, which leads to sleeplessness, and give our problems to God. This is not always easy as we tend to want to manage life on our own. We often try to figure out everything on our own. Yet, this leads to frustration and fears, which can keep us awake at night. 

Heavenly peace is about allowing heaven to enter our hearts. It is a heaven where God is on His throne and in control of everything, even that which will not let us sleep. When we make room for a heavenly perspective in our lives, then we can experience God’s peace. It is a peace that passes all understanding and allows us to face the difficulties in our lives with a calm assurance that God is in control and that we can trust in God’s care. With this heavenly peace, we can sleep.

Jesus once said,Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28) God wants us to rest in Him and trust Him with our lives. Regardless of how stressful life can sometimes be, in Jesus, we can share in God’s peace, an anchor in the storms of life that reassures us that God is always with us. When we live with an awareness of God’s presence, we can live in God’s peace, both day and night. And even when our eyes close, we can sleep knowing that God is still awake, watching and working on the very things that sometimes keep us awake. Sleep in heavenly peace. What a promise! What a gift!

Wrapped in Love

It happens more often than I would like. I cut wrapping paper for a Christmas gift, but I didn’t cut enough when I go to wrap the gift. The paper will not fully cover the gift. The gifts are bigger than the amount of paper. So, I either have to patchwork the wrap or cut another piece of paper to use. Knowing the size of the gift and measuring the right amount of paper is an important skill when it comes to wrapping gifts.

In 1 Peter 4:8, we read, “love covers a multitude of sins.” There is no doubt that the sins in our lives can be many. A day doesn’t go by that we don’t fall into sin in one form or another. Our thoughts, our words, and our actions can often be labeled as sinful. Sin is choosing other than God’s way to live our lives. We are all guilty of falling short of God’s intention for our lives. Saint Ambrose was the Bishop of Milan, a theologian, and one of the most influential ecclesiastical figures of the 4th century. Ambrose once wrote, “Many a sin has sullied me in body and in soul because I did not restrain my thoughts nor guard my lips: nevertheless, it is to Thee, O God of majesty and love, that I turn in my extremity, for Thou art the fount of mercy; to Thee, as quickly as I may, I speed: for Thou alone canst heal me; I take refuge under Thy protection.”

The good news of God’s love is that it covers a multitude of sins. Regardless of how great or large our sin may seem; God’s love will always be greater. We have received, as the Apostle Paul would suggest, “grace upon grace.” (John 1:16) God can wrap our sin in His love. And when sin is wrapped in God’s love, then it is completely forgiven. Not in part, but entirely. 

God demonstrates His love for us most clearly in the cross of Jesus. On the cross, Jesus took our sin upon himself and bore our iniquity. The cross of Jesus is sufficient to forgive us of all our sins. God doesn’t need to come back and rewrap our sin because our Lord’s blood covers a multitude of sins. (James 5:20) God’s love in Jesus Christ is enough.

Hence, we do not have to live our lives burdened by sin and guilt because it has all been forgiven. We only need to receive this most remarkable gift. We don’t have to get our lives all put together to receive God’s love, but God loves us even in our sin. Yet, God’s love will not leave us in our sin, but God’s love will heal us and make us whole. God is an expert wrapper because God is love.

Gift Receipt

Most times, when you purchase an item at a store for someone at Christmas, the salesperson will ask if you would like a gift receipt. A gift receipt is a purchase record that you can give to the person to know where they can return or exchange the present if they need to. It is a good idea since the gift may not be what you need or want, the right size if a clothing item, or you already have the same item. The gift receipt allows you to make your return. It is a good thing. Gift giving can be a difficult task. 

Some people are excellent gift-givers. That is, they know how to shop for a person. They find or create gifts that match the person’s personality. When you open their gifts, you know immediately that they have put much thought and time into selecting your gift. On the other hand, some people don’t like shopping for others or gift-giving. They want to get the entire experience over as quickly as possible. These may be your late shoppers who have to settle with what they can find. Most people are somewhere between the two.

In the Gospel of Matthew, in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks about God as the perfect gift giver. Jesus is teaching about prayer and how God invites us to ask of God. In Matthew 7: 7-11, we read: 

Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give your children good gifts, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

Jesus teaches that God gives his children good things. Even if evil people can give good gifts to their children, how much more so will God, who is infinitely good, do so much greater. God knows exactly what we need, and out of his great love lavishes His goodness all over us. God gives out hos His abundance, blessings upon blessings. When it comes to the gifts of God, no receipts are required.

Tangled Up

I’m not sure what happens between one Christmas and the next, but it always seems that my Christmas lights are tangled up into knots when I unpack them. I’ve never seen a gremlin jump out of the storage boxes, so I have to assume that it is my fault. Most likely, at the end of the previous Christmas season, I was so eager to get everything packed up that I didn’t take the time to pack the lights up in an organized way. So, each year I open the storage boxes to find a tangled mess.

Sin has a way of creating a tangled mess in our lives. Our sins are simply those things that we think, say, or do that are not pleasing to God. A day doesn’t go by that we do not sin. Since the beginning of time, humanity has been creating a mess with our sinfulness. Not only are our individual lives tangled up in our sin, so too is the world itself. We only have to read the daily news headlines to realize how much sin has impacted all of creation. We are all tangled up in knots with our sin. In Romans 3:23, we read, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” 

To not live in such a tangled up mess, we must daily repent of our sinfulness and seek God’s forgiveness. When we daily confess and repent of our sins, we can keep our lives from becoming a tangled mess. When we fail to seek forgiveness, sin over time and unchecked creates quite a knot of sin, shame, and guilt. Before we know it, we are knotted up in our sin, hardened in our hearts, and lifeless in our spirits. This is why the writer of Hebrews would remind us: “let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. (Hebrews 12:1) 

The good news is that God offers us his grace so that we can throw off our sinfulness. God’s grace enables us to experience forgiveness for our sin, even when we are knotted up and entangled with it. By simply asking, God can take our most sinful entangled lives and untangled them into something new. We do not have to live our lives entangled up in our sin. God’s grace sets us free, unravels our sin, and allows us to truly shine. So never let us think that our sin-knotted lives are too much for God to unravel.  God’s grace will always be greater than our sin.