All posts by Ivan

Leaving the Manger: Being Jesus

Isaiah 61:1 “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and freedom to prisoners.”

2 Corinthians 4:11, “For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”

Christmas is past for another year. Disappointment, regret, sadness, relief, stress, concern… these are just a few of the realities we deal with now that the holidays are gone. More than anything, however, I hope you can step into this new year with purpose.

The God of the universe stepped into our broken world “that all might be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.” A quick assessment of His life reminds us that Jesus was one of a kind! This humble king profoundly affected lives wherever He went. He treasured people of all sorts and loved them as they were.

Like the outcast adulterous woman he met at a community watering hole one day. Breaking the strict norms of culture, Jesus engaged this woman in a life-changing conversation. The compelling factor in all of this, however, was that He talked with her at all! Yet, in this very act He esteemed her highly and brought a whole new level of value and dignity to her life.

Like the banished lepers of Israel whose lives had deteriorated into a mode of survival, despair, loneliness, and meaninglessness. These disease-stricken castaways were excommunicated from any normal contact with people. The lepers would often form a small community together where they would grieve their condition together and help one another in their new business of begging for food. When entering the public venues of the day, a leper was required to call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” This was done so the people could remove themselves to a safe distance from the leper’s course of travel. But Jesus broke the norms with them too! Scripture records in numerous places that “He stretched out His hand and touched” them (Matthew 8:3) and brought healing to their lives. In fact one, Simon the Leper, hosted a meal for Jesus and His disciples. Jesus cared for, dined with, and loved people who no one else desired in the least.

Like the two blind men on the road to Jericho. As they called out from the crowd to gain Jesus’ attention, all those around them sternly told them to shut their mouths! In this culture, blind people were a nuisance. They were sentenced to begging on the public streets for survival. The land was filled with these pesky good-for-nothings. But Jesus saw them as precious children of God. When He heard them calling, He was gripped by their condition. In fact, the Bible tells us that Jesus was “moved with compassion”. He walked to them, talked with them, and touched them. He healed these two beggars and they became followers of Jesus.

The list could be very long…. The demon-possessed, the traitor tax-collectors, the oppressed women of the day, and at times, even the haughty Pharisees were all recipients of Jesus’ liberal unreserved goodness lavished upon those who needed it most.

Jesus’ arrival at Christmas was all about purpose. Hundreds of years before the Savior’s arrival, the prophet, Isaiah, expressed what this Promised One would be like. In the verses above we read a synopsis of what characterized this amazing Messiah—His Spirit-driven compassion would primarily extend to the afflicted, brokenhearted, and the captives. Yes—Jesus would focus primarily on those that everyone else generally forgets!

Maybe that’s why He arrived as a nobody. Maybe that’s why He came with no advantage over anyone…born into an impoverished family, exiled as an alien in Egypt, fleeing the rage of a mad dictator, homeless, needy, unassuming.

Guess what? You’re called to be Jesus! That’s why He invited you to come to the manger…

2 Corinthians 4:11 makes it quite clear that Jesus wants to live His life through us. Now get this:

  • The plan is not for us to live our lives and then add a dash of Jesus to it.
  • The plan is not for us to act like Jesus.
  • The plan is not to try really hard to do what Jesus did.

The plan is for Jesus to actually and miraculously live His life through our mortal flesh!

This is only possible when we die. The plan is for us to die to ourselves so that Jesus can live His life through us. That’s also what Romans 12:1-2 emphasize when it states that we are to become “a living sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is our reasonable service of worship.” Jesus wants to be right here in our world, in our workplace, in our health club, in our home…through you!

You can never achieve Jesus-status. You will never muster up the resolve or discipline to become Jesus on your own merit. This intended reality for you is only possible through a miracle from God. Our Father in Heaven longs for you to live the life of His son, Jesus, through you. He alone can make it happen as you offer yourself to die. In other words, you sacrifice yourself so Jesus can live through your arms, hands, feet, voice, motives, thoughts—every little nuance of who you are.

And you have to die daily. Jesus made that pretty clear in Luke 9:23-24.

“If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.”

By the way, when someone picked up their cross in Jesus’ day, it meant only one thing–they were going to die.

Christmas is over. It’s time to Leave the Manger–to step back into our world for all of the right reasons. This Child-King we have worshiped is calling us to give something back. Our very lives! And when we do, we will find life in a way we never imagined. We too will start doing things that we never thought possible. It won’t be us…it will be the Christ incarnated through our flesh!

That’s an adventure I hope none of us will miss.

ACTION: Take a moment to talk with God about dying to self and letting Jesus live His life through you.

Leaving the Manger: Trusting God

Matthew 2:13-15  Now when they (the magi) had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise and take the Child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.” 14 And he arose and took the Child and His mother by night, and departed for Egypt; 15 and was there until the death of Herod, that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “Out of Egypt did I call My Son.”

When I read this passage of scripture, two thoughts immediately come to mind:

  • When God wants to tell us something, He can figure out a way to get it done.
  • I am so glad that God sees the beginning, the end, and everything in between.

It was essential for Joseph to hear God’s voice. We may feel a little jealous if we have never had an angelic encounter. God used the readiness of the mind during sleep to accept the message of the heavenly messenger. Did you notice that? The “angel of the Lord appeared…in a dream!” But unlike many dreams, Joseph could remember with startling clarity what message was conveyed: “Get out of town!”

Herod would soon be furious over the slight of the magi. By God’s divine instruction, they headed home by a different route in order to bypass the Judean king. God knew the events that were about to transpire. He always does. And always, God has a plan for us in whatever is headed our way. If we’re listening and ready to comply with God’s design, we will always remain in the center of His will, even if life gets really ugly.

A new season of time stands before us. There are so many unknowns about it. Will I still have my job at the end of the year? Will I lose anyone close to me in the months ahead? What tragedies await me just around the corner? What school-of-hard-knocks does God have planned for me now? What disease is lurking in my body that will show itself in the days ahead? Yes—there are so many unknowns. But not one of them is a surprise to God!

Psalm 139:3-4, 16

3 Thou dost scrutinize my path and my lying down,

And art intimately acquainted with all my ways.

4 Even before there is a word on my tongue,

Behold, O LORD, Thou dost know it all.

16 Thine eyes have seen my unformed substance;

And in Thy book they were all written,

The days that were ordained for me,

When as yet there was not one of them.

Joseph and Mary understood the omniscient nature of God. They understood that God’s knowledge supersedes all time. He is in the past, present and future all at once! The Almighty is not bound by this arena of time in which we live. So—with absolute trust in the command of God, they scurried out of town in the dark of night to avoid any witnesses to their departure. Joseph’s obedience was immediate and complete, even though it brought them even farther from their home in Nazareth.

Egypt.

This is a place of pain, humiliation, despair, helplessness, enslavement, bondage, lostness…

Egypt was not a positive place for an Israelite. Their forefathers and families were debased in this despicable land. Four hundred and thirty years of slavery was cruelly etched into the fabric of these chosen people. By the way, did you know that they also spent four hundred and thirty years in the Promised Land…and then four hundred and thirty years in Babylonian and Persian exile? They returned to Jerusalem in 430BC…that’s right! Four hundred and thirty years after returning to their land of promise, the Savior comes, only to be sent back into exile again!

So when God tells Joseph and Mary to flee into Egypt, it required a special faith in the knowledge, wisdom and trustworthiness of God.

But they go.

They go into exile. In Egypt. Because God told them to go.

I’m quite sure that God will sneak up on you some day soon and say, “I want you to do this ridiculous thing that looks like sheer lunacy. Will you do it?” What will you answer?

It all depends upon how well you know God…how much you can trust in His infinite wisdom and undying love.

Will you go?

ACTION: What two or three things could you do or implement in your life that will help you know God better in this coming year? Talk to God about these today.

Leaving the MANGER: Deep Reflection

“But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart,” Luke 2:19.

I have fond memories of each of our children being born. That moment of looking into the face of our first child brought chills to my body and fireworks to my brain! I looked at that cute little bundle of mess as they lifted our daughter out of Susan’s womb and whispered a question, “Who is this little person?” I remember being overwhelmed with the creative ability of God to make someone out of virtually nothing.

Of course, pictures were taken so that the memories could be secured for a lifetime.

Not so for Mary and Joseph. With Jesus arrival, as spectacular as it was, there was no way to secure a clear memory of the sacred event. But as only a mother would do, the details of Jesus wondrous arrival were safely secured in the mind of Mary. The Greek word used here for “treasured” is the word suntereo, meaning to carefully preserve something of significant value. The word is used only four times in the entire New Testament. Twice it is used of wine being placed in new wineskins so that both are “preserved”.

Mary thought of these amazing experiences often. She reflected regularly on the intervention of God in their lives. She thought often of God’s amazing grace demonstrated through the Gift of God in infant form. The details of the shepherds’ arrival, their testimony to the angelic declaration, the voice of God in their own lives, the visit of the magi, all were holy moments that would affect her forever. Many of these memorable experiences, I’m sure, are not recorded in scripture. They are reserved for the Holy Family alone. Jesus’ first cry, the moment He smiled, the first time He turned over in His crib were all precious in ways that extend beyond that of every other child. These were displays of the Almighty’s humility, strength wrapped in helpless form, an infinite God bowing to the struggles of common humanity. They spoke volumes to Mary about the nature of God. And she never loved Him more.

Yes—she treasured up all these things. They were preserved carefully for ongoing reflection. These God-moments brought her regularly into the presence of God.

The verse above also states that Mary pondered them in her heart. The word “ponder” in the original language gives the idea of reflecting deeply. It emphasizes the practice of mulling something over and over until you understand the full meaning and significance of something. Scripture sometimes presents this practice as meditation.

The Bible declares numerous impressive things about meditating on the things of God. Just listen to this!

Psalm 4:4 Tremble, and do not sin; meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still.

Joshua 1:8 This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.

Psalm 119:99 I have more insight than all my teachers, for Thy testimonies are my meditation.

Do you see the power of deep reflection? Freedom from sin, the promise of success, and the seeds of deep insight become ours through the practice of meditating upon the things of God.

Mary was a master at this. She treasured up all these things and she reflected deeply upon them. No wonder that she is viewed with such dignity and respect. She lived to know and experience God in all of His fullness!

What about you? Do you ever ponder the things of God? Meditation is definitely a practice worth pursuing. The rewards are great, the affects significant, the joy unparalleled.

Here’s the truth of the matter: You and I will always be shallow Christians until we learn to reflect deeply and regularly upon the things of God. He is so infinite! His ways are so beyond us! His plans so incredible! His blessings so complete! But these only become ours as we are consumed to treasure and ponder these great things of God.

“For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.”

ACTION: A great way to meditate on the things of God is to take one verse of scripture a day or week. Learn it and think about it over and over. Ask God to show you truths about this verse. Let Him show you how precious every morsel of His word is for your life…and the power it has to unleash transformation as well.

Will you choose to reflect deeply and regularly on God-things in this coming year? Tell God about your decision…

Leaving the Manger: Obedience

Luke 2:21-25 And when eight days were completed before His circumcision, His name was then called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.

22 And when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every first-born male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”

These few verses are riddled with expressions of obedience by Joseph and Mary.

Just the other day, while driving on a long trip through inclement weather, I came upon a police officer who was going way too slow. I had a choice to make. Would I fall back and slow my pace to avoid a confrontation with the law, or would I carefully pass the officer’s vehicle and risk a ticket? Been there? Of course, there were lots of questions in my mind like, “I wonder how fast is too fast in these particular conditions?” and “I wonder if this is a happy cop or an angry cop?” and “Is there some law I don’t know about when it comes to passing police officers?” After a little consultation with my son (who has had more experience with the law than me the last while), I took the risk. My breathing turned shallow as I inched my way past. I exercised the limits of my peripheral vision to see if there was any kind of reaction by the driver of the enforcement vehicle—so it wasn’t too obvious I was nervous. Know what happened next? Nothing. After easing ahead for a couple of miles, I ramped up to my original speed and put the car back on cruise, which was maybe a little too fast for the current highway conditions.

Here’s the point. When someone who is in charge of the law is present, we tend to obey it a little more carefully.

Now—just think of Joseph and Mary. They had God living in their home. No secrets. No pretense of any kind. The law-giver and law-enforcer had dropped in…for the rest of their lives!

When I look at the above passage, I have to chuckle just a little. For those that like to smidge on the rules, the arrival of Jesus in your home would have been a little intimidating. I’m quite sure, though, that this was not the case with Joseph and Mary. From our first glimpse of this couple, we see that they were authentically godly, radically obedient, and sold-out on following hard after God. I suspect that these are some of the very reasons God had chosen them for this role in the first place.

Eight days after Jesus’ birth, they arrive at the temple for the Jewish ritual of circumcision. This was the covenant action required for all of God’s men to be identified as God’s chosen. But wait! Think of taking the blade to the Creator. What would it feel like to inflict pain on the Holy Infant? Don’t kid yourself–as the process of circumcision took place, little Jesus was not passively lying there cooing with a coy smile on His face. Just like any other child, He cried out with searing pain. The created Creator was receiving the first wounds of humanity. And ironically, to demonstrate that He uniquely belonged to God! Did he really need this? Wouldn’t it have been easy for the parent-couple to reason away the need for this particular ritual? But they didn’t. They simply did what the law required: “And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations,” (Genesis 17:12). It’s pretty clear, isn’t it?

By the way, it was tradition in Israel that the newborn’s name was pronounced at the ceremony of circumcision. It was also tradition that the father gave a family name…something that identified the child as being his own son. Not so here. With complete and selfless obedience to the spoken word of God, Joseph declared that His name would be Jesus, meaning “savior”.

Verse 22-24 describe the next sacred event for the chosen family. After fulfilling the regulations for purification after the birth of a son, they returned to the temple to dedicate Jesus to Yahweh as the first-born male in their household. Leviticus 12:4 reads, “Then she (the birth mother) shall remain in the blood of her purification for thirty-three days; she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed.” Yes—they knew and obeyed the law in every detail.  But that’s not all! The Old Testament Law also declared some laws concerning the first-born son!

Exodus 13:1-2, 15-16

13:1 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Sanctify to Me every first-born, the first offspring of every womb among the sons of Israel, both of man and beast; it belongs to Me.”

15’And it came about, when Pharaoh was stubborn about letting us go, that the LORD killed every first-born in the land of Egypt, both the first-born of man and the first-born of beast. Therefore, I sacrifice to the LORD the males, the first offspring of every womb, but every first-born of my sons I redeem.’ 16 “So it shall serve as a sign on your hand, and as phylacteries on your forehead, for with a powerful hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt.”

The first-borns were to be given to God as a joyous celebration of God’s saving grace to the people of Israel! This was to remind them that this God of grace is able to save…and able to destroy. He required the first son as an offering to the Lord. Yes—God was given to God here! The Redeemer was first redeemed.

Mom also needed to be purified. That’s what the sacrifice of turtledoves is all about. As a sign of completion for her thirty three days of purification, she was to have offered, on her behalf, a lamb. If the worshippers could not afford a lamb, however, two turtledoves would suffice. And so it is here. Those commissioned to raise the Lamb of God could not afford to bring a lamb for sacrifice. With humble obedience, they purchased the required turtledoves and the offering was presented to honor the Lord in all these things.

What precious obedience we see in this godly and humble couple. They were intent on obeying every nuance of God’s requirements. They knew that God deserved everything He requested. They knew that better now than ever before!

It is so common to downplay obedience. After-all, God understands. God forgives. God cleanses. And so with sloppy theology and carnal motives, we often do what we want rather than what we are told. Unfortunately, if this is our mode of operation, we will miss out on the greater things that God entrusts to those whose heart is wholly devoted to Him. Remember what Jesus said in later years? “If you love me, you will keep My commandments.” The same God who said it then, declared it in Old Testament writ as well:

2 Chronicles 16:9 For the eyes of the LORD move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His.

The God who entrusted this couple with Jesus is the One who still seeks for those whose heart is completely His…and who demonstrate that with radical obedience.

ACTION: What action of obedience is God requiring of you right now? Write it down…and then talk to God about this area of your life.

Leaving the Manger: Listening Closely

Matthew 2:11-12 11 And they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshiped Him; and opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their own country by another way.

I deeply admire the magi. Some day, when I walk through those pearly gates, I’m looking up those men who trekked their way across hill and vale to worship Jesus. I plan on asking them a few questions that will hopefully assuage my curiosity:

  • How did that star tell you that a savior was born?
  • How difficult was it for you to decide to go?
  • What did you feel the instant you saw Jesus?
  • How is it that you were still listening after you had accomplished your objective?

That last question is the one I would like us to consider for a moment. The above scripture provides some intriguing information: “And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their own country by another way.”

On their passage through Jerusalem, the magi seemed nearly naive as they questioned King Herod about the Savior’s birth-place. In their pursuit of finding the messiah, they overlooked the political dynamics of another king dropping into the region. Without question, Herod, King of Judah, had no intention of allowing a proclaimed King of the Jews to remain unchallenged. No chances taken…no regrets possible. That was Herod’s philosophy. This prophesied child was simply a threat to undo.

After finding and worshiping Jesus, the magi receive a warning from God by means of a dream. “Go home another way,” they were instructed. They heard, they listened, they obeyed.

How natural it would have been for them to let their guard down. They had searched for months (maybe years) to get to this spot and do what they did. Mission accomplished, right? They had achieved their objective. The job was done. It was now time to go back home and fit back into normal again.

Not a chance! This passage helps us see that when the magi found and worshiped Jesus, they found their mission! Whether they realized it before or not, they now stood at the starting line of a new race. They had witnessed something that would feed their souls forever. They had been privy to something so big they could never live life the same again. The magi had come so far and given so much, but when they looked God in the face—when they saw what He had done and grasped what He came to do, their own sacrifice and effort seemed silly. Their mission had just begun!

After meeting Jesus, the magi were infused with a completely new resolve. Vigilant to do their part, careful to not miss a step, their spiritual ears were keen on hearing the often subtle whispers of God. But God didn’t speak in a whisper. He spoke through a dream! How easy to dismiss it. No—God didn’t speak through dreams then any more than He does now. The fact is, when God spoke, they took heed and followed the command.

They were spiritually engaged.

They were eager to hear God’s direction.

By the way, here’s a little something to ponder. Each of us owns a natural pathway by which we best experience God. Some may find Him primarily through serving others, while another person finds Him by being an activist…fighting for justice on behalf of others. One individual experiences God through celebrative worship, but another primarily through intellectual discovery…another through relationships. The magi may have had the natural pathway of finding God in nature (through the heavens and astronomical movements of space). After-all, this is what first grabbed their attention so decisively that they put life-as-normal on hold to follow their hearts. Yet, in this passage, they also hear God through a contemplative means—they meet God in a dream! I’m guessing this may not have been their natural means of connecting with God, but their awakened spiritual passion, hunger for truth, readiness to serve, and intense vigilance in seeking God enabled them to hear.

Maybe God is whispering your name, but you’re not listening. Maybe He is speaking in a way you’re not expecting. As a result, it will be easy for you to dismiss the voice of God and miss this essential divine leading of the Almighty.

So—here we are at the threshold of a new year. Twelve months stand before us…365 days of opportunity, 4380 hours to get it right. Every day God speaks. Are you listening? Are you spiritually engaged? Are you eager to hear God’s voice and heed His direction for your life? Are you intent on following His directives? Are you really listening?

It’s time to re-enter your world and it’s mostly filled with normal. Who wants that? Sometimes there are even Herods out there. But that’s OK…if we’re really listening. God has a plan that He wants you to follow. But there’s only one way to get in on it. Listen well…

ACTION: Identify a couple things you hear God telling you right now.

Now, as a first-step of obedience, decide how you will follow God in each of the areas He is speaking to you about right now.

Leaving the Manger: Power to Change

Luke 2:16-20 16 And the shepherds came in haste and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. 17 And when they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.

The shepherds were the first guests to see the Incarnation. God’s angelic declaration—His spontaneous invitation provided them a front seat in this marvelous adventure of Immanuel invading our world. These simple men were masters at caring for sheep, but most likely lacked in their interactions with people. Their occupation sentenced them to long hours and endless days of isolation on the hills of Palestine. Their commitment to feeding, watering and protecting the sheep left little time for them to connect with people. Chances are, this was just fine with them. These shepherds tended to be introverted rather than extroverted anyway. They would prefer a peach in the pasture over pralines in a palace any day! Isolation was just fine with them.

Everything changed for these shepherds. God intervened! As scripture states, “They came in haste and found their way to Mary and Joseph and the baby as he lay in the manger.” They saw Jesus. They worshiped Jesus. They would never be the same.

These quiet types could no-longer keep quiet! As scripture states, “And when they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child,” (verse 17). Those whose lives were lived for the safety of the sheep now lived to proclaim the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” The shepherds had met the Great Shepherd. They would never be the same.

This is what happens when we meet God. Things will change if we have really come to the manger and encountered Deity. We leave different when we have gazed into the face of God.

Not so sure about that? Let’s take stock for a moment.

  • Remember Moses? When he stood in the presence of God, he was so radically changed that people couldn’t even look him in the face! His transformation was so profound that it required him to wear a veil in the presence of the people to minimize the glory of God reflected in his countenance.
  • Isaiah was transported into the very throne-room of Majesty. This glorious vision blew his mind, but also revealed his sin. With intense awareness of his “unclean lips”, he stood before the purity of God’s holiness. When the Almighty took notice of Isaiah by having an angel purify his lips with a burning coal, he was radically transformed. Subsequently, when God asked for someone to go as His representative, Isaiah surprised even himself at his ready declaration, “Here am I! Send me!” He volunteered to do something that moments before he could not have imagined. God had worked His miracle on an ordinary man now turned prophet.

In actuality, the transformation within the shepherds is just another in a long list of God seekers. The creator of the universe loves to make Himself reachable to every one of us. When we seek Him and when we find Him, we become profoundly affected, truly impacted, and radically changed. Maybe, just maybe we will have something so big within us that we cannot keep it in. Like the shepherds of Bethlehem, a fresh view of Truth may grip us so strongly that we cannot hide it for ourselves.

There’s one other statement to notice about the shepherds. They “went back glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, just as had been told them,” (verse 20). Contained in this verse are several important insights:

  • They went back! Yes—they returned to their sheep. My guess, though, is that they never performed their same job quite the same. The shepherds had met the Great Shepherd. Those who had raised sacrificial lambs for the temple had met the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. These simple men embraced their old task with new meaning. Yes—they went back, but they returned to their same task with a completely different orientation. They had met God!
  • They returned “glorifying and praising God.” What a difference an encounter with God can make! This was supposed to be a night like any other. The Shepherds had no plans but to guard their sheep in the dark of night and begin another normal day as dawn arrived. But by the time morning arrived, we witness some holy rollers. We see a handful of shepherds who are pumped-up and righteous. These sheep herders were filled and overflowing with a startling awareness of God’s amazing grace. The Great Lover of their souls came all the way from Heaven to meet them here! They couldn’t help but glorify and praise God for who they had found Him to be!
  • They were gripped by the truth of God’s declaration. As scripture clearly states, they were worshiping God “for all they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.” You see, they were amazed that God had proved Himself! He not only spoke it, but He did it! By the way, this is one thing you can always count on from God. He will back up His word every time. When this fact grips us completely, like it did the shepherds that first Christmas, we will stand in awe and bow in worship.

So here’s the question: Have you met Jesus this Christmas? Have you been changed? I know—it’s not all about mountain-top experiences. We should never depend on big moments or miraculous interventions. But also remember that God never intended our relationship with Him to predictable, mundane, or stale. Walking with God is intended to be invigorating, life-giving, and life-changing. Don’t try to justify some mediocre life-style by reasoning away your non-experiences with God. Trust me…God wants you to meet Him and then walk away with chills in your spine and goose-bumps on your back. Even more so, He wants you to walk back into your world so filled with the truth about God that you cannot keep silent.

ACTION: Have you met God recently in such a way that you have been changed? If so, write down your thoughts of gratitude for what He has done for you.

If not, tell God how much you want that encounter…and what you want Him to do in your life. Then commit to praying for this every day until you see it happen.

Leaving the Manger: Go Back!

Luke 2:20 And the shepherds went back…

Matthew 2:12 The magi…departed for their own country by another way.

How nice to stand in the presence of God, yet we come in order to go. It’s life-changing to come to the manger, but the world awaits our return.

The shepherds were the first outsiders to witness the holy birth. How kind of God to invite these common hard-working folks to stand in the Savior’s birthplace and take in the shocking scene. There they stood in the presence of God. Their wildest imaginations could have never conceived such a moment. But here they were, chosen by God to come and stand in the presence of the Creator in a cradle.

And then…it was time to go back. Yes—the sheep were still in the pasture. The reality of life goes on. Animals needed to be protected, lambs cared for, the flock must be fed. Responsibility calls. So—as scripture clarifies, “the shepherds went back.”

It may seem like a silly question, but why couldn’t they stay? If God invited them…and God could watch the sheep—or find someone else to herd them…or keep the wolves away…or bring the sheep to them…or if God could do something completely new and different that God had never done with sheep before, why couldn’t the shepherds just stay in the presence of Jesus?

Because we come in order to go.

How about the magi? They traveled thousands of miles and gave months of their lives to arrive in this place to worship Jesus. They gave so much…why couldn’t they just stay here in the presence of God-With-Us? That’s the least God could do, right? Just imagine how exhilarating it must have been for these travelers to see the star over Bethlehem. They scurried into the village to find this Promised One–the object of the heavenly sign. In fact, the Bible tells us that even before these magi saw Jesus, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10) when the star stationed itself over the place where Jesus rested. Imagine the spiritual high of breathing in this Divine Presence! Try to comprehend the awe and wonder of these men who found what they had looked for and sacrificed for and longed for all these months! Consider the pure pleasure of worshiping the God-child as they embraced the truth that this was God in the flesh just as Yahweh had promised in the scrolls of scripture! What was so important that these visitors needed to return to place of their origin? Why couldn’t the magi stay in the presence of Jesus?

Because we come in order to go.

Sort of like the shepherds and the magi, we too are invited to meet with God. No—it’s not quite as unique, mind-boggling and gripping as that first Christmas, but it is just as real. The invitation is open to every one of us every day at every moment. God wants us to have these God-encounters that change us forever. This is not a nice-sounding theoretical dream based on wishful thinking. God longs to intersect his righteousness with our reality. He awaits our arrival of readiness in order to receive His fullness of blessing. He wants to pour His presence into our souls and then…send us out.

Because we come in order to go.

Sundays are generally the time when Christians gather together. But Saturdays or any other day of the week is perfectly acceptable too. The important thing is that we come. And that we come to give our worship. That we come with a realness to our arrival rather than a routine to wrap-up. The New Testament declares the value of our togetherness:

Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near. Hebrews 10:24-25

The admonition? Get together on a regular basis as fellow believers. And we could say, “To meet God!” After all, if we don’t meet God when we offer our worship together, we have missed the Object of it all.

Why get together? To encourage one another to go out and do “love and good deeds.” We are to be the presence of Jesus in our world. Incarnate Christ. Bring the presence of God.

Because we come in order to go.

Don’t fall back into some carnal rut of “worshiping” just for yourself. Don’t return to the cursed place of self-infatuation…simply getting what you want for your own benefit. Don’t “do church” because you’re looking for whatever it is you want out of it. This is completely sinful. We are never invited to come only to get. We’re invited to come and get so we can go and give.

And let’s be clear–corporate worship is not the only place–nor even the primary place–that God wants to meet us. He longs to engage us anywhere–even under the stars or on a grassy hillside littered with sheep.

Here’s the truth of the matter: If we don’t meet God, we don’t have much to give. If we meet God, we cannot keep it for ourselves.

Are you ready to turn around and go back into your place of influence? Are you ready to infect others with the reality of God? Do you really understand that you come in order to go?

ACTION: Write down your thoughts about being a vehicle of God’s presence in our world every day in this coming year.

Now–ask God for His Holy Spirit power to help you be just that.

Come to the Manger: A Heart of Worship

Matthew 2:1-2

2:1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him.”

Come to the manger. Make sure that in this Christmas season you meet Jesus. I am ashamed to say that many Christmases have passed me by in the past in which I have totally missed the Christ. The stresses of the season, the financial strain of gift-giving, the hectic pace of party after party, and the commercialism of the holidays had squeezed Jesus into unnoticed corners in my life. For a number of years, I dreaded Christmas. I was caught up in all the things we have made it and totally missed what God had made it. Yes—I even preached the sermons, offered nice pious-sounding sound-bites, attended worship services and Christmas programs, read Luke 2 and prayed my prayers. Yet there was something amiss in my soul. Calluses maybe? Inoculation? A rut I couldn’t get out of? I’m not even sure, but there was an orientation in my life that left Jesus out of the equation. What a pity!

Consider the magi. Pretty incredible! They were thousands of miles from Bethlehem. Most likely, they had never read an Old Testament scroll. Their devotion to the Creator God was real, but very different from anything the Middle East had ever seen. Yet, here they are on that first Christmas making the long trek to Bethlehem! They traveled so far, sacrificed so much, embraced risk, overlooked personal reputation, all to search for the King of the Jews. He was not even of their race or culture! His coming was made apparent by a star in the night sky!

These magi were astronomers. I find it fascinating that God spoke to them “in their language”. He knew their hearts and communicated in a way they could understand. Bottom line—these God seekers were sensitive, receptive, and bold. When they saw the message from God, they packed up and headed out.

Notice what they traveled that long distance for? To worship the Savior! I’m guessing that when they finally arrived at the place where Jesus was, they bowed in holy awe of the Gift and worshiped like never before. They had invested so much to come to where Jesus was.

There is a great principle here. Real worship often exacts a high price. We sometimes think that worship is a casual experience…something where we’re supposed to get something from God. Wrong! Worship is all about giving something to God. The gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh were not even the greatest gifts they gave to Jesus. The fact that they had given so much of themselves is what mattered most. Oh! How they honored Jesus by coming so far with the pure motives of worship in their hearts!

In contrast, we sometimes pull ourselves out of bed on Sunday morning thinking it would be nice to stay home and attend Cover Covenant with Pastor Pillow. Or we dutifully attend our church service thinking “they better not have this song or that…or I sure hope the pastor has a message worth listening to today.” When worship becomes casual, self-centered, and non-sacrificial we have moved into the wilderness of despair. We will never enter the presence of God with a mind and heart-set like that. The magi present a tremendous model. Do whatever it takes to find Jesus. Go to whatever lengths it takes to offer something to God. Give something up to offer authentic praise to the Giver of all good gifts. Real worship often exacts a high price.

Don’t even think of coming to the manger if your intention is not worship. You cannot come to Jesus to get something, but rather, to offer something there. And yes, it is in giving that we receive. You will always get more than you give if you come to truly give rather than receive.

Want to come to the manger? Would you like to look into the face of God? Do you desire a holy moment of awe and wonder this season? Would you like to be changed forever? Come to the manger…

ACTION: Look over your written prayers and action points over this past week. Pick out one or two that you know will make all the difference for you. Write them down here…and then offer a written commitment to God about what you will do with these in order to come to the manger this Christmas.

Come to the Manger: Passion and Attentiveness

Luke 2:22-25, 36-38

22 …They brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord…and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”

36 And there was a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with a husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. And she never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. 38 And at that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

I feel so privileged to be a pastor. I have seen the hand of God in such powerful ways through the years. Like the small infant so weak from a heart defect that doctors could do nothing. A prayer for healing and anointing with oil unleashed the unlimited power of God in this baby’s life. She’s now a married mom living for Jesus. Or the carousing, womanizing drinker who prayed to accept Jesus as his savior and Lord…and is experiencing a radical transformation in his life to this day. Or the demonized woman whose satanic power was frightening…who experienced the greater freeing power of Jesus Christ. I could go on and on. It has been such an honor to serve the Lord and His people. I have been in the privileged place to see these things happen.

Anna, the prophetess, was in the place to see God too. She was 84 years old, which was ancient in those days when the average life-span was maybe half that age. She lived her life in the temple serving God and serving people. She was a godly woman, living out her faith in the way she could—through prayers and fastings. The nature of what she did with her life indicates a tremendous passion. You do not fast with a casual orientation. You do not serve “night and day” with a mediocre commitment. For close to sixty years she consistently served in the temple. With out a doubt, she saw many God-things in that period of time. But the greatest of all was what happened when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple.

Can you imagine the overwhelming sense of gratitude this woman experienced in that moment? Verse 38 states that “at that very moment she began giving thanks.” Just think about it—this woman served God faithfully for all these years…the God she could not see, touch, hear, or smell. She walked by faith and not by sight. But now, held in arms before her, was God as an infant! The creator of the universe lay helpless and vulnerable in her presence. The same God who met Moses on the mountain, who made the walls of Jericho fall, who demanded holiness of the priest to enter the holy of holies where He resided is now cooing and drooling before her. Talk about surreal! This godly woman did not reason it away, however. She knew God good enough to understand that He can do what He wants…and often does His thing in ways we least expect. Here, in rare form, is the visitation of God. Anna met Jesus.

I love what verse 38 states: “and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” This old godly woman was re-energized! She had seen God! After looking into the face of the God-child, she could not keep silent. As godly and passionate as she was before, it was even more so now! She talked about the visitation of God to everyone who would listen…especially to those who were looking for the Redeemer.

When we meet Jesus, we are re-energized. Our passion gets ratcheted up, our purpose is clear, our mission consuming.

Would you like to meet Jesus this Christmas? I mean really meet Him? Beyond all the familiar stories, traditions, church services, Christmas chatter, and personal routines, Jesus longs to meet you in a new, powerful, and personal way. Anna reminds us that it pays to be passionate and attentive to God’s work and presence. She didn’t miss Jesus…and neither will you if you truly long to find Him.

ACTION: What specific actions will you take this Christmas season to be in the proper position to meet Jesus? This may be a spiritual position, a particular place and time, or an attitudinal position. Make your list and commit it to the Lord.

Come to the Manger: Tuned in to God

Luke 2:25-35 25 And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to carry out for Him the custom of the Law, 28 then he took Him into his arms, and blessed God…

When I read this account of Simeon, I am humbled. The picture here is that of a very old man. In fact, it appears that God has extended his life longer than most of his peers since he had such a desire to see the long-awaited Messiah. This man is in tune with God!

  • He is righteous. He was in a right standing with God. There was nothing between them.
  • He is devout. The Greek word here is “eulabees” meaning intentional in keeping every sacred requirement. In other words, Simeon was religious for all the right reasons!
  • He is alert. The picture here is of someone looking intently but with patience for a person they love to arrive. Have you ever stood at the airport with excitement in your chest, adrenaline surging through your body, and eyes vigilant looking for someone you can hardly wait to see? This is the picture of Simeon waiting for the arrival of the promised Christ.
  • He is Holy Spirit controlled. He was a living representation of God in his world. When people met Simeon they knew there was something different and supernatural about Him. God was living in and through Him in extraordinary ways.

When I reflect on the nature of Simeon, I am reminded of how radical our faith should be. Here was a man whose entire life was bent on seeing Jesus! It’s what He lived for every day! As a result, God blessed Him greatly for it…and fulfilled His desire.

Are you bent on seeing Jesus? I must admit, with regret, that I am often taken up by the temporal things of our world so that I overlook the essential things of God. How easy to drift through life like a ship without a rudder not knowing where we are headed. How normal to be focused on the things we can see, hear, touch, and smell while we overlook the mystical and divine. What a tragedy to be so earth-bound that we overlook heaven’s gifts.

Simeon was in tune with God. He was careful to hear the Heavenly Father’s gentle promptings. Even though there were many in that temple the day Jesus arrived for His ceremonial circumcision, Simeon and Anna were the only ones on record who recognized Jesus as the Christ. Simeon was in tune with God.

So—Christmas is coming. We can get so caught up in the temporal things of Christmas that we actually overlook Jesus. I’m ashamed of how many Christmases I have sighed with relief when it was over. I failed to meet Jesus in those seasons because my focus was wrong, I failed to seek Jesus. I was not in tune with God at all. The stresses of the season squeezed out any interaction with the Christ-child.

Do you want to come to the manger this Christmas? Would you like to gaze into the face of the Christ-child? Do you long for that experience of wonder more than any other like Simeon? Then choose to take that journey. Whatever it takes, choose to take that journey…

ACTION: Write out a brief but honest prayer to God about how much you want to meet Jesus this Christmas.