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One Pursuit

“Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” — Maya Angelou

Unwrapping Christmas

 “When Pope Julius I authorized December 25 to be celebrated as the birthday of Jesus in A.D. 353, who would have ever thought that it would become what it is today. When Professor Charles Follen lit candles on the first Christmas tree in America in 1832, who would have ever thought that the decorations would become as elaborate as they are today.”  – Brian L. Harbour, James W. Cox

“To perceive Christmas through its wrappings becomes more difficult with every year.“ – E. B. White

Certainly, Christmas has become obscured by all the trappings and ornamentation with which we have encrusted it.  So much of the true story, the deeper meaning of the Christmas celebration has been lost to view, buried under rituals of the secularized holiday celebration.  Any cause for celebrating in this world is a good thing.  If the day arbitrarily set aside as that for celebrating Christ Jesus’ birth is the catalyst for secular celebration, that is good.

The important issue for me is that we recognize the rituals and traditions that are extraneous to the central point.  Christmas is a celebration of the incarnation of our Lord and Savior who pitched his tent with us and later died to save us from certain spiritual death.  It is about the Creator and Sustainer who has invited us into His Kingdom of Light, into His very being.  On these we must be clear in our own hearts and our own company.  We need to find the truth and celebrate what that means for us and for the world.

Some of the traditions we keep are misunderstandings of the events around the birth of Jesus the Messiah. I have been addressing some of these in the last few posts on this blog, including the scandal that followed Jesus and His family because of the circumstances of His birth, and the great risk and danger they faced for years after the birth of Jesus.  Please read more on these in the last four blog posts, if you want more information.

There is much misunderstanding about what the “no room in the inn” situation likely was.  In ancient Palestine, an inn was essentially the expanded homes of the innkeeper.  Family members lived in the family common area.  In many inns, this would be the main floor area that was often divided into a family cooking and sleeping area, and space for the animals of the innkeeper and the guests.

The room for family was often a raised area at one end, which kept the animals from encroaching.  Often, at the edge of this raised space would be a manger built into the raised wall.  In Palestinian villages, houses were often built wall to wall, with little or no space for corral and stable.  Social customs dictated that the guests and their animals had to be cared for and protected by the host, so the guest’s animals had to be protected in the interior space.  This type of house-barn arrangement still exists in many parts of the world, including Europe and the Middle East.

It is likely that when there was no room in the inn, Mary and Joseph were not sent to the stable, but were taken into the family quarters for the birth. Had the family of the coming King been sent to the stable for the birth, the village would have been in an uproar due to the mistreatment of such a mighty guest, and the innkeeper would likely have been physically abused for such a social disaster. That the shepherds went on the way rejoicing is an indication that Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus were cared for as well as possible in an inn that was full.

While we do not know how many Magi visited Jesus, it is well established that they did not arrive at the inn.  The account indicates that they visited Jesus at his house.  From Matthew 2:10-12: “When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.  On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”  Based upon the information given by the Magi to Herod the Great, it appears that Jesus was approaching two years of age, for Herod had all boys two years and younger killed.

The gifts they brought are interesting.  Gold was a gift given to people of prominence, indicating the great value of the recipient.  The Magi clearly recognized Jesus as a person of great prominence.  Frankincense was known as the “spice of kings,” so costly and rare that it was given only to rulers and lords. That it was given to Jesus is a recognition of His title, ‘King of the Jews.”  Myrrh is a burial spice, used to overpower the stench of death when wrapping a body for interment. This gift was prophetic of the coming death of the King of the Jews.

The timing of these gifts is interesting, for the family would have to flee in the night for Egypt shortly after the Magi left them.  The gold and other gifts would enable them to stay in Egypt until the danger had passed, and to travel back not just to Judea but all the way to Galilee when they eventually returned.  The needs of the family were met by men from a strange land who had started their journey to deliver these gifts many months prior to the visit.

While the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus were rudimentary and makeshift, our God was fully meeting the needs of the family in uniquely practical ways, providing a family setting for the birth and sufficient funds for an extended refugee journey.  Two more instances that clearly indicate the divine protection and attention to detail in the incarnation story.

“It is a long time since 1832, longer still from 353, longer still from that dark night brightened by a special star in which Jesus the king was born. Yet, as we approach December 25 again, it gives us yet another opportunity to pause, and in the midst of all the excitement and elaborate decorations and expensive commercialization which surround Christmas today, to consider again the event of Christmas and the person whose birth we celebrate.” – Brian L. Harbour, James W. Cox

Christmas, the Great Adventure

The advent of our Savior is truly a great adventure.  “Advent” is the root word for adventure, giving the impression of the arrival or appearance of something risky and wondrous.  The Advent we celebrate has a wild and risky edge to it, because our God has always chosen wildness as one of His trademarks. Listen to what John Eldredge says on this:

“If you have any doubts as to whether or not God loves wildness, spend a night in the woods . . . alone. Take a walk out in a thunderstorm. Go for a swim with a pod of killer whales. Get a bull moose mad at you. Whose idea was this, anyway? …God made all this, he pronounced it good, for heaven’s sake. It’s his way of letting us know he rather prefers adventure, danger, risk, the element of surprise. This whole creation is unapologetically wild. God loves it that way.”

The infant Jesus is born into a world that was decidedly wild, hostile to His arrival. The last prophet to speak to Israel prior to John the Baptist was Malachi, some 400 years prior to the advent of the Savior in Bethlehem.  400 years of silence from God.  In that time the people had been subdued by the Greeks and Seleucids, the Maccabean wars had been fought, and the religious leaders had come to an uneasy truce with the Roman occupiers. The Jewish faith had become a social and cultural construct that allowed the priests to rule over the people and the Romans to be satisfied.  Money and power were flowing to the right places, so peace was maintained.  The Maccabean wars had killed many Jews and had led to the Roman take-over and the establishment of Herod the Great as “King of the Jews.”

Herod would not abide a rival “King of the Jews.”  The Jewish leaders would not have a rival religious leader who could upset the balance of power that made them wealthy. The people demanded a Messiah who would kick out the Romans and restore the Kingdom of Israel.  Power was precariously balanced.  Any disruption to that balance would not be tolerated. Jesus was the disruption everyone feared. His coming established a beachhead for a new, God-centered, transcendent Kingdom that would render the human kingdoms and power centers irrelevant.  And of course, Satan would not allow such a defeat to his plans if he could stop it.

And into this scene Jesus is born to a couple who are outcasts and refugees from the scandal in Nazareth.  The thread of God’s work of redemption had never been thinner than it was at this point.  Before the child reaches His second birthday, the family is fleeing death, becoming refugees in Egypt until Herod the Great dies.  If Jesus had been found in Judea while Herod was alive, soldiers would have been dispatched and the results would have been brutal.  The only peace and safety the family could find was in a foreign country.

Herod dies, and the family begins the journey back to Judea, but the illusion of safety is short-lived.  They must flee again, this time from the new king Archelaus.  From His birth onward, Jesus is operating in hostile territory.  Organized opposition will consistently work against Him.  The people, when they find out He will not feed them food for nothing, desert Him.  He is constantly under threat from some quarter.  He knows this, and He knows how the earthly part of this story will end.  Jesus was born a hunted child, would live a hunted life, and would die the death of a common criminal. 

And yet, on this baby Jesus was suspended the hope of all humankind, for He was the satisfaction of the penalty for all sin.  Through Him all the fears and pain of humanity could find resolution.  Through Him our intimacy and communion with our God would be restored.  The religiosity of Jesus’ day was doing nothing to move redemption forward.  The religiosity of humans today is doing no better.  There is no life in religiosity alone.  Life for us is found in intimacy and communion with our God.  The thread of redemption has always been built upon intimacy with Him.

John the Apostle wrote of Jesus, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” “Lived among us,” is literally “pitched His tent with us.”  Jesus not only came to establish His Kingdom, but to pitch His tent with humans live the Kingdom among us.  The most obvious feature of His Kingdom is the intimate fellowship He demonstrated with His followers.  Thus, John later writes these words to us in 1 John 1:3 “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

The message for us in the Advent of our Savior is this:  Our God loves us very much, and wants to return us to intimate fellowship and communion with Himself.  He sent His Son, the Christ Child, Jesus, to demonstrate the intentions of our God by living among us, dying for our sins and in our stead, redeeming us from death and from pointless living.  Our only appropriate response to this Advent, this risky and wonderful redemption adventure, is to give ourselves fully to living in intimacy and relentless love with our God.  For each of us, this is the greatest adventure.

Merry Christmas.

Christmas on the Wild Frontier

The story of the birth of Jesus is a story of a vulnerable baby born into a scene that can be best described as a wild frontier.  A dangerous, unpredictable world rife with animosity toward God.  Our God sends His Infant Son into this world naked, vulnerable, exposed to great danger. It seems to be a risky and unwise move. Perhaps this birth of Jesus the Messiah is exactly what we should expect from our God, for He has always tended toward the risky, bold and adventurous. Walter Brueggemann stated this: “We live our lives before the wild, dangerous, unfettered and free character of the living God.”

Sadly, the institutional church has been working to make our God appear benign, predictable, safe.  We like to think of our God as kindly, a God of peace, order, and comfort, which He is.  But that is not all that He is.  We probably like our God more in these terms because we like our life more in these terms.  A dangerous and unpredictable God leaves us feeling exposed, at risk. He may ask us to do things that will disrupt our status quo and interfere with our plans.  We do not like uncertainty.

This uncertainty of our God exposes another facet of His work: adventure.  The word “adventure” conveys an unusual, unpredictable, and possibly dangerous experience.  Our God’s work is best understood in the context of such unusual, unpredictable, dangerous risk-taking.  Mark Batterson said this: “Celtic Christians had a name for the Holy Spirit–An Geadh-Glas, or ‘the Wild Goose.’ The name hints at mystery. Much like a wild goose, the Spirit of God cannot be tracked or tamed. An element of danger, an air of unpredictability surrounds Him. I cannot think of a better description of what it’s like to follow the Spirit through life, for the Holy Spirit is something that cannot be tracked or tamed.”  The Celts referred to God as the “King of Mysteries.”

The work our God’s redemption has always been a risky adventure on the human plain. It is always a thin line, often only one person on which everything of the work of our God depended.  Think of Adam.  Everything depended on him, but he did not come through.  You would think that Adam’s actions would change how our God worked among us, but it did not. With Noah, the fate of the human race came down to one man who spent 120 years building a boat where there was no water.  And what of Abraham, the self-preserving, self-serving family leader who had a hard time stringing together consecutive acts of obedience. Yet there was another side to Abraham – the adventurer.  The Lord told him in his old age to depart from his family to a place where he had never been.  “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan.”  Abram (Abraham) took his extended family and set off across the desert to a live in a strange land about which they knew virtually nothing.  That is an adventure.

With Jacob the line gets really thin.  Jacob was conniving, dishonest, and self-serving, yet our God chose him. Renamed “Israel,” he was used by God to launch a race of people who are still at the center of the redemption plan. Then the fate of the new nation of Israel came down to one man, Joseph, sold into slavery to a foreign country by his brothers. The thin thread of redemption could have broken had he borne a grudge, but he did not.  Moses, the fugitive court official and a murderer, hiding out in the desert tending flocks, reluctant and fearful. Joshua.  Gideon. The judges. The prophets.  The line of God’s salvation and redemption was almost always down to one or two key people at a time.  The faithful were always there, always a tiny minority.  Obedience for them was always be a risky adventure.

The righteous have always been few.  The risks are always great.  Jesus asked this question, “When the Son of Man returns, will He find faith on earth?”  If that question does not haunt us today, it should. The challenge for us is to continually be seeking more of our God in our daily living, to be earnest in seeking our role in His Kingdom work.  We are never called to be static, to coast along in the spiritual life. Instead, we are called, each one of us, to be a part of that thin thread of redemption in the world.  Sadly, few respond to the call in wholehearted obedience.

The thin thread of redemption finally comes to Jesus.  The birth of the Savior of the World sets a new standard for riskiness and opportunities for failure.  The Christmas story has a strong theme of wildness to it.  Set in a context of growing darkness and warfare, and it appears risky to the point of recklessness.  The working of our God here is unprecedented, bold, over the edge.  The Savior of the world – your Savior and mine – is born naked, impoverished, a refugee in a strange town.  Before His second birthday He and His family will be fleeing for their lives in the night to a foreign country.  Scandal, danger, threat of death, and risky adventure characterize the birth of the Messiah.  Such is the love of our God for us, and the wonder of His great salvation for us. Such is Christmas on the wild frontier.

Image (massacre of innocents) 1824, Cogniet, Leon (1794-1880) Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rennes, France

Christmas – The Wild Frontier

The Christmas story, the account of the arrival of our Savior as a baby, has a wildness to it. Colored with scandal, flavored with risk, it has elements that are wild, bold, over the edge.  Our God appears as a helpless baby in a scene that could be accurately described as a wild frontier socially, politically, and especially spiritually.  At the street level, His arrival is characterized by scandal and uncertainty, oppression and the threat of death.  The events unfold like a tense novel.

Matthew 2:13-23   Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”  16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”   When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

The scandal around the pregnancy of Mary only intensifies as the story unfolds.  Mary stays with Elizabeth until John the Baptist is born (see Luke 1:39-56).  Why stay in Nazareth while the pregnancy and the ridicule become more obvious by the week?  Mary and Joseph still living in Bethlehem when the Magi arrive two years later, a move that would shield His new family from ridicule in Nazareth.  The family flees to Egypt as political refugees. Returning, Joseph heads toward Bethlehem, but warned against that the family returns instead to Nazareth. Then Jesus and His family relocate to Capernaum instead of staying in hostile Nazareth. Later, when Jesus returns to Nazareth to announce His mission, the people try to kill Him.

Jesus was a scandalon, a stumbling point to many.  Scandal follows Him throughout His ministry.  He challenged the status quo, especially the religious status quo.  Illegitimate, disrupter, religious scofflaw, tax evader; the list of complaints goes on.  How would today’s religious culture respond to a Jesus who was as reckless and scandalous?  What church today would take Jesus seriously or hire Him as a pastor?

And what about His followers?  The list reads like a “who’s who” of outcasts, outsiders, and outlaws.  Peter and the “Sons of Thunder,” impetuous and unpredictable.  Simon the Zealot, a guerrilla fighter from a right-wing terrorist organization.  Matthew the tax collector and Roman collaborator.  John the teenager.  Then there was the issue of the women who traveled in His inner circle.  Respectable rabbis, decent people would never be so reckless.

Jesus called all to follow Him without reservation, saying “Anyone, after putting his hand on the plow, who looks back is not worthy of the Kingdom.”  We admire commitment, we commend willingness to leave everything to follow Jesus. Yet we find it hard to admit the logical conclusion that this call applies to us. The call to one is the call to all.

Jesus is still the scandalon.  To follow Him will always invite contention. We each need to determine if this God who is calling us follow Him closely can be trusted.  If we leave everything to follow our Lord Jesus, will He come through for us when needed?  It is a fair question. Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated the issue clearly; “When Christ calls a man, He bids him, come and die.” Will following Jesus be safe?  No, it will not be safe.

The Christmas story, like the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry, is disruptive. The impact of obedience on the people in this story is crucial to understanding the cost of His calling.  Those who follow Jesus in close obedience are likely to wind up as social or even political refugees, even among their own people.  Yet despite this, following Him will finally give us that for which we are searching in life – rest for our souls.  It will finally satisfy the great thirsting inside us, the great and pure longing in our hearts for our God.

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me,” stated Jesus.  Can we trust Him enough to take up the cross, to daily die to self so we ca follow him closely?  Those in the Christmas story discovered a God who would disrupt their status quo.  He will disrupt ours as well.  Those who obey this call join Him as scandalons.

Christmas – A Scandal Is Born

“But we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness….”  I Corinthians 1:23

In the last few posts, I wrote of the coming of our Savior and the light that He brought into the dark world.  Light is a popular topic around Christmas.  We find great comfort in the positive themes of this season.  Light.  Hope.  Peace on earth, good will toward men. Yet these are not the only themes that are prominent in the historical accounts.  There are other themes that do not offer the same feel-good sentiment, that are also worthy of our consideration.  One of those themes is that of scandal.

Matthew 1:18-25 “This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”  22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).  24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.”

The coming of our Savior, Jesus, is steeped in scandal.  Joseph is betrothed to Mary, a relationship that is more than engagement; they are married under the law except for the consummation and moving in together. Then comes the shocking news. Mary is “found to be pregnant,” meaning her condition is becoming known. Joseph apparently does not get the news from Mary, for the angel explains the supernatural circumstances to Him.

Imagine the pain. Your wife-to-be, legally bound to you, apparently has been unfaithful. Imagine the shame, the scandal brewing around this disastrous news, the impending public humiliation, the bewilderment.  Joseph knows he is not the father, so the ramifications are severe.  Mary could be stoned as an adulteress.  He could insist on it, and no one would blame him.  Yet, “…because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.”  Joseph reveals his true character.  With grace, mercy, and love, he decides to privately divorce her, to minimize the public shame to her.

Visited by the angel, Joseph learns the divine circumstances of the pregnancy.  Instructed to take Mary as His wife, and his obedience is immediate and decisive.  “…When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.”  The cost will be enormous to Joseph, who will be known as the one who could not obey the social and religious standards and wound up getting his woman pregnant before the marriage was completed.  He will the subject of whispers and rumors for years. 

Mary, perhaps only 14 or 15 years of age, has willingly accepted her role in the advent of the Savior.  As a result, she will likely be treated harshly.  How many people, even in her own family, will ever believe her version of these events?  Like the woman at the well in the story recorded in John chapter 4, Mary will likely be a moral outsider, an outcast in her own hometown who will experience mocking and exclusion. Jesus will be associated with scandal from His birth onward.  Many will not get past their own perceptions of scandal, will not give His life and message the attention they deserved.  The scandal will cause them to stumble.

Jesus is referred to in the Bible as a scandalon, a Greek term meaning a trap or snare, an impediment placed in the way and causing one to stumble or fall. Jesus, quoting from Psalm 118, says this about Himself, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected (“scandalon”) has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?  The cornerstone of our great salvation was rejected by the religionists, and he became to them a scandalon, a stone of offense and stumbling.  He is still so for many today.

This is not how most of us would plan the advent of the Savior of the world, nor is it how most of us would expect to be treated for offering up total obedience to the plan. How this story plays out for the participants is bewildering.  It is scandalous.  Mary and Joseph, like so many who will be associated with the Savior, gamble everything and risk all, and appear to lose so much.  Ken Wytsma said:

“The kingdom of God is an upside-down kingdom. It beckons us to gamble all, to trust radically, to come and die so that we might live–to give our lives away. Giving life away is a paradox. It’s losing so we can win. It’s giving so we can receive. It’s risking for security. It’s faith. The kingdom of God means living that tension.”

 

Christmas – The Kingdom of Light, Pt. 3

“To secure one’s freedom the Christian must experience God’s light which is God’s truth.” – Watchman Nee

“This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.”  1 John 1:5-6

“John does not say, “Light is God.” It is, “God is light.” You cannot reverse that. If it were, “Light is God,” then, of course, those who greet the rising sun with arms outstretched and burn incense to it are truer worshipers of God than us. No, it does not say “Light is God,” but “God is light.”  That means that what light is, on a physical plane, God is on every level of human experience.” – Ray Steadman

Not only is the Son, Jesus, the self-existent one; He life itself, and that life is the light of all people.  He is the divine life and the divine illumination that imparts life. What a stark contrast this light is to a world steeped in darkness.  Such a contrast, in fact, that the world in its darkness could not comprehend this light.  Apart from the hope that springs from the light, we know from the history of the world that the people of earth live in perpetual darkness.  The trend of world history is nihilistic, hopeless, and destructive.  Francis Bacon stated, “In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.”  The world into which the light has shown is, indeed, very dark.

For instance, there are those today who have begun to embrace the anti-natalist position – the world is so dark and so bad, that we should stop having children.  To bring children into this dark, pointless, meaningless world is an act of cruelty.  While those who hold this position clearly understand the darkness of humanity, they do not comprehend that it is rebellion against our God that has led to the terrible conditions we see.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” Isaiah 9:2  

It was into a dark world that the Child Christ was born, in an act bursting with kindness, love, humility and grace.  He shined the light of hope and truth from a manger in Bethlehem, and He continued to shine it in His life and ministry.  The light was bright and clear, for Jesus was the incarnation of the Kingdom; He clothed in flesh the life and priorities of the Kingdom and its light for the world to see.

The darkness did not comprehend the light so it sought to overcome it, to extinguish it.  In Bethlehem, Herod tried to kill the light. In Nazareth the locals tried to kill Him.  The religionists and elitists, who saw Jesus as an upstart who was upending their well-crafted system of power and control, sought to kill Him many times. The opposition came because He clearly incarnated the light and the life of God and that exposed them for the frauds they were. At last they coerced the Romans into doing it for them.  Yet, the light could not be overcome.

They succeeded in putting Jesus to death, but to their dismay the light became brighter.  With His death the ransom of the captive race was paid, and redemption was completed. The ekklesia (the “called-out ones”) was born out of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the incarnation of the life and light of God went from one person to thousands. The religionists, of course, sought to crush the movement in its infancy.  Just like the Child Christ could not be crushed in His infancy, the infant church could not be crushed. The great persecution against it only succeeded in spreading the Gospel throughout the Roman world.  The light could not be overcome.

Persecution has always succeeded in spreading the light further and growing the church deeper.  The world still cannot comprehend that light, and those who bear that light are the object of the same wrath.  The last century saw more Christians killed for their faith than any other century.  The only religion in the world that is the subject of persecution on nearly every continent is Christianity.  The Bible warns us of the greatest persecution still to come, and that times will continue be desperate.  Darkness is a spiritual issue at its core, and is still on the rampage against the light.  Spiritual forces of evil are gathering to try again to wipe out the light, and those who faithfully incarnate that light will be the focus of the fury.

Yet the darkness has not ever overcome the light, nor will it ever.

Our celebration of the coming of our Lord to earth to save us from our sin is a celebration of the light shining into the darkness.  It is a celebration of the incarnation of the Kingdom of our God not only through Jesus our Savior, but through the ekklesia, the true church. The light of God continues to shine brightly.  His true followers are the only Jesus, the only light and life of God, the only Kingdom of God this world can ever see.

“… but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”   1 John 1:7

Image via Pixabay

Christmas – The Kingdom of Light, Pt. 2

“The fundamental principle of Christianity is to be what God is, and he is light.” – John Hagee

“Christianity is a daily supernatural experience with your Father God, not a set of rules” Robin Bremer

“This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” – John, the apostle

Light is a fundamental feature of the work our God is doing in the world. Light is a metaphor for our God, indicating purity and righteousness.  It is not that He possesses light or is a source of light. He is light. Light is part of who our God is.  He is absolutely holy, free from any sin, evil, injustice, dishonesty, unfaithfulness.  Thus, the light that Jesus brought into the world with His advent is the light that is God Himself.  Our God has light has invaded our time and space.  What does that mean for those of us living in this world?

John 1:1-9 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” 

A literal translation of John 1:5 reads, “And the light keeps on shining, it continually shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it or overcome it.” The light did not stop shining when Jesus left the earth.  It is still shining today through His followers, the “ekklesia” (called-out ones). Jesus was the incarnation of the light of our God, and He committed the work of incarnating that light to his followers. Sadly, many of those who claim to be followers do not live or walk in the light as Jesus is in the light.

The light of God that was in Jesus is our true life.  Verse 4 tells us that “…in Him was life, and the life was the light of all the people.”  “Life” here is from the Greek, “zoe,” meaning both physical and spiritual life, extending to eternity.  This is the life that is the source for all life, the life principle and energy that extends from God’s self-existent life.  It is this self-existent, eternal life of God that He offers to us that is the light of all the people. On this light, this life is based all claims to hope, joy, peace, salvation, redemption, communion with our God, and everything else that is the work of our God in us.

The light Jesus brought to us is the true light, as universal as the light of creation. He did not come only to the religious elite, nor did he come to reveal light to a single nation or culture. This light is the Word of God that became flesh in the incarnation of Jesus, and it is for all peoples. With the advent of Jesus our Savior, a new era of light dawned on the earth, a new kingdom of light.  The true and genuine light, and by it all truth is measured.  If we do not have this light, we do not know God. We may be spiritual or think on spiritual things, but those who know God, who walk with Him, are exclusively of the light and walk in the light.

At Christmastide, we celebrate the light that has come into the world to illumine us all, and the Kingdom of Light our God ushered into existence. It is the Kingdom of the light of our God.  Isaiah the prophet wrote, “Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”  To walk in the light of the Lord is to walk as His called-out ones, His true followers.  And the Apostle Paul wrote “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.”  What a gift we celebrate in the advent of our Savior, and in the incarnation of the light of God.  What a gift to us that we have been invited to share in His kingdom of light, to share in His very life.

“Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”  – John 8:12

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Christmas-The Kingdom of Light

“The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.”                                               ― Frederick Buechner

Isaiah 2:2-5  In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.   Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob.  He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”  The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.   He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.   Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”

This passage from the prophet Isaiah is on many Advent reading lists yet most people do not know why. It is a prophetic passage regarding the future (to Isaiah) expansion of the kingdom of God.  As the Kingdom advances, people will be able to walk in the light of the Lord. The celebration of the advent of our Savior, Jesus, and the redemption of humankind is a celebration of the light that has come into the world, the light of the Lord.  This is the light of the Kingdom of God within and among us.

This passage contains the most common Old Testament representations of the Kingdom of our God, which were the Mount Moriah on which Jerusalem was situated, the Temple, and Zion.   These prophesies of the coming kingdom in the Old Testament era were not fulfilled in the physical Mount Moriah, or Jerusalem, or the Temple, or in Zion as it is used to identify the kingdom of Israel.  The presence of God left the temple at the crucifixion, Jerusalem was sacked in 60 AD., and the temple was destroyed with the city.  So just what is the Kingdom of our God now?

A kingdom involves three things, a king who rules, a people who are ruled, and the king’s actual rulership. Author and blogger Frank Viola has identified the Kingdom of God as “the manifestation of the ruling presence of our God.”  In other words, it is wherever the rulership of our God is made visible and tangible on earth. The Kingdom of which the prophets prophesied and of which Jesus often spoke is now made up of all the people who have placed and will place themselves under the practical rulership of our God, the King.

Today this includes those people who are part of what the Greek New Testament calls the “ekklesia,” literally “those called out.” This is the past and present-day church, which locally is the community of people who have surrendered their lives to the Lordship of Christ Jesus, who are called out of this world and its systems, and are living by His indwelling Spirit.  It is in these people we find “the manifestation of God’s ruling presence.”   There is no Kingdom of God on earth that is not visible in the “ekklesia.”  Importantly, the Kingdom, the ekklesia is not the organizational church with its denominations, church politics, and business operations.  It is not the North American 501 c (3) business franchises, nor is it the buildings that dot the landscape.  Those entities are at best para-church organizations.  Few if any of them could be considered “at best.”

“The kingdom is not an exclusive, well-trimmed suburb with snobbish rules about who can live there. No, it is for a larger, homelier, less self-conscious caste of people who understand they are sinners because they have experienced the yaw and pitch of moral struggle.”                                                                                                       ― Brennan Manning

Jesus told His followers that the Kingdom was among them, implying that the Kingdom transcended the organizations of the day. The Kingdom of God is the people who are ruled, who incarnate or embody the kingdom just as Jesus Christ incarnated it.  It is this Kingdom of which Isaiah prophesied, and which Jesus Christ came to earth to embody, define, and set in motion.  Christmas, then is a celebration not just of the coming of the Christ as a child.  It is a celebration of the purposes for His incarnation, and the expansion of the Kingdom of Light.  It is also a celebration of our part in the Kingdom story.

“The Kingdom of God is a tricky concept, and I was always taught it referred to our heavenly reward for being good, which, now that I actually read the Bible for myself, makes very little sense. Others say that the Kingdom of God is another way of talking about the church, and still others say that it’s the dream God has for the wholeness of the world, a dream being made true little by little among us right here, right now. My answer? All of the above.”                                                                        ― Nadia Bolz-Weber

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Choosing to Press On to Intimacy With Our God

“In my creature impatience I am often caused to wish that there were some way to bring modern Christians into a deeper spiritual life painlessly by short, easy lessons; but such wishes are vain. No shortcut exists. God has not bowed to our nervous haste nor embraced the methods of our machine age. It is well that we accept the hard truth now: The man who would know God must give time to Him.”                       – Aiden Wilson Tozer

In the last Adventure Blog post, the choice to pursue our God, to know Him intimately, was the focus. How that choice is prioritized practically is the focus of this post. The most obvious evidence of the choice to pursue our God is giving Him significant time every day.  Does this mean making sure we spend a bit of time most mornings reading a devotional about our God or about “principles for Christian living?”  It is deeper than that, very much deeper.

The time we spend in pursuit of our God must be significant – we cannot press on in pursuit of our God with half measures, passionless religiosity, or with fifteen or twenty minutes each day doing “devotions.”  Such activity lacks the devotion this pursuit requires.  The clear pattern of worshiping and pursuing our God in the scriptures is that of giving our God the first, best, and most of everything.  Other things must go to make room.  We will not find time for our God. The world will see that we never find it.  He is so important that we must make time for Him, which will mean laying aside other pursuits and distractions.  It will require us to simplify our living to make room for this pursuit, to tone down the incessant noise and busyness of our modern world. Brother Lawrence, the dishwasher in a monastery some 500 years ago, wrote, “Let us occupy ourselves entirely in knowing God. The more we know Him, the more we will desire to know Him. As love increases with knowledge, the more we know God, the more we will truly love Him. We will learn to love Him equally in times of distress or in times of great joy.”

In his book, “The Knowledge of the Holy,” Tozer stated, “Secularism, materialism, and the intrusive presence of things have put out the light in our souls and turned us into a generation of zombies.” The religious person can be one of Tozer’s zombies as much as the irreligious person.  Like secularism, materialism, and things, religiosity often interferes with spiritual vitality, for it encrusts the pursuit of our God with distracting rituals and activities intended to reform our behaviors.  These do little to bring us near to our God.

What Brother Lawrence discovered that the calling to love our God deeply (see recent “climb Free” posts on this blog) is fulfilled when we walk the path of knowing our God intimately.  For whom can we deeply love that we do not know intimately?  A deep love for our God is not an optional or spare-time endeavor for the disciple of Jesus.  It is our first, foremost, and greatest commandment. We must then, like Lawrence, choose to “…occupy ourselves entirely in knowing God….”  We must seek Him with all our heart, and not be satisfied with the “viewing hours for God” that comprise most church schedules, or the thin soup of pre-packaged devotional readings meant to be digested in as little time as possible each day.

The pursuit of intimacy with our God begins with an earnest desire to know Him, and an equally earnest commitment of significant time and passion to the pursuit.   Jeremiah 29:11-13 said this: For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.”  If we would apprehend our God on an intimate level, we will have to seek Him with all our hearts, with all diligence.  We must pursue intimacy with Him as we would when we deepen a friendship with a highly-valued person with whom we intend share a mutual love.  Again, from Tozer, “Complacency is a deadly foe of all spiritual growth.”

How to begin this pursuit will be the topics of the next several posts on this subject.

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