God is in the Manger

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
(Hebrews 1:1-3 ESV)

There will likely be a Christmas party or get-together of some kind at your place of work.  Every church, Sunday School class and public school will have something to attend at this very special time of year.  There is family to visit and food to prepare.  I keep hearing “It’s the most stressful time of the year.”  Even if you’re keeping the Christ in Christmas there is so much to be distracted by.  There is peace and joy as the angels visit the shepherds.  The wise men brings precious gifts.  Our hearts go out to Joseph and especially Mary as they make their pilgrimage in faith to Bethlehem.  It is a tender, precious story of God’s love for mankind.  But don’t forget to look in the manger.

It’s not just a story of an unwed mother being particularly blessed.  The birth of Jesus is the beginning of heaven touching earth.  Hebrews 1 is at the top of the page; take a look at Philippians 2 and Colossians 1.  That’s not just a baby in the manger, that’s God.  Jesus said that he and the Father are one. Isaiah prophesied his name would be called “Wonderful counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  Jesus is God, God is Jesus.  He left heaven to come here and do this.  When we could not come to God, he came looking for us.

If there is anything in your manger other than God himself, it’s time to re-evaluate.  He is not just bringing peace, he is our peace.  Emmanuel means God with us.  He is near; he is here.  God is in the manger.  This is good news for all people.

The Gospel According to Allegory

In a second-grade Sunday School class, the students are told to guess what is being described.  “It has brown fur, a bushy tail, climbs trees…”  Finally a student shyly responds “I know it has to be Jesus, but it sure sounds like you’re talking about a squirrel.”

There is so much analogy, metaphor and allegory in and out of scripture that I’m having a hard time deciding where to start.  The Bible is rich in symbolism and imagery.  Let’s start with something simple in the Old Testament.  When the camp of Israel was being plagued by snakes, Moses was told to fashion a brass serpent and place it on top of a pole.  If anyone was bitten by a “fiery asp” all he had to do was look at the pole and live.  The serpent on the pole is a metaphor for Jesus.  We are all bitten by sin.  (Serpent, Eden, see how many levels this works on?)  We will die if we do not look to Jesus on the cross.  Jesus himself even says that as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.

That’s an easy one to follow.  I contend that everything in Judaism is about Jesus – Moses leading the Hebrews out of slavery, through the wilderness and entering the promised land; the Passover; circumcision; Adam; the alter, temple, and high priest.  I could go on.  The events of the Old Testament are historical facts and help us to understand New Testament theology.  By understanding the role of the high priest we can better understand what Jesus does as he continually goes into God’s presence to intercede on our behalf.  But you don’t have to take my word for it.

The Apostle Paul refers to two sons of Abraham, one by Sara and the other by Hagar.  Paul recounts the history and explains that the events may be interrupted allegorically.  (Galatians 4:24)  So the Old Testament is metaphorical for the New.  What about Jesus’ use of symbolism?  Over and over he draws comparisons to what the Kingdom of God is like.  It’s like a collector searching for pearls; it’s like a woman that looses a gold coin; it’s like planting a field; it’s like the return of the Prodigal, and so forth.  Jesus is like a shepherd, except when he is like a sheep.  We are all like sheep that have gone astray, unless we’re fishers of men.  Or fish.

Can you remember the first time you saw The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe?  Did you realize it was about anything other than a magical land with talking animals?  I wonder what C.S. Lewis would think about Veggie Tales.  So what’s the point of all this?  We are finite in our understanding.  God cannot simply come right out in the Bible and tell us what he is thinking.  Even if we understood our tendency is to disbelieve.  We – collective, human-kind we – often have to be told things again and again.  So stories and themes are repeated, many times.  Jesus is a burning bush, and a sweet branch that makes water potable, and a serpent on a pole, et. al.  God’s kingdom is like a little child on Jesus’ lap.  The church is the body of Christ, or else the bride of Christ.  Why?  Because we need the symbols and pictures to even hope to understand.  We cannot understand God otherwise.  He loved us while we were unlovable, enough to send his only Son.  Jesus loved the same way, enough to not only die but suffer abuse, torment and the cross.  It just doesn’t make sense.

Our minds are small.  Like a child that hasn’t learned to read, we open the Bible and look at the pictures.  (See what I did there?)

Red, White and Jesus

Happy Independence Day.  In honor of America, red, white and blue has been added to this otherwise boring cross shape.  It’s Christian, it’s American.  Perfect.

Yes, I am poking the hornet’s nest.  I want to know if you think this is okay.  There are a little over 1 billion Christians in the world, while only about 300 million or so Americans.  Can we as American Christians take two things we love and shove them together?  Is it good for America/ good for Christianity to do so?  I want to hear the wheels turning on this one.

Is there such a thing as a Christian nation?  We live in a free country, where freedom of religion and expression are guaranteed rights of every individual.  For many, that means we can practice Christianity openly and without fear.  But the “establishment of religion” by the state is strictly forbidden.  We do not live in a Christian nation the way Muslims in Iran or Afghanistan live in Islamic nations.  We have separation of church and state; in those countries the church is the state.  Ever hear of Islamic Law?  Americans are not ruled by Christian law.

Sound Christians principles may be good for ruling America.  But look at the red, white and blue cross again.  Is that good for the cross?  God established nations and thrones, and ordains the events of history.  Heaven and earth will pass away – and that includes this great nation.  Does making the cross of Christ overtly American demean the Gospel in some way?  How do Christians in Russia feel about that cross?  Or China, India or Ethiopia?  I’m sure blonde haired, blue eyed Jesus has no problem with it.  But what about the New Testament Jesus?  You know, the one that was Jewish.

I’ve been American since the day I was born.  My dad was in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, and my grandfather fought in World War II.  I am not a veteran, but do teach American history.  I have been a Christian since age 12.  I am not ashamed of the Gospel or Jesus’ name.  But think about the issue at hand a few moments and decide how you really feel.   How mixed together should our Christianity and patriotism be?  I feel very strongly both ways: let me know what you think.

Martin Luther King “I Have a Dream”

Mike F. posted twice on MLK yesterday.  I teach American History, and show my students what is now known as the “I have a dream” speech each year.  There’s an old saying about everybody having 15 minutes, but his speech really is just about that length in its entirety.  The many civil protests and even the march in Washington may have been forgotten by many in the past 50 years, but King’s speech encapsulates in just a few minutes the collective thoughts of millions of the civil rights movement.  The statements “I have a dream” and “Let freedom ring” are as well known in our collective conscience as “…one small step for man” or perhaps “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

A Novel Idea: Thanksgiving Cards

I got a wild hair on Sunday afternoon and decided to send all the people I work with Thanksgiving cards.  I work in full time ministry, teaching at a private school, and we all consider this our mission field.  It might not work out the same for you if you’re in an office or a more secular line of work.  It all started because our high school principal is under the added strain of preparing for this accreditation year.  I sent him a little note on Facebook to let him know he is appreciated.  I decided to send another little note to our choir director, who puts in a lot of extra hours outside of the usual 8 -3 schedule.  It didn’t seem right to thank a couple of people when so many do lots of extra little things that for the most part go unnoticed.  So I had an epiphany – send a personal note of thanksgiving to everyone.

I had planned to buy a pack of blank Thank You notes from Wal-Mart, but came back from town Sunday (it’s a 30 min. trip) and forgot.  I did what any school teacher would have done in that situation.  I used the letter die machine to stamp out 50 or so cards in the shape of turkeys.  I hand wrote just 2 or 3 sentences on each card, and ended each one the same way: “I thanked God for you today.”  Then I signed my name.  It was a trivial amount of effort.

Sometimes just knowing that anyone at all notices is enough to make a difference.  I know what’s it’s like to work long hours, late at night, on the weekend, etc. and wonder if it even matters to anyone at all.  Nicole Nordeman sings I Want to Leave a Legacy, and says “We all need an atta’ boy or atta’ girl.”  Many people told me it made their day.  Giving thanks is certainly biblical.  Thanking God of course, but we are also told to edify or build up the body of Christ.  Thanksgiving is just as Christian, if not more so, than our celebration of Christmas.  This weekend is the first Sunday of Advent; Christmas is almost a lost cause, but I digress.

The truth is, December is a busy month.  Every group, organization, church, Sunday school class, etc, et al and so forth wants to have a party, a hymn sing, a tree lighting or some type of festivity.  It can be a blessing and a curse.  Live in a community surrounded by Christians and you can work yourself to death just trying to make an appearance at everything.  I also have final exams and grades to get out before leaving for the holiday break.  So… sometimes we get Christmas cards out and sometimes not.  Everyone will get dozens of Christmas cards; do you actually open and read each and every one?  Thanksgiving cards just seemed like the right thing to do.

The Challenge to be Christ-Like

Paul tells us to have the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus.  That’s in Philippians 2 right before he describes how Jesus was an obedient servant even to the point of death.  Obviously Christ lived a life perfectly without sin, and we will all fall short every day.  Still the challenge is there and we are expected, by Jesus himself no less, to try.

Jesus said and did some things that we probably wouldn’t mind imitating.  He was boldly outspoken on a few occasions, and at times silenced even his most vocal critics.  He challenged the religious authorities, flipped tables in Temple, and in short answered to no man.  The command to imitate Christ isn’t about walking on water or turning it to wine, but who hasn’t at least thought about it?  Perhaps cursing the fig tree and calming storms are things we’d like to try.

Most of Jesus’s life as recorded by the Gospels is a little less Hollywood motion picture.  Some Christians attempt to love the unlovable; the drunkard, the prostitute, the homeless and the sick.  Perhaps we have visited those in jail, or given sacrificially of our resources.  Some of what Jesus demonstrated and commanded his followers to do requires a grace that only comes from God.

But follow Jesus to the end.  He is falsely accused and does not answer.  He is whipped with 39 lashes, struck in the face and spat upon.  He is nailed to the cross and hung to die, the slow miserable death of Roman crucifixion.  The one that created water hangs dying the cross and thirsts.  And what is his response?  He prays for those crucifying him. “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  It is the prayer of intercession.  He is acting in his role as high priest, entering the presence of God on our behalf.  How many of us could do that?  Pay our taxes to Caesar, that’s one thing.  Maybe give one’s own life for a friend.  We are told to pray for our enemies, and maybe you have done that.  Jesus asks forgiveness for the very ones driving the nails into his hands.  We flip out if someone cuts us off in traffic.  As he hangs on the cross, the crowd mocks him by saying “He saved others, he cannot save himself.”  And for your sake and mine, he did not save himself.  To do the will of the Father, he stayed on the cross.  And it was for those Pharisees as well as the Romans he prayed for that day.  THAT’S the Christ we are commanded to be like.

It’s About Time

It’s been one year since my friend Gary got sick with what turned out to be leukemia.  The day of Gary’s funeral last December, Michael Spencer was diagnosed with cancer as well.  This was the beginning of a bad year for our ministry as a whole and myself in particular.  At the same time my dad was diagnosed with melanoma.  The days, weeks, months were stressful, but I had no time for asking God all my questions.  The workload doubled up for many of us, and I was well beyond “burnt out” by the end of the school year.  I had to deal with all of these issues and work more hours doing a bigger job than ever before.  Okay, enough pity party.

Spencer pass away in April, my dad followed in June.  I’m just now getting back into a good place.  My job responsibilities have normalized, and I again enjoy attending our chapel services.  I’m writing blog posts again with some regularity, although not as often as before.  So, it’s about time that I started reading all the blogs I recommend on my blogroll, and leaving comments so that people know I’m still with them.  It’s about time that I submitted to Life in Mordor like I said I would when Mike took me on.  There is a time to morn, a time to heal, and now I feel it’s time to get back to the people and blogs that used to consume my time (in a good way).

I guess what I’m trying to say, when you boil it all down, is this: I’m back.  I used to post 3 or more times a week on The Master’s Table.  I used to read about a dozen blogs and comment on each one.  I had a regular following, and was a regular follower of several blog friends, people that I only knew online.  I had a tough few months there, and was surprised at how long it took me to recover after I thought it was over.  Thank you God for healing mercies, and you know what?  It’s about time.