Preparing a Manger

The book of Isaiah contains some of the most cherished, most quoted, most triumphant promises about God coming. Coming into our world, into our lives. Healing our brokenness, lighting our darkness. It’s a book of hope.

But I had forgotten about the first half of the book. The first thirty-some chapters are preparing my heart this Christmas. And the preparation has been hard.

Almost every chapter portrays people who have turned their backs on God, despise God, laugh at God. They worship things their own hands have made. They congratulate themselves on what they’ve accomplished, on the security they’ve built into their own lives, and even think they’ve found a way to cheat death. They believe in lies, because the lies are more pleasant to the ear than the truth.

In His anger and judgment, God repeats two words again and again, and they stay long in my mind … arrogance and pride.

Because He alone is God. He is sovereign.

God says the arrogant and proud are fools. I have a plan for the whole earth, He says, a hand of judgment upon all the nations. It will all happen as I have planned. It will be as I have decided.

Yet, we think we are in control. We think we have accomplished, and we’ve decided our plan is better than God’s plan. We worship what we create; we look to human alliances to protect us and give us power. If we have not yet conquered death, we at least think we can evade it or deny it for quite a while.

God even has a bit of a laugh at this picture. Such people have made their bed, He says, but lying in it will not be as pleasant as they think:

The bed you have made is too short to lie on,
    
the blankets are too narrow to cover you.

He alone is God. He is sovereign.

The sober warning to rebellious hearts is this:

Because you despise what I tell you
     and trust instead in oppression and lies,
calamity will come upon you suddenly —
     like a bulging wall that bursts and falls.
In an instant it will collapse
     and come crashing down.
You will be smashed like a piece of pottery —
     shattered so completely that
there won’t be a piece big enough
     to carry coals from a fireplace
     or a little water from the well.

A grim picture: The folly of anchoring to something other than God. The futility of scrambling to order and control our own lives. The hopelessness when we build on anything other than the foundation God placed when Mary laid a baby in a manger.

Look! I am placing a foundation stone in Jerusalem,
     
a firm and tested stone.
It is a precious cornerstone that is safe to build on.
    
Whoever believes need never be shaken.

There is our answer and our hope. There is the One we can cling to. There is the Rock to build upon that will not collapse. There is true security and stability.

He alone is God. He is sovereign.

My heart is pounded as I read and He forges His new creation. Daily, I must give Him my pride and my arrogance to shatter and pulverize.

Because Christ came to the stable. He did not come to a powerful palace or the proud temple. He could not enter the inn, full of the world’s business. He came to the manger, to the lowly and the meek, the broken and the humble. I want to prepare just such a place for Him now.

Scripture: Isaiah 14:26; 14:24; 28:20; 30:12-14;28:16 (All NLT)

Christ’s Birth: Hope

Okay, I was admonished today. I’ve been focusing too much on my own hunger this season. Now it’s time to look outward.

The prod came from something I wrote last year about this time in response to a sermon on Matthew 3, the story of John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness, preparing people for the arrival of Jesus. Pastor Don talked about the preparation that takes place in all of our lives, preparation for finally “getting it” and understanding the true message of Christmas. “I finally got it,” he said, “when I realized Christmas wasn’t all about me.”

Ouch. I heard it then, I hear it again this year. Yes, at Christmas we celebrate our rescue, our redemption. But Christmas is also about those who still need to be rescued. Christmas is the good news that freedom is possible. Hope for those enslaved, help for those who feel helpless, God for those who have been separated from Him.

John the Baptist was talking to the Pharisees about their false religion. Don’t be too smug, don’t feel too secure, he said. Unless your lives show true repentance, God will chop you down and throw you into the fire. You are not safe just because you are descendants of Abraham.

Then these words of John jumped off the page and grabbed my heart: God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. (v. 9)

John the Baptist may have been pointing to river stones as he said this, but to me, in 2011, the Spirit says … God can create children of faith from hearts of stone.

Is there a person you care about who has no reason to celebrate a real Christmas because he/she has not been rescued, does not see, has had no room for Christ? Have you sometimes despaired of that heart of stone ever being redeemed? Are you tempted to think it’s improbable or, even worse, impossible?

Yet, here’s the statement: God can create children of Abraham from these very stones.

It’s the redemption story. It’s what Christmas is all about — God, bringing life where there is no life, bringing light where there is darkness.

Hear the message of Christmas hope … Christ was born for hearts of stone.

Christ’s Birth: Immanuel !

I want a fresh Advent every day of this season. 

I do not want to commemorate a historical event. I do not want to get swept away by the commercial blitz. I do not want one short Christmas Eve service or children’s program or holiday concert to be the only occasion to think about a birth that changed my life and my hopes.

I want Him to come into my life now, today, every day, alive and powerful. I want the Spirit to birth new things in me.

And the good news is, that is exactly what Jesus said would happen!

Jesus replied, “All who love me will do what I say. My Father will love them, and we will come and make our home with each of them.” 
   (
John 14:23)

What hope, comfort, encouragement — and awe — there is in this promise: The Father, the Son, and the Spirit will come and make their home with each child of God.

For those who long to know the Father better, this promise alone is enough to dwell upon today ….

“…we will come and make our home with each of them.”

Come, Father, Jesus, Spirit into all of my days. 

The Kingdom of the Prince of Peace (Part 2)

By 3:24 p.m. today, December 1, 2011, this road will have vanished.

No, this is not a doomsday forecast. This is knowledge of an event that happens with regularity and predictability.

The tide will come in, the waters will fill the sea, and this road in Starboard, Maine, will disappear under a glittering expanse of water. The land in the background will be accessible only by boat.

A few miles down the road in Roque Bluffs, a sandbar and most of the beach will be swallowed by the water. In Cutler, hundreds of acres of mud flats dotted with jutting rocks will transform into Holmes Bay, and you’ll see only rippling waves stretching to the horizon.

All along the downeast coast, the tide comes in and covers rocks, sandbars, mud flats, and beaches. Waters flow into bays and inlets, rivers and creeks. The sea swells and fills up the boundaries set for it, changing completely the landscape, seascape, and life itself in what is called the intertidal zone.

I know this analogy is not perfect, but keep those images in your head …

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When Christ rules, peace comes to His kingdom.

And that is the key: When He rules. We call Him our Lord and Master, but does He truly govern us? “Master” implies total control. What controls you? You know what it is to be controlled by other things: anger, ambition, parental protection of your children, a desire for revenge, or the craving for attention or chocolate cake.

I must ask myself: What moments of my life are ruled and controlled by someone other than the one I call Master, Teacher, Lord, King? When are my thoughts and actions dictated by something other than the laws of His Kingdom?

I must examine this question because I still do things I do not want to do; I still fail to do what I want to do. I still hurt others; I still feel hostility, battle an urge to strike out, and fight for what I want. I am still being taught by His Spirit, but I am not always a quick or willing student.

We even carry such things into the church. Paul warns us that if we’re always biting and devouring one another, we’ll destroy each other. Instead, he says, let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace.

In Christ’s kingdom,

Nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,
      for as the waters fill the sea,
      so the earth will be filled with people who know the LORD.

This image resonated with me because I have seen the waters fill all the boundaries of the sea and bring drastic change. A Midwestern landlubber, I had, of course, read about tides, but I never understood what a change they could make in the land and seascape until I watched the extreme tides of downeast Maine.

Learning to know the One we call Father and LORD changes us just as surely and extremely as the tides change the downeast coast. Scripture says it:

All the while, you will grow as you learn to know God better and better.

Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him.

Learning to know the Father changes us! I have seen it in my own life and the lives of others. Knowledge of the Lord expands His kingdom here on earth (we pray for that in the Lord’s prayer). When the Prince of Peace rules, lions lay down with lambs.

I know the tide of His Spirit is still coming in, changing the landscapes of my own heart and of Jesus’ church. As we learn to know our Father, we become more like Him. We are given new natures. Extreme, I know. But we were also once dead, and now we live with the Spirit of Christ himself in us. That’s extreme, too!

 

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Scripture: Galatians 5:15; Colossians 3:15; Isaiah 11:9; Colossians 1:10; Colossians 3:10 (All NLT)

Thanks to friend Dorothy for pointing out to me the Scriptures that depict God setting boundaries for the seas. (Proverbs 8:29) Never thought about it in that way before.

The Kingdom of the Prince of Peace (Part 1)

By the time of the prophet Isaiah, Judah’s wickedness and God’s anger against them have destroyed what great King David and his wise son Solomon once ruled. The history of this chosen people has been turbulent and bloody. The tree of Jesse’s lineage of kings has been chopped down, leaving only a stump.

But there is still hope:

Out of the stump of David’s family will grow a shoot —
     
yes, a new Branch bearing fruit from the old root.

God says a new Branch will sprout from what little remains. An entirely new kind of king will come to establish and rule a new kingdom. That Branch is Christ, and his government and its peace will never end. 

A ruler who brings peace that lasts. That’s quite a promise. Ever since Adam and Eve decided to act on their own decision-making skills rather than on what God told them, their children have been fighting among themselves, instigating everything from squabbles over toys to killing each other for both selfish and holy causes. We have never been able to establish peace in this world, much less maintain it forever.

A kingdom in which there is unending peace … it sounds like the impossible dream.

In that day, the wolf and the lamb will live together;
      the leopard will lie down with the baby goat.
The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion,
      and a little child will lead them all.

Isaiah says that when this new Branch establishes his government, fierce predators will live peaceably with the weak prey they once devoured. There will be no danger, no killing; safety and rest and peace pervade this kingdom. Those who have previously lived as enemies will live together without any impulse or desire to inflict harm.

Some would say this passage refers to a future kingdom, a new heaven and a new earth that Christ rules after defeating Satan and banishing him forever. I see one problem with that interpretation: This description in Isaiah 11 of the Kingdom of Peace comes between prophecies that have already been fulfilled. The chapter opens with the foretelling of Messiah coming and establishing His kingdom. That has happened. The chapter ends with a description of the new King bringing salvation to all the world, Jews and Gentiles alike. Christ did that. Sandwiched between those two things is a description of His kingdom.

I know too little to debate about the timing of this prophecy. But I can tell you what I believe. I believe this gives us a peek at Christ’s kingdom now. Maybe this passage is not so much a prophecy of a future time, but a glimpse of what Christ will do when he rules.

Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is already here; it is within us. And I believe the lion-and-the-lamb picture of a peaceable kingdom tells us what Christ brings when He rules … now.

When Christ rules, the old habits of hostility and aggression are banished. When Christ rules, old enemies can be friends. When Christ rules, I can forgive and love someone who once tried to destroy me. When Christ rules, lions are no longer lions and lambs are no longer lambs (at least, not as we know lions and lambs now).

Some will think this a Pollyanna view, and label the Prince of Peace a namby-pamby ruler of a timid and faint-hearted people. Might this reaction come because we have no understanding of what peace really is? We have never known a world without strife, hostility, quarreling, being at odds, fights of all sorts and extremes. We can’t imagine a world at peace. We are so accustomed to living in a sphere that cannot grasp peace, that we have even sanctioned battles, pain, and discord as a means to an end … even within the church.

So it’s difficult for us to understand what the Prince of Peace intends to bring with His rule. But Jesus reminds us that His kingdom is not of this world. It’s far beyond what our little imaginations can describe. But we are told again and again that it is a peaceful kingdom. As different as light is from darkness, so is His kingdom different from the world we know.

And as extreme and impossible as this lion-and-lamb kingdom sounds, I do believe it tells us what the Prince of Peace can bring to our lives right now if He rules.

When Christ rules, He changes the nature of the beasts that once lived to harm and destroy.

Let me elaborate, tomorrow …

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Scripture: Isaiah 11:1; 9:7; 11:6,9 (All NLT)