Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons

Wise Men and Wisdom

“So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:9–11).

adoration_of_the_wise_men-veronese-mba_lyon_a79-img_0315

True wisdom comes from God and directs its attention to God. The wise men worshiped Jesus, because divine wisdom led them to do so. Worldly wisdom would have led them otherwise. “The Adoration of the Magi,” by Paolo Veronese [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

This weekend, many churches celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany, when we remember the wise men who visited Jesus. This feast brings the Christmas season to an end, but it also gives us an opportunity to reflect on the significance of the wise men and the nature of biblical wisdom. We can recognize that true wisdom has both a divine source and a divine focus. It comes from God and it directs us to seek our greatest needs and desires from Him.

The wise men sought a meeting with “he who has been born king of the Jews.” While in their homeland (possibly Persia), they had seen a star which led them to believe that a great king had been born for the Jewish people. So, they came to meet this great king. First, the went to the most logical place to find a king of the Jews: the palace of King Herod. There were no newborn princes there. So, they went to Bethlehem where, according to Old-Testament prophecy, the Messiah would be born. The star directed them to the home of a poor young couple and their baby boy. Against common sense, they offered their royal gifts to this working-class poor baby.

True wisdom did not submit to common sense: It followed God’s direction. They found the king of the Jews, not in a royal palace, but in a common family’s home. They worshiped God where He chose to reveal Himself, not where it would seem to make sense.

When we read the Old Testament, we usually associate “wisdom” with King Solomon. First Kings 3:12 tells us that God gave him “a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you.” Solomon’s wisdom is the fount from which most of the Book of Proverbs flowed.

Although the book does not specifically say it is written by him, Ecclesiastes is also usually ascribed to Solomon. Many Christians believe he wrote it near the end of his life, as he reflected on his greatest accomplishments and deepest disappointments. The passage at the beginning of this post is one of many from that book, reflecting his discovery that his boldest pursuits were “vanity and a striving after wind.”

If you wonder what that phrase means, step outside, catch the wind in your hands, and then bring it indoors and place it on your table. It will not work. You may feel the wind hitting your hand, but when you close your fingers around it, you will realize you have nothing. The air molecules that have pelted your palm immediately float elsewhere leaving you with nothing.

This illustrates how many live our lives. We grasp for something, and we find we have nothing. Or we grab hold of something, and we find that we have gained something worthless. We fool ourselves into believing one of life’s great lies: That happiness, satisfaction, and a sense of personal significance or meaning in life can be found in the things of this world.

Take time to read Ecclesiastes. Although written thousands of years ago, some of Solomon’s temptations and frustrations sound very current. He sought and achieved great wealth. He amassed power and influence. He pursued pleasure. He thought great building projects or other noble accomplishments would bring him satisfaction. Yet, throughout his life, he learned that all of these things could be lost in a moment. He would one day pass his wealth on to his heirs, and may one day be forgotten by his descendants. (I wonder if anybody has ever gone to ancestry.com and traced their family tree back to King Solomon? Probably not.) Those things that seemed to bring joy, satisfaction, and significance all seemed to end in emptiness, vanity, and chasing after wind.

However, this was not a cause for despair:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14).

The flaw of worldly wisdom and common sense is that it focuses on everything that happens “under the sun” and does not recognize its source and focus in God Himself. The pleasures, passions, and purposes we often seek are temporary; a focus on God Himself is eternal.

I wonder about the aftermath of the Magi’s visit. Magi were usually employed by their king, so their visit was probably intended to be as much political as spiritual. Yet, they did not find what they expected. They did not cut a political treaty for their king with a powerful ruler. Instead, they left their gifts with a poor family and came back with nothing more than stories about a baby that somehow inspired them to worship. Yet, they had worshiped God incarnate, and Scripture testifies to this day of their faithfulness. We do not remember their names and their homeland is not specified, but we know that God remembers them. He says to them, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Most importantly, God invites us to seek our joy and significance by worshiping His Son instead of the things of this world.

It is not common sense, but it is wise.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

 

Advertisements
Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Holidays, Renewing the Mind Reflections | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Blood and the Name of Jesus

And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb (Luke 2:21).

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus (Matthew 1:18-25).

juan_de_roelas_-_adoration_of_the_name_of_jesus_-_wga19648

“Adoration of the Name of Jesus,” by Juan de las Roelas (ca. 1604) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

January 1 is a day of new beginnings. In western culture, we begin a new year. On the traditional church calendar, it is the eighth day of Christmas, celebrating yet another new beginning in salvation history.

On the eighth day since the birth of Jesus, we commemorate the circumcision of Christ, at which time He was formally given the name “Jesus.” On the eighth day, Jewish boys would be circumcised (Leviticus 12:3), and it is during this ceremony that the baby received his name. One can essentially say that Jesus shed His “first blood” at that time. James Keifer writes:

On January 1st, we celebrate the Circumcision of Christ. Since we are more squeamish than our ancestors, modern calendars often list it as the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, but the other emphasis is the older. Every Jewish boy was circumcised (and formally named) on the eighth day of his life, and so, one week after Christmas, we celebrate the occasion when Our Lord first shed His blood for us. It is a fit close for a week of martyrs, and reminds us that to suffer for Christ is to suffer with Him.

Since commercialism tends to silence the spiritual aspects of Christmas, few of us give serious thought to all twelve days. Therefore, January 1 becomes a secular holiday and we overlook the message of Christ’s circumcision. As He receives “the name that is above all names,” He sheds His blood for the first time: a foreshadowing of the fulfillment of His mission to save us from our sins and of His eventual glorification:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).

Instead of clinging to His divine majesty, Jesus took on human flesh, lived a life that was in many ways quite ordinary, so that he could live, suffer, and die as one of us. This is the essence of His entire incarnation and of the Gospel.

Many Christians will speak of the power of the name of Jesus, and others will speak of the power of His blood. Here, at the beginning of His earthly life, the two are united. At the end of His life, He shed His blood completely for the forgiveness of our sins, and in the last days we will all kneel before Him because He has the name that is above all names.

This post copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Holidays | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shepherds, Wise Men, and Ordinary People

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger (Luke 2:8–16, ESV).

04567_christmas_nativity_scene_at_the_franciscan_church_in_sanok2c_2010

Nativity scene at Franciscan church in Sanok, Poland. Photo by Silar (own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.

The nativity scene (or crèche) is one of the most popular Christmas decorations. Many homes and churches display one throughout Advent and Christmas. According to tradition, it was invented by St. Francis of Assisi (ca. 1181–1226) as a simple teaching aide to help people remember the biblical account of Jesus’ birth. All the key players are present: The Virgin Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, a few shepherds, three wise men, one or two angels, and a bunch of animals. In a society when most people could not read, such a visual aide was necessary to teach a central story of the Bible.

It may not tell the story perfectly. For example, the shepherds came to visit the baby Jesus possibly within 24 hours of his birth, whereas the Magi (who were not kings) came possibly as late as two years later, when the Holy Family was now living in a house. Nevertheless, we can see the main figures in the account of Jesus’ birth together in one location at once. However, it works as an effective story-telling device.

The story of Jesus’ birth has become so familiar to most Christians, though, that many of us miss a few key points. Consider the key characters:

  • Mary was a virgin, but could anybody really believe that? An unwed woman could be pregnant in only one way: via premarital sex. In a very religious society, the punishment could be as severe as stoning. At the very least, she could face rejection by the community, perhaps even her parents and immediate family. The best she could hope for would be a quiet divorce by her husband and a life of shame and rejection (betrothal was legally binding). She actually got better than she hoped for.
  • Joseph was a working-class artisan, probably living day-to-day. Although we think of him as a carpenter, he may have engaged in other skilled work with his hands to build and repair things. Could he really believe Mary’s excuse, that the baby was sent by God and she had not had sex with another man? If he married her, it would suggest to the rest of the community that he must be the real father. One can only imagine how his carpentry business would fare when he is known as the reprobate who could not control himself until his wedding night.
  • The shepherds: We like to think of them as gentle souls who spent their days taking care of cute little farm animals. However, most people in Bethlehem would have a different perspective: a bunch of dirty, uncouth rogues who smell like sheep droppings, among the outcasts of society. They may not be as bad as tax collectors and harlots, but they would still not be likely to get an invitation to celebrate the birth of a King.
  • The wise men or Magi were perhaps some of the worst pagans a Jew could imagine. Tradition refers to them as kings, but they may have been emissaries for a king. Magi were actually astrologers, who made their living engaging in a practice deemed abominable in the Old Testament (see, e.g., Isaiah 47:13–15).

Who is missing from this story? The Roman emperor with his appointed regional vassal King Herod, the wealthy, the religious elite, the powerful, etc. The people whom we would most likely include in a strategy to save the world from certain doom are not in the nativity scene. God chose to send His Son into the world through the womb of an ordinary woman, one whose family would never appear in the historical records otherwise, into a very ordinary family, in a small town within a politically insignificant occupied territory within in a pagan empire. He chose to reveal His Son first to people from the outer fringes of society and pagan astrologers who found out about Him via a condemned occult practice of observing omens.

However, you do not need to be left out of the nativity scene. Jesus came to invite you to have eternal life with Him and His Father. While the world worships at the altar of materialism and Santa Claus, join the shepherds and wise men to bow before the Son of God in the manger. Invite Jesus to take His place at the center of the most ordinary aspects of your life, so that Christmas can remain with you every day.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

 

Categories: Bible meditations, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Holidays, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Advent, Christmas, and Parallel Universes

Leonard_Nimoy_William_Shatner_Star_Trek_1968

Science fiction characters like Mr. Spock and Capt. Kirk may find themselves in parallel universes. Christians may feel like they are living in parallel universes during Advent and Christmas. Photo from Wikipedia.

A popular theme in science fiction is the parallel-universe story. In one example from the 1960s television series Star Trek, several crew members from the USS Enterprise are accidentally teleported onto a version of their star ship in another universe, populated by more malicious versions of the crew members (meanwhile, their duplicates from the other universe find themselves on the regular Enterprise). The two universes look identical, at first glance, but differences between the two worlds soon become apparent.

Christians can often sympathize with the person who travels between parallel universes. We seem to do it all the time. This is most obvious during “the most wonderful time of the year.” Over the next month, we will be bombarded with “holiday savings” ads, Christmas songs on the radio (ranging from “Oh Holy Night” to “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”), “Keep Christ in Christmas” social-networking memes, etc. Many of us feel torn between the church’s message (Christmas is a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus), a secularized variation of that message (the reason for the season is family, friends, love, peace on earth, and good will towards men), and the commercialized brand of Christmas that says we have to max out our credit cards and buy tons of fruitcake to prove that we care about people.

In the coming year, I hope to devote some posts to discussion of significant dates on the church calendar. That calendar started today, with the first Sunday of Advent. The mere mention of Advent highlights the differences between the secular world’s view of Christmas and the Christian view. Yet, Advent is almost totally ignored by the world, and if Christians are easily wrapped up in a worldly brand of Christmas, we will miss the significance of the season. Without Advent, Christians will miss the reason for the season.

For one, most of us are saying that this is the “Christmas season,” but from a historic Christian perspective, that season lasts 12 days, from December 25 (Christmas Day) until January 5. We are currently in Advent. The following chart shows the flow of the 2017–18 Christmas season, from a secular and Christian perspective, to clarify the differences between the two (in each calendar, I provide an American viewpoint; I realize other nations and cultures may differ):

DATE

SECULAR CALENDAR

CHRISTIAN CALENDAR

11/23

Thanksgiving: Americans gather to eat a large feast, watch football, and kick off the “Christmas season.”

Thanksgiving: American gather to eat a large feast and give thanks to God.

11/24-26

Black Friday: The same people who previously “gave thanks” for their blessings will now go on a spending
binge at department stores. (Deals and insanity continue throughout the weekend, including “Small Business Saturday” at small local stores.)

Some radio stations will begin playing non-stop “holiday music.” Televised Christmas specials take over the airwaves and cable.

Nothing special

11/27

Cyber-Monday: Follows up on Black Friday with online shopping.

Nothing special.

11/28-12/2

Shopping, television specials, etc., continue the “Christmas season.”

Nothing.

12/3

See above.

First Sunday of Advent. A new church year begins. Christians are encouraged to begin a time of reflection as we seek a closer relationship with Christ, in anticipation of the Christmas celebration and preparation for His second coming.

12/4-12/23

Continued “Christmas celebration” as we all go into debt. By now, my ears bleed when I hear jingly bells at the beginning of a song.

Some people think the “12 Days of Christmas” begin on December 14 and end on December 25.

Advent continues. Let us continue to reflect on the meaning of the season and our need for a Saviour.

12/24

LAST CHANCE TO BUY PRESENTS. Road rage and hostility reign supreme as we rush to buy THOSE LAST FEW GIFTS.

Christmas Eve. We prepare our hearts for a deeper awareness of the presence of Jesus in our hearts.

12/25

Christmas Day: Open presents and celebrate.

Christmas Day: Also known as “Feast of the Nativity” or the “First Day of Christmas.” Open presents and celebrate. If you really want to keep Christ in Christmas, you go to church.

12/26

Well, that’s it. Christmas is over. No more blasted Christmas music. Radio stations dump Wham’s “Last Christmas” and start playing “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” again.

Second day of Christmas. Also known as the Feast of St. Stephen (the first Christian martyr).

12/27-30

No more Christmas.

Third-sixth days of Christmas. Includes a few more feast days. Still celebrating the birth of Jesus.

12/31

New Year’s Eve. Get drunk, sing “Auld Lang Syne.” Prepare to watch a shiny ball drop.

Seventh day of Christmas.

1/1

New Year’s Day. Nurse hangover.

Eight day of Christmas. Also known as the “Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus” since, as a Jewish boy, he would have been circumcised and “officially” named on the eighth day.

1/2-1/5

Nothing. Life is back to normal, until credit card statements arrive.

Ninth-twelfth days of Christmas.

1/6

Nothing special.

Feast of the Epiphany. Celebrates the coming of the wise men. Begins a new season on the church calendar.

As you may notice, there are only a few dates in that stretch where the Christian and secular “calendars” coincide at all: Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day. The world thinks “the Christmas season” runs from Thanksgiving until December 25. The church recognizes most of that time as Advent, beginning shortly after Thanksgiving and ending on Christmas Eve. The “12 days of Christmas” run from December 25 until January 5, although the secular world acts as though Christmas ends when midnight arrives on December 26.

So, here is the challenge for Christians, many of whom are trying to live in two parallel spiritual universes at the same time. How can I devote myself to reflection, perhaps even renewed repentance, while the world calls us to commercialism and celebration without spiritual preparation?

For those seeking to “keep Christ in Christmas,” a renewed appreciation of the meaning of Advent and the church’s rhythm of the holidays will transform the holidays. Anticipation through Advent will lead to a climax on Christmas, gradually transitioning to a new spiritual norm while the world crashes away from Christmas with more material accumulation, greater financial debt, and minimal spiritual impact.

Adventskranz 3. Advent

By Liesel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Christians and Culture, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

A Few Thoughts About the Trinity

But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful. And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

—Matthew 28:16–20, NASB

Shamrock

Legend claims that St. Patrick used the shamrock to explain the Trinity. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Happy Trinity Sunday! Sorry I did not buy anybody a card.

On the liturgical calendars of several denominations, Trinity Sunday occurs one week after Pentecost. Having celebrated the resurrection of the Son of God and His ascension to the right hand of the Father over the past few weeks, the church commemorates its birthday on Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit filled the earliest believers. One week later, it devotes a day to reflect on the Triune nature of God.

Falling on the heels of such an active time on the church calendar, Trinity Sunday can easily be lost in the mix. Many denominations, even those that believe in the Trinity, do not observe the day. Perhaps the biggest reason for this oversight may be the nature of the doctrine. How many pastors want to devote a Sunday to teaching a doctrine they have a hard time explaining? It is tempting to avoid what we do not fully understand.

So, with that in mind, I will not try to prove the Trinity. I merely seek to affirm my belief that this is true: there is one God who eternally exists in three persons—the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. Just for the record, I think that term “persons” may create some of the confusion: it does not precisely describe their nature, but we really do not have a better word to use in its place.

We see the Trinity mentioned in the Great Commission, in Matthew 28:16–20. First, Jesus told His disciples that “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.” Who else could have all authority in heaven except God?

They are mentioned together in Jesus’ last instruction in Matthew; they also appeared together at the beginning of His ministry, when He was baptized:

After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”

—Matthew 3:16–17

The Son had been baptized, the Holy Spirit descended upon Him, and the Father proclaimed His approval of Jesus. Three persons were present, yet it was the one God worshiped by the Jewish people. Jesus Himself, who (as we saw earlier) claimed to be God, reaffirmed the Jewish belief in monotheism by referring to Judaism’s statement of faith, the “Shema,” as the greatest commandment: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29–30).

Since the earliest centuries of Christianity, believers have wrestled to explain how one God can be three persons. Tertullian wrote the following:

“We define that there are two, the Father and the Son, and three with the Holy Spirit, and this number is made by the pattern of salvation . . . [which] brings about unity in trinity, interrelating the three, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are three, not in dignity, but in degree, not in substance but in form, not in power but in kind. They are of one substance and power, because there is one God from whom these degrees, forms and kinds devolve in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (from Early Trinitarian Quotes).

Perhaps nobody can explain the mystery of how one God can be three persons. Some have attempted to illustrate it by pointing to three-in-one objects in nature. For example, an egg contains a yolk, a white, and a shell. Legend claims that St. Patrick used a three-leafed clover, a shamrock, to illustrate the Trinity (one clover, three leaves).

This is part of walking by faith: We trust God and believe Him to be Who He says He is, even when we do not fully understand it. When I was a small child, I had faith that my mother and father were my parents, long before I learned what that meant or how we all ended up in that relationship. Likewise, I can trust and worship God even though He is beyond my comprehension, trusting that someday I shall see Him as He is and understand more fully than I can in this life.

Some doubt the truth about the Trinity because it defies our understanding. They claim it is irrational or illogical. I believe it would be more appropriate to call it super-rational or super-logical: It exceeds our ability to comprehend.

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts.”

Isaiah 55:8-9

We serve a God who is beyond our comprehension, and that gives us even more reason to worship and praise Him with awe.

 

The doctrine of the Trinity...is truth for the heart. The fact that it can not be satisfactorily explained, instead of being against it, is in its favor. Such a truth had to be revealed; no one could imagine it. - Aiden Wilson Tozer
Quote by A. W. Tozer. Image from http://www.azquotes.com.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Scripture Sabbath | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Looking Beyond the Hilltop—John 14:1–7

“Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.” Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.”

John 14:1–7, NASB

For the last few weeks, this blog focused on Lenten themes. Whereas Lent is a time for reflection and repentance, Easter is a season of celebration. Having recognized our need for a Savior, we celebrate the fact that Jesus came to save us and overcame sin, Satan, and the power of death. After several hours at church on Easter Sunday morning, my wife and I visited the cemetery where my father and his parents are buried. It is not only an opportunity to connect with my past, but also to remind myself of the hope that we may be reunited someday. Easter reminds us that the grave is not the end of our existence, but a transition to an everlasting existence, either in heaven or hell.

We tend to lose sight of this in our prosperous American culture. Many view Christianity as a path to self-actualization or self-fulfillment. Even many who reject the prosperity gospel, positive confession movement, or positive thinking philosophy will quickly define their faith by how it makes them feel, or how it makes this life seem easier or more pleasant. This would probably have sounded odd to Jesus’ first disciples, many of whom suffered intense persecution. For the apostles, a “personal relationship with Jesus” led to persecution, prosecution, and (for most of them) execution.

We need to get back to reading Jesus’ promises and the rest of Scripture with an eye on the Bible’s historical context. John 14–17 is a popular and powerful passage of Scripture. These four chapters contain some of the great gems of Jesus’ teaching: His unity with His Father; the promise of the Holy Spirit; the parable that He is the vine and we are His branches; the new command to love one another; the promise that disciples can pray to the Father in Jesus’ name, and God will answer; the high priestly prayer; etc.

What many of us forget is that this extensive teaching took place in a very short time period. Jesus had just washed the disciples’ feet and eaten the Last Supper with them. Judas Iscariot was in the process of betraying Him to the high priests. Jesus had warned Peter that he would deny Him three times. And all the while, Jesus mentally counted down the minutes until Judas’ return, knowing the fate that awaited Him.

It was in this context that Jesus told His disciples to “believe also in Me.” Some time earlier (perhaps near the beginning of His ministry), Jesus had said, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Matthew 14:20). Now, as He awaited death, Jesus promised His disciples a dwelling place. Peter had earlier said that he would follow Jesus even unto death; now, Jesus assured them that they would remain with Him in His Father’s house.

The point is this: Jesus’ promises are most completely fulfilled not in this world, but in heaven. Yes, we receive a foretaste of those blessings now, but our eyes need to grab the bigger picture.

When I was in seminary, I would minister once per month with a group from my church, conducting services at a nearby nursing home. We would sing hymns selected by the residents during the song service. Many of their selections focused on the afterlife and heaven. We sang songs like “Mansion Over the Hilltop” and “Sweet Bye-and-Bye” almost every time. The songs reflected their longings and hopes. Every month, we would pray for the family of a resident who had been present the previous month, but had passed away since then. They knew they could not cling to this world. They realized that their best life is not now, but was just over the hilltop.

We tend to seek our best life now, but Jesus offers us a better life later. His promises are meant to empower us to serve Him today, but the greatest rewards come later. “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17–18). May all of us who call on the name of the Lord gain His perspective, rather than trying to force Him to yield to ours.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

The Christian’s True Identity

“During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:2–5, ESV, emphasis added).

Jesus-washing-feet-01-1.jpg

Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. He could assume the lowliest servant’s role, because He knew His true identity.

Yesterday, my wife and I attended a one-day retreat organized by one of the ministry teams at my church. Throughout the day, we reflected upon and discussed several questions about our identity as Christians. “How am I known in heaven? Who do I say I am? Who does God say I am?”

Such questions about identity guide our lives. A person with a distorted, diminished, or deficient understanding of who they are will act on that sense of self-identity. A person who views himself or herself as a “loser” or a victim will expect to fail. (Sadly, many people make the opposite mistake; with a delusional, inflated self-image, they may try to be something they are not and fail at that.)

As Christians observe Holy Week, we note that Jesus had a clear awareness of His identity, which was necessary for Him to complete His mission of redemption. John notes that, as Jesus prepared to eat the Last Supper with His disciples, He knew that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was returning to God. He knew who He was. He knew He was operating from a place of victory: indeed, even a place of omnipotence.

He had lived His entire life with this keen awareness that He was the Son of God and that He had been sent from heaven. Luke 2:41–51 tells the story of Jesus, when He was 12 years old. After celebrating the Passover feast in Jerusalem, Joseph and Mary started the journey home, only to realize later that Jesus was not with them. Finally, they found Him in the temple, discussing theology with the pre-eminent rabbis of their day. Mary reprimanded Him for causing them to worry. Jesus replied, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 12:49). Approximately 13 years after angels told Mary and Joseph that they would raise the Son of God, they seemed to forget. However, Jesus remembered Who He was, Who His Father is, and what His purpose would be.

Without knowing His true identity, Jesus probably would have been happy to open a carpentry shop and build stuff for the people of Nazareth until He was old and gray. However, He knew He was sent for something more significant. Because He knew Who He was, He could accept the most mundane, demeaning task of a household servant and wash the disciples’ feet. Knowing that He was the Son of God, for the joy set before Him, He could endure the cross, despise its shame, and obtain eternal life for all who would follow Him.

What about us? Do we truly know our true identity as Christians? Perhaps most Christians have a false spiritual self-image. After church today, a few men from our church’s drug and alcohol recovery program addressed the congregation during the post-worship coffee hour. At one point, one of the men said, “Well, I’m no saint, but….” A member of the congregation responded that none of us are. Scripture says they were both wrong.

The Bible says that we are saints. In 1 Corinthians 1:2, Paul addresses his letter to “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” It is true that the Corinthians Christians were imperfect; much of the letter corrected them for their shortcomings. However, he still called them saints along with all those who call upon the name of Jesus. As Christians:

  • We are saints.
  • We are holy and blameless in God’s sight (see Ephesians 1:4).
  • We are children of God, co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17): In other words, we are Jesus’ little brothers and little sisters, loved by God the Father.
  • We are alive in Christ, seated with Him in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 2:4–5).

The list goes on, much longer than I can include in a single blog post. We once were sinners—that was our identity before we came to know Jesus—but that is no longer our true identity. Even though we struggle with sin,  it is no longer how God sees us. He does not define us by our sins, our failures, our defeats, our mistakes, or the mistakes of our parents. He defines us as His children, saints who are blameless because we are alive in Christ.

Let us each claim our true identity in Christ, believe it, and live by it. This is a major element of being transformed by the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2). It is e a lifelong journey. I expect to devote many hours of prayer, Bible study and reflection to learning more about my new identity in Christ. A one-day retreat is a great place to start, but habitually embracing one’s identity in Christ takes a lifetime.

As we observe Holy Week, I will remember that “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). I have been crucified with Christ, so that I may live in the power of His resurrection (see Romans 6:6–11). This is the privilege and identity of all true saints who call upon the name of Jesus.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Renewing the Mind Reflections | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

No Easy Way—James 1:2–4

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2–4, ESV).

Comedian Yakov Smirnoff would tell a story about the joy of finding instant products in stores when he came to America. One could buy products in powdered form and prepare them instantly by adding water at home. In one aisle he found powdered milk: just add water and you have milk. In another aisle, he found powdered orange juice; again, he could just add water to have orange juice. Then he came to another aisle and saw a package that really excited him. It said “baby powder.” What a country!

We live in a society that craves quick solutions to everything. We have not found a way to speed up the baby-making process by just adding water to a powder, but scientists are probably working on it. One or two generations ago, most housewives would spend hours preparing dinner every night, but that is no longer the case. Now, we eat food purchased at fast-food drive-through windows. If we eat at home, it is often heated quickly in a microwave, or it might be an “instant” meal that can be cooked quickly. We expect instant gratification everywhere: entertainment, health, relationships, etc.

2010/365/77 That Old Semi Instant Gratification

An early Polaroid instant camera, which was not as “instant” as today’s cameras. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

When I was growing up, one popular new technology was the instant camera: You no longer need to send a role of film to a developer or spend hours in a darkroom. Instead, the photograph would develop within one or two minutes. Now, with digital cameras and cell phones, we can enjoy our pictures mere seconds after taking them, and freely delete the blurry shots. Instant is not fast enough!

The same instant-gratification urge prevails in Christian circles. Many of us expect instant everything. Forgiveness and salvation may be immediate, but spiritual growth takes time. We want instant sanctification, or instant deliverance from sin, bad habits, and addictions, but this does not exist.

In recent weeks, I have come across the story of the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17–27; Matthew 19:16–30) several times during my Bible reading. He wanted an instant fix to his spiritual dilemma. “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16). The Greek could be more directly translated as “Teacher, what one good deed can I do to immediately have eternal life?” Jesus’ offered no quick fix. It would be a complete change of his life’s direction from that day forth. He could make an instantaneous decision to follow Jesus, but it would have to continue for the rest of his life.

The Bible offers no easy spiritual growth. James 1:2–4 tells us to count it all joy when we face trials. These trials will test our faith and produce steadfastness, making us mature and complete in Christ. Most Christians would prefer something instantaneous. Maybe we can go forward for prayer at church, and the pastor or evangelist can lay hands on us, and voila! We are now perfect and complete, lacking nothing, within five minutes. You do not even need to add water!

Others may realize this instant fix does not exist, but we still hope for an easy way. We think that if we just pray, read our Bibles, and go to church, we will become holy and spiritual. It is true that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17), but Scripture speaks much more about how that faith is forged, purified, and strengthened in fiery kiln of trials and temptations:

“More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3–5).

“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6–7).

There is really no way around it. If you want to grow spiritually, you will have to go through something that will test, stretch, and expand your faith, forcing you to trust God to work in your life. That may not be popular in our instant-gratification society, but it is how God works.

During Lent, I have been praying specifically for growth in three of the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:23–24): gentleness, patience, and self-control. Patience is an area where I definitely need to grow, but praying for it leads to opportunities to exercise it. For example, I try to be a safe and careful driver, but as a typical New Yorker, my to and from work can drive me bonkers! I can become Boanerges on the highway, ready to call down fire from heaven upon those who tailgate me or cut me off, and calling people idiots as they drive like NASCAR racers to the next traffic jam. My drive time is a good opportunity to determine if there is any growth in my patience.

I have to admit that, while I pray for patience, the other drivers are not changing. They may not have gotten any worse, but they have not improved either. However, I am becoming more aware of temptation. As I pray for the fruit of the Spirit, God seems to allow the same temptations to come: but with the temptation He provides the way of escape, reminding me to pray again for gentleness, patience, and self-control. (Sometimes, He has to remind me to ask for immediate forgiveness.)

Count it pure joy when God allows trials and temptations to come your way. It is your opportunity to experience true growth in the fruit of the Spirit.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Feasting Daily on God’s Word

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, ESV).

The Holy Bible

The Book of Common Prayer‘s Daily Office readings leading up to Ash Wednesday this year included the above passage from Deuteronomy. Reflection on passage can remind us that, as we fast during Lent, we should feast upon the God’s Word and His love. If we fast without feasting on the things God has for us, it is truly an empty ritual.

Let us take that term “feast” seriously. We are not supposed to merely look at or ponder food. We are supposed to eat it. It is supposed to become part of us. The same is true of God’s Word. We read it in such a way that we are ingesting it, receiving it in our hearts so that it becomes a core part of who we are.

Jesus referred to Deuteronomy 6:4-5 as the first and most important commandment:

Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31).

Every other commandment God gave, in the Old and New Testaments, is an outgrowth of these two commands. To show us how to develop and manifest that love, God gave instructions regarding His Words in Deuteronomy 6:6-9. God’s Word should come into our minds, go down into our hearts and fill our souls, so that it guides our might and strength to righteous action. God’s Word must move beyond our minds and into our hearts to accomplish God’s will.

How does this happen? First, we feast on God’s Word in fellowship with others. Moses instructed the Israelites to teach God’s Word to their children, and to discuss it wherever they went. Those who do not teach the faith to their children suggest, by their actions, that Jesus is not important, so that the next generation does not follow Him. We should keep God’s Word and presence central in our homes, providing a link that keeps our families connected. As we discuss it with other believers (through informal conversations, Bible study groups, etc.), we can benefit from their study, meditation, insight, and experience. Those who read the Bible on their own, without connection to other believers, are prone to begin worshipping a false Jesus of their own making, formed in their own image.

Second, we feast frequently. Moses said we “shall talk of {God’s words} when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” Scripture is not restricted to just one day of the week, or to a quick “quiet time” in the morning. We receive God’s Word into our hearts every day, throughout the day.

About 25 years ago, I preached for the first time about a concept I called “three spiritual meals.” Most Americans eat three meals per day, and Jesus compared God’s Word to bread (Matthew 4:4); therefore, one can suggest it is wise to partake of God’s Word three times per day. Since then, I have been introduced to the Book of Common Prayer and its four Daily Offices of prayer [morning, noon, evening, and compline (night-time prayer, shortly before going to bed)]. This provides a structure for starting and ending my day with prayer, taking a brief intermission during noon to recharge spiritually, and ending my night with prayer. Whatever it takes to keep God’s Word on your mind throughout the day, do it.

Finally, we feast with focused reminders: “You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Some Christians keep Scripture reminders present throughout the day: a Bible verse taped to the bathroom mirror; a cross over the door; plaques, posters, and other decorations with Scripture verses, pictures of Biblical stories or persons, or other reminders of the faith.

So, if we want to please God by loving Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, we need to feast on His Word. Read and reflect on God’s Word with family and faith-filled friends. Ingest it into your heart and soul frequently, throughout the day, every day. Keep it present before you.

I would like to close with a final thought about end-time prophecy. Some Christians focus heavily on the second coming of Christ. They may fixate on the “mark of the beast” described in Revelation 13:16-17. This is some kind of “mark” on the right hand or forehead. Keep in mind that the book of Revelation alludes frequently to the Old Testament, and this is one of those cases. The mark of the beast is actually a demonic counterfeit of the Word of God, which is a mark of our covenant relationship with God; God’s Word should be like a sign on the hand or frontlets between the eyes (Deuteronomy 6:8). If we have God’s Word in our hearts and we are living in that full love for Christ, we will not be led astray by Satan, no matter how cunning his deceptions may be. Let us keep our eyes on Jesus.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ash Wednesday: Fasting to Celebrate Christ

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23, ESV).

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (from the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, from the Book of Common Prayer).

I have posted several articles about Ash Wednesday and Lent on this blog over the years. I find this season helpful in my spiritual journey. It is easy to grow complacent and just go through the motions of the Christian life: go to church, read the Bible, pray every day, and try not to get caught doing anything too bad.

Lent is a season of fasting with a purpose. The ceremony of imposing ashes on a believer’s forehead imitates the ancient Jewish custom of covering oneself in sackcloth and ashes as a sign of mourning or penance (Jonah 3:6; Job 42:6). While using the ashes to mark a cross on the forehead, the priest or minister will usually say, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This statement reminds us that we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and the wages of sin is death.

That soul-destroying sin is washed away through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and death is conquered in His resurrection. While Lent begins with acknowledgment of our sin and need of forgiveness, it ends with Good Friday and Easter, when we celebrate our new life in Christ. From repentance to rejoicing; from sin to salvation; from death to new life.

I expect Lent to take a slightly new angle in 2017. I can get into a rut with spiritual disciplines and lose focus on a greater goal. I have pretty much done the same things every Lent over the last few years, but in addition to “more prayer” and things like that, I hope to renew some aspects of my relationship with God that may have been pushed aside by busyness in recent years.

Fasting works best when it goes beyond denying oneself of food or pleasure and opens one up to drawing closer to God. I will cut back significantly on Facebook (I spend too much time online these days, and it has become a virtual wasteland). I will also add some activities that have slipped by the wayside: My guitar and bass have been collecting dust lately, so I plan to spend some time worshipping the Lord through song. Instead of focusing only on things to give up for 40 days, I will also look for renewed ways to spend time with my Lord during this season.

If you have never observed Lent before, I urge you to give it a try. For 40 days (not counting Sundays—most traditional churches recognize Sunday as a day to celebrate Christ’s resurrection, not to fast) between March 1 and Easter Sunday, make the following simple commitments:

  • Give up one food-related pleasure. In the past, I have given up coffee (that was a tough one!), Snicker’s bars, or other favorite snacks.
  • Perhaps devote one or two days per week to a more intense fast. Many Catholics abstain from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent. You can go that route, or choose one or two days a week for a more extensive fast that works for you.
  • Give up a hobby, or an activity that really has become an unproductive waste of time for 40 days. Most of us have something that weighs us down. I mentioned Facebook. Some people may benefit from giving up sports, or television. If you are willing to be honest, you will think of something that you would benefit from giving up for a while.
  • Do it in communion with others. If your church does not observe Lent, perhaps you can find some friends (such as a Bible study or prayer group) to embark on the fast together. Accountability and camaraderie have a way of strengthening us.
  • Most importantly, in the midst of “giving stuff up,” fill the empty space with more of God’s presence. As you abstain from physical bread, feast upon the bread of life, which is Jesus Himself. Spend extra time in prayer and Scripture reading. Read some of the devotional classic writings that will renew your zeal for the Lord. Find new ways to worship and serve God.

If you are thinking that it’s too late to commit to Lent: do it anyway. The Ash-Wednesday-to-Easter schedule is purely traditional. Feel free to do a 40-day (or whatever length) Lenten-type fast whenever the Spirit moves you. God is not bound by the calendar, but we are freed to experience His blessings and power when we surrender our hearts, souls, minds, strength, and time to Him.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

%d bloggers like this: