Saturday, November 29, 2008

Lessons On Relationships From The Bethlehem Folks

Could it actually be that the players in the original Christmas story might have insights to offer us about getting along in church today?

I think so.

This disparate cast of individuals, brought together in God's providence and timing to act out significant roles in the real life narrative of the coming of the Messiah into our world, can teach us a great deal about relationships among believers in contemporary congregations.

Take Mary, for instance. She models for us humble submission to God's will(Luke 1:38). When we get more interested in doing what the Lord wants us to do than in carrying out our own personal desires, we start to make progress toward church unity. Most church fights and splits are over preferences rather than convictions. They usually spring from self-centered ambitions to be first or to be right or to be noticed or to be comfortable. This young girl completely yielded up her need for convenience or privacy or ease in order to please God instead of herself. She put aside her agenda so that she could fully serve the Lord and get in on what He was up to at that time. Imagine how many conflicted relationships among the saints could be untangled if the parties would take initiative and sacrificially surrender their rights and whims for the larger good of the fellowship.

Or consider Joseph. This brawny carpenter had a tender side. When he was initially hurt and disappointed at what he thought was his fiance's unfaithfulness he was nevertheless willing to show sensitivity and compassion to her by divorcing her quietly and privately(Matthew 1:19).That sounds to me alot like the spirit of Proverbs 17:9 and 19:11. How we need people in our churches who show mercy when wronged. How we need members who don't blab everything about everybody. Congregations flourish when filled with persons who lavish grace, not condemnation, on those who make mistakes and messes. But it gets even better. When Joseph was presented with the facts about his future wife by divine revelation, he was willing to change his mind(Matthew 1:24). A hefty portion of that attitude in our local assemblies would spark revival and renaiisance, whether we're talking about worship styles, business meetings, or pastor-member interactions!

The shepherds and the wise men illustrate some relational principles, too.

The response of the shepherds to the good news from the angels of Christ's birth reminds us that when there is a common focus there generally will be unity and harmony. Before the supernatural newscast and concert of the heavenly beings in the Judean sky(Luke 2:8-20) it's quite possible that these guys picked at and quarreled with one another. But after that visitation, they came together in remarkable cohesion, first to go see the newborn King, then to spread around the incredible news of His nativity, and finally to glorify and praise the Lord for His awesome gift. Sometimes multiple emphases and interest groups and cliques in a church can so fragment it that it is kept from coming together around a central, passionate purpose. Energy gets drained away by calendar battles and turf wars and continual personal sniping so that worship and evangelism suffer. Nehemiah 4:6 comes to mind here as a necessary corrective.

And what about those wise men? Talk about energy and unity! They traveled an immense distance, followed a mysterious star, and gave lavish, expensive gifts in honor of a little baby. What was the secret of their sacrifice and effort? Simple. They wanted to see Jesus. All those miles and meals on the road and changes in weather and feelings of homesickness and movements toward an uncertain destination came from one priority--yearning to be around Christ. Nuff said. If in our congregations we will hunger to know Him and love Him and obey Him, most if not all of our petty, childish, carnal personality skirmishes will evaporate or be settled in a godly fashion. These travelers(Matthew 2:1-12)stuck together like glue because their focus was on Jesus. And they could stand strong against an external threat(Herod) because they were ablaze with a thirst for Christ and were united in their obedience to the Heavenly Father. I wonder sometimes how many of our fussin', feudin', entertainment-oriented churches would even survive if persecution or economic downturns worsened.

Don't pack away these Christmas characters as you would figurines in a Nativity set December 26. You may need their example and character qualities in 2009.

Have a most wonderful Christmas season. It's a joy serving you.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Doing Advent Well

I used to think that John the Baptist was the supreme example of how to do Advent right.

After all, he was the forerunner, the messenger, the advance man for the soon coming Messiah. He was first on the scene with news of the approaching Christ. I felt that if anyone deserved the title of "Mr. Advent" it was surely this strangely dressed but authentic and powerful preacher out in the Judean wilderness.

Not anymore.

You actually have to go back, much further back, to find the guy who seems to best exemplify the spirit of this 4-week season of reflection and expectation and preparation for Christmas that is now upon us. You have to reach back into the Old Testament. You have to go all the way back to Genesis. Long before any of the prophets began predicting the eventual appearance of the Saviour this man was anticipating His arrival.

I'm referring to Abraham, the great patriarch.

In a discussion with Jewish religious leaders who boasted of their ancestral ties to this father of their religion and who sharpely criticized and rejected Jesus, our Lord made a fascinating statement. Picking up on this hostile crowd's use of the name of the founder of their faith, Jesus said, in John 8:56, "Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad."

What the Lord was revealing here was that centuries earlier the patriarch had somehow visionally put it together that sooner or later God was going to send a deliverer. Abraham looked down the corridor of time and came to understand that one day God would do something so big that all of history and destiny would be changed. This Genesis man saw all of this by faith. Perhaps he figured it all out from God's promises and from that whole Melchizedek business and from that matter of the Lord-sparing-Abraham's-son-Isaac-at-the-last-minute-by-providing-a-ram-in-his-place. The patriarch's gradually expanding understanding of the grand sweep of God's unfolding future plan exploded into joy. He saw what would eventually happen only in pieces and fragments but he thrilled and delighted at the prospect.

So he was the original Advent man.

As we today move through these next few weeks we do so with the certain knowledge that the Messiah has already come. We still can use this period, though, for self-examination and repentance and times of solitude and meditation and private worship so that when Christmas arrives we are fully energized for celebration of the commemoration of our Redeemer's birth. Failure to utilize the gift of the space of these preparatory days may mean that we just drift through the dizzying whirl of parties and decorating and shopping that often accompanies this month and usually ends up with everybody being frazzled and fatigued by December 24. But carving out time each day for music and prayer and scripture can actually renew and invigorate our souls and can enable us, like our spiritual forebear Abraham, to genuinely experience joy when pondering the entrance of Christ into our world.

And of course for us Advent is also about anticipating the second coming of our Lord. That event seemingly is very close. Signs of His return are all about us. In these days of war and terrorism and economic downturn we can look forward with joy as we sense the time approaching and realize that what Jesus commenced with His Bethlehem arrival will be completed at His next appearance. Peace and harmony and wholeness will be ours forevermore. I think old Abraham may have glimpsed that too even if he didn't comprehend it and couldn't grasp how God's purposes would be fulfilled in two stages. This towering man of faith just rejoiced that God's ways would triumph in the end.

Not a bad perspective for us, either, in these uncertain days.

We can't always, with reason alone, understand what God is up to and why He does what He does. Sometimes His ways seem, to our feeble minds, to make no sense. As we worship and study His Word and commune with Him, though, we'll slowly become aware of His presence and peace and an indescribable rest and calm and settled contentment will wash over us and we'll know that everything is going to be alright.

Let's be Abraham people this Advent.