Tuesday, December 22, 2015


Recently, I read about Robert Louis Stevenson’s story of…
a storm that caught a vessel off a rocky coast and threatened to drive it and its passengers to destruction. In the midst of the terror, one daring man, contrary to orders, went to the deck, made a dangerous passage to the pilot house and saw the steerman, at his post holding the wheel unwaveringly, and inch by inch, turning the ship out, once more, to sea. The pilot saw the watcher and smiled. Then, the daring passenger went below and gave out a note of cheer: "I have seen the face of the pilot, and he smiled. All is well."[i]

When life gets tough, sometimes you just want to look into the pilot’s face. You just want to see him smile. You just want comfort and consolation, and to know that all is well. In Luke 2, we meet an old man named Simeon, who is waiting for the consolation of Israel. This word “consolation” is also translated as “comfort” and “encouragement.” Basically, he wants God to show them some love. Israel has been like a ship in a storm for so long, that Simeon wants to know that for his people, all will be well.

Israel was a nation that was birthed in pain. Four hundred years of slavery in Egypt threatened to dash them on the rocks even before they got established. Then there had been the time of wandering, the instability of a time when they were simply a loose confederation of tribes, and finally a unified monarchy under Saul, David, and Solomon. But pretty soon, things fell apart. The kingdom was divided. Civil war and unrest made the nation vulnerable so that they were easily conquered by empires. In the history of the Jewish people, very rarely did they have peace or self-rule. The Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans oppressed them. Simeon just wanted to look in the pilot’s face and see him smile. He just wanted comfort, and consolation from the God of Israel. He wanted to know that God’s people were special, that they were loved, and that God was looking out for them. Sometimes that’s all you want, isn’t it? But sometimes love surprises us.

The Bible says that Simeon is led by the Spirit to the Temple, where he encounters Mary, Joseph, and the newborn Jesus. The Holy Spirit gives him a word of prophecy in which he declares the love of God in two astonishing ways.

The first surprise is the scope of God’s love. This man who had been looking for the consolation of his oppressed nation prophesies instead about a comfort that God wants to give to everybody. “For my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a Light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.”[ii] So salvation and revelation aren’t just for the Jewish people—they are for the Gentiles, too. That means all people—even the oppressors. What amazing love God shows the world!

The second surprise is the cost of God’s love. Simeon meets the holy family in the context of sacrifice. They have come to the Temple to dedicate their child in a ritual that involves the offering of two young birds, one as a burnt offering and one as an offering to atone for sin. It’s in the context of blood and sacrifice that Simeon sings of salvation. Grace is free—it’s never earned. But it certainly is costly. It was upon the cross that Jesus bore the worst cruelty that humankind could dream up. Yet it was from the cross, while enduring our torment, that Jesus pronounced atonement with the words, “Father, forgive them!”[iii] Without Jesus’ shed blood we would never know the extent to which God’s love is willing to go. A college professor of mine, Rabbi Spiro, used to say, “God loves us, even to the point of self-sacrifice.” God demonstrates this great love in the person of Jesus. This costly gift would be a sword that would pierce Mary’s soul, yet it would bring salvation to the world.

In John 3:16-17 (NIV), Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” God loves you so much that He never wants to condemn you, but always to save you. That’s why Jesus came, to give God’s saving love to the world as the ultimate Christmas gift. Simeon knew that this love was costly, and would involve sacrifice. Simeon sang that this love would include not just some segment of “special people,” but that Jesus came as the Light of the Gentiles—the Light of world. I pray that you’ll know the love of God through Jesus, and I pray that you’ll share that light.

[i] http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/c/comfort.htm. December 18, 2015.

[ii] Luke 2:30-32 (NASB)

[iii] Luke 23:34 (NASB)

Monday, December 14, 2015


Do you remember the old “Peanuts” cartoon and movies? This time of year, a lot of people love to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas. At one point, when Charlie Brown is having difficulty getting into the Christmas spirit, Linus says, “Charlie Brown, you’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem.” If we’re honest with ourselves, sometimes we can feel like we’re having a Charlie Brown Christmas—spindly tree and all. Sometimes it even feels like we’re having a Charlie Brown life. Sometimes our religion reflects the same attitude as well.

Pastor Chris Layton tells the story of a young boy who visited his grandfather on the farm:
There was once a young boy who went to spend the week with his grandfather on the farm. While walking around he noticed the chickens, they were scratching and playing around. The little lad said, “They ain’t got it”. Next he saw a colt in the field playing and kicking up its heel’s to which he replied, “He ain’t got it”. After examining all of the animals on his grandfather’s farm and see that none of them had “it”, this boy finally found the old donkey in the barn. When he saw the donkey’s long, frowning face and the way that the donkey just stood there he screamed for his grandfather to come quick. “I found it, I found it” the boy kept yelling. When his grandfather asked what he had found he said, “Pawpaw, I found an animal that has the same kind of religion that you have.”[i]

Yes, sometimes we can allow our circumstances to dictate our attitude. We can let life rob us of joy. Like Charlie Brown, we can turn everything into a problem. But the Christian message declares joy even in difficult situations, and despite the pain of life. I’ve heard many Christmas messages (and probably preached a few myself), talking about how the angels appeared to miserable shepherds, huddled in the cold, announcing joy despite their suffering. These messages often focus on the shepherds as penniless outcasts, and so they were. In these sermons we hear that the angels appeared to the poor in order to declare their acceptability in God’s sight, giving the gift of joy to those who sorrow and struggle. And this can be true. Certainly, when we are in pain, this is a comforting thought. But recently, I’ve come to think of it in a different way.

Perhaps the shepherds weren’t chosen because they were miserable, and because God wanted them to perk up. Maybe they were chosen because they weren’t like Charlie Brown—because they already knew joy. Joy isn’t the same as happiness. Joy is close to contentment. These shepherds were homeless vagabonds who owned nothing and had to learn to be at peace with that. They knew how to draw from a deep well of joy, rather than trying to be fulfilled by all the things that made other people happy. The angels’ song declares, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests (Luke 2:14 NASB).” But some translations render it, “on earth peace to men of good will.” In other words, peace will come to you on earth if you are the kind of person who has good will. This was exactly what was happening when the angels appeared to the shepherds. They appeared to those who already practiced joy and contentment.

These shepherds remind me of King David, in his younger days when he was just a simple shepherd. In the solitude and simplicity of this life he sought God, and wrote some of the most beautiful poetry in the Bible. Perhaps it was because of this uncomplicated, joyful contentment that he grew close enough to the Lord to be a “man after God’s own heart.” Rather than seeking the things of this world, he sought God and found joy.

These shepherds remind me of an old Puerto Rican homeless man named Victor whom I once knew. Victor had long stringy gray-blond hair and wore rags on his body. He spoke a mixture of Spanish and English and was at times hard to understand. He had nothing, except joy. At random moments you could see Victor jumping up and down, shouting, “Thank you, Jesus! Ay-eee! Holy, holy, holy!” His exuberance was infectious, and lifted my spirit whenever I saw him. Joy is unlike happiness in that it doesn’t require everything in your life to be going well. It doesn’t require creature comforts or even happiness. As Victor showed, it doesn’t even require sanity. Joy simply needs contentment, and results in peace.

Maybe this Christmas, you’re saying, “I hear what you’re saying—but I can’t just turn on Joy like a light switch. Where do I begin?” You begin with things that are a little easier— things like simplicity, gratitude, and trust. Add in a little giving, spiced with a bit of expectancy. Spend some time caring for someone else, rather than focusing on your own problems. Work on these things, and joy will gradually creep up on you.

When joy latches onto you, you can’t help but do something about it. You want to share it with others. The shepherds left their flocks to go and find the baby whose birth was proclaimed. They spread the word, not only about the child, but about what the angels had said concerning him. Like Victor, you can find joy if you start with gratitude and contentment. Then, when the word of God visits you like it came to the shepherds through the angels, these things can be transformed into joy. That joy then spreads to others, eclipsing both the struggles and the happiness of the world. This Christmas, I’m not praying for personal happiness—I’m praying for joy. And I’m praying the same for you as well.

[i] http://www.sermoncentral.com/illustrations/sermon-illustration-chris-layton-humor-joy-3079.asp. December 11, 2015.

Monday, December 7, 2015


When I read that America has had more mass shootings in 2015 than there have been days in the year, my jaw dropped. In the wake of the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs, and the San Bernardino shooting which is the deadliest since Newtown, how do you deliver a message on peace? In the Advent calendar, this is the week of peace. What shall I say?

Each of us longs for peace—deeply and desperately. This has been the human dream since the beginning. We work for peace, but peace eludes us. We argue back and forth about whether gun control is the problem or the solution—but the fact is that the problem is the human heart, and the solution only comes from God.

In the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, Zechariah sings a song at the birth of his son John, who will grow up to be the forerunner of the Messiah. In verses 68-69a[i], he says, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, And has raised up a horn of salvation for us.” In our longing for peace, this word “salvation” is used. It comes from the word “salve,” or a healing balm. In this context, it can mean many things.

First, it can mean physical safety. Zechariah sings of “salvation from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us (v. 71).” He prays, “grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear (v. 74).” Being able to serve God without fear of terrorism would a wonderful thing. Everybody wants to live free from those who hate them and wish them harm. Certainly, this is part of the salvation for which Zechariah prayed in his violent world, and for which we pray in our broken world as well.

Then, this “salvation” or “healing” can mean also a purposeful existence for our children. In his song, Zechariah turns to his baby and says, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways (v. 76).” Every parent in every culture longs to see their children grow and be safe and free to find their life’s mission. It’s not just American parents or Christian parents who want these things for their children—every sane parent wants the same thing.

Next, Zechariah anticipates the coming of the Lord “To give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins (v. 77).” Salvation, or “healing” isn’t just a social or political thing; it is also spiritual. Jesus, the ultimate expression of God’s love, wanted us to know that God forgives all our sin. Nothing you could ever do is excluded from God’s forgiveness—and because of that, God wants us to extend that forgiveness and peace to others.

Just as God called John as an agent of change in the world, God calls us “To shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace (v. 79).” This is how we bring salvation, the healing of God, to the world. Granted, it can be a difficult task to swallow our anger over the world’s violence and become shining lights. Our initial reaction is to respond to violence with violence—but that isn’t the way of Christ. Instead, the Lord calls us to realize that the hearts of our enemies are simply bound in darkness, to have compassion on them, and to walk the path of peace.

This desire for peace spans every generation. On Christmas day of 1863, in the wake of his wife’s death and the severe wounding of his son Charles at the Battle of New Hope Church, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his famous poem, “Christmas Bells.” Lamenting the vast difference between the Christmas ideal of peace, and the reality of violence, he writes:
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

Longfellow ends his poem not with despair, but with hope. The bells reply to his grief with an affirmation that God and good will win in the end. In Psalm 98:3, a different poet echoes the sentiments of Zechariah and Longfellow. “[God] has remembered His loving kindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.” Hope for peace is found in the knowledge that not only has God remembered “our” people, but that all those from the ends of the earth are God’s people as well. Knowing that, we trust God to “To shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace (v. 79).”

[i] Scriptures taken from the NASB