Holidays

 
 

Celebrating Freedom (Revisited)

(The following was originally published online in May 2011 in honor of Memorial Day. As we celebrate today, let us remember why we celebrate and, more importantly, the true meaning of freedom.)

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Philadelphia

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Image via Wikipedia

May ends with a holiday which many of us take too lightly. Many Americans think of Memorial Day as “the unofficial beginning of summer.” Many people view the last Monday in May as little more than a great day to go to the beach, host a barbecue, shop at department store sales, and so on. For many, it is just an extra day off. Like many holidays, we treat it frivolously by giving little thought to its significance. It might be helpful to consider its true significance for Americans. That will also allow us to reflect on some matters of significance to Christians.

Memorial Day was first observed as Decoration Day on May 30, 1868. That day was set aside to place flowers on the graves of soldiers who had died in the Civil War. Since World War I, the holiday has been consecrated to honor all who have died in the American armed forces during all of our military conflicts. We should remember that many of these were young men, many of whom never had the opportunity to start families and embark on adult civilian life. While some soldiers were drafted, many volunteered for military service, acknowledging the dangers they would face.

Whatever one may think of the decisions our nation’s leaders make about the military, I cannot criticize the character of our troops. They know it is a dangerous job, but they still consider it worthwhile. They will tell you that they are serving to defend our freedoms or protect our people. They believe it is worth dying for. They believe in committing their lives to a cause and making sacrifices. Someone has said that if you don’t have something to die for, you really do not have much to live for. The soldier’s courage should be an example to all of us.

In a sense, we insult these men, both the veterans who survived the battles and those who died, when we reduce Memorial Day to a day for sales and beginning summertime leisure activities. Even worse, we degrade everything it stands for. By giving more attention to surf and sales than to freedom and sacrifice, we desecrate the blood of our fallen soldiers. This is especially true when we distort the meaning of the word “freedom.”

Most Americans seem to believe that “freedom” means “the right to do whatever you want.” Our nation’s first “freedom fighters,” the men who wrote our Constitution, enshrined in our founding documents the First Amendment. This clause gives us the right to speak our minds, even if our ideas are unpopular, controversial, or harshly critical of our nation’s leaders. It allows us to hold religious views that fall outside the mainstream. I have referred to the First Amendment as “the right to be wrong,” or “the right to make yourself look and sound like a jackass.” Thankfully, it is, more importantly, the right to cling to Truth when everybody around you swallows a lie.

However, this form of liberty can be abused as well. We have freedom of speech, even though it is often abused by those who use it to sell pornography or other vulgar entertainment material. While earlier generations realized that freedom and responsibility walked together, most Americans today seem to believe freedom is more important than morality, ethics, or righteousness, and that such libertinism is more sacred than serving God.

This year, Memorial Day falls about five weeks after Easter, during the season when we celebrate Jesus’ victory over the death. It is quite fitting that Memorial Day usually falls at such a time of year. The United States has its Tomb of the Unknown Soldier—a monument honoring all those anonymous men who gave their lives for our nation. Likewise, Christianity has an empty tomb. As many soldiers have given their lives for our nation, Jesus Christ gave his life for all mankind to set us free from sin, hell, and divine judgment. Few of us give much thought to the fact that our greatest freedom was purchased with the precious blood of Jesus. We gladly accept his priceless gift, talk about how it is free for us, and take it for granted. We might say a quick prayer or spend an hour in church every week, but then we ignore the One who gave his life for us.

Jesus said, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free…. Everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:32–36, NASB). It is true that our nation was established to seek liberty from tyranny. Yet, we need to remember that the worst tyrant in the universe is Satan, and his cruelest chains are forged with links of sin. Some people believe that following Jesus is a form of bondage. However, as St. Augustine wrote in On the Free Choice of the Will, “This is our freedom, when we are subject to the truth; and the truth is God himself, who frees us from death, that is, from the state of sin.” True freedom is found in submission to the truth. True slavery is found when we loose ourselves from our bonds to our Creator and clamp the chains of sin around our wrists.

Saint Paul adds, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). He goes on in that chapter to point out the things that Christ frees us from: the Law (including the righteous wrath of God when we fail to live up its perfect standards) which has been superseded by the forgiveness we receive through the cross of Christ; and sin, which is superseded when we live by the greater law of love (see Luke 10:27–28).

Let every day be a day to remember, celebrate, and cherish the freedom we have been granted, both as Americans and as children of God. Our liberty is a precious jewel to be preserved and nurtured. It is not a cheap toy to be played with carelessly, thrown in a corner, and broken.

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

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Children of God and Siblings of Jesus

Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.

(John 20:17–18)

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Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene. By Heinrich Hofmann, published on bible card (http://thebiblerevival.com/clipart27.htm) [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On Sunday morning, a new day had dawned. The old order of God’s relationship with mankind ended as Jesus breathed His last on Friday evening. Sunday brought a new beginning. Mary Magdalene would be the first Christian to hear the good news about our new relationship with God. Through His death and resurrection, Jesus’ followers obtain the right to be called children of God (John 1:12–13).

“Go to my brothers,” Jesus said. Mary seems to have immediately understood what Jesus meant here. She did not seek James, Joses, Simon, and Judas, who were apparently His biological brothers (Mark 6:3). She realized that Jesus meant the disciples.

A few days earlier, He said, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). At one time, they were servants or disciples; they had become His friends. Now, they were family. They were His brothers.

“I am ascending to my Father and your Father.” For three years, the disciples have heard Jesus refer to God as “My Father” and “the Father.” Now, He sends Mary to emphasize to them that God is their Father. Every disciple of Jesus could now call God “my Father” with the same certainty Jesus expressed when He used those words. It is now deeper than “Our Father who art in heaven.” He is now “my Father”–in an immediate and personal, not generic or abstract, sense. (I imagine that Mary Magdalene ran off thinking, “That means God is my Father too, and I’m Jesus’ sister!)

Jesus had mentioned this family relationship before. From the cross, He told John, “Behold, your mother;” to Mary, He referred to John as “your son” (John 19:26–27). With His final dying wish, He instructed John to care for her as his own mother; He accepted John as His brother, not merely a friend.

Many Christians do not grasp the full significance of our relationship with Jesus. We think that Jesus died merely to purchase fire insurance for us. We may assume that He is thinking, “Okay, I’m keeping you out of hell. I hope you’re happy. It really ticks me off when you keep doing the sort of stuff that should put you there. Better get yourself in line or else!”

No, Jesus is not our insurance agent, looking for a loophole in the policy that will nullify our coverage. He is our big brother, ready to stand by us. He died and rose so that we may be “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17). Who is usually the heir in a will? The family of the deceased, particularly his or her children. A “fellow heir” receives a share of the inheritance. Jesus has inherited a kingdom from His Father. We are his fellow heirs; we have inherited a share of that kingdom!

This Easter, as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, let us gain a greater vision of our identity as members of Jesus’ family. Many of us are tempted to accept the labels that Satan and society place upon us. We may view ourselves as failures, sinners, or “worms.” We may think of ourselves as mere animals with an exaggerated self-image. We claim these negative titles, but as children of God we are so much more.

Satan loves it when we label ourselves according to our greatest weaknesses or past mistakes. Yes, you have sinned. There is probably some sin or shortcoming you still struggle with. It may at times bring incredible guilt and grief. However, that is not your identity. You are God’s child. Jesus is your big brother. You are Jesus’ brother or sister. If you are a follower of Jesus, believe those statements, because Jesus Himself said that is who you are.

If you are not a disciple of Jesus, let this be the day that you are born anew and adopted into the family of God as one of His beloved children. The good news about the Christian’s identity belongs only to those who have received His free gift of forgiveness and everlasting life. Those who are not Jesus’ disciples cannot claim to be children of God, even though He created them and loves them. They cannot claim the other privileges of the Christian life. However, they should not despair. Jesus’ arms remain open, inviting all to come to Him. You may pray a prayer like this one to begin your new life as a child of God:

Lord Jesus Christ, I need You. I admit that I am a sinner and I need Your forgiveness. There is nothing I can do to save myself. Please come into my life and heart, forgive me of all my sins, and make me the person You want me to be. Thank You for dying on the cross for me and inviting me to be a child of Your Heavenly Father. Amen.

Let us go forth to live as children of God eager to see Him glorified in our lives. Let us rejoice in the new life we receive through Christ’s death and resurrection.

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

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

Thank God It’s (Good) Friday

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?’” (Matthew 16:24–26).

Many who work a Monday–Friday, 40-hour workweek know the feeling. If we greet our co-workers with “Happy Monday,” it must be sarcasm. At 9:15 AM on Monday morning, many workers feel like the weekend was too short. However, by the end of the week, “Happy Friday” is almost a holiday greeting. We have borne the pain and suffering of the week and look forward to the weekend. We work for five days, but we act as if our real life takes place during the weekend.

Music and pop culture celebrate the weekend as if it is the center of our existence. The late 1970s gave us the disco-craze movies “Saturday Night Fever” and “Thank God It’s Friday.” A popular 1980s song declared that “Everybody’s Working for the Weekend.” We act as if the weekend is a grand festival and Friday is its major kickoff event.

Now, we come to Good Friday, and we wonder why we call it good. Most Fridays can be highlighted by happy hour. Those who do not drink still find it to be a good opportunity to go out for dinner or see the newest movie. However, the Friday before Easter emphasizes Jesus’ death. The shadow of death hovers over Good Friday.

Good Friday reminds us that the world’s idea of good conflicts with God’s idea of good. The world views Friday as the victory of leisure and pleasure over labor and drudgery. Good Friday reminds us that the true victory is Christ’s victory over hell and Satan, of life’s victory over death, and the victory of God’s mercy and forgiveness over sin and condemnation.

As we observe Good Friday today, I invite you to join in some of the prayers that the Book of Common Prayer links to Friday:

On Friday mornings:

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

On Friday evenings:

Lord Jesus Christ, by your death you took away the sting of death: Grant to us your servants so to follow in faith where you have led the way, that we may at length fall asleep peacefully in you and wake up in your likeness; for your tender mercies’ sake. Amen.

For Good Friday:

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Photo taken by Michael E. Lynch, at Graymoor Retreat Center, Garrison, NY, March 2016

A prayer of the Holy Cross, especially suitable for Fridays:

Almighty God, whose beloved Son willingly endured the agony and shame of the cross for our redemption: Give us courage to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

I admit none of these prayers ooze the enthusiasm of a celebratory dance-party song. However, in each prayer, the shadow of the cross points us to the light of the Resurrection—both Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday and the believer’s resurrection to eternal life when his life on earth is over. Good Friday is good because it points to Christ’s victory: A victory which all believers in Christ Jesus may share:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:1–3).

Happy Good Friday, one and all! May it be a reminder of the celebration we anticipate as we prepare for our ultimate rest in heaven.

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

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

Triumphal Entry, Worship, Betrayal, and Abandonment

And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:7–10, ESV)

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Scene from a Passion Play in Trafalgar Square, London, UK, on Good Friday in 2010, re-enacting the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Stephen Craven – geograph.org.uk/p/1782823

Most churches celebrate Palm Sunday by distributing palm fronds to the congregation. Some churches may process, marching around either inside or outside their building. Others will simply wave the palm branches while singing a song with “Hosanna!” (a Hebrew word meaning, “Save!”) in the title or lyrics. In doing so, we join our worship with the exuberant celebration of the crowd that greeted Jesus and His disciples as they entered Jerusalem in preparation for the Passover celebration nearly 2000 years ago. We now refer to this as “the triumphal entry,” but we can easily forget how quickly things changed in Jesus’ life within a week.

On Sunday, the crowd shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” By Friday morning, many of these people were in a mob shouting, “Crucify Him!” (Luke 23:18–21).

Judas Iscariot was part of the group entering Jerusalem with Jesus. Perhaps his cloak was on the colt’s back, providing a saddle for Jesus. By Thursday evening, he would betray Jesus.

Peter was there too. I can imagine him leading the way, announcing that the Messiah Jesus was coming and urging the crowd to cheer for Him as He entered. On Thursday evening, he vowed he would stand by Jesus no matter what happened (John 13:37). A few hours later, he tried to fulfill that vow—relying on his natural impulsiveness and machismo rather than the virtues Jesus had taught for the last three years—by whacking someone’s ear off during Jesus’ arrest. After that, it was all downhill. Probably less than 12 hours after declaring that he would die with Jesus, he denied three times that he even knew Him. In Jesus’ greatest hour of need, His so-called “best friend” left Him hanging (John 18:15–18, 25–27).

Ten of the other disciples, all of whom (like Peter) swore they would remain faithful to Him, ran into hiding as soon as He was arrested. As He stood trial and was crucified, the only disciple who stayed with Him was John. He was accompanied by a few women, including Jesus’ mother and Mary Magdalene.

Christians know the story so well that we can miss the point. We can learn a lot from the disciples because they are terribly human. They are a lot like us. Sometimes, they show us heroic faith that we hope to imitate. At other times, they show us just how badly we can fail. People were willing to stand by Jesus when things seemed to be going well. When times got tough, they turned on Him or abandoned Him. Sadly, none of us are immune to that temptation.

We may worship Jesus when we are in a crowd with others who are shouting and singing His praises. Do we continue to praise Him when the establishment and the culture revile and reject Him? Or, do we join in rejecting Him: If not in word or deed, do we reject Him in our hearts?

Do we sell Jesus out when financial gain is a possibility? Will we compromise our faith or ignore His commands when there is money to gain.

We can boldly profess our faith and devotion to Jesus in a church or Bible study. Do we continue to do so when surrounded by those who have not accepted Him, or do we suddenly hide our light under a basket (Matthew 5:15) and pretend we are not Christians?

Holy Week ends Lent, a season which many Christians devote to self-examination. As Easter approaches, are we ready to share the resurrected Christ with those around us? Are we willing to remain faithful to Him?

Let us prepare our hearts to sing Christ’s praises in good times and bad, when others join in song and when they refuse Him. As we wave our palm branches, let us continue to lift Jesus up so that He may draw all people unto Himself (John 12:32). As we shape our palm branches into crosses, let us take up our crosses to follow Him.

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

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

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).

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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.

 

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).

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“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

Resolving to Follow Christ in the New Year

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As I write, the year 2017 is approaching its end. Many people are writing down their New Year’s resolutions. Although I usually quip that my New Year’s resolution is to avoid making New Year’s resolutions, I must admit that there is some value to this tradition. Many of us can think of ways we would like to improve our lives. Maybe we want to eat healthier, exercise regularly, get control of our finances, quit a bad habit, etc. We can make positive changes anytime, but somehow it seems convenient to make major life changes while replacing the calendars that are hanging on our walls.

Have you made New Year’s resolutions? If so, where does God fit into them? How does Jesus affect your resolutions. Resolutions are great. Seeking to be a better person in 2018 than you were in 2017 is wonderful. We should all resolve to live better, be healthier, and improve where necessary. But if Jesus is not the Lord of your resolutions, do you truly confess Him as Lord of your life?

Perhaps a great place to start would be by devoting 2018 to re-evaluate who Jesus is
in your life. Far too many of us try to mold Jesus into our own image. To some, He is the all-American Jesus. To others, He is the Republican conservative Jesus. Others think of Jesus as the great social-activist liberal. Some view Jesus as the perfect boyfriend, or their “best bud.” He might be your motivational life coach. The list goes on. Some of these images of Jesus have an element of truth, but often that becomes exaggerated to the point of ignoring some key aspects of His nature. Others are simply wrong, projecting our own self-image onto Him, creating a god after our image, in our likeness. Let us devote 2018 to seek to know Jesus as He has revealed Himself in Scripture, not as we wish He would be.

Our view of Jesus will affect every aspect of our faith in Him. It will affect how we live our lives, what kinds of decisions we make, and how we pray. My mother has at times referred to what she might call “Monty Hall Christianity,” after the host of a game show entitled “Let’s Make a Deal.” Such people treat their faith as an opportunity to bargain with God: “If You do what I want, then I will follow You. If not, I will do my own thing.”

Perhaps we may see an element of that thinking in Jacob’s prayer, after God appeared to him in the vision of a ladder leading to heaven:

Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you” (Genesis 28:20–22).

Notice the wording: “If God will” do this, “then the Lord shall be my God” and I will serve Him. Thank God for His grace, since so many of us pray like this. God answered that prayer, and Jacob’s faith grew. However, it contrasts with the perspective of Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego:

If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery
furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Daniel 3:17–18).

In other words, “We know God can protect us and do what we want. But even if He does not give in to our demands, we will continue to worship Him. Case closed!”

Many of us treat God like He is our cosmic butler or servant. We expect Him to fulfill our wishes, give us what we want, and make us feel good about ourselves. We want Him to justify our choices (even when they conflict with the Bible) and bless our goals and plans.

Biblical discipleship recognizes that Jesus Christ is Lord: not butler, boyfriend, bargaining agent, etc. The true disciple of Jesus does not pray, “My will be done,” but instead “Thy will be done” (Matthew 6:10; 26:39, 42). The true disciple does not make his plans and then demand that God bless them; instead, he asks God to reveal His will and give wisdom, strength, and direction to accomplish it.

When faced with the opportunity to pray for prosperity or an easy life, the true disciple prays like King Solomon. Solomon could have requested wealth, long life, or the death of his enemies, but he asked God, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people” (I Kings 3:9).

When the early Christians faced threats and persecution, they did not ask God to change the leaders of their government or to make their lives easy. They prayed for the boldness to continue doing what Jesus had told them to do (Acts 4:23–31).

Before we write down our New Year’s resolutions, let us ask God to give us His wisdom:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without
reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways (James 1:5–8).

That is a prayer God is always willing to answer. Instead of making our plans and asking God to bless them, we should ask God to reveal His plans to us.

As we begin the New Year, we have several choices ahead of us. We can continue living as we did in 2017, and will get the same results. We can write out New Year’s resolutions, telling God what we want to do in 2018 and demanding that He bless that, whether it is His will or not. Or, we can begin each day by praying “Thy will be done,” and asking God to give us the wisdom, integrity, and perseverance to seek His will and to fill us anew with the Holy Spirit to guide us throughout the day.

May 2018 be a year when we come to more clearly discern God’s will for our lives.

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

 

Categories: Christian Life, Holidays, Uncategorized | 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

Give Thanks In All Circumstances

“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18, ESV). Sometimes, this can be the hardest command in Scripture to obey. Thankfulness can easily drown in a whirlpool of self-pity when life’s circumstances cloud our view.

About 15 years ago I was in a meeting where everybody wrote a “gratitude list.” We all brainstormed things for which we were thankful, trying to see how many blessings we could write. As I recall, I filled a page rather quickly and was making substantial headway on the other side of the sheet of paper. There were not too many glamorous or exotic items on that list; it was mostly rather basic, ordinary things to appreciate, like health, family, a job, etc. Although fame and fortune were not on the list, there were many little things that I was grateful to have in my life.

About nine months later, I stumbled upon that list again. It still said  “Gratitude List” at the top of the page, but this time the title should have read “Emotional Kick in the Face.” Almost every item on that list was gone. Marriage? My wife and I were going through a bitter separation, child custody battle, and divorce. My son? I had not seen nor spoken to him in months. My job? Nah; I only found the list because I had just been fired.

I realize this is not the standard lead to an article about thanksgiving. However, thankfulness demands a right perspective. If we base our sense of security on things that can change or disappear, we have little reason for gratitude. We need to cherish things that last instead of those that are temporary or unreliable.

Saint Paul wrote often about the attitude of gratitude in his New Testament letters. Yet, he did not have an easy life. When he would discuss his credibility as a minister of the Gospel, he did not whip out a diploma from an esteemed seminary or point to his popular television show and huge megachurch. Instead, he validated his apostolic ministry by writing, “I am a better one—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea” (2 Corinthians 11:23-25). It does not sound like he had much reason to give thanks, but his perspective was vastly different from that of most men. He had written, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

Situations and circumstances are temporary. If your life and joy are tied to things that are temporary, your gratitude will lack security. There will be no foundation. Temporary blessings bring temporary gratitude. However, the opposite is true as well: temporary hardships bring temporary sorrow: “For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

This life is temporary, but eternal life last forever. People may change, fail, or betray, but Jesus will never fail us.

Within five years of that gratitude list experience, I could write a newer, better one. In 2000, I celebrated Thanksgiving with a new wife, who has been one of the greatest blessings in my life. I have spent the last 14 years working in publishing (I had always wanted to do something with books or magazines; scientific journals will do). While the workplace has been stressful in recent years, thanks to economic challenges in the publishing industry, it still beats every other job I had before. A few months after finding the gratitude-list-turned-kick-in-the-face, I gained some fairly generous visitation rights with my son. Today, I enjoy chatting with him once or twice per week over the phone, and during part of those conversations I get to talk to my 2-year-old grandson (the 7-month-old is usually too busy to chat). I have obtained some great blessings over the years, but I had to go through some painful times before I received them.

Perhaps it was the hard times that enable me to appreciate the good things I have now. James 1:2-4 says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you 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.” God often prepares us to receive a blessing by allowing us to grow through trials. Even on Thanksgiving Day in 1996, when I felt like my entire world was collapsing around me, I could thank God that He still had a plan and purpose for my life.

When I was an assistant pastor, our church would occasionally sing a worship song with these lyrics: “Give thanks with a grateful heart / give thanks to the Holy One / give thanks, for He has given Jesus Christ, His Son.” No matter what else God may give us, He has already given us a great blessing by sending His Son Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. He has given us a gift that allows us to call upon the name of the Lord and be saved (Romans 10:9,13). No job, earthly blessing, or human relationship can compete against such a great gift.

Thanksgiving is a very appropriate climax to the month of November, as it leads to the conclusion of the church year. We begin November by observing All Saints’ Day. This feast day, observed by most traditional denominations, gives us the opportunity to thank God for the example of great men and women who served Christ faithfully. It encourages us to follow their example, which included maintaining an eternal perspective. It also reminds us that, like the great saints and martyrs of ages past, we have been offered an eternal home that far surpasses anything we have on earth. We end the month by thanking God for all the blessings He bestows on us throughout the year. Immediately after Thanksgiving, we begin the season of Advent, as we thank God for sending His Son Jesus into the world for our salvation.

Categories: Bible meditations, Holidays, Spiritual reflections | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Freedom in Christ

July begins with one of America’s favorite holidays. On July 4, most Americans will enjoy a day off from work, feasting at barbecues, watching fireworks displays, or hanging out at the beach (to name just a few fun activities). We do these things in the name of celebrating our freedom as a nation. Freedom is a foundation of our national heritage: it is central to our identity as a country, and few principles are mentioned more often in our political and social discourse. Freedom is important to us not only as Americans, but more so as Christians. God speaks about freedom throughout His Word, but it is not the sort of freedom the world promotes. To understand the biblical concept of freedom or liberty, we can study the letters of St. Paul; Galatians 5 is a great place to begin. In Galatians 5:1, 13, he mentions freedom four times:

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…. For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.

It is important to consider the meaning of the word “freedom.” Most people think of it as the right to do whatever you want. Among the definitions in Webster’s Dictionary are the following:

  • “exemption from external control, interference, regulation, etc.”
  • “the power to determine action without restraint.”

Both of these definitions are incomplete and therefore inaccurate. They assume that we can be completely free of external control, interference, or restraint. However, this is not possible for several reasons. For one, there are many times when freedom for one person’s course of action places restrictions on another person. For example, before the Civil War millions of Americans were free to buy, sell, and own slaves. Needless to say, their liberty in this regard placed others in bondage. When the slaves were set free, after the war, they obtained a level of freedom they had not known previously, but the people who owned them lost what they considered to be a valid legal right. In each case, one group’s liberty placed a restriction on another group. The same remains true today: A woman’s right to end her pregnancy interferes with the preborn child’s right to live. As New York State recently gave homosexuals the right to marry, it has essentially robbed Christians who serve in public office (like justices of the peace) of their right to live by their moral convictions.

As a result, total freedom (as defined by secular society) is a myth. It is ridiculous to place freedom and liberty on the throne as the ultimate reality, the greatest value in the universe. We need something greater to help us decide which rights to preserve. The Bible gives us the answer. Jesus told us that the two greatest commandments are to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love one’s neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37–40). This standard, of love to God and neighbor (in that order, and defined by His Word) is an essential first guideline for determining which “rights” should be preserved.

Secondly, even when we are free to choose a course of action, we are not free to decide its consequences. For example, there is no law saying how many donuts I may eat. Legally, I can choose to eat a dozen donuts for each meal every day. However, that diet will enslave me with obesity and a host of other health concerns. That is perhaps a rather extreme and silly example, yet millions of people claim their freedom to drink as much alcohol as they wish, only to be bound by the disease of alcoholism. People may think they are exercising their freedom, only to find themselves bound by chains of addiction.

Unfortunately, because of such false notions about freedom, many Christians do not realize their liberty in Christ. Countless followers of Jesus are bound by rules when they should instead by liberated by the Spirit of God. Jesus did not come into the world merely to reinforce the rules, but to offer direct access to His Heavenly Father to all who believe in Him. We are invited to enter into an intimate relationship with God. This relationship brings us the freedom to be everything that God created us to be. Although that freedom has guidelines and limits, it also brings great privileges. We should learn to look at God’s commandments not with resentment (“God said I cannot commit adultery; He just wants to spoil my fun!”), but with gratitude (“Thank you, God! You have shown me how to find true fulfillment in my relationships, and You have protected me from disease and other harmful effects!”).

In Galatians 5, we can discern four principles about such freedom. First, true freedom comes as we yield to the Holy Spirit. Galatians 5:24 tells us that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” If you belong to Jesus Christ, He is free to lead you. He wants to lead you into liberty. He wants to set you free from sinful habits that cause slavery. Because I am free in Christ, I can choose to avoid sins that would enslave me. He also offers the liberty to serve others, which provides a sense of purpose in life. I choose to obey Christ and His Word in order to be free to serve Him.

Second, freedom produces liberty in personal relationships. When we yield to the leading of the Holy Spirit and obey Christ, we commit ourselves to a life of love. Galatians 5:14 reminds us that every commandment in Scripture is summed up by “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This love does not come naturally for people. It is not natural for a person to put the needs of others on an equal level with their own, except perhaps for very close friends or immediate family members. The Holy Spirit must orchestrate that love in our hearts. When we love one another in this way, it delivers freedom. People are sucked into bondage when they backbite and devour one another (Galatians 5:15). Numerous marriages have been destroyed, friendships shattered, and churches torn apart, because people place their own desires over the needs of those around them. God wants us to build each other up, not destroy one another.

Third, this freedom liberates us from the bondage of sin. There is no crueller taskmaster than sin. In Galatians 5:19–21, Paul lists some of the “deeds of the flesh.” While Scripture refers to them as manifestations of sin, many of them are almost deified in our culture. American society promotes sexual freedom, but millions of lives have been destroyed because people ignore the biblical warnings against sexual immorality, impurity, and sensuality. Millions of marriages have ended because of adultery. Countless young people have been emotionally scarred because they jumped into physical relationships they were not emotionally ready for. In addition, millions have enslaved themselves through hatred, discord, jealousy, rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, and a host of other sins. Sin produces personal shame. It creates consequences which we must live with. Sometimes, it damages our physical health. Too often, we think some sins are “victimless,” but ironically, the person committing the sin is the greatest victim!

Fourth, freedom in the Spirit liberates us as we develop a Christlike nature. Christianity is not a matter of living by the rules. Some churches teach us that a good Christian does not smoke, drink, dance, or go to the movies; that he prays at least one hour every day, goes to church three times per week, and listens only to Christian music. Such rules are not totally bad: Most of these guidelines will do us more good than harm. However, they do not make somebody a “good Christian.” In fact, some of the grouchiest religious fanatics follow all of these rules, yet they do not show any of the love of God. One becomes a good Christian not by following rules, but by having Christ living within them. As we allow the Holy Spirit to produce His fruit within us (see Galatians 5:22–23), we will become more like Christ. We will become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), and we will be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). We will obtain victory over sin. We will do this without rules that create bondage to guilt and shame, mingled with feelings of inadequacy because we always realize that there is more we could do.

Christlike character traits are called the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22. Fruit grows; it does not just appear overnight. As we yield to Christ and the Holy Spirit, the fruit will grow. Even though you may be weak in some areas now, you should encourage yourself as you realize that the Holy Spirit is producing growth. No matter how weak you are now, you will grow stronger as you yield to the Holy Spirit.

Let us be encouraged by these thoughts. We are free from the legalism of dead religion. We are free from the guilt and anxiety that religious rules create. As we yield to Christ, we are free from sin and enjoy newness of life as we look forward to eternity in heaven.

Categories: Bible meditations, Holidays, Politics, Spiritual reflections | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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