Matthew 11:28, Romans 5:8

A Place to Rest!

When we were driving home from our vacation visiting relatives in Georgia we were discussing what we thought Church should be like. As we were driving along the Highway we saw signs of all kinds. There were Highway signs, advertisements for fuel, lodging, food and other accommodations one might need when they got weary on the highway. It doesn’t take too long for us to get weary in the car after 6 to 8 hours of driving so when we saw the “Rest Area” sign it was rather encouraging. We need to get out and stretch our legs and get away from those 18 wheelers passing us at 75 miles an hour and all the other stresses on the road.  You really have to stay alert and pay attention to everything going on around you. That’s when I began to think of life as the long highway. We all drive the same road. It’s the road of obligation, diligence, and hard work. Everyone has responsibilities in life. We have to work, we have to get up with alarm clocks, we have to struggle with difficult relationships on the job, at school and even in our homes at times. Our lives on life’s road are filled with signs of “must do…, should do…, ought to do,” and responsibilities that make us all weary.

In Matthew 11:28, Jesus said, “Come to me all of you who are weary and overburdened and I will give you rest.” I began to think of Jesus as the great rest area for our lives. God has called us to set aside one day to rest in our lives. In the Old Testament that was the Sabbath day or Saturday. In the New Testament I believe the Sabbath is replaced by the Lord’s Day, Sunday. I don’t think  a church should just hold up more signs of obligations for me to fulfill in life. Even in retirement I have enough “deeds to do and promises to keep” to make me weary at times. I want a church that will lift up the one who delivers me from the curse of the law and sets me free from all the “gottas…” in my life. This is the kind of a “rest” that will prepare you for getting back into the world on Monday.  This is the kind of rest that God intended the Sabbath or the Lord’s day to be.

I want to enter into the “rest” that Jesus offers us along the road of life on Sunday mornings. I want to hear about the one who saved my soul, forgave my sin, and purchased for me a place in heaven where I will inherit an eternal rest. I want to be refreshed in my life with God’s love for me as expressed on Calvary. In Romans 8:5 we read, “But God demonstrated His own love for us in this. While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” I don’t think that church should simply tell us what to do. I think  church should give us something to believe that settles our hearts and minds. I think church should focus on giving its congregation things to believe about God and his love for us that restores our souls and prepares us for the obligations that always await us in life. I think that’s what Jesus promised when he called us to Himself with the promise of “rest.”

Matthew 2:23, 28:20, John 4, Luke 2:4

There’s no PLACE like Jesus!

One of the interesting paradoxes in the Christmas story is the two cities associated with Jesus’ home town: Bethlehem and Nazareth. Bethlehem as you know, is the city of David. It was the city of the great king. Jesus was from the “house of David” (Luke 2:4).  The greatest of all kings came from Bethlehem. Nazareth was the place from which “no good thing could come” (Matthew 2:23). The extremes of these two cities are significant. This paradox is educational for all who have ears to hear and eyes to see. They are not just geographical locations. To those who can think metaphorically, who can look outside the box, it’s a powerful figure of speech called a “merism.” A merism is a phrase that involves two extremes that is intended to include everything in between. It’s similar to Jesus’ own use of “The Alpha and Omega” referring to the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. It’s not that Jesus is only one or the other, but that He is both and everything in between.

Jesus made it clear to the woman at the well in John chapter 4, that true worship was not at a geographical location. True worship was neither in the mountains of Samaria nor in the mountains around Jerusalem. True worship was worship that was in the spirit and in truth. A. W. Tozer observed, “I wonder why the Crusaders did not consider that. Why all the starvation, the suffering, the blood? Why the long, weary treks to get to the place where Jesus was born, where He was crucified, where He died? There is no geographical advantage anywhere in the world. Not one of us will be a better Christian by living in Jerusalem. And not one of us is disadvantaged spiritually for living far from Judea or Galilee. Jesus Christ is in the very center of geography. Every place is just as near to Him as every other place! And every place is just as far, also. Geography means nothing in our relationship to our Savior and Lord.”

I truly loved my visits to Bethlehem and Nazareth in my tours of Israel, but the truth is they lend nothing of true spiritual significance in and of themselves. My son Chuck made a comment at our farewell dinner at the close of our last trip that rang true for all of us. He said that he enjoyed the tour and will always treasure the places he had seen but he knew that Israel would always be with him no matter where he was as he studied the Word of God. The scriptures testify of Jesus and Jesus is the hub, and geography is all around Him! As he was departing at his ascension, he told his followers, “Behold, I am with you always even to the ends of the earth” (Matthew 28:20). Jesus loved using figures of speech. In John 14:6 He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Luke 2

The Shephard’s perspective

Every Christmas pageant in the world has shepherds in it. What would a Christmas play be without shepherds? It would be incomplete, that’s what it would be! The Gospel of Luke makes a big deal out of the shepherds coming from the hills of Bethlehem to visit Jesus in the manger. The text of Luke 2 regarding the shepherds begins “And in the same region…” That means Bethlehem! They are not just any ordinary Shepherds. Bethlehem was a major suburb of Jerusalem. It’s the place where David, as a little boy, was a shepherd. He was a song writer and poet from his earliest days and he did that in these very same hills. But more importantly, the hills of Bethlehem were occupied by shepherds who were assigned to take care of and watch over the sheep that were being raised for one purpose, and one purpose only. They were the sheep that were to serve as the sacrifices that were offered in the temple. There are several things worth noting about the Luke passage in this regard.

First, when the angels appeared to them the text says, “the glory of the Lord, shone around about them.” That’s a clear reference to the Holy of Holies where the “Glory of the Lord” was believed to reside. These shepherds were raising their sheep to be offered at the temple as sacrifices to the glory of the Lord. But they themselves were never allowed to enter into God’s presence. That’s why they were “filled with great fear.” The angel tells them not to fear because he has some wonderful news for them of great joy that will be for all the people. They were about to be introduced to the one great sacrificial lamb who would rend the veil separating God from the people. That’s why the angel added the idea that this great joy will be for “all the people.” It’s not just for the religious elite who enter into the presence of God. It was for them too. It’s for me too! It’s for you too!

One more thing. The angel told them that “this would be a sign to you; you will find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” How could that be a sign for shepherds? One of the toughest jobs of the shepherds was to protect the new born sheep. The mortality rate of sheep (and humans) in those days was pretty high. But even more important was the fact that when sheep are first born, they struggle and wiggle and strive to stand up and bump into things and very often break legs or cut themselves or hurt themselves in such a way that they are no longer “perfect” and cannot be offered as a sacrifice at the temple. Shepherds worked hard at watching the expectant ewes so they could be there for the delivery. They would receive the baby sheep right from the womb and to insure it would remain acceptable as an offering, they would wrap it up tightly and bind it so it couldn’t hurt itself. You guessed it; they would use “swaddling” clothes. Further, after wrapping the new born sheep, it would be laid in the feeding trough, so that the other sheep would not bother it until it had time to survive the birth experience without damage. The swaddling clothes and lying in a manger would assure the shepherds that this infant was the “perfect” sacrifice that would be offered for the sins of the world. Yes, John the Baptist knew what he was saying when he pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.”

Matthew 21:16, Psalms 95, 1 John 1:3

Christmas is about Jesus – the Savior!

If the kingdom of heaven and Christmas are for kids, what exactly is it about kids that give them this honor? When Jesus was entering Jerusalem on what we know as Palm Sunday, the crowds were shouting and singing and praising God for they had acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah who was to come. But the religious leaders rebuked the crowds and called for Jesus to do the same. “Do you hear what these children are saying?” They asked him. “Yes”, replied Jesus. Then Jesus quoted an Old Testament passage that prophesied that upon the arrival of the Messiah, God would make sure that “children and infants” would praise Him. (See Matthew 21:16). What kids do is worship! They especially worship at the coming of the Messiah which is what we celebrate at Christmas time.

Children always look up to those all around them. I once got lost in Brandies when I was 6 years old.  Brandies, for those of you who do not know, was the largest department store in downtown Omaha back in the 1950s. It would be compared to Higbees in The Christmas Story movie. I was on the 8th floor where all the toys were, and I got disoriented and my mother was waiting in a checkout line.  The most frightening thing was that everyone around me was so huge and I was so small. I felt helpless. I didn’t know which way to turn and the big people were all too busy rushing past me to stop and help. It wasn’t until I began to cry that someone stopped and took me to a store employee who announced in the store that if anyone had lost a little boy to come to the lost and found. That was me, I was lost! But then Mom showed up and I was found. That was me, once I was lost, but now I’ve been found. I remember how happy I was to see my mom! It was like being rescued from a raging sea of fear and confusion and being placed on dry ground.

Uncorrupted worship is worship that comes from that salvation experience. It’s what the Psalmist described in Psalm 95 when he wrote, “Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! For the LORD is a great God and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.” So John reminds us in 1 John 1:3, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us that we should be called children of God; and so we are.”

Luke 18:17, Proverbs 16:19

Childlike Humility!

The kingdom of heaven and Christmas are for children. In Luke 18:17, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” In thinking my way through the characteristics that God desires in us adults that reflect a child like faith, I think we need to consider the idea of untutored humility. What I mean by “untutored” is that children don’t need to be taught to be humble. It’s a part of their characteristic of living in a grown-up world. When you live in a world where you have to look up at everyone around you, where you are fed by others, clothed by others, cared for when you’re hurt by others, and just about every necessity of life is provided by others, you come to understand your place in the overall scheme of things. But grownups get tall, strong, self-sufficient, competent, and learn how to take care of themselves in life. That leads to confusion in our overall lot in life.

There was an interesting article in the Omaha World Herald some time back about saying grace and praying in public in general. Several people interviewed argued that it wasn’t necessarily a public display of religious pride on the part of those who prayed, but rather it represented a sincere desire on their part to reflect an honest attitude of gratitude to their maker for the many daily blessings in their lives. I like to think that’s the reason I do it. We become confused by our grownup economic system. It’s easy to believe that we deserve what we have, and that we’ve earned everything we have, and that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and we all have to pay the price, etc. But the bottom line in it all is that we have been blessed to live in a country where we have the freedoms we have, the opportunities we have, the resources we have, etc. A truly childlike humility looks up at those who’ve gone before them and paid the price for the great freedoms we have. It looks to the maker of heaven and earth as the supreme provider and acknowledges its helplessness to provide and sustain all these blessings by itself. None of us would enjoy this life if it weren’t for others who came before us and for the God that made us and sustains us.

Proverbs 16:19 tells us “It is better to be of a humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud.” Someone said, “If you are too big for a little place, you are too little for a big place.” A. W. Tozer wrote, “Humility pleases God wherever it is found, and the humble person will have God for his or her friend and helper always. Only the humble are completely sane, for they are the only ones who see clearly their own size and limitations. Egotists see things out of focus. To themselves they are large, and God is correspondingly small, and that is a kind of moral insanity.”

Luke 18:17, John 5:24

Receiving God’s Gift at Christmas

Christmas and the kingdom of heaven are both for children. Jesus made this very clear in Luke 18:17 when He said, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” The conversation in which this comment was made was with the rich young ruler. He had it all and wanted to add to his account by meriting his way into heaven. He asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus went through the list of things he could sacrifice until he got to the ultimate point. There’s nothing one can do to earn or deserve admittance into God’s kingdom. If you wanted to buy your way into heaven or earn your admittance ticket, the cost would be very high. As a matter of fact, the cost was always more than anyone could pay. When the rich young ruler got this point the Bible says, “When he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.”

It can’t be bought or earned but it can be received as the great gift that it is. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.”  John teaches us that whoever “receives” Him has been given the right to become God’s children. It’s not those who understand Him (I don’t think we ever will!) It’s not those who master the doctrines of the Christian faith. It’s not for those who are wealthy, educated or sophisticated. On the contrary, it’s for those who accept God’s gift by faith – it’s for children! Paul tells us that it’s not by works (or wealth) we are saved, but by God’s grace through faith. “It is a gift of God” and the only thing that can be done with a gift is to receive it, accept it. If we attempt to earn or deserve or buy it, we’ve missed the point entirely.

Receiving the gift of eternal life and believing in Jesus are the same things. John’s gospel makes that clear to us. It is saving faith that brings eternal life and opens the doors to the kingdom of heaven and makes Christmas what Christmas is really all about. John mentions eternal life about 35 times in his gospel. The one who believes in Jesus has received Jesus and has in their possession the gift of eternal life. John 5:24 says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life…” Only Jesus gives the gift of eternal life and to receive Him is to receive that gift, because Jesus is God’s greatest gift of all. Christmas time is the celebration of God’s great gift to us – – His only Son.

Matthew 11:25

The Faith of a child!

Christmas and the kingdom of heaven are both for children. Jesus made it clear that we must all be born again as little children and embrace as adults the faith of a child. God’s ways are filled with paradoxes. You must die if you are really going to live. You must give if you’re ever going to get. You must become last if you’re ever going to be first. You must be the least if you desire to be the greatest. God’s ways are much different from man’s ways. The world seeks people with power, influence, education, socials status and wealth. God seeks little children. God is building His kingdom on the characteristics most frequently found in children: love, innocence, lack of power, sincerity, without pretension, and most of all complete trust. God doesn’t look for power brokers he wants children who simply trust Him. Adults have to unlearn a lot of things to become like children. That’s why Jesus told the wise and seasoned Nicodemus that he had to born again.

A rebirth is necessary because grownups who put confidence in themselves can’t ever grasp the true meaning of the kingdom of heaven or Christmas. They have become blinded to the spiritual reality all around them. When His disciples finally grasped this truth, Jesus exploded with praise to God. He said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children…” (Matthew 11:25).

Maintaining childlike faith in the midst of hurt, pain, suffering and loss is not an easy matter. Christmas time for many can be a time of sorrow and suffering. We hear so much about perseverance and biting the bullet and staying strong and facing the giants and it almost seems like it’s all about our grit and courage. I don’t think God wants us to demonstrate our strength in the face of trial and tribulation. That makes it all about me. I think He wants us to demonstrate our faith. I sometimes hang on, during suffering and trials, out of devotion to duty, or deep moral resolve, or some misplaced manly ability to endure pain. God wants me, as He did all the saints of old, to stand firm in my faith during times of testing. Like an innocent child, He wants me to stand firm in the fact that God loves me and has my best interest foremost in mind, regardless of my circumstances. It’s holding on with childlike devotion to God’s promises, not my strengths. Our obedience shouldn’t glorify us, but the God of Grace.

Matthew 18:3, Mark 10:15, Luke 18:5

Childlike Faith!

Christmas and the kingdom of heaven are for children. I think this is why Jesus told Nicodemus that he “must be born again.” As the wise old teacher, rabbi, Pharisee that he was, he needed to back off all the adult learning and philosophy of the day and just have faith. It’s often true that when children grow up and leave home, they lose their faith. The secular world resists and often rejects anything beyond what can be scientifically demonstrated or proven. But most of the important things in life are not a matter of science or math. They are matters of faith. There are some things science cannot reproduce: origins, historical data, or matters of the heart. Many of these truths must be taken as a matter of faith. This is why the kingdom of heaven is also a matter of faith. Paul makes it clear that we are saved “by grace through faith, not of works.” I believe this may have been Jesus’ focus when He said in Matthew 18:3, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The disciples repelled the children who were brought to Jesus, but Jesus insisted they be brought to him because the kingdom of heaven consisted of such as these. In Luke 18:15 we read; “Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them…” At a time when the infant mortality rate was so high and childhood diseases often meant death, many children and infants were brought to Jesus for healing. In his commentary on Luke, Butler writes, “This marks off God’s ways from men’s ways. God deals always with the little ones, the unknown ones, the powerless ones. The world seeks people of power, influence, and wealth. God seeks the children. God builds his kingdom on childlike characteristics: trust, love, innocence, lack of power, lack of pretension, lack of credentials. God wants children whom he can make into disciples, not power brokers whom he has to steer away from political and military expectations.”

But you will notice that Jesus took this teaching further. He did not suggest that childlikeness was one possible way; he said it was the only way! Butler goes on to say, “Being like a child is the only way to kingdom living. If you cannot do away with your pretensions, your greed, your claims to fame, your need to dominate and control, your grasp for identity and power, you cannot be part of Christ’s kingdom. Christ constantly seeks those who have no hope of power and position: the poor, Samaritans, women, children, blind, crippled, lame, tax collectors. These lack the vanity and self-assurance that keep a person from entering the kingdom.” Jesus said in Mark 10:15 “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

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