Immanuel

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Gentle Reader,

Immanuel.

For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.

– Isaiah 9:6-7 (NKJV)

I feel tingly inside when I think about Christmas.

October may be my favorite month, but this is my favorite season.

The weeks between Thanksgiving and the New Year are filled with light and life. The scent of pine and sugar cookies dance in the air. Dogs are decked out in ridiculous Santa outfits. (Not mine. They have respectable red-and-black plaid vests with faux shearling collars). Kids belt out tunes from the church Christmas play at the top of their lungs, never quite getting the lyrics correct. People walk around with little smiles on their faces, thinking of secret goodies for loved ones tucked beneath sparking trees (real and fake). Snoopy and the Red Baron agree to a truce on the front lines.

I love it.

One of my earliest memories centers around Christmas. My dad took my brother and I out to the back steps on a cold, clear night. We could see the marks of our playtime in the thick snow. Petey the black-and-white mutt stood with us, watching. Dad pointed to the brightest star in the sky (probably the North Star, but I’m not sure) and told us how a star just like that guided the Wise Men to a town called Bethlehem, to a baby named Jesus. He told us about the gifts they gave to the baby, because He was the King.

Then, on Christmas Eve, my mom pulled a yellow cake from the oven. She pushed white rainbow-chip frosting back and forth across the top without tearing the cake (something I have yet to master) and then, gently, pierced the layers with candles. Dad lit the match. We sang, “Happy birthday, dear Jesus.”

The simplicity of those moment never fail to stir my heart. Sure, I know all about John 1 and how Jesus is part of the Trinity and has always existed, and so on the deeper level He never had a birthday. I know that the Wise Men probably arrived in Bethlehem (by way of Jerusalem) a couple of years after Jesus was born. I understand terms like hypostatic union and kenosis.

All the systematic theology in the world cannot capture the holy mystery of the Incarnation.

The prophecies and the 400 years of silence. The teenage girl and the announcement. The man who would divorce the girl and is stopped. The census. The trek to Bethlehem. The donkey. No room in the inn. Mary longing for her mother. Joseph freaking out as he’s turned into a midwife. A barn. A hush settling over the animals tucked within as the One who created them all bursts onto the scene with the wailing cries of a newborn. The lowly shepherds. The angelic choir.

The infinite Lord of creation, bound neither by space nor time, chose to lay aside His glory and come to earth in the form of a fragile baby.

I can’t get over that. I can’t explain that. The terms and the thick books don’t do it justice.

God, in flesh and blood.

The stars and the birthday cake somehow make the most sense. Tiny human beings looking to the sky, waiting for the Lord to come. Offering up what little we have, like the little drummer boy. Wanting to show, to say, how much He means to us and failing to fully express the sentiment.

God with us.

God actually with us.

Mind-blowing and heart-rending. He didn’t have to. He’s God. He could have left us to our own devices. We would have deserved that. Instead He gave us what we can never, ever even come close to deserving.

Immanuel.

My journey to faith. (15)

Five Minute (Holiday Interrupted) Friday: Table

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

I hope you had a great Thanksgiving! (If you’re not from the United States, I hope you had a great Thursday). We were pretty chill around here, which is fine by me. The holiday and subsequent shopping (we are Black Friday people, but we do are not the “get up at o’dark thirty” sort) plus getting rid of junk I don’t need took up all of my writing time. I’m coming late to the game. Kate prompts us to write about: table.

Go.

I hate the card game Shanghai. A form of contract rummy, it takes hours to play. Honestly. At least two hours. It’s all about strategy (or strateegery for the SNL fans) and paying attention and holding way to many cards in your hands. Every year my family makes me sit down after the Thanksgiving meal and participate in this self-torture. Every year I say I don’t like it. Every year they think I’m joking.

Or they know I’m serious and just like bugging me. Could go either way.

Once more we gathered around the table, an old farmhouse piece that my dad spent weeks methodically stripping, sanding and refinishing. The dogs – an obese PomChi, a wiggly wiener dog and a teacup Pomeranian who genuinely hates everyone except my mom – nestled at our feet. Forks scraped against plates as we munched on four different types of pie. Cards were shuffled and dealt.

This year, I brought my phone to the table. Opening my “classic” playlist on Spotify, the sweet sound of Billy Ocean’s Caribbean Queen set the tone for the rest of the evening. I broke out my Cher impression. Chris argued with me about song selection. My mom bopped along with Whitney Houston. The strange opening to Midnight Special by Creedence Clearwater Revival played and my brother asked, “What the heck is that?” My dad made up his own lyrics and even entertained us with his one dance move.

I lost – horribly. I always do.

But that’s okay. It’s always okay. I get through those hours and that stupid game because I’m at the table, surrounded by family.

Stop.

My journey to faith. (15)

They Can’t All Be Correct

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

My home group has been journeying through the book of Acts for almost three months. Tonight we’ll be discussing Paul’s final recorded journey to Jerusalem and his subsequent arrest. Soon the narrative will draw to a close. I never fail to feel sad when I reach the end of a study. Even though Paul died many centuries ago, I’ll miss him.

Paul gets a hard time. People like to take what he wrote and what he was recorded as saying completely out of context. They spin his words for their own agendas. It frustrates me to no end to see the Bible abused this way. It is so, so important to take the time, to put in the effort, to consider and understand the context of a passage within the chapter, the book or letter or poem as a whole, the overarching salvation narrative and the historical timeline. This is the only way, guided by the Holy Spirit, to rightly handle the text.

Consider one of my favorite scenes from Acts:

Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols. Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there. Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, “What does this babbler want to say?”

Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods,” because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection.

And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean.” For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.

Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:

TO THE UNKNOWN GOD

Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.”

– Acts 17:16-31 (NKJV)

Yes, Paul had a temper. He was an intense guy. He was a very flawed human being, something he declared over and over again. He made mistakes. He knew exactly what sort of person he was and exactly from what God had saved him.

Yet there is nothing offensive in his sermon. He is respectful, learned and passionate. He speaks to his audience in terms they will readily understand. He seeks out whatever common ground he can find and builds on it. I imagine him as the sort of guy that would be willing to sit down with anyone who wanted to talk about faith and God, probably over a good kosher burger.

But he never says that their way is right.

He never says that the road they are on will lead them to salvation.

We would do well to emulate Paul in this way. He never compromised the message. He was not wishy-washy. He did not go into pagan temples and participate in idolatrous rights in order to “connect” with people. He did not preach some mushy, gushy, “all you need is love,” fake, flimsy gospel. He spoke and wrote the truth. It got him run out of towns, separated from friends, whipped, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked and eventually (according to tradition) beheaded.

I have no doubt that he stands today among that great and unseen cloud of witnesses and shouts, “It was worth it! The Lord is worth it!”

They can’t all be correct. We do the unbelieving world great disservice when we refuse to reveal the Unknown God to them. When we spout the political correctness of relativism. When we refuse to face reality. When we fall prey to inconsistencies of logic and cognitive dissonance.

There is One way, One truth and One life. Period.

Let us be moved. Not to disdain, superiority or prejudice. Not to unkindness or brutality. Let us be moved, as Paul was moved, to take the Light of Christ boldly into the dark. Let us allow the Lord to break our hearts for the lost, for those who grope about wildly for what He freely and openly offers. Let us be strong and committed. Let us declare truth.

For that is real love.

My journey to faith. (15)