The Light Shines in the Darkness and the Darkness Did Not Overcome It

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

What is the Human Condition?

Merry Christmas! This morning we continue our celebration of Christmas, that great twelve day season that marks the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We have spent the season of Advent waiting for this great event and it is now here. This morning I want to speak a word of hope to you because the Christmas story is a story of grace and wondrous hope, and as Christians struggling to live faithful lives in a broken and fallen world, we must take every opportunity to remind ourselves of the hope that is ours in Christ.

In today’s Gospel lesson, John tells us right away why we should have hope in the Christmas story. He reminds us that God himself took on our flesh and came to live among us. The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. This is a great blessing to us because we all have plenty of darkness, both individual and corporate, with which we must deal, don’t we? It might be the darkness of separation or loneliness. It might be the darkness of illness or addiction. It might be the darkness that seeks to blow up a plane with almost 300 people in it or the darkness of poverty, alienation, hunger, war, or all kinds of injustice. It might be the darkness that seeks to convince us there is no real truth and consequently there is no harm in doing our own thing because it doesn’t really matter anyway. Or worse, it might be the darkness of the lie that seeks to convince us that the problem of sin and the separation it causes really isn’t that bad, at least not in us because after all we are not nearly as bad as some of those really bad people, and so we really don’t need a Savior because we are not bad enough to warrant being saved.

The consequence of living in the darkness, however it manifests itself, is that it can, and often does, lead us to lose hope. We lose hope because we try to fix our problems ourselves and are more often than not defeated. We don’t have to look any farther than our list of failed new year’s resolutions to see the truth in this. Self-help is a delusion and a lie, and it will inevitably lead us to lose all hope.

Where is God’s Grace?

But it is to the glory of God that it does not have to be this way. We do have hope, God’s hope, the hope of Christ. The Christmas story is the beginning of the climax of God’s salvation story. When God took on our flesh and condescended to our corruption, as Athanasius put it, he gave us a great light to shine in the darkness, his Light. When God became human, he affirmed the value and worth of human beings. He demonstrated that he loves us no matter who we are or what kind of darkness we walk in. In taking on our flesh, God demonstrated that he is interested in saving us, not destroying us. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

When God became Incarnate, he showed us that he understands the futility of self-help. He knows how intractable our sin is and understands we cannot do anything about it on our own. God created us to have a relationship with him and with each other, but our sin causes us to be alienated from him and from each other. So God acted on our behalf. He was born of a virgin, lived among us, and died for us so that our relationship with him could be restored and we could enjoy real life again. God took on our flesh so that he could bear the punishment for our sins himself. It is a free and wondrous gift to us if only we will accept it by faith. We no longer have to try to do the impossible. We no longer have to try to earn our salvation through some bizarre form of legalism because God has already done it for us. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

But the Good News doesn’t stop at the Cross, does it? As Paul reminds us in today’s Epistle lesson, our Lord promised to give us his Holy Spirit to transform us and help us become more like him. This process of sanctification is a long and arduous one. How the Holy Spirit transforms us is often mysterious to us and some days it seems that darkness has overcome the light. I know I am tempted to wonder about my own sanctification when I have to keep asking for forgiveness for the same sins I keep committing day after day. But then we are confronted by today’s Gospel lesson and reminded that God’s word is true and that we must walk in faith. God has entered our history as a human and is at work on us right now through his Spirit. God loves us despite our fears, failings, and setbacks, and he has done something about it. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

God not only gives us himself, but God also gives us each other. Both John and Paul talk about this relational grace when they talk about us becoming children of God. We are made children of God by grace through faith, and through spiritual regeneration. It is God’s great gift to us because unlike servants or slaves, as God’s children we are heirs to the promise that we are his people and that we will enjoy life with God now and for all eternity. Did you notice the intimate term for Father that Paul uses in today’s Epistle? Through the Spirit, we can call God “Abba,” a term of great intimacy and endearment that can be translated as “papa” or “daddy.” What a remarkable thing! In God’s mighty act of salvation through Christ, we have the privilege of calling the Creator of this vast universe “papa.” You don’t get to do this unless you have an intimate relationship with the One who loves you and gave himself for you. Once we let him into our lives, he promises that we will never be the same. There is real hope in this. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

And because God knows we need a human touch, he has given us each other in his Body, the Church. God pours out his Spirit on his people and calls us to love him first and to show our love for him, in part, by loving and caring for each other. Think of the dear ones in your life who have embodied the light of Christ in the darkest moments of your life. They did not come your way by accident. They are a product of God’s wondrous and gracious love for you. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

Where is the Application?

Practically speaking, how does the light of Christ shine in the darkness? I can give you a very recent example from our own experience that I hope will illustrate what I have been talking about. This year, for the first time ever, my wife and I were faced with the prospect of spending Christmas alone. My kids had a commitment to be with their mom and this was not our year to travel to NC to be with Dondra’s family. Given all the upheaval in our lives this past year, there was a real possibility of darkness enveloping our Christmas, especially since this was happening so soon after the recent death of my beloved’s dad. But we had the light of Christ shining in our darkness. We remembered his mighty act of taking on our flesh because he loves us and we believe his promise to us. We kept praying and reading our bibles and worshiping God. We believe we have the Holy Spirit working in us to sustain us in our weakness and grief.

But we had more. We also had the grace of the human touch. All the couples in our small group who were in town for Christmas invited us to spend Christmas with them! We ate with the Seitzes and visited with the Falors and the Collins’. God worked through these faithful souls to shine his light on us and in doing so helped us celebrate a wonderful Christmas in the fellowship of our church family. I cannot adequately tell you how much this means to my wife and me. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. It gives us real hope, not because our loss and hurts and heartaches magically disappear but because we have the light of Christ shining on us to help us overcome the darkness. Thanks be to God!


Christmas is a story of wonder and hope. At Christmas God took on our flesh and took care of the intractable problem of sin and the alienation it causes. He blesses us with the power of his Holy Spirit to help us become like him, and he gives us each other as tangible reminders of his great love for us. The Christmas story reminds us that God is passionate about us and wants us to enjoy real life with him. It does not matter who you are or the kind of darkness you walk in. God loves you and wants you back. God has taken care of the darkness for you, not by making you immune from it, but by giving you himself and his light to overcome it for you. It is yours for the taking if you will only turn to him and allow him to make you into the person he created you to be.

As you come to the Table later in a few minutes, bring your darkness, fears, and hopelessness, and give them to Christ. Remember that you are his beloved, no matter who you are or what your failures are. As you remember this, feed on his very Presence in your heart by faith with thanksgiving. Let the bread and wine be tangible reminders of the light that shines in the darkness, a light that the darkness of sin or separation or evil or illness or alienation or even death cannot overcome. God’s light in Christ transcends and transforms our darkness so that we can live with him now and forever. There is hope, real hope, in that, and that’s good news, folks, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

O Child of All Our Hopes and Dreams

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

What is the Human Condition?

Merry Christmas! Tonight we begin the great celebration of Christmas. It is a time for rejoicing and thanksgiving, and tonight I want to remind you why we do so. In tonight’s OT lesson, the prophet tells us that, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2a). Tonight I want you to look deep into your heart of hearts to see what is the darkness in which you walk. Each one of us has our own darkness in which we walk, don’t we? For the Maneys, we are walking in the darkness of grief, loss, and separation that is caused by the death of loved ones. Prior to that, we were walking in the darkness caused by aging and the infirmity that beset our loved ones, and it was heartbreaking to watch. But we are certainly not alone because many of you are also struggling with similar darkness.

Neither is darkness unique to people who are our age. Young people struggle with the darkness of false and conflicting values that can lead to death. They can struggle with low self-esteem or the fear of being rejected or not fitting in. I know I walked in that darkness when I was a teenager. Some of us walk in darkness caused by the fear of not finding a suitable mate or of failed careers or economic catastrophe. Others of us walk in darkness caused by divorce, shattered relationships, or by guilt over things we have done or left undone, things made all the worse when it is no longer possible to put them aright because of death. Still others of us walk in the darkness of addiction, or chronic or terminal illness. At one time or another, each one of us walks in the darkness caused by our awareness that we have failed to live or be all that we were created to be or hoped that we could become.

Then there is the common darkness in which we all walk. We wonder what will be the fate of our race or nation. We see the world beset by hunger, poverty, war, bigotry, and unspeakable evil that seeks to murder thousands of innocents if given half a chance. Whatever it is, none of us here tonight is immune from walking in the darkness because we live in a broken and fallen world, and if we are not careful, we can quickly fall into despair. For you see, when we walk in darkness, it is difficult to see that we are not alone.

Where is God’s Grace?

At its very core, then, the question is this: do we struggle with darkness in vain, doomed to defeat, beaten before we start, or is there hope? It is to the glory of God that in his birth, there is hope. Our struggles are not in vain nor are we beaten before we start. To be sure, there will always be struggles in this world because like us, it is broken and fallen. But the glory of the Christmas message is this: We are not alone. We are not ultimately defeated. For you see, by condescending to our level and taking on our flesh, God has shown us that he loves us and that we have worth in his sight. He is not interested in destroying us, but in redeeming us. We no longer have to walk in darkness because we have seen the great light of Christ.

Christmas is the beginning of the climax of our salvation story. It reminds us that God loves us so much that he willingly took on our flesh and nailed our sins to the cross so that we can live with him forever. We can stop trying to earn our salvation because God has already done that for us by becoming one of us and dying for us. We no longer have to wonder if God loves us or what will happen to us when we die. We find the beginning of the answer in the Christmas story.

Did you notice to whom God first announced his Mighty Coming in tonight’s Gospel lesson? If individual merit or power meant anything to God, we might have expected him to announce his Coming to Quirinius or Herod or even to Caesar himself. After all, these were all men of merit by worldly standards and each had the power to influence their respective populations through political means or coercion. But God did not come to these men. He came to poor shepherds watching their flocks by night. Shepherding was regarded as a menial job in Jesus’ day and shepherds did not enjoy privilege or social status or prestige. But these were precisely the folks to whom God chose to announce his coming because they represent the lowliness of the human race and God is interested in raising up the lowly.

What does that mean for us as we walk in our darkness? It means that God loves us no matter who we are or what we are struggling with. He is interested in raising us up. God was born of a virgin and was named Immanuel, God with us. We are not alone. We don’t have to continue to walk in the darkness. In taking on our flesh, God has shown us that he does not keep a balance sheet of our sins. There is nothing we can do on our own to earn entry into his very Presence. No, God comes to us and dwells with us, pure light of lights, and promises to transform us into his likeness. As Augustine observed, “On Christmas we see Christ as an infant. Let us grow up with him.”

Christmas means that the darkness in which we walk will not have the last say. Christmas reminds us that God loves us passionately and wants us to live with him forever. He wants us to enjoy the kind of relationship he created us to have with him, the kind in which we recognize that he is the Creator and we are his creatures. To be sure, struggles will remain and new ones will surely emerge. God’s Coming does not make us immune to the hurts and evils of this broken and fallen world in which we live. Instead, the story of Christmas reminds us that we are God’s beloved and he has given himself for our redemption despite our sins, our failures, and our muted fears. As Phillips Brooks reminds us in his wonderful Christmas carol, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in [Christ] tonight.” It is ours for the taking if we will only embrace it by faith. We no longer have to walk alone. We have Immanuel, God with us. Thanks be to God!

This, of course, will naturally evoke in us a response of thanksgiving and gratefulness, but only if we take our cue from the shepherds and come and see Christ for ourselves. When we learn to trust Christ and really believe that we are cleansed of sin and the separation it causes by his Blood, we will naturally want to worship and adore this great God of ours who took on our flesh at Christmas and gave himself for us on the Cross. We will naturally want to become just like him, the way Paul talks about in tonight’s Epistle lesson. But our salvation is not contingent on our ability to live sinless lives because our salvation is not ultimately our own doing. Surely God wants us to be holy like he is holy. He wants us to live holy lives and we believe that even now he is working in us through his Holy Spirit to accomplish just that, mysterious as that process may be. But the Cross is a living testimony that our salvation is not contingent on our own efforts because as John Wesley reminds us, even for the most devout of Christians, sin remains but no longer reigns.

There is a difference in striving to be holy because you love God and are grateful for what he has done for you versus striving to be holy because you think your very life depends on it. The story of Christmas reminds us that our very life depends on God, not us, and that he loves us despite who we can sometimes be. Certainly failures will come. But we who believe in the promise of the Gospel that has its beginnings at Christmas have nothing to fear because we know we have a God who loves us and will help pick us up again.

As we saw during Advent, he promises to come again in power and glory to finish the mighty work he started at Christmas. Christmas gives us hope because we remember Immanuel, God with us. It give us hope because we remember that God loves us, warts and all, and wants us to live now and forever with him. Christmas is God’s wondrous gift to us and it is ours for the taking if we will embrace it through faith.

Where is the Application?

What does a Christmas faith look like? I had the awesome privilege recently to see it lived out in my own family. Despite the death of their beloved husband and father, I watched my wife, her mother, and her sister, be joyful even in the midst of their grief and loss. Yes, they miss dad terribly because they love him and are greatly saddened to lose his physical presence. But they also saw the terrible darkness of infirmity of body and mind in which dad had to walk. They know he had faith in Christ and they believe the promise of the Salvation Story. They really do know dad is in a better place and is enjoying his new life with Christ. It is not a cliché to them. Was dad perfect and without sin? Hardly. But he had a relationship with Christ that transcends his sin and because of that, we know dad is released from his darkness. That is cause for joy and my beloved bride and her family manifest it in ways that are simply awesome and inspiring to watch. That is what it means to walk in the light. That is what it means to abandon the darkness. Yes, the sting of separation and loss is still there. I feel it keenly too. But in the midst of our sorrow we remember Immanuel, God with us. We remember all that he has done for us, and in the midst of darkness, we see Light and are invited to walk in him who is Light.


The Good News of Christmas does not promise to make us immune to being exposed to darkness. What it does promise is that we can overcome it. Not by our own power, but by the very power of God, a power that manifested itself first in the weakness of a baby but which will come again in glory and strength. At Christmas we remember we are not ultimately defeated despite our setbacks. We remember we do not have to live life alone. Christmas reminds us that we no longer have to be perfect so that God will love us. Christmas reminds us that God loves us before we even realized we needed to be loved.

As you come to the Table later on in this service, bring the darkness that is afflicting your heart of hearts and give it to Christ tonight. If you are worried that you are not worthy to come to his Table, don’t be because none of us is. Instead, come to his Table with the realization that you are a sinner of his own redeeming, and be thankful. Remember that you are his beloved, no matter who you are or what your failures are. As you remember this, feed on his very Presence in your heart by faith with thanksgiving. Let the bread and wine be tangible reminders of Immanuel, God with us, and rejoice in the fact that he will be with you for the living of all your days, a Presence that not even death can sever. That’s good news, folks, now and for all eternity. Merry Christmas.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Advent Reflections: Love 3

Daily Office texts: 2 Samuel 7:1-17; Titus 2:11-3:8a; Luke 1:39-56.

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

—Titus 2:11-14 (TNIV)

This week we have been exploring the biblical notion of love. Tomorrow night we will begin the great Christmas celebration and remember with thanksgiving God’s condescension to save us from the sin that separates us from him. In the birth of Jesus Christ, God reminds us that we are important to him, that we have worth. We are reminded that God’s creation is good, albeit fallen, and that God has entered our history to begin to put things aright. Christmas means that we are not alone, we have not been abandoned. Yes, hardships and heartaches will come because we live in a fallen world, but they will last only for a season. The Incarnation reminds us that God loves us and wants to restore us to enjoy the kind of relationship with him we were created to have. The story of Christmas is the beginning of God’s gracious invitation to us to live with him forever. It means we ultimately have hope that all of our wrongs and the wrongs of this world will be put aright.

But as Paul reminds us in today’s Epistle lesson, God’s love for us is also transformative. God is holy and will not allow evil to live or abide in his kingdom. That means when we say “yes” to God’s invitation to live with him through Jesus Christ, we must do our part and say “no” to the things that separate us from God. We must allow God’s Spirit to work in us and transform us into the very likeness of Christ. Because God’s gracious invitation to us in Christ is an invitation to enter into a life-giving relationship, it demands a response from us the way any legitimate relationship does. It requires that we will do our part and work hard to become like him, all the time realizing that transformation is impossible without God’s help through the Presence of his Holy Spirit. The Christian faith is no self-help religion. The story of Christmas signals the beginning of the Good News that the Christian faith is a God-help religion. It is a relationship with the Living God who loves us and redeems us. We no longer have to try to do the impossible because God has done it for us in Jesus Christ.

At Christmas, God took on our flesh and began his mighty and eternal plan for our redemption and salvation. Let us rejoice that this God of ours loves us and wants us to live with him forever. Let us give thanks for his great mercy and compassion to his broken people and fallen creation. Let us open ourselves to his transformative and life-giving Presence with joy and resolution. Joy to the world, the Lord has come!

This ends my series of Advent reflections. Have you enjoyed them? Would you like to see me continue to do something like this on a regular basis? Drop me a line or leave a comment with your feedback. Advent blessings and Merry Christmas to you and yours!

George MacDonald on the Fire of God

The fire of God, which is his essential being, his love, his creative power, is a fire unlike its earthly symbol in this, that it is only at a distance it burns—that the farther from him, it burns the worse, and that when we turn and begin to approach him, the burning begins to change to comfort, which comfort will grow to such bliss that the heart at length cries out with a gladness no other gladness can reach, “Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides thee!”

—From Creation in Christ by George MacDonald

How are you experiencing the Fire of God?

Notable and Quotable

[Trappist monk Thomas] Merton once told me to quit trying so hard in prayer. He said, “How does an apple ripen? It just sits in the sun.” A small green apple cannot ripen in one night by tightening all its muscles, squinting its eyes and tightening its jaw in order to find itself the next morning miraculously large, red, ripe, and juicy beside its small green counterparts. Like the birth of a baby or the opening of a rose, the birth of the true self takes place in God’s time. We must wait for God, we must be awake; we must trust in his hidden action within us.

—From Merton’s Palace of Nowhere by James Finley

Advent Reflections: Love 2

Daily Office texts: 1 Samuel 2: 1b-10; Titus 2:1-10; Luke 1:26-38.

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me according to your word.” Then the angel left her.

—Luke 1:26-38 (TNIV)

Yesterday we looked at the biblical concept of love. We noted that the biblical notion of love typically manifests itself in action and is not sappy or sentimental in nature. Neither is it driven by hormones. We also observed that because humans and God are not equals, our love for God typically manifests itself in obedience to him and service to others. We love God, in a significant way, by loving others. In today’s Gospel lesson we have a classic case study in love. Here we see the announcement of God’s mighty and eternal plan to redeem his people and save them from their sin. By entering our history and taking on our flesh, God shows his great love for us by doing the impossible for us—bearing the consequences for our sins on the cross and making it possible for us to live with him forever. I can think of no greater or more wondrous expression of God’s love for us than this.

Since love is always manifested in relationships, we also see in this story Mary’s response to God’s blessing her. I think Luke may have downplayed Mary’s reaction to Gabriel’s visitation. If I were to see an angel unexpectedly, I think I might be more than “greatly troubled.” I probably would be downright terrified! But note carefully Mary’s reaction to the announcement that she would be the Mother of God. Despite her fear and misgivings, she obeyed. Yes, she asked Gabriel some honest questions, but she did not get a complete answer. How, for example, would the Most High overshadow her?

Moreover, this announcement was no small thing because Mary surely knew that if she were to become pregnant before she married Joseph, this would likely create a terrible scandal and possibly cost Mary her life (cf. Deuteronomy 22:23f). Despite her feelings of fear and the uncertainty of what was going to happen to her, Mary obeyed. There is nothing schmaltzy about this story; it is the stuff of real life. Mary’s example is a textbook case of how we are to love God. Surely Mary would never have consented had she not trusted God and believed him to be true to his word and promises. This means that she likely had an intimate relationship with God and knew the biblical story of God’s faithfulness. Now she was going to be given the opportunity to see God’s faithfulness in action for herself. In doing so, she staked her very life on it.

Yet, if we truly believe God to be the Source and Author of all life, was her decision really a risky one? Would it not have been far riskier for Mary to disobey God and refuse to become the Mother of God (and let’s be clear about this: Mary did have a choice; God does not force himself or his will on anyone)? This is not to take anything away from Mary because she did not have the luxury of 20-20 hindsight the way we do. Her fears and feelings of uncertainty were real because like the rest of us, Mary was fallen, finite, and mortal. The point, however, remains. If God really is the Source and Author of all life, then our obedience to him is never ultimately a risky thing, irrespective of any ostensibly potential danger to us.

How is God calling you to love him? Do you know him well enough so that you trust him the way Mary did?

Tomorrow: God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.

Advent Reflections: Love 1

Daily Office texts: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Titus 1:1-16; Luke 1:1-25.

Sing, Daughter Zion;
shout aloud, Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,
Daughter Jerusalem!

The LORD has taken away your punishment,
he has turned back your enemy.
The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you;
never again will you fear any harm.

On that day
they will say to Jerusalem,
“Do not fear, Zion;
do not let your hands hang limp.

The LORD your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.”

—Zephaniah 3:14-17 (TNIV)

Yesterday we lighted the fourth candle on the Advent wreath, the candle of love. The biblical notion of love is multifaceted and much too complex to explore fully in these reflections. Suffice it to say that the biblical notion of love always manifests itself in action. It is not some sappy or sentimental feeling, but rather it seeks the best for the beloved. Of course, since humans are the creatures and God is the Creator, we do not know what is best for God nor can we ever love him in that way. Instead, our love for him must perforce manifest itself in obedience and service toward other humans. We love God by obeying him and loving others.

Do you see God’s great love for us manifested in today’s OT lesson? Despite Judah’s best efforts to separate herself from God by refusing to be the blessing to others as he called her to be, God does not give up on Judah (or us). God certainly lets Judah know that there will be consequences to her rebellion, but he tells her (and us) this not because he is angry with her in the unholy ways we humans sometimes get angry. No, there will be punishment because God wants Judah (and us) to have life and turn from doing those things that cause death. And because God understands that we cannot ultimately do that for ourselves, God promises to come and live with his called-out people to help them be who he called them to be. That is the definition of godly love. Read today’s passage from Titus in that light. All of a sudden Paul’s passage bursts forth with love. Like the Lord who claimed him, Paul wanted his people to live.

Likewise, we see God’s great merciful love manifested throughout Scripture. Consider, for example, the Fall. Have you ever thought about how easy it would have been for God to simply destroy Adam and Eve after they rebelled against him? How much easier it would have been to wipe out these miserable creatures and start all over. The great Plan had failed; why not start anew? But God did not do that, did he? Certainly there were consequences for their sin, but did you notice that only the serpent was cursed, and not the humans? No, ever since the Fall, God has worked to reclaim and redeem his fallen creatures because he loves us and love does not seek to destroy, but rather seeks to give life.

How does God do this? He gives us himself and consequently has overcome our sin and the alienation it causes. God loves us and wants us to be happy. He knows we will only be happy when we have the kind of relationship he created us to have with him. He doesn’t want us to have limp hands, i.e., he doesn’t want us to live in fear and darkness. Rather, he wants us to live in truth and light so that we will be real and happy. He wants us to live with him so that we can live forever.

Can you love a God who condescended to take on our human flesh and do the impossible for us so that we can live in peace, joy, and happiness all our days?

Tomorrow: Love continued.

Advent Reflections: Joy 5

Daily Office texts: Zechariah 7:8-8:8; Revelation 5:6-14; Matthew 25:14-30.

And the word of the LORD came again to Zechariah: “This is what the LORD Almighty said: Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other. But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the LORD Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the LORD Almighty was very angry. When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen,” says the LORD Almighty. “I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations, where they were strangers. The land they left behind them was so desolate that no one traveled through it. This is how they made the pleasant land desolate.”

—Zechariah 8:1-14 (TNIV)

Yesterday we looked at the relationship between sorrow and joy. Today, we conclude this week’s reflections on Christian joy by looking at how joy is manifested through service to others. We find joy in service to others because it is the consistent biblical warrant that we do so. Christ himself made it a defining characteristic of anyone who would follow him and call themselves “Christian” (see, e.g., Matthew 20:26-28; Mark 9:33-35; Luke 22:26-27). In the passage above from Zechariah, we see that Israel’s failure to serve God by serving others led, in part, to their sorrow of exile. Through the prophet, God reminds his people that they had had a chance to keep their pleasant land pleasant. They could have done so by obeying his consistent commands to work for justice, to show mercy and compassion, and to care for the least and the most helpless in society. This was God’s consistent expectation for his people and when they obeyed his commandments, they could expect God to bless them with joy. Instead, they experienced sorrow because of their hard hearts and disobedience.

I have found this to be true in my own life. I have spent the last two weeks ministering to my dying father-in-law and to his grieving family. I cannot say I enjoyed that experience, but I can tell you I found joy in it because I was serving God, in this case as a husband, family member, and priest. In this particular instance, I know that my ministry (service) was able to help my family because they told me it did. Yet there have been other times when I was not sure whether my service to others was all that helpful. Nevertheless, I still found joy in serving because it was based on obeying Jesus rather than producing some hoped for outcome. On the other hand, I typically experience great sorrow when I fail to obey the Lord who loves me and has claimed me, when I fail to serve because I get selfish and self-centered.

Service is a key ingredient to experiencing joy in your life. Are you finding joy in your service? Share your experiences with us.

Prayer: We ask you, almighty God, let our souls enjoy this their desire, to be enkindled by your Spirit, that being filled as lamps by your divine gift, we may shine like burning lights before the presence of your Son Christ at his coming; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

—The Gelasian Sacramentary

This Sunday, we will light the fourth candle on the Advent wreath, the candle that signifies love. Next Monday-Wednesday we will explore that Christian virtue. This series will conclude on Wednesday, December 23, 2009.

Advent Reflections: Joy 4

Daily Office texts: Zechariah 4:1-14; Revelation 4:9-5:5; Matthew 25:1-13.

This week, we have been talking about the basis of our Christian joy. Today I want to continue this theme by looking at the Source and characteristic of our joy. Joy makes us feel good and uplifted. It is a feeling called forth by well-being, success, or good fortune, among other things. Moreover, Scripture reminds us that joy comes from God, not us (see, e.g., Ecclesiastes 2:26; Psalm 4:7). This is true because only in God is there life and permanence. For example, money and material wealth can produce a sense of well being in us but neither can give us life or raise us from the dead. When we die, money and material things will become irrelevant to us. Likewise with anything else in this world that might bring a false sense of  joy.

But did you notice a curious biblical motif regarding joy? Joy often comes after sorrow. It seems that joy is made all the sweeter by sorrow because the latter heightens the sense of the former after it passes. We can see this reflected in each of today’s texts. In the OT reading, the Lord promises Israel a Messiah who will ultimately deliver her from exile and allow Israel to be the people God chose them to be (a holy people who will be a blessing to others). In the passage from Revelation, John the Evangelist weeps because no one can open the scroll, but he is told not to weep because Jesus can (and later does to the joy of his people). In the parable from today’s Gospel the virgins wait and wait for the bridegroom to return from his journey. They were sorrowful that he was away, but joyful upon his return, even when he returned at an unexpected hour.

We see this sorrow-to-joy motif reflected elsewhere in the NT. In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, the father and son’s sorrow are turned to joy upon the latter’s return (although the older brother’s reaction did not reflect this; do you know why?). In the farewell discourse in John 14-17, Jesus tells his disciples that their sorrow will be turned to joy. In my own experience, I know the joy I felt when I was ordained as a priest in CANA was made all the sweeter after I had been treated so badly by the Episcopal Church. I am not sure why all of this must be so; I only know it is. Perhaps diminishing returns has something to do with it. The party cannot go on forever lest we lose all interest in it. Whatever the reason, we can trust that this God of ours has our best interests at heart. After all, he was willing to take on our flesh and suffer and die for us so that we could live with him forever. No one knows the creatures better than the Creator.

As you examine your life with all of its hurts and sorrows, the biblical notion of joy really is the antidote for what ails you. Sorrows will come, but they will only last for a season for those who love the Lord. Joy will follow; and because it is from God, it will ultimately last forever.

Tomorrow: Joy in service.

Advent Reflections: Joy 3

Daily Office texts: Zechariah 3:1-10; Revelation 4:1-8; Matthew 24:45-51.

Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. The LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, Satan! The LORD, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?” Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” Then he said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you.”

—Zechariah 3:1-4 (TNIV)

This week we have been talking about Christian joy. On Monday we talked about the joy that comes from what God has already done for us in Jesus. Yesterday we talked about the future basis of our joy, the joy we derive from what God will do when he returns again to complete the redemptive work he started. Did you notice that at an even more fundamental level, Christian joy is based first and foremost on knowledge and trust, the kind of knowledge and trust that comes from a deep and intimate relationship with someone else? You cannot manufacture joy or turn it on and off like a light bulb. That kind of “joy” would be false and of no help at all. Joy, real joy, comes from a knowledge and trust that something or someone is trustworthy and true and you do not develop that kind of knowledge in a superficial relationship. As with anything else in life, the only way you are going to find out if something is true is to take the plunge and discover it for yourself.

Consider today’s excerpt from Zechariah. In vivid prophetic language, God speaks through his prophet to his broken and hurting people in exile. At its root, our exile from God is caused by human sin and here we see God promising to end our exile by taking away our sin. The end of our exile will not last for a span of years but forever, and God has promised to do this for us because he knows we cannot do it by ourselves. He wants our exile to end because he created us to have a relationship with him, the kind that is appropriate for a Creator and his creatures. For those who knew God in Zechariah’s day, this prophetic message would have given them great joy, even as they were living in exile, precisely because they knew God, and in the course of their relationship with him, had found him to be trustworthy and true. Otherwise, there would be no real basis for joy in the above passage. Did you find the joy in reading it, in knowing that God has taken away your sin?

Or consider the following prayer by Dr. Johnson, that great 18th century literary figure:

And, O Lord, grant unto me that am now about to return to the common comforts and business of the world, such moderation in all enjoyments, such diligence in honest labour, and such purity of mind that amidst the changes, miseries, or pleasures of life I may keep my mind fixed upon thee, and improve every day in grace till I shall be received into thy kingdom of eternal happiness.

—From Doctor Johnson’s Prayers

Here we see the kind of intimate knowledge that is capable of producing joy. There is a humility to this prayer, along with a deep abiding trust in God. You cannot develop this kind of trust and humility standing on the sidelines looking for God. You have to enter the playing field and get yourself muddy. As a self-check, what do you think of this prayer? What kinds of thoughts and feelings, if any, does it evoke for you? Do you see how it can reflect the joy in God that Dr. Johnson surely must have felt? How you answer these questions will give you keen insight into the state of your relationship with the Living God, and what basis, if any, you have for real joy.

Christian joy allows us to walk in the midst of our desolation and exile. Each one of us has our own hurts, failings, missed opportunities, weaknesses, and struggles with which we must deal. Christians are not immune to human infirmity nor do we claim any special privilege or status in that regard. Christians who have joy, however, have found the secret. We realize that God is greater than the brokenness of our lives and this world. We realize he has done something about all that can go wrong with our hearts and our lives, and that we are redeemed people despite our failures and desolation.

What is desolate in your life and how are you dealing with it? Do you have the joy that each one of us craves? Any joy that is not based ultimately on Christ will fail us at one point or another. Real Christian joy never does because it is based on Him who is eternal and life-giving. I pray that you may come to know Christ’s joy if you do not know it already. Once you have it, you will never want to let it go.

Prayer: Through him he has called us out of darkness into the light, out of ignorance into the knowledge of his glory, so that we might hope, Lord, in your name, for it is the foundation of all creation.

—Clement of Rome (ca. late 1st century)

Advent Reflections: Joy 2

Daily Office texts: Zechariah 2:1-13; Revelation 3:14-22; Matthew 24:32-44.

“Shout and be glad, Daughter Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,” declares the LORD.

—Zechariah 2:10 (TNIV)

Yesterday we talked about the basis of our Christian joy. We saw that we have joy, in part, because of what God has already done for us in the Incarnation. Today I want to focus on the future basis of our joy. We can trust in the Promises of God because he has demonstrated his trustworthiness throughout human history, especially in the Incarnation. And while Christians believe that God has ultimately defeated evil and death on the cross, it is obvious that God’s victory is not yet fully consummated. That is why during Advent we anticipate our Lord’s Second Coming in power and glory to finish the work he started with his death and resurrection. When Jesus returns it will not be a happy time for those who do not believe and that surely makes the heart sad. But for those who do believe in Jesus’ promise to return again to finish his work, we can find joy, not because we are “better” than others, but because we know God’s promises are trustworthy and true, and we trust God to be gracious to us, despite the fact that we are broken and sinful people too.

At the Lord’s Second Coming, we believe heaven and earth will be fused into a New Creation and all the brokenness of God’s creation and creatures will be set aright. We believe that we will get new resurrection bodies, bodies that will no longer be subject to sickness, disease, deformity, infirmity, or death. We believe God will abolish evil and death, and wipe away our tears and sorrows forever. Best of all, we believe we will get to live directly in God’s Presence forever. As I think about the infirmity and suffering that have afflicted my loved ones, especially my parents, the New Testament’s vision of God’s New Creation brings me great joy because I look forward to being reunited with those whom I have loved and lost for a little while. I look forward to the time when we will get to live directly in God’s Presence. Our resurrection bodies will not be like our mortal ones and I will never again be heartbroken by watching my parents or any of my loved ones struggle with their failing bodies.

I can live with the joy of that promise. Can you?

Tomorrow: Joy continued.