Advent Reflections: A Less-Than-Perfect Family Advent

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Today’s advent reflection is by Rob Bentz, the author of The Unfinished Church: God’s Broken and Redeemed Work-In-ProgressRob and his wife Bonnie have been married for 17 years, have two children (Reid and Bethany) who like to laugh, and live in Colorado Springs, Colorado. 

My two young children were giggling. They squirmed in their chairs on both sides of our big wooden table. One of them asked me a strange question that drew restrained laughter from the other sibling. Then, in the holiest of all family Christmas moments, full-on belly laughter burst forth from both kids!

This was my family’s recent experience at the lighting of the first candle in our holiday advent wreath (or crown) tradition.

Each year, beginning on the first Sunday of the Advent season, our family strives to light a candle, pray together, and sing at least one Christ-centered Christmas carol. On each subsequent Sunday, we light an additional candle until all four outside candles are lit. Finally, on Christmas day, we gather to light the center candle, commonly known as the Christ candle. This signifies that the Lord has come!

The giggles and unintended silliness have also become part of my family’s tradition. Not intentionally, mind you. This father is trying his hardest to help instill in his children a genuine anticipation for the coming of the Christ child on Christmas day.

Our family’s innocent, albeit less-than-perfect, candle-lighting scenario has helped me to think afresh about the very context of Jesus’s birth.

Let’s revisit the popular birth narrative for a moment: Mary a teenage virgin, and her husband Joseph, were traveling by donkey on government business. With zero of the comforts of home, or even a clean place to relax, she gave birth to the baby boy in a farmer’s stable. The baby was then wrapped in common cloths and given a place to rest in a feeding trough. (Luke 2:1-20)

This is how God himself entered our world. Nothing perfect about the environment. Nothing pristine about the backdrop. Nothing polished about the surroundings. Jesus, the Christ, burst into our world in a not-so-idealistic setting.

I know this. I’ve read the birth narrative hundreds of times. But, in spite of my head knowledge of this biblical reality, my heart still longs for the idealized image of what our family’s Christmas is “supposed” to be—perfect, pristine and polished. I have this mistaken expectation that our annual advent tradition will somehow represent at least one of those p-words. Curious isn’t it? Especially when you consider the one who’s leading his family in the Scripture reading is perhaps the one most in need of some “good news.”

The truth is, my desire for perfection is misplaced. Perfection cannot be found in the dutiful actions of my kids, the beautiful singing of my wife, or even in our tender family moments praying together around some warmly-lit candles. It was in my family’s less-than-perfect experience around our advent wreath that God revealed my own heart’s deepest longing—for someone to set our messy world aright.

You know, the very reason God chose to enter our world in the first place.

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Advent Reflections: The Paradox of Christmas

Don Nordin

Today’s advent reflection is by Don Nordin the pastor of CT Church Houston  (www.ctchurch.tv), a congregation with more than 2,000 people in weekly attendance. With a focus on training leaders, he travels extensively as a speaker to revivals, camp meetings, and conferences. He lives with his wife in Houston, TX.

Christians are people of faith. How else can we believe that God spoke the world into existence and created man from dust? How else can we make sense that an eternal God would take on flesh and walk among a sinful society for 33 years? If not by faith, how could we dare think that an all-powerful God would allow his sinless son to die for all humanity, then live again after three days in the grave and ascend to his father? It defies reason, but we believe, and our faith pleases God (Heb. 11:6). Nowhere does faith run headlong into reason more than in the Christmas story. That wonder-filled story is the essence of paradox— it defies explanation! The story of the nativity bring us face-to-face with four undeniable, irrational truths:

1. When we couldn’t find our way to God, he came looking for us.

“No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.”

—John 3:13, NKJV

“For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”

—John 3:17, NKJV

“for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

—Luke 19:10, NKJV

2. Jesus experienced a natural birth so we could experience a spiritual birth.

Here we see God’s “grand plan” for salvation made so simple that intellectual men often overlook it. When God took on flesh, he voluntarily accepted the weaknesses, restrictions, and limitations of mortal men. How could a God powerful enough to construct the world, create life, and spin the planets into place, condescend to become one of his own creatures? And yet Luke describes such an event with great detail. Why did he come?

“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the age of this world and according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among them we all also once lived in the lusts of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and we were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in sins, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and He raised us up and seated us together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”

—Ephesians 2:1–6, MEV

3. Jesus accepted an earthly mother so we could receive a heavenly father!

Jesus came to show us a way by adoption into an eternal family.

“He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will.”

—Ephesians 1:4–5, NKJV

“For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren.”

—Hebrews 2:10–11, NKJV

4. Jesus occupied a stable so we could inherit a mansion!

If we were to write a script for God to become a man, we would likely begin the story in the most up-to-date hospital in the world, surrounded by well-to-do, educated parents. We would place the Christ child in a fine mansion, educated in the best schools available. God placed his Son within reach of everyone: he was born in a stable, his parents were poor, and even the most disadvantaged person can relate to him. Those who are desperate do not need to fear crying out to him.

To each of us he says:

“In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and received you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.”

—John 14:2–3, NKJV

What a paradox! That our God would search through space and time to bring back a people who had lost its way; that he would endure every humiliation, suffering and death to bring us near to himself. His goodness defies reason and demands our eternal praise. [Click to tweet!]

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One Day Only: Save 75% on the Shepherd Press Counseling Bundle

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The next 24 Days of Vyrso deal is here! Through 11:59 p.m. (EST) December 19, get the Shepherd Press Counseling Bundle for just $9.49!

We put this collection together to help equip you with practical tips on caring for and counseling people through difficult seasons of life. These ebooks are written by people who are in the trenches of ministry and counseling, in a form that is easy for anyone to use. Each ebook has built-in personal application projects for useful counseling homework and Bible study suggestions for personal or small group use.

You’ll get 19 ebooks bundled for 75% off:

    • Help! He’s Struggling with Pornography
    • Help! I Want Change
    • Help! I’m Drowning in Debt
    • Help! My Teen Struggles with Same-Sex Attractions
    • Help! My Spouse Has Been Unfaithful
    • Help! Someone I Love Has Been Abused
    • Help! Someone I Love Has Cancer
    • Help! I Have Breast Cancer
    • Help! I’m a Single Mom
    • Help! I’m a Slave to Food
    • Help! I’m Being Deployed
    • Help! I’m Confused About Dating
    • Help! My Toddler Rules the House
    • Help! I Can’t Handle All These Trials
    • Help! I Feel Ashamed
    • Help! I’m Depressed
    • Help! I’m Living With Terminal Illness
    • Help! My Anger Is Out of Control
    • Help! My Teen is Rebellious

If purchased separately, this bundle would cost over $28, but through December 19 11:59 p.m. (EST), get it for 75% off—just $9.49!

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This bundle is just one of the many bundles offered during the 24 Days of Vyrso! Through December 24, we’ll introduce a new 24-hour ebook bundle every day. Check Vyrso.com/24days to take advantage of these awesome deals!

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Advent Reflections: Angels Among Us

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Today’s Advent reflection is by Suzanne Woods Fisher, an award-winning, bestselling author of fiction and non-fiction about the Old Order Amish. Her interest in the Amish began with her grandfather, who was raised Plain. Suzanne lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area and raises puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind. 

Years ago, when I was in college, I interned on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. The basement apartment where I lived was just a few blocks from work—an easy walk though it wasn’t a safe neighborhood. There were lots of burglaries and break ins, even in broad daylight.

One day I noticed a homeless woman on the street corner. I smiled at her and she smiled back. The next day, we chatted. The day after that, late in the afternoon on my way home from work, I invited her in for a cup of tea.

Now, this wasn’t something I normally did. Ever. Not before and not since. I’m still not even sure why I invited her into the apartment. Something just seemed right about it. Minutes after setting the teapot on the stovetop to boil, we heard a crash at the front door. Then another. Someone was trying to kick the door in. The homeless woman bolted from her chair and shouted at the man to stop, but he didn’t hear her. He kept kicking at the panels of the door. One panel started to crack. I was no help—I just stood by the window, watching something terrible unfold, frozen with fear. Suddenly, the young man must have heard the woman’s shouts and realized there was someone in the apartment. He turned and ran up the steps right into two policemen! In the next instant, they were handcuffing him and jamming him into a squad car. In the chaos, the homeless woman slipped away. I never saw her again.

I know what you’re thinking. I know because I’ve had the same thought. Could the homeless woman have been an angel? She was at the right place at the right time. There and then gone. From this side of heaven, I’ll never know.

Most of the information people know about angels comes from television and movies, and most of it is myth or mistaken. Hollywood angels seem to have a longing to be on earth, almost envious of humans. But that’s not what the Bible has to say about angels, and that’s the source we should rely on. The Old Testament mentions angels 108 times and the New Testament refers to angels 165 times. Here are a few basic facts that the Bible reveals about angels:

  • The word “angel” actually comes from the Greek word aggelos, which means “messenger.” The matching Hebrew word mal’ak has the same meaning.
  • There are an enormous number of angels though the Bible doesn’t give a specific amount (Matthew 26:53; Hebrews 12:22).
  • Angels are stronger, have more knowledge, and are more righteous than human beings, but they are not omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipotent (Psalm 103:20, 2 Peter 2:11, 2 Samuel 14:20, Matthew 24:36, Daniel 9:21-23, 10:10-14).
  • Angels are spirits rather than physical beings, but can take on the appearance of a human being (Hebrews 13:2). Maybe, just maybe, like the homeless woman I met in Washington D.C. They provide, protect, guide, deliver, strengthen and encourage, and bring messages from God. (1 Kings 19:6, Daniel 3, 6,  Matthew 4:11, Matthew 1).
  • When people in the Bible saw an angel in full glory in the Bible, their reaction was to fall down in fear and trembling (Matthew 28:2-4).

That brings us to the most famous angel of all—Gabriel, who brought the most significant message of all time to a young woman named Mary:

“Mary, you have nothing to fear. God has a surprise for you: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call his name Jesus. He will be great, be called ‘Son of the Highest.’ The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David; He will rule Jacob’s house forever—no end, ever, to his kingdom” (Luke 1:29-33, The Message).

This Christmas, take time to look, really look, at Gabriel’s message to Mary, because it is a message for you, for me, for each one of us. We have nothing to fear because Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, brings everything humankind needs. [Click to tweet!] We have nothing to fear becausein that one word, Emmanuel, the entire plan of God’s salvation is subsumed. We have nothing to fear because heaven is our home, and Jesus will rule his kingdom throughout eternity.

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Advent Reflections: Angels Aren’t Just for Christmas, They are Our Allies

Advent Reflections: Angels Aren’t Just for Christmas, They are Our Allies

Today’s advent reflection is by Ron Phillips, DMin, pastor of Central Baptist Church (now called Abba’s House) located in the Chattanooga, Tennessee area. Phillips has a bachelor’s degree from Samford University and a master of divinity and a doctorate of ministry from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of numerous books, including Our Invisible Allies and Everyone’s Guide to Demons and Spiritual Warfare.

One of the greatest visual representations we have of Christmas is angels.

An angel appeared to Mary and prophesied his birth, and we are all too aware of their grand presence at Jesus’ arrival. Today we memorialize them everywhere—in our Christmas stories, decorations, cookies and songs. But our fascination doesn’t just end after the holidays.

If you haven’t noticed, there is a growing fascination with angels in our society. I find this astonishing because as a child of the 1960s, I was reared in an environment dominated by the denial of God and the supernatural, but today, the majority of people believe in unseen spiritual forces that can be channeled and interacted with daily.

As Christians, we should remember that angels assist us in ways completely unknown to us. When living becomes difficult and you are in short supply of moral support and guidance, the instructions are simple and universal: join hands with your friends, family, spouse, and co-workers. These people are your allies. But be honest. Isn’t this hard to do sometimes? How can allies be trusted in a world full of corruption and decay? How are we supposed to trust these angelic beings in our spiritual lives? Aren’t there some angels who have “fallen”?

They will not abandon us in our efforts to spread the gospel to a lost and dying world. My hope and prayer is that you realize angels are friends that help guide, protect, and minister to us so that we may endure in the cause of Christ for our lives. The will of God consumes and possesses angels, and they passionately pursue his salvation for us. They minister to us in ways that are wholly unique from any guidance we can receive on earth. They comfort us, speak to us, monitor the spiritual climate around us, teach us, and help us. [Click to tweet!] But above all else, angels work for the master of the universe and share in our desire to worship him and accomplish his will. Angels are not just for Christmas. They are our allies.

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Advent Reflections: Jesus, The Light of Advent

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Today’s advent reflection is by Daniel Hochhalter who currently lives with his wife and three wiener dogs in Portland, Oregon, where his only true credential is that the Lord loves him. Hochhalter has a BS from Liberty University and an MDiv from George Fox Evangelical Seminary.

I love Christmas lights because they signify Advent—the coming of Christ. Advent occurs in December, which in the northern hemisphere contains the shortest, darkest days of the year. It used to be a time of darkness inside me too, but gradually it has become as a time of life and hope.

My first and fondest memories are of Christmas. My mom always picked the fullest, most fragrant tree. My dad hung the lights; inside they made the whole house bright and cozy, while outside they sparkled in the snow. My two sisters and I would decorate with handmade ornaments, and every night we’d each untie a Hershey’s kiss from our Advent banners and head for bed with the sweet taste of chocolate in our mouths.

Every Christmas Eve, our house overflowed with good friends, talking, eating, laughing, and playing games. My job was to keep the fire going and the records spinning on our massive RCA stereo. And every year, Santa showed up with presents. Beneath the white beard, he sounded suspiciously like my jovial Sunday school teacher, coincidentally named Nick, and he definitely had Nick’s laugh. I wanted to call him out, but I wasn’t absolutely sure and I didn’t want to push my luck.

Those were bright days, full of joy and laughter.

Then my parents split up, and I went to live with my dad. Tension and sadness from the divorce hung over us like a heavy January fog. After that, Christmas was nothing special; we’d open presents and then just watch TV.

Instead of a time of joyful anticipation, December became the time when I most grieved the loss of my intact family. For years afterward I tried to recreate those precious Christmas memories, but nothing I tried could dispel that inner grief.

As I grew into adulthood, I faced additional challenges. I’ll skip the details (covered in my book, Losers Like Us), but the capstone came in 2008, when I lost my PhD and my job and became paralyzed with shame.

The next few years became a kind of Advent for me—a time of desperate waiting and longing for God. The dark days seemed to be, as C.S. Lewis put it, “always winter, but never Christmas.”* But while God seemed far off, he never abandoned me. Bit by bit, he stepped into my darkness—a little here, a little there—sharing his love and grace in barely perceptible ways.

All of the moves were his.

And the more he revealed himself, the more I began to understand that true joy never resided in those happy childhood Christmas celebrations; instead, it resides in the gift that is Christmas itself—the gift of Christ’s coming.

As I began to understand this, over time a strange thing happened: Advent, my time of grieving, slowly grew into a time of light. Because Jesus himself is the light. (Click to tweet!)

Like me after the divorce—and like the Jews after 400 years of waiting for a Messiah who hadn’t come yet—maybe you have a broken, empty heart this Christmas. Maybe you are reeling from a devastating death, divorce, or diagnosis, or grieving other shocking news in the world or in your own life. Maybe you are facing sadness, loneliness, or rejection over past holiday memories. These are very real struggles during the dark days of December.

But dark days are the perfect context for Advent—because December, the month with the shortest, darkest days of all, is also the month in which the light starts increasing again, anticipating the return of spring. And just as winter anticipates spring, so Advent anticipates the Messiah. He alone can dispel the darkness.

So during this season of Advent as Christmas lights twinkle over cities and towns, remember that this is our time to celebrate the most remarkable, spectacular, mind-bending truth of all time:

“In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5, NIV).

He steps into the darkness of our story. Emmanuel, God with us, came to be our light. (Click to tweet!)

In our darkness, God’s light appeared in Bethlehem.

In our darkness, God’s army of angels erupted in praise.

In our darkness, God’s love journey started in a stable and ended on a cross.

He came, he lives, and he will return. No matter what happens, no one can ever take that away. Every Christmas light that pierces the darkness reminds me of that promise—and I pray it will remind you too.

 

*Quoted by Mr. Tumnus and other characters in Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

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Advent Reflections: Anticipating All of Jesus During Advent

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Today’s advent post is by Scott James, an elder at The Church at Brook Hills and the author of the advent devotional, The Expected One. Scott serves in the children and youth ministries at Brook Hills and is passionate about helping families grow together in Christ. 

For many people, the weeks leading up to Christmas serve as a rich time of spiritual reflection. The glorious truth of Jesus’ first advent—or coming—is certainly a worthy subject to meditate upon, especially during this time of year. In keeping with the spirit of the season, a common tendency is to focus our devotions exclusively on the nativity scene. But the incarnation is not intended to be viewed with tunnel vision. The glory of the nativity shines brightest when it is held within the larger context of redemptive history.

As we allow the whole counsel of Scripture to guide our devotional thoughts during the Advent season, we see that this holistic view of the incarnation is exactly what God communicated to his people from the beginning. Every Christmas, those excellent Old Testament prophecies pointing directly to the birth of Jesus are highlighted and celebrated (and rightly so!), but if we look further we’ll also see that God’s promises concerning his son were much more extensive:

“God didn’t just promise His people that a miracle child would be born. He also promised that this Child would grow up to be the loving Shepherd of His people, the place-switching Sacrifice, the resurrected Lord, and the righteous King who reigns in glory forever.”

The Expected One

The Old Testament is full of signs, types, shadows, and outright proclamations that come together to paint a multi-faceted picture of the person and work of Christ. By celebrating his birth in conjunction with these wonderful truths, we will appreciate it all the more. On the other hand, if we compartmentalize the truth of the incarnation we will actually diminish its brilliance. The nativity is best celebrated when found in the shadow of the cross. [Click to tweet!]

This Christmas, may your time in the Word lead you to dwell richly on the many promises that God gave concerning his son, the Messiah. By keeping the larger scope of Christ’s redemptive work in mind, you’ll find your heart better prepared to celebrate his miraculous birth for all that it’s worth.

Ultimately, the anticipation that is so readily brought to the surface during Advent reminds us that we are not merely concerned with redemptive history; we also eagerly await a redemptive future:

“There is yet another promise: this King is coming back for His people! As we celebrate the first coming of the Expected One during Advent, let’s also look forward in hopeful anticipation of His second coming. Let’s keep in mind the whole picture of who Jesus is, worshiping Him as the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to us, ‘For every one of God’s promises is “Yes” in Him’ (2 Cor. 1:20).”

The Expected One

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Italicized portions excerpted from The Expected One: Anticipating All of Jesus in the Advent by Scott James (B&H Publishing Group, 2014)

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Advent Reflections: Advent and The Epic Plot

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Today’s advent reflection is by Kimberly Smith, president of Make Way Partners, an organization she cofounded with her husband to prevent and combat human trafficking. She is the author of Passport through Darkness, her first book, focused on sharing rich and reflective stories from her experiences of finding God in all corners of the world, from human trafficking to daily life and marriage. Smith is passionate about helping others to discover the unique dream God has for their lives.

“How do I happen to believe in God? I will give one more answer which can be stated briefly. Writing novels, I got into the habit of looking for plots. After awhile, I began to suspect that my own life had a plot. And after awhile more, I began to suspect that life itself has a plot.” —Fredrick Buechner, Alphabet of Grace

Buechner is spot on. Just as children are often caught in the middle of nasty divorce and custody battles, you and I are the children of God caught in the middle of the Epic Story of Good and Evil.

As I wrote in The Other Christmas Story, Satan rages that he lost the war against God. So, he comes after humanity, who bears His image—His glory.

Baby Cristobal, an unadoptable orphan from war-torn South Sudan, recently reminded me of the glory each of God’s children bear, and the vile way evil assaults it. Baby Cristobal was born on Christmas Day. In the same moment he drew his first breath, his young mother exhausted her last. Her tender life was snuffed out because there was no one with proper training to tend her during delivery. When her labor didn’t progress quickly, those attending her applied too heavy pressure upon her abdomen. She bled to death.

Keeping with the local legend for babies of mothers who die in childbirth, Cristobal was abandoned and left for dead, so that he could join his mother. The day after Christmas, someone dared to break tradition and snuck Cristobal to Romano, an indigenous director of the Make Way Partners (MWP) antitrafficking network. Cristobal was severely malnourished and fighting for his life.

For nearly four months, the MWP staff did the best they could to care for Baby Cristobal, but he developed Malaria, and that became the tipping point from in-country care. They medevaced him to Kenya.

In the hospital an entire medical team worked night and day to save Baby Cristobal. The incredible struggle caused his spirit to wane. He fell into depression, and nearly quit the good fight.

. . . The incredible struggle caused his spirit to wane . . .

Ah! The plot. The Epic Story. The bloody battle between Evil and Good—life and death—rages on, and we—the sons and daughters of God—are caught in the flesh-ripping fangs of it all.

As if in a horror movie, Jesus narrates startling cues for our major role in this Epic Plot, “And do not fear those who can kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

More often than not, I feel as powerless as Baby Cristobal must have felt . . . sometimes fighting for life, for Good . . . sometimes letting my spirit wane to the point of “crying uncle,” giving up, and just waiting for the story to be over.

You may never have been a motherless baby, fighting malaria and life-sucking malnutrition, but I’ll guess you’ve known despair. I imagine you know what it feels like to be so tired of trying to pass that algebra test, shed extra pounds, win that promotion, make an impact in your community, or stop turning to that thing you always do even though its self-destructive (addictions), or that sometimes you figure, “What’s the use? It’s almost as if there’s something against me and no matter what I do, how hard I try, or how much I pray, it always ends the same.”

What if the antidote to our despair is to accept that the Advent isn’t about a time of year, but rather a way of life? What if I looked for Emmanuel, God with us on Groundhog’s Day and the Fourth of July as ardently as I searched for a treasure under my Christmas tree on December 25?

A baby born in a barn, bedded with livestock, and chased from his hometown by a mass murderer grew up to never amount to much in our way of thinking. His ministry failed. Most of His 12 followers abandoned Him in His darkest hour, and He was beaten, spat upon, and crucified.

Not exactly a great success story . . . unless you understand plot. We’re not at the end of the narrative. Just as in all epic stories, the tension continues to mount up to the grand finale. Baby Cristobals are born every day, and they are great clues to our role in this escalating story. Fight the good fight. Don’t despair. Hold on to the back of the chair, and wait for curtain call.

The same angelic host that heralded Baby Emmanuel 2,000 years ago will repeat the sounding joy a little later through the Plot. I want to have my ears as attune on Memorial or Labor Day as I do during this season of Advent.

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Advent Reflections: Emmanuel, God With Us

11) Emanuel

Today’s advent reflection is by Kimberly Smith, president of Make Way Partners, an organization she co-founded with her husband to prevent and combat human trafficking. Her first book, Passport through Darkness, offers rich and reflective stories from her experiences of finding God in all corners of the world, from human trafficking to daily life and marriage. Kimberly is passionate about helping others to discover the unique dream God has for their lives.

Once upon a time, in a far away land, a father had a dream. In his dream, an evil man rode hard toward his baby boy, seeking to take his life. The father rose quickly, woke his wife, and readied his donkey. The four fled to Egypt.

Can you imagine their joy? Can you see that father settling his wife and baby in a safe room, sitting before a fire, and watching in awe as she nurses their son? Can you envision him holding the two of them close to his heart, leading them in a gentle dance of love and gratitude for the divine dream leading them all to safety?

Can you imagine how their bubble of joy burst when they first heard the reports from the far away land from which they had run—Bethlehem? Thousands of babies ripped from their mother’s arms; tiny heads smashed upon rocks as soldiers hurled them against stone walls. Blankets blood-soaked as spears sliced through baby bassinets. Cradle-sized sons trampled by horses.

Can you imagine the unbearable weight Joseph and Mary felt as they considered the cost of their son’s safety? The complicated reality of the joy of life eternally mingled with grief for the price of life must have forever changed how they saw everything.

As that baby grew into a boy, a teenager, and ultimately a man, can you imagine how hearing the story of his salvation—told and retold—over the years affected him . . . prepared him? I imagine it is one of the realities that shaped him into the Man of Sorrow, and a man willing to lay down his life for the salvation of others.

The divine Advent we celebrate each Christmas was indeed born a child, but he no longer lays in a manger. The tiny seed—nurtured by traumatic events as much as a loving family—grew into the adult man who hung on a cross and now reigns in heaven, waiting for the father to signal his victorious return.

While he waits, the same evil one who rode hard toward the child born in a manger continues to ride hard after children today. The evil one takes the form of malevolence all around our world, but nothing is as vile as human trafficking and modern day slavery of innocent children.

I know of such a child, an unadoptable orphan born in a war zone. Another Emmanuel.

While building another orphanage in South Sudan, Make Way Partners sent a truckload of supplies from Kenya, our nearest supply chain to the war-torn country. As is often the case, the corrupt South Sudanese government seized our truck, demanding a high “tax” to release it. Our only hope was for our indigenous director, Romano, to make the dangerous journey to the border and argue our case as he had done many times before.

When Romano arrived, the border patrol remembered him as “The man who saves the orphans.” They told Romano, “This small boy came running to us in the dark of night. He was crying and so thin we didn’t know how he stood upon his feet. All he did was cry for his mother.

Everyone calls him Tong-Tong because it is what the locals call the LRA, the militia who raped and killed his mother. Tong-Tong’s father was part of this militia and he is the one who killed Tong-Tong’s mother. After killing her, Tong-Tong’s father forced the small boy to beg for food and money to provide for the rest of the family. Tong-Tong feared his father would kill him, too. He knew he was nothing more than a slave.

Finally, Tong-Tong ran away. We received him in the night but cannot care for him. Perhaps, Pastor, you should take him if we release your truck to you.”

Faster than St. Nick could shimmy down a chimney, Romano sped off with Tong-Tong, with our orphan’s supply truck in tow—without paying the taxation!

When Romano brought Tong-Tong to the MWP orphanage, the small boy did nothing but eat and sleep for days on end. Romano feared his small stomach would explode. He lovingly explained, “There is enough.  We will provide for you every day—not just this once. Today, I’m even giving you a new name: Emmanuel—for God has surely been with you.”

Once Emmanuel was strong and healthy, Romano took him to visit his siblings. An older sister cried out, “Tong-Tong!”

With a toothy smile, Emmanuel stopped her, “That’s not my name anymore. I am Emmanuel.”

So it is with each of us. Even in the moments where we feel nothing more than a slave to work, addictions, people or circumstances, God is with us. His Advent was 2,000 years ago, is now, and will be forever more.

 

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Advent Reflections: The Other Christmas Story

Kimberly headshot

Today’s Advent reflection is by Kimberly Smith, the president of Make Way Partners, an organization she co-founded with her husband to prevent and combat human trafficking. She is the author of Passport Through Darkness, her first book, focused on sharing rich and reflective stories from her experiences of finding God in all corners of the world, from human trafficking to daily life. Kimberly is passionate about helping others to discover the unique dream God has for their lives.

It was the Thursday night before Thanksgiving. Bright lights burned through the darkness in my lane.  I swerved hard right, barely escaping a head-on collision.

My car plowed into the lower half of a tall pine tree. The top half snapped off, slamming down upon my roof.  The force sprayed shattered window glass like bullets through the air. I banged my head on something in the crash, and confusion set in. I didn’t know where I was.  The other driver fled into the night.

One hour earlier I’d been laughing and sharing dinner and stories with the staff of Make Way Partners, the anti-trafficking organization I lead.  Suddenly, I’d become what John Eldredge described in Waking the Dead as, “confused and oriented times zero”, a military term implying that a soldier is so confused and disoriented he doesn’t know where—or who—he is.

Milton, my husband, was traveling. So, once I was found, Olivia, my adult daughter, spent the night with me. The morning after the crash, we drank coffee together, counting my cuts and bruises, and giving thanks for life, friends, and family.  As we chatted, something dawned on me—within the last four years I’ve brushed hard against death four times.

Firstly, as I was learning to drive a motorcycle before a trip to Sudan, the bike and I unintentionally summersaulted.  Fortunately, I broke my ankle rather than my neck. Secondly, on a plane flying over the bush in South Sudan our engine died in-flight, forcing our pilot to crash land our little three-seater. Thirdly, after motoring far from home on a blustery autumn day, my boat’s fuel pump gave out, leaving me stranded in white-capped open water. Wind blew me dangerously close to the damn just as its turbines kicked on, their tornadic force nearly sucking me under. And most recently, my tree-hugging car escapade. Olivia’s playful response was, “Mom, just don’t get on a train!”

When I called Milton to tell him about my crash he was in Chicago with Dr. Dan Allender. Dan said, “It’s almost as if something diabolical is after you two.”

Hmmm . . . almost indeed. I know evil is not pleased with me.

Milton calls Revelation 12, “The Other Christmas Passage”, the one that reminds us what sort of story we’ve fallen into. It poetically reminds us that satan fought God and lost.  He was kicked out of heaven, down to earth. It is here where the battle continues, only since satan cannot kill God, he comes after the children left behind who cling to Jesus.

I Peter 4:12-13 says, “Beloved, do not be surprised when the fiery trials come upon you. . .as though something strange were happening. But rejoice insofar as you share in Christ’s suffering. . .”  In other words, “Remember there is a great battle—and be thankful that you’re caught smack dab in the middle of it!”

In the eternal scheme of things, none of us are really any different than the war-torn orphans of Sudan and South Sudan. We’re all children caught in the epic war between satan and God.

If you’re in the middle of a physical warzone, the bomber planes flying overhead constantly remind you of your reality, and it’s quite easy to remember evil’s intention against humanity. For us Westerners, though, I think it’s a little easier to forget, “The Other Christmas Passage”—Revelation 12.  We’ve come to expect comfort and security. We’re often surprised by evil, pain, and suffering—and we feel far from rejoicing about it.  Rather, we feel something more like doubt, anger, and resentment.

In the last ten years, Make Way Partners has made major advancements against the gates of hell—particularly the evil of human trafficking. Each of these victories has been won by remembering both God’s power and our role in the war against evil.

The Advent isn’t something that happened 2,000 years ago. It happens every second of every day and each member of the Body of Christ plays a vital role. [Click to Tweet!] “The Other Christmas Passage” helps us to see the Advent as current, ongoing, and relevant. Most of us are so busy living the AmericanDream, we’ve grown numb to evil’s ongoing assaults, both within and without.

This Advent I’m renewing my vow to remember the “Other Christmas passage.” The one where satan is so bitter in his loss, he continues to come after all children made in image of God.

 

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