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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Advent Reflections: Remembering The Holy Spirit

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Today’s advent reflection is by R.T. Kendall, former pastor of Westminster Chapel in London, England, for 25 years. Born in Ashland, Kentucky, Dr. Kendall was educated at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv) and Oxford University(DPhil). He’s authored more than 55 books, including Total Forgiveness, Holy Fire, Grace, and The Anointing.   

Do you have a bad memory? Do you ever read a book and say to your self, “I wish I could remember this point”? Do you ever hear a sermon and wish, “If only I could remember this”?

Consider the disciples of Jesus: they heard almost everything he said publicly for three years. They heard the Sermon on the Mount. They heard the parables.

They heard his dialogues with the Pharisees and Sadducees. They may have thought, “If only I could remember all these wonderful teachings.” Not to worry. Jesus told them that the Holy Spirit will “remind you of all that I told you” (John 14:26) (MEV). ​

​As we​ remember Christ’s first Advent and wait expectantly for his second coming, we must not forget that in his unshakable love for us, he granted full access to the Holy Spirit​ as our guide. If you fear you have forgotten what you heard, don’t worry! The Holy Spirit will remind you of what you were taught.

This is so relevant today.

People ask, “Why should I read my Bible? I don’t understand it. Why should I memorize scripture? Why should I listen to teaching—it’s often so boring.”

Even if you don’t understand the Bible and think you won’t remember it, you are taking in more than you realize. In an appropriate moment—possibly at a time you least expect—the Spirit will remind you of what you heard. There are two things we need to realize in this connection. First, the Holy Spirit promises to remind you of what you heard—read or learned. In other words, he will remind you of what is there. 

If you don’t take the time to read your Bible, how can the Holy Spirit remind you of what you have not read? This is why we all need a Bible reading plan that takes you through the entire Bible in a year. This is why we need good teaching and good preaching. As for memorizing Scripture, it’s, sadly, extremely rare these days. I am so thankful I was required to memorize Scripture while growing up. I will repeat: The Holy Spirit promises to remind you of what is there. If there is nothing there to be reminded of, whatever do you expect the Holy Spirit to do?

I believe a great move of the Holy Spirit is coming and I also believe it is coming soon. I believe it will be the greatest outpouring of the Holy Spirit since the Day of Pentecost. Those who know their Bibles will be the likely candidates to be sovereignly used of God. If so, how would you like to be right in the middle of it? I have a conviction that only those who take oil in their lamps—like the wise virgins in Jesus’ parable of the 10 virgins—will enjoy this outpouring of the Spirit. Oil refers to the Spirit. The lamps refer to the Word. “Your word is a lamp to my feetand a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105). In other words, the Word and Spirit together.

The second thing we need to realize is this: Jesus’ word about the Holy Spirit reminding us of what we learned assumes that the Spirit is in us ungrieved, that the Dove has come down on us and remained. It is when the Holy Spirit is ungrieved and unquenched that we will remember what we have learned. But if I am angry, bitter, holding grudges, and having a lifestyle of pointing the finger, the dove lifts and leaves me to myself. Not absolutely, because the Spirit is with us forever. But the sense of his presence lifts—the anointing that makes things flow easily. This is why Jesus was so real to the disciples on the Day of Pentecost and also during the days immediately following that glorious day.

We need not expect Jesus to be real to us or be reminded of things we previously learned when we are in an agitated and bitter condition. But when we have totally forgiven those who have hurt us, have mistreated us, have lied to us, and have been grossly unfair, the dove comes down. Jesus is real. The Bible comes alive. And we find ourselves remembering things we had forgotten—sometimes ​the most obscure verses in the Bible and even those boring sermons we managed to sit through!

Jesus promised that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness shall be “filled” (Matt. 5:6). As you go throughout this Christmas season, don’t forget that it is a spirit-filled event, and the Holy Spirit welcomes you to enter into a close relationship with him.

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Advent Reflections: 3 Ways to Say No to Stress and Exhaustion

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Today’s Advent reflection is by Michelle DeRusha, author of 10 Women Every Christian Should Know. This book offers an inspiring look at 10 women who shaped our faith, and for a limited time, you can get it for just $5.24 on Vyrso!

I’ll say it straight up: I dread the holidays. And I suspect some of you feel the same way. The shopping, wrapping, baking, traveling, decorating, socializing, and card-writing are simply too much on top of my regular, everyday responsibilities. The holiday season tips the scales of my precariously balanced life, and no matter how hard I try, it seems I inevitably succumb to harried exhaustion and resentment each December.

It probably goes without saying: harried exhaustion and resentment should not be the hallmarks of this holiest of seasons.

Several years ago, I heard Christian speaker and author Beth Moore talk for 60 minutes about a single word: treasure.

“Treasure,” Moore said, “gets lost in the same trash as our time.”

She had the audience—all 13,900 of us—repeat the phrase after her:

Treasure gets lost in the same trash as our time.

I’ve thought about Moore’s statement a lot since I first heard it. I’ve thought about the true treasures of this season—God, Jesus, hope, peace, love, and community—and how I often replace these treasures with busyness, consumerism, perfectionism, and materialism.

I allow both my time and my treasure to be overshadowed by “trash.”

I realize plenty of people revel in every bit of the holiday season. They bake, shop, wrap, tinsel the tree, and sip egg nog with glee. If this is you, I say go forth and be merry; embrace it all with gusto. But if you’re like me and feel burdened by the extras that typically accompany the holidays, I propose we make a pact together. Let’s not let the treasure of this season get lost in the same trash as our time. [Click to tweet!]

Moore’s statement suggests that if we want to treasure this holiday season, if we want to experience God and peace in these 4 weeks of Advent, we need to free up some space and time. And for me this means saying no.

3 Ways to “Say No”

Here’s my 3-part “Say No” plan for an exhaustion and resentment-free holiday season. Will you join me?

1. Say No to Overextending Yourself
Send gracious regrets to a party or two, and instead, stay in. Light a fire in the fireplace or candles on the coffee table. Read a book. Play Uno with your kids. Simply slow down and allow yourself an evening or an afternoon to rest and reflect during this busy season.

2. Say No to Perfectionism
Pick up cookies from the grocery store bakery instead of making 14 varieties of your own. Or perhaps this year, a simple wreath on the front door will suffice, instead of draping two dozen shrubs with blinking lights. Your holiday doesn’t need to look like a scene out of the Pottery Barn catalog.

3. Say No to Mindless Spending
Less time shopping the crowded malls and fussing over fancy gifts means more time to connect with loved ones in a meaningful way. Consider giving presence over presents; think of quality time spent with family and friends as a gift you can readily give.

The truth is, even if we enjoy all the extras that come with the holidays, there can be too much of a good thing. Saying no to a chore or even a festivity allows us to slow down and quiet our hearts and minds amid the hustle-bustle of the season. In doing so, I suspect we’ll discover not only a bit more time, but a wealth of unexpected treasures, too.

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Get more powerful insights and advice from Michelle DeRusha in her inspiring book, 10 Women Every Christian Should Know—get it for just $5.24 on Vyrso today!

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Advent Reflections: Come and Be Still. . . I Am God With You

Advent Reflections: Come and Be Still. . . I Am God With You

Today’s Advent reflection is by Kyle Winkler, the founder of Kyle Winkler Ministries, a media and teaching ministry broadcasting on the Christian Television Network and various online outlets. Before launching his own ministry, Kyle served at Christ Fellowship, one of the nation’s 25 largest churches and as the vice president of an international apologetics ministry. He has a master of divinity in biblical studies from Regent University.

All too often what’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year is anything but wonderful. As we consider how to juggle our holiday schedules and how to afford it all, the realities of the Christmas season often represent more stress than peace. Suddenly the message of Christmas becomes a rat race.

In order to survive the hustle and bustle of these times, it’s essential that we carve out time to simply be still in God’s presence. It’s not always easy to get away from all the noise to sit quietly at Jesus’s feet, but I have learned that it’s always worth it.

Let me elaborate.

One morning during a past Christmas season I found myself particularly tired and weary. I had just returned from a trip to India and was frantically trying to catch up after two weeks of being disconnected. I knew that I needed to spend my usual devotional time with the Lord, but this morning was especially difficult. I was in the middle of writing my latest book, and the writing process coupled with my mounting to-do list and other unfinished ministry projects nearly broke me.

I could barely mutter three words in prayer without having to reign in my thoughts as they danced around my growing list of worries. As I struggled to press through, suddenly the voice of Jesus broke through the chaos of my mind:

“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me. For I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30, MEV).

Christ’s words that morning truly changed my outlook.

You see, at some point in my busy schedule I had forgotten that the presence of Jesus in me is the helper and the comforter. I had taken the tasks of ministry upon myself and made them difficult and burdensome. But Jesus’ words penetrated the chaos to say:

“Come to Me, Kyle. I will give you rest and refreshment for your soul.”

What began with weariness ended with rejuvenation. In his presence he poured the living water of his spirit upon me, quenched my thirst, and resurrected my passion for him.

Ultimately, isn’t this the message of Christmas? In a world filled with chaos, our God left the brilliance of heaven and became “God with us.” [Click to tweet!] There is perhaps nothing greater that you could reflect upon during these hectic days.

Like spending time with a friend, when you spend time with God, you also enjoy his personality, which will eventually rub off on you. Soon you’ll experience the benefits of his presence: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22–23).

Because of Christmas, God is here and offers you the benefits of his presence everyday. In whatever situation you find yourself, time with him will bring stillness to the chaos and silence to all the noise. You’ll experience the manifestation of his light to penetrate your darkest circumstances, his joy to replace your sorrow, and his peace to calm your worries.

As he said to me during my morning of weariness, he also says the same to you today:

“Come and be still. Everything’s going to be OK. Let’s do this together, for I am God with you.”

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Advent Reflections: Discovering Bethlehem

Lynn Austin

Today’s advent reflection is by Lynn Austinan eight-time Christy Award winner and an inaugural inductee into the Christy Award Hall of Fame, as well as a popular speaker at retreats, conventions, women’s groups, and book clubs. She lives with her husband in Michigan. 

The first time I visited Bethlehem more than 25 years ago, I expected to feel a sense of the beauty and simplicity of the much-loved Christmas story: a crude stable, the holy family, shepherds, wise men, and the Son of God in the manger.  I was sadly disappointed. The traditional site of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is inside the Church of the Nativity—a truly ancient church built in 565 AD.  It has survived enemy invasions, the Crusaders, restorations, renovations, a fire, and an earthquake, but it looks like . . . well, a church.  A beautifully decorated and ornamented church, with all the sacred clutter that has accumulated over the centuries, but it bore no resemblance to my image of what Jesus’ birthplace was like.

But wait—the real site was down a set of stairs and inside a natural cave that has been venerated as the place of His birth since 160 AD. But even this simple cave was so gilded and bedecked with artwork and tapestries and lamps and incense burners that I still couldn’t get a sense of what it might have looked like on that first holy night. In the center of the floor was a silver-encrusted star with a hole in the middle. By putting my hand inside, I could touch the place where Jesus was born more than 2,000 years ago.  I tried it, but I left Bethlehem feeling empty, unable to make the sacred connection I had so longed for.

Discovering Bethlehem
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

And isn’t that how so many of our Christmases end up feeling? In spite of all the tinsel and glitter and sparkle, all the money we spend and the stress we endure as we try to create the perfect Hallmark Christmas, we’re often left with the same let-down feeling I had inside that church in Bethlehem.  We’ve lost the simple beauty of the story, that precious connection with God that is the true miracle of Bethlehem.

The year after visiting Bethlehem, I began looking for ways to recapture the simplicity of Christ’s incarnation. Santa Claus has never been invited to our family Christmases, and we’ve always celebrated it as Jesus’ birthday, exchanging presents because God gave us the gift of His Son.  But year after year, the clutter and glitz had draped themselves over our celebrations, just like the religious trappings that have collected inside the Church of the Nativity over the centuries.

That year, I purchased a nice but inexpensive manger set. I wanted something that wasn’t a toy, but that my children could handle and touch. We placed it at their level and at the center of our holiday, and began the simple tradition of gathering together as a family to fill the empty stable while my husband read the story from the Bible. Our children divided all the people and sheep and camels among themselves, and when we got to their part in the Bible story, they added their figures to the stable. This simple tradition has become so beloved by all of us that we still do it the same way every year, even though our children are now adults. Our two children couldn’t wait to share the tradition with their spouses, generously dividing their sheep and wise men among the newest members of our family. One year, our daughter was living overseas and couldn’t make it home for the holiday, but we still held our family tradition while she participated via Skype and a web camera.

And it’s always in those moments, with this simple stable and inexpensive plaster figures and my precious loved ones gathered around me that I feel the holy wonder of Christmas once again—Emmanuel, God with us!

I pray this season that you, too, will take time to reflect on the simple truth of a Creator who came down to live among his creation. [Click to tweet!Take a few moments to reflect on the “clutter” that might be taking your time and energy and keeping you from appreciating what matters most about this time of year.

Although the gospel of John doesn’t describe the historical event of Jesus’ birth, it does describe its significance in John 1:9-12. “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”

And that’s worth celebrating.

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Advent Reflections: Becoming a Gospel Connoisseur

Advent Reflections: Becoming a Gospel Connoisseur

Today’s Advent reflection is by JR Vassar, the lead pastor at Church at the Cross in Grapevine, Texas. From 2005 to 2013, he served as the founding and lead pastor of Apostles Church in New York City. JR and his wife, Ginger, have three children. He is the author of the upcoming ebook, Glory Hunger: God, the Gospel, and Our Quest for Something More.

“And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.  And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” (Luke 2:16–19, ESV)

I’m a Protestant with a deep admiration of Mary. What a tremendous young woman she was, favored by the Lord to carry in her womb the son of God. At the visitation of the shepherds, Luke tells us that Mary treasured up all these things —the annunciation, the miraculous conception, the humble birth, and now this report of an angelic choir singing songs about this baby and his destiny to rescue and rule the world. It was a lot to take in.

She treasured these things, gathering them into her heart to be preserved for constant remembrance. Mary didn’t grasp all the realities that God was unfolding, but she tried to. Even when Jesus grew up and began his public ministry, Mary still couldn’t get her head around who he was and what his mission was. Mark’s Gospel indicates that Jesus’ family (it seems Mary is included in this) thought he was out of his mind (Mark 3:21, 31). It wasn’t until after his resurrection that Mary came to grips with who her son really was and what he had come to do. Mary never stopped pondering these realities about Jesus because they were inexhaustible. And so it must be with us.

I’m often guilty of “veteran pride.” I have been a Christ-follower for over 30 years, have a seminary degree, and spend multiple hours each week in the Scriptures preparing sermons. The gospel can become “old hat,” familiar, and I can easily lose sight of its boundless nature and its far-reaching implications for my life and this world. But the gospel is an inexhaustible treasure that must be pondered in our hearts so that its beauty and power stun us and thrill us.

In a sense we must become connoisseurs of the gospel, much like a connoisseur of coffee. The world of coffee is a vast world. There are certainly people who are Folgers people, content with an automatic drip machine. But there are others who scoff at freeze-dried coffee and pride themselves on savoring single-origin blends made with a pour over or AeroPress. Some people drink a cup of coffee and taste coffee, while others drink a cup of coffee and taste “an exotic bouquet of flavors comprised of blackberry, plum, fudge, and oak; conveying a viscous mouthfeel and silken finish” (this is an actual description of Buon Giorno coffee.) Some people “brew and drink” coffee and other people “extract flavors and detect all the subtle notes.” Some people ponder their coffee.

A gospel connoisseur is someone who ponders the person and work of Jesus and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, extracts the beautiful—and often subtle—notes. When we do so, our delight in the gospel increases and our life begins to take on new postures and patterns. When we detect the sovereign grace of God, faith rises and our fears fall. When we taste the humility of Christ, our own pride is decimated and a servant heart is awakened. When we savor the forgiveness of God, our bitterness dies and we extend forgiveness to those who have hurt us. [Click to tweet!] When we ponder the generosity of God, our hearts are set free to be generous.

This Advent season, follow in the footsteps of a teenage girl from Nazareth and ponder the inexhaustible realities of the gospel, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good.

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Advent Reflections: the Arc of One Long, Single Story

Advent Reflections: the Arc of One Long, Single Story

Today’s advent post is written by Russ Ramsey (ThM, Covenant Theological Seminary) who serves as a pastor at Midtown Fellowship Church in Nashville, Tennessee. He writes for the Rabbit Room (www.rabbitroom.com), a website devoted to the discovery and celebration of truth and beauty.

“All the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.”

– Matthew 1:17 (ESV)

I love the narrative arc of scripture. Because I do, the older I get the more fascinated I become with the genealogies in the bible. They are there to tell us the Bible is more than a collection of stories; it is one story. It is the story of how God redeemed a wayward people and saved them from a ruin of their own making—and he did it through love and justice.

The story goes like this: Father Abraham had many sons. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation—the people to whom God would bind himself and from whom he would ultimately provide the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” (Gen 17:1-14, John 1:29.)

Against all odds, Abraham had Isaac. Isaac had sons who had sons who had sons of their own, and before you know it, Boaz (who married Ruth) begat Obed who begat Jesse who begat David who became the King of Israel.

God expanded the details of his covenant with Abraham by telling King David that his throne would be established forever and that from his line would come the Messiah, who would reign in power and righteousness at the right hand of God for all eternity (2 Sam 7:12-14).

But while Abraham’s descendants continued to grow in number, their faith in the one who promised to never leave them wavered and weakened until many abandoned God altogether.

Generations later, when all seemed lost, one of David’s descendants, King Hezekiah, discovered the word of God on a dusty old shelf in the temple (2 Chronicles 29-31), and he began to read. The people heard the word of God again and their faith was rekindled into obedience and worship. But the obedience did not last, and eventually God exiled his people to Babylon and Assyria. Though many would eventually return to their homeland, the line of Abraham had become almost unrecognizable (2 Kings 24:10-17).

Until once upon a time, there was a young woman named Mary, engaged to a young man named Joseph. They lived in an out-of-the-way town called Nazareth. Joseph was a descendant of the great King David, though for his part he was a common laborer—a blue-collar man of no reputation. Together these two were common in every way—working hard to build an ordinary life.

But their plans were interrupted in a moment when an angel of the Lord appeared to tell Mary that the thread of his redemptive promise to Abraham, Jacob, and David was going to run through her life. She was going to have a son who would be the savior of the world (Luke 1:26-38).

For all the unimaginable good this news brought, it also brought trouble for the young couple. Mary and Joseph would suffer suspicious looks from friends and relatives, questioning his character and her purity as her belly expanded (Matthew 1:18-19).

Ultimately, as the old cleric Simeon told the couple when they brought Jesus to the temple to present him to the Lord, the angel’s message to Mary would become like a sword that would pierce her soul (Luke 2:22-38). Jesus would be born so that he could die.

How did Simeon know all this? Though he was only meeting Jesus for the first time, Simeon knew the Messiah’s story. He had been waiting on this child for many years. He knew the line from which the Savior would come, and he knew the Christ would be a suffering servant (Isaiah 53). Mary’s deepest sorrows and greatest joys were wrapped up in the life of her son.

In the genealogies we see an amazing thread that runs through redemptive history—a strand God has sewn into the story of humanity. It is the true tall tale of promises made and promises kept. It is a storyline for which no one person can take any more credit than a man can take credit for his own birth.

The thread that runs through redemptive history tells the story of God’s fidelity to a wayward people. He has preserved the line of blessing that he promised Abraham he would trace on through into eternity.

Matthew’s genealogy tells us that the one in whom our righteousness rests, the one who represents us before the throne of God, the one who calls those who believe in him his Bride, comes precisely as God said he would.

Why does it matter that Obed begat Jesse? Because their lineage is part of an unbroken line God promised to draw from Abraham’s descendants to the Savior of the world.

When God made this promise, Abraham looked forward to its keeping in faith.

At this point in history, we now look back, also in faith.

Marvel at the precision of the miracle of the unbroken line in God’s redeeming plan, because there we see that the genealogies of Scripture are not just telling us Jesus’s story. They are telling us our own.

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