Looking Back at 2019 with Gratitude

Emmaus RoadThe end of the calendar year provides a good opportunity for us look back at the previous year and to look forward at the coming year.

Oftentimes, we try to set New Year’s resolutions. I am not against the practice but much research shows that the majority of New Year’s resolutions, about 75%, are never upheld.[1]

At other times, we end up passively looking back at the previous year, letting Google’s “Year in Search” or “YouTube Rewind” tell us what happened in the past year. But this is inactive and impersonal approach to the cusp of the year doesn’t leave us with much ownership of what has happened or what is coming.

We need something different here; something more. Because all of our life is a gift from God, I’d like to suggest we need something more, which enables us to meaningfully, personally, and actively direct our attention to God as we stand on the final moments of one year and embark upon a new year.

I’d like to share out of some of my own practices for this in two direction: 1) looking back at the previous year and 2) stepping forward into the coming year. And I’d like to root that in the psalms, where we have been spending a good deal of time over the past month.

Looking Back: Give thanks

There is so much we can do with the year that has gone by, but one of the best practices is to look back with thanksgiving to God for who He is and what He has done. Psalm 136 is an extended prayer of thanksgiving, and serves as an example of thanksgiving for us. Here are the first few verses:

1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
His love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods.
His love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords:
His love endures forever.
(Psalm 136:1-3)

Psalm 136 is a catalog of thanksgiving to God. There are a lot of ways we can think about our previous year, but gratitude does something powerful to us. It reshapes our outlook from negativity to positivity. As G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”[2]

One simple way I have found helpful in looking back over my previous year with gratitude is to simply look over my calendar for the previous year, taking time to thank God for the ways I saw Him at work in my life. Some are simple, like the visit from a friend or a surprise guest who lifted my spirits. Others are more in-depth, like big projects I was able to complete or key life transitions like a milestone birthday for me, a friend or family member, or a surgery that someone made it through successfully. As I look over that calendar, I simply offer thanks to God for what He has done.

Another thing that has helped me, and is even easier in the current technological era, is to look through my pictures from the past year. Visually, I can see the experiences, events and relationships that easily become sources of gratitude. As with the calendar, as I look at those pictures, I offer thanks to God for what He has done and the gifts He has given me in this past year.

Sometimes, I have found it particularly helpful to write a list of thanksgiving to God. It can be as simple as pulling out a piece of paper, writing “Thank you, God:” at the top, and then writing a bulleted list of at least 10-20 things that I am thankful for from the past year. You may find, like me, that the list becomes longer than you expected.

 


[1] Ashira Prossack, “This Year Don’t Set New Year’s Resolutions,” Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/ashiraprossack1/2018/12/31/goals-not-resolutions/.

[2] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/5-quotes-from-g-k-chesterton-on-gratitude-and-thanksgiving/.

The Perfect King: Advent Devotional, Week 4

Read Psalm 72

During winter, one of our sons began cultivating seeds in the basement to plant in our gardens during spring. It was a lot of work to keep them watered and sufficiently warm during the cold months. When the weather finally turned, we planted the seedlings throughout our gardens. A new sort of work began, cultivating the seedlings outdoors with newly planted seeds so that tomatoes, radishes, peppers, and green beans could grow and later be gathered to our table to share with others.

In the winter of our world, Jesus comes to sow and cultivate the seeds of the kingdom of God in human lives, like Simon Peter and Mary Magdalene, like you and me. He comes as the chosen one, the beloved of God, the suffering messiah, and the eternal priest. And He comes as the perfect king, just as the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary:

“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 Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
(Luke 1:31-33)

Waiting for Messiah Jesus to be born, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, speaks about God’s plans, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David” (Luke 1:68-69). Here is this infant Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, born in the line of King David, in David’s town of Bethlehem. He is heralded by angelic hosts and worshiped by a ragtag group of shepherds. Exotic magi from other lands visit in His early years. His mother and earthly father watch in wonder.

Once grown, He calls out, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). But what is this kingdom and what throne will this king sit upon? All His earthly life seemed less than regal. He had nowhere to lay His head, yet always had more than He needed. He was rejected by elites, yet people from various nations searched for Him. Raised high upon the Cross, He became a sign to all of how far God will go to bring the good news of His kingdom into our lives.

But Jesus’ story does not end with the cross, resurrection, and ascension. The testimony of Scripture is that a new heaven and a new earth will arrive in God’s timing connected with the majestic return of King Jesus to rule over all the earth. “The Lamb will triumph over them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings” (Revelation 17:14). Advent is a time of remembering Jesus’ incarnation, but also anticipating His future return as the enduring perfect King, even as Psalm 72 describes. May we be found ready!

 

REFLECTION QUESTIONS FOR THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT:

  1. Why does it matter for this life and eternity that Jesus is the perfect King of God’s eternal Kingdom?
  2. What does the anticipation of His identity as King do to your celebration of Advent this year?

 


FAMILY TALK WEEK 4

INTENDED FOR FAMILIES WITH YOUNG CHILDREN

When a king comes to town, his arrival is announced by a trumpet fanfare, tum-ta-dum! He is greeted by a parade of people waving and shouting! A herald cries out, “Hear ye, hear ye, His royal highness has arrived!” When the king goes home to his castle, a special flag called a “royal standard” is flown from the rooftop, letting everyone know that he is there. It’s a colorful, noisy, joyful day!

But . . . when King Jesus was born in Bethlehem, his arrival wasn’t anything like that! Jesus was born in the quiet of night, in a stable, greeted only by some animals and shepherds.

Remember back to the first Savior Song in Week 1 of Advent? We learned that God set apart his own Son, Jesus, to be a king over all other kings. So, what happened?

Well, Jesus’ kingdom is a little upside down:

  • Instead of ordering people around, Jesus served them.
  • Instead of hanging around with the rich, important people, Jesus made friends with lepers, outcasts, and, sinners.
  • Instead of holding on to His own life, Jesus gave Himself up on the cross.

Jesus has been in charge all along, but His kingdom is unlike any other earthly kingdom! The Bible tells us that one day He will return with trumpet, heralds, even riding a white horse! (Revelation 19:11-16). People everywhere will have to admit that He is the one true king, and they will bow to Him. As God’s people, we are so excited for that day! We wait—just like God’s people did for Jesus’ first coming—and we say, “Maranatha!, Come Lord Jesus!”

[This is part of the Eastbrook Church 2019 Advent devotional, “Songs of the Savior.”]

Jesus the Messiah: Our Promised Priestly King

 

Rembrandt - Emmaus Road Jesus with Disciples.jpg
Rembrandt van Rijn, Pilgrims at Emmaus; Oil on mahogany; 1648.

In Advent we enter into the longing of Israel for a Messiah; the longing for the promises of the prophets to be fulfilled. We sing songs with words like, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here until the Son of God appear.” We sing these words to remind us of the longing of God’s people for the appearance of a figure who would bring about the restoration of God’s people in a new way as a priestly king.

The early Christians saw Jesus as the fulfillment of this promised priestly king. His teaching was unlike any other because it had such power. His sacrificial crucifixion and His resurrection from death spoke of Him as Messiah. As they reflected on Jesus’ life and ministry, again and again they returned to Psalm 110, finding in this psalm a picture of Jesus as the promised Messiah, who would be a priestly king forever.

Thus, Peter, at the first sermon of the newly founded church on Pentecost day in Acts 1 and 2, weaves Psalm 110 into his message, saying this:

32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. 34 For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
35 until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.”’

(Acts 2:32-35)

Peter understands that Jesus is the eternal priestly king, not just for Israel, but for humanity. On that Pentecost day, Peter knew that as the priestly king, Jesus brought salvation and also the great gift of God’s presence – His Holy Spirit – to empower His people to live out their calling.

We need a priestly king who can fill us with God’s life – the Holy Spirit – so that we can live as God has called us to live upon earth, and Jesus is the priestly king who pours out the Holy Spirit of God upon all who reach out to Him in faith.

And Paul, writing to the early church in Corinth about the meaning of Christ’s resurrection for believers, weaves in Psalm 110, writing:

22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
(1 Corinthians 15:22-25)

Paul saw that Jesus, in His death and resurrection, had put won victory in battle over the principalities and powers of evil, as well as against the ultimate enemy of humankind: death. In the face of human sin and failure, Jesus is the priestly king who deals with all of our greatest opponents, putting them all under His feet.

We need a king who can destroy death and bring life, and Jesus is the priestly king who destroys death and brings life forever.

The unknown writer of Hebrews, in his extended “letter,” which is more of a sermon, writes about Jesus as both High Priest and High Sacrifice:

15 And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, 16 one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life. 17 For it is declared:

“You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek.”
(Hebrews 7:15-17)

The writer sees Jesus, in light of Psalm 110, as the fulfillment of the deepest longings of God’s people for a king who can bring true worship of God from the heart of humanity. We know that, as Isaiah the prophet reminds us, “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). We need a new High Priest who can deal with that forever.

We need a priestly king who can stand before God on our behalf as the perfect human being living perfectly righteous. And we also need a kingly priest who can stand before us as the very face of God Himself, bringing forgiveness of sin. The writer of Hebrews tells us Jesus is the priestly king who stands uniquely forever representing humanity before God and God before humanity with an indestructible life.

So join me this Advent in praising God that our Advent hope is not an empty hope but a pregnant hope, giving birth to righteousness, peace, and love through Christ.

The Eternal Priest: Advent Devotional, Week 3

Read Psalm 110

In the book of Genesis, Abraham and Sarah leave their homeland in present-day Iraq to follow God to wherever He will lead them. Their nephew, Lot, accompanies them, eventually getting into all sorts of trouble. At one point, Lot and his family are taken captive in the midst of a military campaign waged between two groups of kings who formed alliances between cities (Genesis 14). Abraham follows after his family members, eventually successfully delivering them and many others. On his return, Abraham encounters Melchizedek, king of Salem, who pronounces a priestly blessing over Abraham and his descendants.

The episode is interesting, but seems like a side alley in the journey of Scripture, until it reappears in Psalm 110. There, the messiah is described both as a conquering king and an eternal priest, bringing together both political and religious duties before people and God. King David seemed to serve in this way, leading the people to military victory while also restoring worship with the ark of the covenant in Jerusalem.

Melchizedek never appears again until the book of Hebrews, which mentions him nine times, each time describing this unique king and priest as a precursor of Jesus. In Hebrews 5, the description of Jesus as king from Psalm 2 is immediately connected with a description of Jesus as priest from Psalm 110. Jesus is simultaneously the once-for-all sacrifice that restores us to God through the Cross and the one-of-a-kind priest who offers that sacrifice in a way that endures forever. The entire book of Hebrews is an exploration of Jesus as the eternal priest before God on behalf of all humanity. “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 6:19-20).

As we journey through Advent, we readily remember how Jesus was born of Mary in Bethlehem many years ago, heralded by angels as “good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). May we also remember that good news of joy arises because this infant Messiah would one day stand before God unlike anyone else, and both offer and become the atoning sacrifice for our sins. And now, “Christ Jesus who died–more than that, who was raised to life–is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Romans 8:34). He is our Eternal Priest.

REFLECTION QUESTIONS FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT:

  1. As Romans 8:34 points out, Jesus stands before God interceding for us. What does that mean for you and your life today?
  2. The sacrifice Jesus offered as “the perfect high priest” was Himself. How does this change your perspective on Advent and what kind of response does that invoke from you in your celebrations this year?

FAMILY TALK WEEK 3

Intended for Families with Young Children

“The LORD has made a promise. He will not change his mind.
He has said, ‘You are a priest forever,
Just like Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110:4, NIrV)

“First, the name Melchizedek means “king of what is right.” Also, “king of Salem” means “king of peace.” Melchizedek has no father or mother. He has no family line. His days have no beginning. His life has no end. He remains a priest forever. In this way, he is like the Son of God. . . He [Jesus] isn’t like the other high priests. They need to offer sacrifices day after day. First they bring offerings for their own sins. Then they do it for the sins of the people. But Jesus gave one sacrifice for the sins of the people. He gave it once and for all time. He did it by offering himself.” (Hebrews 7:2-3, 27 NIrV)

God is 100% super-holy. People are not.

So, back in the Old Testament, God made a way for people to come near to Him, even though they had sinned. God appointed “priests”—men who would offer people’s sacrifices on the altar, so that their sins would be forgiven. Priests represented the people before God.

In the Savior Song from Psalm 110, God is saying that Jesus is like a priest. Not like most Old Testament priests, but like one called Melchizedek (Mel-KIZ-uh-dek).

Most priests were born into the tribe of Levi.

Melchizedek was not from Levi. He lived before God’s people were divided into tribes.

Jesus was not from the tribe of Levi. He was from Judah.

Most priests were born into a family and died.

Melchizedek doesn’t have any family, or birthday, or time of death recorded in the scripture.

Jesus lives forever.

Most priests had to offer sacrifices over and over.

Jesus offered one sacrifice—HIMSELF—to pay for everyone’s sin, for all time!

This is why we don’t offer animal sacrifices at church. Jesus Himself is our priest, representing us before His holy Father, and Jesus Himself is our once-for-all-time sacrifice. He is our priest, sitting at the Father’s right hand, always praying for us (Romans 8:34).

[This is part of the Eastbrook Church 2019 Advent devotional, “Songs of the Savior.”]

The Real, Eyes-Open Love of God

Fra Angelico - Annunciation

“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed.” (Luke 1:46-48)

“Love is blind.” At least, that’s how the saying goes. The phrase means that when love is at work, a person is prone to overlook, or just plain fail to see, the problems within the person being loved.  There is some truth to that. We see it in good friends, family members, and even ourselves. “Hindsight is 20/20,” and we often ask ourselves after something has gone wrong in a relationship, “Why didn’t I see that?”

But the kind of love we all deeply desire is not a blind love, but a love that truthfully sees everything about us and still loves us. Love that is blind – that turns away from reality – is false love, while love that sees – that leans into reality – is real love. John 3:16 is such a revered passage of Scripture because it describes God’s love not as blind but as real love.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17)

In the midst of a world stuck in the cycle of death, of blindness even to itself, Jesus the Son of God comes to bring liberating life and love. Even though the world could be condemned because of evil, sin, and injustice, God chooses a different route by sending Jesus to save the world. This is not because God is blind to the realities of the world, but because God desires a different way with the world. Jesus Himself echoes this later when He says, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). We see in Jesus the Messiah that God’s love is an eyes-open love, leaning into the reality of our world and our lives. Jesus shows us just how far God will go to hold us in His loving embrace.

When the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, announcing God’s plan to bring the Messiah to birth through her, Mary was astounded. Her question, “How will this be?”, was both a question about the manner of the Messianic birth since she was a virgin and simultaneously a question about the possibility that something like this could occur in human history. When Gabriel emphasized God’s decisive plan to intervene through Jesus as Messiah, such knowledge eventually leads Mary to erupt with praise:

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. (Luke 1:46-47, 50)

That little word ‘mercy’ (Greek: ἔλεος) is an echo of the Hebrew word hesed, which refers to God’s uniquely steady and faithful love. Mary grasps, and shares with us today, that God sees what is really there in the world and still chooses to love humanity from generation to generation throughout the earth. Mary becomes a picture not only of humble obedience to God’s call, but also boisterous praise of God’s real, eyes-open love for humanity and all creation.

As we draw close to Christmas Day, let us join Mary’s wondrous call to praise our God whose love is not blind, but rather eyes-open about us and our world. Let us draw near with anticipation to experience once again   the tenderly tenacious love of God found in Jesus the Messiah.

An Angel at the Altar

Blake - Zecharias and the Angel.jpeg
William Blake, The Angel Appearing to Zacharias, pen and black ink, tempera, and glue size on canvas; 1799-1800.

an angel at the altar
heaven’s glory shatters earth’s sanctity
a voice indescribable yet understandable
a promise of hope unimaginable
confusion for old Zechariah
“our age – my wife – a baby – God – now?”
his call and God’s response
no utterance or voice now
his silence itself a testimony
that speaks of the ineffable
what has happened
what is happening
the first flutter of life within Elizabeth
gestates a voice of hope for humanity

 


 

I wrote these words after reading and reflecting on Luke 1:5-25 as part of my Advent readings. Zechariah has always struck me as a figure we all could relate to from Scripture. He encounters and angel of the Lord in the Temple, the place of all places that it seems like such a thing should happen. Yet Zechariah is so overwhelmed and confused by the message the angel brings that he doubts it could be possible. Struck dumb until the birth of the child, his silence becomes a message, even as the baby that his wife, Elizabeth, carries in her womb will be “a voice of one crying out,” directing attention to the Messiah. There is so much in here about speaking and silence, hearing and responding, as part of God’s work in relationship to humanity.

Seeing Jesus in Psalm 22

Rembrandt - The Three Crosses

In my message this past weekend, “The Suffering Messiah,” I mentioned how Psalm 22 is one of the most, if not the most, quoted and alluded to psalms in the New Testament. This is both  Psalm 22 is brought into close connection with Jesus’ work upon the Cross, particularly His exclamation of the first words of the psalm, quoted in both Mark and Matthew:

About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’). (Matthew 27:46)

When Jesus’ quotes that first phrase of the psalm from the Cross, He is telling His hearers something about His mission not just from that first verse, but in connection with the entire content of Psalm 22. As Bible scholar James Luther Mays says, “Citing the first words of a text was, in the tradition of the time, a way of identifying the entire passage.”[1] Jesus is helping us see that Psalm 22 is a description of His life mission and ministry work.

When we look at Psalm 22 Christologically, we see echoes again and again of Jesus’ life mission and the gospel.

At the Cross, Jesus faced humanity’s distance from God, something we have already heard in Jesus’ cry of dereliction, quoting Psalm 22:1, as recorded in both Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46.

At the Cross, Jesus faced opponents, both human & demonic. [2] When Psalm 22:7 says, “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads,” Matthew writes of Jesus on the Cross, “Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads” (Matt 27:39; cf. Mark 15:29).

When Psalm 22:15 says, “My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth,” John writes of Jesus on the cross, “so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty’” (John 19:28).

When Psalm 22:18 tells us, “They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment,” Luke writes, “And they divided up his clothes by casting lots” (Luke 23:34; cf. Mark 15:24; Matt 27:35; John 19:23-24).

It is not just the crucifixion that is referenced in Psalm 22, but also the resurrection, where God delivered Jesus from death and won praise from the nations.

When Psalm 22:24 says, “[God] has not hidden his face from the afflicted one but has listened to his cry for help,” the writer to the Hebrews describes Jesus’ resurrection in this way, “[Jesus] offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard” (Hebrews 5:7).

When Psalm 22:27 speaks of the Messiah winning praise from the nations, “all the nations…will turn to the Lord,” Jesus tells His disciples, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8; cf. Matthew 28:18-20).

And when Psalm 22:31 concludes with “He [God] has done it!”, Jesus speaks at the end of His ordeal upon the Cross, “It is finished!” (John 19:30).

When we read Psalm 22 with the eyes of Advent, we find a psalm that spoke of the Israelite king being delivered now gains deeper meaning for us about Jesus as the Messiah.

Now, we can praise God for His deliverance of Jesus, the true Messiah, from death. Because of God’s faithful deliverance of Jesus, we know He will also be faithful to us, His people.

 


[1] James Luther Mays, Psalms (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), 105.

[2] See other parallels: Ps 22:6 and Matt 27:29; Ps 22:16 and Mark 15:25; John 20:25.