Wednesday, December 16, 2020

A Sign Of Hope

Dear Friends,

For many, this past year has felt like: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..” If you have not had the coronavirus, you undoubtedly know someone who has, and sadly, many of us have known someone who has died. And we’ve also all experienced what has felt like the “passing away” of our church, our close relationships with family and friends, our jobs, favorite stores and restaurants and life as we knew it. For nearly a full year it’s felt like we’re living in the valley of the shadow of death, and yet the entire verse is “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and staff, they comfort me.” Psalm 23:4 

According to the Bible app “YouVersion,” the most downloaded verse since the start of the pandemic is “Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10 When we are afraid and facing life’s hardships, we turn to the Lord for strength, peace and hope. Our politicians have recently been calling for “unity” but we have already been a Nation on our knees and united in prayer. And after a year of this plague, some have found that we are struggling spiritually and our prayers are losing strength. As Christmas approaches, many of us are weary, burned out and, even if we have stayed healthy, we are suffering from pandemic fatigue that has robbed us of the joy and hope that we have always had during our celebration of Christmas. Many of us have been praying for a sign from God that will restore and energize our hope, and that prayer has been answered. And no..I don’t mean the vaccine.

Astronomers and theologians are talking about the Christmas Star and its glorious appearance on December 21st (next Monday). Some are calling it a “miracle” from God and some are calling its appearance at the end of this year a coincidence. Maybe, but the older I get, and the more I’ve seen and experienced, the harder it is for me to believe in a Sovereign God to the extent that I do and at the same time believe in “coincidences.” The beloved Christian story in our Bible tells us that, “Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the newborn King of the Jews? We saw His star as it rose, and we have come to worship Him.’” Matthew 2:1-2 NLT Some astronomers and theologians have long believed that the Star of Bethlehem was a conjunction – a close meeting – possibly Jupiter, Saturn and Mars that lined up in the sky to be a sign from God that Jesus – the hope of our future had been born. All we know for sure is at the time of this heavenly sign from God that, “...suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’” Luke 2:13-14

As this year ends, God is once again sending this sign of hope to His people. The two largest planets in our solar system, Jupiter and Saturn, will line up so closely that they will look like the largest and possibly the brightest star in the universe. No one is exactly sure what it will look like because no one alive has ever seen it. This celestial phenomenon was last seen 800 years ago in the early morning hours of March 4, 1226 and only the very young will still be alive when these two planets line up again this close in 2080. The best time to view it will be right after the sunset on Monday, December 21st. That’s when the planets will be the lowest in the western sky and if the weather is clear, you’ll be able to see it for about an hour. While it is the lowest on December 21st it will be visible higher up in the skies from December 16th to December 25th.

December 21st is the first day of Winter and the shortest day of the year. The sunset will be at 4:48 pm in the Los Angeles area. When you’re outside, look West (towards the ocean). When you see the lined up planets, pray a prayer of gratitude for His sign of hope. Imagine what it was like for the Magi to see a “Star” like this, know that their Lord and Savior had been born and that they needed to go and worship Him. As you gaze at our Christmas Star, spend some time in your own worship of Him.

God’s sign of hope is to the entire world! This celestial blessing from Heaven will be observable in every place on Earth. God sent the Star of Bethlehem to lead the Gentiles to Jesus, and today our own Christmas Star is lighting the way to Him and a wave of excitement has swept through the Christian world in anticipation. We will all see a very real and tangible God-ordained re-creation of the Star of Bethlehem that is His perfect timing. For this is the exact moment that we all needed the sign from Him that the hardships of this year will soon be over and all is right with the world! Jesus is coming!

“Glory to God in the highest, 

And on earth peace, 

goodwill toward men!” 

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

The Real Truth Of Christmas!

Dear Friends,

One of my favorite Christmas stories is about a 14 year old boy by the name of William Spurling. William was big for his age and some said that mentally, he was a little slow. But he was kind-hearted, a good friend to all and he was well-liked by the other kids and their parents.

When it came time for the church Christmas program to be presented, William wanted to be a shepherd, but the teacher decided that he would make a better innkeeper since he was so big. Even though William had a gentle personality, he physically fit the role of the big, mean innkeeper.

William worked hard to learn his lines and to act like the gruff innkeeper. Finally it was Christmas Eve and time for the Nativity performance. When Mary and Joseph came to the inn and knocked on the door, William  opened it right on cue. He said gruffly, “There is no place for you to stay! There is no room at the inn!” 

Joseph said, “But my wife is tired and she is expecting a baby tonight. Isn't there just a small room where we could rest?”

Once again, William said, with roughness in his voice, “You'll have to find a place somewhere else! There is no room in the inn!” Once more Joseph pleaded for someplace for them to stay the night. 

Then there was a loooong pause. William got a panicked look on his face and soon everyone knew that he’d forgotten his next line. An embarrassed silence engulfed the church. Then from behind the manger set came the voice of the Sunday school teacher prompting the innkeeper: “No, be gone! Be gone!” William was now nervous and a little flustered. He dropped out of the fierce innkeeper character and now his voice quivered as he hesitatingly said the “be gone” line.

“Be gone” was Mary and Joseph’s cue to leave and they both turned to do so with sad and troubled expressions on their faces. That was when William Spurling forgot that he was playing a role in a Christmas Pageant. “No! Wait a minute!” he blurted out. “You can stay in my room and I’ll sleep in the stable...”

Mary and Joseph were now frozen in place and speechless. The Sunday school teacher thought the performance was ruined and put her head in her hands. In the stunned silence, the pastor got up and slowly walked to the front of the church. “What you just heard,” he said with a smile, “is the real truth of Christmas and the message of the Gospel.”

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God incarnate. God the Son took on human flesh. We deserved a fiery punishment for our sins and Jesus took our place by going to the cross so that those who believe in Him will not perish but have eternal life in Heaven. 

The birth of Jesus is God’s perfect gift to us. Not just the gift of the Baby, but the offer of forgiveness and salvation and of living a changed life in the presence of God. And then He steps back to see what we’ll do with His gift.

Sadly, many reject Jesus and His gift of salvation and in doing so they reject God. John 14:6; John 15:23 And then there are “Christians” who have accepted the gift but do so with indifference. They live a completely secular life and only turn to God for one hour on a Sunday morning. To those, Jesus would say “ honor me with your lips but your hearts are far from me and you worship me in vain..” Matthew 15:8-9

But many receive God’s gift of Jesus with hearts filled with great joy and their Christian spirituality is a 24/7 lived experience and an authentic expression of their faith. 

Your gift is once again lying in a manger.. and God is waiting to see what you’ll be doing with Him this year...

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

An Advent of Abundance!

Dear Friends,

It's beginning to feel like Advent. A cold December chill permeates the house. The ground outside still wet from recent rains. Trees and plants washed of the urban soot and dust are once again bright and colorful. I step outside and the cold air penetrates the nostrils with a sharp crispness. The rising sun paints the clouds with a brilliant orange. I pray the Advent prayer prayed by the ancient church, “Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus Come!”

The change of seasons means something different to each one of us. When the Winter chill signals the start of this new season, I think of soup. Sam’s Club has a three pound bag of Broccoli, Carrots and Cauliflower. Perfect. On a Saturday afternoon, a cube and a half of unsalted butter is melted in a ten quart soup pot. Sweet Onions are diced and sautéed. Garlic Cloves are squeezed directly into the buttery Onions and immediately release their flavors. The Flour is whisked in and cooked for just a minute. Then three quarts of Organic Chicken Broth  are slowly whisked into the Flour until there are no more lumps. A cup and a half of White Wine is stirred in and now full heat is applied to bring the liquid to a boil. I stir it occasionally while I inspect the bag of veggies. Everything is fresh so nothing needs to be trimmed or discarded. The whole bag is dumped in. A tablespoon of Celery Salt, or instead, a tablespoon of Old Bay Seasoning is added and the soup is brought back up to a slow boil. The flame is now reduced to its lowest setting and the soup gently simmers until the veggies are soft but not mushy. Now it’s time to get out my industrial-sized immersion blender and the five quarts of soup are blended until it becomes thick and creamy. This will now feed your hungry family of fifteen people at dinner or feed two people for a week.

Many of us today know bread only as the device that’s used to convey the bacon cheese burger from the plate to the mouth, but for much of human history, bread was the staple in our diets. In the beginning there was bread. Genesis 3:19 In ancient biblical times, meat was reserved for feasts, bread was the primary food in their day-to-day lives and all other foods were the “side dishes.” Bread was considered a gift from God, by whose blessing the grain grows and it was used as an offering at Pentecost. Leviticus 23:16-17 Bread was baked on a flat rock or a ceramic plate in a “tannur,”an earthenware oven. I use a "pizza stone" (a thick, heavy unglazed cooking tile) in a Frigidaire oven but many thousands of years later it’s the same recipe: flour, yeast, salt and water.

That Sunday morning, I prepare bread dough seasoned with Italian herbs. After the first rise, it's folded and put in the refrigerator to develop the flavors. That afternoon, the  dough is taken out and patted down to about an inch thick. Sitting on the counter in the warmth of the afternoon sun, the yeast does its magic and it rises again. The dough is dimpled, coated with Extra Virgin Olive Oil and slid onto a pizza stone in a 550̊ oven. The soup has also been developing more flavor overnight in the refrigerator and it's now being reheated. The scent of the baking bread is overwhelming and when the golden brown loaf comes out of the oven, the soup is now steaming hot. There is no finer gourmet meal on a chilly Advent Sunday afternoon.

Then I come across this painting by Henry Tanner called THE THANKFUL POOR and I’m captivated by it. An older white-haired man with strong work-hardened forearms and hands. His teenaged grandson. A table set for two. Only one chair in the house; the boy sits on a stool.  What happened to his parents? His grandmother? A clean but well-worn tablecloth. Empty plates. A small loaf of bread between them and little else. Both heads bowed. Eyes closed. In my mind I can hear them thanking God for His blessings and an abundant life in Christ Jesus. 

I research the artist and find that Henry Tanner is considered the greatest African-American artist of all time. His mother had grown up as a child-slave and his father was a minister. I discover that Tanner is known for his biblical paintings and religious art. THE THANKFUL POOR was painted in 1894 and poignantly captures the deep faith that allowed suffering families to experience an abundant life in Jesus in the midst of their poverty.

This painting discomforts me. I look around my house and see too many things. Cupboards of dishes never used. A walk-in pantry with shelves to the ceiling filled with food ingredients. When we sit down to eat, our plates are filled with food. This Advent my thoughts are drawn to others so much more needful than I have ever been. I look again at the grandfather and the young boy and see that, despite their impoverishment, their faith has filled them with the wealth of God’s abundance and wonder if perhaps they are richer than I will ever be. I think about this as I eat my simple but abundant meal of bread and soup...Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus Come!

(My Advent Soup and Bread Recipes are HERE)