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Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you. Psalm 33:22

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. Hebrews 10:23

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Snow-dusted pine needles | Near Squilchuck State Park, Wenatchee, WA | December 2019

When our youngest son was born he was very small: 3# 12 ½ oz. He had to be in the hospital for 14 days but soon was able to come home. He slept beside our bed in a makeshift crib that otherwise served as a dresser drawer! He was not able to hold himself up – like any other newborn. He would, however, hold my finger. It was a reflex, I know, but a good one. And it is a picture of what is meant in Hebrews to, “hold fast to the confession of our hope.”

We are very much like a little newborn baby. We have no strength in ourselves to hold onto faith, or hope. We cannot sustain love for God or our neighbor apart from God’s favor and blessing (cf. John 15:5). But although we cannot hold on to God – any more than a newborn baby can hold himself up or hold his own weight – God has us in his arms.

Jesus says of his people: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). Picture this: You are holding a baby in your arms. He is safe and secure in your care. You love him. You won’t let him fall. You offer your finger to him and he wraps his tiny fingers around your finger. Look at his tiny fingernails! Look at the wrinkles on his knuckles. Look into his eyes. He sees your love. You feel his grasp. This is the picture we are offered here.

The reason we are to hold on to the hope we have is therefore twofold. We hold onto this hope primarily because God’s steadfast love is totally reliable. God is faithful. He can be trusted. We also hold on to our hope because it is precious to us. What a hope we have!

I will conduct a funeral tomorrow for a dear friend. There will be moments, I’m sure, during the service in which I will choke up. It is a real loss for me, for his wife and family, and for many of his friends. But we grieve not without hope. I will hold to that hope because God is faithful. We delight to do so because God is faithful. We can rely on him. This hope, God’s love and salvation, and God himself are treasures worth holding to in every moment.

For I,” says the Lord, “will be a wall of fire all around Jerusalem.” Zechariah 2:5 NKJV

If God is for us, who is against us? Romans 8:31

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Snow-laden Pine Tree | Near Squilchuck State Park, Wenatchee, WA | December 2019

I’m not a fighter. When I was a young boy I got in trouble for hitting my sister in the stomach – even though she had bitten me and left teeth marks on my arm! Well, my mom was right. I could really hurt her. When my next-door-neighbor and I would fight, I would almost always win. But not always. And when I fought a neighborhood boy, I ran home with a bloody nose. In the 60 years since then I have astutely avoided physical conflict. I’m not a fighter.

But maybe I should be: Not of the physical type, but in the spiritual realm. That’s particularly true because I have sensed lately a spiritual assault on my soul, my church, and my friends. This is no spooky or Exorcist kind of spiritual assault. I’m not talking about spinning heads, or morphing bodies. I’m not speaking of demonic voices or unexplainable movement of inanimate objects.

I’m talking about people taking offence against one another. I’m speaking of marriages under attack. I’m aware of feelings being hurt and offence being taken for no good reason. I’m talking about a spiritual malaise that comes over the church. I’m speaking of my own personal struggle with faithfulness. These are real spiritual attacks.

This is not a time for sitting idly by and trying to ignore these threats, or worse yet, wondering whether God knows or even cares about them. This is not a time to acquiesce to evil’s intent. This is a time to lean into God’s promises. This is a time to look for the wall of fire behind which we can take cover.

God’s consuming fire will destroy everything this is not pure and genuine (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:13-15). That fire is a hedge of protection for God’s people and all who wish to do right, love justice, and walk humbly with God. We don’t do that perfectly, but we have One who has. Jesus has done this for us. He is our righteousness. He is our Protector. Jesus is the One who has revealed how much God is for us. He is the One who faced down Satan and won the victory.

That victory was one of faith. The battle against evil of every kind will be won by those who keep the faith in Jesus. That’s a fight I need to join. Holy Spirit, help me please!

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God?” Isaiah 40:27

God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his.” 2 Timothy 2:19

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Snow-laden Pine Trees | Near Squilchuck State Park, Wenatchee, WA | December 2019

Pastor Jeff Doria asked a good question yesterday at St. John. In the introduction to his message, he asked, “Is 700 years a long time?” Most everyone agreed it was. Then he upped the ante: “How would you like to spend 700 years in the dentist chair? How about waiting for God to make good on his promises?”

That’s the issue Isaiah points to above. The people of Israel were accusing God of losing sight of them. They wondered why their rights were being ignored by God. They wanted God to come and be the Big Enforcer in the cause they deemed righteous. They wondered whether they mattered to God or not.

I can identify with Israel in this regard. Perhaps you can too. I don’t come out and say it quite as boldly and arrogantly, but sometimes I do wonder. Where is God? Does he really involve himself in the affairs of women and men? Does he really answer my prayers? Does he really have a plan in place. It’s been 2000 years, after all, since he sent his Son. What has he done lately?

These are the questions of unbelief. These are the accusations of one who is more full of hubris than he would ever care to admit, or say out loud. For this I am sorry, O God. Please forgive me. Help me to believe that you haven’t forgotten me. Grant me your peace and the confidence of your goodness, grace, love, mercy, and justice.

Paul reminds me: The Lord knows those who are his. He has not forgotten. He is at work. Look no further than the last time he answered your prayer of confession, and forgave your sins. Look no further than when he answered the prayers of his people and supplied the resources for the mission of his church. Look no further than the last time someone gave you a hug, prayed for you, sent you a kind note.

God is at work all the time. It’s not always in big and splashy ways. It’s not always according to our whim of timing. But if we repent of our unbelief and look through the eyes of faith we will see his good will being done all around us – and sometimes even in and through us.

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared.And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. – Matthew 2:1-12

Natavity (4 of 55)

The wise men probably did not come when Jesus was in the manger. But they did come to worship the one who was born King of the Jews.

We don’t really know the date of Jesus’ birth. We do know it was sometime before 4BC. That’s the date that Herod the Great (King Herod above) died. Since Jesus had been born while Herod was alive we have some idea of the date of his birth. It was likely not December 25. Nor was it likely January 6. Having said that, however, January 6 is celebrated as Christmas by the eastern Orthodox churches.

The wise men came from the east in search of the newborn king of the Jews. It is not certain whether they were Jewish believers who were left over from the exile many years before. It is quite possible that they were gentiles. That is one of the reasons January 6 which is Epiphany and a commemoration of the visit of the magi, is called the Christmas of the Gentiles. 

Their appearance, worship, and gifts to the child (now perhaps 18 months old) are a fulfillment of prophecies in Isaiah:

I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth ~ Isaiah 49:6b

Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. ~ Isaiah 60:3

More than that, the wise men offer us a picture of devotion appropriate to the King of kings, the child Jesus. Notice it was “his” star that they saw and which alerted them to the birth of the King of the Jews. Note also that the are up front in asking about the birth of the “King of the Jews.” They knew who Jesus was. Notice their gifts: fit for a king and alluding to the fact that Jesus was God in the flesh. Notice that they find the child and Mary his mother (the child is mentioned first). 

I’m not sure I give it as much thought as I should, but it is vitally important that Jesus came for all people. It is important to me, also, that these wise men had waited for centuries before the promises of Isaiah had come true. I am all too prone to be impatient with God. I want his timing to match my urgency. But rather than making God my personal genie in a bottle, I need to join the wise men and worship Jesus. I must offer him my gifts, and recognize him as King. 

When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. 17 After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. 18 All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, 19 but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. 20 The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them. – Luke 2:15-20

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German Nativity Decoration in the Window Sill of our Kitchen

It’s the only venue at which I have been interrupted in the middle of a sermon…by applause! Two hundred men, all wearing white, many smelling of tobacco, or long-worn perspiration-soaked clothes sat in the pews of the chapel of the medium-security prison. Our choir had performed portions of our cantata for them and I was preaching. When I mentioned the passage in Revelation that says, “Its gates will never be closed,” (Revelation 21:25) I asked, “How does that sound to you?” There was immediate and thunderous applause. I don’t think it was my preaching that was the object of their applause. I’m certain it was the idea of an open-door eternity. 

During the entire sermon that night one man sat in the front row. He was bigger than life and had a manner of authority when he spoke. Several times he nearly shouted, “Think about it!” Think about it indeed. It is good for us to recognize how great a blessing God has given us in saving us. It is worth, perhaps, even breaking into applause when we recognize the enormity and richness of God’s blessings. We’ll seldom do that, however, unless we think about it. 

Mary takes the lead here. She kept the events of that night in her heart and thought about them often. Certainly she has an upper hand in this. She had given birth. She had been visited by shepherds. She had been told, I’m sure, about the angels’ announcement. She had experienced earth-shattering history. It would stand to reason that she thought about it often. 

We have not had that same experience. Though some of us may recall dramatic intrusions of God, none of us have borne the savior of the world. But we have seen God’s hand in our lives. Perhaps it’s an answered prayer. It could be a relief of pain or healing of illness. Some have had a personal encounter with God – hearing him speak in words as plain as day. It could also be a lifelong experience of knowing Jesus and believing in him.

It may be that we cannot point to a dramatic event, but we can point to the witness of God’s word, and the experiences of others who bear witness to God’s faithfulness, goodness, love, and salvation. In any case we may also ponder in our hearts. We can think about what it means that Jesus has come and redeemed us.

To that end, I appreciate the explanation to the 2nd article of the Apostles’ Creed, which says:

I believe that Jesus Christ is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary; and that He is my Lord, Who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood, and with His inno­cent suffering and death; in order that I might be His own, live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness; even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.

(Luther’s Small Catechism)

That’s a lot to think about!

At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child.

And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them. – Luke 2:1-7

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Old Town Spring Christmas Lights | December 2017

I grew up in a mom and pop motel. My parents started it with 5 rooms. Then we expanded to 12, 17, 24… and on. No matter how many rooms we had, though, one thing was certain. When we could turn on the No Vacancy sign we were happy. That’s not what happened, as best we can tell, on the night Jesus was born.

The best understanding of what happened that night 2000 years ago is that the guest room of the house where Mary and Joseph spent the night was occupied. So they were allowed to stay in the area of the house where the animals were. There was no innkeeper. There was no, “No Vacancy” sign or message. There was just a place for them to stay, and for Jesus to be born. He was then laid in a manger – a feed trough – which was most likely made of stone, not wood.

Take away the common and sentimental trappings of the night and you have a baby born in less than ideal circumstances, and laid in the best place possible, all things considered. Swaddling cloths – strips of cloth which were used to keep the child warm – were not unusual.

None of these trappings would indicate who this is. None of this would point to Jesus as the Son of God who would save his people from their sins. None of this would indicate to us that Jesus is God in the flesh. None of this would indicate that his baby is “King of the Jews.”

But that’s exactly who he is. He is on a mission. He is destined to grow up, gather a following of disciples, teach, heal, perform miracles, and do good. But he is also destined to be betrayed, suffer ridicule and scourging, be convicted of blasphemy, handed over to the Roman authorities and be executed by one of the most cruel means known: crucifixion. He would rest in the tomb. He would rise from the dead. He would appear to his disciples, give them (and us) the Great Commission, and ascend to the right hand of God.

He reigns there now. Majestic in glory. Crowned in splendor, angelic worshipers attend him. Reigning on high, he is interceding for us. He reigns and rules in truth and love. He did all that to save us from our sins. He saved us from our sins because he loved us. He gave up his bed in order to redeem us. So we worship him.

At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child. – Luke 2:1-5

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Christmas Decorations Old Town Spring, Texas | December 2017

How much say did you have about your birth? Did you decide who your parents would be? Did you set the date for labor to begin? Did you determine in what city it would take place? Did you name the president or political party that would be in power? Was the hospital one that you would choose? Did you name the doctor who would deliver you?

We have precious little to say about the circumstances of our birth. And if we would have a say, we would certainly prescribe the best possible circumstances. No last-minute trips. No delivery under duress. Conducive conditions. Attentive attendants. Favorable factors. You get it, right?

Interesting to me that Jesus – Son of God from eternity – chose the manner of his birth under to be anything but favorable circumstances. Last minute travel. Away from home. Labor will come. Birth will happen. Shepherds will visit. Mary will ponder. All this apart from any prerogative to the benefit of the newborn King. For although he put the stars in place, and came from above, and although he did determine when and where he would be born, he took no shortcut of convenience or comfort for himself – or even his parents.

This is not the way of natural man. Who would choose such a trainwreck of inconvenience – especially if he could make all the arrangements, and set the time and place? But Jesus is no mere natural man. And in a remarkable show of love he chose inconvenience, ignominy, and lowliness – all in order to redeem us.

So, taking into account our need, determining just the right time (cf. Galatians 4:4-6) and place (Bethlehem was prophesied to be the place, cf. Micah 5:2), in a very ordinary way an extraordinary work was being done. God was coming to redeem us. It was his choice, his good and gracious choice.