God is with us when Christmas isn’t merry

Recently as I went by a building that used to be a hospital in Astoria I remembered being there 40 years ago this month. My mom had fallen and thought she ought to go to the emergency room to get checked out. We found out she had a broken hip.

My dad was battling cancer at the time; a battle that took his life a few months later. A few days after my mom broke her hip I came down with chicken pox. During that time even our cat got sick. It wasn’t the best December ever for our family.

I’ve also been remembering December 20 years ago. The first Christmas since my brother, sister and mother had died was coming, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. One of my favorite musicians, Michael Card, was doing a concert in Portland and I went. He sang the song, Immanuel. “Immanuel, our God is with us. And if God is with us, who can stand against us? Our God is with us, Immanuel.”

Those were just the words I needed to hear. I needed to be reminded of the promise: “… they will call him Immanuel – which means ‘God with us'” (Matthew 1:23). I felt pretty alone when I went to that concert. It was so good to hear the wonderful good news that I wasn’t alone. God is with us, even when others aren’t any longer. He is with us during the tough times. He is with us to give strength and encouragement when the trials of life are too much for us to handle. He has moved into our neighborhood and “made His dwelling among us” (John 1:14).

Maybe for you this Christmas isn’t feeling all that merry. Maybe your life right now doesn’t exactly resemble a cheerful Hallmark Christmas card. Just because your days don’t feel “merry and bright” it doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It’s a reminder you’re like the rest of us: a human being who needs a Savior. The Savior has come. He didn’t come to reward those who have it all together. He came to save those who humble themselves and admit their sin and need. He came to help those who are honest about their struggles and weaknesses. He came to walk through the hard times with us. He came to be Immanuel – God with us.


Jesus’ compassion and gentleness for a hurting woman

The tragic and disgusting stories keep coming of men harassing and abusing women. I’ve been reminded of what a stark contrast it is the way Jesus treats women.

In the Gospel of John, chapter eight, we read of a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. She wasn’t totally innocent, but it does appear she was being used and abused by powerful men. The religious leaders and the teachers of the law were trying to catch Jesus in a trap. The Jewish law of that day said a woman caught in adultery was to be stoned. The leaders thought if they brought a guilty woman before Jesus He would either look weak on the law if He said not to stone her, or He would look cruel and heartless if He said go ahead and throw the rocks. Jesus saw through their scheme and had the perfect, wise response. “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). The leaders had to walk away, and Jesus was left alone with the woman. Jesus told her He didn’t condemn her and He invited her to envision new possibilities and live a new life: “Go now and leave your life of sin” (v. 11).

The man who was also guilty of adultery is not mentioned in the story. You wonder if he was maybe one of the leaders, or at least was probably a friend of theirs. They didn’t make a big deal about his guilt, just the woman’s. It was all very likely a set up. The woman was probably being taken advantage of and just being used by powerful men who protected their own. Sadly it sounds like how things often go today.

As the story concludes Jesus is with the abused, mistreated, ashamed, humiliated and powerless woman. The seemingly powerful, hypocritical, judgmental men are furious with Jesus and trying to figure out how to get Him out of the picture.

Today Jesus’ followers should still be attracting, welcoming, building up and encouraging the kind of people that were drawn to Jesus. Those who were impressed with their own morality and goodness and craved earthly power and wealth were not comfortable around Jesus. A church that clearly presents God’s law and gospel will make those same kind of people uncomfortable today as well.

Jesus drew to Himself those who knew their own sin and had been humbled and beaten down by the trials of life. They were desperately searching for hope and love. I pray it would be similar today. May those who have been abused by the powerful and harassed by the hypocritical find congregations that love them the way Jesus does and treat them with Christlike compassion and gentleness.

Jesus certainly did not seek cozy relations with the powerful in an effort to advance some political agenda. He sought to gently encourage the hurting and the humble. In this world where we see so much of the ugliness of sin, it is so refreshing and life-giving to be able to look to the beauty of Jesus.

Jesus has time for you

When I was a kid I received a lot of toys at Christmas, but I don’t remember many of them. What I do remember is how my dad would spend time on Christmas Eve playing with my toys with me. We’d put the Hot Wheels track together and get the train to run. Often we’d try to get the train and cars to go a little faster, and sometimes stuff got broken but that was just seen as how things go. The highlight of Christmas for me wasn’t what I received, but enjoying the gifts with my dad and spending time with him.

Some parents are so busy making money to buy things for their kids that they have no time to spend with their kids. Sadly some are so busy making a living they don’t take time to live. The reality is spending time playing with kids and their toys can do more good than buying more toys. The time my dad spent with me impacted my life more than anything he ever bought me. Time spent playing with kids may not seem productive, but it can actually produce good things in a life, like love, peace and joy, that are far more valuable than money and material things.

The Lord, more than anybody else, would be excused if He said He is too busy to spend time with us. He has the universe to run. But He never says He has too many other things to do and can’t listen to us and care for us. Jesus graciously came to this earth and spent time with us. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). The Lord took time to put on human flesh and make His home here among us.

The Lord could have done the work of salvation in quicker fashion. He could have entered the world as an adult and gone to the cross and paid for our sin soon after He arrived on earth. But instead He took the time to start at the beginning: as a baby in Mary’s womb. He took the time to experience what it is like to be a human child and teenager. He took the time to face all the temptations and trials we face.

Jesus took time to teach. He took time to eat with tax collectors and sinners. He took time to touch lepers. He took time to talk with women with bad reputations and listen to the cries of beggars. He took time to bless children.

Jesus has time for you today: time to listen, time to teach you through His Word, time to comfort and encourage you, time to go through the ups and downs of life with you. His time is valuable but He makes clear He considers us to be of such value He is willing to give up time and even give His life on the cross for us.

The world is often too busy. We get too busy to encourage one another, too busy to enjoy the blessings of God. But we give thanks that Jesus is never too busy. He is never short on time. He is never rushed. He continues today to have plenty of time for you.

God can use store-bought pies

It was a community Thanksgiving Eve service, held at another church. I brought my mother home from the hospital that afternoon. I was feeling bad about having to go to the service, but my mom insisted she would be fine. Pie was being served after the service. Nobody in our house had time to make a pie, so I picked one up at the store.

Before the service I was in the fellowship area of the church. I overheard one lady say to another, in a rather disgusted tone, “Look at that. Somebody bought a pie instead of making one.” It was my pie she was talking about. I was tempted to grab my unwanted, store-bought pie and go home, but I was the speaker that evening so I figured I better stick around. I avoided the temptation during the closing prayer to pray, “Thank you Lord for the pies, especially the store-bought one.”

For some of us, like me that evening, the best service we can do in God’s kingdom is like a store-bought pie. Some people have special talents. The things they can do may seem like an amazing homemade pie: unique and better-tasting than anything you’ve ever had before. They are able to wow and impress people. We give thanks for those unique gifts.

Most of us, though, may feel more like a store-bought pie. Our talents and abilities aren’t necessarily filling people with awe. It may feel like there are plenty of others who can do the things we do. Our service in the kingdom may seem to be a little insignificant and nothing too special.

In the Gospels we read about a boy who didn’t seem to have anything too special to offer. He only had five loaves of bread and two small fish. The disciples wondered, “… how far will they go among so many?” (John 6:9) But Jesus gave thanks for that simple little lunch the boy let be used to serve others, and the Lord used it to feed over 5,000 people.

The Lord can use little lunches and store-bought pies. He treats as valuable people who are devalued by the world. He notices service that is overlooked by others. He can use our talents, even when they don’t seem to stand out from the crowd. We should not be dismissing the store-bought pies and the ordinary gifts that we and others have to offer. Instead let us give thanks when those seemingly simple things are given to God for Him to use. Give thanks for the extraordinary ways God can use ordinary things.

What keeps the church safe?

In the book The Insanity of God by Nik Ripken the story is told of a time when a Communist official in the old Soviet Union broke into a Christian congregation’s worship service, slapped the pastor, threatened him and warned him the church needed to close. “If you do not stop this nonsense, this is the least that is going to happen to you.” As the official started to leave a small grandmother who was part of the congregation waved her finger in the officer’s face and declared: “You have laid hands on a man of God and you will not survive!”

The grandmother’s prophetic word was pronounced on a Tuesday evening. On Thursday night the official dropped dead of a heart attack. The fear of God swept through the community. Attendance at the little house-church doubled from 75 to 150 people.

The death of the official did not deter the Communist authorities. They arrested the pastor, a man named Dimitri, and put him in jail where he would remain for 17 years. He suffered much persecution there, but he kept doing the same thing each morning. He would stand, raise his arms in praise to God and sing a “HeartSong” to Jesus. The other prisoners would curse and jeer and throw things at him to try to shut him up. But Dimitri kept singing the praise song at the start of each day.

One day in prison Dimitri found a whole sheet of paper and a pencil beside it. As was his practice whenever he found any kind of paper, he wrote on it any Bible verses, Scripture songs or stories he could remember. After filling both sides he stuck the paper on a pillar as a testimony and praise to God. The jailer soon saw it, beat Dimitri and said he was going to have him executed.

Dimitri was dragged from his cell and taken down the corridor to the place where they did executions. Before they reached the door that led to the courtyard, 1,500 hardened criminals stood at attention by their jail-cell beds. They all began to sing the praise song they had heard Dimitri sing every morning for the past 17 years. Dimitri said later it sounded to him like the greatest choir in all of human history. The jailers instantly released their grip on him and stepped away in terror, asking, “Who are you?” Dimitri replied, “I am a son of the living God, and Jesus is HIs name!” They returned him to his cell and later released him from prison and returned him to his family.

In the wake of the horrific shooting in the church in Texas some news commentators have described churches as “soft targets” and “vulnerable.” Dimitri’s story reminds us that the church of Jesus Christ has a power of protection that is far greater than the most sophisticated security system or the most powerful worldly weapon. “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (I John 4:4).

The church may seem like a soft, vulnerable target by the world’s way of looking at things. But the church rests in the strong, safe arms of the Almighty Lord. Our first and most powerful means of protection is to pray. God may permit things to happen that cause our body to be harmed and even killed. None of us really know why He lets some of these terrible things occur. But we still trust that in Him our soul is safe for all eternity. “Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then will I be confident. … For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling” (Psalm 27:3, 5).

Those who went to that Baptist church in Texas thought they were going to be safe there. That congregation is now suffering pain that is hard for the rest of us to imagine. Sadly, lives on this earth were ended far too soon and families and friends are now heartbroken. But for those who knew Jesus, their souls were still safe and their relationship with the Lord was still safe. Even though it’s a scary, dangerous world, we don’t have to live as prisoners of fear. We live in freedom and peace by faith in our Father’s strong and loving care.

Luther: human and humorous


Carl Trueman, in his book Luther on the Christian Life, tells about being asked during an interview for a teaching position who he’d rather be trapped on a desert island with: Martin Luther or John Calvin. Trueman is a Presbyterian and agrees more with Calvin’s teaching but he said he finds Calvin to be “somewhat sour and colorless.” He told them he’d have to choose Luther because “he was so obviously human and so clearly loved life.”

The man who nailed the 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, 500 years ago today wasn’t afraid to let his humanity be seen and known. His freedom to be human came about because of his confidence in God’s grace. We don’t have to impress God or people in order to get a place in His kingdom. God is fully aware of how human we are and how sinful we are. But He still loves us. Our salvation is by God’s grace, meaning His undeserved blessings and goodness. When we’re confident of His grace and resting in His grace, than we’re not afraid if people see our failures and shortcomings. We’re secure that we’re forgiven and cleansed and loved, because we’re relying on God’s great grace.

Luther’s freedom to be human and his love for life were reflected in his sense of humor. Trueman writes: “One of the most striking things about the man is his sense of humor, and one cannot possibly write a book on his understanding of the Christian life without reference to this. In general terms, of course, Protestant theologians have not been renowned for their wit, and Protestant theology has not been distinguished by its laughter. Yet Luther laughed all the time … Humor was a large part of what helped to make him so human and accessible.”

Maybe one of the best ways to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation is to do what Luther often did: laugh. We laugh at our foolish attempts to run our own lives and fix our own problems without God’s help. We laugh at the absurdity of us thinking we can tell God what to do. We laugh like a child opening Christmas presents as we think of how incredible and astounding it is that God would take our place on the cross so we could have a place in His family. We laugh with joy and glee because of God’s glorious grace.

A true gentleman

This time it is movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, who is in the news for the terrible way he has treated women. It is reported that he often used his power and wealth to threaten and intimidate women. He would try to get them to say yes to disgusting requests. The numbers keep growing of the women who say they were used and abused by him.

In one article a woman talked about this kind of behavior as something a woman has to get used to. It’s awfully sad that some women become so accustomed to being mistreated that they think it is something they have to get used to. No woman should ever have to get used to being scared and intimidated. No woman should have to get used to men saying disgusting and degrading things to them. No woman should ever have to get used to men touching them in inappropriate, unwanted and threatening ways.

Degrading talk about women is not to be dismissed as “locker room talk.” Grabbing a woman and touching her in ways she doesn’t want to be touched is not “boys being boys.” It is not the behavior of “a man’s man.” It is sinful behavior. A man’s man shows gentleness, compassion and love and seeks to build women up. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up … But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality” (Ephesians 4:29, 5:3). It is evil when men treat women as just things to give them pleasure.

The Gospels provide us with a picture of the true gentleman: Jesus. He treated women with respect and honor. He talked with a woman of another race, who had had five husbands and was living with a man who wasn’t her husband, and was willing to drink water from a cup that she handled – something other Jewish men of that day wouldn’t dream of doing. The woman was shocked. “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (John 4:9). He had a one-on-one conversation with this woman about spiritual matters and even revealed to her that He was the Messiah.

A woman with a sinful past, scorned by the crowd, who a religious leader didn’t even want in his home, was praised by Jesus for her faith and love. “Jesus said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace’” (Luke 7:50).

Another woman with a bleeding condition that made her unclean in the eyes of the world touched Jesus’ cloak and her bleeding stopped. When Jesus was looking for who touched Him she got nervous. But Jesus treated her with compassion and gentleness and said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace” (Luke 8:48).

There are many more beautiful and gracious examples of Jesus treating women with respect, gentleness and love. Those who knew Him knew they could come to Him and find safety, security and peace.

It is tragic some women think they have to get used to being harassed and mistreated. I pray those women and all of us would get used to, but always be amazed by the incredible grace of God.