DRIFTING

So we must listen very carefully to the truth we have heard, or we may drift away from it. [Hebrews 2:1 (NLT)]

Lake Brienz-Switzerland
We had an elderly friend who frequently visited us at our lakeside cottage. An avid reader but a poor swimmer, she loved to relax and read in a small rubber raft while floating on the water. Inevitably, she’d drift off and, finding it difficult to paddle against the current and return to the dock, she’d call on the children to swim out and tow her back to safety. Eventually, tiring of their towing job on a breezy day, they took a length of rope and tied it to both raft and dock. The rope was long enough to allow our friend to float around but short enough that she never got too far away from home. I thought of her when I read the caution in Hebrews 2:1 to carefully listen to the truth lest we drift away from it.

Like the Hebrews, many in the church at Colosse were drifting away into dangerous waters. Rather than drifting into apostasy (the abandonment of their belief in Jesus) as were the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews, the Colossians were drifting into the equally dangerous waters of heresy (adhering to a belief contrary to church doctrine). Sitting near the intersection of several major highways, Colosse was exposed to a wide variety of beliefs and philosophies. Rather than waves of persecution, these new Christians were being pushed along by the popular, but false, teachings of the day. Various un-Biblical philosophies and beliefs were being integrated into doctrine and wreaking havoc in the church. Just as my children brought my friend back to the dock, Paul’s letter was his way of returning the church to sound doctrine.

From Paul’s letter, it appears that some teachers were peddling something akin to Gnosticism—a belief that some people possessed secret superior knowledge that was hidden from most other believers. Thinking that all matter (including the body) was evil, they affirmed the deity of Jesus but denied His humanity. Others seemed to embrace a fusion of Christianity and Judaism that included Jewish dietary laws and the observance of Jewish holy days. Some Colossians espoused a spiritualistic teaching requiring them to worship angels before connecting with God. Still others adopted a legalistic version of Christianity with man-made requirements like pious self-denial, special rituals, and possibly circumcision. Calling them “empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense,” Paul pointed out that those beliefs came from human thinking and demons rather than Christ.

When those false theories and ideologies were merged into the tenets of the new church, there was just enough of Scripture’s truth in them to make them sound right. Even in the 21st century, it’s easy to get caught up in new philosophies or trendy ideas and different “empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense” continue to be preached today.  As Tim Challies said, “This world is a murky madness of true and false. For every doctrine we know to be true, there seems to be a hundred pretenders.” Like the Colossians, we must be on guard for those pretenders—those who add to, ignore, dismiss, or edit Scripture along with any who are more interested in filling their wallets than saving souls, more intent on pleasing mankind than God, or claim to have been called by God to preach words outside of Scripture.

To avoid drifting away from the truth found in Jesus, rather than tethering ourselves to a dock as did my friend, we must tether ourselves to God; instead of using a rope, we use His word as found in the Bible. Simply put, sound doctrine comes solely from God. Its authority comes only from God’s Word and is consistent with all of Scripture (rather than a verse taken out of context).

Whatever is only almost true is quite false, and among the most dangerous of errors, because being so near truth, it is the more likely to lead astray. [Henry Ward Beecher]

But you must continue to believe this truth and stand firmly in it. Don’t drift away from the assurance you received when you heard the Good News. … Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ. [Colossians 1:23,2:8 (NLT)]

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IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD

In the beginning [before all time] was the Word (Christ), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God Himself. [John 1:1 (AMP)]

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End [the Eternal One]. [Revelation 22:13 (AMP)]

tri-colored heronVarious events leave an indelible mark on our personal history and we have our “befores” and “afters” with which we mark time. It might be BP for “before Parkinson’s,” AM for “after marriage,” BS for “before sobriety,” or AC for “after cancer.” When we had little ones, our time was marked by BC (before children) and AD (after diapers)! Of course, for most of the world, the designations BC and AD have to do with the calendar and delineate whether the time was before or after Christ.

When just a child, I knew BC meant “before Christ” but mistakenly thought AD meant “after death.” As a result, I wondered where that left the thirty-three years He walked the earth. Was that DC—“during Christ?” AD actually is an abbreviation for anno Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, Latin for “in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ” (“in the year of our Lord,” for short), so those thirty-three years belong on the AD side of the timeline.

The BC/AD system was a byproduct of an attempt by the First Council of Nicaea (AD 325) to unify the church by setting the date of Easter as the first Sunday following the full moon following the spring equinox. Computations determining the date were recorded in documents known as Easter tables. But, with no universally accepted way of dating the years, some calendars were based on the founding of Rome and others on the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian. As a result, depending on the dating system, Easter’s date varied by as much as five weeks. Wanting to unite the church in their celebration of the most important event in Christianity, a monk named Dionysius Exiguus introduced the concept of AD in 525 when he anchored his Easter table on the year of the Lord’s birth. It was, however, several centuries before his system became commonplace.

In 731, the English monk Bede was the first author to use Dionysius’ AD system in his history of the English people. Bede also was the first person to use BC to designate how many years prior to Christ’s birth an event occurred. In the ninth century, the Roman Emperor Charlemagne adopted the BC/AD system throughout his empire and, by the fourteenth century, most of Christendom had adopted it.

Although Dionysius never explained how he determined Jesus’ birth year, he probably consulted the early church writings of Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius of Caesarea to estimate the date. As it turns out, he miscalculated the year and most historians now believe Jesus actually was born four to six years earlier than Dionysius thought. Nevertheless, error or not, whether we use BC and AD or the more “politically correct” BCE (before the common era) and CE (common era), our calendars are anchored in Christ’s incarnation!

Aside from our calendars, while there was a time before Jesus appeared in Bethlehem, there never really was a time before Christ. Moreover, what I didn’t understand as a girl is that, while time has passed since Jesus walked the earth, there never has been a time “after” Him. Jesus always existed and forever will exist. He was here at the beginning of time, He is here now, and He will be here at the end; He is the Alpha and Omega. In actuality, it always has been AD—anno Domini—the year of our Lord.

For Christians, perhaps the most important dividing line is a very personal BC—before Christ. Different for each of us, it is the moment we accepted Christ as our Lord and Savior. It is our real birth (rather re-birth) day and, from that moment on, we truly live in AD—the year of our Lord.

For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. [1 Corinthians 15:22 (AMP)]

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HANUKKAH (2) – FEAST OF DEDICATION

Look at my servant, whom I strengthen. He is my chosen one, who pleases me. I have put my Spirit upon him. He will bring justice to the nations. [Isaiah 42:1 (NLT)]

In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. [Matthew 5:16 (NLT)]
menorah

Most of us associate Hanukkah with Judaism’s menorah. Although the books of the Maccabees mention the relighting of the Temple’s lampstand/menorah, they make no mention of a miracle of oil. However, the Talmud (a collection of discussion and commentary on Jewish history, customs, law and culture) does. It claims that, while only one small flask of consecrated oil was found to light the menorah that first day, the lamp remained lit the entire eight days of celebration until new oil could be consecrated.

Although the Temple’s menorah had seven branches with wicks that burned fresh olive oil, Hanukkah’s menorah usually has nine branches with nine candles. Eight of those candles represent each day of the feast. The ninth candle, often placed in the center and slightly higher than the rest, is called the shamash, meaning servant. Rather than lighting each candle with a match, only the shamash is lit. It is this “servant” candle’s flame that is used to ignite the rest. Upon learning this, I couldn’t help but think of the Messianic prophecies of a suffering servant found in Isaiah 53. That servant was Jesus—He was the shamash who brought God’s light into the world and, like the shamash candle, He gave His light to our lives. By trusting in Him, Jesus said we become  “children of the light,” and, as His children, we are His servants. The Great Commission tells us that we are to be the shamash candles who continue to bring His light into our troubled world.

Thinking of Hanukkah merely as a festival of lights, however, misses the heart of this story—the rededication of the Temple. When a ragtag group of Jewish rebels retook the Temple from the powerful Seleucid army, the Temple had been desecrated and profaned. Before resuming worship there, the Temple had to be cleaned, the idols removed, the pagan altar dismantled, and a new altar consecrated. Only after they made it a fitting place for Jehovah to live did they re-dedicate the Temple to God.

For the people of Judah, the Temple was where God resided. For the people of Jesus, however, it is our bodies—our hearts, minds, and souls—that serve as a temple for God’s Holy Spirit. As believers, we are God’s temple individually and, as the body or church of Christ, we are His temple collectively. As His temple, we should be as holy and pure as were the Temple’s menorah and altar. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to walk through this sinful world and not have some of its filth contaminate us. Things like hate, anger, prejudice, envy, pride, deception, and greed defile us as much as that pig’s blood and idol of Zeus defiled Jerusalem’s Temple. Worse, as the collective temple of God, we’ve seen His church desecrated with things like corruption, exploitation, abuse, hypocrisy, bigotry, and shoddy, distorted and false doctrine. Like the Maccabees, do we need to do some cleaning of His holy temple?

The season of Hanukkah reminds us that Jesus is the servant whose light overcame the darkness of the world. My prayer for this Christmas season is that we allow Hanukkah’s story and traditions to inspire us so that we rid our lives of all that defiles His temple. Let us rededicate ourselves to the Lord and, as His servants, may we glorify Him in all we do.

He that chooses God, devotes himself to God as the vessels of the sanctuary were consecrated and set apart from common to holy uses, so he that has chosen God to be his God, has dedicated himself to God, and will no more be devoted to profane uses. [Thomas Watson]

Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. [1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (NLT)]

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THE REAL STORY

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. [Luke 2:7 (KJV)]

Magi
Between countless Christmas pageants, Christmas card illustrations, nativity sets, and the words of our favorite carols, the Christmas story we know actually may not be the one told by Luke. Although most translations say Mary laid Jesus in a manger because there was “no room for them in the inn,” it probably wasn’t an inn and no mention is made of an innkeeper (or his wife). The word usually translated as “inn” in this verse was kataluma and it appears one more time in Luke 22:11 and Mark 14:14 when Jesus sent Peter and John to Jerusalem to determine the location of the kataluma where they would celebrate their Passover meal. Here kataluma  is translated as guest room or guestchamber and Luke described it as a large upstairs room in a person’s house. Rather than kataluma , the word Luke used for inn when telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan was pandocheion which clearly meant inn or public house.

Rather than staying in the 1st century equivalent of a Motel 6, the couple would have stayed with relatives, as was the custom of the time. But, since everyone else in the family also was in Bethlehem for the census, the house would have been overflowing with people. Even though Mary was pregnant, the older family members had priority on rooms. Rather than no room at the inn, there was no room for them in the normal living quarters.

We wrongly assume Jesus was born in a barn or a stable because of the manger (an animal’s feeding trough) but animals usually weren’t housed in an exterior building. To keep them safe from theft and the elements, they were kept on the ground floor of the house, often under the living quarters. Because of the manger’s mention, it probably was here that Mary gave birth. Had I been Mary and about to give birth, I would have preferred the relative quiet and privacy afforded in the animals’ quarters to the commotion of a house filled with people! While it makes for great drama to think of a cruel innkeeper refusing them a room, it’s rather nice to picture the savior of mankind being welcomed into the wonderful chaos of an extended family oohing and aahing over Him!

Even though animals are included in every pageant and nativity, Scripture doesn’t mention Mary riding a donkey into Bethlehem, the shepherds bringing any sheep, or even camels. Because of the manger, we assume the presence of a cow but that’s mere speculation.

As for the angels—the only mention of angels in Luke’s account is when they announce Messiah’s birth to the shepherds. While it’s logical to think angels watched over the Holy Family that night, Scripture doesn’t say so and there’s no reason to think they were visible. Moreover, as much as I love singing the long “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” in the carol, Scripture only says the angels praised God and spoke their message.

In Matthew’s gospel we read of the wise men (magi) from the east who visited Jesus. While “magi” came to mean astrologers, sorcerers, or magicians, these men probably were Magians, a priestly caste from Media, Persia, Assyria, or Babylonia. Learned in the prophecies of Hebrew Scripture, they were worshipful seekers of the truth. Their number (three) and names come from song rather than Scripture and their kingship and camels may come from their mention in Isaiah 60. Careful reading, however, tells us Isaiah’s prophecy refers to Christ’s return rather than His birth. Nevertheless, an unknown number of Magi brought this young king gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Whether such costly offerings were theirs or on behalf of a foreign king is unknown.

Even the Magi’s appearance in our pageants and nativities is incorrect. Because the Holy Family fled to Egypt immediately after their departure, the Magi must have arrived after Mary’s purification and Jesus’ presentation in the Temple 40 days after His birth. When the Magi arrive, Matthew refers to Jesus as a child rather than an infant and, based on the age of the boys Herod ordered slaughtered, their visit probably occurred when Jesus was a toddler.

Christmas is a time of great pageantry and kings kneeling in front of an infant in a manger, surrounded by animals, shepherds, and angels, makes for great theater. The facts surrounding Jesus’ birth, however, are more marvelous that any we could imagine! The message that the Son of God came in human form to sacrifice Himself for our sins and provide eternal life to all who believe in Him needs no embellishment.

It is here, in the thing that happened at the first Christmas, that the most profound unfathomable depths of the Christian revelation lie. God became man; Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as this truth of the incarnation.  [J.I. Packer]

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And 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, good will toward men. [Luke 2:10-14 (KJV)]

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ARE WE READY? – Advent 2022

Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting, “Clear the way through the wilderness for the Lord! Make a straight highway through the wasteland for our God! Fill in the valleys, and level the mountains and hills. Straighten the curves, and smooth out the rough places. Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. The Lord has spoken!” [Isaiah 40:3 (NLT)]


Yesterday was the third Sunday in Advent – the church season of preparation leading up to Christmas. Back in the 4th century, Advent was a 40-day season spent in penance, prayer and fasting in preparation for the baptism of new Christians on Epiphany (January 6). On that day, the church celebrated the gifts of the Magi, Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, and His first miracle at Cana. By the 6th century, Advent was tied to the promised second coming of Jesus but, by the Middle Ages, Advent was tied to the celebration of Jesus’ first arrival and Christmas. Today, Advent is a time the Christian church commemorates Christ’s first coming while anticipating His second. It’s a time to prepare our hearts and minds both for Christmas, when Jesus came as a suffering servant and arrived in a manger, and for Christ’s return, when He will come as the conquering King who makes all things right.

Indeed, most of us use the four weeks of Advent as a time of preparation, but for what? Rather than readying our hearts for Christ, we’ve probably been busy making lists and checking them twice, searching for the best deals on line, decorating our homes and yards, trimming the tree, going to or hosting parties, making travel arrangements, baking holiday treats, planning menus, wrapping packages, addressing Christmas cards, and standing in line at Fed Ex or the post office, all of which have little to do with that first Christmas when God came into our chaotic world and even less to do with anticipating His glorious return.

Last night, after lighting the candles of hope and peace on our Advent wreath, my husband and I lit its third candle—the shepherd’s candle of joy. Admittedly, even though we’re having a relatively quiet Christmas, I felt more stress than hope, peace, or joy. I had allowed the preparations for this holiday keep me from focusing on Jesus!

Pause for a moment and remember how 2,000 years ago, the people of Judah longed for the promised Messiah. Recall how God recognized mankind’s need for a savior and answered their prayer that night in Bethlehem. That helpless baby in the manger, the infant who needed to be fed and burped and changed, was God incarnate!

As Christians in the 21st century, we long for Messiah’s return and, someday, God will make good on that promise, as well. As we remember Christ’s first coming, let us look forward to His return—a time when peace and justice will prevail and there will be no “death or sorrow or crying or pain.” We must never allow our holiday preparations keep us from preparing our hearts for the promises of hope, peace, joy and love that Jesus brings to our lives.

With only 13 days remaining until the 25th, we probably wonder if we’re ready for Christmas. Let’s get our priorities straight and make sure we’re ready for Christ!

The immense step from the Babe at Bethlehem to the living, reigning triumphant Lord Jesus, returning to earth for His own people – that is the glorious truth proclaimed throughout Scripture. As the bells ring out the joys of Christmas, may we also be alert for the final trumpet that will announce His return, when we shall always be with Him. [Alan Redpath]

He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever. [Revelation 21:4 (NLT)]

In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together; the leopard will lie down with the baby goat. The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion, and a little child will lead them all. [Isaiah 11:6 (NLT)]

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TITHING OUR TIME

You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. For God loves a person who gives cheerfully. [2 Corinthians 9:7 (NLT)]

white peacock butterflyWhile many people faithfully tithe by giving ten percent of their income to God’s work, I read an article in which the author not only tithes her money but also her time. With 168 hours in a week, she dedicates a total of 16.8 hours a week to serving God. These tithed hours are spent in things like Bible study, prayer, mentoring, visiting the house-bound, bringing food to the needy, or sending encouraging notes.

While measuring out time for God may work for the author, I’m not so sure it would work for everyone. Would we have to tithe 2.4 hours each day or could we pick and choose when to use our week’s hours? Would we be talking gross or net hours? If net, once we’d taken out the eight hours for sleep every night, only 112 hours would be tithable and only 11.2 hours a week would belong to God. Would people need to keep a time-card and clock in and out every time they said a prayer? I wonder if Sunday evenings there might a frantic effort to find a way to fulfill the remaining unused time. Would we call an elderly neighbor to chat while counting minutes until we could disconnect?

Some people might split hairs about what actually determines giving time to the Lord. If we’re bringing the trash bin back to the house anyway, does bringing up the neighbor’s bin count? If we take canned goods to the food pantry, do we get credit for the entire time spent at the grocery store purchasing them? If we talk about church when meeting a friend for lunch count or must it be someone we don’t especially like or to whom we witness? Does the time spent driving to and from our volunteer job at the resale shop count? If we’re taking someone to church or Bible study, can we count the entire drive time or just the extra time it took to pick them up? Do we get extra credit for watching monster children in the church nursery? Once those sixteen plus hours are used, could we then turn a deaf ear to people’s needs or skip praying? If we gave more than 16.8 hours in one week, could the extra time carry over to the following one? Once we’re done with our hours, can we turn a deaf ear or a blind eye to the needs surrounding us until the following week?

The Pharisees got so caught up in the minutia and letter of the Law that they missed its purpose and, like them, with all that nitpicking, it would be easy to get more concerned with tallying time than sharing God’s love. Instead of it being a privilege to give back to God, strictly tithing time could turn worship, prayer, study, and service into a chore. God loves a cheerful giver but this doesn’t sound very cheerful to me.

Admittedly, tithing time originally seemed like a good idea, especially since I spend more than 16.8 hours a week writing these devotions. I’d easily fulfill my weekly obligation at my computer so nothing more would have to be done for or with God! The Holy Spirit then gave me a kick in the behind and said, “You’re never done serving the Lord; I want all 168 hours of your week!” May we always remember that, other than our love, there’s nothing we can give Him that isn’t already His!

Do all the good you can, By all the means you can, In all the ways you can, In all the places you can, At all the times you can, To all the people you can, As long as ever you can. [Attributed to John Wesley]

So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith. [Galatians 6:9-10 (NLT)]

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