CARPE DIEM – THE NEW YEAR

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. [James 4:13-14 (NLT)]

Hibiscus trionum - Flower-of-an-Hour
Several years ago, a young woman with Parkinson’s told me, “Every day I wake up, I realize that I’m the best I ever will be and it’s only downhill from here.” Rather than complaining, she was explaining how that knowledge made her determined to seize and delight in each day. Unlike her, I’m not suffering from a degenerative disease (other than age); nevertheless, her words continue to haunt me. No matter how healthy or happy we may (or may not) be today, we have no guarantee that tomorrow will be any better. Life is precarious and our tomorrows are uncertain. Yet, we so often squander the hours and days we’re given.

We regularly called a friend whose remaining time was counted in weeks. Having exhausted all treatment options, he was painfully aware of being on a steep downhill run. Like the woman with Parkinson’s, however, he refused to let that knowledge steal his joy in the present. In fact, his awareness of life’s fragility seemed to give him more appreciation of every moment with which God blessed him. Thankful for every morning he saw, he was determined to make that day his best one by rejoicing in its simplest gifts. Of course, being a man of faith, he knew that death does not have the final word and had no fear of what lay ahead of him. Nevertheless, until that time came (as it did last week), he continued to seize the day with all the joy and gusto he could muster.

A new year is fast approaching and, as I started making plans for 2023, I thought about the uncertainty of our tomorrows, not just for my friend, but for all of us. Why do we waste a single breath with anger, regret, resentment, or complaint? Why do we fritter away even five seconds in self-pity or worry when they should be spent in thankfulness and joy? Why do we see the day’s imperfections with twenty/twenty vision when we’re blind to the day’s blessings? The old saying, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life!” is only partially true. We all have expiration dates and today well could be the last day of our lives here on earth. Shouldn’t we make it the best one we’ll have?

Perhaps we can learn from the Hibiscus trionum. Called “Flower-of-an-Hour,” each flower blooms during a single sunny day and remains open only a few hours. Nevertheless, the flower makes the most of its brief time by turning to the sun, getting pollinated, providing pollen and nectar for bees and butterflies, and sharing its leaves with caterpillars and rabbits. Why don’t we make the most of our time in the sun? It shouldn’t take cancer or Parkinson’s to make us realize that today is the best day of our lives! It is the day the Lord has made—the precious day the Lord has given us in this precarious world—and we should rejoice in each and every moment of it!

Father, forgive us when we fail to make the most of the days with which you have generously blessed us. Help us to seize today with joy and thanksgiving and be glad in it. No matter what the future may bring, may each day be our best one ever!

The past, the present and the future are really one: they are today. [Harriet Beecher Stowe]

This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful to see. This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it. [Psalm 118:23-24 (NLT)]

Lord, remind me how brief my time on earth will be. Remind me that my days are numbered—how fleeting my life is. [Psalm 39:4 (NLT)]

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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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HANUKKAH (1) – FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS

It was now winter, and Jesus was in Jerusalem at the time of Hanukkah, the Festival of Dedication. He was in the Temple, walking through the section known as Solomon’s Colonnade. The people surrounded him and asked, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” [John 10:22-24 (NLT)]

Today is the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar: the first of the eight days of Hanukkah. Last night, our Jewish brothers and sisters lit the first of the Hanukkah candles. Hanukkah isn’t a Jewish version of Christmas and it’s no more about dreidels (spinning tops), gelt (foil wrapped chocolate coins), potato latkes, or gifts than Christmas is about presents, decorated trees, holiday lights, or Santa. Just as Scripture doesn’t require celebrating Christ’s birthday, it doesn’t require Hanukkah’s observance. Nevertheless, because they both recognize events of great significance to Christians or Jews, these holidays continue to be celebrated throughout the world.

The Hanukkah story is recorded in the books of 1st and 2nd Maccabees and celebrates events that took place in 164 BC. Having been mercilessly persecuted by their Seleucid rulers, the people of Judah rebelled when the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes vandalized the Temple and defiled it by erecting an idol on its altar and sacrificing swine. Three years after its desecration, Jewish guerilla forces (led by Judah Maccabee) managed to defeat an army of 40,000 to reclaim the Temple. After thoroughly purifying the Temple, they relit the golden lampstand (the menorah), rededicated the Temple, and celebrated for eight days. Known as the Feast of Dedication (hanukkah means dedication), this celebration also became known as the Festival of Lights in commemoration of the relighting of the seven lamps of the Temple’s menorah.

The books of the Maccabees, however, have never been part of the accepted canon of the Hebrew scriptures and, like other books of the Apocrypha, they won’t be found in Jewish Bibles or in most Christian ones. Nevertheless, the Feast of Dedication was celebrated by Jews in the 1st century and John tells us that Jesus was at the Temple in Jerusalem during its observance. It was at that time that He was asked point blank if He were the Messiah.

Having seen His miracles, the people knew Jesus’ power exceeded that of an ordinary man and, having heard His words, they knew His authority surpassed that of their religious leaders. Nevertheless, they were expecting a military leader like Judah Maccabee—someone who would free them from Roman oppression and Jesus hadn’t spoken of politics or rebellion. Saying that the proof of His identity lay in His works, Jesus accused his questioners of being unwilling to believe. Indeed, rather than being interested in the truth, many simply wanted to catch Jesus saying something that might lead to His arrest. After Jesus made a claim of divinity by saying, “The Father and I are one,” they accused Him of blasphemy. Indeed, if Jesus were a mere man claiming to be God, His words would have been blasphemous. Jesus, however, wasn’t a man claiming to be God; He was the second member of the Godhead who was claiming to be a man!  Wanting to stone Jesus for His supposed sacrilege, the people tried to arrest Him, but He escaped. In the end, however, He died for His truthful words.

How ironic that, at the very time people were remembering God’s deliverance of Israel from the pagan Seleucids, they wanted to kill the One who came to deliver them from Satan! Having been conquered again by Rome in 63 BC, the deliverance they were celebrating had been temporary; the deliverance offered by Jesus would last forever! While celebrating the Festival of Lights, they wanted to kill the One who actually was the Light of the World! The way, the truth, and the life stood right before them and yet some refused to believe!

When we see the brightly colored lights associated with Christmas, let us celebrate the One who truly brought God’s light into the world. Those who follow Jesus will never walk in darkness because He is the Light of Life!

Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” [John 8:10 (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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REMEMBERING

Let all that I am praise the Lord; with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name. Let all that I am praise the Lord; may I never forget the good things he does for me. [Psalm 103:1-2 (NLT)]


Any other Thanksgiving, we would have travelled to be with family or entertained friends and family here but my recent surgery meant neither of those options were feasible, so it was just the two of us. Thanksgiving, of course, really isn’t about a bountiful feast of turkey and the trimmings or even about family and friends (although it’s a blessing when we can share it with them). Thanksgiving simply is about giving thanks—and we can do that regardless of where we are, what we’re eating, or who we’re with!

My husband and I spent most of the day looking through old photo albums. Having been married over 55 years, there were decades of memories packed into those old pictures and, with every memory, came a reason to be thankful. From pictures of our first date to our family gathering this year, we had countless reasons for gratitude. We were most grateful for the many years we had with his parents (who lived to 96 and 102) and the years we continue to enjoy with our children and grands; many are not so blessed. Pictures of every holiday and celebration seemed to include our family around a table laden with food and we thanked God that we never went hungry or homeless. Seeing photos of friends who became family, many of whom are gone, made us thankful that God brought them into our lives. As we recalled the trips we took, the places we visited, the houses we owned, the amazing people we met, and the adventures we had, we were filled with gratitude for those opportunities. Red-letter days like graduations, birthdays, baptisms, weddings, and anniversaries were memorialized in photos and we were thankful for the arrival of so many milestones. There also were countless photos of unremarkable times—everything from playing euchre with Grandpa, carving pumpkins for Halloween, walking in the woods with a little one, grilling burgers, and playing house with the grands to snow ball fights, baking cookies, shooting hoops, children running under the sprinkler, and enjoying s’more around the campfire. In retrospect, those ordinary moments were extraordinary and we were thankful for each one!

Of course, we laughed at many of the outfits, hairdos, silly expressions, and crazy situations we saw in those photos. When we weren’t laughing, there were sweet tears of nostalgia leaking from our eyes. All in all, our quiet day of Thanksgiving was a joyful day of giving thanks as we remembered how blessed we have been every moment of every day of our lives. Granted, we didn’t have any photos memorializing the tears, anguish, pain, affliction, hospitalizations, and grief of over 55 years. Nevertheless, evidence that God’s powerful hand was with us in both the good times and bad was in those pictures. They gave witness to answered prayers of things like healing, sobriety, health, achievement, provision, forgiveness, restored relationships, safety, protection, guidance, and success—and we gave thanks.

God told the Israelites to remember His word and commandments, His judgement, the ways He dealt with sin, and the way He tested them while safely leading them through the wilderness. God also told the Israelites to remember His goodness, all He did for them, His wondrous works, and His abundant provision! Yet, when it came time to claim Canaan—a land where they’d eat crops they hadn’t planted and live in cities they hadn’t built—the Israelites forgot God’s wondrous ways, grew fearful, and wanted to return to slavery in Egypt!

It’s in remembering God’s past faithfulness and bountiful provision that we learn to trust God with our unknown futures. Remembering God’s many blessings also leads to thanksgiving and it is the act of giving thanks that leads to us to joy. Indeed, in spite of missing our loved ones, our quiet Thanksgiving was one of the most joyful holidays we’ve experienced!

This way of seeing our Father in everything makes life one long thanksgiving and gives a rest of heart, and, more than that, a gayety of spirit, that is unspeakable. [Hannah Whitall Smith]

But watch out! Be careful never to forget what you yourself have seen. Do not let these memories escape from your mind as long as you live! And be sure to pass them on to your children and grandchildren. [Deuteronomy 4:9 (NLT)]

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