MARKED AND SEALED

One day when the crowds were being baptized, Jesus himself was baptized. As he was praying, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit, in bodily form, descended on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.” [Luke 3:21-22 (NLT)]

Baptism of JesusAlthough I don’t remember my Baptism as an infant, I do have a picture that tells me I wore a long white dress and a bonnet. Another picture tells me that I wore a shorter white dress, a hat instead of a bonnet and my first pair of nylon stockings and heels at my Confirmation thirteen years later. That, however, is about all I remember of making a public reaffirmation of my faith and recommitting to the baptismal promises made for me when I was a baby. Although I knew a lot about Jesus at the time, I’m not sure that I truly knew Him. I know Him now and, in a much simpler ceremony, I recently reaffirmed my Baptism in a way I will never forget.

The first Sunday after Epiphany is when many churches celebrate the Baptism of our Lord which is the case at one of the churches we attend. The hymns (When Jesus Came to Jordan, O Come and Dwell in Me, and On the Wings of a Snow White Dove) set the stage. The readings from Isaiah, Acts, and Luke kept our focus on Baptism and the pastor’s sermon continued the theme as she told of her visit to the Holy Land, standing where John may have baptized Jesus, and collecting water from the Jordan River. After the sermon, she offered us the opportunity to reaffirm our Baptisms when we came to the altar to receive Communion.

The Pastor held a chalice filled with water and, when we approached her, she dipped her finger in it, made the sign of the cross on our foreheads and said, “In Baptism you were marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever.” That she’d collected the water from the Jordan River made it even more meaningful. If there could be frosting on this cake, it is that we then received the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. With just two steps, I passed from the beginning of Jesus’s ministry—His Baptism when the Holy Spirit descended upon Him—to the night He was betrayed and instituted Communion. I accepted the wafer from a second person, dipped it in a chalice of wine held by a third and ate it while remembering the body that was given and the blood that was shed, not just for me, but for all of us.

It’s rare that we celebrate the two New Testament ordinances (what many call sacraments) together and I found it a moving experience. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the two rituals or practices that Jesus commanded (or ordained) the assembly of believers to observe. Baptism is not what a person does to be saved; our salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Baptism is something a saved person does. It symbolizes the death of the old life and our resurrection as a new person in Christ. While it’s only done once, it can be reaffirmed, as I did last weekend. Participating in Communion is another thing the saved person does. Unlike Baptism, however, taking Communion is something the saved person does throughout his life. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we walk as that new person in Him and connect not just with our Lord but with all with all believers, both past and present.

No matter how long ago we became Christians or the age at which we were baptized, let us always remember that we have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with His Holy Spirit forever.

Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all. All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer. [Acts 2:41-42 (NLT)]

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SACRIFICES

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. [Romans 12:1-2 (NLT)]

monarch butterfly - butterfly weedIf you ever visited the Mayan ruins near Cancun, Mexico, chances are you saw the remains of a stone ball court with sloping walls. Nowhere near as impressive as the Mayan pyramids, I didn’t even take a picture when I saw one. Two stone rings hang about 20 feet up the walls. A ball game called pok-ta-pok was played there. As in volleyball, players passed a solid rubber ball around by hitting it with various parts of their bodies. Unlike volleyball, however, they could not touch the ball with their hands. The goal was to get the ball through one of the rings.

This game was a reenactment of the Mayan creation story and had ritual significance. When prisoners of war were forced to play the game, it became a prelude to their sacrifice by decapitation, heart removal, or disembowelment. Since blood was considered nourishment for the gods, the sacrifice of a living creature was a powerful one and the sacrifice of a human was the most powerful.

When we hear the word sacrifice, we tend to picture something as brutal and gruesome as the Mayans, satanic cults, King Manasseh sacrificing his son to Molech, or even Abraham placing his son on an altar and bringing a knife to his throat. We think of sacrifice as suffering terrible loss: the destruction or surrender of something precious to us. Having a negative connotation, we tend to see sacrifice as unpleasant, involuntary, or punishing.

There was, however, another scenario to that Mayan ball game. In some cases, it was the winners who were sacrificed. Teams willingly played in the hopes of winning and being sacrificed to the gods. This sacrifice was a privilege that gave great honor to the player and his family. Although the game’s losers lived, they were disgraced and may have become slaves. While it still seems barbaric to us, rather than a giving up of something, that sacrifice was seen as a gain.

God clearly prohibited human sacrifice when he gave the law to the Israelites, yet Paul tells the Romans to be living sacrifices! This is neither a forced sacrifice nor one of punishment; we are not defeated warriors being sacrificed in shame. This is an enthusiastic sacrifice, like that of the Mayan warriors who chose to compete in that sacrificial game. Like them, we are victors but, unlike them, ours is not a one-time sacrifice resulting in death but rather a constant placement of our lives at God’s disposal. It is a joyful and willing sacrifice of worship—a consecration of our lives to Him.

Sunday, we sang these words from Frances Havergal’s hymn: “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.” As we sang, we offered Him our time, hands, feet, voices, lips, money, intellect, will, heart, and love. That is what it means to be a living sacrifice to God. Four years after writing her hymn, Havergal responded to her own words, “Take my silver and my gold,” by giving away all of her jewelry (nearly fifty items) to a missionary society. About this sacrifice, she wrote a friend of her “extreme delight” and said, “I don’t think I ever packed a box with such pleasure.” Her words, actions, and joyful attitude are an example of what it means to be a living and holy sacrifice,

Take my love, my Lord, I pour at thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.
[Frances R. Havergal (1874)]

Give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. [Romans 6:13b (NLT)]

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THE REASON FOR MORE THAN A SEASON

Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying. [Hebrews 2:14-15 (NLT)]

The Holy Family - Willow TreeAlthough Epiphany celebrates the magi’s visit to the Christ child, for many people it simply marks the official end to the holiday season. It’s the day the tree goes down, lights are removed, and nativity scenes get stowed for another year. British tradition holds that if you haven’t removed the holiday décor by January 6, you must leave it in place all year long to avoid misfortune. I don’t know about misfortune but, in our community, you’ll face a fine if holiday lights or decorations remain after this week!

This year, my five-year old grand helped me take down the tree and put away the Christmas decorations. Along with the ornaments, candle holders, stockings, and two Santas, we put away four nativity sets. As the little guy placed the Christ child in one of the boxes, he asked me why I had so many figures of baby Jesus. I reminded him that Jesus (not Santa) is the reason for the season and that we always want to keep Christ in Christmas.

After everything Christmas was packed up and put away, I realized a small resin figurine of the Holy Family remained on a shelf in the living room. The crates in the garage were filled to the brim and, just as on that first Christmas, there was no room anywhere for Mary, Joseph and the newborn King. Rather than having them spend the next eleven months in a high cabinet with assorted vases, I decided to keep them on my desk.

That figurine will serve as a reminder of how God deliberately chose to humble Himself: to be born of woman and live as a mortal man. That was God Himself who entered our world through a birth canal amidst blood and amniotic fluid. The baby who nursed at Mary’s breast and peed, pooped, spit up and drooled was God! He who created man was so helpless He couldn’t even roll over for the first few months of His life and had to learn to crawl and walk. The God who gave mankind the gift of speech had to learn to speak, the One who invented numbers had to learn to count, and He who spoke the law to Moses had to learn how to read His own words! The God who spoke light into existence had to light a candle at night and our omnipresent God had to walk to get from one place to another. The God who never gets tired, thirsty or hungry became a man who did. Jesus humbled Himself by living as a man and endured everything mankind does: blisters, bruises, colds, waiting, toothaches, bug bites, stubbed toes, hangnails, exhaustion, sunburn, skinned knees, and probably diarrhea. He even endured temptation but, unlike us, He remained sinless!

Sometimes, it’s easy to forget the human part of Jesus: that our infinite God chose to live in a finite world with all of its limitations. That figurine will remain on my desk this year as a reminder that our invincible and invulnerable God freely chose to live as a man so that He could die as a man in my place. Fully man and fully God at the same time, Jesus is more than just the reason for the Christmas season; He is the reason for our salvation. Christ belongs in far more than Christmas; He belongs in everything we think, say and do.

Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people.  Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested. [Hebrews 2:17-18 (NLT)]

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THE STAR – Epiphany

But you, O Bethlehem Eph′rathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel. [Micah 5:2a (RSV)]

star ornamentIn his gospel, Matthew writes of wise men from eastern lands who saw a ”star in the East.” This actually was a Greek term used in astrology at the time, en te Anatole, which meant “at the rising.” Now known as a heliacal rising, it describes a planet that rises above the eastern horizon shortly before dawn. Just moments after its appearance, it disappears in the sun’s glare. Better reflecting this astrological meaning, many Bibles translate the wise men seeing the star “as it rose.” While we’re not exactly sure what happened in the sky that drew the Magi to Judea, today’s astronomers have a pretty good idea.

To begin, we have to clarify a few of our misunderstandings about Christmas. While we think of Jesus’s birth as being in December, it probably occurred between March and October. Winters are cold and rainy in Judea; rather than sheep being in the fields in December, the shepherds would have sought shelter for their flocks. Moreover, the shepherds would have been keeping watch over their flocks at night only during lambing season (March and April). We also often think of Jesus’s birth as being the dividing line between B.C. and A.D. when, in fact, our calendar is about six years off.

Because there is nothing accidental or random about the universe, the movement patterns of the sun, moon, planets and stars can be observed and predicted. From what they’ve observed of these patterns, astronomers can also work backwards. Using a computer program to do just that, Rutgers University astronomer Michael Molnar found that, at twilight on March 20, 6 B.C., the moon eclipsed Jupiter. Then, on April 17, there was a heliacal rising of Jupiter and, at noon, the moon again eclipsed Jupiter. The heliacal rising continued until December 19 and, during that time, both Jupiter and Mars appeared in Aries, a constellation traditionally associated with Judea.

Picturing the magnificent star we often see depicted on Christmas cards, I’d wondered why the Magi were the only ones to take notice this stellar event. As Molnar explains it, these astronomical happenings were not spectacular because of their appearance but because of their rarity and would have had little significance to most people. The wise men, however, were not “most people.” Most likely astrologers from Babylon, they knew the prophecies that a king would be born to the house of David. Believing this king would be born when the moon eclipsed Jupiter, they probably had been searching the sky for years looking for signs like these.

While Molnar even offers a scientific explanation for the star appearing to stop, there also are other plausible explanations for this “star,” such as a close conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter. Whether it was an unexplainable miracle or an amazing natural phenomenon that miraculously coincided with Jesus’s birth, we know that these men saw something that made them believe a king had been born in Judea. Although we celebrate their visit to the Christ child on January 6 (often called Three Kings Day), they weren’t kings, we don’t know how many there were, and they probably arrived in Jerusalem anywhere from several months to two years after Jesus’s birth.

Although the events in the sky got them close to the new king, they had to stop and ask directions to actually find the child; it was only logical that they’d ask King Herod about this new king’s birth. Astrology was prohibited to the Jews and Herod had no astrologers but he did have priests and scribes. Knowing Micah’s prophecy, they directed the wise men to Bethlehem where they found Jesus.

Throughout Scripture we read that God speaks to us and reveals Himself in nature. It was through God’s amazing celestial creation that God revealed the birth of His son to these Gentile wise men. Yet, to find the king, nature wasn’t enough; they needed Scripture. The star told of His existence and got them close but it was the Word that got them there! Let us learn from these wise men. God reveals His power, majesty, and presence in nature but merely knowing that He exists is not enough. It is through Scripture that we actually will find and meet Him; it is though God’s word that we will come to know the King.

The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any that act wisely, that seek after God. [Psalm 14:2 (RSV)]

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TOSS ‘EM OUT – It’s a New Year

Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable. [Hebrews 4: 13 (NLT)]

Snow in SteamboatExplaining her years of addiction, Alice said, “It’s all because my parents moved from Illinois to Texas while I was in high school.” Was the move a contributing factor to Alice’s drug use? Maybe, but that was more than twenty-five years ago and has nothing to do with her failure to deal with her behavior today. Since high school, she’s abandoned a child, served time in prison, been in and out of a well-known residential rehab so often that she should have her own room, and is still lying, stealing, and using. Like many of us, Alice is simply blame shifting.

Yes, our experiences influence us but, as Christians, our past determines neither our present nor our future. By blaming our genes, nationality, appearance, or our over-indulgent or too strict parents, we abandon ownership of our failures and sins. We say we had too little or were given too much, that the spouse was inattentive, the judge was prejudiced, the teacher was inept, or we shouldn’t have moved. I’ve heard people blame their rudeness, stinginess, drinking, and tempers on their upbringing when they alone are responsible for their conduct today. Blaming other people or things implies that we aren’t accountable for our actions and leads us to think we aren’t responsible for changing that behavior.

Contributing factors, extenuating circumstances, and difficult childhoods may be of interest to a therapist but not to God. We may be able to deceive ourselves and others, but our excuses will never deceive Him! There will come a day when each one of us will be held responsible for our thoughts, words, and deeds and any excuses we use to justify our sins will disappear.

For both the non-believer and believer, there is judgment. No matter what the excuse, the person who has rejected Christ is doomed. When Alice meets God face to face, He will see into her and hold her accountable for her sins: the way she denied Him and wasted the precious life he gave her. While believers are saved by faith alone, they too will be judged. At the Judgment Seat of Christ, they’ll be asked to give an accounting of their lives in service to Him. When Alice’s parents (both believers) stand before God, He won’t hold them accountable for their move to Texas but He may well hold them accountable for the way they continually enabled their daughter to squander her life.

Excuses may not be outright lies but they keep us from facing the truth and, without facing the truth about ourselves, we won’t change. Our goal in life is to become more like Christ and we can’t do that by rationalizing our failings. This is a new year and a perfect time to do some serious self-examination. Are we victims of circumstance or victors in Christ? Are there any excuses we should toss out with the holiday trash?

Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:21-24 (NLT)]

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The 8th Day – NAMING HIM

All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” [Matthew 1:22-23 (NLT)]

reddish egret

In the first century, the prescribed time for a Jewish boy to be circumcised and officially receive his name was eight days after birth. Joseph and Mary brought their baby boy to be circumcised on the eighth day of His life; at that time, they named him Jesus. As with his cousin John (whose name meant “the Lord is gracious”), Jesus’s name was not chosen by His parents but was directed by a visiting angel.

Even if the God hadn’t chosen it, Jesus was the prefect name for this boy. In Hebrew, “Jesus” means “to deliver or to rescue” or “the Lord saves” and the angel told Joseph the child would save His people from their sins. The message in Jesus’s name was that God would deliver mankind. But, truth be told, the baby’s name wasn’t really Jesus! There was no letter J in either the Hebrew or Greek alphabets so our Savior’s name actually would have been Yeshua (a shortened form of Yehoshua) which translates from Hebrew to English as “Joshua.” The New Testament, however, was written in Greek and the Greek translation of Yeshua is Iesous which translates into English as “Jesus.”

While true meaning came with Jesus’s name, that’s not true of all names. My husband’s, for example, is Robert, which comes from the German Hrodebert. Although it means “bright fame,” he’s not famous and I’ve never seen his name in bright lights. He has other, more descriptive names, as well. I call him “honey,” our children call him “Dad,” the grands call him “Poppie,” his mother calls him “son,” his best buddies call him “friend,” and his employees called him “boss” (and maybe other things behind his back).

Just as my husband can be called many names, Jesus had other designations. Both Joseph and Mary were told that the baby would be called “Immanuel,” meaning “God with us,” but “Immanuel” wasn’t His only other name. Mary also was told that her child would be called both “the Son of the Most High” and the “Son of God.” Jesus referred to himself as “the bread of life, the good shepherd, the light of the world, the resurrection and the life, the true vine” and “the alpha and omega.” At Jesus’s baptism, John the Baptist called Him “the Lamb of God” and God called Him “my dearly loved son.” I imagine the Pharisees had several much less pleasant names for Him. Perhaps my favorite titles given to Jesus are from the book of Isaiah. They are the names we recently heard sung so joyfully from Handel’s Messiah: “Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” Jesus is, indeed, all of that and much more!

There are two hundred and fifty-six names given in the Bible for the Lord Jesus Christ, and I suppose this was because He was infinitely beyond all that any one name could express. [Billy Sunday]

For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His government and its peace will never end. He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David for all eternity. The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies will make this happen! [Isaiah 9:6-7 (NLT)]

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