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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TRUTH OR FICTION?

All scripture is breathed by God, and it is useful for teaching, for rebuke, for improvement, for training in righteousness, so that people who belong to God may be complete, fitted out and ready for every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NTE)]

Bible
I didn’t mean to spoil anyone’s holiday last month when writing about some common Christmas misconceptions in “The Real Story.” Like many others, I display historically inaccurate nativity scenes, sing “We Three Kings,” attend live nativities and Christmas pageants, and never will tire of the little ones, in their crooked tinsel halos, singing “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” Even when not historically accurate, Christmas practices like these have become a beautiful part of our traditional celebration of the Lord’s birth. That devotion’s purpose was to point out that, since  God’s story needs no embellishment, we need to know the difference between legend, tradition, and truth if our witness is to be effective.

It’s crucial to know what Scripture says because it’s not just Christmas traditions that can blur the line between truth and fiction. For example, even though Dan Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code  is entirely fiction, there are many people who believe it to be reality-based. While adding sex, intrigue, and conspiracy to the story of God’s redemption of mankind made for a best seller and popular movie, it’s a poor substitute for the truth found in God’s word! We can’t rewrite Jesus to make Him more human nor can we rewrite His message to make it fit our purposes. As Christians, we must be wary of hoaxes and untruths in any sort of media, whether they purport to be fiction or not.

Several years ago, a woman in our study group asked to lead the day’s prayer from a popular devotional. Because the book’s author originally claimed the book’s words came directly from Jesus, this woman believed she was directly quoting the Lord in the prayer and gave its words the same authority as Scripture. The problem wasn’t in the prayer’s insipid words, it was in the author’s claim of divine revelation—that they were Jesus’ words. None of us can speak for God and that prayer’s words were the author’s, not the Lord’s. If our witness is to be effective, we must know the difference between Spirit-led ideas and God’s word. No matter how inspiring, we must never put our words (or those of anyone else) in Jesus’ mouth. If we want to know what He has to say, the Bible (rather than a devotional) is where we should look!

In another small group, we were discussing the crucifixion when Joseph of Arimathea was mentioned. Scripture only tells us that he was a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin who obtained Jesus’ body from Pilate and, with Nicodemus, prepared it for burial before laying the Lord in his own tomb. One group member, however, related how Joseph later brought the gospel to Britain along with the Holy Grail and, when he stuck his staff into the ground, it miraculously turned into a thorn tree overnight. While Joseph was mentioned by early church historians and in apocryphal and non-canonical accounts, no additional details were ever found credible. He wasn’t even associated with the Holy Grail until his name appeared in a 12th century verse romance and the first mention of his evangelizing Britain wasn’t made until the mid-13th century! As for the Holy Grail—Scripture makes absolutely no mention of a Holy Grail because there was none; like this story of Joseph of Arimathea, it is nothing more than a mythical legend. Nevertheless, many Christians continue to confuse legend with gospel truth.

Because it is authoritative, true, and complete, Scripture alone is the basis for our faith, doctrine, and witness. Proverbs 30:5-6 and Deuteronomy 4:2 and 12:32 all speak to Scripture’s sufficiency with their warnings to neither add to nor take away from God’s word. Moreover, in spite of skeptics’ claims, every book that God intended to be in the Bible is there. Rather than being lost or hidden, any “missing” books were rejected because they were fallible religious/historical books rather than the inspired inerrant Word of God.

As Jesus’ witnesses, we are expected to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!” Of course, to do that we must know the truth and we can only do that by doing what the Bereans did—test what we hear and read by searching for the truth in Scripture!

And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth. [Acts 17:11 (NLT)]

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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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PEACE ON EARTH

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. [Isaiah 9:6-7a (NLT)]

Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” [Luke 2:13-14 (NLT)]


Isaiah prophesied a Prince of Peace, the angels proclaimed peace on earth to the shepherds, and Jesus promised us His peace but one glance at the news tells us that peace certainly doesn’t reign in our world today. We have wars, injustice, prejudice, intolerance, hate-filled speech, anger, abuse, violence, greed, and indifference.

In a world filled with conflict, it looks like God reneged on His promise of peace. It wasn’t God, however, who failed us—we are the ones who failed Him. Far too often God’s gift of peace is like a book we’re given but never take the time to read or a gift card we lose when tossing out the wrapping paper. While peace is His gift, we are the ones who have to implement it. Unfortunately, all too often, we allow fear, pride, bigotry, bias, arrogance, resentment, apathy, exasperation and wrath to shove peace right out of our hearts and lives.

Inner peace hinges on having a relationship with God. The angels brought their message of peace to the world because Jesus’ presence enables mankind to have peace if we are in relationship with Him. Inner peace, however, is not enough. For peace on earth, we must have peace with others and therein lays the problem. Our egos just can’t seem to accept the humility, selflessness, and devotion required to love the unlovable, touch the untouchable, turn the other cheek, treat our neighbors as ourselves, pray for our enemies, forgive, or have compassion on those in need (especially if they don’t look, talk, or act like us). As a result, true peace escapes us. If there ever is to be peace on earth, it must begin with us!

Thank you, Heavenly Father, for the gift of peace that came wrapped as a baby in Bethlehem. Forgive us for the way we’ve ignored this precious gift. Help us resolve the differences in our homes and families, community, nation, and world by bringing a portion of your peace to everyone we encounter. As we become your peace makers, may there be peace on earth.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace: where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen. [St. Francis of Assisi]

I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. [John 14:27 (NLT)]

God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. [Matthew 5:9 (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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