Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect


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Jesus: Alpha and Omega

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I spent the fall leading a group studying God’s covenants in the Old Testament and how Jesus fulfilled them in the New Testament. Learning about the ways God’s plan unfolds through the centuries has given me an even deeper appreciation for why we celebrate the birth of Jesus. He was there with God at the dawn of creation and will be there in the earth’s last days.   Jesus says it clearly in the book of Revelation:

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” (Revelation 22:13, NIV)

In spite of His lofty position, He was willing to become a baby and grow up in our fallen world because He loves us so desperately. He endured it all so we could be saved from our sins and so we could choose to have a relationship with Him.

As I’ve been reading daily advent devotions this season, a few have driven home this concept of Jesus as Alpha and Omega: the One who was there in the beginning and will be there in the end. I’d like to share two new things that struck me about Jesus and the Christmas story in a new way.

Old Testament Connection

Jefferson Bethke’s devotion Jesus, True Jubilee provides new insight on the lengthy list of Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1.                He points out that the names are organized in six groups of seven names. The next name, Jesus, was at the beginning of the seventh group of seven names. The Jews reading Matthew’s gospel would have understood the significance of this this:

“The idea of 7 7’s had been in the Jewish world for hundreds of years, as the sign of completing and celebration. More     specifically, it pointed to the party and celebration of Jubilee. The Jubilee year would be the completion of the sabbatical years. Every 7 years God commanded Israel to take an entire Sabbath year. Rest. Let the crops chill. Enjoy His presence. But every 7th cycle of 7 years (so every 49 years) Israel was to throw an incredible party that entailed a few things — large scale debt would get cancelled, slaves would be set free, and God’s presence would be particularly manifest in the year of Jubilee….

Now back to Matthew. You can see just how explosive the list of names now becomes. In a very creative and fresh way Matthew is saying that the entire year of Jubilee that the Old Testament laid down was simply an arrow or signpost pointing to Jesus as the true Jubilee. With Him beginning the 7th group of 7 Matthew is saying Jesus is ushering in the true Jubilee!

Our spiritual debts are cancelled. We as slaves to sin are set free. And God’s presence is particularly made manifest in the fact that God Himself, Jesus, is walking among us! …When He entered into our world, He was bringing with Him an entire world Himself — a new way to live, to act, to love, and to know God face to face.”  (Jesus, True Jubilee, Jefferson Bethke, http://www.faithgateway.com)

New Testament Connection

I never realized the Christmas story is also told in Revelation from a very different perspective. Author John Eldredge describes it in a devotion I read recently:

“Contrast your associations with Christmas night to this description given to us from heaven’s point of view:

I saw a woman… She was pregnant, and she cried out in the pain of labor as she awaited her delivery. Suddenly, I witnessed in heaven another significant event. I saw a large red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, with seven crowns on his heads. His tail dragged down one-third of the stars, which he threw to the earth. He stood before the woman as she was about to give birth to her child, ready to devour the baby as soon as it was born. She gave birth to a boy who was to rule all nations with an iron rod…

Then there was war in heaven. Michael and the angels under his command fought the dragon and his angels. And the dragon lost the battle and was forced out of heaven. This great dragon — the ancient serpent called the Devil, or Satan, the one deceiving the whole world — was thrown down to the earth with all his angels… And when the dragon realized that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the child. But she was given two wings like those of a great eagle. This allowed her to fly to a place prepared for her in the wilderness, where she would be cared for and protected from the dragon for a time, times, and half a time… Then the dragon… declared war against the rest of her children — all who keep God’s commandments and confess that they belong to Jesus. (Revelation 12)

Eldredge continues:  “Startling. Vivid. Disturbing for sure. And an essential part of the story.

I would pay good money to have a nativity scene with this included. Not only would it capture our imagination, I think it would better prepare us to celebrate the holidays and to go on to live in the story Christmas invites us into.

Yes — Christmas is the glow of candlelight on golden straw, and a Baby sleeping in a manger. It is starlight, shepherds in a field and the visit of magi from the east. But Christmas is also an invasion. The kingdom of God striking at the heart of the kingdom of darkness, with violent repercussions.” (Remember the Dragon: Christmas Is an Invasion, John Eldrege, http://www.faithgateway.com)

God’s Perfect Plan

The more I study the Bible, the more I’m in awe of God’s perfect plan and the way it all unfolds. The fact that God’s instructions for the Jews in the Old Testament would connect to Jesus’ place in the genealogy shows His attentiveness to detail. The idea that Jesus’ birth is described in the last book of the Bible from heaven’s perspective leaves me speechless.   Both concepts reinforce the fact that Jesus is the center of God’s plan to redeem people in every generation. The person of Jesus is subtly or overtly woven throughout every plotline contained in the Bible. What a privilege it is to hold His Word in our hands and to be able to study it. What a thrill it is to realize again that His Word is living and active, always revealing new truths.

I pray your Christmas celebrations are more meaningful as you consider Jesus, the Alpha and Omega who humbled Himself and came to earth for our sakes. What a blessing and privilege it is to be included in a love story that started when time began and will continue until it ends.

Click on the link for a Christmas worship moment with Chris Tomlin’s “Joy to the World (Unspeakable Joy).”

 

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Listen and Respond

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“Sweetie, it’s time to put down your iPad and set the table,” I say as I pull dinner out of the oven.

My son sits a few feet away, engrossed in a game on a tiny screen. He doesn’t respond, so I wait a minute and then try again.

“I think you’ve reached your time limit for today. Can you put that down now and set the table?”

After a long pause he looks up, “Sorry, mom, did you say something?”

I make the request again with a hint of irritation in my voice. “Seriously, buddy? This is the third time I’ve asked. Can you please turn that thing off and set the table? Dinner is ready.”

He’s annoyed and a little injured at my sharp response. “Geez, sorry. I didn’t hear you. I just needed to finish that one race or I’d lose all my points.”

The apology feels weak to me, but I sigh and let it go. Finally, he turns off his screen and sets the table, although he’s not pleased about the interruption.

I know this regular scenario with my son is not unique. While it would be easy to pick on kids “these days” or to highlight how the fixation with screens seem to be making people oblivious to their surroundings, these issues are not solely the fault of technology. They are a basic flaw of human nature and have existed since time began. We like to make our own agendas and aren’t fond of having them interrupted.  Sadly, one of the main relationships where this happens is between humans and God.

We simply tune out messages we don’t want to hear from Him or we hear them and choose not to respond. Other times, we miss the point and react begrudgingly and with plenty of protesting. Once in a while, we respond and are surprised to discover the joy and fulfillment that come when we put our own agendas aside and trust God instead.

I think that is why the Christmas story is so striking to me. The characters in it don’t do the normal things people do, which is probably why God chose to reveal Himself to them.

Let’s start with Mary. She’s a teenage girl who receives a visit from an angel telling her that her whole life is about to become incredibly messy and complicated. Instead of recoiling in fear or asking questions like: Why me? What am I going to tell my betrothed, Joseph? What will people think of me? She responds by saying: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said…My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.” (Luke 1:38, 46-49, NIV) Her response reveals a trust in God and an acceptance of His will that is both humbling and inspiring. Not only does she listen and respond, she praises Him for using her to accomplish His plan.

Next, we have Joseph, her betrothed.   Upon finding out the news that his fiancee is pregnant, he makes plans to divorce her quietly (Jewish betrothal was legally binding, not like engagements today). However, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and explains that Mary is miraculously pregnant with the long promised Messiah. When Joseph awakens, he doesn’t say: Why me? What are people in the community going to think about me going through with this marriage? Instead “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” (Matthew 1:24, NIV) Joseph listened and responded to God, going against the accepted and respected norms of his culture and community.

Third, we have the Shepherds watching over their flocks in a field outside Bethlehem. A great company of angels appears to them and tells them that the Savior has been born in Bethlehem. “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’ So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had ben told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed.” (Luke 2:15-18a)

It was probably not convenient to pack up and leave the field to find the Christ child. Yet, we don’t see the shepherds stopping to question whether it’s worth the effort. They respond to the angels and are so amazed by what they find that they can’t contain their excitement. After seeing Him, they immediately spread the word about the birth of Jesus. Despite being social outcasts, they don’t hesitate to share the miracle they’ve just witnessed with anyone they encounter.

Finally, we have the Magi. They’ve been watching the stars and travel from the east when they see the one indicating a King has been born. Imagine the time, effort and expense required for these Gentiles to embark on a journey to find the King of the Jews. Although they usually appear in nativity scenes, Scripture tells us that they arrived a while after Jesus was born (commentators range in estimates from a few months to two years).   After finding the Messiah, worshipping Him and presenting him with gifts, they have a similar experience to Joseph. “And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route” (Matthew 2:12, NIV). Upon waking, they don’t question whether God has spoken– they simply respond by taking action. Their obedience prevents Herod from discovering the whereabouts of the infant King that he plans to murder to eliminate the threat to his throne.

Olive woodcarvings of Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and Magi are carefully arranged around the infant King lying in a manger atop my family’s piano. As I walk past them this year, I keep thinking about the crucial parts each of them played in the Christmas story. Mary could have been angry, indignant or fearful about being singled out by God. Instead, she responded with humility and obedience, praising God for choosing to use her as part of His plan. Joseph could have let the fear of going against his culture cause him to abandon Mary and miss out on being Jesus’ earthly father. The shepherds could have ignored the angels and rationalized that leaving the fields to find the Christ child in town was too inconvenient and not worth the effort. What an amazing moment in God’s plan they would have missed. The Magi could have appreciated the star, but avoided the massive undertaking of finding the King it heralded. Yet they spared no expense for the simple privilege of worshiping God in the form of a tiny baby.

What would each of these characters have missed if they’d been too busy, fearful, doubtful, cynical, frugal or inconvenienced to listen to God? Maybe we display their likenesses prominently during the Christmas season because their actions were so contrary to human nature. They inspire us to consider anew where we might be ignoring God or failing to respond to His promptings. God can and will use anyone to accomplish His will. If we choose not to listen to Him, He will find other willing hearts. We’ll just miss out on what He wants to do in and through us.

My prayer this Christmas season is that my agenda won’t distract me from God’s promptings.   I pray that I’ll be so tuned into His Spirit that I’m ready to act when He nudges me. Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and wise men give us an example that is worth following throughout the year. It was messy, complicated, costly and inconvenient for them to listen and respond, but it changed the course of their lives and all of human history. I think it was worth it.

Will you consider one area where you can tune into God more this season? Once you’ve heard from Him, will you trust Him and respond? Life might not stay neat and orderly, but I think you’ll find being used by God makes all of that seem insignificant by comparison.

Click on the link for a profound moment of celebrating the miracle of Christmas with Bebo Norman’s song “Come and Worship.”


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The Lure of Lesser Lights

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Jesus tells us: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) The many lights that twinkle during the Christmas season celebrate this truth. I like to believe that all lights people hang at this time of year give Him praise, whether they were intended to or not. However, as much as I love this season, I often take my eyes off Jesus. Sometimes the true Light is only in my peripheral vision as I let lesser lights guide me during this hectic time of year.

The Bible reminds us that God’s word is a lamp for our feet and a light for our paths. (Psalm 119:105) However, spending quiet time with the Lord can get pushed aside as other things vie for our attention. So many shiny lights blink with urgency that it’s easy to let them guide us in place of God’s Word.

One of the biggest pitfalls for us is the lure of meeting expectations that abound during this season. All of those real or imagined hopes we try to fulfill lead us down a path to exhaustion.   We can spend the season trying to find the right gift, decorate the house exquisitely, bake everyone’s traditional favorites, wear the perfect Christmas outfit, or maintain cherished traditions. The season can become engulfed with fulfilling expectations. However, when we let them be the lamp to our feet and the light to our path, we often end up feeling physically and emotionally depleted.

Every day we have to make a conscious choice: we can choose to light our paths with the world’s expectations or we can choose to light our paths by spending time with the Lord in His Word. The light we choose to lead us influences the direction we go. One path leads to disappointment, the other to joy. The best way to keep Jesus in the center of the Christmas season is to keep Him central in our daily lives, especially when we feel too busy. Even if our formal Bible study groups are on a break for the holidays, our personal times with God can continue. It is the one thing that will keep us in alignment with Him during this busy season and into the New Year. Let’s not let the “urgent” tasks of the moment cause us to sacrifice what is ultimately most important.

Thinking about this reminded me of a letter my husband and I wrote to our boys last Christmas. We’d bought them new Bibles and wanted to explain their importance. Our goal was to help them understand the reason we make reading and studying the Bible a priority in our lives. Here is a short excerpt from that letter:

“Our hope and prayer is that as you get older, you will immerse yourself in God’s word and see that it is the jumping off place for everything in life. It will give you wisdom about your daily choices, your relationships, your future plans, and so much more. It will show you who God is and what He thinks of you. It will show you how to pray and what to pray for. It will equip you with the tools you need to engage in spiritual battle. It will give you confidence to obey God when it would be easier to follow the crowd. It will give you hope no matter what difficulty you find yourself in. It will tell you the truth when the world tells you lies. It will give you a firm foundation for making big life decisions. It will give you wisdom when you don’t know what to do. But, it will only do these things if you take the time to read it, study it, and talk about it with others. As you “marinate” in the Bible, the truth you discover will flavor who you are and impact the world around you. You will further God’s kingdom on earth as you live out the things you learn in the Bible.”

This Christmas season, let’s not let our Bibles gather dust on our shelves as we’re on a break from our usual routines and engrossed in the holiday season.   Before you turn on your computer or tablet, check your phone, unfold the newspaper, or click on the TV, try sitting quietly with Him for a few minutes at the beginning of your day.

-Read through the Christmas story in Luke 1 and 2 and Matthew 1 & 2 and prophesies about Jesus in Isaiah 9:2-7, Isaiah 42:1-9, Isaiah 55:1-13 and Micah 7:18-20.

-Review your most recent Bible study workbook and complete the parts you skipped during the busyness of the fall.

-Write a short prayer. Commit your day to God and trust Him to guide you. Ask the Holy Spirit to fill you.

The things that seem so urgent will still be there when you’re finished. The ones that need your attention will get done and the others won’t matter quite so much.

If these suggestions sound idealistic and unrealistic because of your hectic schedule, pray that God will multiply your time. He’s ready and waiting to spend time with you and will orchestrate your day to make it possible. All you have to do is ask.

Start a new tradition this Christmas and make time daily to let God’s Word light your path instead of letting expectations be your primary guiding light. Instead being disappointed and exhausted, you’ll find God’s Word leaves you fulfilled and energized. As His peace rests upon you, you’ll bless others in a way that outshines fulfilling even the grandest of expectations.

Click on the link to celebrate the true Light of Christmas with Chris Tomlin’s “Light of the World.”


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Only One Thing is Needed This Christmas

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My kids anticipate December with glee. I approach it like a set of tasks to be tackled. With the Christmas season upon us, the notepad I keep on my desk has an ever-growing list scrawled on it. As soon as I cross something off, I’m adding several more things that need to be done. I feel the joy and wonder of the Advent season only after I’ve accomplished everything that “needs” to be done, which usually happens sometime around midnight on December 24.

My endless list making, shopping, decorating, and baking often cause me to miss the best part of the season: focusing on the significance of Jesus’ arrival on earth. This incessant busyness reminds me of the story of Mary and Martha:

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’

Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’” (Luke 10:38-42, NIV)

Martha missed out on enjoying Jesus’ presence in her home because she was distracted making preparations for Him. When I imagine Him responding to Martha’s complaint about Mary, I picture Jesus speaking the words with love and tenderness. Rather than scolding her, I believe He wanted to change her perspective and show her what really matters.

Like Martha, we often make things more complicated than they need to be- especially when planning for Christmas. When our preparations make us worried and upset, it’s time to take a step back, get a new perspective and simplify. Sometimes we’re inspired to do something one season and when the next Christmas rolls around we feel obligated to do it again. Then, instead of being motivated by love, we’re trying to please people and cater to their expectations.   Soon, the gift or activity or recipe that started as an inspiration becomes a tradition we feel required to keep forever more.   I wonder how many of us maintain traditions that have lost their meaning, just because of our own expectations or the desire to please others.

Thinking about this reminds me of a lesson I learned after many years of trying to celebrate my son on his birthday. Starting when he was one year old, I would plan celebrations for him that included a large number of guests and activities. I put in a lot of effort orchestrating events that would be fun, food that would please a crowd and gifts that would delight him. Yet at each of his birthday parties, I noticed he was anxious and overwhelmed. He rarely seemed to be enjoying himself despite being surrounded by large numbers of friends and family members. Year after year, I tried to make special celebrations for him, but the outcome always seemed the same.

Finally, when he’d reached fifth grade, I was tired of planning elaborate parties and suggested he choose one friend to invite on a special outing. Rather than being disappointed about not having a big party, he seemed thrilled about spending time with a good friend at a place he enjoyed. The only thing that carried over from his previous celebrations was the type of cake he wanted me to bake. It was the easiest party I ever planned. It was also the most enjoyable one not only for my son, but for the rest of our family too. He still gets a dreamy look in his eyes and murmurs, “That was awesome” when we reminisce about it.

I wonder sometimes if it’s the same with Jesus. Does He watch us scurry around getting ready for His birthday and think, just stop and be with me! Does He look at our need to please others with the perfect gift and feel sad that we’re denying ourselves the time to enjoy His presence? Are we so busy making exterior preparations for Christmas that we are forgetting the interior preparation of our hearts?

I know from other seasons of busyness that when I spend time with Jesus first, everything else has a way of falling into place. Tasks that are important get completed and the rest just stop mattering so much. My prayer as we enter the Advent season is that we will make time for the “one thing that is needed.” When we focus on Emmanuel, God with us, we remember the true reason we celebrate this season.

Click on the link to hear Third Day’s song, “Christmas Like a Child.” I hope the lyrics will stir a deep joy in you, especially if you’ve lost your way and Christmas has become more of a chore than a celebration. Listen and remember that it’s all about Jesus. Let’s pray that everything we do this season will be motivated by our love for Him.