Christmas Focus: The Christmas Gift
What we want for Christmas is often very different from what we get for Christmas. It’s been that way from the very first. The chosen people wanted a powerful Messiah who would smite their enemies. Instead they got a helpless newborn who when grown would tell them to love their enemies. For some this big surprise meant a big disappointment. For hundreds of millions of others over twenty centuries it has meant hope – the greatest Christmas gift of all. Once again, what God sends is far better than what people ask for.
Easter is the feast of fulfillment – our redemption through the risen Christ. It is the culmination of the promise of Christmas. But at Christmas all of that seems so far away. Our journey with Jesus has just begun. Everything is new again.
In the darkest days of the solar year, we celebrate a God who humbled himself for us. We honor the obedience and acceptance of Mary and Joseph. We rejoice with the shepherds and exalt with the angels. The miracles, the parables, the sacrifice…they are all ahead of us. What we have now is hope, the very first and the very best Christmas gift. And that’s a lot.
What’s so great about hope? You can’t touch it. You can’t see it. You can’t buy it or sell it. But try living without it. G. K. Chesterton wrote that: “Hope is as unreasonable as it is indispensable.” Without hope we would be crushed by disappointment, by disease, by all the twists and turns of real life. In a troubled marriage, in addiction, in sin and in suffering, hope is our refuge. It is the wellspring of our courage. Hope lifts us up. It banishes fear. It opens us to possibilities.
That’s because hope has such a solid foundation. Hope is the confident expectation of God’s love and the blessings that flow from it. Where do we find hope? We don’t. It finds us. It is one of God’s gifts of grace. But unlike so many other Christmas gifts, hope does come with batteries – the grace of God fresh and alive in the new born Jesus. All we have to do is ask for it, accept it, embrace it, thank God for it and share it.
Hope is not a gift we sock away for a rainy day. We have to keep it alive and vigorous. We have to exercise it. We must live in hope for hope to live in us. While hope comes with these rigid requirements, the other option is pretty dismal. As preacher Gilbert Brenken observed: “Other men see only a hopeless end, but the Christian rejoices in an endless hope.” It reminds us that as successive Christmases race by, we are hurrying home to where we belong, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection. “Esperanza” is the Spanish word for hope. It is such a lovely word. It captures the soaring spirit of hope – the ultimate confidence of a Christian life.
This Christmas let’s really enjoy the gift of hope. With God’s other graces, it is already in you. Reach into your spiritual closet. Take it out. Try it on. Get comfortable with it. Take it for a test drive. Share it with the family. Show it to the neighbors. Ask God to keep hope fresh every day.
The Venerable Bede left us this simple devotion to pray each morning: “O Christ, our Morning Star, come and waken us from the grayness of our apathy and renew in us your gift of hope.”
Rex et legifer noster,
et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos,
Domine, Deus noster.
our King and our Lord,
the anointed for the nations
and their Savior:
Come and save us,
O Lord our God.
“God helps those who help themselves.” It almost sounds biblical. Some people think it comes from the Bible, but it doesn’t. It’s actually unbiblical, even anti-biblical. In truth, God helps the helpless, those who cannot help themselves. God saves those who cannot save themselves.
Prisoners can do nothing to free themselves; the dead can do nothing to raise themselves. God must come to us to help us. He must reach down to us, we cannot reach up to Him. He must come and be with us.
The promise of this last night of Advent is the promise of Immanuel - God is with us. Immanuel was the word-sign spoken by Isaiah to a panic-stricken king. Ahaz’s enemies had struck an alliance. Rezin, the king of Syria, and Pekah, the son of Remaliah, the king of Israel had struck a deal. Ahaz was the odd man out. He cut a deal of his own with Tiglath Pileser, the king of Assyria. That would prove to be Ahaz’s undoing. Assyria would be like a flooded river pouring over its banks, sweeping away Judah in the process.
Isaiah tried to warn Ahaz, and encourage him that God was with Him. “Rezin and Pekah are nothing but smoldering stumps under the foot of God’s judgment. They have a plan but it will not stand and will not come to pass. You must trust Yahweh; take Him at His word. But if you will not believe, surely, you will not be established.” Isaiah offered a sign to Ahaz, but Ahaz refused. It was the sign of Immanuel. “The virgin is conceiving and bearing a son and shall call his name Immanuel.” In nine months Ahaz would know that God was with them. In ten to twelve years, before little Immanuel knew right from wrong, Rezin and Pekah would be history. Immanuel would eat curds and honey. Good and bad news rolled into one. Agricultural land would be laid waste. Crops destroyed. But there would still be plenty of milk and wild honey. Wilderness food. It is back to the wilderness for God’s people. But God is with them.
Isaiah had a son. His name, written in stone on a large tablet was this: Maher-shalal-hash-baz. “The spoil speeds, the prey hastens.” Destruction is at the door. There are always two sides to God’s being with us - destruction and salvation. Immanuel and Maher-shalal-hash-baz. He is with us to save, and He is with us to destroy whatever gets in the way of His saving us. When we pray “Thy will be done,” we call upon God’s good and gracious will to save us. We are also calling Him to break and hinder every will that opposes his good and gracious will, including our own.
God’s last word is not death, but life. Not Maher-shalal-hash-baz, but Immanuel. “The Lord is with you,” the angel said to Mary. And the Virgin conceived and bore a son. Jesus. Immanuel. God with us.
God is with us in His Son Jesus. He is the God who gets involved, who puts on the uniform and plays the game. He doesn’t sit by watching us make a mess of things. He doesn’t watch helplessly from His throne heaven while we destroy each other here on earth. He sets down his crown, takes off his royal robes, puts on the workclothes of a servant. He takes on our humanity. And in our humanity He humbles himself to death on a cross. Immanuel works and weeps and suffers and sleeps and bleeds and dies. He is with us in every facet of our lives. Nothing is left out of His being with us to save us.
The signs of Immanuel are all around us. Advent calls us to them and invites us to see them anew. Where is God with you to save you? In the water of your Baptism. There He is with you to make you His own - the Spirit descending, the voice of the Father, Jesus at your side, with you always to the end of the age. You are joined to Jesus’ death in Baptism, and He is joined to you.
He is with you in His Supper, His own body and blood, born of Mary, sacrificed on Calvary, raised from the dead, enthroned in heaven yet humbly mangered in bread and wine for you. There is no greater His being Immanuel for you.
Jesus is Immanuel, the only Immanuel there ever was, the only one there ever will be, the only one you need. When He appears in glory, He will be the same Immanuel who came by the Virgin, who laid in a manger, who died for you on the cross, who come to you now in His Baptism, Word, and Supper. The good news, on this last night of Advent, is that you are never alone as one of the Lord’s baptized believers. God is with you. Immanuel.
-- by Pastor William Cwirla, ed. by Deacon J
O Rex Gentium/O King of nations
O Rex Gentium,
et desideratus earum,
qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.
O King of nations,
the ruler they long for,
the cornerstone uniting all people:
Come and save us all,
whom you formed out of clay.
Jesus is both King and Cornerstone. As King, he governs by His gracious reign of forgiveness and peace as the King of kings. As Cornerstone, He sets all the angles square and unites His church together as one in spite of our sad divisions.
We all long for a leader (need I stress this during these recent days?). We need a leader with courage, integrity, honesty, humility, sound judgement and just reasoning. We long
for a leader with these qualifications. So did the Jewish people! When Christ arrived, we gained not only a leader of the people [all people] but experienced the incarnation of ultimate divine Love.
Christ became the cornerstone upon the early church was built. Even though Christianity has taken on new dimensions, concentrations and expressions, Christ remains the cornerstone, essential for the foundation. We can build on Him because we were made human and through Baptism are made children of the most Holy God. May we be strong, dependable stones - part of our community, our country, our world. May we serve each other worthy and well and may Christ uphold our lives and spirits!
Two YouTube Offerings
Christmas and presents ... there's long been a tension for the devotional Christian about the commercialization of Christmas.
Debbie of Hodgepodge forwarded me a YouTube video clip and song based on a mall encounter: http://www.youtube.com/watch_popup?v=OExXItDyWEY&vq=medium
A Facebook friend posted another that hit home: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXgH8ZIz9jQ&feature=youtu.be
I hope you enjoy one or both. Send in your comments!!!!
O Oriens/O Dayspring
splendor lucis aeternae,
et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina
sedentes in tenebris,
et umbra mortis.
splendor of light everlasting:
Come and enlighten
those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death.
Today is the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.The winter soltace occurs at December 22, 12:30 A.M. EST and the day will begin to lengthen once again. Though it is the darkest day, the Advent candles burn brightly. The church calls from the darkness to her Lord, her Dayspring from on high, who is “the joyous light of glory.” This year last night was the first day of Chanukah, the festival of lights. So much Divine Light!
God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness. God spoke Light into the darkness. Light is life. Without light there is no life. Darkness is silent death, and distance from God. Darkness cannot produce light; it is formless, a void, empty. Light must be spoken into darkness from the outside.
God sent His Son, the light of the world thrown into darkness. He is the light no darkness can overcome, the light of God’s love, His promise of mercy. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” Jesus is the Morning Star, the Dayspring, the signal of the coming morning. Day is at hand. The Dayspring has risen. The son of righteousness rises with healing in His wings. He was born in darkness that we might be reborn as children of the light. He died in darkness that we might live in the light of His life. He rose at dawn to usher in the new day of His resurrection. He shines into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who works through the Word, dispelling the darkness, killing the death, bringing light and life.
Advent calls us out of the darkness to live in the warm brightness of light of Christ, to be the children of the Light that we are. The night is over. The Day has dawned. He has cast the bright beams of His light upon us.
-- adapted from the meditation by Pastor William Cwirla
O Clavis David/O Key of David
O Clavis David,
et sceptrum domus Israël,
qui aperis, et nemo claudit,
claudis, et nemo aperuit:
veni, et educ vinctum
de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris,
et umbra mortis.
O Key of David and scepter of the house of Israel,
you open and no one can close,
you close and no one can open:
Come and rescue the prisoners
who are in darkness and the shadow of death.
Keys represnt authority. The one who has the keys has authority. Shebna was King Hezekiah’s chief-of-staff. He held the keys to the palace. He misused his authority by having his tomb carved where kings were buried and to enrich himself at his master’s expense. The servant wanted to be king. And so he was stripped of his office, and Eliakim was called to replace him. Shebna had to turn in his keys. It’s a warning to those who hold authority not to use it for personal profit.
God used this little bit of palace power politics (see above) to prophesy something greater in Isaiah's words: “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” These words are applied to Christ in the Revelation. He is the one “who has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens.”
Turning from God's love closes doors on us. It makes our lives a prison house of fear. Like the disciples in the upper room on Easter evening, we are locked up into ourselves, locked away from others. We are in bondage - in darkness - and cannot free ourselves. No matter how much we struggle against the chains and rattle the bars, we are unable to break out of the prison.
But Christ has come and entered the prison house. He turns the key to our prison cell. He is the key, the key that unlocks us from the Law and breaks the chains of death that bind us in fear. He sets us free to live as free children in His free city.
Jesus is the key of David, who opens and no one can close, who closes and no one can open. And He entrusts the keys to His church, to bind and loose from sin in His name. He established the office of the keys in the church, that is, the office of priestly ministry. Through the reconciliation of a penitent, a priest turns the key that unbinds you from your sin and frees you. No pastor does this on their own authority, but by the authority of the church and of the One who is the Key of David.
Advent helps us recall and rejoice at being forgiven, of living in the freedom of forgiveness, of delighting in the Key of David that releases us from the confinement of sin.
-- adapted from the meditation by Pastor William Cwirla
O Radix Jesse/O Root of Jesse
O Radix Jesse,
qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos,
jam noli tardare
O Root of Jesse,
standing as an ensign before the peoples,
before whom all kings are mute,
to whom the nations will do homage;
Come quickly to deliver us.
“In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious(Isaiah 11:10)." Leave it to the Lord to make a lowly root his banner, the flag at which all kings will be silent and all nations will bow. Roots are best left unseen, underground, invisibly drawing up nutrients from the soil, feeding the branches which produce leaves and fruit. Expose the root and the whole tree dies. But cut down the tree even to a stump and it will return, as long as the root is alive.
The Root of Jesse is God’s Promise that David’s throne would stand forever. That a son of David would establish his kingdom and sit on his throne. That promise is the root of Israel. Even when the tree was cut down, when Israel was reduced to a lifeless stump, the Promise lived in the Root. “Then shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots (Isaiah 11:1)."
"I am the root and offspring of David,” Jesus said in the the last of His I AMs (Rev 22:16)." He was lifted up on the tree of the cross, a banner for the nations to see. As Moses lifted up the bronze serpant in the wilderness as an emblem of healing, so the Root of Jesse was lifted up the cross.
We have been grafted to the Root of Jesse in Baptism. We must take care that the graft dry doesn/t dry out; keep it immersed in baptismal water. Draw on His forgiveness, His life, His salvation. We are living branches grafted to the living Root of Jesse. Jesus is our Vine and our Root. Apart from Him we can do nothing. Joined to Him, believing in Him, we may bear much fruit.
Wait patiently on this Root of Jesse. He is the source of our life, who now feeds and forgives us, who nourishes and sustains us, and will come to raise us.
-- Pastor William Cwirla, ed. by Deacon J; photo by Harry Talpin
et dux domus Israël,
qui Moyse in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.
O Adonai and Ruler of the house of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the burning bush
and gave him the Law on Sinai:
Come with an outstretched arm and redeem us.
Adonai is Hebrew for Lord. Lord is the substitute term for Yahweh, the sacred, saving, Gospel name of God under the old covenant. “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘Yahweh the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’” This is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” To say Adonai is to say Yahweh, the Name that saves.
“Whom shall I say sent me? What is His Name?” To have the Name of God is to have God Himself. “Tell them Ehyeh asher ehyeh sent you.” I am who I am. Ehyeh. I AM. YHWH. He is the One who is. The God whose saving Name is a verb. His Name is action.
Every day, in the morning and in the evening, the Name of the Lord was proclaimed:
“Shema Israel, Adonai eluhenu, Adonai echad.” Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD alone. There is none other like YHWH. (Deut. 6:4)
Where God’s Name is, there He holy ground. The Lord is present. Where His Name is, there is Gospel fire, fire that burns but does not consume. His burning love and passion to save. Where His Name is, there He is mighty to save. “I am Yahweh, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment, and I will take you for my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am Yahweh, your God.”
“Hail, O favored one, Yahweh is with you,” the angel said to Mary. “You will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, Y’shua. Yahweh is salvation. Jesus incarnates the Name of God. He is YHWH in the flesh. “Before Abraham was, I AM,” Jesus said.
To have a Lord is to have a redeemer. Jesus is our Adonai, our Redeemer. We didn’t make Him Lord. He became our Lord by dying and rising for us, by baptizing us into His death and resurrection. He will come to raise the dead. Then we will confess what we now confess by faith: Adonai Y’shua Hamashiach. Lord Jesus Christ.
-- by Pastor William Cwirla, ed. by Deacon J
Stoking the Advent Flame by Snuffing Out Fear
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us; it's within everyone.
And as we let our light shine
we unconsciously give other people
permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear
our presence automatically liberates others.
- Nelson Mandela, quoted in Lost in Wonder: Rediscovering the Spiritual Art of Attentiveness
by Esther de Waal ( Collegeville , Minn. : The Liturgical Press, 2003).