Christmas Day

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:23)

From the garden to the cross he remains with us.  In 2020, the year that will define a generation, he remains faithful.  The miracle of Christmas is that God became flesh and dwelt among us.  So vulnerable, so innocent.  We needed to care for him.  The way to power is through humility; to path to resurrection is through the cross.

We have all journeyed on the way of the cross during this advent.  Ironic—usually we’re preparing for the excitement of getting together with families.  We see December 25th as the endpoint of weeks or preparation and anticipation.  But in many of our homes, it will be very silent, particularly for seniors and singles.  We will need to invite the Christ child to sit with us by the fire, near the tree, and comfort us, as he always has, with “I will never leave you or forsake you. . . Come unto me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  He weeps with us.  He rejoices with us, and he promises us a new day, when there will be “no more tears, no more dying, no more parting.”

From our family to yours:  “Merry Christmas”

                                                                                                                     “Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay;

Close by me forever, and love me always.

Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,

And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.”  Amen

Mindi Oaten’s painting “Messiah the King: Promise Fulfilled” is from God’s Garden of Grace collection.

Advent Day Twenty-Six: Dry Bones

“I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. . . I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act, says the LORD.” (Ezekiel 37:13)

Our God is the God of the living, not the dead.  He brought back the Jews from exile and established them in Canaan after the destruction of Jerusalem.  They were reborn as a nation.  Even more recently, in 1948, the nation of Israel was created in one day by the United Nations, and Jews from around the world adopted it as their homeland. 

Prophets were not honored in the Old Testament, but they lit the way to Jesus.  John the Baptist was the last prophet, and even he lost his life for speaking the truth.  Hebrews  11 describes prophets as those. . .”of whom the world was not worthy.” We are encouraged to learn from their example: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12 1-2)

During our Advent journey, we have discovered how God planned a way to reestablish a relationship with all peoples from the very beginning.  He is hidden to those who choose not to seek him, but as the “hound of Heaven,” he chases us.  Through times of joy and sorrow, he waits to be invited into the conversation.  His grace permeates scripture.  He is the good shepherd, seeking the lost. 

Christmas is the time to see the Christ child with new eyes.  Draw near to the manger.  Let your senses lure you into the scene.  As a child, listen to the angels and be amazed as the sky explodes with light.  Quiet yourself to hear the still small voice that whispers, “This is most certainly true.”  Merry Christmas.

“LORD, you have not left us without first-hand witnesses who proclaimed the message of good news from the very beginning.  Thank you for those who remained faithful to the great “I AM:, preserving the covenant for all generations.  Most of all, thank you for keeping your promise to send us a Savior to restore all people in the Kingdom of our God.  You are the King of King and Lord of Lords.  We come to the manager and humble ourselves before you.  Accept our praise.”  Amen

Mindi Oaten’s painting “Our Revelation” is from God’s Garden of Grace collection.

Advent Day Twenty-Five: In Our Darkness

“They shall be my people, and I will be their God.  I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me for all time, for their own good and the good of their children after them.  I will make an everlasting covenant with them. . . Give thanks to the LORD of hosts, for the LORD is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Jeremiah 33:38; 33:11)

Jeremiah was the weeping prophet.  He had the unenviable task of chronicling the fall of Jerusalem and marching with the exiles into Babylonian captivity.  Even before it happened, he warned the people of what was coming and chastised them for their apostasy and pride.  For his reward he was thrown into a cistern and left to die.  That’s no way to treat a prophet!

No one wants to hear bad news.  Particularly if it reflects on our character or judgement.  So, we ignore it and focus on the positive.  But, in the dark of the night, those memories haunt us: “From on high he sent fire; it went deep into my bones; he spread a net for my feet; he turned me back; he has left me stunned, faint all day long.” (Lamentations 1:13)

But God does not remain silent.  One of the most encouraging verses in the Bible is found in Jeremiah 29:11: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” Fire not only destroys, it purifies. 

On a long flight back from Europe my husband closed his eyes and reviewed pivotal events in his life.  Although there many points of suffering and pain, he was reminded that the bad did not overcome the good, and his heart was filled with praise.  He came to the end of the journey with hope rather than disappointment. Some see suffering and pain as an indictment against God:  either he is powerless to do anything about it, or he enjoys seeing people suffer.  Neither is true.  Pain sharpens our focus and either draws us closer to God or pushes us away.  For those who trust him in the darkness, “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”  Or as Job said, “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth.” (Job 19:25)

“LORD, light our darkness and assure us that we are not alone.  Give us strength to endure hurts, but remind us of your goodness as well.  We remember that you came to participate in our suffering.”  Amen

Mindi Oaten’s painting “God of Faithfulness” is from God’s Garden of Grace collection.

Advent Day Twenty-Three: The Love Story

“I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.  . . With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.  He brought me to the banqueting house, and his intention toward me was love. . . I am my beloveds, and he is mine” (Song of Solomon)

The Song of Solomon was a favorite amongst monks and mystics.  The description of a passionate love affair was spiritualized to represent the love of Christ for the church.  It can also be viewed as a celebration of the love between a man and a woman.  The body is a beautiful creation that allows us to experience the world in all its beauty:  Colours and patterns for the eyes; music and rhythm for the ears; texture to touch; sweetness to taste; perfume to smell. 

C. S. Lewis put it this way: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Jesus came in the flesh.  He experienced the beauty of the sunrise, the warmth of a summer breeze, the fragrance of flowers in the spring, and the love of companions.  We don’t want to shed our bodies, but to have them clothed in immortality.  “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory. . . the glory as of the only begotten of God the Father” (John 1:14).  Rather than denying the flesh, we are to embrace it and give thanks for life. My father recently said, “The day I got married was the happiest day of my life.”  God’s love for us is as passionate as the love of a bridegroom on his wedding day. 

Christmas heightens our senses.  It is the gift of love from the Creator to us.  “For God so loved the world that he gave us his only begotten son.” (John 3:16)

“LORD, give us eyes to see and ears to hear during this Christmas season.  You fill us with a passion for life.  Thank you for coming to us in the flesh. Embrace us with your love.”  Amen

Mindi Oaten’s painting “God of Passion” is from God’s Garden of Grace collection.

Advent Day Twenty-Four: The Messiah

Every November I revisit the Book of Isaiah.  It is beautifully written prose and poetry that refers to the coming Messiah.  It is frequently referenced in the New Testament, particularly as it relates to Jesus.  Many of the phrases are familiar to us because they are read at Christmas.  Let the words encourage you this Christmas.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  The Spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. (11:1-3)

A highway will be there, a roadway, And it will be called the Highway of Holiness. . . the redeemed will walk there, And the ransomed of the LORD will return And come with joyful shouting to Zion, With everlasting joy upon their heads They will find gladness and joy, And sorrow and sighing will flee away. (35:8, 10)

The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. (53:11)

“Comfort, o comfort my people,” says your God. . . A voice cries out:  “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”. . . Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (40:1, 3, 5, 28-31)

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. . . (43:1-2)

Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (40:31)

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! . . . See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy one of Israel, for he has glorified you. (55:1, 5)

“LORD, comfort us with these words.”  Amen

Mindi Oaten’s painting “Perfect Truth” is from God’s Garden of Grace collection.

Advent Day Twenty-Two: There is Coming a Day

“As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames. . . As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven.  And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.  To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.  His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (Daniel 1:9, 13-14)

Before Jesus was born, prophets used images and allegory such as “branch”, “seed”,  “shepherd”,  or “king” to describe the coming Messiah.  Once we met him in the flesh, all these allusions made sense. When he ascended to heaven, 40 days after his resurrection, the angels told his followers: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way  as you saw him go into heaven.”  (Acts 1:11)

The church has expected Jesus to return again since that time.  In fact, the earliest believers expected it to happen in their lifetime.  As the years went on, the promise dimmed and believers resumed their lives.  But the promise still stands.  Daniel and Revelation use apocalyptic language to describe his second coming.  It is a coronation of the King of Kings; the marriage feast of the lamb to the church, his bride.  A time when all will be made right, the devil will be defeated, and  justice will reign.  “There shall be no more tears” and “no more death”.  Heaven and earth shall be made one.  The dead in Christ shall rise and we will live with him forever. 

How exactly this will happen is not clear to us, but just as surely as he came in the flesh to Bethlehem two thousand years ago, he will return to us on the final day.  Noone expected him on that quiet night in Bethlehem.  The event went unnoticed for decades until it was revealed during his ministry, death and resurrection.  God fulfills his purposes in his time and his way.  What we do know is that there is an end to this cosmic struggle between good and evil.  Sin and death will be destroyed, and Jesus will be declared the one true God.  What a day it will be when “every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is LORD.” 

“LORD, we know that our minds and imagination are limited by our experience.  We cannot conceive of a time when there will be no more pain, evil or death.  We desire to be reunited with our loved ones, but the only time resurrection happened was 2,000 years ago.  Help us not to lose heart as we wait for that final day.  It will come as surely as it did the first time.  We wait in hope.”  Amen

Mindi Oaten’s painting “God of Eternity” is from God’s Garden of Grace collection.

Advent Day Twenty-One: Return to the LORD

“Come, let us return to the LORD; for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up. . . Let us know, let us press on to know the LORD; his appearing is as sure as the dawn; he will come to us like the showers, like the spring rains that water the earth.” (Hosea 6:1-3)

I have heard young people disavow any affiliation with the God of their parents or grandparents.  They have decided that God does not exist and they are free agents to do as they choose.  While this seems reasonable, just because we do not “believe” a fact does not make it untrue.  God exists, whether you believe in him or not, and there will come a day of accountability.

Hosea was given the unenviable task of marrying a woman who did not love him.  God used his marriage as an allegory of his relationship with Israel.  Though she chased after other gods, he remained faithful to her.

We are given free will and autonomy, but those who have been part of a Christian community through baptism, conversion, or affiliation have received God’s mark on their lives.  “This is a trustworthy saying: If we died with Him, we will also live with Him; if we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He will also deny us; if we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.” (2 Timothy 2:11-13)

“The Hound of Heaven” is a 182-line poem written by English poet Francis Thompson (1859–1907). The meaning is understood. As the hound follows the hare, never ceasing in its running, ever drawing nearer in the chase, with unhurrying and imperturbed pace, so does God follow the fleeing soul by His Divine grace. And though in sin or in human love, away from God it seeks to hide itself, Divine grace follows after, unwearyingly follows ever after, till the soul feels its pressure forcing it to turn to Him alone in that never ending pursuit.” — The Neumann Press Book of Verse, 1988.

All which I took from thee I did but take,

Not for thy harms.

But just that thou might’st seek it in my arms.

All which thy child’s mistake

Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home;

Rise, clasp My hand, and come!”

“LORD, thank you for your unrelenting love.  From the day we left the Garden, you have pursued us.  Never give up.”  Amen

Mindi Oaten’s painting “Our Faithful Husband” is from God’s Garden of Grace collection.

Advent Day Twenty: The Coming of the Spirit

“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. . . I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten. . .” (Joel 2: 25, 28))

As a high spirited child I often found myself in trouble with teachers who had a difficult time getting me to sit quietly in my seat and do the work.  While I was never rebellious, I dreaded parent interviews when my mother would inevitably come home crying.  I would vow to do better, but I had a reputation that was difficult to shake as I moved from one grade to the next.  Then we moved to a new city.  Noone knew my reputation.  I was more mature and self-disciplined.  Suddenly my high energy was seen in a positive light and I was able to soar.

It’s not easy to get through life without any regrets.  We would like to erase poor choices or flagrant hurts we have inflicted on ourselves or others.  Some people spend a lifetime under the heavy load of guilt, never able to move on.

Israel lived under a cloud of judgement.  Natural disasters and threats of invasion were prophesied as “the Day of the Lord”.  It was something to be feared.  But the prophet saw beyond the immediate, far into the future when the Day of the Lord would come down like a refining fire on the people of God.

Joel’s prophesy was repeated in the book of Acts on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell on devout Jews waiting in Jerusalem fifty days after Jesus’s resurrection.  It was God’s divine fire that erased the sins of the past and anointed believers with power and forgiveness.  What a burden was lifted!  The days of shame and alienation were ended.  They were reborn into a living hope.   

Jesus transformed the “Day of LORD” from judgement to anointing; from shame to exultation. He came to settle the account between God and humanity.  Across our lives is written:  “Debt paid in full.”

“LORD, we hold on to regrets that we can never erase.  You came to set us from that curse and to give us power to live.  We confess our sins and seek your forgiveness and grace.  Pour out your Spirit in our hearts.  Thank you for your transformative love.”  Amen.

Mindi Oaten’s painting “Pours Out His Spirit” is from God’s Garden of Grace collection.

Advent Day Nineteen:The Plumb Line

“See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. . . The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.” (Amos 7:8; 8:11)

A plumb line is a string with a weight attached to one end. When it dangles freely, an exact vertical can be determined.  Without adjusting for the vertical, the wall becomes increasingly off-centre and unstable.  This allegory was applied to Israel by the prophet Amos as a warning against apostasy.  The interesting fact about a crooked wall is that it starts small, but by the time it gets to the top, even the untrained eye can see that it’s leaning.

When we measure our behaviour against our own standards, it’s easy to be just a “little bit off.”  We make allowances for conduct that is in the “gray zone” because we trust ourselves not to cross the line.  It’s similar to the indictment against the Israelites during the time of the Judges:  “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”  After a few generations, no one remembers the original cultural norms.  Sexual taboos or the use of four letter words are obvious casualties, but even church going has devolved to the point where few see it as important.

When the bar is so low, we can all declare, “I’m a good person.”  Yet, God has a far-higher standard, and his plumb line is the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.  We no longer have any excuse for “fudging” when we measure against his words.  Once we recognize that “there is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10) , the sooner we will understand the magnificent grace of God in sending Jesus as atonement for our sins.  Before the plumb line of the cross, no one can stand.

“LORD, forgive us for excusing our own actions.  We know what is right because you made it clear in your word.  You know our secret thoughts and actions; nothing surprises you.  We cannot justify ourselves.  Thank you that by confessing our sins, we can receive forgiveness.  Give us the power to overcome the weights that hold us back.”  Amen.

Mindi Oaten’s painting “Measures Injustice” is from God’s Garden of Grace collection.