We Saw the Rising Sun

By Hiram Vega

Of all the names of Jesus, one rarely mentioned is the Rising Sun, or the New Dawn.  The name evokes the image of the soft red light that comes before the sun.  It is the prelude to a new day. 

In Chapter 1 of his gospel, Dr. Luke tells us that God visited a priest called Zechariah, who lived in a town in the mountains of Judah.  His wife, Elizabeth, also belonged to the priestly family of Aaron.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were upright in the eyes of God and carefully obeyed the commandments and regulations of the Lord.  They did not have children because Elizabeth was barren.  Both of them were already very old.

Why did God choose a common priest, old and childless, to play a fundamental part in the work of salvation?  Maybe the answer is the one that the Apostle Paul wrote: He chose what the world looks down on and despises and thinks is nothing, in order to destroy what the world thinks is important (I Cor 1:28 GNT). God continues to call both young and old to speak on his behalf! Have you heard His call?

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God told an elderly couple without children that they would be parents of a prophet more important than any of the others. John the Baptist would prepare the way of the Lord.  The revelation was so great that Zechariah could not believe it, and as a result he was mute for a time.

I would like to say that I would have believed God in that moment, but the truth is that many times I believe my circumstances more than I believe God.  I believe my finances more than I believe God.  I believe my symptoms more than I believe God. I need a divine yank on the ear to clear my doubts away and strengthen my faith.

When Zechariah saw his newborn son, he was filled with the Holy Spirit and he prophesied (Luke 1:76-79):

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;

for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,

to give his people the knowledge of salvation

through the forgiveness of their sins,

because of the tender mercy of our God,

by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven.

Today the prophets of the Most High proclaim the same good news. These women and men, young people and old, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, bring the light of Christ to all those who are in darkness in every place, city and neighborhood.

How will you embrace the opportunities of this season to announce the New Dawn?

Christmas Day 2017

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Here we are.

Christmas.

Lots of waiting for today, and now the hope is realized.

Little kids finally get to open those presents.

Busy workers finally get a day off.

Family members finally get to see each other.

Eat together.

Laugh together.

And each one of these “finallys” is an echo of that first Christmas day.

Estranged and lonely, we find we are – He is – family.

Exhausted and cynical, we find rest in Him.

The Great I Am takes our past, offers us a future, but most of all gives Himself to us as the ultimate present.

Jesus.

We are changed by Your arrival.

We receive You once again.

We need You this day,

this season,

always.

Come.

Advent: Waiting on the Lord’s Coming

By Josue Villatoro

The emphasis during Advent season is on waiting. We are expectant; we are preparing to celebrate Christmas. I like that dynamic. However, Christmas is not an ordinary party: it is not about Santa Claus, the gifts, or even the family. It is good that there are gathered families, gifts under the tree, and a Christmas spirit! But Christmas celebration is more. Christmas is Jesus. In a few days, we will celebrate the God that became human and lived among us. What a wonderful celebration! But we can’t arrive to it all of a sudden, we must prepare ourselves. To celebrate Advent prepares us to commemorate Christmas in the best way possible.

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Each Sunday of this celebration has a value. Last Sunday we emphasized that we are expecting Jesus, because He is our hope. This coming Sunday, and during this week, we are focusing on waiting because we have “faith.” Little word, big significance. We don’t see Him, we haven’t seen Him, but we are sure that someday we will see Him. We prepare ourselves to celebrate Christmas because we have faith in Jesus, because we trust His promises. But we are also waiting on His second coming, because we are sure that He will come. Have faith. May there be no argument, power or human evidence to make you doubt your faith rooted in Jesus, the Christ. We celebrate Him, because we trust Him!

Not God’s Favorite

By Scott Armstrong

Jesus Comes Home with a Sobering Message

Christmas is a time when many of us return home.  We laugh with relatives and gorge ourselves on excellent food.  Grandmas grab our cheeks and tell us we’ve grown sooooo big, which is awkward when you’re 8, but try when you are 40!

Luke 4 tells us of a time when Jesus returned to Nazareth, where he had been brought up.  The little carpenter’s apprentice had grown up and now was an excellent preacher, and the people were amazed at his eloquence.  “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked (v. 22).  Surely this can’t be the same little kid that was playing in the sandbox back in the day!

So, as is often Jesus’ custom, instead of basking in the praise from everyone, he turns it on its head.  In fact, he immediately transitions his sermon from good news to judgement.  “I’m here to change the world just as Isaiah foretold” (see v. 18-21) quickly becomes “If you think you’re better than anyone else, I’m here to tell you you’re dead-wrong.”

The result is jarring.  The crowd’s transformation is stark.  The church folk are enraged, throw him out of their town, and are ready to throw him off a cliff (v. 28-29).  Wow! What made them convert from admirers to attempted murderers in the blink of an eye?!

Essentially, he yelled out, “You are not God’s favorite! Stop acting like it!”

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It’s a message that’s painfully appropriate and quite controversial even today.  Christian authors have made a lot of money writing that you and I are God’s favorites.  Preachers use that phrase to try to explain God’s boundless love for you and me.  It all seems obvious, right? And anyway, it feels good to know I am God’s favorite child; it kind of gives me a spring in my step as I leave the service on Sunday!

Here’s the problem: Baked into the definition of the word “favorite” is the singling out of something to the exclusion of something else.  When I ask you what your favorite food is, if you say, “They’re all my favorites,” it makes no sense.  You are either trying to hide something or way too indecisive.  Saying “I like all foods the same” would seem implausible, but it’s at least better than claiming that all foods are your absolute favorite.  Selecting a favorite by necessity means something else has not been selected: it is, thus, not your favorite.

When pressed on this, the authors and preachers insist that, well, when they say, “YOU are God’s favorite,” they actually mean that we are ALL His favorites.  It’s an effective communication technique, but it completely dilutes the word.  In fact, using the word “favorite” in this way can actually have some serious, unintended consequences.

When we start to view ourselves as God’s favorites, we subtly begin to believe that he likes us more than others.  The product of such thinking is ethnocentrism and religious selfishness, exactly what Jesus railed against in verses 24-27.

My political party is right.

My race is better.

My denomination is the best.

My way of viewing the world is the only real way anyone should see it.

And it also makes us spoiled.  We start to expect God to be at our beck-and-call.  The “favorite” child at Christmas demands that his parents save the last piece of pie for him.  Every gift becomes boring within a few hours. Nothing is appreciated. Everything is deserved.  Jesus says it this way, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum’” (v. 23).  We are here for the show, Jesus! Come on, we prayed; why won’t you grant us our every wish?

God lavishes his love on all of us in the same measure.

That’s the point.

He has no favorites.

As we near Christmas, hear again those amazing words from Jesus’ homecoming sermon: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (v.18-19).

Interesting last word: “favor.”

Our God comes to the poor, to the prisoners, to the blind and oppressed.  His favor is offered to all in abounding measure.

What if you were actually not God’s favorite?

It’s painful and humbling to acknowledge.  But maybe admitting it would open you up to truly receiving God’s favor for the first time.  Maybe it would allow the God who plays no favorites to anoint YOU, as well, to go to the broken-hearted and usher in the Lord’s favor.

May today this scripture be indeed fulfilled in your hearing.

 

Incarnation – Moving into the Neighborhood

Yesterday (December 14), the Worthless Servants podcast published a new episode touching on an appropriately Christmas topic: the Incarnation.

When we speak of the Incarnation, we are referring to God becoming man.  This is the essence of Advent and of Christmas; these are the moments in the Christian calendar when we celebrate that God sent His only son in the form of a baby and in actual human likeness. That’s phenomenal and mind-blowing!

In present day, the concept of God becoming man is something that we as Christians accept by faith as a normal part of our story. However, 2,000 years ago, the average Jew could not have imagined that their sovereign God would put on flesh and walk alongside us.  Even nowadays this concept is astonishing and blasphemous for many other religions!

For the Christian, the Incarnation is of utmost importance.  God smashed himself into human flesh and came to earth, clothing himself in our own frailty.  It’s not like God hadn’t communicated with the people before the manger, but this was radically different.  These were not the words of a prophet this time; this was the very Word becoming man, coming alongside us.  Eugene Peterson famously puts it this way:

“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” John 1:14b

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Many of us are used to the theme of Incarnation around Christmas.  But, what does all this have to do with missions? Could it be that the God who is with us would also send us to be with others? Does an incarnate God also, in some way, ask us to incarnate ourselves and become flesh in new cultures, new languages, and new neighborhoods?

Jesus moved into our barrio.  He identified with our needs and even our sickness.  Are you willing to follow his example? Are you willing to live and laugh and suffer with people from other races, cultures, religions, and languages if it means they will see Jesus in you?

“As the Father has sent me, I am sending you…” (John 20:21).

Would you like to dive more into the topic of the Incarnation? You can listen to the most recent episode of the Worthless Servants podcast by clicking here: mesoamericagenesis.org/podcast/ or you can subscribe on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher!

In this Advent season, may the Incarnation of Jesus Christ himself compel you to incarnate the Good News in your neighborhood and community!

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The True Story of St. Nicholas

By Adam Estle

*This article was originally published by Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding (EMEU).

Have you found yourself pondering where the story of Santa Claus originated? You might also be asking yourself, “What does Santa Claus have to do with increasing my understanding of the Middle East?” We’re glad you asked!

To answer the century-old question posed by Virginia O’Hanlon, “Yes, there is a Santa Claus.” The name Santa Claus is an Anglicization of the Germanic ‘Sinterklaas’ which literally means Saint Nicholas. The Dutch and German settlers to America brought their beloved Saint with them to their new, mostly protestant (and non-Saint admiring) neighbors. The tradition became fused with the British Father Christmas (see Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” character “Ghost of Christmas Present”), and voila! Santa Claus was a huge hit!

Saint Nicholas, the man, was indeed a very real person. He was a Christian Bishop of Myra in Lycia, which is in present day Turkey. (Here’s the Middle East connection.) St. Nicholas lived in the 4th Century AD (15 March 270 – 6 December 343). If you don’t know, this was a supremely challenging time to be a Christian as the Roman Emperor Diocletian severely punished anyone affiliated with the new religion. Thankfully, this did not detour Nicholas. He made a name for himself, although not purposefully, as a gift giver – helping anyone he could, and trying to do it anonymously.

One of his most famous exploits involved a poor man who had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of the girls’ plight, Nicholas decided to help them, but being too modest to help the family in public (or to save them the humiliation of accepting charity), he went to the house under the cover of night three consecutive evenings and threw a purse filled with gold coins through the window opening into the house. The third night the father hid to catch and thank whomever this gift-giver was. Nicholas begged for him to keep
it a secret. As
 you might 
assume, this did 
not happen 
seeing that
 you’re reading
 the story 1,700+ 
years later.

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For all of his
works of charity,
 love, compassion
and kindness he
was imprisoned and beaten under the rule of Diocletian. When Diocletian died, Constantine came to power. Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 which saw Nicholas released from prison and back to serve his community. In 325 Constantine held the 1st ecumenical meeting of Christians (the Council of Nicaea) which sought to set unity in Christian doctrine. Nicholas was a member of this council and famously punched a man named Arias who claimed that Christ was not divine. He later apologized, but added he could not bear to hear his Lord slandered. Regardless, he was quite instrumental in the formation of all branches of Christianity’s basic belief in the trinity.

While modernity lends itself to focusing more on Santa Claus than Jesus at this time of year, let us be reminded of who Saint Nicholas really was. He was a Middle Eastern Christian, and just like our brothers and sisters in the Middle East today he served Jesus through difficult circumstances.

Let Nicholas of Myra’s example (even if we see him dressed in red and white fur and drinking a Coca-Cola) remind us of how we should strive, despite adversity, to show the love that Jesus modeled. Through all the hype and consumerism that surrounds the contemporary view of Santa Claus, may we all remember who the real St. Nicholas was and how his story amplifies the true meaning of Christmas.

Please remember to pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the Middle East, where Christmas is not a holiday in a majority of their communities. Pray that they would be able to carve out time and opportunities to celebrate Jesus’ coming to earth, not just during this season but throughout the year.

 

Part of the Gift

By Charles W. Christian

One of my favorite Advent stories is about a missionary couple on the eastern coast of Africa. They were waiting to go back to the United States, their home country, after having served for over twenty years and impacting two generations of people in the village where they were assigned.

They were temporarily waiting in a location many miles inland from the coast until their arrangements were finalized for them to return to the U.S. for Christmas and for retirement.

One morning during the season of Advent, a few days before they were to fly out, there was a knock at the door.  A young man, the son of a family they had known during their entire time on the African coast, greeted them.  He was holding a small box that contained a gift that he told them could decorate their tree as a reminder of his family’s love for them.

“Did your family travel with you?” asked the missionary.  He knew they were one of the very few families in the small village that had a vehicle.  “No,” said the young man. “I walked.  I got rides when I could, but mostly I walked.  I left my village shortly after you took the train here a couple of weeks ago.”

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The couple was shocked.  “You didn’t have to walk all this way to give us this gift!” they said.  As much as we appreciate the ornament, we would have treasured it just as much if you had mailed it.”  The young man then replied, “The long journey is part of the gift!”

As we make the long journey through Advent toward the celebration of the birth of our Savior, we are reminded of an even longer journey: the journey of the Incarnation, when “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message).

May our hearts be filled with anticipation and gratitude as we walk together toward the Savior and the new kingdom He brings.

Prayer for the Week:

God of hope and promise, be with us throughout this Advent season, and draw us ever closer as we journey together toward the stable and the birth of your Son, our Savior. Amen. (From John Birch at Faith and Worship)

This article was originally posted at: Holiness Today