Thursday, December 29, 2016

Looking Forward to . . . What?

Christmas with all its preparations and celebrations is over, leaving us immersed in the lull before the New Year. Some of us will spend this time looking back, evaluating what the past year was like – good, bad, what we didn’t get around to doing as we intended, what we started but haven’t yet completed.

Others among us, however, don’t care much for a rear-view mirror approach to life. We’re eager, excited about the prospect of the old calendar year ushering in a new one – whether to bid a fond farewell to this year and build on the positives into the next, or to thumb our noses at the passing year, shout, “Good riddance!” and hope for better things in the future.

Either way, like it or not, ready or not, in just a few days 2017 will appear, so it makes sense to start looking forward. We already know where we’ve been; what we don’t know is where we will be going. As you contemplate the New Year’s inception, what are you looking forward to? (Or, to what do you look forward, for grammar police out there who maintain we must never end sentences by using prepositions!)

If we’ve worked hard during the past year, we might be looking forward to a promotion in our quest to climb the proverbial corporate ladder. Or maybe we’re thinking the hard work will pay off with the opportunity to move to a better, more rewarding job somewhere else. Perhaps a special event is looming in the future – a wedding, the birth of a child, sending one of your offspring to college, seeing one graduate, or even saying good-bye to the workplace and retiring.

For some of us it’s not a singular event we’re looking forward to – we just want to make progress of some kind. It could be in your marriage, at work, or making positive personal changes by losing some weight, exercising more consistently, pursuing more education, or taking up a new hobby.

There’s lots we could look forward to, but let me ask this: What things are you look forward to in a spiritual sense?

The apostle Paul offers a wonderful example. He declared, Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).

Obviously, Paul wasn’t talking about making New Year’s resolutions. He wasn’t about to burst out with a stanza of “Auld Lang Syne.” The apostle was simply affirming his singular focus, always looking forward to the work and ministry his Lord had entrusted to him, striving to reach as many lives as possible for Jesus Christ.

Elsewhere Paul revealed his motivation, the incentive that kept him in faithful service to his Savior despite numerous trials and much hardship: “While we wait for the blessed hope – the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). He was absolutely convinced of the imminent return of Christ, keeping that expectation in the forefront of his thinking and planning. The fact Jesus’ Second Coming did not occur during Paul’s earthly lifetime doesn’t detract from his zeal in serving Him and striving to introduce others to Him along the way.

The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews shared Paul’s “tunnel vision” for fulfilling the call of Christ. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:23-24). These words, written nearly 2,000 years ago, suggest the image of a driver at the wheel of a car – or the helm of a ship – staying on course regardless of the circumstances.

It’s not wrong to look forward to making incremental improvements in life, taking a much-anticipated trip, realizing a career goal, or attaining some other personal milestone. But as the Scriptures teach over and over, being followers of Jesus we should be looking forward to being His “instruments of righteousness” (Romans 6:13), having an eternal impact in the hearts and lives of others, and anticipating His ultimate return – whether that’s tomorrow or 100 years from now. Happy New Year!

Monday, December 26, 2016

Do We Know Who We Know?

Occasionally we hear or read about someone accused of committing a heinous crime, and a friend or family member defends the person, stating, “Well, I know so-and-so, and he/she would never do that.” Do they know for certain? We just experienced a very contentious Presidential election, ending with many of us voting for the candidate we “knew” would be best for the job.

Have you ever attended a wedding ceremony, watching the couple exchange their vows, and thinking, “Man, they really don’t have any idea what they’re doing!” Because the fact is, no matter how long a courtship is, two people never really know each other until they begin to permanently live under the same roof. Even then it typically takes years to genuinely know the other individual.

Watching the news, or entertainment shows, we think we know a certain celebrity or dignitary – but we don’t. We only know what’s presented to us, what we perceive from outward appearances, and what others say about them. Do we really “know” the Kardashians? Or Princess Kate? Or Morgan Freeman?

During the election campaign, what we knew about Trump, Clinton or Sanders was largely what the news media carefully and selectively offered to us. But we couldn’t honestly say we knew them.  For instance, what’s their favorite color? Favorite food? Musical preferences? Do they snore? Boxers or briefs?

There is only one sure way of knowing a person, any person. That’s to spend time with them. The more time spent with them, usually the better we get to know them. We can observe someone at work and think they’re wonderful. We might hear a persuasive speaker and think, “Wouldn’t it be fun to be that person’s close friend?” But as many of us have painfully discovered, outward appearances can woefully deceive. Only when we spend time with people do we discover what they’re actually like.

How about knowing God? What does it mean when we declare, “I know the Lord”? Maybe one time we walked an aisle, raised a hand, or marked a card to indicate a commitment to Jesus Christ. But do any of those acts signify having an intimate, everyday relationship with Him?

I can think of several people who would tell you they “know” God, but evidence in their lives would attest to the contrary. Saying we know doesn’t necessarily mean we know. As the Bible tells us, “You believe there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder” (James 2:19). And the Scriptures assure that we won’t be troubled by demons in heaven. Knowing God in the redemptive, life-transforming way means much more than intellectual knowledge or belief.

To me, to know God is similar in some ways to knowing a spouse or cherished friend. We want to spend time with them; we do spend time with them, and over time, we come to know them better and better.

Relationships – human and spiritual – don’t grow through hit-and-miss, casual interactions. They require not only time, but also the investment of ourselves. We want to be with those we love, to the extent that we miss them dearly when we’re not with them.

Psalm 63:1 describes what this can look like for someone who truly knows the Lord and desires to be with Him. “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you, my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” This psalm, attributed to King David, communicates a deep, intense yearning to be in the presence of the God he knew and trusted. No wonder he’s described as a man with “a heart after God” (Acts 13:22), despite his grievous lapses into sin.

In many respects, like David, we’re living in a “dry and weary land,” at least in a spiritual sense. All the more reason we should thirst and long for time with the Lord, whether through prayer and time reading and studying the Scriptures, associating with like-minded believers, or seeking to be active participants in His work here on earth.

One day we’ll see Him face to face, as 1 John 3:2 promises: “…when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Do we know Him, the way we “know” Miley Cyrus, Lebron James or Bill Gates – or do we know Him?

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Which ‘Baby Jesus’ Are You Wanting?

This Rock City Nativity is a scene familiar to most of us around Christmas.
Maybe you’re familiar with the scene in the film, “Talladega Nights,” when lead character Ricky Bobby (portrayed by Will Ferrell) attempts to say the blessing for the Christmas meal, praying to “dear Lord Baby Jesus.”

When Ricky Bobby’s wife points out, “Jesus did grow up, you don’t always have to call Him Baby,” he replies, “I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I’m saying grace…I like the baby version the best!”

He’s not the only one, apparently. Especially this time of the year, with Nativity scenes and Christmas pageants abounding, there’s a fascination with the cute and cuddly Jesus, nestled in a makeshift crib surrounded by Mary and Joseph, shepherds, barnyard animals, wise men and angels. The Christ Child, like most babies, fills us with a sense of, “Awww!”

Maybe, like Ricky Bobby, the reason many people prefer the infant Jesus is that babies aren’t threatening. They just lie there, and so long as they’re fed and changed in timely fashion, they pretty much let us do whatever we want.

Festive lights like these at Rock City help in celebrating
the birth of "the light of the world."
My friend, Len Allen, recently spoke about three versions of the Son of God people choose from as Christmas nears. The first is the “Santa Jesus,” or “the God of tradition.” Perhaps you’ve even seen the painting of Santa Claus kneeling to worship the newborn King. A curious mix of fable with truth, but a lot of us desire a Santa Jesus who will give us everything we want, not to mention the things we need.

The second is the “sweet Jesus,” Len said, representing “the God of emotion.” We get a warm, fuzzy feeling contemplating the idea that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” as we’re told in John 1:14. But we don’t go much beyond that. Because cooing, giggling babies don’t place great demands on us. They provoke some happy sentiment, but that’s all.

Then there’s the third version, the one that typically doesn’t come to mind when we gaze at the manger scene. It’s what Len called “the substitute Jesus, the Savior sibling.” It’s the biblical Jesus, the one that, even in that inconspicuous Bethlehem setting, already was anticipating a life that would culminate on a cross, to become the atoning sacrifice, the only cure for a terminal human disease called sin.

The “problem” with this third version of “Baby Jesus” is that, as Ricky Bobby’s wife noted, Jesus did grow up. He not only performed miracles and lived an exemplary life of love and compassion, but also said provocative things, things like:
“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Luke 9:23-24).
“Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11).

These hardly scratch the surface of the teachings of Jesus Christ that have turned the world upside-down and transformed lives for 2,000 years. But it’s clear they weren’t expressed by a baby perceived as an unimposing “Santa Jesus” or “sweet Jesus” that expects nothing of us.

Such words were spoken by the Jesus whose unceremonious birth in Judea that we observe at Christmas became intertwined with the horror of a cross commemorated on Good Friday, and His glorious resurrection that millions celebrate on Easter. So which “baby Jesus” do you prefer?