Pause. Listen. Remember the Main Thing.

I’ve been forgetting the main thing. While driving home last weekend I was convicted by a thought. If Jesus showed up in my hometown this Christmas, would I notice?

As much as I want to say yes, the answer is no.

Remember The Main Thing
Photo Credit: @sage_solar via Compfight cc

Consumed by Noise

Why wouldn’t I notice baby Jesus today? Because I have plans. I don’t have time to search for a baby or follow a star. I’m just hoping to have enough patience to sit through a Christmas Eve service.

The noise of Christmas consumes us, and Christians often respond by countering the noise. If we can make enough noise, we think, then the world will pay attention to Jesus.

So we write articles and preach sermons and generally make a ruckus in Jesus’ name.

But when noise is countered by noise, it produces more noise.

He Who Has Ears

Jesus doesn’t force us to follow Him. He spoke the truth and left it at that.

“He who has ears, let him hear” is a biblical phrase unique to Jesus. Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile with a Jesus like that. We want God to strike down the bad guys and establish His kingdom now—sound, lights, and everything.

What we don’t want is a quiet Jesus who requires us to stop and listen. The truth is, we want all the benefits of God without any disruption to our  lives.

Matthew 13:13
This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”

I think this perfectly describes the struggle at Christmas. We see without perceiving and hear without understanding the simple message of the Savior of the world.

Selling Jesus

Christianity Today’s managing print editor recently wrote, “It’s like we don’t trust the Incarnation to sell itself.”

We think we need Jesus + production or Jesus + 500 word articles to truly grasp the Christmas message.

Productions and articles have moved me personally. But a “moving” experience should always move us from something to something. In this case, to Jesus.

Instead, we’re often like the crowd in John 6, following Jesus because we want to see Him multiply the bread again instead of realizing He is the Bread of life.

He is the Bread of life.

When we stop, and when we realize every Christmas miracle is meant to help us remember the main thing, Jesus, then we understand Christmas.

Christmas is not about starting small and getting bigger. It’s not about Jesus + every bell and whistle to make Him bigger, better, and louder.

[callout]It’s about a multitude of glorious angels pointing to a baby.

It’s about honored Magi abandoning their gifts at the feet of an infant.

It’s about starting big and getting small.[/callout]

And that’s exactly what Jesus did for us.

2 Corinthians 8:9
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich.

What are some healthy ways we can “start big” and “get small” with the Christmas message? How can we (individually or as families) practice pausing and listening during this Christmas?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

Finding God in the Real Christmas Story

Last week, I talked about seeking Jesus during Advent. This week, I want to talk about finding God in the middle of our circumstances. And I want to do it by looking at our upside down ideas and the real Christmas story.

Real Christmas Story

Anything But a Silent Night

Every Christmas we sing “Silent Night” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” But do we really think Bethlehem was quiet? Israelites were pouring into Bethlehem. To make it worse, it wasn’t voluntary; it was by order of Caesar Augustus, their oppressive foreign emperor.

Add to this songs like, “Away in a Manger,” when we sing, “the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.” Our image of Jesus as well as Mary, Joseph, and Bethlehem are all subdued because we assume the world perfectly understood God’s plan in the middle of it.

I promise, I’m not trying to ruin Christmas songs for you. Nor do I want to ruin a beautiful story by showing you the flaws. On the contrary, I want to expose the real Christmas story so that you can see God’s beauty through of the flaws.

His first, perfect plan

When bad things happen in our lives, we often say, “God must be testing me.” In saying that, we assume God has a better plan, but He’s holding out on us for the sake of our spiritual growth. “Well, God really has this great plan for my life, but instead He’s testing me to grow my faith.”

God wasn’t testing Mary and Joseph. His plan—His first, perfect plan—was to uproot them from their homes, leave them out in the cold, and have Mary give birth in a stable.

The quaint and magical Christmas story is much harder to swallow when you look at the real details, and harder still when you consider how it might apply to our lives.

Take Mary, for example. My respect for Mary skyrocketed after I took a closer look at the narrative in Luke 2.

It would have been really easy for Mary to get either mad or anxious. Did God really promise her a son and then leave her to give birth in a stable? Her family was far away, and Joseph (who also didn’t have it easy) had little to no idea how to help a woman give birth. To top it all off, after she gives birth and wraps her bloody son in a cloth, along come some unsanitary shepherds, shouting about some kind of heavenly vision they saw!

It would have been really easy for Mary to freak out or to shake her fist at God. But she wasn’t doing either of those things.

Luke 2:19
But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

I don’t know how she did it, but Mary understood where God was in the middle of her struggle. She humbly accepted her role in God’s plan and left the plan up to God.

Did Mary know God? Yes. I’m not just talking about the child she held in her lap. In this moment, she understood God was up to something cosmic, and she understood her role to trust Him.

Similarly, God might put you in circumstances that don’t make sense—and they might be His first and perfect plan. But when that happens, you always have a choice. You can either worry and get angry, or you can acknowledge God as unshakeable in the midst of our shakable world.

See, I used to think of Advent as an escape—a chance to step out of my chaos into a a world of perfect peace. But Advent isn’t about escaping into a perfect world. Advent is about a perfect God stepping into our chaos, to show us “He Himself is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14).

Our job is to see God as unshakable in the middle of shakable circumstances, so that we can say with Mary and Joseph from the prophet Habakkuk,

Habakkuk 3:17-18
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

In what ways do you relate to Mary? Is there a time when you thought God was testing you that may have been His first and best plan? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

No More Shadows — Why You Should Start an Advent Devotional

Every year I become more convinced the Christmas story is an invitation. God sought us, and He invites us to seek Him. This December, I’m starting an advent devotional, and I want you to do the same.

Advent: the shadow-caster made flesh

“Advent” means “arrival.”

Recently, I was a small group leader for a youth retreat. Most kids were familiar with church, but few had a deep, personal relationship with God. During a discussion time, I asked each student to pick one word to describe their current relationship with God.

A freshman boy in my group thought for a few moments and then said, “A shadow.”

He had heard about God, but he had never experienced or known God for himself.

A few weeks ago my men’s group started reading “Knowing God” by J. I. Packer. In chapter three, Packer talks about a key to knowing people.

The quality and extent of our knowledge of other people depends more on them than on us. Our knowing them is more directly the result of their allowing us to know them than of our attempting to get to know them.

If you want to get to know me, that’s fine; but until I offer myself to you, you’ll only get to know me in a superficial sense. In the same way, righteous people had known God for millennia, but all of their knowledge of God was only a shadow until Jesus made Himself known.

After 400 years of silence, God spoke. But this time, it wasn’t through a prophet or a burning bush. This time, it was God in flesh, crying in a manger.

The God of creation became as vulnerable and accessible as possible. He became us.

You’re invited to seek the King

Think about the characters in the Christmas narrative. The shepherds, the wise men, Simeon and Anna in the temple—they all have something in common. They were all looking for Jesus.

Jeremiah 29:13-14
You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.”

The only people who found Jesus at His birth were those who were looking for Him.

In many ways, Advent is the same. Every year, we’re surrounded by the hustle and bustle of Christmas, and we choose what we seek. We can either get lost in the frenzy, or we can seek God.

But it’s not a passive action. It’s active.

Today, I’m starting an advent devotional, and I ask you to do the same. If you’re curious, the one I’m going through is “Good News of Great Joy” through Desiring God. The free, daily, short readings will stir your affection for Jesus.

Whatever you do, don’t let the significance of this season be lost on you. We’re celebrating Emmanuel—God with us. He is with us. Are we with Him?

God doesn’t have to be a shadow any more.

What helps you reflect on Jesus during the Christmas season? I’d love to hear in the comments below.

The Gospel According to Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving—the action and the holiday–is a beautiful reflection of the Gospel. The Gospel is the message that (1) we are broken people in need of a Savior, (2) Jesus stepped in gave Himself, and (3) when we receive that, we become new creations. Looking at thanksgiving, we see something similar.

Gospel According to Thanksgiving
Photo Credit: Cameron Nordholm via Compfight cc

1. Thanksgiving reveals we are broken people

All of us wish we were more thankful. Thanksgiving begins when we realize we are not all-deserving. If we believed we were entitled to all things, we wouldn’t be thankful. Thanksgiving is honestly admitting we do not deserve the good things we are offered.

2. Thanksgiving Requires a Giver

Thanksgiving is intensely personal. You don’t thank karma for working in your favor, because karma is an abstract concept. You thank your mother for making a delicious Thanksgiving dish because your mother is a person.

You give thanks to God because God is a person.

God gave (John 3:16). If we really believe that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1), then everything we have has been given (or entrusted) to us by God.

3. Thanksgiving Produces New Life in Us and Others

Giving thanks necessitates a giver and a receiver. One person thanks, another receives the thanksgiving. You may walk outside, see a beautiful sunset, and feel joy, but that’s not the same thing as responding to that joy. Thanksgiving is the completion of joy.

Let me build on that statement, “Thanksgiving is the completion of joy.” Think about it this way: Have you ever heard a joke so funny you had to tell someone? (Ask me sometime about the Mexican magician—it’s one of my favorites). You share a good joke because you know it’ll bring joy to others just as it brought joy to you.

Why do we take and share pictures of food or animals or landscape? Isn’t it because we find some amount of joy in those things, and we want to express that joy and share it with others?

Likewise, if we couldn’t share jokes or tell someone about an amazing meal, it would make the experience incomplete. In the same way, we can go through life without giving thanks to God, but somehow, it leaves the experience incomplete.

I love what C.S. Lewis writes about WHY we should give God thanks. Check this out:

It is in the process of being worshiped that God communicates His presence to men. …For many people at many times the “fair beauty of the Lord” is revealed briefly or only while they worship Him together.  Even in Judaism the essence of the sacrifice was not really that men gave bulls and goats to God, but that by their so doing God gave Himself to men; in the central act of our own worship, of course, this is far clearer — there it is manifestly, even physically, God who gives and we who receive.

It’s in giving worship and thanks to God that we realize how much He has given to us. What I love even more is that God is revealed “briefly or only while they worship Him together.”

This is the Gospel according to thanksgiving, that when we give thanks, we admit our inadequacy and God’s perfect adequacy to give us joy in Him.

When we come together—around the Thanksgiving meal or at a church service—and share our expressions of thanksgiving to God, it’s us who receive and share the joy of God’s presence.

What keeps us from being thankful people? How can we strengthen our thanksgiving? I’d love to hear your thoughts or feedback in the comments below.

God Weeps with Paris

We face a danger in the Christian life, to explain away suffering the moment it hits. We see incredible pain and say, “God must have a greater plan.”

God Weeps - Eiffel
The Eiffel Tower, darkened in remembrance of the fallen.

Those words feel so hollow in light of the incredible tragedy setting in over the city of Paris. If God spoke directly to Paris, right now, I don’t think He would say, “Everything is going to be okay.” I don’t think He would say anything. I think He would weep.

When God has No Words

Never was this truth clearer to me than shortly after I began dating my wife. In three months, she lost three friends from her high school graduating class. While sitting and worshipping during a college retreat, she stood up and walked off, weeping.

Our group slowly dispersed, some offering her words of comfort, others leaving her be. I was the last to approach her. She wrapped her arms around me and began to cry again. Oh God, I remember thinking, what am I supposed to say to her? Please give me the words, I pleaded.

Several minutes passed, and I had nothing to say. Then quietly, I heard her whisper, “Thank you for not preaching at me.”

That moment taught me something about the nature of God. If we really believe God has a bigger plan, then we should surrender our fight to explain it. We should give ourselves the freedom to weep. Don’t be too quick to speak. Often God is heard loudest when we surrender our desire to explain Him.

James 1:19
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.

Proverbs 25:20
Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart
is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day,
and like vinegar on soda.

[share-quote author=”Dietrich Bonhoeffer” via=””]Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words.[/share-quote]

Of course there’s more that can be said. There’s always more. But not here, and not now.

Let us surrender our desire for answers and run to the Prince of Peace. Let us remember the God who is near, the God who weeps.

Psalm 34:18
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
and saves the crushed in spirit.

Lamentations 3:31-33
For the Lord will not
cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not afflict from his heart
or grieve the children of men.

God weeps with you, Paris. And so do we.