Thursday, December 29, 2016

No Blog this week

Hi all!

There's no blog this week due to poor internet access in Mexico. I shared briefly in the Weekend Update that the trip is going well. But I don't have good enough internet service to upload pictures or do much else besides tell you that there's no blog this week. Although technically, since I'm writing this note to you to tell you there's no blog, I guess there is a blog. Only it's a blog to tell you there's no blog this week! ;) But I'll be back next week with another OverSquozen entry! Until then...

I love serving Jesus with you!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Old Carols in a New Light #3 - O Come, All Ye Faithful

I’m sorry this blog is coming out late this week. I’ve been helping with the community response for a family whose house burned down on Monday. It’s been wonderful to see how the community has responded. Now for this week’s blog...

This is my final installment of “Old Carols in a New Light” for this year! I’ve enjoyed sharing these carols with you. It’s easy to see why they have stood the test of time! There’s a lot of depth, a lot of meat to these hymns, and we could easily devote entire posts to digging into the truths contained in just a single line.

Today I want to talk about “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The phrase “the faithful” is often used as a synonym for “believers” or “Christians.” Why? Because faithfulness is a distinguishing mark of God’s children. (Num 12:5-8) If you recall Jesus’ parable of the talents the adjective the master uses to describe the industrious slaves who gave him a return on his investment was “faithful” – “Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” (Mat 25:21)

So this carol was written to believers - the faithful - and we would not even know the carol today if it weren’t for several different men of God in different places and different generations being faithful where they were.

The Story of the Carol

This carol was inspired by a Latin poem written by an Italian bishop (St. Bonaventura) in the 1200s. It was chanted in the ancient churches as the processional song for Christmas morning services. About 450 years later a Roman Catholic layman named John Francis Wade found the poem and produced a copy of the Latin Christmas Carol beginning with the phrase “Adeste Fideles.”

About 100 years later, an Anglican minister named Rev. Frederick Oakeley came across Wade’s Latin Christmas carol. Being deeply moved, he translated it into English for his church. His first translation was “Ye Faithful, Approach Ye.” Later, he revised his translation and this time he came up with the simpler, and now familiar “O Come All Ye Faithful”

Three men of God, living hundreds of years apart in different nations and different traditions, combined their talents to bid us come, joyful and triumphant, and adore Him born the King of angels! The body of Christ cannot be contained in one local assembly, in one nation, in one ethnic group. It is made up of believers through the ages. (Heb 12:1-2,22-24.)

The Message of the Carol

Let’s take a look at some of the lines from the carol and see what nuggets of truth we can discover:

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem
Come and adore Him, born the King of angels...

Why Bethlehem? To fulfill the prophecy of Micah 5:2! When Herod wanted to know where the Messiah would be born, he called the priests and scribes. Based on Micah’s prophecy they told him the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem” "But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too little to be among the clans of Judah, From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity."

But there may be two other reasons reasons God chose Bethlehem as the birthplace of His Son:

1 - In Hebrew, Bethlehem means “House of Bread.” In the Old Testament the Bread of Heaven (aka “manna”) sent by God to feed Israel in the wilderness is a “pre-shadow” of the Messiah. And you may recall, the Jews grumbled about Jesus because He said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” (John 6:41) So where else would the “Bread of Life” come from except from the “House of Bread” - Bethlehem?

2 - Near Bethlehem was a tower called “Migdal Eder,” the Tower of the Flock. It was the place where lambs destined for the Temple were born and raised. Every firstborn male lamb from the area around Bethlehem was considered holy, set aside for sacrifice in Jerusalem. The shepherds would separate the lambs, choosing only the perfect first-born males for the temple.

Think about it - where else would “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” be born, if not in Bethlehem? And why else would the angels call shepherds to come inspect this first-born lamb? And how else could they respond, but to sing?

Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation,
Sing, all ye citizens of heaven above;
Glory to God, glory in the highest...

These lines are based on the Christmas story as recorded in Luke 2. “And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.’” (Luke 2:13-14) It’s interesting that the word “host” is used in this verse. Normally, it is only used to refer to an army. So here we have an army celebrating peace! What better group to announce peace than a group that can enforce peace?!

But notice that the angels did not come to give peace. They came to announce peace! And who has this peace? Real peace on earth exists only among those who are the subjects of God’s goodwill, who are characterized by goodwill toward God and man. This is an odd statement. Peace is not proclaimed to everyone. Only to those who please God. This is why Jesus came to bring a sword, to divide between those who are well-pleasing in His sight, and those who are not.

So how do we become numbered among those who please God? Hebrews 11:6 tells us that without faith, it is impossible to please God. So if you do not believe, you can not have peace! But if you believe, God’s promise is peace. Wow!

Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to thee be glory given!
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing...

John 1:14 tells us that the Word became flesh. That means that Jesus took on flesh, took on our humanity, in order to save us. The theological term for “the Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing” is the Incarnation. That’s a big word, but it has an even bigger meaning.

I’ve shared this story before but it bears repeating. One especially frigid night, a man who was not a believer heard some noise outside. It was a flock of disoriented birds, and he knew that they would freeze to death if they couldn’t find shelter. He ran to barn and threw the doors open. He whistled and tried to shoo them, but they wouldn’t go in. He took bread and corn and made a path, but they wouldn’t follow.

Moved by compassion but frustrated by his inability to help, he longed for a way to just communicate with them. “If I could just tell them I don’t want to hurt them, that there’s warmth and shelter if they would just trust me. But I’m a man and they’re birds and we don’t speak the same language. If I could just become a bird, I could tell them!” Then it hit him: that’s what Christmas is all about.

Without the incarnation, without Jesus, man would be wandering about, perishing, not knowing how to find shelter. So God became a man to tell us how to be saved!

The Call of the Carol

O come, let us adore Him.
O come, let us adore Him.
O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.

The refrain of this carol is an unmistakable call to worship. And in case you missed it the first time, it’s repeated three times at the end of each verse: O come, let us adore Him! Musically, when we sing this carol, we tend to start soft and build intensity with each repetition, reaching a crescendo as we proclaim the object of our worship, “Christ the Lord!”

Unfortunately often in life, our circumstances threaten to take our worship in the opposite direction. When we first come to faith or have an experience that renews our faith, our worship is exuberant. Then life chips away at us. We still worship, but lose some of that joy. And when things get tough, we can find ourselves burdened by worries, diminished by feelings of loss, to the point where our adoration is barely above a whisper. It doesn’t have to be that way, it just sometimes is.

The good news is there can be “times of refreshing” (Acts 3:19) all throughout our Christian experience. Sometimes we simply need to slow down and take stock of all that God has done for us, how He had mercy on us and saved us. Sometimes there may be some repentance involved as well. And sometimes God uses special celebrations, like the commemoration of the Incarnation or the Resurrection to restore His joy to our hearts. But the promised times of refreshing that Acts 3:19 speaks of “come from the presence of the Lord.” As you press in to Him, to seek Him with “all your heart” (Jer 29:13), you will find His presence becomes very real.

So no matter where you find yourself on that continuum, whether you identify with the “joyful and triumphant” or feel like you’re in a difficult season, the call to worship remains: O come, let us adore Him! How about it? Let’s make this Christmas more about PRESENCE than presents - the presence of the Lord that floods our lives when we worship. O come, let us adore Him! Christ the Lord!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Old Carols in a New Light #2 - O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Note: This is part 2 in a series entitled “Old Carols in a New Light” in which we are examining the old familiar carols to rediscover the beautiful truths hidden within their familiar tunes. (See Part 1, Joy to the World.)

The singing of carols dates back to the earliest times as the church began to formalize worship experiences. Most people were illiterate and written resources were reserved for the educated and wealthy. The masses often learned doctrine through singing hymns and repeating liturgies. It was not that this was a more beautiful or respectful way to worship. It’s that this was the way the people could learn and remember.

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is one of the oldest carols around. It’s rich in doctrine. It was originally written in Latin in the 1100s as a series of antiphons or responses sung back and forth during worship. This call and response type worship was actually used by the Jews in their worship. (For an example, see: Ps 118:1-4; 136:1) The leader would sing one line and the congregation would respond with the 2nd part. Then they would all sing the chorus together.
In the mid-1800s, John Mason Neale translated this song from Latin into English. But the music remained intact and continues to be a connection to the faith of millions of Christians who have gone before us, a connection to a common faith.
I especially like this carol because of its ancient feel. It reminds me that I am a part of the Body of Christ, which is so much bigger than Christian Challenge, or American Protestantism or the modern day evangelical faith. I am part of a faith that includes people in other countries, other languages, other times whose faith may not look like mine but is just a deep and just as real because they believe in the message of a child born to die that that we who were dead in our sins might live.

Until the Son of God Appear

The message of the chorus is one of victory and praise – Rejoice! – but the mood of the verses is more somber, an acknowledgement that the believer is not promised a sorrow-free life. What we are promised is Emmanuel – which means God With Us – and he is with us, even in the difficult times. The first verse of this carol will be very familiar to most of us:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
There can be captivity. There can be mourning. And loneliness. Even exile – not being in the place where you long to be. The believer can experience all of that. Sometimes it is through no fault of our own… but more often than we care to admit, we are the architects of our own misery. Israel wound up in exile because they turned away from God. They paid lip-service to God, but their hearts were far from Him (Is 29:13).

Emmanuel means “God with us.” And God IS with us, that’s a promise we have in the Bible. But sometimes we need to be reminded that Emmanuel, the God who is WITH us, needs to be the God OF us as well. It’s not enough to pay Him lip-service. Our hearts must be fully His. And so “God with us” is a statement of fact, and an invitation to faith! Will you believe, and live out that faith?

Victory O’er The Grave

Bonnie Jowers
Bonnie Jowers
The holidays are always an especially tender time for those who have lost loved ones. It’s even more difficult when a loss occurs during the holidays. I’m walking through that right now with my own family. This afternoon we just buried my Aunt Bonnie, by father’s baby sister. She was only 61. And I’ll be honest… it doesn’t seem fair. Even more unfair, just last week, Jason McManus buried his 27 year old sister. And on the same day we were burying my aunt, the Zitos also buried Tiny’s 102-year-old stepfather (who thankfully confessed Jesus and was baptized last year at age 101!). But no matter how old they are when they pass, saying goodbye is a difficult thing for the family to walk through, and the holidays can be especially painful.
And yet, we do not grieve as the world grieves (1 Thes 4:13)! As the second verse of this carol reminds us, death is not the end:
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan's tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o'er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
What is the Rod of Jesse? At first glance it seems like this might be a mighty, kingly rod or royal scepter, belonging to the One who would free people from tyranny. But that’s not what it’s talking about. This is taken from the messianic prophecy in Is 11:1-4. The KJV says “rod”, the NASB says “shoot.” This is a prophecy that the Messiah would come from the lineage of David, the son of Jesse. This is why Matthew’s Gospel opens with the words “The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”
There’s more. The word “rod/shoot” speaks of something weak and small and TENDER - speaking to Jesus being born to a poor, obscure family. (See Is 53:2.) In chapter 10 Isaiah speaks of the enemies of God compared to strong and lofty branches that tower over the earth. But in contrast to those proud, loft boughs, Jesus is compared to a tender branch. He came in humility, was despised and rejected. He died a criminal’s death – a twig broken off.
But as we see in the thread of Scripture, the Twig ultimately triumphs over the towering trees. That’s the message of Isaiah 11:1-4. (Note 4b.) The Twig rises up to strike the earth with the rod of His mouth. How? Because of the power of the Holy Spirit (vs 2).
Jesus shared in our humanity. He became a weak twig, put on human flesh, so that “through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.” (Heb 2:14b-15)
This is what we celebrate at Christmas! The Rod of Jesse has come to deliver us from Satan and hell and death!

If you’re struggling with loss at Christmas-time, remind yourself that what we celebrate is not family or gatherings or nostalgic looks at the past - we are celebrating the Incarnation when God Himself took on human flesh to pay the penalty for our sin and win triumph over death!!! So keep your focus on the resurrection that is promised in the manger, and look forward to the reunion with those you have sent on ahead! Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to THEE, yes you, His Israel!

In honor of my Aunt Bonnie, here is a video we prepared to be shared at her funeral. I hope it gives you hope to meet your loved one in Christ when Jesus returns!

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Old Carols in a New Light #1 - Joy to the World

Back in December, 2007 I did a little 3-week sermon series called "Old Carols in a New Light." My goal was to explore some much-loved carols and help folks see the beauty in songs that sometimes are so familiar we lose sight of the truths contained within. Little did I know that would become one of my most looked-forward-to sermon series each year! This year at Christian Challenge Worship Center I’ve chosen to take an in-depth look at just one carol for the whole series - and it's one of the most beloved and oft-recorded Christmas Carols of all time: "O Holy Night." I began with the first verse this past weekend and will cover the next two verses over the next two Sundays. But in thinking about the blog, I thought how much fun it would be to revisit some of the carols I've taught on in the past! So for the rest of this month, I’ll be doing a series here on my blog on Old Carols in a New Light, based on the Christmas sermon series I began back in 2007. It seems appropriate to begin the web series where I began the sermon series 9 years ago with the much loved carol entitled Joy To The World!

Isaac Watts, the Author of Joy to the World

Isaac Watts was born in 1674 in Southampton, England, the first of 9 children, to a humble home. His parents were part of the “dissenters,” a movement that practiced non-conformity to the Church of England. As a result, his father spent some time in jail for his sermons and statements against what he viewed as faults in the Church of England.

Isaac showed a quick wit for prose. When he was a child he often got into trouble for opening his eyes during prayer time or for laughing during family devotions. He said he saw a mouse climbing the bell tower rope and wrote the following description:

“A mouse for want of better stairs,
Ran up a rope to say his prayers.”

Supposedly he got in quite a bit of trouble for this and wrote the following:

“O father, do some pity take
And I will no more verses make.”

In the 1600s, many believed that the only songs that should be sung in church were the Psalms. They thought that God had inspired David and the writers of the Psalms and that only their words were worthy to be used in worship. This was the official position of the Anglican church. The words of the Psalms were put to tunes of the day for use in worship and there was no other option.

But the non-conformists had a different perspective. They believed that since one could pray to God spontaneously and not in the exact words of Scriptures, the same should be true for expressions of worship. Isaac Watts himself is quoted as saying that though “the ancient writers were to be imitated, they were not to be copied.” He also said that the forced tunes the Psalms were sung to often sounded like a rusty saw was being sharpened close to his ear!

Thus, many new hymns began to be written to express the truths of scriptures in rhyme and the language of the day. But some of these lacked quality. When young Isaac complained to his father about some of the songs, his father challenged him to do better. And so he did! Each week he composed a new hymn to go with the sermon, first with his father’s sermons and later with his own sermons as he became a pastor.

He wrote over 700 hymns throughout the course of his life, including “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”, “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?” and “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past.” He is called the father of modern hymns. His music is known both for its beauty and for its strong ties to biblical truth. He didn’t just write better music for Christians to use in worship, he wrote songs that shared the gospel using memorable lyrics and imagery. Here’s an excerpt from one of his lesser known hymns:

Not all the blood of beasts,
On Jewish altars slain,
Could give the guilty conscience peace,
Or wash away the stain.
But Christ the Heavenly Lamb
Takes all our sins away;
A sacrifice of nobler name,
And richer blood than they…
Believing, we rejoice
To see the curse remove;
We bless the Lamb with cheerful voice,
And sing His bleeding love.

It is said that a young Jewish girl read these words on a piece of paper that had been wrapped around a block of cheese she bought. She could not shake off the impression produced by the striking words; so she obtained a Bible and read it eagerly. She soon found in Jesus her true Messiah and Lord.

Jesus, the Message of Joy to the World

Like Watts’ other hymns, Joy to the World also has a strong evangelistic message. If you see "Joy To The World" as a just an upbeat Christmas carol, you’re missing out on the theological riches in its verses. Let’s take a look at a few things that jump out to me, starting with the first verse:

Joy to the world! The Lord is come.
Let earth receive her King
Let every heart
Prepare Him room
And heaven and nature sing...

The earth has a King whether He is recognized or not (John 18:33-37). Jesus is the KING of kings. At the end of time He will be revealed as such (Rev 19:11-16). Jesus is the message of the song because He is the King.

But this verse doesn’t stop at proclaiming the coming of the King. It also appeals to men everywhere to make room for the King. Every heart only has enough room for one king. (This is why I LOVE the Spanish song, “Ven y toma el trono de mi Coraz√≥n” which translated means “Come and take the throne of my heart!”)

The third verse of the carol begins this way:

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found...

Have you ever wondered why the Gospel is called “Good News”? Because the world we live in is full of bad news. The bad news is the Curse. With a capital C. Look at it: Gen 3:16-19 ...

16 To the woman He said,

“I will greatly multiply
Your pain in childbirth,
In pain you will bring forth children;
Yet your desire will be for your husband,
And he will rule over you.”

17 Then to Adam He said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it’;

Cursed is the ground because of you;
In toil you will eat of it
All the days of your life.
18 “Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you;
And you will eat the plants of the field;
19 By the sweat of your face
You will eat bread,
Till you return to the ground,
Because from it you were taken;
For you are dust,
And to dust you shall return.”

Think about it. The pain of childbirth is a result of the Curse. Struggles between husband and wife are a result of the Curse. Thorns and thistles are a result of the Curse. Hard living is a result of the Curse. Death is a result of the Curse.

And just how far is the curse found? According to Rom 8:19-22 the curse affected the whole world. The  whole of creation is longing for redemption from the curse, which is proclaimed by this wonderful carol! But please note that His blessings flow to those who have made room in their hearts. And the curse is removed in Christ (Gal 3:13) and will ultimately be removed from the whole earth (Rev 22:3).

In its final verse our carol draws to conclusion by pointing out that in Christ, grace and truth work together.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love...

We need the truth. We need to see things as they clearly are. We will never deal with the issues of our life until we see the truth. Did you know that’s why the Law was given to us? To expose our hypocrisy, our self-righteousness, our utter failure at being worthy of eternal life (Gal 3:19). It’s like the little boy who saw the emperor had no clothes. Without the truth, we all parade around like pompous Pharisees, congratulating each other on how pretty we look. And the truth is, we stink! The Law exposes our nakedness.

But it doesn’t stop there. I’m so glad the song includes both truth and grace! Because sometimes, just like that line from the movie, “We can’t handle the truth!” If He only ruled by truth, I’d be dead! Truth is, I don’t deserve His love. Truth is, I’ve let Him down so many times I’ve stopped counting. Truth is, I should not be included in His family. But the song says  “truth AND grace.”

John 1:14 tells us that Jesus was “full of grace and truth.” And John 1:17 goes on to say that “grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” The Law is important. It reveals the truth about our sinfulness, our inability to correct ourselves, the effect of the curse. But what the Law could not do, God did in Jesus (Rom 8:3). THIS is the message of “Joy To The World!”

What a great song!
I don’t think Isaac Watts intended this song to be kidnapped and held hostage to the Christmas season. This is a song of great joy the whole year long. It’s one of the finest missionary songs ever sung! It’s a song of hope, the message of joy and love replacing sin and sorrow. It is the Gospel!

Let me close by asking you a few questions: Have you experienced the message of “Joy to the World?” Has your heart prepared Him room? Is He reigning in your life? I pray that you can answer “Yes!” to every one of those questions and that you find His blessing flowing where the curse was once found. May you have JOY this Christmas season, and all year ‘round!