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A Measure of Love: On Christmas Eve (at 1 AM) in the Morning

christmas-1812692__340.jpgWhom God loves, he loves to the end:

And not to their end, and to their death

But to his end.

And his end is that he might love them more.

John Donne

Mom! Oh mom, oh mom, oh mom, my 13 year-old moaned. My stomach hurts so much. Please come. 

I wished he’d called for Papa instead. Because Mama was nestled and snuggled in bed. The heat was set low and she didn’t want to go.

After a week of short nights, this, I’d hoped, would be her night for a long winter’s nap.

Love Rolls Out of Bed

Mom, please come, he cried again.

I rolled over. It was 1:04. I’d been with him at 9 and 10 and checked in again with meds at 11. Then to bed and sugarplums.

Coming, I called with a sigh.

“So this is Christmas,” I thought as I lay in the dark, groping about for glasses and socks.

I forced myself out of my snuggly, warm bed and shivering, stumbled my way toward the groans. Then halfway down the hall, it hit me.

That this IS Christmas. That this might actually be closer to the “real meaning of Christmas” than cozy and comfy and Silent Night by candlelight.

That, really, Christmas is more like leaving the warmth to show love in the cold.

This is love come down.

Love Came Down At Christmas

The creed says, “For us and for our salvation he came down.” Paul put it like this to the Philippians,

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself to death, even death on a cross.

I left my warm bed to care for my sick, pitiful child. The Son left the glories of heaven at his Father’s side- the bosom of the Father some translations say- to care for his sin-sick children.

Choosing discomfort to serve another: this is one measure of love.

A Measure of Love

Comfort is overrated. And when it comes to love comfort might not rate at all. In fact, our own discomfort might be a much more accurate indicator of our love for others.

When I weigh my love on this measure, I’m not very loving. Honestly, if Sam’s moans had not been so loud, I might have ignored them. Because I’m a master of excuses for staying in my comfort zones: I deserve this sleep. Jim can go. I warned this son about all that soda and candy and cake.

But God loves us too much to leave us as we are. He calls us to deny ourselves and prefer others and gives us the grace to do it. Christ gives us victory over our selfish, comfort-loving hearts.

We’re more than conquerors through him who loved us and more than conquerors don’t stay stuck in comfort zones. They step into discomfort for love’s sake.

They move into cold driveways and hard conversations.

Discomfort For Love’s Sake

Mom, will you come out and play PIG with me? Please? 

That from the 11 year-old who invited me out for a game of PIG in the driveway. Who called me out of the a cozy house on a 29° day.

Sure Gabe, I’ll come. This time, love won.

It happened again when love pushed me to talk to a relative to whom talking didn’t come naturally.

So Mike, how is it going with work?  I asked. It wasn’t easy, but it was good.

By the measure of choosing others’ “interests” over my comfort, my love is low. The fact that these events are memorable at all shows how vast the room for my love to grow.

Think how you would like to become a slug.

Puritan Anthony Burgess marveled too, at “discomfort” the Incarnation must have been for the Son.

He that was in the bosom of His Father- an expressing showing the intimate, close and secret delight and love He had from the Father. How unspeakable is it that He should deprive Himself of the sense of it? To put himself, as it were out of heaven and into hell? This is deeper love than ever we can imagine or conceive: no wonder the apostle calls it “the unsearchable riches of grace.” 

This is deeper love than we mere mortals who dread to get out of bed in the cold middle of the night can imagine. The Son left the warmth of the heavenly Father for our sakes.

For our sake, Love left heaven for sick, cold earth. This is unsearchably rich grace.

C.S. Lewis made the comparison, too, in more graphic terms than Burgess.

The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a Woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab. 

Yes, real love is humble and comes down and goes out into the cold. Out of warm beds and warm homes and comfortable conversation zones.

How Love Came Down

Love came out of heaven’s bright glory and was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger, because there was no place…in the inn. 

My Bible footnote on Luke 2:7 says that Christ could have been born in a stable or cave, but that “mangers were often outdoors, so it’s possible that Jesus was born in the open air.”

Open air or stable or cave- they all sound uncomfortable and cold.

But that is how Love came down.

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 

1 John 4:9-11

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For Poor Ornery People

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
For poor on’ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky

John Jacob Niles.

Do you know that old Christmas folk song, I Wonder As I WanderDo you like it?

I never did.

But it’s growing on me.

Just Plain Ornery

Because far too often, I’m just plain ornery.  I turn grumpy and stubborn when my will is not done and impatient and harsh when my rules are crossed.  Other times I crave man’s praise and sulk when thanks doesn’t come. Sometimes my skin’s too thin and my heart’s too hard. That’s when I crumble into an ugly selfish heap.

I do.

In every case, poor and on’ry pretty well fits the bill. And there’s nothing like the Christmas rush to provoke ornery, at least in me. Which explains why I’m humming this tune a lot these days.

It fits me- I. I am prone to wander from the joyful obedience of faith and I feel it.

I simply am not naturally nice.

Driving in a Hard School?

Which is why I’m filled more and more with wonder anymore- in awe that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. Poor on’ry ones, maybe like you, for sure like me.

I’ve shared this quote before. But I stumbled on it again this week and let’s just say it was a Godsend  for this poor, on’ry mom to whom nice does not alway come easily.

If you are a nice  person- if Virtue comes easily to you- beware! Much is expected from those to whom much is given. If you mistake your own merits what are really God’s gifts to you through nature, and if you are contented with simply being nice, you are still a rebel…

But if you are a poor creature- poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels- saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion- nagged day in and day out be an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends – do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can. One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) He will fling it on the scrap-heap and give you a new one. And then you may astonish us all- not least yourself: for you have learned your driving in a hard school. (Mere Christianity, Book IV, Chapter 10)

Is yours a wretched machine? Are you beset and tempted to sin, within and without? Poor and ornery? Keep on. God knows.

Known by God

Keep looking to Jesus. He knows. He’s familiar. Honestly, it’s why Jesus came. Christmas happened to show us that God not only knows us, He loves us. With great love.

He knows all about it. He knows our frame, David wrote. Which means, we are known. Paul slid that blessed truth in to build his don’t-be-led-astray case to the Galatians, but the clause is rich it could stand alone,

But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God…

Known by God. The Father’s children are known by Him. And loved by him to boot. What could be better?

Maybe only  this one other thing: He came to buy back us poor ornery one with his blood. Someplace else  it says that Jesus, had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

To make propitiation. That’s New Testament fancy for atone for our sins. ForJesus the Savior did come for to die. 

Jesus the Savior did Come for to Die

Can you say good news of great joy?

God came to earth as one of us, like his brothers in every respect. He suffered when tempted and we will too. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you (1 Peter 5:10).

He’ll fling that old, wretched machine on the scrap heap and then we’ll forever be free from sorrow, free from sin. Restored, confirmed, strengthened and established. No more poor, ornery. The God of all grace will bring it to pass. 

So fight the good fight of faith. Resist the devil, firm in your faith. Do what you can. Repent of your sin. And keep on. Get back up. Don’t buy the lie that no one knows your struggle or pain. Or that no one cares.

You are known by God and He does care. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Jesus our Savior did come for to die. 

To save sinners. Including poor on’ry ones like you and like I.

 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.

1 Timothy 1:15

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The Coming Has Come: Why We Need Advent

Why Advent? Why celebrate a coming that’s already done?

It’s upon us.  Advent is here. And Advent means coming. So we could say, the coming has come.

Has it ever struck you as a wee bit strange that we prepare for the coming of something that’s already come?

But that Something was what Dr, Luke called in his Gospel, “the Holy Thing which shall be born” of Mary and called the Son of God. And so beyond, or better, in  the stockings and candles and chocolates and Legos (thank you, friends) behind each little numbered door, behind the Shepherd on the Search  and nightly excursions on Jotham’s Journey, is the Holy One who came into our world from outside.

Oswald Chambers. wrote that His coming was “the Highest and Holiest entering at the Lowliest door.” Jesus Christ, the Holy One- Son of God and Son of man- was born.

So this is Christmas.

But what’s the big deal about Advent?

We get Christmas. We celebrate all manner of birthdays, so of course we pick a day to celebrate our Savior’s birth.  But why stretch it across four Sundays?  Why four weeks leading up?

Because this birthday is way to big for one day to contain. We need more time to stir ourselves up for this one. We need these extra weeks to remember why Christmas is such a big deal. It’s when we, Church, ask ourselves all over again, What do we think of Christ? 

In “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged,” Dorothy Sayers says our answer to that is categorical. and uncompromising: 

Jesus Bar-Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth, was in fact and in truth, and in the most exact and literal sense of the words, the God “by whom all things were made.” He was not merely a man so good as to be “like God”- he was God.

Now, this is not just a pious commonplace; it is not a commonplace at all. For what it means is this, among other things that for whatever reason God chose to make man as he is- limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death- he [God] had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself.

C.S. Lewis simply said,  The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God. No, It’s not commonplace at all. 

How would you like to become a slug?

But Lewis wasn’t done,

The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a Woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab. (Mere Christianity, Book IV, Chapter 5)

Before him, 19th century Scottish pastor Horatius Bonar explained,

God’s desire is to bless us, not to curse; to save, not to destroy. He seeks reconciliation with us; nay, He has brought about the reconciliation. He has not merely made proposals of peace and sent the to us by the hand of an ambassador; but He has Himself come to us, bearing His own message and presenting Himself to us in our nature, as His own ambassador…God Himself is both the speaker and the maker of peace. 

We need more than a day to let this truth sink in.  Hence all this Advent todo. It is much ado- but maybe not nearly enough ado- about the greatest event ever.

How can this be?

Because, The creation of the world was a very great thing, but not so great as the incarnation of Christ, wrote another 19th century pastor William Plumer, It was a great thing for God to make the creature, but not so great as for the Creator to become a creature. 

Can such a impossible thing be true? How can God, who is spirit, take on flesh and blood? Can very God become very Man via a virgin’s womb?

The virgin wondered too.

When Mary asks how she could conceive God’s Son, the angel Gabriel gave an answer that “must be one of the most important statements that has ever been made in any book in all of history.” Gabriel answered Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy — the Son of God,”  ( Luke 1:35 ).

God  broke into the universe by doing the impossible.

Enough time to wrap your head around impossible?

Probably not. But at least for me, wreaths and hymns and candles and readings and 24-door calendars force the impossible issue.

“For nothing will be impossible with God,” (Luke 1:37). That’s what Gabriel says to Mary as the bottom line answer for how Christmas would happen.

In a sermon on Luke 1:26-38, John Piper explains,

[W]hen all our objections have spent themselves, this truth remains: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” God had been preparing the world for this impossibility for thousands of years. Listen to the testimonies: Genesis 18:14, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” Job 42:2, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” Jeremiah 32:17, “Ah, Lord God! It is you who has made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.” And the time has come for the most impossible thing to be done: God enters his creation as part of it, and without ceasing to be the uncreated God.

He came and did the impossible. That first coming is done.

Or, time to worship the God for whom nothing is impossible?

So, that’s why guys. That’s why this family celebrates the Coming that’s come.

Because it takes a while to wrap our minds around the impossible thing that was done- around a Coming that came. Around a Coming that’s already done.  That’s what those 24 funny little doors on our Advent Calendars- yes, even the chocolate and Legos behind them- and our Sunday night adventures in dripping candle wax and our singing seven verses (or at least four) of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel are all about.

All for love. We bring up the bins and set up all this stuff because God took the initiative in his great love to restore us to Him. Because God so loved the world He sent his only begotten Son.  We remember in these three Advent weeks that people living in darkness have seen a great light. That God has visited his people.  And, yes, that He will come again.

We  remember that God did the impossible and the Holy One has come. And Advent isn’t nearly enough time to wrap our minds around it.

But we can worship Him while we try.

Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo, faithful virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He will wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created, thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son and Brother;
Whom thou conceivst, conceived; yea thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother;
Thou hast light in dark, and shuts in little room,
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.

-John Donne,  “Annunciation”
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Magnify

And Mary said,
My soul does
magnify 
the Lord, 
and my spirit 
rejoices in God my Savior. 
 Luke 1:46-47

I’m not Roman Catholic.

But, still.

Only 27 percent?  What about the Round yon virgin,” or the Herald Angels’, “offspring of a virgin’s womb”? Or, modern fav-everyone from Mary J. Blige to Clay Aiken to Kenny Rogers have all glommed on to croon-Mary Did You Know?  Yup, only 27 percent.

Shockingly low. Of nearly 400 Christmas hymns, a mere quarter even mention Mary. That places her slightly behind the angels and shepherds; both in 28 percent of the carols analyzed. 
Why so few mentions of Mary? Michael Linton at First Things says the answer is simple.

Our carols are primarily 19th and 20th century Protestant inventions, not a time that’s known for its deep Roman Catholic/Protestant cooperation and mutual affection.  Mary can’t be excised from the Christmas story completely, but in the carols she’s mentioned as little as possible, for fear of turning her into an object of cultic devotion-something most Protestants have accused Roman Catholics of doing for a fairly long time. 

The Protestant doth protest too much, methinks. Poor Mary. We threw her out with the holy water. To our loss.

Magníficat ánima mea Dóminum, anyone? 


Mary did know. Not all. But she did know how to magnify her Lord. And that’s where she’s a model for us all; women and men, Catholics and Protestant. 

How do we magnify God?

Simple answer (again). Psalm 69:30 says, Magnify Him with thanksgiving. 

Mary knew how to praise and thank her God. She started with herself: that God was mindful of her humble estate. That he uniquely blessed her. But Mary’s thanks reached wide, past the great things God had done for her. She thanked him for his mercy for those who fear him and showing strength with his arm, for bringing down the mighty and exalted and for filling the hungry with good things. For remembering his covenant to her people, Israel.

Is there any of us who has not received some special favor from the Lord? What, after all, do we have that we have not received? When your own heart is lifted up, urges Spurgeon then lift up the name of the Lord. Exalt him when he exalts you

Sitting down quietly in our chamber, can we not each one say that the Lord has favored him or her with some special token of divine love? I think there is something about each believer’s case which renders it special…There are some bright lines about your case, brother, which will be seen nowhere else, and some peculiar manifestations about your happiness, my sister, of which no one else can tell. 

I might not be straining words if I were to say to many a sister in Christ here, “Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” And I might say the same to many a brother here: “Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among men. The Lord hath done great things for thee, and let thy spirit be glad.”  

All well and good, you say. But we can’t literally ourselves to Mary’s blessed state; chosen by God to carry and bear his Beloved Son sets her apart. Sure. Mary was a unique case. She was specially favored. Granted. The mystery of Word become flesh in Mary’s womb is great. Yes.

And yet.

You and me, here and now, are part of an even greater mystery. 

What is this mysterious, magnificent duty that God’s granted usYou will do greater things than these, Jesus told his disciples. In a sermon titled, “The Key Note of a Choice Sonnet,” C.H. Spurgeon describes the mystery:

…For, behold, the Holy Ghost dwells in each believer. He lives within us as within a temple, and reigns within us as in a palace. If we be partakers of the Holy Ghost, what more can we desire by way of favor from God, and what greater honor can be bestowed upon us? 

It was by [Mary] that the Word became incarnate, but so also is it by us, for we can make God’s Word stand out visibly in our lives. It is ours to turn into actual, palpable existence among the sons of men the glorious Spirit of grace and truth which we find in the Word of God.    

It’s ours to make our great God look bigger. Not bigger than He is. That’s impossible-even the highest heavens cannot contain him. Instead, it for us to make our big God begin to look as big as he really is. Telescopes make big stars look even bigger, brighter. They magnify. 

Man’s chief end: To glorify God and enjoy him forever. To magnify is to glorify.

“Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is created for my glory, whom I formed and made…The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself, that they might declare my praise. (Isaiah 43:6-7,20-21

John Piper condenses the Christian’s whole duty to this: “To feel, think, and act in a way that will make God look as great as he really is…To be a telescope for the world of the infinite starry wealth of the glory of God.”

We who are highly favored-it’s ours to make God’s goodness palpably visible to our world.  Magnify him with thanks. Bring him into focus with praise.

O’er all the Babel sounds, sing God’s praises louder.

Magnify like Mary.

I will praise the Lord with a song; 

I will magnify him with thanksgiving.

Psalm 69:30