Be born in me.

Another guest post by my friend, Angel Davis:

Francesca Battistelli has written one of my favorite Christmas songs. When I first heard Be Born in Me, it resonated deeply. I am moved by the thought of Mary’s heart-cry after she learned that as an unwed teenager she was chosen to become mother to the Son of God. “I am the Lord’s servant…may your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38).

What surrender! We’ve become so accustomed to the story that we may not even sense just how profound that surrender was. We think, “Of course she responded that way. This is who God chose, so surely he gave her grace to respond as one chosen.” Or maybe we hear that response and say, “Whew! Good thing that wasn’t me getting that news. And good thing I’ll never be called like that.”

Unless we are all called like that. Aren’t we all carriers of the Incarnation? Is this not what Christmas is about? Isn’t this season of Advent a call to “make ready the inn” of our own hearts, so we can receive the Christ child with wholehearted surrender, as Mary teaches?

What does it mean to allow Christ to be “born” in us? The lyrics of Battistelli’s song speak volumes:

“I am not brave, I’ll never be


The only thing my heart can offer is a vacancy. 


I’m just a girl, nothing more


But I am willing, I am Yours.”

The message is clear: we have nothing to offer a holy God but our willingness and a place in our hearts. Our best is making room in the inn of our hearts to receive the Christ child and allow his power to work through us. We are not brave in and of ourselves and no good thing we can do or be can be good enough for a holy God. Yet, in the hands Emmanuel — God with us, God in us — our hearts can become a place where God dwells. He comes to reside in us and in him, we are born.

Hear that again: He comes to reside in us and in him, we are born. And being being born in him, we now have access to his presence and power. As we cultivate awareness and ask the Holy Spirit to build our confidence in that reality, we can make more of an impact in other lives.

In this Advent season, as we celebrate Jesus’ ‘arrival and as we experience the tension and yearning for the “not yet” completion of His final coming, we have the opportunity to let God search our hearts and minds and point out any offensive habits we hold onto (Psalm 139:23-24).

And isn’t it interesting that the scriptures specifically refer to “anxious thoughts”? Perhaps the biggest obstacle we have to the Christ who wants to be born in us — who wants us to be born into him — is our inability or unwillingness to rest in the finished work of Jesus. Because you and I, if we call ourselves Christ followers, do know the end of the story. He did come to save the world from the sin and evil. This is the good news of Christmas, of Jesus, of the Bible. He saves us from the tyranny of fear, of anxiety, of death, of sin. Making the inn of our hearts ready for more of Jesus means being honest about what those anxieties, fears and sins are, not just telling him about them but literally through prayer and repentance, handing them over so He can exchange them for His Peace. And we know we have done it when we actually have his peace, the peace that settles beyond reason in whatever circumstance we face.

His peace is an indicator of His presence.

This is how you and I — regular people, just like Mary and Joseph — can usher in the presence of Christ. This is how we bring him into every situation and into every room. It is a birthing — him into our hearts, and us into his — so that more and more of Jesus’ presence and power is released into the world in which we live. Surrender to that presence and power makes us part of the solution to a broken world. It is one person, allowing God to do what he desires with you … just like Mary.

Angel H. Davis is a Christ follower who lives in Athens, Georgia and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker specializing in healing prayer. Read more from Angel in her book, The Perfecting Storm: Experiencing God’s Best Through the Trials of Marriage. This is an exceptional resource for those who want to see transformation in their marriage.

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Jesus changes everything.

Think about the impact of one child’s birth in Bethlehem on the world we live in today. It is stunning to remember just how radically that one life has altered human history.

Jesus’ take on the value of life changed how we value children. Google “Jesus and children” and you’ll find a menu of articles, some of them claiming that Jesus basically invented children, in the sense that he defined them as people of worth. Before the culture of Christ permeated the Roman world, children were considered property, not people. They were used as slaves, often for sex, and infants were left on the street to die. Baby girls were left more often which meant more boys than girls, which meant more tension among adults and more abuse of women. When Jesus gave children value, the paradigm shift was global. And to think God did it by sending a baby, so we could no longer question what God really thinks about children and about the value of life.

Let’s talk about women. Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This was a radical statement, and it flowed out of Jesus’ own treatment of women. He made sure there was a place for them in the story of God. Women were with the disciples as they traveled. Women funded ministry. Women were last at the cross, first at the tomb and first to be told to go and tell the others. Jesus offered a paradigm that values women, children, the poor, the oppressed, the ones who never knew they had the favor of God. That changed everything.

And that changed education. Here’s what happens when people start thinking of other people as people. The next step is an improvement in basic human rights, beginning with education. One of the most radical social statements of Paul was his permission he gave women to learn (1 Timothy 2;11). It meant admitting that women had potential beyond their ability to bear children. And as Christianity progressed, schools became part of the Great Commission. Some of the finest academic institutions in the world were begun by Christians. Literacy is a Christian value. Global literacy was introduced with the movable press, and the first book printed on the Gutenberg press? The Bible.

Christianity opened us up to love. Jesus gave us a charge to love the hard ones — those who are sick and in prison and those who are poor. We’re told over and over in the Bible to make room in our hearts and lives for widows and orphans. This led to the development of what we now call hospitals. One of the early Councils of church leaders (the Council of Nyssa) made it a standard that every church should be attached to a place that cares for sick and poor people.

Jesus made humility and forgiveness cool. Philippians 2 explains the crucifixion and its value of humility in such clear terms. He humbled himself even unto death as a way of serving humanity and that personality trait changed the way a hierarchical world valued humility as a virtue. Conan the Barbarian was once famously asked, “What is best in life?” This was his answer: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.” In contrast, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43). Hannah Arendt, a professor at Princeton, goes so far as to say that, “The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth.” That is quite a claim.

Jesus changed the way we value people. The hymn Amazing Grace was written by John Newton, a slave trader who became a Christian as a result of a miracle on his ship. He continued to trade in slaves for years after his conversion but eventually God changed his heart, and he wrote a scathing pamphlet read by every member of the British Parliament, entitled, “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade.” He said, “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” It was a Christian emperor who banned gladiator fights, and it has been Christian missionaries who have helped humans end the practice of cannibalism.

Christians have made some of the most profound scientific discoveries. One of the biggest misconceptions of our faith that somehow science and Christianity stand in opposition to each other, when in fact, Christianity promotes the idea of a rational God as Intelligent Designer. We consider our God the inventor of the scientific laws discovered by Christian scientists — Galileo, Keppler, Boyle, Pascal, Pasteur, Newton, Schaeffer. Stanley Jaki was a physicist who famously developed the theory that, “modern scientific inquiry cannot only exist alongside religion, but that modern science only could have arisen within a Christian society.” Francis Bacon said he practiced science as a way to learn more about God. He wrote, “A little philosophy inclines man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy brings men’s minds about to religion.”

What Christians believe has fundamentally changed the course of human history. The change was in process with the Jewish people, but Jesus — the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — changed everything. And because of that, our day to day circumstances are not the ground of our hope. The only circumstances in which we can place hope are the circumstances surrounding the birth, death & resurrection of Jesus, and on our acceptance of those circumstances. If we place our hope in anything else, we set ourselves up for disappointment.

This is the message of Christmas. It is a message to the world that our Messiah has come and his coming changes everything at the most basic level. This baby changes my value, changes my capacity for forgiveness, changes my personality, changes my potential for understanding the world around me. This Son of God has chosen to reside in my heart, and in the hearts of all who invite him, and claiming that as my hope … changes everything.

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Thank you, Jesus.

“The word became flesh,” John wrote, “and lived among us and we beheld his glory.”

God — perfect in every detail — decided to be normal and called it glorious. He gave himself the powerlessness of an infant. He needed diapers. And milk. And comfort. He cried.

(Never mind what the Christmas carol says: “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”  Its a sweet thought, but really? Of course he cried! That was his glory — that he was willing to experience fully what we know as life.)

He had birthdays and good days and sick days and down days. He did boy things, like wrestle and throw rocks and run. He laughed and cried and got angry and tired and hungry. He made friends. And when he grew up, he looked like a man and acted like a man … so completely … that almost nobody knew he was God. John the Baptist had to point him out to us. He looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold!  The Lamb of God!”

And even then, no one took that seriously. Or almost no one.

For the sake of Jesus being everything God intended, he set aside all the authority of a god and  experienced the world he created by becoming small enough to walk through it. The one thing that transferred from heaven to earth was love. Jesus loved people the way only God can.

He took on our limitations so he could experience pain as we do and show us how to be unafraid of it. Love came down to walk with us through our worst, to grieve our limits and weaknesses with us so he could restore our stories.

At just the right time, the Bible says the Word became flesh. And in light of that grace-soaked truth, the only holiday greeting that makes sense is, “Thank you.”

Safiyah Fosua, who has a book of meditations called Mother Wit has a wonderful bit about this idea of God with us:

“What must it have been like, Jesus, to leave your home in glory to come to a place like this? … What must it have been like, Jesus, to limit yourself to flesh? After being Spirit for all of that time, how did it feel to hunger, to weep, to plead, to bleed? You walked up and down dusty roads, slept on the ground, and prayed all night long for me. I thank you for tasting a multitude of miseries so that you could really understand my petty moans and complaints.

“Thank you, Jesus, for enduring a family that often did not understand you, and for enduring the rejection of hometowns. I even thank you for letting them call you crazy! Now, I don’t feel so alone. Lord, thank you for loving Peter, and reclaiming Mary of Magdalene. In them I am reassured of your love for me. Thank you for opening eyes that had been sightless, and for restoring the sick to their families. Thank you for raising dead folks like me. Thank you, Jesus, for coming to us on that first Christmas morning.”

For showing us how to overcome … thank you, Jesus.

For being the perfect servant of God … thank you, Jesus.

For bringing justice to the nations … thank you, Jesus.

For being a visible sign of God’s grace … thank you, Jesus.

For being our hope … thank you, Jesus.

For being God’s promise for the people … thank you, Jesus.

For being a light in this dark world … thank you, Jesus.

For being King of Kings and Lord of Lords … thank you, Jesus.

Thank you.

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The only reason to believe

Lee Strobel’s masterful book, The Case For Christmas, tells of his journey from atheism to Christianity while investigating the claims of Christ.

He tells the story of interviewing a guy named Louis Lapides, a Jew who had almost no exposure to Christianity. In fact, the only thing he “knew” (or thought he knew) about Christians was that they didn’t like Jews. That distorted belief didn’t endear him to our scriptures.

When Louis was seventeen his parents divorced, and for him the God who was already distant became pretty much non-existent. He went to Viet Nam, got into drugs, got depressed. He ended up one day on a sidewalk in California arguing with a group of Christians about the existence of God and the reality of Jesus. When all his other arguments failed, he told them he couldn’t believe in Jesus because he was Jewish.

One of them asked him, “Do you know of the prophecies about the Messiah?” Louis had never heard about the prophecies — the ones in our Old Testament, his Jewish scriptures — that pointed to Jesus as Messiah. That was astonishing information to him. This was the first he’d heard that there might be a connection between his Jewish faith and this Jesus. The guy on the sidewalk offered him a Bible and said, “Read the Old Testament and ask the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the God of Israel – to show you if Jesus is the Messiah. Because he is your Messiah. He came to the Jewish people initially, and then he was also the Savior of the world.”

Louis said, “Fine, I’ll read the Old Testament part, but I won’t open up the New Testament.”

He went home and started with Genesis. To his amazement, as he read he found one prophecy after the next (more than four dozen major ones) pointing to a prophet who was greater than Moses. Strobel says Louis was stopped cold at Isaiah 53, a prophecy written more than 700 years before Jesus.

There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him. He was despised and rejected – a man of sorrows, acquainted with the bitterest grief. We turned our backs on him, and looked the other way when he went by. He was despised, and we did not care. Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God for his own sins! But he was wounded and crushed for our sins. He was beaten that we might have peace. He was whipped, and we were healed! All of us have strayed away like sheep. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the guilt and sins of us all.

This was the Jesus those sidewalk prophets had been talking about! This revelation left Louis with the only conclusion he considered reasonable: Christians must have altered the Old Testament to make all those prophecies sound like Jesus!

Louis knew how to verify his suspicion. He called his grandmother and asked her to send him a copy of her Jewish Scripture. When he read it and found that it matched the Christian scriptures … well, that’s when he started running out of arguments.

And that’s when he decided to turn the last page of the Old Testament and read the first page of the New Testament. For the first time in his life he read the first words of Matthew:

“A record of the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah, a descendant of David and of Abraham.”

The more he read the more it all fit together. He realized this was a conspiracy; it was a story about Jewish people for Jewish people. “I couldn’t put it down, Louis said. “I read through the rest of the gospels, and I realized this was not a handbook for the American Nazi party; it was an interaction between Jesus and the Jewish community.”

A few days later, before his life was all cleaned up, he told God, “I have to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus is the Messiah. I need to know that you, as the God of Israel, want me to believe this.” Louis says that in the next moment, somehow, experientially, God convinced him that he exists and Louis became a follower of Jesus. God didn’t give Louis one more answer. He gave him himself.

“The Lord himself will give you a sign …”

The Lord himself. This is the glory and truth of Christmas: The Lord himself. We believe, because he is true.

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Why Christmas Is Worth It

At our downtown ministry this week, I watched a precious soul rock an invisible baby while “Away in a Manger” was being sung and I was overwhelmed by the values of God and his preference for the poor.

It is completely antithetical to our human nature to seek after and invest in the hidden places where the poorest of the poor live and yet this is the very heart of God. He refuses to forget the ones forgotten by the world: the almost-hermit with decades-old depression, the woman who rocks an imaginary baby, the mentally ill one who changed names two or three times in the course of an evening, the one who celebrated her approval for section-eight housing as if it were good news to be poor enough to need rental assistance.

Jesus doesn’t forget them.

In fact, he looks for the ones who look like him and the prophet tells me, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). Which means we are left to learn how to love the unattractive, to desire the company of the undesirable. We are also left to wrestle with an uncomfortable truth: To enter into the heart of Jesus is to submit to hidden, unglamorous work.

When Isaiah was deep into the work of penning a weighty bit of prophecy about the coming Messiah, he took time to describe how this Redeemer would deal with people. He said He would not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick.

Glenn Penton writes about this. In the days of Isaiah, shepherds would pass the time out in the fields by making a simple flute out of a reed. It was something to do, but also a kind of protection. They’d play it at night to let predators know that the sheep were not alone out there. But a reed flute being played by a boy-shepherd is not going to last long. It gets bent, stepped on, bruised.
Rather than trying to save a broken flute, the shepherd would toss it and make a new one. Same with their candles. They’d make cheap candles by floating a piece of flax in oil. Flax makes a great flame but when the oil gets low, the flax falls over into the oil and then you just get smoke. It is easier to make a new candle than to fish out a smoldering flax and repair it.

God told Isaiah we would know the Messiah by the way he treats the broken reeds and damaged wicks — the ones with personality disorders and bi-polar conditions and divorce and addiction and poverty. From the world’s perspective, reeds and wicks are disposable. “Toss these, and get new ones.” That is the world’s take on those who are banged up, stepped on, bruised, face down and smoldering.

Not so in the Kingdom of God. The true Messiah sees hope in even the most hopeless souls and by His power makes all things new. He specializes in the reclamation of bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. He makes things and people work again.

And this is what makes Christmas worth doing. Because at its core, it is so much more than warm feelings, family dinners and big gifts. Christmas is God stepping in when all hope seems lost to rescue the ones the world would just as soon give up on.

Lest I sound more holy than I am, I have to admit that this fact grates against all my unholy ambitions. It is also the very source of my sanctification. God has told me the path to righteousness. It is to love justice, do mercy, walk humbly … to fall in love with the people who break his heart. He wants my work to bear his image. This is tough spiritual work for ambitious people but it turns out to be the only option if his heart is my hope.

This is the only path that makes the anxiety and busy-ness of Christmas worth the trouble. So I pray for you and me both that in this season, we will learn what it really means to embody the very heart of Christ, to do the hidden work of incarnational ministry, to allow ourselves nothing less than that which builds the Kingdom on earth.

 

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A Bakery, a Battlefield and a Birthplace

Bethlehem.

It is so much more than the name of a middle-eastern town. Buried in this treasure of a term is the story of Christmas.

Beth El in the Bible means “house of God.”  The first part is the usual word for house, but it has connotations of family. It can also mean temple.

The second part of Bethlehem is the Hebrew word for bread, but this bread is not just the side item on your plate. It is what Jesus was talking about when he taught us to pray, “Give us today our daily bread.” This bread is the difference between life and death.

There is another connotation to that second part of the word Bethlehem. Sometimes, it can mean “to do battle or fight.” That isn’t the usual meaning attached to the name but there is this strong connection to a battle.

When we put all that together, something like a little miracle emerges in what God has woven into the name of the place where Jesus was born. Jesus, the Bread of Life, was born in a place called “House of Bread.” The one who did battle with death itself and won, who was raised to victory after three days in a grave, was born in a place called “House of Battle.”

God chose a seemingly insignificant place, Bethlehem, and there he created the Bread of Life and the One who would defeat death. And on the night he gave himself up for us, Jesus lifted up the symbols of a bakery and a battleground — bread and blood.

Christmas and Easter really do belong in the same breath.

When we place our trust in Him — this God-man who is spiritual food for us and who promises to do battle in the spiritual realm for us – we are born spiritually into his family and become members of the House of God. Our birthplace then becomes Bethlehem just as surely as his was.

Bethlehem. It is a place of possibility, a place of new birth, a place where we are fed, where we are protected, where we are home.

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small …” – Micah 5:2

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