© Joe Randeen - Used with permission

Face the New Year with Hope

For Christians who follow the church year, New Years Eve occurs in Christmastide, the part of the church year pointing to the Epiphany of Jesus. This is not to belittle New Years Eve. Glittering lights, balloons, plastic horns, streamers, fireworks and the hope represented by the popping of Champaign are good things. The reflection that happens on New Years Eve often leads to thankfulness for the goodness of God over the past year. Bright sparks and celebratory music tell the truth—there is hope in the coming of a new year.

But how does one live into this hope when the signs around us may be anything but sparkling with optimistic expectation? Romans 15:13 points us to a few realities for finding and hanging on to hope:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

“The God of hope” means that God is hope in his very being. He contains it and liberally supplies hope to his people, filling them to overflowing with joy and peace as we recognize and grasp onto God’s hope. This is big: it means you don’t have to “work hope up” when you are feeling hopeless about something. You just have to ask. But to ask, you have to “trust in him”. You have to place your confidence in him that you are not somehow singled out among the masses to live in hopelessness.

Hope is the fuel for life. We cannot live without it. Paul is not just spouting words. He thinks he is saying something important. He is.

This News Years Eve, before you head out to your party or get-together of what ever kind, or even if you are staying home to watch the East Coast version of New Year’s Rockin’ Eve you so can go to bed early, take a few moments to place the hope-challenged parts of your life before God. With conviction ask him to give you some hope, even just a bit, so that you can get up on the first of January with some joy and peace through which you can face to the New Year.

– Todd Hunter

Genealolgy

Christmas Eve: A Really Long Story

A really L-O-N-G Story leads to the Eve Of Christmas, the birth of Jesus. When did you last read the book of the Genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham (Mt. 1: 1 – 17)? I always feel tempted to skip over those verses too. Listening yesterday to Pray-As-You-Go I was given some language for my feelings: I am never sure what to make of the list. I even can feel a bit alienated by it. The names of old guys don’t sound like the names in my family or among my friends. What do the fourteen generations from Abraham to David and the fourteen more from the deportation of Israel to Babylon up to the birth of Jesus have to do with us who live many generations later?

But Matthew is not senseless. As an author of a tract written to convince people to trust and follow Jesus, he began the way he did for a reason. As Pray-As-You-Go suggests:

Perhaps Matthew was giving us a sense of heritage, of history unfolding through the generations, of the coming true of Israel’s hope that a Savior would come from the house of David, of the promise being fulfilled?

For the people of that time, family background was very important, it meant, “this is where you come from”, “this is who you are.” That wouldn’t necessarily be the case in every part of the world today, but where do you get your sense of identity from, your sense of who you are?

Amongst the forty-two male names – this long line of fathers – four women and three mothers are mentioned: Rahab, Tamar, Ruth and Mary. [As you think of Matthew’s genealogy], what do you think it is telling you about who Jesus is, and even who you are?

This Christmas Eve, at the hinge point between Advent and Christmastide, maybe you could sit for a moment with the story told by Matthew’s genealogy and let it refine your sense of person, of history, and of a future that never ends as one of the people of God.

– Todd Hunter

The Fish Wars

I know it is tough to be a Christian today. These days, in polite society, one gets the impression that no decent person with even a shred of intelligence could believe the non-scientific, backward, even hateful things that Christians purportedly believe.

Game over? Are Christians just waiting for the clock to run out, wondering if, like youth sports, there is a mercy rule in religion? I see many Christians, in a hurry to get to their cars and leave, hustling out of the stadium of religion, heads hanging in grief, guilt or shame.

I get it. I understand both sides. People genuinely misunderstand Jesus. They think they have heard the Gospel. They say they know Christians. But they reject both the caricature of Jesus they have heard and the un-Christian Christians they have met. Christians feel judged too—rightfully protesting: “We don’t hate gay people! We are not all in bed with politicians! We don’t think that everyone who disagrees with our denomination is going to hell!”

This is all real. But the instinct to fight back in a kind of PR war will not work. Remember The Fish Wars—the Truth fish eating the Darwin fish? That went well…for sellers of trinkets. But I’d bet my last dollar that millions of pieces of plastic of the back of cars did not change many minds. No one ever converted to Christ because they lost a bumper sticker war.

But, standing tall in the middle of human history, behind all the ups and downs of two thousand years cultural religious tension is the person of Jesus Christ. He is the most amazing being to ever walk, talk or do deeds of love, power and justice. He can handle some bad PR.

Jesus stands through his moments on the cross. At the cross Jesus stepped upon the stage of world history, where he has remained up to the present. As he said at a crucial turning point in his career (John 12): I, when I am lifted up from the earth [in crucifixion], will draw all people to myself. We need to see clearly the profound wisdom of his chosen path toward his goal.

Jesus very purposively rejected opportunities to be a political or military leader or a king. With his incredible power and attractiveness, had he wished to do so, there were many ways he could have avoided the cross. But, as he clearly told his followers at the time (John 10): I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.

In his death on the cross Jesus revealed both the depth of human sin and brutality and the unlimited reach of God’s love and power. Jesus lifted up on the cross is the turning point in history that consistently makes itself seen and felt in every generation—even generations in which church, Christians and religion are not popular. How? Two things:

First, as Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, we preach Christ crucified…the power of God and the wisdom of God. And second, we live as if we believe this wisdom is true. We don’t, in frustration, merely point to doctrine. Rather, being partakers of the life of the risen Christ, we announce, embody and demonstrate a cross and resurrection-enabled life. We do so not just for our own piety, but also for the sake of others, that others would experience our followership of Jesus as for their good.

– Todd Hunter

The Singularity of Voices

And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away. (Ezra 3:11b-13)

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People groups often adapt to change in fits and starts. Some people like fresh inventions and innovations; other people find the new expressions difficult or substandard, and long for things as they used to be.

The people of Israel had been in exile, and had recently been released to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the city under the watchful eye of King Cyrus of Persia. The city walls were repaired, taunting enemies were chased off, and—with great anticipation and fanfare—the foundation of the new Temple was laid.

The former Temple—a glorious structure built by King Solomon—had long been destroyed. The new Temple would bring joy to the people as a worshipping community, but it would be a different structure than the one that preceded it.

So there was both rejoicing and weeping when the foundation was completed. Perhaps the older folks wept, not only because the Temple was returning to Jerusalem, but also because it would be different from the one they remembered from their youth. For the younger people, who had no memory of the former Temple, it was a new and exciting project, one that would finally ground their identity in their homeland.

We’re told that all the voices—the weeping, the laughing, the mourning, the rejoicing—all came together as one voice.

We who follow Jesus do so in a culture that is characterized by rapid, discontinuous change. It’s not just that the world around us changes—technology, international relations, social and legal boundaries—but also that the life of the church keeps changing. New expressions of worship and mission emerge, sometimes on their own, and other times in the midst of congregations that have been immersed in many years of tradition. People often rejoice when these changes come. Others, however, weep.

The older I get, the more I appreciate this tension. It’s difficult to distinguish between traditions that have deep and lasting value and those that are just temporary cultural preferences. It’s both exciting and frightening to pursue innovations in worship and communal life. It’s too bad, however, when the response of the church is to divide and separate, draw lines in the sand and create boundaries that alienate.

It is a joy, however, when all come together and search for the fingerprints of God in what seems to be emerging in our midst—not new expressions for the sake of newness, but fresh engagements with the Spirit of God that capture new images and songs, revitalizing ancient traditions and creating new ones. And within all the tension that comes with new things, the voices that cry out do so as one voice, a voice that rejoices before God.

Right now I’m hearing the prayer of Jesus—a prayer that anticipates even us—that might help us think about this:

“I ask not only on behalf of these [disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)

May it be so, Lord.

– Mike McNichols