Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Isaiah 41:10
I attended a wedding a few weeks back and really lost myself in tears during worship (love it when that happens!). We were singing the song Jesus by Chris Tomlin and the line in the chorus, “He stands in the fire beside me” hit me really hard. I was a wreck in a beautiful way.
I am sure some of you can immediately think of times when you stood in the fire, feeling all alone, and wondering where God was. The good thing is that, in hindsight, we always see how He had been there every step of the way.
Some of you might be in that very fire now. Perhaps you are suffering from the loss of a family member, betrayal by a loved one, or just overwhelmed by the weight of your own sin; and you are wondering when it is going to end. Please remember the powerful image that Jesus is right there with you in the scorching heat and experiencing the pain right by your side. Just as the powerful promise in Isaiah, “Fear not, for I am with you,” whenever you are questioning His presence, know that He is there. And even in our darkest hour, we have nothing to fear as He is right there with us (Psalm 23:4). In fact, He is here especially for the weak and the faint because “the LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”(Psalm 34:18)
Whether you are standing in the fire or on the mountaintop admiring God’s faithfulness, I hope that as we approach Christmas this year, we can reflect on the reason why Jesus came. Our Heavenly Father loves us so much that He came into our broken world. God’s love for us is so radical that when we turned away from Him, He chased after us; while we were His enemies, He sacrificed His Son to bring us closer. “While we were sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
Our God is not one that walks away when the going gets tough. He is one who sees pain and brokenness, and He offers Himself to redeem it. God did not just sit on His throne and orchestrate a resolution, He got physically involved to make the suffering His own. Jesus was born into this world so we do not ever have to be alone. He submitted Himself to a humiliating death to save us from the greatest pain of all: the absence of God.
Brothers and sisters, fear not, He is with us. He came to be with us in the fire.
As we approach Christmas, let us:
I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope. I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning. Psalm 130:5–6
In some of the more traditional churches, advent is celebrated using a wreath of 5 candles: one each lit on the four Sundays before Christmas surrounding a central candle only lit on Christmas Day. Church traditions vary as to the meaning of these candles but certain themes dominate – that of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.
Hope is an important focus for us and is often something desperately desired but woefully missing in our world. Sadly, so many confuse real hope with wishful thinking. Wishful thinking is rarely grounded in reality and can easily lead to disappointment or even despair when the wish fails to materialise. Conversely, hope is based upon truth, a real appraisal of circumstances and faith in a higher reality. Hope never simply wishes for things to turn out better – and hope in Jesus can never mean that we are looking forward to some kind of well-being makeover.
The hope of Advent is grounded in what happened 2,000 years ago but focuses on what is going to happen. Not a popular subject in today’s Christianity but, yes, Jesus is coming back and that means God will bring His creation to fulfilment as He promised through Jesus the King and this is our hope of salvation. Hope means we live in the reality of Kingdom now and the promise of future glory, whatever our circumstances!
However hope always bears a cost and that is waiting — waiting for the fulfilment of the promise. This can be frustrating, but faith demands that hope remains firm throughout all this. We are Christians living in a period of waiting but it is a very active waiting — we are not standing in a spiritual bus queue!
We have no idea when Jesus will return but we should live like He is going to at any moment – this was the characteristic of the early church and it marked Christians out with stunning clarity: they lived with a living hope that no one else had. They lived in the truth of God’s Great Grace and as such had a joy that attracted so many to the faith. Is this how we are living in Hong Kong?
Let us practice the Advent hope by:
It was a small group of people, just four volunteers, all from different churches, drawn together by a desire to help elderly people in Vietnam. This was ten years ago when I was in Vietnam with my previous organisation, a Christian non-profit that brought international expertise, volunteers and resources to meet the country’s needs. Through our network, this group had heard about the needs of a small, under-resourced state-run centre on the outskirts of Hanoi. It was a home for abandoned and neglected senior citizens, an indication of their extreme circumstances that their families would not or could not care for them in their old age. This group had a particular burden for this nascent program as they were all in the field of elderly care in the US.
None of them had been to Asia, none of them had experience in this area. One the greatest challenges was finding a time when all their schedules matched for their first mission trip together. We had identified a project that would have a major impact on the sustainability of the home. It would essentially start a small “hobby farm” with pigs and chickens that provided the elderly some activity and purpose, and also provide extra food and income. Mark, the leader of this group, caught the vision and didn’t want to delay the start, so they raised money and sent it over to people they had never met towards a centre they had never seen.
Over two years, we used the funds to implement the project, monitored it and provided resources and guidance at critical points. Each time my local staff and I would visit the centre, we would bring a letter from Mark, which would sign off with something like, “I know we’ve never met, but we are a group of friends from Texas who care about you. We are planning to come visit you as soon as we can!” Sometimes the letter would include a picture of them. Even so, the elderly home’s director was skeptical about these mystery benefactors.
“Do they really exist? What’s really going on? Is this some kind of scam you created because you don’t want to take full responsibility for the project?”
No, we assured him, there are real people behind this and they’re doing it because they love you. And yes, they really do intend to come to Hanoi one day.
That day finally did arrive. Mark, Joleanne, Melody and Steve came to Hanoi. They toured the facility, did therapy for the elderly, provided training for the staff and, of course, laid eyes on the pigs and chickens in all their dirty, smelly glory. There wasn’t as much fanfare or buzz about their visit. The centre’s staff had been there for years, underpaid and unrecognised, and rarely got excited about anything.
But when it came time for the director to say a few words at our tea ceremony, his eyes became moist and his voice cracked.
“The farm that you funded has helped our centre tremendously. But today you gave us an even greater gift because you came to see us and we get to meet you in person.”
John 1:14 says that, “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Christmas is the heart of what the Christian faith is about: there is a loving, invisible God who had spoken through prophets before but now expresses His love in the fullest, most direct and tangible way by coming to us in person.
You reveal Jesus when you live by the Word of God your daily life. What are some ways that you can make the love of Christ real and visible during this Christmas season?
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on His shoulders; and He will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of His government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over His kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. Isaiah 9:2, 6–7
What do these verses mean to you?
For me, they are strongly associated with the atmosphere of Christmas services in Anglican churches great and small as they form part of the traditional programme of 9 Bible lessons and carols which I attended countless times while growing up in England. These associations range from the pomp of priests’ robes and echoing of readers’ voices to favourite carols to snow, mince pies, mulled wine and…
Wait a minute, what has all that got to do with the message of these verses?
Not much, right?
You see, I did not even believe in God at the time when I was forming those special memories. So when I hear or read these warming words again, my first response is based on the drama and other sensory impressions of related childhood experiences; and even my second response is to think of the triumphant ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from Handel’s Messiah, which set parts of these verses to music. Then I start thinking about the choice of Bible version, and how for these verses I really prefer the old King James version which I heard read out so often.
But though these warm thoughts and associations are all well unless I stop to think, they can completely distract me from the whole meaning of these verses, and even of Christmas – especially because it is hard for us to get our heads round the magnificence of that meaning and its implications for each one of us. With our Twitter-length attention spans, we tend to trivialise the message and diminish its significance among all the other swirling information and activity around us.
So, as we begin the season of Advent: what threatens to distract you from the core truth about Jesus? December is a busy month for many of us and the shopping malls are primed to seduce us with the tinsel version of what we are celebrate during Advent.
Let us instead pause afresh to appreciate the amazing fact that Isaiah pronounced this prophecy around 800 years before the birth of Christ which he was describing; and that this Wonderful Counsellor, this Mighty God, was willing to come to earth in human form to light up our darkness and provide the way back to peace, justice, righteousness, love, wholeness, fulfilment and everything else that we so deeply desire.
And as we pause, let us look around and invite people to come to church and see for themselves what this is all really about.
Let us ponder on Christmas and what it means by:
Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. Colossians 2:6-7 (ESV)
When you start thinking about what you should do to grow in your faith, the disciplines or practices you need, what do you think of? Christians and non-Christians would probably easily come up with similar lists if asked. They might look like this:
Go to church.
Read your Bible.
Serve, or give back in some way.
Nothing out of the ordinary here, just simple important practices to grow closer to God. Yet, as I recently read Colossians 2, God used it as an opportunity to add one more important practice to my list.
It’s something I always knew was scattered throughout the Bible and was a good thing, but it was something I always treated like extra credit. I’m thinking I might not be alone in this.
Yet, in these two verses, I was really surprised to see the difference between what was God’s role, and what was mine. The Colossians were commanded to have a continual lifestyle of faith, to “walk in Him.” After that phrase comes four participles in the original language, three being passive (something is being done to us, for us or in us), and one is active (we are the ones to do it). Let’s take a look:
So what is the active participle thing that we are called to do?
To be “abounding in thanksgiving.”
In light of the fact that God has rooted us in a faith that can’t be lost or thwarted, and is continually at work helping us become more free from our old ways and transformed into the new people we will be forever in heaven, we are called to be overflowing with thanksgiving.
Many commentators have noted how a lack of thanksgiving is one of the first signs of drifting from God. I’ve noticed this to be true in my own life. An ignorance of blessing or a critical spirit unfortunately comes so easily to me. Thanksgiving or gratitude does not. That’s why I need to make it a practice and a discipline.
And here’s the deal, we can all do this because our thanksgiving shouldn’t be tied to our circumstances. Colossians instead connects thanksgiving to what God has done. So with the holiday season now upon us, there will be great opportunities where we’ll be nudged to reflect and express thanks. Try to find outlets to express your thanks to God. This may be prayer or worship, or it may be finding a small way to do to someone else what God has done for you.
Whatever it looks like, work at making it a practice finding ways to respond to God’s love with thanksgiving.