Thursday, December 19, 2019


James 1:17
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

                At the heart of Christmas, for the majority of people, is the giving of gifts. It is what children dream about and what parents often agonize over. Gift giving has taken center stage during the Christmas season. So, it is valid for us to ask the question, why do we give gifts to one another at Christmas?

                Some relate the gifts that the Magi gave to the Christ child as the origin of our practice of giving gifts. The problem with that is that we give gifts to one another, not to Jesus. So, is it wrong to give gifts at Christmas? Some people have come to that conclusion and abstain from the practice. Rightly or wrongly, I am not one of them. The giving gifts is one of the things I enjoy the most about Christmas. I believe that there are many reasons why we give gifts to one another, especially at Christmas. Some of these reasons are good and some are not so good.

                Let’s begin with some of the negative reasons for giving gifts. Some people give gifts out of a sense of obligation. It is a part of the Christmas tradition. Although their heart is not in it, they comply in order to fit in with the general expectations of others. They usually are looking for the minimum they can do and still meet expectations.

                Some give gifts as a way to draw attention to themselves. They make a point of being the giver of “the best gifts.” They may slip in a mention of what the gift cost or how hard they had to work to find just the right gift. Although they are the giver the attention is squarely focused on them.

                Some people give gifts for the purpose of receiving gifts. Here again, the focus is on the giver not the recipient. They are very calculated about gift giving and weigh each gift received against what they themselves have given. They become upset if they feel like they gave more than they have received.

                Still others give gifts as a way of winning approval or influencing others. This is often seen in broken families where each side tries to win the hearts of the children by the gifts that they give. It can take place in other families as well, as one person exerts their influence over the others by the gifts that they give. They want everyone to know that they are the most extravagant. They also want others to feel, in some way, obligated to them.

                No one would openly admit to having these negative motives for giving gifts, yet in their heart the focus of gift giving is always inward.

                Although there are negative reasons for giving gifts, there are also positive reasons for giving gifts. Gifts can be an honest expression of our love for others. Personally, my love language is giving gifts, whether that be in some material thing or in some service I might provide. Giving to the ones we love is a tangible expression of our love for them.

                Along with the motive of love is the motive of joy. Giving gifts is one way to bring joy to others. I very much enjoy seeing my children and grandchildren light up when they open the gift that I have chosen for them.

                And giving gifts can be an extension of giving oneself to others. Since I became a serious woodworker, I have delighted in making special gifts for others. I have made furniture for my children, toys for my grandchildren and grand nephews, and other items for coworkers and friends. Each piece that I create and give is a part of me, an expression of my love and care for the other person.

                God embodied all of the right reasons for giving gifts when He sent Jesus into the world. He gave us Jesus because of His great love for us. God wanted to express His love in a way that people would understand.

John 3:16
    "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

                He gave us Jesus to redeem us out of spiritual darkness and restore our joy in Him. When God created humanity, His desire was that we would enjoy a close relationship with Him. Sin damaged that relationship and robbed us of our joy. Jesus came to restore that joy to us.

John 15:11
    I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.

                God gave us Jesus as a way of giving His very self to us. Throughout the Old Testament, God was honored and revered, but was seen as distant and unapproachable. More than feeling drawn to God, the people were afraid to get too close. There is a story in Exodus where God reveals Himself to the people of Israel through a powerful demonstration of fire and cloud. The people were so afraid that they told Moses to talk with God and then he could relate God’s message to them. But when Jesus came, God came near. Jesus made the intangible God tangible. He made the unapproachable God approachable.

John 1:14
    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.

Col. 1:15
    He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.

Hebrews 1:3
    The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.

                Most of us will be caught up in the giving and receiving of gifts this Christmas. Done well, it can be a time of great joy and delight. But let us never forget that the real gift of Christmas is Jesus. Just as He give Himself to us, the best way for us to respond is to give ourselves back to Him. It is the gift that He desires above all others.


John 11:35
Jesus wept.

                Christmas is an emotional time for me. It has been that way most of my life. There are times when I can hardly make it to the end of Silent Night without choking up. Every time I read the Christmas story, there is a catch in my throat. Most Christmas movies, no matter how corny, catch me off guard and cause me to hide a few stray tears. For whatever reason, Christmas is an emotional time for me.

                This week I received an email from Bethel University President Jay Barnes and his wife Barb. The email contained a short video message. Throughout the video the song Auld Land Sine played in the background as Jay and Barb expressed their gratitude and their joy. What made this message so powerful to me is that it is the last Christmas message that Jay will send out as the President of Bethel. He will complete his tenure at Bethel at the end of this academic year. Because of my involvement with the Converge Board of Overseers, I was able to develop a friendship with Jay. I am happy for him and Barb but sad that he is leaving Bethel. By the end of the video the tears flowed down my cheeks. Christmas is an emotional time for me.

                I struggle with showing my emotions publicly. Because I have been manipulated by emotions in the past, I resist showing my emotions to others, especially when I am preaching. Having said that, I often find myself choking up during a sermon or singing a particular song. I fight to control my emotions, but periodically the leak out. There is no time of the year when that is truer than at Christmas. Christmas is an emotional time for me.

                There is so much about Christmas that tugs at my heart strings. I clearly remember a particular Christmas when I was a boy. On Christmas morning I suggested to my parents that we read the Christmas story to “put Christ back in Christmas.” I’m pretty sure I saw a tear in their eyes. I cannot help but be caught by the joy of children at Christmas. I revel in giving gifts and seeing delight on each recipient’s face. But I cherish most that we are together as a family sharing this special day.

                It has been many years since we were able to share Christmas with my family, although my parents spent Christmas with us two years ago. The distance between us has become a tangible barrier. I have many fond memories of Christmases past. Spending Christmas Eve with the Green family and Christmas afternoon with the Banfields. Those times were always highlights of the year for me.

                Two years ago, we celebrated our last Christmas in our home in Mankato. Everyone was there including my parents, Suanne’s mom and Amin. I so wanted it to be one of the best Christmases even. It is fair to say that it will be a Christmas long remembered, but not for the best of reasons. The stomach flu made the rounds through all of us. We took turns feeling miserable and staying close to the bathroom. Yet, we still had many moments of joy and celebration. It was an emotional Christmas for many reasons.

                This year we will be celebrating Christmas in Michigan with our immediate family. I have looked forward to this for many months. I know that it will be an emotional time for me. I don’t know what our time together will hold, but I already cherish the thought of being together for Christmas. This year will be a new beginning for us, in a new home, in a new stage of life. Above all else, I want Christ to be at the center of this Christmas. For it is really all about Him.

                Christmas is an emotional time for me. A time filled with joy, celebration, and more than a few discreet tears.

John 1:14
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.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019


Psalm 25:4
Show me your ways, O Lord,
teach me your paths;

                I have done a fair bit of hiking. I have particularly enjoyed hiking along the Superior Hiking Trail in northern Minnesota. That trail follows the ridge line of the Sawtooth Mountains. They are not particularly impressive, as mountains go, but they embody their name. Like the teeth of a saw blade, the ridge goes up and down, up and down. Some of the climbs are particularly steep, as well as some of the descents. Much of the path crosses over rocks and shale. There are tree roots that crisscross the path. In places there are low hanging branches or fallen trees that block the path. So, as you hike along the path you need to watch your step.

                As I have hiked the Superior Hiking Trail, I have realized that much of the time I am looking down. I am focused on the obstacles that are in my way, doing my best not to trip. But by walking with my eyes focused down, I am missing what is around me. In order to really get the full experience of hiking the trail a person has to periodically stop and take a look around. The Superior Hiking Trail cuts its way through some magnificent country. At places there are small patches of wild flowers. There are stretches where you walk through pine groves, and then you transition to birch and poplar. Because the path goes up and down, there are spots where you can experience amazing panoramic views looking out to Lake Superior. At other places you are treated with a view of the seemingly never-ending forest of the north country. You catch glimpses of lakes and rivers hidden among the trees. You cannot see these when you are down in a valley or ravine, they come into view only after a steep climb up to a peak on the ridge.

                On one of my trips on the trail I was made aware of the reality that my focus was often on getting to the campsite for the night. I encouraged my fellow hikers to press on so that we could make our desired destination before dark. But by always passing on, I was missing much of the beauty of the hike. The hike was not about getting to a designated campsite, but about experiencing what was to be seen and felt along the way. The journey itself was the goal.

                The Bible speaks of our relationship with God as a journey, a walk. Each of us is on his or her personal, spiritual hiking trail. Like the trail along the Sawtooth Mountains, our trail is full of peaks and valleys. There are places where, for a time, the trail is level and easy. There are other times when the trail descends into some valley. And still other times when it leads us up to some amazing peak. To walk our particular path takes effort, often determined effort.

                Along our trail there will be obstacles that get in our way. These obstacles, if we are not careful, can trip us up and cause us to stumble and fall. So, as we hike along with God, we need to watch our step carefully. Paul writes, in Ephesians 5:15-16, Be very careful, then, how you live (how you walk) --not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Paul is literally saying, watch your step. It is when we get over confident that we are most likely to trip and fall. Again, Paul warns us in 1 Corinthians 10:12, So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!

                While it is essential that we keep out eyes on the path before us, if we focus only on the obstacles, we will miss the glory of God all around us. There are times when God brings us to some spiritual peak and invites us to take in the amazing vista of His grace. At those times, if we will lift our eyes, we will be overwhelmed and amazed at the beauty and glory of God. But we need to periodically take our eyes off of the obstacles even as we walk along the even path or even in the valley, for all around us is the amazing grace of God. Jesus often said to the crowds, those who have ears to hear, let them hear. I would paraphrase that to say, those who have eyes to see, let them see. The blessings of God are not always huge, mind-blowing vistas. There are multiple smaller blessings that we often pass by daily without even noticing them. On one of my backpacking trips on the Superior Hiking Trail, I was so focused on the path before me that I completely missed a Lady Slipper in bloom; a rare and beautiful sight. One of my companions had to get my attention to point it out to me. So, it is on our spiritual journey.

                But there is one more area where we need to reorient our walk. We can become so goal oriented, task focused, that we miss the journey itself. If our goal is to move as quickly as possible through this life so that we can attain our ultimate camping spot, heaven, we will miss much of what God has in store for us. I would venture to say that we will lose some of the reward that God is storing for us in His presence. God has invited us on this journey, not just to get us to heaven, but to shape and mold us as His people. The journey itself is a major part of God’s plan for us and a major part of His gift to us. The journey matters.

                A person does not have to be hiking on the Superior Hiking Trail to experience the beauty and awe of God’s creation. We can experience it on a simple walk through our neighborhood or on a trail in a local park. Most days I walk to my office and I have tried to always keep my eyes open. There is always something that will catch my attention, if a am looking. The tracks of deer in the snow crossing the street and heading across a back yard toward the woods. The small, delicate imprints of the squirrels in the snow as they scurry from tree to tree. The changing stream that I cross every day, from flowing water to a sheet of ice dusted with snow. God continues to leave His fingerprints throughout His world.

                Most of us will not live the dramatic lives of missionaries or have the public exposure of a popular evangelist. But all of us are on a spiritual journey, which God has invited us on. He has challenges for us to face, valleys to traverse, peaks to climb, meadows to cross. He wants to use our personal hiking trail to make us strong, to develop our skills, and to enhance our walk with Him. God is not in a hurry for us to get to the end of our journey. He is far more concerned that we get the most out of our journey. So, He daily invites us to lace up our hiking boots and take a walk with Him.

Hebrews 12:12-13
Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. "Make level paths for your feet," so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Ultimate “Believe It or Not”

John 1:1-2
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.

John 1:14
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.

                When I was a boy, I was fascinated by the Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” cartoons that were printed in the newspaper. Robert Ripley was a cartoonist and an amateur anthropologist. He began his career as a sports reporter. From a young age, Ripley was fascinated by the odd and the weird. Through the years he collected hundreds of examples of oddities that were true but hard to believe. The “Believe It or Not” franchise continues to amaze people today.

                The ultimate “believe it or not” story is found in John 1. It is more fantastic than anything that Ripley recorded. The very Word of God became flesh and lived among us. God became incarnate; taking on our humanity so that we might know Him personally.

                Throughout the ages, God has been seen as unapproachable and distant. Many people today still see God as unknowable, unapproachable, and unavailable to them. For the Jews, this idea was reinforced by first the Tabernacle and then the Temple. At the very heart of these sacred spaces was the Holy of Holies where only the High Priest could go, and then only once a year on the Day of Atonement. The people of Israel worshiped God from a distance. God was unapproachable and a mystery.

                All of that changed with the birth of a child to a young couple from Nazareth. Christmas is the ultimate “believe it or not” story. When the angel came to Mary to tell her that she had been chosen to bear the Messiah, she was informed that this would be not ordinary child. This was Mary’s “believe it or not” moment.

Luke 1:29-35
    Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."
    "How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"
    The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.

                When Joseph found out about Mary pregnancy, he was rightly upset. He knew the child was not his and so he looked for a way out of the marriage, without totally disgracing Mary. Instead, he received his own “believe it or not” moment.

Matthew 1:20-21
    But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."

                John fills in the rest of the story, when he informs us that this was not just a miraculous birth, it was THE miraculous birth. The very creator of the universe was embodied in an infant. The very creator of the universe took up residence on earth. He didn’t come in all His power and glory, but came in vulnerability as a child. He chose to live our life. He chose to make Himself knowable.

                Paul summarized this amazing “believe it or not” story in Philippians 2:6-8.  

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death--
even death on a cross!

                Christmas has become many different things to different people. For many it is simply a secular celebration of family and friendship. For some it is a religious observation. For most it is a mixture of the two. But at the heart of Christmas is the ultimate “believe it or not” story.

John 1:14
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.

                Through the years Ripley asked people to believe the unbelievable. God asked Mary and Joseph to believe the unbelievable. Every Christmas He asks us the same question. Will you believe in who Jesus is or not?

                At the end of John’s gospel, after he had chronicled Jesus amazing life, he summarized his work with these words.

John 20:30-31
Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

                Christmas is not about Santa Claus and gifts under the tree. It is about the most miraculous event of all of history. God became a man and lived among us.

Believe It or Not!

Tuesday, December 3, 2019


Isaiah 9:2
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.

                On Saturday evening, Suanne and I braved the cold and the snow to gather with others in downtown for the annual Santa Parade. What makes this parade special is that all of the entries are decorated with lights. There were several creative light displays that made their way slowly down main street. At the conclusion of the parade, the official Christmas tree was lit, as well as the lights which decorate the city park. For the next month, our little town will be a city of lights.

                Christmas lights are one of the features of the season that I particularly enjoy. As the days grow shorter and the darkness dominates, the lights of Christmas transform our world. The gloom of winter is dispelled by the lights that decorate our homes, our streets, and our community. Just seeing the Christmas lights can uplift our spirits.

                In some communities, the lights of Christmas are taken to an amazing extreme. Sibley Park in Mankato, MN is bedecked with thousands of lights, which bring delight to everyone. Downtown Duluth boasts Bentleyville; an amazing light display that draws crowds from many miles around. There is just something inviting and compelling about the lights of Christmas.

               It is not without reason that lights play such a large role in our Christmas celebration. Light is at the very center of the Christmas story. When Jesus came into our world, it had become a very dark place. The people of God were living under the oppressive rule of the Romans. Sin and evil seemed to be winning the day. Jesus penetrated the darkness of our world with the very light of Heaven.

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.
    Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. (John 1:1-5)

    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. (John 1:14)

                The very creator of the world took on human form to bring the very light of life to a dark world. He didn’t come as a warrior or a great king, but as a vulnerable baby. He slipped into the world under the radar of Satan in a way that no one expected. Yet even at His birth, His light could not be hidden. The glory of God appeared to the shepherds in the form of an angel, followed by an angel host. The Wisemen were guided to Jesus by the light of a star.

                When Jesus came into the world, a conflict was set up between light and darkness. The dominion of darkness was openly threatened by the light of God. The battlefield was, and still is, the hearts of people. People were confronted with a choice; to embrace the light or to run from the light.

    This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” (John 3:19-21)

                This conflict continues to rage today. Those who choose to live in darkness are doing whatever they can to extinguish the light. But the light cannot be extinguished, for light always wins over darkness. When Jesus was born into our world, He set in motion a spiritual revolution that continues to spread today. The light of Gospel continues to transform the lives of countless people. The light is not growing dim, it is growing stronger.

                Without necessarily knowing it, our world celebrates that light of Christ every Christmas. As we put up our illuminated Christmas decorations, whatever their form, we are being pointed back to the true light that has come into the world.

2 Corinthians 4:6
For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.