FRANCIS COLLINS FINDS THE LIGHT

In him was life, and that life was the light of men.

(John 1:4 NIV)

We call Christmas the season of light in no small part because of the meaning of this verse. But what are we to make of this mysterious word? How was Jesus the light of men?

Famed geneticist Francis Collins’s journey to faith is a good example.

Collins’s credentials and accomplishments are legendary in the scientific community. He headed up the Human Genome Project before serving as the Director of the National Institutes of Health. In 2007 he wrote a New York Times best-seller, The Language of God, which weaves together the story of his work as a world-renowned scientist and his journey from atheism to faith in Christ.

As a young doctor and atheist at the University of North Carolina Medical Center, Collins cared for many desperately sick people who, in spite of their illnesses, had profound faith. He wondered, “why were these people not shaking their fists at God and demanding that (their families) stop all this talk about a loving and benevolent super power?” After all, most of them were dying from illnesses they had done nothing to deserve.

That’s when an older patient, suffering from untreatable angina, asked a question for which he was not prepared, “What do you believe?”

“I felt my face flush as I stammered out the words,” he wrote, “I’m not really sure.”

Collins was in the dark and knew it. He began to question his integrity as a scientist and realized that, rather than consider all the evidence and come to a rational conclusion on life’s greatest question, he had engaged in, “willful blindness and something that could only be properly described as arrogance … Suddenly, all my arguments seemed very thin, and I had the sensation that the ice under my feet was cracking.”[1]

After a long period of searching, which included a review of the world’s great religions, grilling a pastor with questions, and reading C.S. Lewis’s classic, Mere Christianity, the light dawned:

“On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.”[2]

Perhaps you can identify with Collins. You know something is out there, something true, and good, and powerful enough to give dying people hope and peace, but you have been avoiding it. That something is really Someone, the light of the world, Jesus Christ.

Maybe you are ready to begin your journey into the light today, or you know someone who is. If so let me recommend C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, the book that helped Collins so much. Then there’s Lee Strobel’s The Case for Faith, a modern classic. And finally, if you are of a scientific bent, The Language of God is a great place to start.

[1] Francis Collins, The Language of God (Free Press, 2007), p. 20.

[2] Francis Collins, The Language of God (Free Press, 2007), p. 225

HIGH OCTANE ANGELS

I have a problem with angels. But maybe that’s because the angels I’m talking about are on the take from Hollywood.

You’ve seen them. They show up in film and television with names like “Al,” played by the always nutty Christopher Lloyd in Angels in the Outfield; or “Seth,” (Nicolas Cage) in City of Angels, who falls in love with a human; “Dudley,” (Denzel Washington) in The Preacher’s Wife, who nearly seduces her; and the ever popular “Clarence” in It’s a Wonderful Life. Then there was the television hit, Touched by an Angel some years ago. Often suave, sometimes nutty, and usually cheerful if somewhat mystical, these angels are far too human for me. Yes, they do good things in the movies, and I’m not saying the films are particularly bad, just that their angels are low octane.

The angels I’m used to, the ones I expect to see one day, aren’t anything like the human-ish versions on screen. They aren’t cute, suave, falling in love, or trying to earn their wings. Neither are they funny, except possibly for the episode with Balaam’s donkey, but I bet he wasn’t laughing.

The angels scripture reveals are high octane representatives of heaven.

Angels are, when they appear in human form, on a clear mission to deliver God’s message, protect God’s people, and/or accomplish God’s purpose. Either way, they are not to be trifled with. When they appear in, shall we say, extra-human form they are terrifying: Ezekiel’s angels, technically known as Cherubim, had four faces, four wings, and feet like burnished bronze. Fearsome power is the idea. Other Old Testament angels kill hundreds of thousands of God’s enemies, swoop down in chariots of fire to gather up Elijah, and surround foreign armies to protect Elisha (2 Kings).  We also find them quenching the fiery furnace and closing the mouths of lions (Daniel), or, as in the New Testament, tossing tomb stones, springing apostolic prisoners, and standing, rank upon magnificent, military rank roaring glory to God.

When angels show up, humans fall down — either dead or just frightened out of their wits.

That’s what happened to the prophet Daniel (See 8:15-17) as well as Zechariah, father of John the Baptist. Both men, hundreds of years apart, were stunned by the presence of Gabriel, the being who seems to be heaven’s press secretary in all things related to Christ. Daniel fainted and Zechariah, who though terrified managed to show a little disrespect, was struck dumb by Gabriel until the Baptizer was born.

Real angels are high octane.

So this year, whether you’re watching your favorite Christmas movie, or just having a cup of hot chocolate while gazing at the little angel ornaments on the tree, remember, the beings that announced the birth of Christ shimmer with power and glory. And when he returns, they’re coming with him.

ELUSIVE CHRISTMAS JOY

Joy, for many of us, is elusive at Christmas. Instead of mounting happiness as October fades and November cools, our moods fall like spent leaves, wind drifts of brown on grass no longer green.

Reasons for sadness pile up as the year runs out.

“Holiday sales” burnout plays a part. Holy awe, and the joy it builds, is dulled by crass commerce that begins before Halloween ends. Only in America, where glitz is king, can the latest Mercedes induce more wonder than the Word made flesh.

But that’s not all the sales and marketing do. They remind many of us of things we’d rather forget, visual cues of tragedies past. Loved ones lost as the holidays arrived, graveside services in the snow. Or simply beautiful seasons of life that have come and gone, and will never come again, as children grow and jobs carry us away.

Then there is the actual gathering of family members, long dispersed and often better off that way. Seasonal expectations of heightened happiness against the backdrop of broken promises and dreams create a special kind of emotional dissonance. It’s hard to sing NOEL when your heart is full of Lamentations.

It was to people like that that the angel announced “good news of great joy.” People just like you and me. “For all people,” this news was come, “peace on earth, good will toward men.”

Ponder those words.

Men have peace with God. More to the point, God has declared peace to men. The relationship broken in the Garden of God, the fellowship lost when our first parents were banished from the place of blessing (read “Joy”) has been restored–restored not by man returning to the Garden, by earning or breaking his way in, but by God leaving the Garden and coming into the world. Truly, those who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

And the good news is “for all people.” Not for some, but for all. Not for the elite, but for all. Not for the powerful, but for all. Not for the popular, the famous, or the merely well-liked, but for all. Not for the religiously pure or the morally righteous, but for all. Not for one race, or kind, or nation, but for all. Not for someone else, no, the good news is for me, and for you, and for all.

A great assumption lies behind the angels’ news: That our estrangement from God is worse by far than all of the stress, all of the loss, all of the tragedies, and burnout combined. Indeed it is, because that estrangement is the root of all other alienation. And the reconciliation made possible by the babe of Bethlehem, the first step of God again into the world, was the beginning of true hope, the well-spring of lasting joy.

This Christmas, don’t look for joy from a brightly wrapped package under a tree, in family, or parties, or songs. These are just the trimmings. Look for joy in the face of Jesus. He has come to reconcile all who will believe, and he will come again to restore all things.

SON OF THE MOST LOW

She’s going to break my fingers! But I can’t tell her to stop!

That debate ran through the back of my mind while the front tried, and failed, to help my dear young wife face the panic and pain of her first birth. She was holding the fingers of my left hand all in a bunch, sitting on the sofa of our little apartment, and squeezing the daylights out of them with every contraction. We had already been to the hospital once and sent home. “She’s not ready. Come back tomorrow morning.” That had been hours ago. I thought she might pass out. Heck, I thought I might pass out. But the nerves, and the pain, and the anticipation kept us up all night. By the time the doc decided on a C-section, she’d been in labor seventy-two hours, but that’s another story.

I think about that when I think about Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Like many of our contemporaries, we were having our first baby in a brand-new birthing center, with all the latest science, and comforts at our disposal, supervised by an obstetrician with decades of experience. Of course first century mothers had none of that, but Mary had reasons to expect better than she was getting.

Remember what the angel had told 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.”

With that kind of information about the child in her womb, it would be understandable for Mary to have high expectations. What kind of birth arrangements would God engineer for His Son? How would the Son of the Most High make his entrance?

But the birth of Jesus was a true worst case scenario for Mary and Joseph.

It came at the most difficult of times. The census had the whole country in upheaval. Roads were jammed with travelers; the price of 90-octane donkey fuel went through the roof. Tempers were short and lines were long. Everybody was stressed to the max and they had no choice about making the trip. Their son’s first day on earth would be a day marked by an act of oppression. He was born with a Roman boot on his neck.

It came at the end of a draining day. The distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is only sixty miles as the crow flies. Maybe two hours by car. But it was a three-day journey for them–Joseph on foot, Mary at full term on a swaying donkey’s back, camping out under the stars, eating sparse meals. Even if Mary was a teenager, she was no doubt extremely tired and sore. They probably traveled alone as well, because by now it was known that Mary’s condition was not a result of her marriage to Joseph. Both must have felt a sense of isolation. There would be no joyous family celebration like the one at John the Baptist’s birth.

Finally, the baby came in the most desperate of circumstances. Joseph was still searching for a room when Mary’s labor pains began. The inns in Bethlehem were full of other census pilgrims who had traveled faster than an expecting mother could manage. As a last resort they took shelter in a stable, filled with the pungent smells of pack animals. The first air that would fill the nostrils of the Son of God was the air that peasants breathe.

I wonder what Mary must have thought of all this as she remembered the Angel’s words, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” I know what I think. The Son of the Most High came to Earth as the “son of the most low.” God engineered the birth of His Son so that all who believe, from the lowest to the highest, could come to Him without fear, and experience the best gift He has for man, a life giving relationship with Himself.

AND SO WAS FULFILLED

Back in the late 1980’s, when George H. W. Bush (aka “Bush 41”) was running for president, one of the criticisms hurled his way concerned the circumstances of his birth. “He’s the child of up-east, old-money privilege and can’t connect with the common man,” was the gist of it. The fact that he was also a decorated combat hero of WWII and had made his own way in the hard-knock oil business after the war didn’t matter.

I love the way the future president handled that slam, “It’s true, I was born in Massachusetts,” he said. “I did that to be closer to my mother.”

That quote came to mind recently as I re-read the Christmas story in Matthew’s gospel. A repeating phrase (See 1:22; 2:15; 2:17; 2:23) rings like a chorus at the end of each element of the narrative: “So was fulfilled what was said through the prophet.”

Six hundred years before Messiah’s birth the prophet Isaiah said he would be born of a virgin, and Jesus was.

Seven hundred years before, the prophet Micah said Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and Jesus was.

Seven hundred and fifty years before, the prophet Hosea said he would come out of Egypt, and he did.

Four hundred plus years before, many Old Testament prophets alluded that Messiah would be a Nazarene, and he was.

And just like Mr. Bush, the baby Jesus had no control over the circumstances of his birth. He “did it to be closer to his mother.” Yet everything about his first advent testifies to the earthly fulfillment of an eternal plan formed for our good by a loving heavenly Father.

I offer three conclusions from this that I hope will enhance your Christmas meditations.

First, know your Bible. Read it well and deeply. Each prophecy came from what, to us, might seem obscure references. Many of us wouldn’t know about Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, and the rest of the prophets, were it not for the Christmas story. But they weren’t obscure to Matthew’s readers and they weren’t the only prophets he quoted. A similar refrain runs at least twelve times throughout his gospel, confirming for his Jewish readers that Jesus really was the fulfillment of all their messianic hopes.

Life often seems obscure to us. The better we know our Bibles the more things come into focus.

Second, trust God even when you cannot see the plan. No one, save perhaps the Magi, saw this coming. No one knew to combine the predictions of the various prophets in the way they ultimately accumulated in the person of Jesus.

The providence of God in the outworking of his plans is to us inscrutable. We can only see the beginning from the end, whereas he sees the end from the beginning. So trust him. Walk the path of faithful obedience and don’t try to figure out how he’s going to accomplish his plans.

Third, put your hopes squarely on the second advent of Christ. The specific fulfillment of all the prophecies surrounding Jesus’s first appearance points us to the reliability of all the other promises of his return. God was silent for four hundred years between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New. Then, in the space of three decades, the fulfilled predictions of Messiah piled up on one another in the person of Jesus.

God’s further promises will come to pass as surely as any we celebrate this December. Put your hope in him.

BEWARE BLACK FRIDAY

“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Jesus (Luke 12:15)

One of our church members, who worked in a well-known department store, mentioned something one Thanksgiving week that made me gasp. “I have to be at work at 2:00 AM next Friday morning.”

The next day, at the teen ministry I co-sponsored at the middle school, one of the kids said, “I can’t believe it. My mom is waking me up at 1:00 AM Friday to go shopping!”

I confess that I am not a serious shopper. I know that it is sensible to try to save money by taking advantage of sales. But let’s be honest about this, Black Friday is a Greed Fest, a singularly American celebration of buying and selling that rivals any other holiday on the calendar. (Note: Holiday is a word derived from Holy Day – a special day for celebration of the deity). Our dedication to getting THE DEAL on the latest trendy toy or 4G gadget is so fanatical that we will stand in line in sub-freezing temperatures at two in the morning and then literally run over each other for the limited supply of DOOR BUSTING BARGAINS! (Lucky for you southerners this year, the temps will be mild).

Let’s not kid ourselves. This is worship. Worship includes sacrifice, adoration and celebration. Fanatical dedication to Black Friday shopping has all the ingredients. There is sacrifice. Can you remember the last time you got up at two in the morning to pray or give or serve or go to a worship service? There is adoration. “Wow! I’ve always wanted one of these!” And there is celebration. “Can you believe it? What a DEAL I got!” We don’t like to admit it but this kind of activity is what worship is made of. It is the great American sin that we never condemn. But the apostle Paul puts it right up there with the sins we do condemn.

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these…( Col 3:5-8 NIV)

One day in the department store is no different from any other. Shopping on Black Friday is not a sin. Looking for bargains is not transgression. And if you are going shopping on Friday I hope you find what you’re looking for. But beware the ethos of Black Friday — the culture that celebrates the abundance of possessions as life’s highest good. There is much, much MORE to life than finding Friday’s best bargains.

BLUE CHRISTMAS Rx

Depending on whom you ask Christmas is either the best or worst time of the year. For some, “it’s those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings when friends come to call!” For others it’s anything but.

True, the oft-quoted myth that suicides peak during Christmas is just that, a myth. The rates actually go down.

On the other hand, WebMD reports that “Holiday blues are a pretty common problem despite the fact that as a society, we see the holidays as a joyous time,” says Rakesh Jain, MD, director of psychiatric drug research at the R/D Clinical Research Center in Lake Jackson, Texas.

In other words, we’re less likely to do ourselves in, but perhaps more likely to think about it.

Those of us who have lost family members, or been through the trauma of divorce are most prone to the Christmas blues. Reminders of loved ones gone come in as many colors as gift wrap, and the complications of conflicts with step-families and feuding parents are well documented sources of holiday unhappiness. Add to that the amped up expectations for joy, the stress of preparations, travel, shopping, lack of exercise and extra eating and it’s no wonder some of us get grumpy and sad.

So if Blue Christmas is your holiday hymn, here are a few ideas to help you change your tune.

Change your geography. We humans are creatures of habit and highly sensitive to our environments. When we do the same things the same ways in the same places year after year it can be difficult to associate Christmas with joy, especially if the people who were part of that joy are no longer present. Change your geography. Do Christmas in a new location, the beach, the mountains, any place, so long as it’s a different place that you enjoy.

Change your traditions for the same reason. Change the routine. Drop some old traditions and build some new ones. Never baked Christmas cookies? Try it. Tired of baking? Stow your cookie sheets, send the kids to the store and tell them to be creative.

Change your attitude, about grief that is. Grief is like the tide; it comes in and goes out on its own schedule, unpredictable for us. We don’t think it’s appropriate for the holidays so we try to restrain it, but that’s the worst thing we can do. Like an ocean wave, grief has energy and that energy will find an outlet, even if we try to suppress it. Anger, bitterness, resentment, depression can be the results. Better to adopt a new paradigm for dealing with grief, to ride the wave rather than stand against it. When we do that it can take us to new places of healing and yes, joy. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said, “for they will be comforted.” We can’t be comforted if we refuse to mourn.

Finally, change your theology. Remember that the first Christmas wasn’t all angels singing, shepherds kneeling and Magi giving gifts. It was also Joseph doubting, Mary wondering, Rachel weeping, and the family fleeing into Egypt. They were stressed out by Christmas too.

And while you’re remembering that, remember this: The true joy of Christmas can’t be found in the food, the gifts, the family and friends. These are only the celebrants and the elements of the celebration. The true joy is in the Christ child who came to “save his people from their sins,” and in the knowledge that God on high has declared “peace on earth to men on whom his favor rests.”