The January Epistle: Happy New Year

Did you celebrate the new year?  Did you sip some bubbly or blow a noisemaker or whoop it up in some other way along with millions across the nation and around the world?  If so, why?

We watched thousands in Times Square on New Year’s Eve standing together in the rain with friends and family watching carefully the count-down clock and anticipating with great excitement the drop of the 12,000 lb crystal ball signaling the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019.  Why? Why did they make that trip and stand there expectantly in the rain? For that matter, why did we watch?

We celebrate with people everywhere the coming of a new year.  Is it because we have high hopes for the good things that may happen in the future?  Is it because there are events that have happened in the past year that we’d like to forget?   I’m sure that, to some extent, both are true.

And in this time of looking back and looking ahead, in the in-between, comes Epiphany, the revelation, the revealing of God in the flesh, for you and for me.  Our first Gospel reading in the new year is the visit of the wise men from the east. We heard of the shepherds who were stunned by the opening of the heavens and the angel speaking to them in the night sky surrounded by a multitude of the heavenly host.  His words reveal just who this little baby born in Bethlehem is. Mary and Joseph and who knows how many others heard their amazing tale after they worshiped the baby. And now, a little while later, as Mary is pondering all of these things in heart, there’s a knock at the door of the house, and outside is some sort of entourage of wealthy, learned men, rich gifts in their hands, asking about the King of the Jews.  And as they share their story and worship the young child, again his identity is revealed, that the kingdom of this child king will extend even to the Gentiles, to you and to me.

As we move into the new year, we might picture ourselves with our backs to the past, bravely facing the future, chin up and full of hope.  The Jewish way of looking at it is a little different. For them, we move into the future by backing into it, facing the known past. I like that a lot.  It means that the glimpses that we have of our future lie behind us. We see there a baby in a manger – angels, shepherds, a Christmas star, and wise men seeking the “One born King of the Jews.”  We see the Lamb of God, climbing the hill to Calvary, carrying his cross and the sins of the world. We peer back 2000 years and see an empty tomb, and a scene of disciples gazing into the sky, and two angels again, assuring them that Jesus will return again from heaven.

There might be more than a few things that occurred in this past year that we’d like to forget, maybe things we’ve said or done that we’d like to escape.  But as we swap out a new calendar for the old one, remember that these are not the things that define us. Rather, what defines us, what lifts us up on eagles’ wings (Isaiah 40:31) is His eternal love for us.  The apostle John writes, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” As we look back on our own shortcomings we can rejoice that each one is taken care of, each sin is forgiven.  His loving purpose is revealed in the baby in the manger, the sinless lamb “born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.” His love brought Gentiles to worship the Christ child then, and His love has brought you to worship Him today.

Because of His love, you are a child of God.  That’s something to remember each day as we back into this new year.  Keep your eyes on the manger, on the cross, on the empty tomb, and even on the skies.  Perhaps 2019 will be the year of His glorious return!

Happy New Year!

- Pastor

The December Epistle: Something to Sing About

I’m looking forward to Christmas Carols.  I like to sing them. I like to hear them sung.  They always bring to my mind Christmas images, like the picture of Mary and Joseph, peering down at the miracle child in her arms.  There are a few animals nearby, some also gazing peacefully at the Christ child.

Other images that come to mind when I hear Christmas carols are like Christmas cards – hillsides of leafless trees, the ground covered in snow, and a sleigh gliding easily along, the only sound a bell jingling and the muffled clop of the horse’s hooves.  Peaceful scenes.

Have you noticed the definite trend away from meaningful Christmas carols in the stores these last years?  I used to enjoy hearing the carols over the speakers and humming along and thinking about peaceful things while we shopped.  But it’s hard to be peaceful while “rockin’ round the clock” to Jingle Bell Rock (over and over, I might add).  

The devil, of course, is quite pleased with the slow slide toward the complete secularization of Christmas (“Christ-mass”).  He would be thrilled if the holiday (“holy-day”) became completely “Christ-less”. Don’t play Christian carols, as they might offend someone.  Stop displaying the manger scene at City Hall and put up something inoffensive, like Santa’s workshop. Don’t have a baby Jesus Christmas pageant in school, or sing Silent Night, or any other song that describes the true meaning of Christmas.  And so, little by little, Christ is taken out of Christmas.

But the devil will be sorely disappointed in the end.  As long as the Christian church exists, it will celebrate the humble birth of our Savior in Bethlehem.  And that church will always exist, because Christmas itself is God’s doing. All of history led up to and looked forward to the coming of the Christ child.  What that child would do in his life, death and resurrection for our redemption, would change the future for all who put their trust in him. Kingdoms may crumble, and one tyrant after another may come to power, but the words the angel choir sang to the startled shepherds on the hills outside Bethlehem that sacred night will continue to be sung.  The story of the angels’ words to Mary and Joseph, their travel to Bethlehem, the visits of the shepherds and the wise men and other details of the Christmas story will continue to warm the hearts of Christians until the angels herald the Christ’s return in glory.

It’s ironic that the child whose birth was wrapped in joy and peace would die in the opposite manner, amid shouting and mocking, beaten and whipped and nailed to a Roman cross like a criminal.  “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). The Wise Men came seeking one born king of the Jews, and Pilate placed this exact placard above Jesus’ head on the cross.

Jesus is our King, and he has brought us peace – peace between God and man, the peace that comes from sins forgiven and our broken relationship with God restored.  So sing those Christmas carols and tell the blessed story of the birth of our Savior in the stable in Bethlehem that starry night so long ago.  YOU are part of that story, as one for whom Jesus died and rose. This is YOUR story, since YOU are who he loved and reason for his coming. His death and resurrection are for YOU, bring forgiveness and life and a restored relationship with God to YOU.  YOU have eternal life in his name, and that’s something to sing about!

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

O holy night! the stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of our dear Savior's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.

A thrill of hope- the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
Fall on your knees! O hear the angels' voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!

O holy night O night divine!

Have a blessed and peace-filled Advent and Christmas season!

- Pastor Vanderhyde