Wednesday, December 26, 2012

God With Us – Even After Christmas

By Brenda Black

The lights remain lit and the refrigerator overflows with leftovers. There are still baskets and trays of home baked goodies crowding the counter and calling me to continue the indulgence. Though my world seems stuffed, some parts of my heart feel empty.

I know it's coming each year when the pretty packages vacate the premises from under a sparkling tree. I feel it wash over me as I return each ornament to its original package and hide all of them in a sealed tote headed for the attic. That tangible vacuity that has for a month been filled with busyness now looms ominously spacious. The day-to-day routines of work and activities quickly consume the hours, but they do not occupy the places of my heart.

It never seems quite perfect enough – the gift given, the meal presented, the solo performance at the church program or the Christmas cards mass delivered. I worry over people forgotten, traditions broken. I hate saying goodbye to family and friends who won't be seen for months on end. On the heels of joy and festivity, the holidays melt into history. And the aftershock of Christmas throbs more like an ache than a startling shake.

At first, one may not recognize it and write it off to the fallout of sugar highs and late night gatherings. You may think you are just out of kilter as you try to shift from holiday mode to work schedules, lost on the calendar because your weekend began on Monday. But it's deeper than that, bigger than that. The vacuum exists in each of us that only the Lord Himself can fill. It won't be satisfied with presents and parties; nor food or favorite seasonal movies. Every time we try to pack our hearts with worldly pleasures intended for spiritual treasures, we'll be left wanting.

Certainly, time with family and friends and the exchange of gifts to express our affections are worthy endeavors. Nothing can replace Grandma's shared recipes or Uncle Bob reading the Christmas story. So much of our delightful traditions are permeated with valuable sentiment. But they will never be enough without God in the middle of them.

For when the lights fade, the savory smells dwindle, the gifts are gone, and family scattered, what will fill the void? The same One whom we just celebrated. “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him 'Immanuel' – which means, 'God with us.'” (Matthew 1:23) 

Even when everything else departs, God remains. He deposits a gift far greater than anything we could wrap in pretty paper. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)

The Lord abides so that we can continue telling and living the Christmas story. “But you will receive power when the Holy spirit comes on you; and you will be my the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

Christmas actually never ends when you know Jesus -- the babe-turned-man who lived and loved, died and came to life again.

“David said about him: 'I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will live in hope, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.'

“...Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear...” (Acts 2:25-33 selected)

There's no need for emptiness when God lives within and the Spirit of Christmas never leaves us. When post-holiday blues try to creep into your heart, remember there's no room because Christ continually resides there.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Faces of Christmas - Getting to Greet Gabriel

Part 4 in a Series
By Brenda Black

Exhausted. Speechless. Troubled. I've felt all these emotions, but never as a direct result of meeting an angel in person! One of the key characters of the Christmas miracle, the Lord's angel Gabriel, is actually named only three times total in the Scriptures, including the story of Jesus' birth. In every instance, however, he leaves those whom he addresses shocked and enlightened.

Gabriel makes his debut in a surreal way that sounds like the inspiration for the movie “Inception.” It's a vision within a vision thinks the prophet Daniel.

“While I, Daniel, was watching the vision and trying to understand it, there before me stood one who looked like a man. And I heard a man's voice from the Ulai calling, 'Gabriel, tell this man the meaning of the vision.'

“As he came near the place where I was standing, I was terrified and fell prostrate. 'Son of man,' he said to me, 'understand that the vision concerns the time of the end.'

“While he was speaking to me, I was in a deep sleep, with my face to the ground. Then he touched me and raised me to my feet.

“He said: 'I am going to tell you what will happen later in the time of wrath, because the vision concerns the appointed time of the end...'

“I Daniel, was exhausted and lay ill for several days. Then I got up and went about the king's business. I was appalled by the vision; it was beyond understanding.” (Daniel 8:15-19, 27)

This Gabriel who left Daniel drained and mystified, would later appear to both Zechariah and Mary, delivering double doses of equally bewildering news. To each he would announce the arrival of a son. John first. Then Jesus. The old priest was silenced for questioning God's right-hand angel and “Mary was greatly troubled at his words.” Gabriel's radiant and unexpected appearance gave legitimate rise to terror and trembling, but his comforting command was always “Do not be afraid.”

What an overwhelming experience for the human senses, but how magnificent of a Holy God and His messengers to visit us. I may never meet an angel face to face. The chances of my having a prophetic vision interpreted in person by an archangel are pretty slim in my estimation. Neither do I expect to have delivered to me news of an unearthly pregnancy in my old age. Whew! Still, I always watch for God to show up in miraculous, magnificent ways and speak with all authority.

Oh, I've had my holy encounters. Some too sacred to share. And when God appears in His many forms, I tremble. I listen. I rejoice. This Holy God who is the Everlasting Father cares enough to send His angels, give His Son and leave the Holy Spirit! Trust me – He still shows up!

Christmas is not just a time to remember when Jesus came to earth. It's a time to realize that God is still ever present. Sometimes He delivers a frightening indictment like Gabriel divulged to Daniel. Sometimes He answers a long awaited prayer as He told Gabriel to share with Zechariah and Elizabeth. And sometimes He flat out gives us a miracle we never dreamed possible like Mary got in Jesus.

Gabriel himself may not be making house calls in this age, but he still stands in the presence of God. And someday, I am going to meet them both face to face. And after I fall down trembling, I believe with all of my heart that I will be raised to my feet like Daniel and be enveloped in the perfect love that casts out all fear. Maybe that's why Gabriel is at the ready. He waits to tell every saved soul “Do not be afraid” even as God says “Enter in thy good and faithful servant.” What kind of a greeting that will be --when I get to bow before God my King, thank my Savior in person and greet Gabriel!

courtesy theinspirational.wordpress.comThis illustration depicts
the fierceness of an archangel,
while conveying his compassionate reason for appearing.
Though Gabriel seems inviting in this painting,
look at the contrast between him
and the cherub hovering above Mary.
If they are what the average believer intends to see
when God's messengers come calling,
then fear and trembling make perfect sense
when a life-size heavenly host makes his entrance.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Faces of Christmas – Joseph's Dream

Part 3 in a series
By Brenda Black

Are the most vivid dreams reserved only for guys named Joseph whose dads are named Jacob? Visions of honor and power filled the head of Abraham's great grandson. Though thrown into a cistern and later imprisoned, Joseph the Dreamer saw his images fulfilled. Generations later, another Joe experienced profound revelations while he slept. His dreams came true beyond his wildest imagination.

Joseph No. 2 was youthful and brimming with plans for a bright future. His dreams included a pretty little gal named Mary, but he didn't foresee what would happen when she said “yes.”
“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. “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.'” (Matthew 1:18-21)
Before you write Joseph off as an embittered fiance, look deeper into his heart. Certainly Mary was hand-picked by God for her humility and willing spirit. Could she also have been chosen because of her good taste in the potential father of Jesus? Joseph was a righteous man. He was pledged to Mary. That means he was already in the process of building their dream home.

When a young man of Israel in Jesus' time saw the girl he wanted, he approached her with a marriage contract, giving terms by which he would propose marriage. The most important consideration in the contract was the elaborate price the bridegroom would be willing to pay to marry this particular bride. The “bride price” showed his love in a most tangible way. If the bride and her father agreed to the terms, the engaged couple would drink a cup of wine together, solidifying the groom's willingness to sacrifice in order to have this bride, and her willingness to enter this marriage.

And then he went to work while she became a lady in waiting. The groom built a bridal chamber – a little mansion – in which they would spend their honeymoon. It was a complex undertaking, beautiful and stocked with provisions to last an entire week. The project would ordinarily take the better part of a year.

Meanwhile, Mary would be making herself ready. Whenever she stepped out of her house, she would wear a veil to signal to other young men that she was spoken for and no other contracts would be considered.

Joseph had invested his finances as well as his heart into this glowing bride-to-be. The very thought of divorcing quietly is all about Mary. It is for her protection and it is his total loss.

On the heels of mind-numbing news that Mary is with child, Joseph collapses into bed in exhaustion, resolved to do what he thinks best. But God has other plans and He insists that Joseph is the kind of man He wants raising His Only Begotten Son. God gives Joseph THE dream and the rest is HIStory!

Never discount what God can do with a righteous life, a humble wife, a perfect plan and the miraculous power to transcend time and space. In the stillness of the night, He speaks. If we are listening and obedient, we just might experience living a marvelous dream.

May God bless you with visions of His perfect will this season and always!  

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Faces of Christmas - Enter Elizabeth

Part 2 in a series
By Brenda Black

Everybody needs an Aunt Liz. She's the go-to kinfolk who always has a spare bed and a listening ear. No matter your need or the timing of your visit, Elizabeth is prepared and available. A woman of hearth and home, Lizzy embodies hospitality. It stands to reason, then, that little, unwed Mary, overwhelmed with the news that she is carrying the Savior of the World within her womb, would seek a a soft place to land. She ran to Uncle Zechariah and Aunt Elizabeth.

“At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judah, where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!'” (Luke 1:39-45)
This scene tickles me. I envision the breathless Mary bursting through an already open door into a sun-bathed kitchen where Elizabeth, no doubt, is elbow deep in a bowl of flour dusted dough. All of a sudden, her quiet humming and kneading is shaken by the enormous thump within her enlarged abdomen.

I remember flutterings early in my pregnancies. Then came the hard, uncomfortable lump when baby-to-be curled up in a knot. One of my precious bundles was sensitive to sound and light. My baby lurched in my womb when I started the hand mixer one time! The other one wiggled and twisted and did summersaults for approximately six months!

It's easy for me to imagine Elizabeth's child-bearing sensations, but the emboldened declaration prompted by the filling of the Holy Spirit goes beyond typical maternity matters. Quiet, reverent Elizabeth belts out a proclamation like the ring side announcer at a boxing match and sets little Mary back on her haunches.

Oh, the conversation between the elder and the younger mothers-to-be from that moment forward must have been wildly exiting while deeply profound. And in this humble household, permeated with the touch of love and the smell of baking bread, Mary becomes a woman and Elizabeth is filled with grace and favor. Then she blesses the child-bearing child herself.

I adore Elizabeth! I want to be an Elizabeth! I want to be ready and available to receive my Lord in all of His interesting packages. I want people to enter my home and know they'll find a place in my heart as well. I want to be filled with the Holy Spirit and speak truth and life into the ones I love. I want to be just as joyful for the good news of others as I am for my own privileges.

Amazingly, God wants that for me too! He wants to abide in us and minister through us. When the Lord enters our homes, our hearts, our lives, our work, our wonder, our hopes and beliefs, we enter a place called blessing. I think my heart just leaped at the very thought of His indwelling.