Monday, December 31, 2012

The Christmas Sacrifice

John 8:12, Matthew 16:24

One of my favorite things this Christmas is my tree. That’s funny because it’s artificial and I resisted getting one for so long. When we lived in Massachusetts I loved walking up the street to a farm to cut down a tree. I loved having a real tree in my house. But our fake tree is symmetrical and I loaded it with lights. Sitting in the living room with only the tree lights on has been my indulgence this year.

In fact, Christmas so easily becomes self-indulgent. I eat too many goodies and spend more than I should on my kids and grandkids. When I enjoy the Christmas tree lights, listen to special music, and decorate my house with beautiful things, I’m doing it for me. It’s good to fill my heart and mind with beauty, but the focus should always be on Jesus. And when it is, I won’t be thinking of myself.

Jesus told us more than once that He is the light of the world. In this John verse, He reinforced the idea that His light shows us the path. If we walk in the light He sheds, we’ll follow the path that leads to life. Although that path brings us joy, it also requires self-sacrifice. 

Jesus said I have to take up my cross if I want to follow Him. That’s not a joyous, Christmas thought. The cross was an evil instrument of torture. The cross was a place where criminals were punished. The cross was where Jesus died for my sins. Because He died for me, I don’t have to hang on a cross. I’m not a criminal anymore. I don’t need to fear the torture of eternal death. I’m not going to die for my own sins.

So what did He mean that I need to take up my cross? I think the answer is found in Philippians 4 where Paul tells us to have the same attitude that Jesus did. He didn’t consider equality with God something to be grasped. He humbled Himself in obedience to God.

To take up my cross means to humble myself. To give up myself. To give myself up as a sacrifice. To turn from my selfish ways.

Christmas is the season to celebrate God’s love for me. It’s the season to celebrate Jesus’ amazing sacrifice for me. 

Christmas is also a reminder that God calls me to self-sacrifice. It’s a time to give myself up for others.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Blessings of Walking in the Light

Psalm 56:13, 2 Corinthians 4:6

One of the unusual things I got to do as a missionary kid was to climb a volcano – well, actually, two volcanoes. In both cases, part of the climb was made in the dark, once to see the sunrise from the top and the other to see the lava flow in the dark. It’s hard to climb a little mountain path in the dark, even when you have a flashlight and a guide. You have to look at your feet so you won’t trip over roots or slip on loose rocks. You have to trust that the person in front of you is actually on a path. It’s so much easier to climb in the full light of the day.

That’s the difference between living in spiritual darkness and living in God’s light. 

If I were walking in darkness, I would be slipping, not knowing whether I was even on a path and, even if I didn’t know it, I’d be walking toward death. When I believed in Jesus, He rescued me from death. I know this intellectually, but I don’t really remember walking in darkness. God blessed me by saving me when I was a young child. For me – and I think all Christians, no matter how long they walked in darkness – the real issue is walking in the light.

To walk in the light is to walk in God’s presence. That means that the reason I can see where I’m going is that He is walking in front of me. I can trust Him because He is the light that shows me the path. Psalm 16:11 says,” Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.” (KJV)

These are the blessings of walking in the light.

The path of life: Jesus said He came to give us abundant life. (John 10:10) An abundant life is one that is productive, satisfying and not self-centered. I get to live to please Him and that is so much better than living to please myself.

Fullness of joy: Joy gives me strength. I can live that abundant life because I have full joy. I don’t give in to worry or fear or jealousy or moodiness when I’m joyful.

Pleasures for evermore: One of my struggles is giving in to minor pleasures that keep me away from that joy I just mentioned. Eating something right now and then not being hungry for a great meal later. Sleeping a little longer and then not having time to read my Bible in the morning. But when I walk in the light the minor pleasures fade away as I enjoy the true pleasures God has prepared for me. And they will last.

Climbing the volcano in the dark is worth it when you get to the top and see the lava shooting up into the sky or the sun rising over the nearby peaks. But the reason you do it is to see the light. The darkness is something you leave behind you when you get to the light.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Loving in the Light

To live in the light is to love. 

There are a lot of definitions of love in this world and some of what people call love isn’t very healthy. But this passage is clear about it. 

It means to love the way Jesus did. Jesus demonstrated His love for others in a lot of ways. He took time to talk to people that others shunned, like the woman caught in adultery and the Samaritan woman at the well. He healed desperate people like blind men and the woman with the issue of blood. He raised a boy from the dead so he could care for his mother. He cried over the death of his friend Lazarus. In fact, He cried over the entire city of Jerusalem and the people of Israel.

Of course, the most critical way He showed love for everyone, was to die for us. His love was sacrificial.  So to live in the light is to love sacrificially.

But this passage is directed to Christians and tells us that living in the light is loving Christian brothers and sisters. Apparently, Christians can still walk in darkness. Christians who say they live in the light, but hate other Christians.

I can actually measure whether I am living in the light. 

Has someone hurt me badly? Am I unwilling to forgive them? I’m walking in darkness.

Is there someone at church that annoys me? Someone I gossip about? I’m walking in darkness. 

Am I jealous of the attention someone else at church gets? Do I mutter and grumble instead of recognizing their service to our Lord? I’m walking in darkness.

Do I ignore the needs of one of my brothers or sisters because they seem to be always asking for something? Am I too busy to make that phone call? Am I unwilling to give up something I don’t need so I can buy something that someone else needs? I’m walking in darkness.

On the other hand, if I love my brothers and sisters, I’m living in the light.

Jesus is the light of the world. When He saved me, He brought me into His light and showed me the way I should walk. I need to ask Him to shine that light on my relationships with other Christians and dispel any darkness that lingers from my lack of love. 

I want to love my brothers and sisters like Jesus did - sacrificially.

Friday, December 28, 2012

They LIKE the Darkness

When I was a child, I was afraid of the dark. It may seem like a cliché, but I believed in monsters. My mother understood this and let me sleep with a night light. We lived in the country where there were no street lights and I wouldn’t go outside at night alone. Even when I was grown up, I used to get a little a shiver when I walked out into a dark night. But I’ve come to appreciate the dark. Now that I struggle with age-related insomnia, I need total darkness to sleep. I like the dark.

Spiritual darkness can seem ambiguous too. It’s scary, but there are things about it that are attractive. People who live in the darkness, like it. They like doing evil and they love the darkness that hides their deeds. That’s why they stay away from the light.

It makes me wonder; what kind of twisted person likes doing evil? I picture a large, ugly man with a leer on his face, as he points a gun at a defenseless victim. I’ve seen him in movies and read about him in murder mysteries, and he may even exist in real life. But he’s not the only one who loves the darkness. 

In Romans 13:13, Paul warns about some things that go on in the dark - wild parties and drunkenness, sexual promiscuity and immoral living, quarreling and jealousy. Once again, movies and TV provide mental images. I don’t watch night time soap operas, but I’m sure all of these things are done in a single episode. I do see them in the context of the police dramas I do like to watch. And I’m sure they happen in real life. 

But if I remove the labels of evil and darkness, this list suddenly looks a little more familiar. I remember college dances I chaperoned where the students drank so much, fights broke out and EMTs had to deal with alcohol poisoning. I know plenty of people who live together without bothering with marriage, who move from partner to partner fairly frequently. It causes quarreling and jealousy. But the people involved in this lifestyle don’t see it as sinful or evil. They just see it as life and they’re just trying to be happy. They aren’t interested in hearing that God doesn’t approve of how they’re living. They don’t want the light to show that their deeds are evil.

Darkness doesn’t just hide what we consider “big” sins. All sin is evil and Jesus came to expose it all in His light. Once it’s been exposed, the sinner can repent and come to the light. Then they can be examples to others of what God wants.

I am blessed that God shone His light on me. My responsibility is to walk in the light and show those that are in darkness that there is a better way. According to Jesus, I too am a light. My prayer is that my light will “shine before men, that they may see [my] good works, and glorify [my] Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16 KJV)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The End of Darkness

About six years ago, I developed cataracts in both my eyes. I first noticed it when I started seeing halos around lights. When I drove at night, the headlights of the cars coming toward me spread so far, I couldn’t see the cars. I had to stop driving at night, because I couldn’t see the road.

That is what Jesus is warning about in these passages. When your eyesight is bad, you’re in darkness. And when you’re in darkness, you can’t see where you’re going.

People who are in darkness may not necessarily know it. They think they have light, but it’s actually darkness. Most people think they know some sort of truth. They have a sense of right and wrong, a code of sorts, and they try to live by it. It’s probably based on their experiences, their desires and some sort of teaching they’ve received. They find a cause and throw themselves into it – environmentalism, tolerance, social causes, politics. Or they live by a philosophy like, “Respect me and I’ll respect you.” But because their vision isn’t based on the of light of God’s truth, their philosophies fail. Like the halos that I see at night, the light they see actually blinds them and makes the darkness worse.

Because they are in the dark, they don’t know where they’re going. They may have a goal in mind, and they try to get there, but even if they know the way, they can’t stay on the road. They can’t see it.

People living in darkness need a light to show them the way. People living in darkness do evil things and don’t even know they are evil. People living in darkness need a light to see the truth. People living in darkness are lost.

I know and love a lot of people who are living in darkness and don’t know it. Thanks to God’s love and goodness, I have a message of hope for them. A light has come to dispel the darkness. His name is Jesus and He was born on Christmas. (John12:46)

Christmas is a celebration of the end of the darkness.