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Merry Christmas

May you and your family experience anew the hope, love, joy, and peace that first came over 2,000 years ago when God did the unthinkable — when He stepped down and was born in a manger.

Merry Christmas to all of our students, partners, and readers of our blog!

The Names of God

I was reading through the Old Testament this past week and I found a Scripture that caught my eye. I was gearing up for Christmas, so I had sought out some old favorite Scriptures in the Old Testament that, I believe, point forward to the coming of Christ. Isaiah has a lot to say about Christ, and so naturally that book was the first one that I turned to. In Isaiah 9:6, it reads:

“For to us a child is born,
To us a son is given,
And the government will be on His shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

This verse is usually used to connect the Old Testament to the New through Christ. I made a mental note of this and almost turned away when the names of God at the end of the verse caught my attention. These four names are given to Christ, and yet I had only ever acknowledged them – I had never consciously thought about what they meant.

As Wonderful Counselor, Christ offers guidance and direction to our lives. He is ready and willing to show us His plan and how to prosper, if we will only seek Him. His advice is extraordinary, it is astounding, and it is full of Him. When we need it, He simply listens to our cries. He is our Wonderful Counselor.

As Mighty God, Christ saves us from disaster and fends off our enemies. He is all-powerful and guards us on all sides. He will protect you from the things that seek to destroy you and He will lift you up when times are hard. He hears your crying during times of trouble and sweeps in like a mighty wave to save you. He is our Mighty god.

As Everlasting Father, Christ is always with us. Even when we cannot feel Him, He is still by our side. He never leaves, He never falters, He never fails. He is faithful, and is always ready for us. He existed before us and promises to take us into forever with Him. He is our Everlasting Father.

Finally, as Prince of Peace, Christ calms our hearts and minds. When our minds are tossed by the busy-ness of the world, He brings us rest. When our hearts are torn and mangled by the ones we love, He grants us healing. In the stormiest of days, He whispers peace into our souls. He is our Prince of Peace.

As Christmas approaches, remember who Christ is. Remember who He is to you now, and all that He can, and wants, to be. He came into this world to save you. And you can call Him Marvelous Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.

Advent Deeper: Picked Out

“When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.”
Luke 1:57-58

Joy. It’s found throughout the Christmas story.

Angels proclaimed good news of great joy.
Mary experienced joy at the pronouncement of her conception.
Anna and Simeon encountered joy as they held the long-awaited Messiah.
Shepherds and Magi and the faithful few of Israel received joy upon knowing their Savior was born.

But none was as powerful as the joy experienced by Zechariah and Elizabeth.

Scripture tells us Zechariah and Elizabeth were upright in the eyes of the Lord, obeyed every commandment, every regulation blamelessly. They were descendants of Aaron, meaning Zechariah was a priest and Elizabeth in the bloodline of the priesthood. They were holy, set apart to do the work of the Lord.

Zechariah and Elizabeth were as faithful as they come. They did everything God asked, sought His face regularly, and pointed others to the truth of the God of Israel. But there was one problem:

They were barren.
And well along in years.

Zechariah and Elizabeth would have watched as those less faithful, those less obedient, those who gave no mind to the things of God received what they wanted: a child.

They would have fasted.
Prayed.
Cried out.
Sought counsel.
And wondered why what came easy for others, wouldn’t even happen for them through prayer, tears, and obedience.

It would have been easy for them to feel picked-on by God.

They did everything right. Made the appropriate sacrifices. Gave the correct tithe. Put Him as top priority in their lives.

And yet, nothing.
For decades.

God was distant, ignoring their prayers, and picking on them.

Then, after they had given up hope to ever have a child, an angel appears.
Elizabeth gets pregnant.
Zechariah is mute out of unbelief.

And John the Baptist is born.

Just because God doesn’t give us what we want when we want it, just because it seems difficult for us to receive what others (even those who don’t love God) receive with ease, doesn’t mean God is picking on us.

It means He has picked us out for something greater.

Zechariah and Elizabeth were picked out.
They were chosen.
They had the privilege and honor of parenting the one who would precede the Messiah.

It just took a little while for him to be born.

Zechariah and Elizabeth may not have experience joy during the wait, but when John was born, their joy eclipsed the pain of the wait.

So, my brothers and sisters, as we journey ever closer to celebrating the birth of Christ, may you be reminded that God’s delay doesn’t mean he’s picking on you. May you know that He is setting you up for something bigger. And may you, as you finally walk into the greater things, experience a joy that eclipses the pain of the wait.

What area in your life does it seem as if God is holding something back from you? How might he be setting you up for something greater?

Advent Deeper: Loving the Misfit

“Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.”
Matthew 1:16

Love. It’s the core of the Christmas story.

Mary’s love for God, enduring the sneers and comments of being an unwed, teenage mother.
Joseph’s love for Mary, choosing to stay with her when he had every right to publicly shame her.
God’s love for His creation in sending His own son to earth.

You can’t read the Christmas story without coming face to face with the truth of love.

But there’s another aspect of love in the Christmas story we tend to overlook.
The genealogy of Christ.

In this long list of people we don’t know and names we can’t pronounce, we get a glimpse into just how deep God’s love is for us.

When Christ striped himself of his divinity and chose to be born as a man, He could have picked any family line he wanted.

He could have come through the bloodline of impeccable royalty.
He could have stepped into the genealogy of the wealthy.
He could have chosen a family line that didn’t have huge secrets, embarrassing failures, and countless screw-ups.

Christ could have come through the best of the Israelites.
It’s what they had expected.

They wanted their Messiah to come through royalty.
They were expecting fanfare fit for a King.
They were convinced their Savior would be born into influence.

Instead, His bloodline was riddled with failures.

Abraham prostituted out his wife.
Isaac did the same.
Jacob lied, deceived, and stole from his brother.
Judah slept with a prostitute who ended up being his daughter-in-law Tamar.
Rahab was the prostitute who helped the Israelites in Jericho.
David committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed.

The list goes on and on.

Failures.
Screw-ups.
Misfits.
The lowly of the low.

This is the genealogy God chose to be born into.
Not wealth.
Not prestige.
Not the holy of the holy.

God chose the outcasts, the failures, the embarrassments of the Israelite clan as his human bloodline to show his love isn’t reserved for those who have it all together.

He loves the misfits, the murderers, the prostitutes, the liars, the failures, those who turned their back on him for one fleeting moment of satisfaction.

And He loves you.

No matter what you’ve done, where you’ve been, or how badly you’ve messed up.
That is the crux of the Christmas story.

So, my brothers and sisters, as we journey towards the manger this year, may you be reminded of how much God truly loves you. May you fully understand your past doesn’t diminish His love for you. And may you, as you grasp the fullness of His love for you, respond in kind, and pour our your love for Him.

How has God poured out His love on you in your weaknesses?

Advent Deeper: Hope Again

“On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
Matthew 2:11

Sunday starts the season of Advent – those four weeks where Christians take time to reflect on and remember the true meaning of Christmas, and prepare themselves for the birth of Christ. If you looked into the traditions and ways that people observe Advent, you will find that each week has its own focus.

The first one being hope.
In the midst of hopelessness.

It’s a theme found throughout the Christmas story.

The children of Israel experienced hope as God began speaking again after 400 years.
Mary and Joseph found hope as angel upon angel appeared to bring reassurance.
The shepherds experienced hope in the appearance of the heavenly host.
Simeon and Anna found hope as they gazed upon the long-awaited Messiah.

But there’s another experience of hope we tend to overlook.
The arrival of the Magi.

The Christmas story reads as a consecutive list of events. The angel appears to Joseph. Jesus is born in Bethlehem. The Magi appear. One right after another.

However, Historians believe the arrival of the Magi didn’t occur right away. They didn’t show up a few hours, or even days, after Christ was born to bring their gifts. They definitely didn’t find Jesus still laying in a manger.

The Magi appeared two years after Jesus was born.
Two years of Mary, Joseph, and their child living in Bethlehem.
Two years waiting for the census to be completed.
Two years staying in a house that wasn’t their own.
Two years without any fanfare, angelic appearances, or curious shepherds.

The excitement, proclamation, and fanfare of Christ’s birth had worn off.
Mary and Joseph were living with the day-to-day ramifications of parenting the Messiah.

They were far from home.
Away from their family and friends.
Staying in someone else’s house.

And probably running out of money.

Then, out of nowhere, these Magi appear.

They weren’t just ordinary men.
They were members of a learned religious class.
Specializing in astrology, medicine, and natural science.
Traveled months from somewhere around Iran.

And were bearing gifts fit for a king.

The appearance of the Magi reaffirmed the identity of the Christ-child.
It showed Mary and Joseph they weren’t forgotten.
And provided the resources needed to finish their time in Bethlehem and flee to Egypt.

Hope appeared again years after the angelic proclamations, the reappearance of God’s voice, and the birth of the Messiah.
And it continues to appear centuries later in our lives.

So, my brothers and sisters, as we begin journeying through Advent, may you find hope rising up again in your life. May you see God moving in every aspect of your life. And may you, as we inch closer to celebrating the birth of Christ, find the hope to face whatever may come.

How has God used others to bring hope into your life?

Should I Practice Advent?

There seems to be a belief among many Christians that the season of Advent is strictly reserved for High Liturgical churches. Most protestant, evangelical churches shy away from Advent, believing it too traditional to have any redemptive value.

History of Advent

The origins of Advent aren’t completely clear, but do trace back to the Latin Translation of the Sacred Scriptures to the Vulgate (fourth century) which attribute the term adventus, meaning the coming of the Son of God, in two meanings: his coming in flesh and his second coming. The tension between the two meanings was later was resolved and adventus referred to “a moment of preparation for the coming.”

The very first recorded instance of an Advent-like observation came in 380 AD when congregants were encouraged to attend church every day to prepare themselves for the celebration of Christmas.

By 490 AD, Saint Gregory of Tours offered a testimony of a certain sense of preparation for Christmas among the monks: “they should observe fasting everyday during the month of December, up to Christmas day” (Canon 17, Council of Tours).

The specifics surrounding the celebration of Advent underwent a number of changes over the next few centuries, with the length of Advent and prescribed observation changing until landing on the four Sundays before Christmas, which is the current practice of Advent.

Character of Advent

Advent serves as time for Christians of all denominations to reflect and prepare themselves to celebrate the first coming of Christ in human form over 2,000 years ago, and the second coming of Christ that we still await. The present Roman Calendar acknowledges that “Advent has a twofold character: as a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ’s first coming to us is remembered; as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time. Advent is thus a period for devout and joyful expectation.” (Roman Calendar, Universal norms of the Liturgical Year and Calendar, 39)

Advent Traditions

There are many different traditions associated with Advent. The two most popular include:

  • The Advent Wreath: This garland wreath comes with five candles: four on it and one in the center. During each week of Advent, a candle is lit to give focus and direction to ones reflection of Christ. The four candles on it represent the themes of Advent: Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace. The candle in middle represents the presence of Christ.
  • The Advent Calendar: There are numerous versions of the Advent Calendar, ranging from receiving a small gift each day during the season of Advent to being given a task or reflection to focus oneself on Christ.

A quick Google search for Advent Traditions will give you a better idea of other traditions people practice during Advent.

Redeeming Advent

While Advent is steeped in tradition and can come across as lifeless to some, an understanding of the origins and meaning behind Advent can result in practice that brings one closer to Christ.

This year, Advent begins on Sunday, December 2. Ignite has put together two resources to help you draw closer to Christ and reflect on the true meaning of Christmas this year: our Away in a Manger Advent Devotion Book and our Advent Calendar. Both resources are free and will help you encounter Christ this Advent season.

View our Advent Resources page.

How do you practice Advent?

Advent Deeper: True Peace

“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.'”
Luke 2:13-14

Peace. It was a message the Israelites waited centuries to hear.

After their rebellion in the book of Malachi, God had been quiet for 400 years. No answered prayers. No angelic visitations. No burning bushes, no Presence in the temple, and no blessings from above. They were subject to oppression by the Greeks and the Romans. They were taxed 60-80% of their income, were governed by people who were enemies of their God and had their land stripped away. They were watched wherever they went, were told what they could and could not do, and had to pledge alliance to their new king, Caesar.

Peace wasn’t really a part of their lives.

They knew about it. They had heard stories about how God intervened on behalf of their ancestors, gave them their own land and rest from their enemies. They knew His promises and read about His blessings.

They just weren’t experiencing it themselves.

So when these angels appear on the scene, when the heavens rip open and God’s messengers deliver a promise of joy and glory and peace, the shepherds would have been ecstatic.

God was bringing them peace.

Their Messiah had been born. He would lead the charge against their Roman oppressors, defeat their enemies, give them back their land and reign as their King. All the waiting, all the praying, all the crying out and years of oppression were about to pay off.

Peace was coming.

The Israelites were overjoyed.

The only problem was, peace didn’t come. Not as they expected.

There was no battle. Christ didn’t overthrow the Roman empire. He didn’t defeat their enemies. He didn’t give them back their land, make a public spectacle of their oppressors and bring them rest from their enemies. He didn’t make the Romans pay for what they did.

He didn’t bring them the peace they wanted.

The Israelites wanted a utopia. They wanted paradise. They wanted to be free from oppression and taxation and war. They were praying for a life free from strife and hardship and pain. They wanted the kind of peace that brought them comfort and rest and safety.

They wanted our definition of peace.

But God didn’t give them what they wanted. He didn’t give them freedom from oppression, rest from war or the comfortable life we all desire. He gave them something bigger, something better.

Christ gave them the kind of peace that transcends circumstances – that in the midst of turmoil and strife and persecution, we could have a deep, quiet, restful sense that God in in control, and He has our best interests at heart.

And so, my brothers and sisters, as we journey these last few days to the manger, may you be reminded of the true peace Christ gives. May you know that He is in control of your every circumstance. And may you, as you work through your own hardship and turmoil and pain, find that same peace the angels declared 2,000 years ago.

Where do you need to experience peace in your life?

Advent Deeper: Unexpected Joy

“But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”
Luke 2:10

Joy. It wasn’t something the shepherds expected to hear about that night.

It was just an ordinary night of doing their ordinary duties. Walk the sheep out. Let them graze. Watch to make sure no animal tried to come and snatch one away. Keep an eye out for any sheep that got lost, or stuck, or fell into a hole. Nothing exciting. Nothing new. Just the same, mundane, lowly task day in and day out.

Joy wasn’t really a part of their lives.

These shepherds were outcasts. Low-lifes. The fact that they were tending their flocks at night meant they were working for someone else. Or shunned. Or ashamed. They were low class, working the job no one wanted to do, spending their nights away from their families, out in the cold, with a bunch of smelly, dumb sheep. Not to mention the oppression they were under from the Roman Empire, coming in, taking 60-80% of everything they owned.

Then seemingly out of no where, while they were just going about a typical night, the heavens ripped open, angels appeared, began to sing, and declared a message they never thought they would hear.

The Messiah has come.

The Israelites waited 400 years for that message. They prayed, cried out, believed, lost faith, came back again, offered sacrifices and held onto the hope that someday, their Messiah would show up and bring them out of Roman oppression.

Finally, the promise God gave to their ancestors was coming to pass – and these shepherds, these nobodies, were a part of that story.

Joy had come.

So they packed up their bags, took their sheep home and set out in search of the one the angels declared.

And they found the baby.
And rejoiced over His birth.
And spread word about what was said concerning Him.

But then an interesting thing happened.

He had to grow.

Years of waiting, centuries of crying out, trusting God for salvation from the Romans, countless angelic visitations about the promised Messiah, shepherds and wise men and kings coming from thousands of miles to see this baby…

Only for Him to fade into obscurity for another 30 years.

No Roman overthrow.
No flashy thunderbolts or angelic armies.
No Messiah on a white horse, leading the charge, slaughtering all their enemies.

Their Messiah wasn’t much to be joyful about.

Instead of displaying unlimited power, he was captured by their enemies.
Instead of fighting their Roman oppressors, he challenged their religious leaders.
Instead of being on their side, telling them they were doing everything right, He showed them how far they had wandered from God, and offered them a way back.

I’m sure even these shepherds wondered why the angels came with a message of great joy.

God didn’t show up as they expected. He didn’t do what they wanted. He went pushed against their ideals, lived in obscurity and was a bit of a trouble maker among their religious leaders.

He left them questioning if He really was there, and really was the Messiah.
Even His own disciples doubted.

The joy people experienced at His birth was swallowed up in obscurity, accusations, and His eventual death.

Joy didn’t come as they expected.
But it still came.

Because true joy doesn’t come through circumstances, worldly freedom, or having everything you always wanted. True joy comes in unexpected ways, through a life renewed in Him.

And so, my brothers and sisters, as you walk through situations that seem to be joy-less, may you find joy in Him. May you be reminded that joy doesn’t come in having an easy life full of material possessions, but in walking with Christ. And may you, as you journey closer to the birth of our Savior, find joy overflowing again.

Where have you seen joy bubbling up in unexpected places?

Advent Deeper: Love from the Manger

“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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
John 3:16-17

Love. It’s woven throughout the Christmas story.

We see it in Mary’s choice to trust God and carry his Messiah in spite of the accusations and betrayals.
We see it in Joseph’s choice to stay with Mary, even if he had every right to divorce her.
We see it in Zechariah’s joy at having a son.
We see it in Elizabeth’s exclamation that Mary is blessed, the distance the shepherds and Magi traveled to see this God-child, and the trust both Mary and Joseph placed in God to be the earthly parents of the Messiah.
We even see it in the love we experience from others during this season.

But at the very center of the Christmas story, we see it in the love God has for his people.

The God of all creation, this God who holds the universe in the palm of His hand, the God who parted the Red Sea, held the sun in its place for a full day, and made a 90 year old barren woman pregnant, the God who gave a donkey a voice, the God who defeated armies, named the stars and knows the number of hair strands on each of our heads, did something no one was expecting.

He stepped down from His place in heaven.
Disrobed himself of his power and glory.
Took the form of man.

And dwelt among us.

The Israelites weren’t expecting Him to come as a humble king. They weren’t looking for a man of lowly birth. They didn’t want a man of peace who challenged their traditions, pointed out their errors and showed them a new way of living. They wanted a conqueror. A warrior. A Messiah who would come with a legion of warriors and destroy their Roman oppressors.

Instead, they were given God’s Son.

Born of an unwed, teenage mother.
Born into low-class society.
Born on the floor of a barn, in a town that had no room for him, surrounded by animal crap.

He lived as we live. He felt abandonment and rejection. He endured hurts and pains. His family questioned his potential. His friends abandoned him. He never found a woman to marry. He was childless, sometimes friendless and knew what it meant for no one to understand him. He was scorned, mocked and ridiculed. He was labeled a heretic and blasphemer and sinner. He died too young, didn’t get to realize his own dreams, and lived a life many around him would have considered ordinary.

He experienced the worst the world had to offer.

Lived a life of rejection and pain.

Faced every temptation we have or will ever face.

And he did it for us.

God loves us. He loves us in spite of our flaws and failures and mistakes. He loves us in spite of the rejections we face. He loves us no matter what we’ve done or what we will ever do. He loves us for who we are and who we are becoming.

And He proved that love by shedding His glory, stepping out of heaven and being born in a manger.

And so, my brothers and sisters, as we journey towards the manger this year, may you be reminded of the love God has for you. May you see the Christmas story written personally for you. And may you, as you focus on Him more and more this season, find that love begin to transform the way you see yourself.

How has God personally shown His love for you?

Advent Deeper: Prepare the Way

“It is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” — “a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Mark 1:2-4

Sunday marked the start of Advent – those four weeks Christians set aside to reflect on the real meaning of Christmas. It is a time of remembering and rejoicing, watching and resting, celebrating and preparing, reflecting upon the promises of God and anticipating the fulfillment of those promises.

Advent is a season of waiting.

It’s a theme we see woven throughout scripture.

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