Sweetly Singing Angels??

Recent years have bought us many new and wonderful Christmas songs, but one of my most favorite carols has always been the old standard “Angels We Have Heard on High.” I can clearly remember standing in the church congregation when I was young, belting out the chorus as the pipe organ shook the walls with the familiar chorus…..

♪ ♫ ♪ Glor-or-or-or-or-ia, In Excelsis Deo! ♫ ♪ ♫

I don’t know if it was because part of the refrain is in Latin that made me feel more holy or something, but I used to try to imagine what it would have been like to fly over the peaceful hills of Judea and join in with that first angel choir singing the praises of the new born King.

That is until recently…

Don’t get me wrong, I still have warm feelings about the song, but I wonder if maybe some of those Christmas favorites have left us with an inaccurate picture of what the angelic announcement to those Bethlehem shepherds actually looked like.

In scripture, the angels primary assignment is to compose the body of the vast army of God described as the “host of heaven.” But because of changes in our language, the word “host” can be misunderstood and maybe bring to mind images of Martha Stewart rather than what the original text means. The definition for this word in the Greek refers to an army, band of soldiers, or military unit.  In that light, the ‘heavenly host’ in Luke 2:13 takes on a completely different feel than we get from the average Christmas carol or holiday illustration.

With this in mind, it’s likely that at the birth of Christ, the skies weren’t filled with a gentle, harp-playing celestial choir. Instead, the night was lit up by the presence of the mighty, powerful, fearsome warriors of the Most High God!

And what of their announcement? As the first angel concluded his message to the shepherds, the battalions burst forth with their own shouts of praise. But what if their words were more of a bold proclamation than a melody? (After all, the text doesn’t actually say they were singing, only praising God.)

And what if their battle armor told a story that mortal language could not express? Weary from millenniums of fighting the forces of darkness, perhaps in jubilation, they showed up to deliver to those shepherds (and us) the “good news” that the birth of the Christ-child meant that the enmity between God and man was finally over.

“Peace on earth,” they exclaimed!

What an declaration!  The rift and animosity that sin caused so long ago in Garden would soon be repaired through the sacrifice of the life of the perfect child who lay nearby in a humble manger.

No wonder the angels rejoiced! The miracle of Christmas that began with Christ’s birth would pave the way for restoration between God and His beloved people and to bring about ultimate “peace,” “good will” and “rest” (Luke 2:14) for all those who believe.

As you sing your Christmas favorites, I encourage you to rethink what the angels may have truly been celebrating – and what we need to celebrate as well. In that spirit, I’d appreciate your indulgence as I try to set a new tone to this season’s contemplation by borrowing the title of John Lennon’s familiar Christmas song, and giving it a fresh and spiritual spin –

“Happy Christmas,” friends. “The War is Over!”

You Are Not Able

Walk into any Christian bookstore and you’ll probably find no less than thirty items inscribed with some variation of this familiar verse above from Joshua 24. But probably few who have it framed on their walls know much about the context of the words.

If you were able to go back in time to the day when this now famous quote was spoken, you’d discover that it was delivered to the company of Israelites who’d gathered together near the end of Joshua’s life to hear what amounted to his retirement speech. And you’d also see the people respond to this direct and personal statement as you would expect them to. No doubt remembering Joshua’s godly and steady leadership as they took possession of the land of Canaan, they echoed his words and confidently proclaimed their undying allegiance to the Lord as well! (vs18)

But instead of commending them for their stated faithfulness, Joshua shocks them with a stinging retort.

Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord.” (vs 19)

Before they could question his words, Joshua went on to remind them of God’s character, specifically that He is holy, jealous, and that He will not forgive rebellion or sin. (vs 19b) It must have sounded like a harsh and confusing statement, but with the clarity of hindsight, we can see this passage was actually a prophetic foreshadowing of what would unfold over the many, and sometimes sad years to come. In the generations that followed Joshua’s life, Israel wholly forsook their commitment to the Lord, worshiped false gods, and frequently incurred the discipline of the Lord. Ultimately, as a result of their waywardness, the armies of Babylon crushed the city of Jerusalem, and most of its inhabitants were killed or carried off to endure seventy years of captivity and bondage.

As this post winds up my protracted study of the book of Joshua, I think there’s a powerful lesson in these verses for today’s believers to remember and hopefully take to heart. Often we’re quick to proclaim our faithfulness to the Lord without a frank and honest reckoning of God’s holiness, and the stark contrast created when it is held up next to our own frailty. No matter how hard we try or how sincere our commitment, in our own strength, we can never live up to His standard of perfection.

Instead of being discouraged and tempted to give up on faith all together, let me turn you to the New Testament for some solid hope.

The book of Romans reminds us that God isn’t surprised by our failures. In fact, chapter 3, verse 23 states unmistakably that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Unfortunately, that’s where most readers stop. However, the next phrase is what I want you to take away from this concluding section of the book of Joshua. We can’t meet God’s standard of perfection, and we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking we have the ability alone to do what He asks long enough or well enough.

But the good news is that we don’t have to!

All have sinned. Yes. All fall short. Absolutely. But, thank our Heavenly Father that we’re not left to drown in our unfaithfulness, or to endure countless years of bondage as a result of our wayward desires. The joyful promise of verse 24 proclaims that “all (can be) justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Jesus came to earth to live the perfect life that we could never live, and to exchange His perfection for our broken sinfulness. Only through faith in His sacrifice can we be reunited with this holy God and invited to serve Him –no longer in our own strength- but now through the power of His Spirit within us.

 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. ~ Hebrews 4:16



The Main Thing

This past week we gathered with 22 family members and friends to enjoy a wonderful celebration. After the feast concluded, the crowd splintered into smaller groups that shape in various places around our house. Three or four gathered around the television to watch the football game. Two sat at the counter to catch up on the latest developments and accomplishments in the lives of their children. Four more sat on the sofa in the living room. A few more moved out onto the deck for fresh air, while the rest lingered around one side of the dining room table, filling the air with the low rumble of warm conversation.

“Papa,” “Nana,” & Grandkids

Eventually the evening hours approached and you could tell that the gathering was drawing to a close, my father-in-law spontaneously clinked his fork on his coffee cup to call the clan back together. As he looked around the room and surveyed a couple generations of family, it was obvious that he was also metaphorically looking across time through the lens of his 80+ years of life. With his voice full of emotion, he began to enumerate the many blessings associated with the faces that stood around our kitchen table. After recounting some wonderful stories of his lifetime, he concluded with a challenge to us to always value what he regarded as most important thing in this life: Relationships.

imagesPerhaps this was isn’t too far from Joshua’s mindset in chapter 24 of the book that bears his name. By this point, Joshua has seen a lot over the span of his long and storied life. He began life in Egyptian bondage, and as a young man took his place at Moses’ side as God’s mighty hand lead His people out from under the harsh rule of Pharaoh. He saw the Lord part the Red Sea, tasted manna and dressed in clothes that never wore out as the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. Later, as Moses’s successor, he lead the Hebrews through the parted waters of the Jordan River, watch the walls of Jericho crumble, and led the Israelites to conquer their enemies and settle in the Promised Land of Canaan.

And so, it’s in chapter 24 that as he pauses to survey the faithfulness and power of God in his life. Joshua gathers the leaders and people together to give them a final challenge.

“Now fear the Lord and serve Him with all faithfulness.” ~ Joshua 24:14

Serve Him with ALL faithfulness….

That statement doesn’t leave any room for casual faith. It doesn’t give the option of following God only when it’s convenient or personally beneficial. While the world will never have a shortage of things that distract us and tempt us away from following the Lord’s voice, (and we won’t always get it right,) we’re still called to consecrate ourselves to the Lord and invest in serving Him. But this kind of commitment comes from a deeper place than following mere words and getting busy in some sort of religious activity. In verse 23, Joshua gives us the key when he encourages us to “yield (our) hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.

I guess the easiest way for me to think about this right now is to go back to my father-in-law’s words from this past week. Believers need to focus on the thing that’s most important: Relationship.  And in this case, a relationship with Christ. When knowing Him becomes our priority, following and serving the Lord will no longer be obligation, but becomes the overflow of a joyful and grateful heart.

“Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, … But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” ~ Joshua 24:15



Eternal Blessings

Recently I got an email from a friend letting me know that her father had passed away early that morning.
Another friend sent a notice asking for prayer for her family after the passing of her uncle.
A facebook from another girlfriend recounted a tragic accident that suddenly claimed a family member.
And at work, a colleague announced that a long, degenerative illness had finally ended in the death of his wife.
Add to that several serious illnesses in and among my family and friends and the seriousness of life begins to weigh heavily.

Whether it’s health concerns, work problems, or changes in relationships, major (and even minor) issues in our lives often cloud our perspective, causing us to focus on what we don’t have and to forget completely about what we do have.

At this point, it’d be easy to drop into another recycled Thanksgiving musing on the benefits of listing all the positive things that fill our lives… like health, a job, food on the table, and a place to live. While those are certainly blessings that we shouldn’t take for granted, they are also things that can disappear in an instant. For believers to regard those things as our primary reasons for gratitude and for giving thanks unintentionally anchors our affections to this life.

Instead, this Thanksgiving, I want to encourage us to adopt the attitude of King David and use this season as an opportunity to lift your eyes to the Lord. Instead of being overwhelmed and consumed with the discouragements of this life (and you WILL have them as long as you live), mediate on the first five verses of Psalm 103. Remind yourself of your eternal blessings… that through Christ, are yours now, and can never be taken away.

Praise the Lord, my soul;
 all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, my soul,
 and forget not all His benefits—
who forgives all your sins
 and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
 and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
 so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
Psalm 103:1-5