advent: giving and receiving gifts

tree giftsMaking space and time to celebrate Advent is important because our lives are busy, our memories are poor, and a number of other reasons. Here’s one:

It’s fun to give and receive gifts.

As any kid knows, Christmas and gift giving go hand in hand. We exchange gifts with family and friends as a way to commemorate God’s gifts to us.

The Christmas narrative in Matthew’s Gospel includes the story of wise men from the east who brought gifts for Jesus. Jesus received gifts from these visitors, and Isaiah tells us that Jesus himself was a gift:

For a child is born to us,
a son is given to us.
The government will rest on his shoulders.
And he will be called:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His government and its peace
will never end.
He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David
for all eternity.

—Isaiah 9:6-7

Verse 6 says “a son is given to us.” Jesus is God’s gift to us, the one sent to save us from our sins, to remove the barrier separating us from God. John says that all who believe and receive this gift have the right to become children of God. No gift on earth can compare.

The Word gave life to everything that was created,
and his life brought light to everyone.

—John 1:4

The Advent season enables us to focus on receiving gifts: Jesus is God’s gift to us. And Jesus gave life to everything. This season also emphasizes that the greatest gift we can give to God is to worship Him by receiving His gift of Jesus.

The gifts we give each other cannot compare to this, no matter how extravagant. But the simple act of exchanging gifts with others reminds us that we were created to both receive and give.

What are some of the other reasons you celebrate Advent?

advent: a cure for short memories

candleFollowers of Jesus intentionally celebrate Advent for a number of reasons. Yesterday, we looked at one such reason: the busyness of life. Here’s another:

Our memories are short.

This is one of the great themes of Scripture. We can’t be trusted to remember anything that matters. The Old Testament is one long narrative describing how the Hebrew people constantly forgot God’s law and God’s activities on their behalf. And the New Testament isn’t much better: The disciples consistently and sometimes comically forgot what Jesus had done.

This time of year, when we thank God for sending Jesus to us, we get a healthy dose of fulfilled prophecies. We read once again the words of God’s prophets from hundreds of years before Jesus. We read Jeremiah. We read Micah. And we read Isaiah, who prophesied about 700 years before Jesus’ birth.

The Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’).

—Isaiah 7:14

The Gospel writer Matthew records the fulfillment of this prophecy:

18 This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph, her fiancé, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.

20 As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

—Matthew 1:18-21

Isaiah prophesied that the Savior would be born to a virgin. Jeremiah prophesied that the Savior would be from the royal line of David. Micah prophesied that the Savior would be born in the little town of Bethlehem.

Each of these prophesies was fulfilled by Jesus. When we celebrate Advent, Scripture aids our faulty memories and reminds us who God is and what He has said. And it also reminds us that Jesus is coming again:

19 Now repent of your sins and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped away. 20 Then times of refreshment will come from the presence of the Lord, and he will again send you Jesus, your appointed Messiah. 21 For he must remain in heaven until the time for the final restoration of all things, as God promised long ago through his holy prophets.

—Acts 3:19-21

Jesus came 2,000 years ago to fulfill prophecy as Savior, and He will come again to fulfill prophecy as Judge. And just like the first coming, we don’t know when the next will be.

Advent is a cure for our short, faulty memories.

Stop by tomorrow for a third reason we make space in our lives to remember the coming of Jesus.

advent: why we celebrate

Why do we celebrate Advent, the coming of Jesus? Here’s one reason:

Life is busy.

It might sound counterintuitive to add activities to a day or week that is already full. But the reality is that unless we make room for the important things, our lives will fill up with the meaningless. A British historian, Cyril Northcote Parkinson, once said that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. Similarly, less-important activities expand to fill the time available—unless we make time for the most important.

When we carve out space for God in our lives, we are more likely to hear His voice. We are more likely to draw strength and wisdom and insight from Scripture. He reminds us that He loves us. He reminds us that He has sent His only Son to bring life and light. He reminds us who He is and who we are in Him.

More than 25 years ago, Bill Hybels wrote a book called Too Busy Not to Pray. The premise is even more relevant today: We are too busy not to dedicate time to remember the coming of Jesus. His coming helps us to evaluate the worth of our activities.

At the end of each year, I like to look back and look ahead. I think this is an appropriate way to observe Advent. Setting this priority gives us time to reflect on what God has done in our lives over the past year. And it gives us some space to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit and consider what’s next.

We celebrate Advent because our lives are busy.

Come back tomorrow for a second reason we make time to remember the coming of Jesus.

advent: memories of hope and fear

playWhen I was a child, the Christmas season for me was always a combination of hope and fear. Those who also had the privilege of growing up in the church might be able to relate.

Others might ask, what does Christmas—the celebration of the birth of Jesus the Savior—have to do with fear or anxiety? I can tell you in one phrase: stage fright. Every October, my church started preparing for a children’s Christmas play. For about two months, we practiced songs. We memorized lines. We worked on presenting the Christmas story.

Which means that for about two months—60 long days—we could worry about forgetting our lines and messing up in front of all of our family and friends.

It felt like torture.

When the night of the program arrived, there might have been 250 people in the room, but to a 9-year-old it felt like a thousand. Imagine a stage packed with kids dressed up as Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, wise men, and livestock.

I remember praying to receive the role of a sheep or donkey or camel—simply because they didn’t have any speaking lines. But no matter what part I had, the night of the program was never as bad as I had imagined. And when it was over, I could finally enjoy the season.

But growing up in that environment, the meaning of Advent was lost on me. The English word advent is derived from the Latin word for “coming”—and coming tomorrow (did you catch that?) I will start looking at some of the reasons our family intentionally celebrates Advent.

new year’s revolution

Image

Baklava would probably derail any weight-loss resolution.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. For one thing, I already have more than enough balls to juggle. Who needs one more list of stuff to do (or not do)? And secondly, I’ve never been good at keeping resolutions. I’ve tried, and, like most people, I’ve failed.

According to the Journal of Clinical Psychology, 45 percent of Americans “usually” make New Year’s resolutions, and only 8 percent of those people achieve them. The journal ranks the most common resolutions:

  1. Lose weight
  2. Get organized
  3. Spend less, save more
  4. Enjoy life to the fullest
  5. Stay fit and healthy
  6. Learn something exciting
  7. Quit smoking
  8. Help others in their dreams
  9. Fall in love
  10. Spend more time with family

Noble thoughts, yes, but not gonna happen. (But by all means don’t let me stop you from trying.)

If I were to make resolutions, they would be much too realistic (or boring) to qualify for any list published by a psychology journal. I’d probably come up with something like these:

  1. Lose weight, then gain weight, lose some more weight, and gain it back so that I end the year about one pound heavier than I am right now. At least that’s been my pattern over the past few years. And since I’ll be spending a good portion of the year in close proximity to the best baklava in the world, this sounds about right.
  2. Get excited about the idea of running a marathon. About three or four years ago, an annual marathon debuted in my hometown. It’s scheduled for the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, which means I’d have to start training seriously in May. I have a “life resolution” to run a marathon, but I’m not sure that my schedule will enable 2014 to be the year.
  3. Write some good blog posts. Maybe even post something in every month of the year. With today’s post, I’m one-twelfth of the way there. This one seems doable.
  4. Read more books than last year. I read 45 books in 2013, which fell short of my goal of one per week. Maybe my resolution should be “Read shorter books.” That might work.

So, what about you? Did you make any New Year’s resolutions for 2014? If you need to make your goals more realistic, I’m here to help.

time to make the donuts

I don’t see this ending well for me.Image

Dunkin’ Donuts announced Thursday that it plans to open 100 restaurants in Turkey over the next 10 years. My immediate response to this news was to gain five pounds.

New outlets will likely be concentrated in the urban centers of the country, including Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, and Bursa.

The company’s press release referred to Turkey’s “emerging growth prospects,” which I am trying not to take personally.