Christmas Imagination

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christmasimagination
ExDirWell, another Christmas approaches! If you are like me you are nowhere close to having the requisite gifts purchased and wrapped, things we normally attribute to “being ready for the season”! While I may be unprepared in that sense of things, I am probably much more prepared in other ways. This year I have tried to engage in a little “Christmas Imagination” – to try to understand just a little bit how the events of that first Christmas would have been interpreted by those who first experienced them. The classic Advent “prophecy” text is Isaiah 9:1-7. It parallels well Zechariah’s praise poem in Luke 1:68-79. Both present the coming Messiah as the Redeemer and Saviour. However, it is two other concepts arising out of these passages that I have been struck by: Light and Lord.

I think it is hard for those of us who have not lived under an autocratic, oppressive regime to imagine how dark it was for people who experienced God’s visitation to our little blue ball. Israel had suffered under the oppression of a succession of enemies for over 700 years – Assyrians, then Babylonians, then Persians, then Greeks, and finally, the Romans. Few of us have lived under the reality that our wife or our daughters may be raped, or taken from us; that our sons could be conscripted into a foreign army; our land, our property taken; or our very lives snuffed out. It is difficult for us to imagine a world in which our hard work is not nearly sufficient to help us “get ahead” economically, where financial “self-sufficiency” is an unattainable dream for the vast majority of the population. Add to all this that the Jewish people had not heard from God for over 400 years! That is the world that Jesus – the light of hope – was born into.

We believe we live in a dark world today – and we do. Our enemy has blinded the eyes of this world to truth; he promotes slavery and oppression in new, creative, but no less insidious ways. The consequences of the Fall live on – for many, Christmas is the most difficult time of the year because of broken relationships, diseased bodies, lost loved ones, guilt, regret, poverty, loneliness… and those in Zechariah’s day lived with these effects of the Fall on top of the political and social evils of their day! In the midst of this Zechariah declares that the light of hope is “breaking upon us” (Luke 1:78), and Isaiah declares that “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light” (9:1). Into this, God shows up – naked and vulnerable. He emptied himself (Philippians 2) and entered the cold halls of time and space. He illuminated the darkness, “tabernacled” among us, and the darkness/world rejected Him (John 1). He lived, died and called His people to live as light in the midst of a “dark and perverse generation” (Philippians 2:17-18).

I have been reminded this Christmas that Jesus did not hate the darkness nor did He despair because of it. He viewed those in darkness as victims of the enemy and He loved them. And never do you get the idea that Jesus was remotely overpowered by the darkness – no, the darker the world, the brighter was His light. So often, our response to the darkness in our world is fear, despair or hate.
This year I dug up an old quote – it goes like this:

“Light illuminates the darkness. If there is darkness the blame should be attached where it belongs; not to the world that is dark, but to the church that is failing to provide the light.” (Leonard Sweet)

Jesus was the light that “broke upon” this world. We are the people He left to continue to shine – yes, in a dark, wicked and perverse generation. Yet our call is not to despair about the darkness, nor to hate it. We are simply to be different – because our Christmas Saviour is also our Lord. He is King of a different kind of kingdom. I recently heard Bruxy Cavey (of the Meeting House in Oakville, Ontario) say that the gospel in three words is — “Jesus is Lord”. Not Saviour, Lord. Why? Because when we sell Jesus solely as Saviour, we then spend loads of our time trying to sell the fact that He calls us to be a different kind of people and to live with different values and morals from the rest of the culture (and that isn’t going so well for us!). When you present Him as Lord (as in fact, Isaiah and Zechariah present Him), then you accept Him as a Lord who destroys our sin and our self-sufficiency and calls me as a citizen of His Kingdom to a new set of values, to hear His spirit and obey. Those who “hear and obey” are better light in darkness than those who simply added a cheap “term life insurance” to their life portfolio and continued to value self-sufficiency and autonomy as their highest goal.

So my prayer is that this Christmas we can better imagine how dark and hopeless the world was when the Messiah invaded it – and how powerful a light and Lord the little baby in Bethlehem is. May He rule our lives as light and Lord so that we may provide the light to break through even the darkest parts of our world this coming year!
Serving with you,

Bill

Navigating Culture’s Shifting Sands

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Dave is the EFCC’s Leadership Development Catalyst. If there are questions or ideas you’d like to talk to chat with him about leadership, drop us a line, and we’ll put you in touch: info@efcc.ca.

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Culture shifts and weaves and often changes. The people before whom we live the Gospel and to whom we take it seldom remain the same for long. Should church change with it? Not in regards to message of course, but should we change in the ways we “do church”; in the ways we live in our surrounding cultures; and in the ways we speak and present the Gospel?

Take for example how we in the church often pursue excellence in all that we do. Some churches not only pursue it but have adopted it as a value. That’s done believing it to be what God wants and assuming it to be what the culture we are trying to reach expects. Excellence means that whatever we do as a church is: first class, superior, a cut above, the best it can be.

Excellence is difficult to quantify however. I am on the ministry staff of a larger church where it is the norm. The larger the church the more it tends to be expected. Location, not just size, also determines the need for excellence. Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City is located where it is not just a need but an essential. Yet at what level does any church qualify as falling into the excellent category?

I’ve preached in a couple of churches recently where their level of excellence wouldn’t be accepted in my church for long. Does that make them less excellent and less effective in ministry? I don’t think so!

And now, culture has shifted a bit dethroning excellence as a primary value. “Excellence is no longer a preeminent value; too much of it and you come off as slick, phony, or worse . . . . The keys to reaching the current culture are no longer excellence and the trappings of success. That day has passed. There are two new keys: authenticity and compassion . . . everyone wants to know whether you are the real deal and whether your organization is doing something for others.” (Larry Osborne, Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret, Zondervan, 2013, 125)

Culture does change and yes, churches may need to make adjustments in order to continue to effectively reach out with the Gospel. Some methods may end while others begin. Others will need fine-tuning.

Church leaders should always be seeking to understand the culture God is asking their church to reach and encouraging the church to adapt and adjust so as to best reach out with the Gospel.

Here are some suggestions for that task.

1. Pay more attention to Paul’s Gospel strategy in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. We’ve tended to shy away from it probably from fear of watering down the Gospel message. Rediscover Paul’s heart.

2. Seek to understand the immediate culture of the people God is asking you to reach. What are their aspirations and expectations of life and how might that affect how you reach out to them?

3. What role does the size and location of your church and the gifting and abilities of your people affect your Gospel strategy? What should the focus of that strategy be? Be the best that you can at it!