Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Tale of Two Trees

'Twas the week before Christmas
When atop Smid hill
A small tree, bundled on the porch,
Just could not fit the bill.

“It’s far too small,” Dad lamented,
“Why, it’s barely a shrub!
But it’s all Lowe’s had,” his holiday
Spirit withered to a nub.

Every year 'til now, sons at his side
He’d gone north, head held high
To Bubba’s Mountain Tree Farm
Where ancient trees touched the sky.

Hiking steep hills, through briar and thorn,
Braving wind and hail and cold,
With chainsaw in hand and heavy work gloves:
A manly tradition, now a dozen years old.

They tracked it as one would a prize-winning buck,
Their motto: the bigger, the better the tree!
Hours passed as they walked the thick woods,
Faces glowing with anticipatory glee.

Once felled, it was dragged across the fields
To the sturdy sleigh – er, Jetta – below.
Now to lift it high upon the roof and pray
That the winding drive home will be slow.

But this year, Bubba had just sold the farm,
Leaving us treeless as December came.
The former tree farmer, once lively and quick,
Now, felled by gout, was all but lame.

“But our family tradition!” one son cried,
“Now Christmas just won’t be the same!”
The shock of grief was taking its toll
And only two weeks 'til Christmas remained.

But like a sweet Santa (complete with white beard)
Who wanted to make dreams come true,
Bubba made Dad a generous offer:
“Here’s what I’ll do for you:”

“I’ll call the new owner, and see what he says
About you cutting a tree, for old times’ sake.”
But as a week passed with no call from Bubba,
We had a hard decision to make.

So, resigned to our fate, Dad headed south
To purchase an evergreen tree.
Still reeling with shock, he headed to Lowe’s:
This is how Christmas would have to be.

“It’s just a shrub,” he phoned me to say,
“It’s no more than seven feet tall.
It will be dwarfed by our high ceilings.
It will hardly be noticed at all.”

Trying to cheer him, I told him my plan:
“It will make up for the lack of height
If we set it on our end table” –
So a tabletop tree went up that night.

The next day, Bubba’s call finally came:
The owner had agreed!
To let them come and search the woods
And cut down our Christmas tree!

“Too bad that we already have one,”
I said, forgetting to whom I spoke.
As visions of 20-foot trees danced in their heads,
I realized that this was no joke.

Just a few details, Bubba explained:
The locked fence meant they’d have to bring
The tree to the road, just a half mile or so,
Oh – and just one more small thing:

A mountain lion’s been on the loose;
The new owner is hunting it down.
So best to wear bright colors when they go
Just in case a hunter and wildcat are ‘round.

Bubba’s report of a roaming beast
And the landowner armed in hot pursuit
Did nothing to dissuade Dad and son
From making their dream come true.

After roaming the snow-covered hill
With chainsaw and tape measure in hand,
Dad called out, “Come look!
This one is tall! And even! And grand!”

So son hiked back to check Dad’s find,
A katana across each shoulder –
(The mountain lion story had bothered him
And the blades made him feel bolder).

With a sputter and a whir, the saw leapt to life,
Slicing through the trunk with ease.
Alas for Dad, it fell forward not back,
And so he dove into neighboring trees!

They manfully wrapped the 15-footer
In an old blue tarp and some twine,
Trundled it down the snow-covered hill;
Santa’s sleigh couldn’t have done it that fine!

They tied it to the Jetta rooftop,
Maneuvered south on mountain roads,
Arrived home and dragged it up the walkway
Where Dad and son took a break from the load.

“I’m tired” Dad said. “It can wait one more day.
It’s hard work hauling that tree.”
“So what about the 7-foot shrub?” I asked.
He smiled. “Someone can take it for free!”

Much to my surprise, a friend with a fake tree
Was eager to welcome our “shrub.”
So, channeling their inner elves,
Dad and son drove it to her sub(division).

The next night, both true to their word,
They shoved the monster tree through the door
Set it in its stand, lashed it to the wall,
Then stood back, with great pride, to adore.


“It’s so straight!” Dad cried, “the branches so even!
And it’s much greener than any tree we’ve had!”
And son, neck tilted back, surveying the scene,
Couldn’t help but agree with his dad.

Mountain men, mountain lions, katanas and shrubs
Make for a happy Christmas tree story,
And yet, our deepest happiness comes
From the real Christmas story – God’s glory -

In the gift of the Savior! Jesus Christ, His Son,
Through every season, we can trust His name.
Whether our traditions succeed or fail,
Our hope in God remains the same.

For His name is Emmanuel! God with us!
His life given for ours, once and for all!
An evergreen gift, an everlasting joy:

Our God has come to us, come as a baby, so very small.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Christ's Coming in Carols: The First Verse

I have to admit: a couple of my favorite Christmas carols have very little to do with the true story of Christmas. Like “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” (classic Nat King Cole). “Silver Bells” (Johnny Mathis, of course!). And this hilarious rendition of “Blue Christmas.” I make sure to listen at least a couple times during December, because each one awakens a fond memory for me.
But many of the Christ-centered carols and hymns are so rich with Truth and Beauty that I never tire of them, in this season or any other. Thanks to my newly tuned piano, I’ve played my favorites – and will continue to play them - more times than my family probably cares to hear them!

My Number One hymn this year is a less common one: Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus. Written by Charles Wesley in 1744, it encompasses the breadth of Jesus’ ministry – not just His birth in a Bethlehem manger, but many of the Messianic prophecies, and the fruit He now bears in the lives of His people.
The first verse alone is packed with Scriptural truth.
Come, Thou long-expected Jesus, born to set Thy people free;

From our fears and sins release us; let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth Thou art;

Dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.

Long-Expected: Indeed, the Messiah had been anticipated since the beginning of recorded time! Attentive Bible students can trace Messianic prophecy all the way back to the Garden of Eden. From there, hundreds of passages in the Old Testament point readers to a coming Christ.
Just a sampling:

"When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt, I called My son."
(Hosea 11:1)

"Behold, the days are coming," says the Lord, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Judah and the house of Israel ... "I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts." (Jeremiah 31:31 & 33)

"Then I will pour out the Spirit of grace and prayer on the house of David ...
and they will look to me, whom they have pierced. They will mourn for Him as one mourns for an only child and weep bitterly for Him as one weeps for a firstborn." (Zechariah 12:10)

Freedom: He would set His people free not by overthrowing the oppressive Roman rule, much to the dismay of many followers. Instead, He would free all humanity from the most powerful oppressor of all: sin, along with its accompanying fear of death and of the wrath of God, earned by our sin.

Wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Corinthians 3:17)

Rest: Even as we cry out for Him to come, Jesus invites us to come and enter the rest that is found only in Him. His words in Matthew 11:28-29 have to be among the most comforting in all of Scripture:
Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Consolation: This ancient word means solace or comfort. When Mary and Joseph took their 8-day-old son to the temple to be circumcised, “there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.”
Surely Simeon found consolation in holding the infant Christ and speaking a blessing upon Him:
“May your servant now depart in peace.
For my eyes have seen Your salvation
Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples,
A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel.” (from Luke 2:25-32)

Hope of all the earth: It was Israel, God’s chosen people, who watched and waited for the Messiah. Yet, when Jesus came, He opened the way for all to come to Him, to be reconciled to God through Him. Gentile and Jew, fisherman and soldier, pagan and prostitute, leper and tax collector: the hope Jesus came to offer is for all the earth!

The heir to David’s throne will appear, the One who rises to rule the Gentiles; they will put their hope in Him. (Romans 15:12)

Desire of Nations: A prophecy in the book of Haggai gives this name to the anticipated Messiah. 
“They shall come to the Desire of All Nations, and I will fill this temple with glory,” says the Lord of hosts. (Haggai 2:7)

Joy: In Jesus’ final evening with his disciples before his arrest, He shared truths with them, both hard and comforting, that He'd not previously shared. Why? So that they could share in His joy.
Now that we who believe have the gift of His Spirit, Jesus' joy - literally, mysteriously, inexpressibly - lives within us, too.

How can we help but be filled with His joy, as we explore the riches of Christ in these four short lines of song? And that’s only the first verse!
In the remaining 3 verses (I didn’t even know this hymn had 4 verses before today), Wesley’s words exalt Jesus as: our Dayspring, promised Davidic ruler, the One of whom angels sing, the Man who shared our sorrows, full of glory, Redeemer, Shepherd, Friend, Lord of all, Savior, a Child, the King, our Deliverer, Ruler, the One who forever reigns in us by His Spirit.
So, now it’s your turn. Can you locate the Scriptures that informed Charles Wesley as he wrote these verses?
(I promise, with confidence, that you will be enriched as you search God’s Word for your Savior!)
Joy to those who long to see Thee, Dayspring from on high, appear;
Come, Thou promised Rod of Jesse, of Thy birth we long to hear!
O’er the hills the angels singing news, glad tidings of a birth;
“Go to Him, your praises bringing; Christ the Lord has come to earth.”

Come to earth to taste our sadness, He whose glories knew no end;
By His life He brings us gladness, our Redeemer, Shepherd, Friend.
Leaving riches without number, born within a cattle stall;
This the everlasting wonder, Christ was born the Lord of all.

Born Thy people to deliver, born a child, and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever, now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit rule in all our hearts alone;

By Thine own sufficient merit, raise us to Thy glorious throne.

For your listening pleasure: This beautiful rendition includes all four verses of Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

A Star and a Scepter

Reading through the Bible this year, I am struck by the faithfulness of God - from generation to generation – throughout Old Testament history through the establishment of the church - to reveal Himself to His people and to fulfill every promise in ways even greater than what we can imagine.
Day 75 - Numbers 24, Luke 2, Psalm 57
“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near.
A star will come forth out of Jacob;
A scepter will rise out of Israel,
And batter the brow of Moab
And destroy the sons of tumult
From a high hill, overlooking the plains of Moab where the Israelites are encamped, the pagan prophet-for-hire Balaam spoke this beautiful word.
I imagine Balak, King of Moab, regretted his decision to bribe the corrupt Balaam into speaking curses upon the fearsome Israelites. After all, Balaam had spoken only blessings regarding Israel’s victories and prosperity! Balak was terrified of Israel’s string of battle successes, with a powerful God on their side. And Balaam was not helping matters.
After each prophecy, Balak took Balaam aside and suggested, “Why don’t you try speaking from over here, on this cliff? Maybe you can curse them instead of bless them if you’re standing this way.” (I had to chuckle at the desperation behind these foolish requests!)
Balaam surely wasn’t happy with this turn of events either. After all, he was forfeiting a small fortune by not fulfilling Balak’s requests, and he “loved the wages of wickedness” (2 Peter 2:15). In fact, the only one more surprised and chagrined than Balak about these surprising prophecies may have been Balaam himself. But when the Spirit of God came upon him (Number 24:2) he could speak nothing but what the Spirit gave him to say.
In this, his fourth oracle, Balaam saw beyond the people on the plain, to a future king who would defeat his enemies. Indeed, centuries later, King David would defeat Moab (see 2 Samuel 8:2). Yet, we can't help but suspect that this word looked beyond David's fulfillment, to Jesus Christ Himself.

I turned to Luke and read that Joseph, being from the house and lineage of King David, traveled to Bethlehem with his heavily pregnant wife, in order to be counted in the mandatory census. Once Jesus was born and they returned home, Joseph brought his son to the temple for the purification rites, in obedience to God’s Law.
In the temple, another prophet – albeit, a far more willing one than Balaam - spoke these Spirit-guided words:
“For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel…
This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be spoken against,
so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”
From the line of David, the one who conquered the earthly kingdom of Moab, the true Star has come forth, and the eternal Scepter has risen, to batter and destroy every enemy of His eternal Kingdom.

He was foretold not only by a reluctant, greedy pagan prophet in ancient history, but also by a godly man, waiting for Him, centuries later. No matter the heart of the man, the message of God is the same:
The King – the One who rules forever,
the One who shines light into our darkness, 
the revealer and glory of our hearts,
the One who has been foretold from ages past –
has come! He has come to us. He has come for us.
Now, come to Him, as your light and as your king!

And as I turn to Psalm 57, my heart cries this praise along with the psalmist: