Make this an Isaiah 9:6 Christmas

When it comes to Christmas, some of us may come to the end of the holiday and wonder if we’ve missed something. For all the talk about joy, love, hope and peace, we find ourselves marked by feelings of sadness and emptiness.

This may occur because we’ve been expecting what some might call “commercial Christmas” to deliver. You know, the Christmas that’s pushed by the malls and the advertisements and the TV shows. Think about it: the root word for “commercial” is “commerce.” In the realm of secular Christmas, buying and selling is what its all about.

But, by and large, commercial Christmas and Christian Christmas have very little in common. Commercial Christmas often falls short. The Christian concept of Christmas always comes through.

Maybe we’re just looking for Christmas in the wrong place.

One of the better known Christmas prophecies is Isaiah 9:6, which reads:

For a child will be born for us,
a son will be given to us,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
He will be named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.

The first part of the verse is pretty easy to understand. It speaks about how the Messiah will come as an infant and how He will serve as Lord, Savior and King.

What I find interesting is the different descriptions of Jesus found in the last half of the verse; four portraits of the character qualities of the Messiah. When these attributes are understood and applied, we get to experience Christmas as it was intended. Here are a few thoughts on each of the four descriptions:

Wonderful Counselor

When Jesus speaks, His words are always worth listening to! And beyond that, they are always worth applying to our lives. We live in a world where people are lost, misdirected and confused. We are often guilty of making foolish, self-centered decisions. But the counsel Jesus offers will always lead us to life. The quickest way to clear up spiritual confusion is to listen to and obey Jesus. The clarity will come in like a flood.

Mighty God

Jesus was not only human, He was also divine. And time after time he proved it! He proved it when He transformed water into wine. And when he calmed the waves. And when he healed the sick and gave sight to the blind. Not only is Jesus a wonderful counselor, he provides us the power to obey his wise instruction. What a promise this was! The idea that the mighty God of the universe would want to share his power with us that we might become the kind of person He created us to be.

Eternal Father

The person who puts their trust in Christ is immediately adopted into God’s family. And God’s family is an eternal family. For those who are fortunate enough, we might have our earthly fathers for some 50 or 60 years. Many people lose their fathers at an earlier age. But Jesus serves as an eternal father who will never leave or forsake us. This name of Jesus reminds us that there is life beyond the grave. No wonder “hope” is a word that is often associated with Christmas!

Prince of Peace

Jesus offers those who trust in him a “peace that goes beyond human understanding.” (Philippians 4:6-7) Through Christ, we are able to gain peace with God where there once was separation and hostility. Many people are afraid of God because they think He is mad at them and wants to punish them. Yet, one of the most common commands of scripture is “Fear not!” We are called to be free of worry or fear because can bring peace and tranquility to our hearts – even in the turbulent world in which we live.

Commercial Christmas or Christian Christmas?

Which will it be? Perhaps by continually pursuing commercially-driven Christmases, you’ve failed to come up with the results only a Christ-focused Christmas can offer. This year I urge you to release the urge to find meaning and purpose in commerce. Instead, reach out to pursue the very creator and source of life: Jesus.

Do you know the wise insights that come from the wonderful counselor?

Have you experienced the power of the mighty God?

Do you rest in the hope of eternity supplied by an eternal father?

Does your heart know the type of peace on Jesus can offer?

If so, you know Christmas.

If not, the invitation to fully experience Christmas anxiously awaits your response.

The Agonizing Art of Unlearning

“Repentance means unlearning all the self-conceit and self -will that we have been training ourselves into. It means killing part of yourself, under-going a kind of death.”  ― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Life is all about learning.

But not everything we learn is good, true or helpful.

Through the years we pick up an assortment of biases, prejudices and false beliefs. Along the way we collect troublesome patterns, habits and coping devices.

As time goes by, if we fail to question, wrestle with or adapt to all we have been taught and believe, any negative thoughts/attitudes/behaviors will likely become even more entrenched within our psyche.

Thus the age-old expression, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Without unlearning and relearning, we become stuck in our ways, unaware of how we (and others) are negatively impacted.

Sometimes we become limited in our perspectives because we choose to gather our information from narrow, restrictive sources. If we choose to obtain our information from what some might describe as an “echo chamber,” we probably won’t develop the necessary skills of critical thinking and deductive reasoning. In some cases, our preferred tribe may actually discourage any comparative thinking or thoughtful reflection, instead asking (or demanding) us to simply accept the pre-approved mandates and statutes without question or dissent.

But, to be a follower of Jesus means we must always put willing to place ourselves in the position of unlearning in order to relearn.

Unlearning is the challenging process through which we break down the origins of our unhelpful thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, feelings, and biases.

Sometimes we have to unlearn the ways of our former life; the life we lived before Christ took up residence in our lives. Before becoming a Christian, it’s not uncommon for people to have off-course ideas about love, mixed-up thoughts about power, and erroneous attitudes about sin.

Several times in scripture, Paul wrote to believers about “putting off” the ways of the old life and embracing new perspectives and practices that better reflect the teaching of the Bible and an active, abiding relationship with Jesus. In a nutshell, we are called to unlearn the bad and relearn the good.

Imagine what it was like to be one of those people who heard Jesus preach his well-known “Sermon on the Mount.” In fairly short order, Jesus expressed a list new ideas that challenged the status quo! Jesus’ sermon wasn’t designed to be appreciated or enjoyed. He wasn’t looking for applause. No, Jesus’ sermon cut right to the bone when it came to ungodly perspectives and sinful practices. Jesus’ message demanded unlearning in order that the values for living in His kingdom might take root in hearts and minds.

I find one of the most difficult areas to unlearn is in the area of religious training. Unbiblical instruction can run rampant within our churches and from our pulpits. But because such training comes from a place of (supposed) spiritual authority, we may feel compelled to digest the wayward doctrine. After awhile, we may even take what we have learned and move it into the category of orthodox and beyond challenge.

How hard it is to come to a place to realize what we have been taught may not have any biblical standing!

On one occasion, Jesus taught some lessons to a religious Pharisee named Nicodemus that unraveled a lot of what he had been taught before. Here’s how the conversation played out according to John 3:

There was a man from the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to him at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform these signs you do unless God were with him.” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” “How can anyone be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked him. “Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again. The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can these things be?” asked Nicodemus. “Are you a teacher of Israel and don’t know these things?” Jesus replied. “Truly I tell you, we speak what we know and we testify to what we have seen, but you do not accept our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? (John 1:1-12 CSB)

Nicodemus entered the conversation thinking he was at least a religious peer to Jesus. (My hunch is he thought he was a little higher up the ecclesiastical ladder.) Nicodemus was confident in his education, experience and religious pedigree. But within a matter of sentences, Nicodemus realized he was being schooled by the wisdom and insight of Jesus. The result? Nicodemus had to be willing to set down some of his presuppositions in order to take in the teaching of Jesus. Thankfully, Nicodemus chose to unlearn in order to become a disciple of Jesus.

Unlearning isn’t deconstruction for the sake of deconstruction. It is thoughtfully reflecting on the teachings found in our Bibles and gladly adapting our lives to become more conformed to the precepts of scripture. Unlearning is enrolling ourselves in the school of spiritual transformation. It is a humble approach to how we live our lives. It’s the concession that, at times, our thinking may be foolish or ignorant. It’s a modest willingness to admit we sometimes believe things that aren’t true.

A Melancholy Christmas

Due to the COVID crisis, this Christmas will be unlike any Christmas I have ever experienced. With each passing day I hear about another Christmas party or Christmas program that has been officially taken off the books. To me, If there is a word that best reflects the 2020 holiday season, it’s the word canceled.

At a time of year when we usually are running from event to event, in reality we are finding more and more empty spaces appear on our calendars. How disconcerting it is to feel separated from others at a time of year when social interaction is at its peak!

As I talk with people, I hear a lot of disappointment about what might become known as “the lost Christmas of 2020.” And why are people feeling so dispirited? I’d say its the challenge of having to cope with a Christmas where opportunities for laughter, mirth, joy and human connection keep being thrown on the scrap pile. For every gathering or event that is canceled, we absorb one more loss. When it comes to enjoying our traditional, beloved Christmas activities, instead of being a season of delight, Christmas 2020 is turning out to be a bit of drag.

Yet, if I think about it for a moment, Christmas 2020 has a lot in common with everything that was going on at the time of Jesus’ birth.

Prior to the arrival of Christ, there was among a desperate longing for the arrival of a Savior. Israel had been promised a Messiah, but many were wondering why it was taking so long for the Messiah to appear. (Perhaps some secretly worried if the Savior would ever show up.) One of the reasons for such forlorn emotions was because it had been about 400 years since God had given Israel any sort of special revelation. For those who were waiting, their wait took place in dark silence.

One of my favorite Christmas songs is the mournful O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Through both its melody and lyrics, this carol attempts to convey the feelings among the people prior to the time of Jesus’ advent. Emotions of longing. Sentiments of sadness.

Perhaps for some, hope was waning.

A simple reading of the lyrics of this song reveals a struggle between the weariness of waiting and the anticipation of better days:

O come, o come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the son of god appear
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, o Israel.

O come, thou rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of hell thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, o Israel.

O come, thou day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, o Israel.

O come, thou key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, o Israel.

O come, o come, thou lord of might,
Who to thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
In ancient times did’st give the law,
In cloud, and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, o Israel.

For us, we hope that Christmas 2021 will be better than this year’s pitiful version. But for the people who lived in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah, the hope was that God would make everything better! Through the Savior, God would finally restore the shalom that was so desperately needed.

Perhaps we also need to be reminded that when it comes to the Biblical Christmas story, things weren’t void of pain and struggle. Remember, Jesus was born in poverty and obscurity. And his family had to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath.

As we go through a Christmas season that may be emotionally painful, perhaps we can connect some of those emotions to what was going on in the world at the time of Jesus’ birth. Maybe God can use our loss to remind us of our state of lostness before we trusted Christ. Remember, the joy and hope we love to celebrate at Christmastime cost God an incredible price: the death of His son.

Maybe a melancholy Christmas isn’t so bad.