Cleopatra, Galileo, Shakespeare, Elvis, Pelé. They are all so well known that they need only one name to be recognized. They have remained prominent in history because of who they were and what they did. But there is another name that stands far above these or any other name!
Before the Son of God was born into this world, the angel told Mary and Joseph to name Him Jesus because “He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21), and “He . . . will be called the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32). Jesus didn’t come as a celebrity but as a servant who humbled Himself and died on the cross so that anyone who receives Him can be forgiven and freed from the power of sin.
The apostle Paul wrote, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11).
In our times of greatest joy and our hours of deepest need, the name we cling to is Jesus. He will never leave us, and His love will not fail.
“Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ at my right, Christ at my left . . .” These hymn lyrics, written by the fifth-century Celtic Christian St. Patrick, echo in my mind when I read Matthew’s account of Jesus’s birth. They feel like a warm embrace, reminding me that I’m never alone.
Matthew’s account tells us that God dwelling with His people is at the heart of Christmas. Quoting Isaiah’s prophecy of a child who would be called Immanuel, meaning “God with us” (Isa. 7:14), Matthew points to the ultimate fulfillment of that prophecy—Jesus, the One born by the power of the Holy Spirit to be God with us. This truth is so central that Matthew begins and ends his gospel with it, concluding with Jesus’s words to His disciples: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
St. Patrick’s lyrics remind me that Christ is with believers always through His Spirit living within. When I’m nervous or afraid, I can hold fast to His promises that He will never leave me. When I can’t fall asleep, I can ask Him to give me His peace. When I’m celebrating and filled with joy, I can thank Him for His gracious work in my life.
Jesus, Immanuel—God with us.
At the end of the Old Testament, God seems to be in hiding. For four centuries, the Jews wait and wonder. God seems passive, unconcerned, and deaf to their prayers. Only one hope remains: the ancient promise of a Messiah. On that promise the Jews stake everything. And then something momentous happens. The birth of a baby is announced.
You can catch the excitement just by reading the reactions of people in Luke. Events surrounding Jesus’s birth resemble a joy-filled musical. Characters crowd into the scene: a white-haired great uncle (Luke 1:5–25), an astonished virgin (1:26–38), the old prophetess Anna (2:36). Mary herself lets loose with a beautiful hymn (1:46–55). Even Jesus’s unborn cousin kicks for joy inside his mother’s womb (1:41).
Luke takes care to make direct connections to Old Testament promises of a Messiah. The angel Gabriel even calls John the Baptist an “Elijah” sent to prepare the way for the Lord (1:17). Clearly, something is brewing on planet Earth. Among the dreary, defeated villagers in a remote corner of the Roman Empire, something good is breaking out.
About 230 families and individuals live at Macpherson Gardens, Block 72 in my neighborhood. Each person has his or her own life story. On the tenth floor resides an elderly woman whose children have grown up, gotten married, and moved out. She lives by herself now. Just a few doors away from her is a young couple with two kids—a boy and a girl. And a few floors below lives a young man serving in the army. He has been to church before; maybe he will visit again on Christmas Day. I met these people last Christmas when our church went caroling in the neighborhood to spread Christmas cheer.
Every Christmas—as on the first Christmas—many people do not know that God has entered into our world as a baby whose name is Jesus (Luke 1:68; 2:11). Or they do not know the significance of that event—that it is “good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (2:10). Yes, all people! Regardless of our nationality, race, gender, or status, Jesus came to die for us and offer us complete forgiveness so that we can be reconciled with Him and enjoy His love, joy, peace, and hope. Indeed, all people, from the woman next door to the colleagues we have lunch with, need to hear this wonderful news!
On the first Christmas, the angels were the bearers of this joyous news. Today, God desires to work through us to take the story to others.
Recently I was among the last in line to board a large passenger jet with unassigned seating. I located a middle seat beside the wing, but the only spot for my bag was the overhead compartment by the very last row. This meant I had to wait for everyone to leave before I could go back and retrieve it.
I laughed as I settled into my seat and a thought occurred that seemed to be from the Lord: “It really won’t hurt you to wait. It will actually do you good.” So I resolved to enjoy the extra time, helping other passengers lower their luggage after we landed and assisting a flight attendant with cleaning. By the time I was able to retrieve my bag, I laughed again when someone thought I worked for the airline.
That day’s experience made me ponder Jesus’s words to His disciples: "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all" (Mark 9:35).
I waited because I had to, but in Jesus’s “upside down” Kingdom, there’s a place of honor for those who voluntarily set themselves aside to attend to others’ needs.
Jesus came into our hurried, me-first world not “to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). We serve Him best by serving others. The lower we bend, the closer we are to Him.
Back when I was searching for a church to attend regularly, a friend invited me to a service at her church. The worship leaders led the congregation in a song I particularly loved. So I sang with gusto, remembering my college choir director’s advice to “Project!”
After the song, my friend’s husband turned to me and said, “You really sang loud.” This remark was not intended as a compliment! After that, I self-consciously monitored my singing, making sure I sang softer than those around me, and always wondering if the people around me judged my singing.
But one Sunday, I noticed the singing of a woman in the pew beside me. She seemed to sing with adoration, without a trace of self-consciousness. Her worship reminded me of the enthusiastic, spontaneous worship that David demonstrated in his life. In Psalm 98, in fact, David suggests that “all the earth” should “burst into jubilant song” in worship (v. 4).
Verse one of Psalm 98 tells us why we should worship joyfully, reminding us that “[God] has done marvelous things.” Throughout the psalm, David recounts these marvelous things: God’s faithfulness and justice to all nations, His mercy, and salvation. Dwelling on who God is and what He’s done can fill our hearts with praise.
What “marvelous things” has God done in your life? Thanksgiving is the perfect time to recall His wondrous works and give God thanks. Lift your voice and sing!
As the lights dimmed and we prepared to watch Apollo 13, my friend said under his breath, “Shame they all died.” I watched the movie about the 1970 spaceflight with apprehension, waiting for tragedy to strike, and only near the closing credits did I realize I’d been duped. I hadn’t known or remembered the end of the true story—that although the astronauts faced many hardships, they made it home alive.
In Christ, we can know the end of the story—that we too will make it home alive. By that I mean we will live forever with our heavenly Father, as we see in the book of Revelation. The Lord will create a “new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1) as He makes all things new (vv. 1, 5). In the new city, the Lord God will welcome His people to live with Him, without fear and without the night. We have hope in knowing the end of the story.
What difference does this make? It can transform times of extreme difficulty, such as when people face the loss of a loved one or even death themselves. Though we recoil at the thought of dying, yet we can embrace the joy of the promise of eternity. We long for the city where no longer will there be any curse, where we’ll live forever by God’s light (22:5).
At a conference in Asia, I had two eye-opening conversations in the span of a few hours. First, a pastor told of spending 11 years in prison for a wrongful murder conviction before he was cleared. Then, a group of families shared how they had spent a fortune to escape religious persecution in their homeland, only to be betrayed by the very people they had paid to bring about their rescue. Now, after years in a refugee camp, they wonder if they will ever find a home.
In both cases, victimization was compounded by an absence of justice—just one evidence of our world’s brokenness. But this vacuum of justice is not a permanent condition.
Psalm 67 calls on God’s people to make Him known to our hurting world. The result will be joy, not as a response to God’s love but because of His justice. “May the nations be glad and sing for joy,” says the psalmist, “for you rule the peoples with equity and guide the nations of the earth” (v. 4).
Although the Bible writers understood that “equity” (fairness and justice) is a key component of God’s love, they also knew that it will only be fully realized in the future. Until then, in our world of injustice, we can serve to point others to our God’s divine justice. His coming will see “justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24).
After my wife and I had the privilege of visiting the Louvre in Paris, I called our eleven-year-old granddaughter Addie on the phone. When I mentioned seeing da Vinci’s famous painting Mona Lisa, Addie asked, “Is she smiling?”
Isn’t that the big question surrounding this painting? More than 600 years after Leonardo captured this subject in oil, we still don’t know if the lady was smiling or not. Though enraptured by the painting’s beauty, we are unsure about Mona Lisa’s demeanor.
The “smile” is part of the intrigue of the painting. But how important is this anyway? Is smiling something the Bible mentions? In reality, the word appears less than five times in Scripture, and never as something we are told to do. However, the Bible does suggest for us an attitude that leads to smiles—and that is the word joy. Nearly 250 times we read about joy: “My heart leaps for joy,” David says as he thinks about the Lord (Ps. 28:7). We are to “sing joyfully to the
Clearly, the joy God provides us through everything He has done for us can bring a smile to our face.