Hope: A Word for the New Year

I hope the war in Ukraine ends soon. I hope my friend recovers from cancer. I hope my flight isn’t cancelled. I hope the economy does not lapse into a recession. I hope the Bengals do well in the playoffs. All these are expressions of the way we use the word “hope.” They imply wishes for positive outcomes. But in our uncertain world those outcomes are not guaranteed.

The New Testament uses the word “hope” in a more confident way. The word is used repeatedly of expectations that are grounded in the certainties of God’s promises. In the words of W.E. Vine, “Hope describes the happy anticipation of good . . .” because of “the object upon which the hope is fixed.” He cites 1 Timothy 1:1 which refers to “Christ Jesus our hope.”

So when Christians speak of the hope of the resurrection they are speaking of the confident expectation of the resurrection. This confidence is rooted in the word of Christ himself. When they refer to gospel hope, it is the assurance that the Lord will fulfill his word to us in all the promises presented in the gospel (such as forgiveness, acceptance, eternal life).

On this threshold of a new year, I ask the question: “What is the Christian hope?” The answer given in the catechism is succinct and accurate: “The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fulness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the world.”

Amen. The catechism further explains, “By the coming of Christ in glory, we mean that Christ will come, not in weakness, but in power, and will make all things new.” When I use the word “hope” in connection with this, it means that I am expecting the return of Christ and looking forward to it. The new Testament calls this a “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13).

Maybe the Lord’s coming will be in the year ahead. The New Testament teaches us to live with the expectation that his coming could be at any time. Read and think deeply about the following examples.

1 Corinthians 1:7 — “. . . as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.”

1 Corinthians 16:22 — “Come, Lord!”

Philippians 3:20 — “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Philippians 4:5 — “The Lord is near.”

1 Thessalonians 1:10 — “. . . and to wait for his Son from heaven”

Titus 2:13 — “. . . while we wait for the blessed hope — the appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ”

Hebrews 9:28 — “So Christ . . . will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”

James 5:7-9 — “Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming . . .  The Lord’s coming is near. . . . The Judge is standing at the door.”

1 Peter 1:13 — “Set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.”

1 John 3:2-3 — “. . . when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”

Jude 1:21 — “. . . as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.”

Revelation 3:11 — “I am coming soon.” (Also Revelation 22:7, 12, 20)

As I read these verses from God’s Word, I am motivated to meditate on the imminent return of Christ and to pray for it. I remind you that every time you pray the Lord’s prayer you say, “Thy kingdom come.” What is that but a prayer for Christ to come and fulfill his promise to bring his peace and justice to our suffering world?

The Christian hope of Christ’s literal return is not wishful thinking or an idle dream. It is a confident expectation based upon his promises. It is hope in the best sense of the word. Let that hope carry you through 2023 as you pray the prayer found on the last page of your Bible: “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Pastor Randy Faulkner

The Christ Candle

Some of the traditions we associate with Christmas were borrowed from pre-Christian nature religions. One is the celebration of the solstice, a festival of lights. This was to ward off the darkness of the longest night of the year, Hence, the Yule log burned brightly to commemorate the one day when the sun was at its lowest point in its apparent path across the sky and to hold at bay the long night’s darkness.

Many people who are dissatisfied with the spiritual emptiness in American culture are turning to observances of revived pagan mysticism. According to some sources, thousands of people will be observing  a secular “Yule” in pagan rituals this week.

In ancient times, these rituals were rooted in fear and superstition. Today, instead of  the fear of evil spirits, neo-pagan worshipers seek answers for pervasive spiritual exhaustion, alienation, depression and sadness. The trouble is they are looking for light in the wrong places.

Spiritual darkness

As an answer to this need, Jesus made the astounding claim: “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness” (John 12:46). “I have come,” Jesus said. His coming to our spiritually dark world from the brightness of heaven was a rescue mission to lead us out of the kingdom of darkness (Colossians 1:13). Three times in John’s gospel, the Lord Jesus said that he is the light of the world (John 8:12, 9:5, 12:46).

The prophet Isaiah wrote that when Messiah (Christ) appeared on the scene, the world would lie in spiritual darkness. “See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you” (Isaiah 60:2). He also prophesied, as if it had already come to pass, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:2). These prophesies were fulfilled in the coming of Jesus.

I once read the account of a cave explorer who got careless and was separated from his companions. He lost his light when he accidently dropped it into a pool of water. He could see nothing, not a reflection, not a shadow, not a pinpoint of light. The absolute darkness was overwhelming and disorienting. He had to stifle an impulse to panic and sit and wait until his friends found him. He said, “That experience in the darkness made me realize that a light source is the most important single tool for a cave crawler.” What a parable of our world’s spiritual darkness and the need for the true light of Jesus Christ!

The light of the world

The apostle John introduced his gospel by affirming that “In him (Jesus, the living Word) was life and the life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). When Jesus offered himself to the people of Israel, he  spoke in these same terms, of light and darkness.

He said (and I paraphrase), “I am with you now. This is your opportunity. I have come to illuminate your darkness. Trust in me, the light. If you do this you will become children of light” (John 12:35-36). He was telling his own people, the beloved Jewish people of his day, “Don’t let the darkness overtake you. I have conquered the darkness. There is no need to stay in the dark.”

Children of light

When Jesus told the people that by believing in him they would be sons and daughters of light, he was saying that his light could shine through them. “You’ll not only have the light, you will be the light!” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “How utterly absurd it would be for these disciples . . . to try to become the light of the world! No, they are already the light, and the call has made them so.”
So what are they to do? As Jesus’ disciples what are we to do? The purpose of light is to shine! In old England lighted lanterns were hung in some of the church steeples at night. Others were hung in front of people’s homes for navigation and safety in the streets. The night watchman on his rounds would call out at dusk, “Hang out your lights!” That is the call of Christ to us this Christmas and every day. “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Advent candles symbolize this for many people. They are a tradition dating back about 1500 years. Four weeks, four candles, representing the themes of the Advent season: the prophecy candle, the Bethlehem candle, the shepherds’ candle, and the angels’ candle. In the center of the wreath is the Christ candle, which is lit on Christmas eve, with the words of John’s gospel, “I am the light of the world.”

If you light a candle this Christmas, let it remind you that you are celebrating, not merely the winter solstice, or the promise of longer days to come, but Christ the true light of all mankind. Remember too, that his light shines through you!

Merry Christmas!

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Mary’s Sword of Sorrow

“Then Simeon blessed them and said  to Mary his mother . . . a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2 :35).

These words cloud the Christmas story. A sword is a symbol of pain, suffering and violence. These prophetic words were spoken in the temple by Simeon at the dedication of the baby Jesus. I wonder if these words hung over Mary as her son was growing to manhood. Doubtless she later heard his repeated predictions of the death he would die.

Maybe this was one of the things she pondered in her heart (Luke 2:19, 51). I think it was a detail she shared with Luke the historian if he interviewed her about the life of Jesus for the writing of his gospel (Luke 1:1-4).

Joseph and Mary brought the infant boy to the temple to be consecrated. This was in accordance with the law of Moses: “You are to give over to the Lord the first offspring of every womb” (Exodus 13:12). Joseph and Mary brought a sacrifice of two doves for the occasion (Luke 2:24, Leviticus 12:8). Simeon and the aged Anna were two eyewitnesses to the naming of the child.

When Simeon recognized who the child was, he uttered his cryptic and disturbing prophecy. “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. And a sword will pierce your heart also” (Luke 2:34-35).

Simeon’s mysterious words refer to the way Jesus would raise those who believe in him. He will also be the final judge against those who reject his offer of salvation. In the final judgment there will be no place to hide. Everything will be revealed.

We cannot know the effect of these words on Mary. Luke says she and Joseph “marveled” at what was said. We can only imagine the sense of foreboding in her heart as she pondered the prophecy. The reference to a sword meant that Mary was destined to experience deep anguish of soul because of the world’s response to her son.

Simeon’s words about the sword came true at Calvary, where Mary watched her son die. She stood at the foot of the cross. She saw the crown of thorns, the scourge, the nails, the piercing of his side with a spear. She witnessed the cruelty of the soldiers. She heard the mocking insults of the religious leaders. She heard his dying words of loving concern for her as he entrusted her to the care of John the beloved disciple (John 19:26-27).

We honor Mary’s grace, dignity, courage, and obedience. She was found among Jesus’ most faithful disciples. After his resurrection she was associated with them in the prayer gatherings at the beginning of the Christian movement (Acts 1:14). God had used her to be the earthly mother of his son. Then he used her to strengthen the worship and testimony of the early church.

All that Mary witnessed, the ministry, the suffering, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus, was in keeping with God’s sovereign plan. Simeon’s words to Mary at the beginning prove it. Mary’s life magnified Jesus. She knew he was the son of God. She believed in him. Her example teaches us to do the same.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Anna: Every Day Faithfulness

Anna was one of the biblical women who emerge from historical obscurity to be immortalized in the Christmas story. She was present when Simeon spoke his famous prophetic words over the infant Jesus and his mother.

Anna’s life demonstrates an important quality: every day faithfulness. Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:38-40) says she “never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.” This tells us something important. All of her life was lived for God all of the time. Every day.

C.S. Lewis delivered a sermon to students at Oxford University at the beginning of the second world war. He attempted to answer a question that was on the minds of the students and faculty: what is the relevance of pursuing a university education in war-time? Many in the academic community knew that the war would change everything about their way of life. Many of the students would be sent to fight or serve the war effort in other ways.

He preached that there has never been a time in history when the world is free of crises, alarms and emergencies. If we wait until life is absolutely secure to pursue knowledge and beauty, we will never do it at all, he said.

He added that the life we have been given is for us to prepare for eternity. War simply causes us all to be more acutely aware of that fact. So the normal daily activities of our lives are to be offered to God. Lewis quoted Romans 14:23, “Whatever does not come from faith is sin,” and 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Do all for the glory of God.” He said, “All merely natural activities will be accepted if they are offered to God, even the humblest, and all of them, even the noblest will be sinful if they are not.” He said that, yes, we should continue in war-time to study and learn as at any other time.

Anna was part of a movement of the Jewish faithful who were bursting with anticipation. These people “were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). I wonder if they were familiar with the prophecies of Daniel who gave his people a time-line for the coming of Messiah (Daniel 9:25). Those who knew the scriptures believed that the time for his coming was drawing near.

Of course they did not know their Messiah would be born in a stable, grow up in Nazareth of Galilee, and live among the poor. But Anna was also a prophet of God. She was given special insight. When she saw the child Jesus at his dedication in the temple, she gave thanks that she was seeing the holy child who was the salvation of God (Luke 2:30).

Anna was 84 years old. Despite her advanced age, she remained active and faithful in the service of the Jewish temple. It has been suggested that she may have been a caretaker, or servant, or housekeeper for the priests. Every day faithfulness.

Luke includes an interesting detail about Anna. She was of the tribe of Asher. This was one of the tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel who were conquered in 722 B.C. by the Assyrian army and scattered among their provinces, one of the “ten lost tribes” of Israel.

How then could her tribe be identified and why were there descendants of Asher in Jerusalem? The answer is because when Jeroboam led the northern tribes in revolt against the Judeans in the south, “some from every tribe of Israel . . . set their hearts on seeking the Lord” (2 Chronicles 11:13-17). They rejected idol worship and migrated to Judah to live so they could worship the true God in his temple. Their descendants remained in the south, one of whom was Anna. Faithfulness to God was her spiritual heritage.

She was faithful in prayer. She was thinking of others as she prayed. She was thinking of her nation as she prayed. Like devout Simeon, she was “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (the coming of Messiah). Her prayers were for the advent of the Christ!

Her hope was realized. It was not mere happenstance that she appeared “at the very moment” that Joseph and Mary brought the child to be dedicated in the Temple and Simeon gave his prophecy. (Can this be a reminder to us that the events of our lives are not to be attributed to mere luck or coincidence? Is there not a higher purpose behind them?) Luke implies that her coming “at that very moment” was significant. She had been praying expectantly, and now in this defining moment, her prayers were answered. There before her was the infant Messiah, the Redeemer, the Consolation of Israel.

The rest of the New Testament explains this. This dedication of the child to the Lord was also a public naming event. Joseph and Mary named him “Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Simeon said that he was seeing God’s salvation embodied in this redeemer-child.

I read once about a pastor, who, on the Sunday after the tragedies of September 11, 2001, stood before his congregation and said, “I have nothing to say,” and sat down. The effect was dramatic. But his words reflected a failure of Christian hope. What he might have said was, “I have nothing to say. But God has spoken. Hear the word of the Lord,” and then read the consoling words of the scriptures.

Anna lived in a time when there was plenty of bad news. Her nation was under the domination of a ruthless world empire, corrupt rulers and hypocritical spiritual leaders. But she knew there would be people who would welcome the good news of the Christ child. “She gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” She did not keep this to herself. She was faithful to speak about Jesus. That is a good reminder to us.

Pastor Randy Faulkner


Elizabeth: Filled and Favored

During this season I am writing about some of the women of the Christmas story. Elizabeth is remembered as a woman of faith who inspired Mary  and influenced John the Baptist. She was a recipient of God’s grace, and an example of faithful discipleship, and an important witness to the truth.

Luke chapter one mentions Elizabeth at least ten times. She is described as a devout woman living with her husband Zechariah, a priest in Judea. Like Sarah, the wife of Abraham, she was supernaturally destined to become a mother in her old age. Her child would be John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Lord Jesus.

Her world (Luke 1:5-6)

If you sometimes feel that your world is unfriendly to your faith, you have Elizabeth as a kindred spirit. Her world was dominated by rulers and religious leaders who were morally corrupt. King Herod had a reputation for serial adultery and for unspeakable cruelty. He is the ruler who ordered the murder of the male babies around Bethlehem when he learned of the birth of Jesus, the king of the Jews. The religious establishment in Jerusalem was controlled by high priests who were known for political intrigue, spiritual pride, and hypocrisy.

In contrast, Elizabeth and her husband lived lives of quiet devotion and faithfulness to God. They were childless, and this fact added a feeling of shame inflicted by their world (vv. 7, 25). But they did not allow this personal disappointment to make them bitter toward God. It did not stop them from praying, worshipping, or serving him.

Her womanhood (Luke 1:8-17)

When her husband Zechariah was to take his turn to serve as a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, it was at an appointed time in redemptive history. He and Elizabeth would be participants in a cosmic drama. Messiah was coming! God was moving!

The Lord’s angel appeared to Zechariah as he performed his priestly duties. “Your prayers have been heard,” he said. What prayers? we wonder. Were they the prayers he and Elizabeth had prayed many years before for a child? Were they the prayers he now led for the advent of Messiah, for the peace of Jerusalem, and for deliverance for Israel?

The angel told Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth would become a mother. He named her. He stated her destiny in God’s plan. She would fulfill the last prophecy in the Old Testament, the one about the appearance of the forerunner of Messiah (v. 17, Malachi 4:6, 3:1). That prophecy would be fulfilled in her womb. Her son would be “great in the eyes of the Lord.” He would minister in the spirit and power of Elijah and prepare the way for the Lord.

Luke tells us that Zechariah had doubts about all this at first. As a result, he was struck dumb and was unable to speak for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (v. 20). In contrast, Elizabeth believed. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said (v. 25). Her faith shines brightly.

As a mother in Israel, she influenced her son to become the man God wanted him to be. There is a vivid description in these verses of the kind of man John would become. Where did John get his deep conviction, his boldness, his dedication, and his humility? Surely his first teacher, his mother, had something to do with his spiritual formation.

Though she lived in obscurity, her son would turn the hearts of many to the Lord their God (v. 16). It says something great about this woman that she would be a guiding influence in the life of one who would be called the greatest of all the prophets. It has been said that John prepared the way for Jesus; Elizabeth prepared the way for John!

Her witness (Luke 1:39-45)

In the sixth month of her pregnancy, Elizabeth got a visit from a younger relative from up north, in Galilee. Luke tells us that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit when Mary approached (vv. 41-42). She uttered a magnificent song of praise, the words of which are repeated every day all over the world: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you will bear” (v. 42).

Not only did she honor Mary, but she also honored Mary’s Son (v.43). She recognized who Mary’s child would be, the divine Lord, the Son of the Most High (v. 35) who will reign as king forever. This incarnate Son she calls “my Lord,” as an expression of her personal faith.

Applying the word

Several points of application stand out in this story. Zechariah and Elizabeth were saddened and disappointed that they had been childless for so many years. What are we to do with our disappointments? Rather than become bitter, we may learn to respond as they did, with quiet faithfulness and persistent prayer.

Elizabeth illustrates the power of influence. Think of her influence on her son John. Perhaps he was great in the sight of the Lord because his mother instilled qualities that made him great. Think of her influence on Mary. Did the three months Mary spent with her help the mother of our Lord grow into a fuller appreciation for what God was doing in her, for her, and through her?

It is likely that Elizabeth was the first person in history (other than Mary herself) to accept by faith the theologically important doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ!

She expressed her faith in the incarnate Lord in Mary’s womb. “Why am I so favored that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (v. 43). Her faith was focused on what God was doing though the living baby in the womb of the virgin mother. He is the Lord from heaven. Mary believed (v. 45). Elizabeth believed (v.25). Do you believe?

Pastor Randy Faulkner