Christmas & Epiphany – when to celebrate?

We celebrate the day of Christ’s birth on December 25th – is this the real date of when Jesus was born?

The truth is we do not know the exact date, or even exact year Jesus was born.  Some believe Jesus was born closer to January 10th.  Based on my research for my sermon on December 23rd and my upcoming sermon on the 30th, here is what I learned:

The Year: Our Western calendar was supposed to begin with Jesus’ birth, but the calculations of his birth by Dionysius Exiguus in the 6th century A.D. are based off faulty information about when Herod died.  We know now (based on the Gregorian Calendar) that Herod died in 4 B.C., therefore we know the date of Jesus’ birth was sometime between 6-4 B.C. – we know this because Herod wanted to kill all the children in Bethlehem who were under the age of two (Matthew 2:17) and since Herod died shortly thereafter we know Jesus could not have been born before 6 B.C. or after 4 B.C.

The Day: Jesus’ birth day may be December 25th, but the exact day was not recorded.  Christians celebrated Jesus’ birth during a certain time of year that just happened to coincide with the Roman Holiday of the birth of the Roman agricultural ‘god’ named Saturn.  This holiday was called Saturnalia and it lasted from December 17th-23rd.  During this week there was a festival celebrating the agricultural gifts from the ‘god’ Saturn.  Because Christians were given time off during this holiday and because this was the closest holiday to the birth of Jesus, the Christians in the first, second, and third centuries A.D. celebrated Christ’s mass (a mass devoted to Jesus’ birth).

In the 3rd century A.D. a new Roman “Feast of the Unconquerable Sun” was celebrated on December 25th in conjunction with the southern Roman Winter Solstice.  This feast celebrated the birth of Sol Inviticus – the Sun ‘god’.  In Roman times from mid-December until the new year there were many parties, drinking, excess, and gift giving during this season.   In the 4th century A.D. (as politicians and people of prominence became Christ-followers) many interpreted the Old Testament prophecy of Malachi 4:2 referring to the “sun of righteousness” (the Messiah) as being the true unconquerable sun/son and therefore believed December 25th as the date to celebrate Jesus’ birth (this reasoning for why the date is December 25th has been disputed by some scholars).

Regardless of the reasons why – we know that December 25th was officially recognized as Christmas in the Western, Latin Church in the 4th century A.D. and that the Eastern, Greek Church soon followed suit.

Now what about “Epiphany” – what is it and when should we celebrate it?

Epiphany is the 12th day after Christmas and celebrates the visit of the Magi.  This holiday signifies the extension of salvation to the Gentiles (you, me, and every non-Israelite).  The date is January 6th – last year the date was on a Friday, therefore the holiday was celebrated on Sunday January 8th.  This year Epiphany Sunday will be on its official date.

At Grace Church we will be celebrating Epiphany a week early on Sunday the 30th of December as we will be starting a new sermon series on January 6th titled – “Living in EXILE.”

GODSPEED

CT School Shooting and questions for God

The headline on my CNN.com iPhone app reads, “Connecticut school shooting claims nearly 30 lives, source says” – HOW CAN THIS HAPPEN???

Most of the victims were children! Why Lord? Why?

In this situation no words can console the parents who have lost a child.  No words can change the overwhelming feelings of a spouse or a child when they just lost their friend, wife, father, husband, or mother.

People, we should be angry!!!

We should cry over this! We should cry out to God! We should cry out for justice! We should hold our loved one’s close and realize, “At any time…”

So sad! So sad!

In times like these people look for answers: “Why Lord? Why? If you are Love and you are Sovereign, then why the loss of innocent children?”

People, we can’t blame this on God.  God didn’t pull the trigger.

To even begin to understand why (or to question God) we first need to understand God’s nature and human nature.

First, about God’s nature – He is a God of Love, Mercy, and Justice.  He is as angry, as sad, as broken up as you and I are when He observed these events happen in Connecticut.  In Scripture a similar incident occurred when King Herod learned of baby Jesus’ birth; Herod ordered his soldiers kill all the children in Bethlehem under the age of two in hopes that he would kill baby Jesus – to this the LORD cried:

Matthew 2:18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

God’s response to this kind of injustice is to call evildoers to repentance:

Isaiah 1:15b “Your hands are full of blood;
16 wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds
out of my sight!
Stop doing wrong,
17 learn to do right!
Seek justice,
encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless,
plead the case of the widow.”

As you or I would mourn, so does God.  To this, some might say, “I get what you’re saying…that God’s mourns…but if God is all-powerful, then why didn’t He stop this bloodshed?”

God is all-knowing, all-present, and all-powerful – and yet since the beginning of human history God created people with the freedom to follow God and His ways or to be in charge of themselves.  Most of the time humans choose to follow their own path; because God loves us, and because He does not want a relationship with a robot, He gives us this freedom and allows for us to face the natural consequences of our free choices.

God is responsible for creating everything, and it says in Genesis 1:31 – “God saw all that He had made and it was very good.”  He created everything good and with freedom, freedom within boundaries.  The only boundary God set up at the beginning (in relation to moral choices) was for the first humans not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; God warned that in the day that they would eat of this fruit, their eyes would be opened to the knowledge of good and evil, a knowledge that humans were not created or prepared to handle (Gen. 2:17).  But so that humans would not be automatons, God created the opportunity of free choice.  This fruit represents a choice: to follow God and His ways or to be in charge and not follow God.

We know by personal experience that human nature desires to be free and to go its own way.  Ever since the first humans chose not to follow God (Genesis 3), all of humanity and creation has been negatively affected.  For some people born into good homes or born of privilege, they do not see all the consequences of humanity’s freedom until something devastating happens (like in Connecticut).   Others might daily experience the horrible effects of the choices of those around them, which results in a life of misery without hope.

Everything was created good and yet human free-agents were created with freedom of choice; and God is a God who allows free people to make decisions and face the natural consequences of their decisions, even when some of those consequences affect those who didn’t do anything.

What happened in Connecticut is not God’s fault; rather these are the natural consequences of people turning from God and His ways in order to be in charge of themselves (i.e., the shooter, in turning away from God, chose to go his own way, a way of evil and destruction).

Our culture’s generally accepted belief system is – to live and let live.  We emphasize tolerance and self-esteem and with this teaching we generally don’t allow people to say one moral belief system is better than another.

Let me say, murder is wrong – but murderous thoughts begin in the heart when people turn from God and feed their flesh with ideas that go against God’s morality.

We live in a culture enamored with violence and bloodshed; think about it, the two hottest video games for sale last month were “CALL of DUTY: Black Ops 2” and “Halo 4” – these two video games are setting records in a multi-billion dollar industry.

What is the purpose of these games?

When I was in seminary I learned that the first games like these were originally designed by the military to desensitize soldiers to killing humans.  Let me explain, the military was having problems teaching their soldiers to actually pull the trigger in combat.  The problem was that they were trained to shoot a target or a piece of paper with a silhouette of a human, and so when the soldiers would enter combat they would freeze when they would look into the eyes of another human being who was coming at them.

To remedy this problem the military developed first person shooter video game technology to train soldiers to shoot a realistic looking image, with eyes, that was coming at them and that when the image was hit it would fall in agony like a real killing.  This technology was then sold to various video game industries, which became what we know today as Quake, Halo, and the Call of Duty series.

I am not saying these video games are the direct cause of the deaths of 27 people in Connecticut.

I am saying however that God is a God of natural consequences and as our people in our nation turn away from God and seek their own ways, we will see the natural consequences of an increase of people watching certain movies or playing certain games that feed something inside us that is not of God.  The result (the natural consequence) will be an increase in the number of people like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold or James Holms becoming obsessed with movies, weapons, first person shooter games, and potential carnage in public places.

I remind us all; this begins when someone turns from God in their heart.

I imagine God is saying something like, “Wake up people!!! Turn to me! Repent! Walk humbly, love mercy, do justice!

God says in the book of Amos:

 Amos 5: 14  “Seek good, not evil, that you may live.  Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is.  15 Hate evil,love good; maintain justice in the courts.  Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph.”

16 Therefore this is what the Lord, the Lord God Almighty, says:

“There will be wailing in all the streets and cries of anguish in every public square.  The farmers will be summoned to weep and the mourners to wail…”

21 “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. 23 Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. 24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

If you read these verses in the context of the prophetic book of Amos, throughout this book of the Bible God is speaking to all nations and especially to Israel to stop focusing on selfish indulgence and to live rightly in relation to God and one’s fellow human beings.

God says specifically in vv. 21-24 that He hates songs of empty praise from people who are not living rightly.  The word “justice” that is used in the above text means to live in right relationships with other people.  Living in right relationships with other people starts with living in right relationship with God, which means following Him and His ways instead of my own path.  And this begins with humility of the heart.

Justice is a big deal to God, just as it is a big deal to most people.  When a man molests a child we demand the police arrest him and that the courts do justice by putting this man behind bars so that he will never be able to commit this crime again.  When a shooter walks into a movie theatre and kills dozens of people, we cry for his head.  But what about when a man walks into a school, kills kids and teachers and then takes his own life?

Where is the justice? How can restitution be paid?

I hear from people sometimes that there is no hell – that God (if He were a loving God) would never create such a place to condemn someone for eternity.  I hear people say, “Everyone has their own path and will make it to heaven in their own way.”

Well, what about Hitler? Stalin? Harris and Klebold? What about the shooter in Connecticut?

What about justice?

God is a God of justice; when an injustice is done, if the person who committed the injustice “get’s away with it” and never faces consequences on this earth, they will face the All-knowing God of Justice.

To those who lost a loved one in this shooting, my heart aches for you.  I am so sorry!!! I don’t know what to say other than God agrees with how you feel and He is right by your side.

I’m sorry.