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An Epic Epiphany

 In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Ephesians 3:5-6

According to the Christian calendar, Epiphany occurs on January 6. It is a barely-noticeable speed bump lying just west of the mountain-of-our-own-making known as Christmas. Particularly in the United States, January 6 holds little more relevance than any other non-holiday. In other Christian cultures, however, Epiphany is the day Christmas is celebrated, complete with presents, food, friends, and family. All Christians recognize December 25 as the day of Jesus’ birth, but January 6 – the 12th Day of Christmas – is the day Jesus is revealed to us as the manifestation of God. It signifies the coming of the Wise Men from foreign lands to pay homage to this baby King. The Epiphany also celebrates that Jesus came not only for the Jews, but also for the Gentiles – the non-Jews, meaning us. The joy of Epiphany, then, is not that the baby was born, but that the baby was revealed as God-with-us, Emmanuel.

The dictionary definition of epiphany is a manifestation. We often use the term in the context of a sudden realization or understanding. For example, I recently told a friend that I had had an epiphany about fasting – that fasting was not just about giving something up, but about giving something up that would regularly remind me about something else of importance. This was an intellectual clarification of what had formerly been less clear to me. The birth of Jesus, however, was real, meaning he came in the flesh to be seen, heard, and touched. He was not just a vague concept, an intellectual creation, or some futuristic projection. God took on a human body and walked the earth as one of us.

The Christian season of Epiphany runs from January 6 through Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent. Epiphany provides an opportunity for us to ponder the meaning of God-manifest among us. If we were to invite Jesus to dinner, or to ride with us to work, or to live in our spare bedroom, what would change in our lives? If Jesus were to manifest himself into every moment of our every day, how would we be different? Even though Jesus is no longer on the earth physically, he is still present in the form of the Holy Spirit, which is always with us. Therefore, this season invites us not only to ponder God-with-us, but also to acknowledge that God is, indeed, with us and to live accordingly. God coming to earth in the person of Jesus was an epiphany of epic proportion. If we only celebrate the birth without allowing the manifestation to change us, we pack Jesus into storage with the rest of our Christmas decorations. Jesus becomes an ornament that we take out once a year and say, “Oh, what a beautiful baby!” Certainly, the baby is beautiful; but the baby wants to grow up – within us.

Come home to church this Sunday. Find your own epiphany with Christ.

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The Morning of Christmas

Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us. Matthew 1:23

 ‘Twas the morning of Christmas, when Love came to earth,

By way of a tiny and humble child’s birth;

His parents had traveled so far from their home,

For the census decreed by Augustus, in Rome.

Arriving in Bethlehem, with no place to stay,

The new baby slept in a manger of hay;

With cattle and donkeys and sheep at his side,

This animal stable was home, for a time.

Angels announced the birth on that night,

To seekers and shepherds and sinners alike;

“All glory to God!” the heavenly host chimed,

“And peace on the earth to all of mankind.”

Beneath a bright star, the news was proclaimed,

Of God come to earth in the form of this babe;

A child who would grow and remake us anew,

And cover the sins of me and of you.

On the morning of Christmas, the Prince of Peace came,

To reconcile souls with their Maker, again;

God with us, Emmanuel, forever to dwell,

On the morning of Christmas, and all year as well!

May the true light of Christmas find its home in your heart today – Merry Christmas!

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Relentless Love 

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with you, and you with me. Revelation 3:20-21

“Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Doris.”

“Doris who?”

“Doris locked, that’s why I’m knocking!”

Love is the theme for the 4nd week of Advent. This is no ordinary sort of love, however. It is not an emotional, touch-feely, teenage-crush sort of love. The true love of Christmas has nothing to do with lights and trees, with presents and parties, or with friends and family – wonderful as they are. If these types of things and activities dominate our Christmas preparations and celebration, we will almost certainly miss the very personal and relentless nature of Christmas love.

This baby-in-the-manger, whose birth we celebrate next week, requires more than the obligatory oohs and ahs we typically shower on new babies. This is not a baby we greet briefly at church before heading home for lunch. It is not a grandchild we enjoy for a few days at a time. This baby needs a place to stay. We sing about the misfortune of having no room at the Inn for Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. We lament that Jesus’ life began in a feeding trough for cattle, donkeys, and sheep. Although we sometimes romanticize the manger scene, there can be no doubt it was a smelly, dark, dungeon of a place. The baby Jesus, however, finds his forever home in us. What sort of home have we prepared?

There is a portrait hanging in many churches of Jesus standing at a door, knocking. The door has no outside handle, so Jesus can only enter if the person behind the door opens it for him. It is a visual portrayal of Revelation 3:20: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking.” He assures us that if we open the door and let him in, he will abide with us. Jesus will not enter, however, without a willing invitation.

Advent is a time of waiting and preparation. While we wait, we can prepare for the birth of the child. Is there room in your life for the Christ child this Christmas? Be assured, if we do not make room for the baby this year, Christmas will come and go, as it always does. We, however, will miss the relentless love the child brings.

Come home to church this Sunday. Jesus will be knocking at your door, soon.

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Glorious Joy 

Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1:8

The theme for the 3nd week of Advent is Joy. When I think of joy, I think of my grandma Hildenbrand. Grandma had the most challenging life of anyone I have known – and she was the most joyful. Her mother died when grandma was a teenager, leaving her as the mother figure to her 4 younger siblings. Two of her 5 children preceded her in death. She lived through the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and two world wars. She was a hard-working farm-wife and mother. Every challenge seemingly strengthened her faith, as I never knew it to waiver. She loved her family and made certain they had everything they needed, accompanied by a seemingly endless supply of love and encouragement.

With me, grandma always looked beyond my shortcomings. She never saw me as I was, but as the person I was capable of becoming. One of the strongest motivations in my life has been striving to become the person she gave me credit for being. Her joy in her first grandchild – me – took on extraordinary proportions, and I still feel her influence, 32 years after her passing. The ability for grandma to see and bring out the best in others was a manifestation of her joy in life. And her joy was the unshakable outcome of her faith.

It is easy to confuse joy with happiness. Certainly, being happy is a good and worthy feeling, but happiness is a cheap and transient imitation of joy. A joyful person possesses something deep inside that radiates delight, apart from the circumstances of the moment. A person who treats us poorly can leave us unhappy, but not without joy. Some people make others unhappy for the sake of perpetuating his or her own happiness, but a joyful person spreads his or her joy to others. There are circumstances where only so many people will be pleased with a decision or a situation. Joy, however, multiplies when shared because joy perpetuates in abundance. That is how grandma was able to see the best in me – she always saw the best in life. Her delight in me (and in her other grandchildren) was such a central part of her being that it could not be shaken by my occasional bad decision or unkind word.

The writer of the book of 1 Peter describes an “indescribable and glorious joy” that is the “outcome” of our faith. Indeed, if we have a strong faith in a loving, protecting, and faithful God who will never leave or forsake us, what could possibly steal our joy? Will we have difficult, unhappy days? Certainly so, but we need not lose our joy in life, nor our confidence that all things will work together for good in the end. Even in the hustle and bustle of the pre-Christmas season, joy lies in wait – just beneath the commotion.

Come home to church this Sunday. Develop a faith that produces joy.

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Christmas in July 

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

–Luke 1:47-49

Tonight I hear a faint and lovely voice drifting through my home, accompanied by a guitar. There is an angel in my daughter’s room, singing. I never would have heard her, had I not been sitting in silence waiting for a blessing. I would like to get closer, but I find such blessings to be finicky – like seeing a doe in the front yard and wanting to get a closer look, but knowing it will run away as I approach. It will run from fear of my intentions, and only the white fluff of its tail disappearing into the woods will be visible before I have the opportunity to explain. I mean it no harm; I only desire to be blessed by its presence. Tonight, I wish to listen to the blessing of the angel without scaring it away.

I recognize the shyness of angels, because I, too, was shy when I was young and vulnerable. You see, I needed to sing. Something inside of me regularly struggled for release, and its best exit was through song. But I could only purge effectively in private. The invasion of another into my holy space made the magic of the moment disappear. I could not bear being judged in the process of becoming whole. The moment I caught wind of my mother on the stair, the music stopped. And I know it broke her heart.

My soul, magnifies the Lord!

The song of this angel is one I wrote, based on The Magnificat – Mary’s song of praise from the gospel of Luke. A Christmas song in July. A song I wrote to bless others, now returns to bless me! I want to sing along, but I fear the music will stop.

And my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior, for God looked with favor on me. 

God is looking with favor on me right now. The inspiring words and music are returning to me through the voice of an angel. Oh, how I want to approach – but how to do it without making my presence known? I know it is safest to stay put and listen more intently. I find that to be the way with spiritual blessings in my life. They need space, privacy, and focus to manifest, and I must be attentive in order to receive it. Angels do not come to me with loud trumpets and raised voices as they seem to have done in biblical times. I hear them when I am silent, and when I listen for them. Shhh! The angel is singing again. Forgive me, but I need to stop typing and listen a little longer…

God raised this lowly servant high…and holy, holy, holy is the name of God!

Come home to church this Sunday. Maybe an angel is waiting to bless you there.

Greg Hildenbrand

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Life Worship Notes—January 2, 2104 

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” 2 Corinthians 5:17

It is January 1 as I type this note. I look out the window on a cold, colorless day. The sky is an oppressive grey, the grass is brown, and the trees are bare. The temperature is twenty degrees, but a stiff north wind makes it feel much colder. At first glance, it is a dismal time of the year—lifeless and depressing. It is difficult to imagine anything good resulting from a day like today, or even from this time of the year.

However, as I look closely at the branches of the River Birch outside my window, I see the buds are noticeably swollen. There are buds the size of robin’s eggs on the Magnolia tree in the front yard. If I part the brown blades of grass on the frozen ground, I see a green base. As I push aside leftover leaf piles on the flowerbeds, I see the tender shoots of early bulbs preparing to push through the brown earth. On closer inspection and in spite of the current conditions, life is preparing to POP! Everything good in our lives takes time to develop, and everything springs forth in its time.

I often wonder why Christmas Day occurs in late December. The environment in much of the northern hemisphere can be overly harsh for such a joyous celebration at that time of year. There is no solid evidence in the Bible for the date or season of Christ’s birth. I have heard some researchers say it was likely March; others say June. Personally, I say late December is perfect. The birth of Jesus was like a divine seed planted into the earth. It lay dormant for a time and then, in its season, burst forth in all its glory. Two thousand years later, the fruit of his life, death, and resurrection continues to feed hungry souls and heal broken lives.

Late December is a spectacular time, for those willing to look deeper, beyond the greys and browns. It is a time of preparation for good things to come; a time of rest and renewal before spring bursts forth in all its colorful and dynamic glory. It is through the eyes of faith we know the seeds of that glory have already been sown. Those same eyes of faith help us recognize the Son of God in the form of a baby. New creations worth birthing come with a struggle. Being born again is not supposed to be easy; but through its trials, the new creation gains strength and resolve. Late December is a great time for Christmas. Stark and barren on the outside, but full of life within.

Come home to church this Sunday. It is warmth for the soul.

Greg Hildenbrand, Life Music Coordinator

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Life Worship Notes—December 26, 2013 

“And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.’” Luke 1:46-48a

This passage from Luke is the beginning of one of the most widely read scripture passages during the Christmas season. The complete refrain (Luke 1:46-55) is referred to as Mary’s Song of Praise, or The Magnificat. It is Mary’s response to learning she is carrying the Son of God, the Messiah. Emmanuel, meaning God is with us, will be born through Mary. Being young, unmarried, and pregnant would not be good news to most women of her era. However, the angel Gabriel assured Mary she had been chosen to birth God’s son. The news fills her with joy, in spite of the challenges it will present. She believes it is a sign of God’s favor.

Mary’s place in history was secured by being the earthly mother of Jesus. Even so, God’s favor falls on all of us still today. When God chose to take on human flesh and walk among us, that adventure began as a baby, born of a human mother. It was a physical birth, the same way the rest of us began our earthly journeys. While Jesus’ birth through Mary was physical, Jesus’ birth in us is spiritual. God reaches out to us in Spirit; and when we reach back, Christ is born in us. We reach back to God by accepting the gift of Jesus and dedicating our life to his work and purposes. Emmanuel, the true gift of Christmas, is God with us. Once God is with us, God can work in and through us. The gift of Emmanuel is given freely to all who will accept it. However, those of us who receive must then decide what to do with the gift. If we hide it away, only to be brought out on special occasions, it will wither and fail to thrive. God’s holy presence in us is to be shared and allowed to become an inseparable part of our daily experience. One of the most effective ways God works on earth is through the hands and hearts of God’s people. God’s favor is given to us, and we respond to God’s favor by passing the blessings it brings on to others.

The essence of Emmanuel is love. Love manifests in relationships. Through the birth of Jesus, God chose to be in relationship, physically, with the people of the time. Today, God chooses to be in relationship with us spiritually. God reaches to us; but until we reach back and accept God’s invitation, there can be no relationship. At that point, we begin to know, recognize, and respond to God’s favor. Otherwise, God’s favor is like a radio wave being transmitted, but not received. God speaks, but is not heard.

Come home to church this Sunday. Receive the favor of God by receiving and following Jesus.

Greg Hildenbrand

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