The Holly and the Ivy — Carols of Advent Joy

Scripture Focus: John 6.38-40
38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.

Hebrews 2.9, 14-15
9 But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

Reflection: The Holly and the Ivy — Carols of Advent Joy
By Jon Polk

In Hong Kong, where I live, the celebration of Christmas, while almost completely secular in nature, is not lacking in spectacle. Shopping malls and housing estates construct elaborate, over-the top, displays of Santas and Christmas scenes. Fantastical lighting displays on high-rise buildings in the city center dazzle and amaze. And of course, there is no shortage of chocolates and various Christmas confections!

While I am certainly a fan of doing Christmas up right, it is quite easy to forget that for centuries, Christians celebrated the birth of Christ without utilizing electricity, massive prefabricated scenes, or die-cut signs and images.

There is a beauty in nature’s simplicity that can easily be lost in the holiday extravaganza. Nature’s Christmas decorations abound: evergreen trees, beautiful red poinsettia flowers, mischievous mistletoe, natural flames of candlelight, and garland and wreaths of holly.

The use of holly as a decoration for the winter solstice has its roots in the practices of the ancient Druids, who used it as a symbol of hope, rebirth and even eternal life. As Christians began to formalize the celebration of Christ’s birth, pagan symbols were co-opted and transformed. The Church in medieval times began to endow the plant with decidedly Christian symbolism. 

The sharp, pointy leaves representing the crown of thorns worn by Jesus and the bright red berries recalling the drops of blood shed for the salvation of humanity are depicted with honor in the British folk carol from the 18th century, “The Holly and the Ivy.” 

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.

The holly bears a berry,
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to do us sinners good.

While I generally prefer not to conflate the seasons of Advent and Lent, for they do serve uniquely different purposes on the Church calendar, we can nonetheless take great joy in recognizing the end game of the holy infant who was born to be a King. The shape of the holly leaves is said to resemble flames, reminding us of the burning love of God for his people, a love that would send God’s own Son to die on our behalf.

Let us take great joy in the grace that came down at Christmas. Along with all creation, we can celebrate God’s goodness and love!

The rising of the sun
And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.

Listen: The Holly and the Ivy by Jon Anderson
Read: Lyrics from Hymnary.org

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
O Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on me. — Agnus Dei

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Zechariah 3 (Listen – 1:48)
John 6 (Listen – 8:27)

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Read more about He Invites Us — Love of Advent
The Advent we celebrate in these weeks is the gentle, loving call to be ready.

Wisdom in Houses of Mourning—Readers’ Choice

Selected by reader, Barbara
The April 20th, post on the subject of suffering during this time and during life in general was particularly helpful not only because as seniors we suddenly became isolated even from family but because we were also in the process of grief over a grandchild who died before Christmas. 2 Timothy 3:12 declares that all who desire to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will suffer. We have felt “persecution“ through some ordinary circumstances or more dramatic ones throughout. We can do all things as unto the Lord.

Originally published, April 20, 2020, based on readings from Ecclesiastes 7 & 2 Timothy 3.

Scripture Focus: Ecclesiastes 7.2-4
It is better to go to a house of mourning
    than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
    the living should take this to heart.
Frustration is better than laughter,
    because a sad face is good for the heart.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
    but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.

Proverbs 4.7
Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.

Hebrews 12.1-2
…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus…

Reflection: Wisdom in Houses of Mourning—Readers’ Choice
By John Tillman

What happens when a society addicted to activity, distraction, and consumption has every activity canceled, normal distractions displaced, and consumption disrupted? We mourn.

Solomon tells us that there is more wisdom to be gained in a house of mourning than one of celebrating. In some ways, the homes in which we are sheltering have become houses of mourning. We are certainly mourning the frenetic fantasy of fruitfulness that our former schedules gave us. Our economies, both global and personal, were accelerated and everything else was trimmed out so that we could push harder for greater gain. But were we really gaining in the ways that are important? Did we trim out the wrong things? What can we learn from this unexpected experience of mourning? 

Paul writes that we should throw off everything that hinders us and the sin that so easily entangles us to run after Jesus, fixing our eyes on him. But in our previous life, pre-COVID-19, did we ever throw off anything to get closer to Jesus? Did we ever lay aside even one entanglement to grow deeper in faith? Did we fix our eyes more intently on Jesus than on our devices, work tasks, and investment portfolios? Did we strip even one thing out of our lives because it interfered with reading the Bible? Did we cancel even one activity in order to make more time to pray?

For the majority of us, the answers to these questions are probably “no.” Many of us may need to confess that what we tossed aside was Jesus, and the entanglement we escaped was the cords of loving-kindness that God sought to guide us by. We limited Jesus, the Bible, and prayer, to “when we have time” as if time was the issue and not our heart.

What if we learned from what we have lost how valuable what we still have is?
What if we, relieved of the burden of physically running from activity to activity, learned to run after Jesus spiritually?
What if we learned to make time with the most important things the most important time in our day?

I think personally we would be blown away by the tangible presence and power of God in our lives.
I think it would be a revelation.
And I think culturally the world would be blown away by the shockingly beautiful things God would call the church to do in the world.
I think it would be a revolution. 

Divine Hours Prayer: A Reading
“And when he saw the crowds he felt sorry for them because they were harassed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is rich but the laborers are few, so ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers to his harvest.’” — Matthew 9.36-37– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Jeremiah 33 (Listen – 4:46)
Psalms 3-4 (Listen – 1:56)

Read more about Convicted by Job’s Righteousness :: A Guided Prayer 
We pray for your forgiveness, Lord, but more than that, we pray that you would change the hearts of the oppressors, and may you begin in our hearts.

What post helped you understand prayer?https://forms.gle/DsYWbj45y9fCDLzi7

Pleasing Sacrifices

Scripture: Hebrews 13:15-16
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

Reflection: Pleasing Sacrifices
By Jon Polk

After weaving a rich theological tapestry, the letter to the Hebrews concludes in the same manner as many other New Testament epistles, with the author including a closing postscript of seemingly disconnected behavioral exhortations.

Love each other. Show hospitality. Remember the suffering. Honor marriage. Be content. Imitate your leaders.

The list is followed by one of the many commonly quoted verses from Hebrews, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

There is a thread of continuity in these instructions that connects with Christ’s eternally consistent character.

One final time, the author recalls the high priest imagery that has permeated the book. A reference to the Old Testament sin offerings serves as a reminder that Jesus himself functions both as our high priest and a sacrifice for our sins.

Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross is not merely an event that happened to Jesus, it is one of his important character traits. Jesus’ selflessness, demonstrated by his willingness to give up his very life for us, is the same yesterday and today and forever.

So what do all these final charges have in common? Selflessness.

Loving one another in the community of faith involves treating one another as we would members of our own families. There is a reason we refer to each other as sisters and brothers.
Not only should we love those in our community, but we are challenged to love those outside our community as well. Loving the stranger, the “other,” often involves personal risk.

One step even further is serving the outcasts, not simply strangers but those shunned from the community, in prison, mistreated, suffering. Ministry to the outcast involves a sacrifice of our time and resources.

Any married person could tell you that a truly successful marriage is founded on a commitment to serve one another selflessly.

Being content with what we have and guarding our hearts from the love of money may require reevaluation of career goals or personal ambitions. Trusting in God to meet our needs means releasing our selfish desire to control our destiny.

Remembering that God has provided faithful leaders to guide and instruct us is yet another way we practice selfless humility.

Ultimately we have been called to imitate our self-sacrificing savior, Jesus, by giving of ourselves to do good for the benefit of others. George Herbert, 17th-century British priest, poet, and theologian, wrote, “For there is no greater sign of holiness than the procuring and rejoicing in another’s good.”

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. — 2 Corinthians 4.6

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis TickleToday’s Readings
Isaiah 6 (Listen – 2:24) 
Hebrews 13 (Listen 3:31)

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 7 (Listen – 3:51) James 1 (Listen 3:26)
Isaiah 8:1-9:7 (Listen – 3:26) James 2 (Listen 3:32)

Read More about Finishing Well
We must keep our eyes on the example of Jesus, who ran the race before us and endured great suffering on our behalf.

Read More about Compelled Toward Community
We have been made participants in a New Covenant of grace with God and we are beneficiaries of Christ’s inheritance of forgiveness.

Joy of Courageous Surrender

Scripture Focus: Hebrews 12:2
Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Reflection: Joy of Courageous Surrender
By Matt Tullos

Joy—The vocation of unquenchable, serene satisfaction in God.

Jesus teaches us courageous surrender. We see Him running headlong into His own demise for the sake of a greater eternal intention and destiny.

Jesus embraced the pain for joy.
He climbed the tall mount of suffering for bliss.
He met every hostile foe for love.
He challenged every lie for truth
The first warrior of grace…
He approached the unapproachable.
And it was for joy.

The first Artist of redemption endured the pinnacle of human suffering, alienation and shame. Amidst meaningless chaos, He hewed purpose out of the hard soil of humanity. Jesus’ hands were true to the task as He demonstrated the law of mercy.

In the presence of enemies, rebels, in the pretext of religiosity, God’s Son stepped out of the far reaches of glory, set His eye on the bride and it was for the joy.

“It is grace at the beginning, and grace at the end. So that when you and I come to lie upon our deathbeds, the one thing that should comfort and help and strengthen us there is the thing that helped us in the beginning. Not what we have been, not what we have done, but the Grace of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” — D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

Strangely, surrender is the most fulfilling thing you can ever do. Satisfaction and bliss will never be achieved unless you succumb to the sweetness of a divine relinquishment.

When this surrender overrides your fear, your pride in the self-made life, and the anger you have because of old wounds, joy abounds. You enter into a surrender which leads to death. This is the bliss of a purposeful holy death of your own petty kingdom.

The Cross became the Cure.
It was for joy.
It was for love.
It was for us.
How could I hold tightly to my life and miss the joy of reckless worship?
I kneel at the cross and live in joy. I am free to live
the life today that I’ve always wanted to live.
Delivered
Accepted
Released
Chosen
Loved
Free!

The same joy that was set before Christ is now before us. We can look to Him and remember what this life is about. It is a race toward a life surrendered totally to Him and His glory.
Does your sacrifice bring joy or is it an obligatory nod toward a distant God?

What lights the joy flame of your heart?

*From a series Matt Tullos wrote called 39 Words. A few of these posts are available in audio form via Soundcloud. — John

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth; knit my heart to you that I may fear your Name. — Psalm 86.11

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis TickleToday’s Readings
Isaiah 5 (Listen – 4:48) 
Hebrews 12 (Listen 4:36)

Read more about The Step After Surrender :: Throwback Thursday
It is not this thing or that thing that must go now: it is blindly, helplessly, recklessly, our very selves.

Read more from Matt Tullos: On Surrender
We are His prize and He snatched us away from the enemy through the brutality of an unthinkable surrender.

A Long Journey to Maturity

Scripture Focus: Hebrews 6.11-12
We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.

Reflection: A Long Journey to Maturity
By Jon Polk

“Now I know my ABCs. Next time won’t you sing with me?”

Letters of the alphabet are the elementary building blocks of language. The learner must comprehend the sounds of letters before combining letters to make works, before combining words to make sentences, and so on.

Once the student has mastered a language, it would be foolish and useless to continue to rehearse the very basic ABCs.

Like language learning, there are no shortcuts to spiritual maturity, but how will we know when we have arrived? We must move past merely knowing the basic teachings about Christ’s life, death and resurrection and beyond simply acknowledging our need for faith and repentance.

To be sure, no one but our sinless high priest Jesus will ever be fully spiritually mature in this lifetime, but there are some indicators to help us know we are headed in the right direction.

As rain-soaked land is expected to produce a bountiful crop, the mature Christian should produce what Paul describes to the Galatians as the fruits of the spirit, i.e. God-honoring, selfless character traits. As land that produces thorns instead of crops is worthless, James declares that faith that does not produce actions is dead, useless.

Marks of spiritual maturity include character growing in likeness to God and actions that demonstrate our love for God and care for his people. In reality, we can never truly arrive; this is a never-ending process.

In his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson describes discipleship—the process by which we mature spiritually—as a lifelong journey:

For recognizing and resisting the stream of the world’s ways there are two biblical designations for people of faith that seem useful: disciple and pilgrim. Disciple says we are people who spend our lives apprenticed to our master, Jesus Christ. Pilgrim tells us that we are people who spend our lives going someplace, going to God, and whose path for getting there is the way, Jesus Christ.

Indeed, the journey of spiritual maturity is a one-way trip. We are warned of the dangers of falling away after tasting the goodness of God. Our calling is to diligently work until the end of our lives, moving forward ever onwards towards maturity.

As the writer of the anonymous hymn succinctly stated, “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.”

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Righteousness shall go before him, and peace shall be a pathway for his feet. — Psalm 85.13

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle
Today’s Readings
Song of Songs 6 (Listen – 1:48) 
Hebrews 6 (Listen 2:58)

This Weekend’s Readings
Song of Songs 7 (Listen – 1:55), Hebrews 7 (Listen 4:01)
Song of Songs 8 (Listen – 2:23), Hebrews 8 (Listen 2:22)

Read more about A Sign of Immaturity
The immature demand signs because they walk by sight—not faith.

Read more about Work, Ministry, and Generosity
Generosity transforms our work into an instrument for cultivating faith—planting seeds for the spreading of the gospel of Christ.

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