Two Christmas Devotionals

I love to read a Christmas or Advent devotional in December as a way to focus on the spiritual aspect of the season. This year I couldn’t decide between two, so I read them both.

Last year I had a book of C. H. Spurgeon’s Christmas sermons and thought to read them a bit at a time, like a devotional. But it didn’t work. I felt like I wasn’t getting the full impact and flow of thought without reading the whole sermon in context. So I ended up reading one each weekend

This year, however, I found a devotional book made up of short (2-3 pages on an iPad mini Kindle app) excerpts from some of his sermons: Joy to the World: Daily Readings for Advent. I was looking for something with short readings since my regular reading routine is pretty full, and this fit the bill.

Sometimes books made of excerpts from other books or sermons don’t always come across well: it’s obvious that some context is missing. But that wasn’t the case with this book. Each reading seemed like a complete thought. The English has been modernized a bit, but it didn’t seem to take away from the readings to me.

One of the themes is how a humble manger birth made Christ approachable: “We might tremble to approach a throne, but we cannot fear to approach a manger. Never could there be a being more approachable than Christ” (p. 20).

A couple of other quotes:

“Religion never was designed To make our pleasures less” (from “We’re Marching to Zion”). It is designed to do away with some of our pleasures, but it gives us many more, to make up for what it takes away; so it does not make them less (p. 32).

Now, Christ’s human flesh was God’s tabernacle, and it is in Christ that God meets with man, and in Christ that man has dealings with God. The Jew of old went to God’s tent, in the center of the camp, if he would worship: we come to Christ if we would pay our homage. If the Jew would be released from ceremonial uncleanness, after he had performed the rites, he went up to the sanctuary of his God, that he might feel again that there was peace between God and his soul. We, having been washed in the precious blood of Christ, have access with boldness unto God, even the Father through Christ, who is our tabernacle and the tabernacle of God among men (p. 51).

The tabernacle of old was not full of truth, but full of image, and shadow, and symbol, and picture; but Christ is full of substance. He is not the picture, but the reality; he is not the shadow, but the substance. O believer, rejoice with joy unspeakable for you come to Christ, the real tabernacle of God. You come to him who is full of the glory of the Father; and you come to one in whom you have not the representation of a grace which you needest, but the grace itself-not the shadow of a truth ultimately to be revealed, but that very truth by which your soul is accepted in the sight of God (p. 52).

The thought of Christ’s human flesh being our tabernacle was new to me, but poignant as our church is reading through Exodus and spent several days this month on the instructions for the tabernacle.

I also liked very much the thought in Day 6’s reading that God was pulling invisible strings to orchestrate the details of Christ’s birth, even to the point of the census being decreed to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, where the Scriptures prophesied Christ would be born. That’s a comfort in these times.

A Christmas Longing by Joni Eareckson Tada is a gorgeous book filled with her art work, drawn by mouth due to her paralysis. It would make a lovely coffee table book if we had a coffee table.

It’s made up of 31 readings for each day in December (the above book had 25) centered on the theme of joy.

A few quotes:

Maybe we simply need to realize that our most unpleasant circumstances, much like Mary and Joseph’s, often have a way of becoming a beautiful portion of God’s magnificent design. God’s sovereign timetable is working in the life of your family, too, hard as that may be to accept at times. Despite the hardship, despite the inconvenience, despite our lack of understanding, God has something in mind. He is in control, and He has a design for your life this Christmas season… and through all the seasons of your life. (The book has no page numbers, but this is in “A Plan Behind the Pain.”)

Lives hinge and eternal destinies hang in the balance when men and women come face to face with Jesus the Christ. It isn’t always peaceful. It isn’t always painless. It isn’t always easy. But bowing the knee to Jesus Christ is always right. No matter what. (From “Simeon’s Message.”)

Maybe that’s why God puts those wistful longings in our hearts this time of year. He wants us to find the answers to those longings in the celebration of Jesus. He wants us to define that nostalgia as nothing more than a deep human desire to come home and adore His Son. (From “Create Your Christmas Spirit.”)

You see, when Christ entered history, He didn’t come waving a white flag. His coming was not simply a lull in the battle. It was more than a momentary cease-fire. When the angels sang, “Peace on earth, good will toward men,” they were announcing an armistice. It was V-Day—an end, not just to the battle between God and humans, but to the war.

The phrase “peace on earth” carries with it so much more meaning than simply a warm, fuzzy feeling between the Lord and us. Christ, our Prince of Peace, was God’s way of announcing the close to an awful war. The Lord Jesus invaded enemy territory to lay claim on what was rightfully His. He confronted sin, and His battle cry told men that He had come to set them free.Through His death and resurrection, He signed the peace treaty in His own blood. (From “Peace on Earth.”)

I read this in bunches, both because I received it late plus I wanted to finish it in time for this review. But I think next year I’ll read just one entry a day and go more slowly and thoughtfully through it.

Though different in style, both of these books were meaty, inspirational, edifying, and enjoyable.

(Sharing with InstaEncouragement, Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)

Book Review: Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room

Let Every HeartForgive me for spending the first week of the year catching up with Christmas reviews. As I said yesterday, I don’t usually have the computer time when I finish these to talk about them, and when I do I feel it’s probably too far past Christmas. But Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room: Daily Family Devotions for Advent by Nancy Guthrie is another that I’ve read several times now and want to share more about with you.

This book is written in a much different style than her compilation of essays in Come Thou Long Expected Jesus that I discussed yesterday. It’s written for use as a family devotional, so the language is in a simper style that I think very young children could comprehend, but I enjoyed it even as an adult reading for myself. Each chapter ends with a prayer, some discussion questions, and a few more Scriptures on the topic of the chapter. There are 31 readings: I like that it doesn’t stop at Christmas but extends through the month. (I know I said I liked that Come Thou Long Expected Jesus only had 22 readings, but those in this book are short enough that I don’t think it would be a problem to keep up with all month). The sizing of the book, too, is small enough that I think children would be comfortable holding it and taking a turn at the family reading.

In addition, there are lined pages where you can jot down anything you want to remember about the discussions aroused from the readings and a few pages of Christmas songs with their history.

The readings cover several topics that you would expect, but also a few you might not have thought of, such as this quote:

When you look at something through a magnifying glass, it looks much bigger than it actually is. Is that what Mary meant when she said, “My soul magnifies the Lord”? Was she trying to make God look bigger than He actually is?

 We can never make God bigger or greater than He is. The truth is, we can never fully take in or understand God’s greatness. But we can magnify Him. We magnify God not by making Him bigger than He truly is, but by making Him greater in our thoughts, in our affections, in our memories, and in our expectations. We magnify Him by having higher, larger, and truer thoughts of Him. We magnify Him by praising Him and telling others about His greatness so they can have bigger thoughts about Him, too.

 Sometimes we wonder why we aren’t happy, why we make sinful choices, why we feel distant from God. Often it’s because we have small thoughts about God and magnified thoughts of ourselves, our wants, our rights, our accomplishments. Mary, the one God chose to be the mother of His Son, could have easily allowed thoughts of herself to become larger, even prideful. But instead of magnifying herself, she magnified the Lord (p. 29).

And this:

Sometimes we are given a gift that we think is not really useful to us, and therefore we never take it out of the box. We stash it away in a closet or on a shelf somewhere in case we need it someday. Sadly, that’s what some people do in regard to Jesus. They want to keep him handy for when something comes along that they can’t handle on their own, but for now they have no interest in making him part of their day-to-day lives, and so they put him on the shelf. They simply don’t believe he is as good as the Bible says he is, and so they have no real or lasting joy in having received this great gift (p. 79).

Day 17’s reading on “Glory Revealed” is one that especially stood out to me.

I appreciate Nancy’s thoughtfulness and depth in these devotionals, even couched as they are in simple language.

I’ve used this book several times, once with Jesse when he was younger and then on my own. It’s one I am sure I will use again, and I am happy to recommend it to you.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

 

Book Review: Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus

Long Expected JesusI’ve read Come Thou Long Expected Jesus:Experiencing the Peace and Promise of Christmas, compiled by Nancy Guthrie, many times, but somehow I have never reviewed it. Probably because, like this year, I’ve finished it right in the busiest of the Christmas season, and by the time I had time to go over it, felt it was too far past Christmas to review. But I am not letting that happen this year. 🙂

In Nancy’s preface, she tells of Christmases where all the activities had been accomplished, but her heart wasn’t truly prepared. Then she tried to find a book of Christmas readings, but the ones she found did not minister to her. She wanted to find a “book with short readings on Advent themes from a number of different writers I trust and respect; that reflected a high view of Scripture; and that put the incarnation in the context of God’s unfolding plan of redemption” (p. 10). When she couldn’t find such a book, she set out to create one, reading and editing multitudes of sermons and writings from well-known theologians and Bible teachers.

There are 22 selections on various aspects of Advent, from Mary to conception by the Holy Ghost to Joseph to the shepherds to Jesus’s humility and others, from such teachers and preachers as Charles Spurgeon, Augustine, Martyn Lloyd-Jones to Tim Keller, John MacArthur, J. I. Packer, and Ray Ortland. I don’t know all of the authors, so I wouldn’t endorse everyone 100%, but I don’t think I read anything in this particular volume that I had a problem with, at least not that I noted or can recall.

In many ways it is hard to review a book like this, with so many authors and topics. But I’ll share just a few quotes that stood out to me:

Ligon Duncan III on Joseph: “God is calling Joseph to believe his word and to act in accordance with it. And Joseph does just that. He accepts God’s word and he trusts God’s word and he relies upon God’s word and he re-orients his life to conform to that word. What a tremendous act of faith on the part of Joseph and what an example of obedience to God’s word in spite of circumstance” (p. 53).

From “For Your Sakes He Became Poor” by J. I. Packer (originally from Knowing God): “We see now what it meant for the Son of God to empty himself and become poor. It meant a laying aside of glory; a voluntary restraint of power; an acceptance of hardship, isolation, ill-treatment, malice and misunderstanding; finally, a death that involved such agony–spiritual even more than physical–that his mind nearly broke under the prospect of it. It meant love to the uttermost for unlovely human beings, that they ‘through his poverty might become rich.’ The Christmas message is that there is hope for a ruined humanity–hope of pardon, hope of peace with God, hope of glory–because at the Father’s will Jesus Christ became poor and was born in a stable so that thirty years later he might hang on a cross. It is the most wonderful message that the world has ever heard, or will hear.

We talk glibly of the ‘Christmas spirit,’ rarely meaning more by this than sentimental jollity on a family basis. But what we have said makes it clear that the phrase should in fact carry a tremendous weight of meaning. It ought to mean the reproducing in human lives of the temper of him who for our sakes became poor at the first Christmas. And the Christmas spirit itself ought to be the mark of every Christian all the year round.

…The Christmas spirit does not shine out in the Christian snob. For the Christmas spirit is the spirit of those who, like their Master, live their whole lives on the principle of making themselves poor — spending and being spent — to enrich their fellow men, giving time, trouble, care, and concern, to do good to others — and not just their own friends — in whatever way there seems need (pp. 70-72).

From “Good News of Great Joy” by Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr.: “God is terrifying to guilty sinners, even though he is in himself gloriously beauitful. But God is pursuing us, even though we avoid him. He himself has taken the initiative to break through our terror” (p. 99).

From the same chapter: “Our good intentions are not strong enough to control our evil impulses. We need a Savior to rescue us from ourselves” (p. 100).

From “The Lessons of the Wise Men” by J. C. Ryle: “Let us beware of resting satisfied with head knowledge. It is an excellent thing when rightly used. But a person may have much of it, and still perish everlastingly. What is the state of our hearts? This is the great question. A little grace is better than many gifts. Gifts alone save no one; but grace leads on to glory” (p. 111).

There are so many others I’d love to share. Packard’s and Ortlund’s chapters impacted me the most this time, I think. There was a lot that was deep and thought-provoking in both, especially Ortlund’s on God’s glory.

Our family doesn’t celebrate Advent liturgically or ceremonially, with different candles on different days and all that, but I do like to, as Nancy wrote at the beginning, spend some time preparing for Christmas with some kind of Advent reading. This book, so far, has been the best book I have found for that. I like that it is 22 essays rather than 24 or 25 or 31: it gives one some leeway to begin early in December but not fall behind if a day or two is missed. Though the chapters are longer than the average devotional booklet, they’re not too long to read in a sitting, and I have found I do better at this stage of life with sustained thought on topics like this rather than “grab and go” devotionals. But most of all I like the richness and the depth. I had used it for several years, laid it aside for a few years, and rejoiced to read it again this year. I’m sure I will read it again many times.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

What does it mean to magnify the Lord?

During the brief four years we home-schooled, one of the biggest helps was a great support group, and one of their activities was a monthly meeting where we sometimes had guest speakers (my favorite was Booker T. Washington’s granddaughter — she gave quite a fascinating talk), sometimes had the kids doing activities, like an annual talent show, and sometimes members of the group would speak about their work or hobbies. One time my husband, whose job title for many years was Research Microscopist and who collects, buys, and sells microscopes, spoke about microscopes and brought a few for kids to look at whatever they wanted to under the microscope. He also spoke about Psalm 34:3: “O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together.” He pointed out that we don’t make God bigger than He is: He’s already so big we can’t comprehend it. But we focus on Him, bringing out thoughts of His greatness.

I’m rereading Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room: Daily Family Devotions for Advent by Nancy Guthrie, and the selection for today comes from Mary’s song after learning that she will be the mother of the Messiah. “And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour” (Luke 1:46-47). Guthrie explores the concept of what it means to magnify God and says:

The truth is, we can never fully take in or understand God’s greatness. But we can magnify Him. We magnify God not by making Him bigger than He truly is, but by making Him greater in our thoughts, in our affections, in our memories, and in our expectations. We magnify Him by having higher, larger, and truer thoughts of Him. We magnify Him by praising Him and telling others about His greatness so they can have bigger thoughts about Him, too.

I looked up the meaning of “magnify” in Dictionary.com, and part of the definition is: “to cause to seem greater or more important; attribute … importance to; to intensify; dramatize; heighten; to extol; praise.”

Mary magnified Him out of joy and gladness. The psalmist (Psalm 64 and 69) magnified Him out of deep need and affliction. They both speak of deliverance and answered prayer and expectation. The KJV speaks once of God magnifying Himself: “Thus will I magnify myself, and sanctify myself; and I will be known in the eyes of many nations, and they shall know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 38:23).

I don’t think God “needs” us to magnify Him: He doesn’t have an ego that needs stroking. Even when He magnified Himself, the purpose was that others would know who He was. But we need to magnify Him. It’s so easy to magnify the cares of this world, our needs, our weaknesses, our duties. That gets discouraging, distracting, defeating. But when we magnify Him, we see Him as He truly is, we remember how great and good He is, how He has strength He will provide us in our weakness, how He can easily take care of whatever need we have. The more we praise Him, the more rightly we relate to Him, then the more we praise Him and testify of Him to others, so they can focus on Him and see for themselves how great He is and how He can meet their needs as well. The more we magnify Him, the more we worship Him.

I will praise the name of God with a song, and will magnify him with thanksgiving.
This also shall please the Lord better than an ox or bullock that hath horns and hoofs.
The humble shall see this, and be glad: and your heart shall live that seek God.
Psalm 69:30-32.