Why we need the Gospel of John at Christmastime

We are all aware of how any distinctively Christian celebration of Christmas can so easily be lost in “frosty the snowman,” “Jack Frost nipping at your nose,” “Santa Claus finding out who’s naughty and nice,” “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” and the list goes on and on.  What is hard to find is any mention of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.  This is why I love John’s Christmas story.  Many people think that the Christmas account is only found in Matthew and Luke with all the traditional band of characters including shepherds, sheep, angels, Joseph, Mary, an innkeeper, King Herod and, later, the magi from the East, etc…  John’s gospel approaches the story differently.  We find in John no mention of angels or shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night.  We do not find in John any reference to innkeepers, starry nights, a travel weary young family, or night time visions.  In John there are no magi looking at the stars, or census’ being taken of the Roman world.  In John we only have the center character in the entire story: “The Word became flesh dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Thank you, John.  Christmas is about God stepping into human history, clothing himself in our frail humanity to rescue us from sin and death.  Let’s remember that this holy season: God became a man – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; this is the Christmas story according to the Gospel of John.

Costa Rican Methodism

Julie and I just returned last night from Costa Rica where I had the joy of speaking at the Methodist Conference of Costa Rica. I also spoke at the graduation of the Evangelical Methodist Seminary, founded over thirty years ago by Bishop Luis Palomo, who is also a Trustee of Asbury Theological Seminary. The highlight of the trip was signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Asbury Theological Seminary and their Seminary. This relationship further extends the global network and reach of Asbury Theological Seminary.

The entire trip reminded me anew why I am so deeply committed to theological education. Nearly forty years ago Asbury Seminary partnered with a church in Peoria, Illinois to support the education of a young Costa Rican student and his wife, Luis and Zulay Palomo. On paper it seemed to be an investment in the tuition and living expenses of one young couple. However, from a Kingdom perspective, looking back over many decades, it is now clear that this investment has translated into an entire seminary (which Dr. Paloma returned to Costa Rica to start), hundreds of graduates from this seminary who are now pastoring churches all over Costa Rica, and countless new believers in Jesus Christ.  The investment in one man has ended up making an impact on an entire nation. Theological education is a ministry of multiplication likened to the order of the feeding of the five thousand. One “loaf” becomes thousands – one student gets multiplied into thousands. For every life we invest in, we see a return in decades of ministry. In some cases, as with Luis and Zulay Palomo, an entire nation is being changed by the investment. This is, in part, precisely what Jesus means by “make disciples of all nations.”

Declaring the Wonders of God!

My wife, Julie and I just returned from spending Thanksgiving in Kwamadebe, Tanzania. Our daughter, Bethany, lives there along with a team of ten Christians in the hopes that the 40,000 Alagwesa people who live there might come to know Jesus Christ.  The travel which is required to get to this remote location is, in itself, nothing short of breathtaking. It seemed to give new meaning to Jesus’ words, echoing Isaiah 49:6, when he commanded us to bring the Gospel to the “ends of the earth.”  The nearest “city” to Kwamadebe is a town called Babati, which is several hours away if you have a good all terrain vehicle which can ford rivers and drive through muddy fields and ravines. But even in Babati it is doubtful that anyone has ever heard of the Alagwesa people. No other group even speaks their language and the language itself has never been written. They are a forgotten people living in a remote area without any electricity, running water or modern conveniences. However, God knows that they are there and he sent ten of his choice servants to bring the Gospel to them.

The team is made up of two Tanzanian families, a British family and four single American women. The team is made up of people with amazing backgrounds, including musicians, a doctorate in physical therapy, an expert in American sign language, a computer technician, etc… all skills which are unknown and unrecognized among the Alagwesa. This is a subsistence farming community which values survival skills revolving around raising crops and obtaining water. The Alagwesa are a hard working people, rising with the first rays of sunlight to plough fields, walking to the river to get water or going in search of firewood. No one is ever alone. People sleep together, work together, eat together and bathe in the river together. It it a communal culture, resonating with the beauty of many African cultures below the Sahara.

When I think about the Alagwesa, I am reminded of the amazing love of God in Jesus Christ. He loves the Alagwesa, and these ten Christians embody that love to them. There have been several attempts in the past to bring the Gospel to the Alagwesa, but only in Swahili (the national language of Tanzania). This is the first attempt for people to actually live there and learn their language (Alagwesi) and tell them the Gospel on their own cultural terms. There is a famous story in missions circles about the origin of the Wycliffe Bible Translators. Cameron Townsend was a missionary in Latin America distributing Spanish Bibles when he met an indigenous Cakchiquel man in Guatemala who, using broken Spanish, asked him if he had a Bible in his language. When Cam Townsend said “No” the man famously replied, “If your God is so great, why doesn’t he speak my language?”  This was the haunting question which led Townsend to found the Wycliffe Bible Translators which has now put the Bible into thousands of indigenous languages around the world. Townsend spent the next fifteen years learning that man’s language and translating the Bible into that language. The ten Christians who live in Kwamadebe are there to say to these beloved families, “yes” God loves you and he speaks your language! The Day of Pentecost was not just a sociological event, it was a theological statement by God himself that all the nations of the world “would declare the wonders of God in their own tongues” (Acts 2:11).  John the Apostle envisioned the day when men and women from every tribe, tongue and language would gather in the Eschaton to worship the Lamb of God.  Yes, heaven would not be heaven without the Alagwesa there!  I, for one, can’t wait until harvest time!