This week, Jhohan Centeno in Colombia reminds us that the God who is with us in Christ Jesus has promised to be with us to the end of the age.
Located in the northwestern corner of South America, Colombia is home to over 50 million people. Approximately 74% of Colombians identify as Catholic, 14% as Protestant, and 10% as irreligious. Colombia is the second most biodiverse country on the planet, with vibrant geography that includes Amazon rainforest, Andean mountains, Orinoco grasslands, and Tatacoa desert. From the 1960s until the peace accord of 2016, Colombia endured armed conflict – partly fueled by the United States and multinational corporations – among government troops, left-wing guerilla forces, right-wing paramilitary groups, and various crime syndicates. This Advent, let us pray with our Colombian sisters and brothers for God’s healing, peace, and justice as the nation reckons with past war crimes and ongoing police brutality.
Jhohan is pursuing a PhD in Biblical Studies at Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana in Colombia. His dissertation examines the biblical roots of contemporary Pentecostal perceptions and practices of anointing, in order to promote healthy models of church leadership in Latin America. Jhohan teaches and serves as Academic Vice President at the Biblical Seminary of Colombia (FUSBC), a client school of the Vital SustainAbility Initiative. Jhohan and his wife Ginna have a twelve-year-old son, Santiago, and a ten-year-old daughter, Sofía.
Jhohan shares the following devotional and prayer requests:
God with Us
I grew up in Piedecuesta, a small town in eastern Colombia, where my parents pastored a Foursquare Gospel Church. Our Christmas celebration was special, but different from our neighbors’.
Colombia is a predominantly Catholic country, so Christmas season in the Colombian Catholic tradition is celebrated with family gatherings revolving around the nativity scene. As the nativity scene had been considered Catholic, Pentecostal Evangelicals do not accept it as a Christian tradition.
So, the Christmas celebration in my home was more related to dinner, new clothes, and family reunions. I always liked Christmas dinner at my house. It was made up of many recipes because each member of the family and each dinner guest could ask for a favorite food to be part of the dinner.
Although the Christmas dinner was so important for my family, I was always struck by the dedication of my extended family, who are Catholic, to the nativity scene. According to their practice, they would not put the “baby Jesus” into the nativity scene until December 25th.
I am discovering that the celebrations I grew up with can be more commercial than theological. I am beginning to see how my home environment at Christmastime resembles the situation in Luke 2: 41-52 (where Jesus was left behind at the temple). Many people are convinced of being with Jesus, despite forgetting him. Many believe that he is among us while celebrating life without him, more focused on gifts than on the Giver of life.
This has led me to wonder, as a theology student, about the meaning of Christmas and how I could teach it to my children. These questions led me to the passage in Matthew 1:22-23 (NIV), where an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and says:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
Christmas is a commemoration, a celebration of the incarnation. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Word of God. He is the announced Savior. In a very special way, the text cried out to my heart: Jesus is God with us.
Christmas is not just a special family gathering, nor is it a time at church. Christmas is a reminder that the Lord decided, by his love, to be with us. It always strikes me that this special announcement at the beginning of the gospel is linked to the end. In the Great Commission, Jesus reaffirms this Christmas truth: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” God is with us. God is always with us.
These last two years have been particularly strange and hard. A global pandemic has resulted in the loss of loved ones, the deaths of many ministers of the Lord, damage to physical and mental health, and economic troubles. The world has suffered and seen its own fragility. The Church has been challenged to be light amid the chaos and darkness affecting us all.
Amid all this, the Lord speaks to us again. He reminds us: he is Immanuel, he is God with us, he has promised to be with us every day until the end, and he fulfills this out of his love.
Amid life’s circumstances, we are challenged to walk with Jesus. In the sufferings of life, the Lord reminds us that he is with us. At Christmastime, God continues to speak to our hearts: he will be with us until the end of the world.
It is my prayer this Christmas that the Lord be Immanuel in your life.
(1) Pray for the writing and completion of my doctoral dissertation. The change of jobs at my seminary, the closures due to the pandemic, and some family transitions have made writing difficult.
(2) Pray for my family, especially my children. This year, they have lost their most special friends from two families and their pet. They are saddened and grieving for the first time in their lives.
(3) Pray for my new job challenges. I took over as Academic Vice President, and this brings new challenges on the job horizon.