Thursday, December 18, 2014

Tree Trimming #15: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel




"Do not say, 'Why is it that the former days were better than these?'  For it is not from wisdom that you ask about this.
Ecclesiastes 7:10

Okay, so it is clear that when it comes to me asking about older songs, I'm not wise at all.

Honestly, one of the saddest things about my love of Christmas carols is the discovery of how far (generally speaking) the church has fallen from heavy, scripture-saturated, lyrical content in music.  Most of the Christmas hymns that I like fall in this category.  But I think there's an argument to be made that O Come, O Come, Emmanuel might rank #1 in this category.  I'll offer brief commentary on my favorite verses from the song:

O Come O Come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel
Shall come to thee O Israel.

I think that there's a double-entendre here.  There's a historical re-telling of Israel's bondage in Babylon where it was hard to sing the songs of Zion.  But after returning to the land, the Son of God appeared.  At the same time, there's a very rich sense where "the Israel of God", both Gentile and Jewish sons of Abraham according to faith in Christ are held in exile.  1st Peter 2:11-12 declare believers are merely "pilgrims passing through".  As aliens and strangers to this world system, we too cry out "O Come O Come Emmanuel"!  Advent goes both ways.

O Come Thou Rod of Jesse Free
Thine own from Satan's tyranny
From depths of hell thy people save
And give them victory o'er the grave!
Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel
Shall Come to thee O Israel

Isaiah 11:1-2 tells us the shocking news that though Jesse's tree became a mere stump, a rod or shoot would come jutting out of it.  Beyond that, a branch from it's roots would come forth and bear fruit.  Jesus is that shoot since the Davidic line of kings was virtually destroyed by Babylonians, and then trampled upon further by Greeks and Romans.  And yet, from a descendant of Jesse (the father of King David) Jesus stands out as a very different kind of king.  His ultimate victory isn't over Philistines or Amorites, but over hell and death itself.

O Come Adonai, Lord of Might
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai's height
Didst give to thy people the law
In cloud and majesty, and awe
Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel
Shall Come to thee O Israel.

It is hard to say for sure, but I wonder if the author of this carol is saying that the giver of the law itself is the pre-incarnate Christ?  I wonder.  The imagery of this stanza brings to mind Hebrews 12:18-24 where the contrast is made between the "shock and awe" of Mt. Sinai and the joyous celebration in Mt. Zion.  For indeed the law was given with numerous warnings and in such a way that the people would have fled if not for terror that God would overtake and deal with them even  more severely.

But the coming of Emmanuel is enhanced because of how the law shakes us at our core.  We are aware of our horrible standing before the tribunal of God's holiness.  As Sinai shook under the presence of God, so our souls are naked and ashamed due to the awful weight of sin's folly.  Therefore, when the Spirit makes the sweetness of God's grace towards us in Christ evident to us, we rejoice at the coming of Emmanuel.  God with us is not a terror, but makes us merry.  We are clothed in Christ's garments and not our feeble fig leaves.  He brings security in peace and not enmity.  We are invited to the most lavish meal where Christ drinks from the fruit of the vine anew in His Father's kingdom.  And His banner over us is love.

Even if the former days are better than these days, it is for certain that the future days are better than them all.  O Come O Come Emmanuel!





Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Tree Trimming #14: Light and Dedication

Yes, the usage of "A.D." is quite intentional, thank you.  
"Back in the day when I was young..." I used to think of Hanukkah as "Jewish Christmas".  Obviously, I use the word "think" very loosely.  I must have heard that phrase some where from someone and never gave it another (legitimate) thought.  I went to Catholic schools from grades 1-8 so I never paid much attention to Jewish holidays and often found them confusing.  The menorah was a beautiful symbol to me, but apart from seeing it as symbolic of the "festival of lights", I didn't give it any serious consideration.

It wasn't until many years later that I heard a sermon that things began to change.  The preacher made a passing reference to the "Feast of Dedication" in John 10:22 actually being Hanukkah.  The thought that Jesus celebrated the feast fascinated me.  The basic facts of Hanukkah made it a great holiday to observe for anyone connected to the Temple at Jerusalem.  Even as a Christian, I find that the themes are certainly worth celebrating.

Dedication... When Antiochus IV attacked Jerusalem and desecrated the Temple mount, forbidding sacrifices and erecting statues of Zeus, the Jews had to make some hard decisions.  Being inferior in military power and under the demoralization that comes from such humiliations, they could have been passive and gone along with the status quo.  But Hanukkah celebrates the passion and faith that inspired and informed the Maccabean Revolt which eventually led to the reestablishment or dedication (that's what the word Hanukkah means) of Temple worship.  Psalm 69:9 makes it clear that it is a good thing to be zealous for God's house of worship and to be personally insulted whenever God is dishonored.

Light... God's divine power was not only seen in granting victory to the Maccabees in their revolt.  The miracle of Hanukkah was also in the supernatural provision of 8 days worth of light when there was only one day's worth of oil.  It is evident from this divine occurrence that God was enabling the work of re-dedication for His glory and for the good of the nation.  Jesus declared Himself to be "the Light of the World" (John 8:12 and again in John 9:5) and in the beginning of John's gospel we are told that the life within Jesus is, in fact, the light of men (John 1:4-5).  Jesus also makes reference to light as being necessary to do the work of God which flows well with the significance behind the need for light in the re-dedication that Hanukkah commemorates (John 9:3-4).

Historical Context... I used to struggle with the idea that Christmas itself was never something believers in Christ were mandated to celebrate.  However, Jesus celebrated Hanukkah, which, by the way, is not a festival mandated in the Old Testament.  What can we say?  Is Jesus acting against the word of God?  Safe to say, that's an impossibility.  But it seems to me that Jesus, in the historical context of His humanity and national identity, saw fit to celebrate God's faithfulness to His people in the miracle of Hanukkah.  If this is true, then I think I can safely say two things:

1.  Christmas is certainly worth celebrating though as a festival it is "extra-biblical".  What could be more worthy of celebration than the Incarnation of Christ which fulfills the hopes of all those counted righteous by God since the Garden?

2.  Happy Hanukkah!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tree Trimmings #13: Silent Night




While searching for the full set of lyrics to Silent Night, I was surprised by two things: 1) I knew all three verses!  That doesn't always happen as I was expecting to find an additional 1-2 sections of the song that I had never heard sung before.  2)  I came across a book with an amazing title:  Silent Night--The Remarkable 1914 Truce.  It was a story I vaguely remembered hearing.

On Christmas Eve in 1914, in the midst of what was later to be called World War I (WWI), soldiers from opposing sides agreed on a truce.  According to an article from The New York Times, approximately 100,000 soldiers (mainly Germans and British) participated first cautiously then happily in the cease-fire.

The Christmas Truce sounded a lot like what many of us would recognize as part of celebrating the day:  plenty of drinking, watching and playing sports like "football" (aka "soccer" to most Americans), singing Christmas carols, decorating Christmas trees, listening to Christmas sermons, etc.  While the vast majority of troops enjoyed an end to hostilities, a certain German corporal who's first name was Adolf and last name was Hitler scolded his counterparts for failing to honor their obligations as soldiers to engage in war.

All in all, it was the first time in months that the noise of war was muffled.  For once, they enjoyed a Silent Night.

But it was short-lived.  By December 26th, hostilities were renewed and men who sang together, shared meals around the same table and even professed to worship the same God renewed the antagonism and the call to arms was answered.  This wasn't a bittersweet moment, but a hope that died as the flower of tragedy bloomed.

Now I don't want to be labeled a pacifist, but it seems to me that people who could celebrate Christmas with "the enemy" and then return to being enemies within a 24-hour period don't really understand the holy day.  Christmas is more than an interruption.  It's the celebration of God's decision to halt hostilities and make for peace with His enemies; eternal peace through the death of His Son and ultimate restoration through the resurrection of Christ.   Romans 5:1 declares,

"Therefore since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."  

As much as one might criticize those soldiers, the challenge for us all is the same.  Will Christmas merely be an interruption in our self-centered lives where we give gifts as if to exonerate ourselves from the shame of our self-absorption all year long?  Will Christmas merely be a cease-fire between ourselves and God as we put on a good face for Mom by coming to church for the sake of the day but not for the sake of the Savior celebrated on that day?  Prayerfully Christmas will not be a day to enjoy pretend peace with God.  Especially when He has gone so far out of His way to offer permanent peace.  


Monday, December 15, 2014

Tree Trimmings #12: God With Us (Part 2)



Psalm 136 is not what you'd call a classic "Christmas text".  I can't see why not though.  It's one passage of scripture that is remarkably balanced between God's amazing works, awful wrath, and the awesome worship He deserves due to His faithful love.  When we consider that Christmas marks the coming of the "Mighty God", here's a good snapshot of Who He is:

The Most High:  "Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good... give thanks to the God of gods... give thanks to the Lord of lords... who alone does great wonders"  (Psalm 136:1-4).  God stands alone as the supreme being and most revered of all celestial personalities.

The Creator:  "...to him who by understanding  made the heavens... who spread out the earth above the waters... who made the great lights...the sun to rule over the day... the moon and stars to rule over the night..."  (Psalm 136:5-9).  He is the manufacturer, designer, and owner of all that is.  He delegates authority as He pleases and even celestial bodies do His bidding.

The Judge: "...to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt... and overthrew Pharaoh and his host into the red sea..."  (Psalm 136:10 and Psalm 136:15).  God condemns the wicked at a time and in a way He knows to be expedient for their destruction and for His own glory.  Who do you know of that has done anything people will be talking about 4000 years from now?  But that Red Sea tho...

The Deliverer:  "... who brought Israel out from among them... with a strong hand and an outstretched arm... who divided the Red Sea in two... and made Israel pass through the midst of it... who led his people through the wilderness..." (Psalm 136:11-16).  The Mighty God makes distinctions between those who are His and those who are not (Exodus 8:22, Exodus 11:7, and 2nd Timothy 2:19).  Since all have sinned and fallen short of His glory, He is free to bestow saving grace upon whoever He pleases.  Whoever has found a refuge in Him is blessed indeed!

The Warrior:  "... to him who struck down great kings, and killed mighty kings... Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan" (Psalm 136:17-20).  The rapper Jadakiss once observed, "Dead rappers get better promotion."  The wrestler known as "Undertaker", somewhere along his very long and storied career, used to threaten his opponents by saying, "I'll make you famous".  But God has been famous for making the vast majority of his opponents nameless.  He decimates and destroys the unrepentant.  He overcomes and overwhelms those who stand against His people.  Woe to the one who refuses to kiss the Son.

The Promise Keeper:  "... who gave their land as a heritage to Israel... who remembered us in our low estate... and rescued us from our foes... who gives food to all flesh..." (Psalm 136:21-26).  Promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all kept.  God delivered on each and every one of them (Joshua 21:43-45).  

The might of God's power is matched only by the power of His faithful love which, along with His glory motivates and informs all that He does.  It is altogether astonishing to consider the One residing in a virgin womb as the inventor of it.  We are blown away to consider the Mighty God as a little helpless baby learning to walk on legs He designed.  And although He is a judge and warrior, He came to defend the guilty and make peace with His enemies.

We might well say along with David when he wrote in Psalm 139:6, "such knowledge is too lofty for me to attain".  But then again, what should we expect when we experience Emmanuel the incomparable and Mighty God with us.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Tree Trimmings #11: God With Us (Part 1)



"So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: 'Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Emmanuel,' which is translated, 'God with us.'"
Matthew 1:22-23

When we say Jesus in the flesh was, "God with us", what does that mean?  We simply must look at the way Jesus had previously been revealed prior to His birth to understand better what His incarnation meant.  To begin our quest, we look briefly at John 1:18 as the Rosetta Stone to interpret for us how we should understand the various appearances of God in the Holy Scriptures:

"No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him."

Whew!  That's worth re-reading.  I'll insert brackets to assist:

"No one has seen God at any time [if you're not Trinitarian, you're in trouble]; the only begotten God [neither the Father nor the Holy Spirit are ever described as having been "begotten" so, that leaves You Know Who] who is in the bosom of the Father [hmm... we have God with God and God at the side of God... sounds a lot like John 1:1-2 here], He [Jesus is the Son of God which logically makes Him "the only begotten God"] has explained [revealed] Him [the Father]."

Simple enough, right?

Well, it seems pretty straight forward from this verse of scripture, almost everything I used to think about God in the Old Testament was wrong.  I used to believe that every time God spoke/appeared or was otherwise revealed before Christ's birth, it had to be The Father.  It's so strange because if you had asked me whether I believed in Christ's existence before His birth, I would have said "yes".  But then, I'd go along making impositions on the Bible as if I denied it.  Anyways...

John 1:18 appears presents a problem when we consider texts like, Genesis 18:1; Exodus 24:9-11; Numbers 12:6-8.  How can it be that "no one has seen God" when these OT passages clearly speak of persons seeing God.  Plain and simple, the Bible says that Abraham saw Yahweh.  Up to and at least 70 elders of Israel saw Yahweh.  Then we find that Moses sees Yahweh's form.  This is especially confusing when Jesus tells us in John 4:24 that God is a Spirit (what form does a spirit have?) and 1st Timothy 6:16 says that seeing God hasn't happened nor CAN it happen.  How do we answer this question?

Well, like any kid who's ever been to Sunday School knows, when you can't answer the question, just say "Jesus".  And in this case, it's not just the trite thing to do, it's the most profound answer possible. 

As one who holds to the doctrine of the Trinity, I believe Jesus is God.  But I don't believe that Jesus is the Father.  In the OT, there weren't any obvious or plain distinctions between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Perhaps this is in part because God's first step in revealing Himself is was to impress the singularity of His being upon His people.  We can see that being essential because of the polytheistic systems of religion that had to be avoided and denied by Israel in order that they would be the Lord's people.  

But the revelation of Jesus requires a distinction between persons in the Godhead.  In NT talk, "God" is almost always a reference to the Father and "Son" is naturally a reference to Jesus.  So we find that Jesus is SENT by God although He is God (even OT passages hint to this kind of distinction, see the speaker in Zechariah 2:8-11).  

Therefore, when we see a passage like John 1:18, declaring that no one has ever seen God it says plainly that those who saw Yahweh didn't see the Father, but they saw the Son.  Jesus is the One Abraham, Moses and the 70 elders saw.  Jesus is the One Who has explained and revealed the Father, not only in the NT but in the OT as well.  .  John 1:18 has not introduced a contradiction, but a clarification.  

So all those times God appeared in the Old Testament, that was Jesus?  Yes.  All the judgement, all the fire, all the thunder-- that was Jesus?  Yes, yes, and yes.  Amazingly, "God with us" did not come to kill as many had feared (see Exodus 20:18-19).  Emmanuel came to save us.  




Friday, December 12, 2014

Tree Trimmings #10: Midnight Clear

That glorious song of old...
Some people have problems with Christmas carols because there are too many verses.  My problem with Christmas carols is not knowing ALL the verses.  And as a result of not knowing all that was being said in "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear", I slept on it. Then I discovered this verse,

And ye, beneath life's crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way,
with painful steps and slow
look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road
and hear the angels sing!

Minister Edmund Hamilton wrote this song in 1849 with slavery in the backdrop.  Sketching with his stanzas, even 165 years later we can easily envision the "forms bending low... with painful steps and slow".  He called slaves to receive encouragement from heaven that better days would come quickly.  At the same time, he called for justice with and peace with these lines,

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world has suffered long
beneath the angel strain have rolled
two-thousand years of wrong
And man at war with man hears not
the love song which they bring
O hush the noise ye men of strife
and hear the angels sing.

Minister Hamilton understood that he had to reject the false tyranny of "either, or" and with wisdom he embraced the "both, and" in this case.  It would not have been enough to merely recite platitudes of comfort to slaves without a call to repentance for all who have participated in "2000 years of wrong".  He was a man for his times and we are in need of his faithful echo today.  May God give us grace to lay down our burdensome sins and trust the One Who says His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30). 

This Christmas season the great challenge for so many of us will be to quiet ourselves enough to hear from heaven.  Shopping, holiday travel plans, family gatherings, and church activities--yes, even church activities--can interrupt us from focusing on God's message to us.  Which sounds from Babel's tower are muffling the Messiah's music?  May God make us wise and willing to count "our richest gain a loss" if we don't seek FIRST His kingdom and righteousness this Christmas. 


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Tree Trimmings #9: O Little Town of Bethlehem (Revised)

How still we see thee lie!

I have loved Christmas carols for as long as I can remember.  I knew I loved Christmas carols when I realized that I enjoyed singing along with my father to Luciano Pavarotti's rendition of "O Holy Night".  Dad was a huge Pavarotti fan, which, to a kid with hip-hop sensibilities, was utterly embarrassing and quite confusing.  But somehow, I could overlook the operatic style when it came to Christmas music. 

Anybody else wanna admit growing up in a house with this album on vinyl?
At some point, Dad got a Nat King Cole album with Christmas songs that were all in English.  Okay, besides the little Latin in "Adeste Fideles", it was mostly English.  That was pretty huge.  I had heard Bing Crosby, the Vienna Boys Choir, congregational singing in the Mass, and of course, Pavarotti.  But I had never heard anything like jazzy, soulful voice of Nat King Cole before.  It was on that album, to my recollection, that I first heard "O Little Town of Bethlehem".

The other King at Christmas time.
As a child, I enjoyed the melodies and knew that the songs were good in that they were about Jesus.  How much of my enjoyment of the music was tied up to the nearness of gift-getting?  I don't know.  But I know this: I had no idea what theological treasures these scripture saturated songs were. 

For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep the angels keep
their watch of wondering love

Those last two lines alone say so much to me now.  We can picture Mary who, having travailed in labor to "deliver the child who would soon deliver her", exhausted and falling asleep.  Naturally, Joseph is bravely trying to stay awake but he succumbs to the night too.  At some late hour all Bethlehem slept.  Not just physically but in terms of awareness. 

Who was awake to say that they were fully understanding what on Earth God was doing... on Earth?  Truthfully all mankind slept as the proverbial  "Thief in the Night" (1st Thessalonians 5:2) came as an infant to bind the strong man and plunder his house (Matthew 12:28-29).  Though in deep slumber, not a man in 10 million could have dreamed what God had already done in Christ nor what He was about to do on their behalf.

The angels, on the other hand, kept their watch of wondering love.  Of all the expressions that could have been used to describe the way in which angels gazed from glory, the author, Phillips Brooks, used "wondering love".   It's hard for me to see the term and not think of the following passage:

"As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow... things into which even angels long to look."
1st Peter 1:10-12

Truly familiarity breeds contempt.  We are kidding ourselves if we think that we have exhausted or mastered the mysteries of the season.  There's no way we should ever be complacent in our thoughts concerning the incredible cost and condescension involved in the Incarnation of Christ.

And while I think it's worth the intellectual rigor, the goal of the Christian is not merely a cold and systematic comprehension of the Trinitarian exploit to tabernacle among men.  Our ultimate aim should be to arrive at the disposition of the angelic host: beholding Jesus with reverent awe and "wondering love". 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Tree Trimmings #8: An Angelic Invitation (Short Version)


"When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "'Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us'.  And they went with haste..."
Luke 2:15-16a

Anybody work in an office where you have a holiday party... for Veteran's Day?  MLK Day?  Groundhog Day?  Do you happen to live in a part of the world where you and almost everyone you know goes shopping for Armed Forces Day?  Ever see the shopping malls filled up for Tax Day?  Valentine's Day and Halloween are pretty big commercial holidays but I don't know of any workplaces that shutdown and pay workers to stay home for those days.

Everybody has more than enough to do and even more options during the Christmas season.  Whether one celebrates the specifically Christian roots of the holiday or not, it is generally expected that the season brings with it interruptions and worthwhile investments of time and money.  Even as many are fearful of the growing trend of secularization in the West, there are few who would espouse the old objections of Ebenezer Scrooge, "Christmas time--a poor excuse for picking a man's pocket!"  Scrooge wasn't in favor of giving Bob Cratchit the day off, but even he, miserly as he was did that much, albeit fictitiously.  People seem to make time for what they either desire to do or to do what is apparently expected of them.

Consider the shepherds' response to the "angelic invitation".  First of all, one could hardly call it an invitation in our modern sense seeing there was no explicit request for their presence.  Telling shepherds what to expect or how to verify the birth of a promised savior required them to leave their fields and go to Bethlehem.  See how the RSVP was missing?  See how the phrase "you are cordially invited" was severely lacking?  Not even something like, "Your presence is requested" was used.  This was no invitation, it was virtually a summons.  They were willing to leave their job, even while on duty, to obey a higher calling and a more urgent need.  

Naturally, if we were to see a man at our door with chicken scratchings on a strip of paper we might wonder what he was doing there since we did not invite him.  As he goes on and on about a particular office building and room number, we may well be very distracted at his untimely appearance and be distant in our thoughts looking for ways to dismiss him.  However, if he has a shiny badge, a gun in his holster, and a couple cop cars behind him, we are likely to deduce his visit is not a pleasantry but official business of government.  Failure to distinguish between the two would bring more problems than the undesired visiting we're mandated to do.

The angels in this passage came from a celestial court with a message from the King of the Universe.  As powerful as they were, their message was even more weighty because it carried the importance of God behind it.  Amazing how presumably unschooled, illiterate shepherds had enough sense to understand that.  And it would be even more amazing--if it wasn't so pitiful--that Christians today, with the same obligation to tell the world of God's salvation in Christ, think sharing the summons that is the gospel is optional.








Monday, December 8, 2014

Tree Trimmings #7: Joy


But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people."
Luke 2:10

When you read the Bible and examine God's immediate impact on people, you don't get the idea that He'd do well as a party host.  He's probably not "gifted" to be on your church's hospitality committee.  Of course God is great and of course God is good... but seriously, drawing a crowd and keeping people smiling doesn't seem like something He does very well.

When Adam and Eve heard Him coming, they preferred to run from rather than run to Him (Genesis 3:8-10).  When the Lord appeared to Abraham to confirm His promise, the Bible tells us that a "thick and dreadful darkness" overcame Abram (Genesis 15:12).  At the mere voice of God, a nation redeemed and rescued and by Him trembled in fear--even while they stood at a distance (Exodus 20:18).  Time and space in this single post would not permit to speak of theophanies, visions, and other encounters between God and men.  Fortunately, John Calvin summed up the history quite well with this one quotation:

"Hence that dread and amazement with which as scripture uniformly relates holy men were struck and overwhelmed whenever they beheld the presence of God... quaking with terror that the fear of death takes hold of them... men are never duly touched and impressed with a conviction of their insignificance until they have contrasted themselves with the majesty of God."  --Institutes of the Christian Religion

So we can see that the problem is not God, but we ourselves.  It is our sin that informs and supplies ample reason for our fear.  The first Adam, after he had transgressed, knew God as the Interrogator/ Inspector.  Which is why we are amazed that God came as the Second Adam as Intermediary and Intercessor.  Christ came to remove, once for all, the only thing that legitimately kept us from enJOYing God: our sins.  The human birth of God's divine Son marks the march of God's grace to overcome our sin.

Let this Christmas season be a time where believers rejoice removal of the sin's penalty--the justification Christ arranged for via the Cross.  Let this Christmas season be a time where believers are determined to walk in sanctification so that we do not give way to sin that persists in our lives.  Let this Christmas season be a time for us to glory in the hope of our future glorification through Christ.  For certainly, in light of a removal from the presence of sin, we will know God in His fullness and know for ourselves that "in His presence there is fullness of joy" (Psalm 16:11).

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Tree Trimming #6: Peace on Earth


"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests.
Luke 2:14

I'll admit, when I first saw this ornament on the Bronners CHRISTmas online store I thought, "Oh yeah, there's that verse about how 'the Lion shall lie down with the lamb'..."  It seemed like a really cool reason to get the ornament.  Of course, when I went to check Isaiah 11, I found no such thing.  "They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain..." is the the main idea and summation behind the previous verses (Isaiah 11:9a).  Where as in our day, we would never imagine letting a child play with a cobra nor would we put a wolf in the sheep pen and expect harmony--but one day, at least metaphorically, Jesus' reign will make this a reality.

But is "peace on earth"merely a future hope?  Is it something that will elude us entirely until we literally see lions eating straw and leopards nuzzling nose to nose with goats (Isaiah 11:6-7)?   Is there a way to better understand how this picture of a Lion and Lamb bring peace on earth?

I think so.

"Then one of the elders said to me, 'Do not weep!  See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed.  He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.'  Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne encircled by the four living creatures and the elders... "
Revelation 5:5-6

There it is.  In John's vision he is encouraged to look  at the Lion of Judah Who has triumphed and won the adoration of heaven.  But when John looks, he doesn't see a Lion, but a Lamb Who appeared to have been slain.  We're told later in Revelation 5:9-10 that the Lamb's life was used to redeem persons to fill the kingdom of God with citizens who are kings and priests.  It's an amazing scene and a shocking one as well.  Expecting a lion but finding a lamb would be supremely surprising and few things are more stupefying.  Among them is God's wisdom to use men's murderous intent against His Son to reconcile them to Himself not to mention reconciling Jews to Gentiles and vice-versa.

"For He Himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in His flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.  His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross by which he put to death their hostility."
Ephesians 2:14-16

Christmas is a celebration of embodiment.  The Incarnation opens up the immeasurable spiritual blessing encased in a human body.  That God was at work to bring peace between Himself and humanity through the suffering and physical death of Jesus is a wonder for the ages.  Faith in Christ's sacrificial act to justify us is what brings "peace on earth" between men and God (Romans 5:1). The Lion is the Lamb and He Himself is our peace.  






Friday, December 5, 2014

Tree Trimming #5 (or #4 Part II): Christ the Lord


"For unto you is born this day, in the City of David, a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord."
Luke 2:11

The most stunning aspect of the Savior's identity is that He isn't only the Advocate of the guilty but also the Judge of the condemned.  In the previous post from this series on Tree Trimmings, I stated that there was a much greater threat to non-believers than the Devil of hell could ever be or impose.  The greatest threat to the unrepentant sinner is God.  The fact that so many might bristle at the thought of this speaks to how poorly we have understood the extent of God's love demonstrated in Christ to save the undeserving.

In Genesis 18:25, just before God carried out sentencing on Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham called Him "the Judge of all the earth".  Psalm 1 is celebrated as a passage with an encouraging picture of the righteous.  However, that particular psalm has just as much to say about the wicked (Psalm 1:4-6).  In fact, Psalms is a book that many retreat to for comfort and "inspiration" because of the emotional and poetic expressions of highs and lows of this life.  But God's emotions are also on display-- see Psalm 7:11, Psalm 90:7-9, and Psalm 110:6.  The prophetic utterances in Jeremiah 11:11 and Zephaniah 3:8 have varied contexts but both express God's red-hot anger against sin and righteousness in judging those who despise and disobey His law.  This is not just an Old Testament thing.  

James, the brother of Jesus makes it clear that as a judge, God both defends and destroys (James 4:12).  Peter writes the church to assure them that their accusers will have to answer to God for their sins against His people (1st Peter 4:5).  Luke's account of apostolic preaching is riddled with references to judgement (Acts 10:42, Acts 17:30-31, etc.).  Paul explains that God is not only judging the visible and vocal sins but the sinful expressions hidden from others within our thoughts, attitudes, and emotions (Romans 2:16).  For anyone so deceived to believe that their good deeds will outweigh their bad deeds on Judgement Day, the Apostle writes,

"Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.  Therefore no one will be declared righteous in His sight by observing the law; rather through the law we become conscious of sin."
Romans 3:19-20

At this point, someone will argue that I'm over-doing it.  Why go on and on about God as judge?  The title in this post isn't "Judge", after all.  I labor the point of judgement because at this time of year, maybe the last thing on even the Christian's mind is the judgement with which God could have righteously executed upon the earth at His first visit (Christmas).  But it is precisely because of the fact that the human race collectively and individually worthy of the God's guilty verdict (Romans 3:9) that Christ the Lord came to save.

The immensity of His work as Savior is directly proportional to the wrath which was due us.  Minimize one, and you've depreciated the other.  Omit one and the other is null and void.

Asking for one's opinion of who/what the "Messiah" or "Christ" would do/be carried almost as many conceptions as there were people to share them.  Political leader, teacher, arch-rebel against Rome, military genius... one's guess may have been as good as another.  But the celestial statement was probably more shocking than anything almost anyone could have expected, hoped for, or feared: this savior is Christ the Lord; God Himself.

To be sure, Israel has had many saviors and deliverers before Jesus.  A host of relatively unknown characters from the Old Testament were said to have saved/delivered Israel (Judges 3:9, Judges 3:31, Judges 8:22).  But this Savior is the one who saved the saviors.  And what's so awesome about Him is that, in a very real sense, He has saved all those who trust in Him unto Himself, from Himself.  When have you ever seen a judge take off his robe, relinquish gavel, and become the defense attorney for the guilty?  Who else but Christ the Lord!


Tree Trimming #4: Savior



For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord
Luke 2:11

It has been said that the entire message of the Bible can be summed up in one word: rescue.  It is a powerful thought and certainly one worth exploring.

The concept of rescue automatically implies the presence of a precarious predicament.  Who needs rescue from pleasant circumstances?  Rescue denotes deliverance from danger.  But the biblical narrative, what or who is the danger?  Well, that's where many well-meaning and otherwise sincere churchgoers make a mess of the gospel story.  Some of the most popular but ultimately wrong answers to the question:

"I'm saved from lack of purpose!"  Sorry, no cigar.  This is not only wrong but it was never the issue to begin with.  God doesn't make anything without a purpose so being saved from a purposeless existence is actually a slanderous accusation against the God Who according to Isaiah 46:8-11 and Ephesians 1:11 works everything for His purposes.  Romans 9:17 declares that even Pharaoh had a purpose--pretty sure he wasn't "saved" in any sense of the word.

"I'm saved from sickness and poverty in this life!"  Really?  Does this even deserve an explanation as to why such a thought is folly?  If you haven't seen any of Justin Peters' presentations on what is commonly called "Word of Faith" theology/movement, you should really invest the time to bless yourself or get equipped to bless others with the corrective power of God's word.

"I'm saved from sin!"  We're getting a little closer to the root issue but depending on what is meant by "sin", we could still be in left field.  If a professing believer tells me that they're saved from sin, I immediately ask, "Do you still sin?".  Invariably, the answer is "Yes, of course."  It's 1 in 5 who can explain how salvation from sin still provides for the presence of sin in their lives. After all, why would there be provisions made for confession and forgiveness in 1st John 1:9 if believers never sinned again?

"I'm saved from the Devil!"  Okay, so... authentic salvation does ultimately provide protection from Satan.  And while it is true that the name "Satan" means "adversary", he is the enemy of believers.  While he has no good intentions for the unbeliever, he's not the primary enemy of the unsaved (believe it or not!).  There is a much more dangerous "clear and present danger" than the Devil for the person who does not repent of sin and receive Jesus as the Lord of their life.

Now, we know that a Savior is one who rescues or delivers another from trouble.  The interesting but sad thing about Christmas time is that we celebrate a Savior when most don't even know what or who He saves us from.  The answer may startle and surprise some while bring out reviling and revolting from others.  Either way, you'll have to see Tree Trimming #5 to get my argument for the biblical answer to the question, "Saved from what?"





Thursday, December 4, 2014

Tree Trimming #3: Hark! The Herald Angels SING


So, I'm not expert on tree-trimming and ornaments.  I'm not even a regular at decorating trees at Christmas time.  Nana and I have been married since 2008 and this is our first tree together.  I admit, I am partially motivated by our eldest daughter, Jael, and her growing awareness of the Christmas season.  I fondly recall being enthralled by the glow of our Christmas tree growing up.  And while I want to help create beautiful memories for her sake as well as Noel, our second daughter, I'm not satisfied to merely create aesthetics.  I'm out for content as well.

That's why I was so excited when my wife told me about Adornaments and Adore-Hymns which she heard about via Family Life.  I was happy to discover EverThineHome and they will be featured prominently in this little series I'm attempting to write up for Advent/Christmas.  The first up is one of my favorite Christmas Carols: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

Luke 2:8-12 gives us the Father's public service announcement, "It's a Boy, He's My Son, and He's your Savior".  When the PSA is supplemented by a few key tidbits to help identify the best Stranger ever to visit the planet,  Dr. Luke goes on to explain how,

"And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: 'Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.'"
Luke 2:12-13

I'm interested in the word "host" here because it reminds me of how older English translations of scripture have supplied us with, "The Lord God of Hosts", as a title for God.  This interests me because the word "host/hosts" was closely associated with the word "horde/hordes" or even "army/armies".  If this reading is correct, it gives me a very powerful image worth exploring on this day in particular.

What can we say about the Lord God Omnipotent Who sends His Only Begotten to earth--a world in 100% rebellion against Him--as a helpless baby?  He sends these angels almost as an imperial escort--a fantastic display of His strength and glory--but they only appear to shepherds on the fringes of society in a forgotten outpost in the backwoods of Judea.

Consider the power of a single angel who alone brought judgement upon the enemies of God's people in 2nd Kings 19:35.  Well, we have a whole army of such celestial beings.  What should they say to vile sinners?  What should they do to humans who have boldly shaken their fists collectively against their Maker?  No acts of retribution, no show of force, no quelling of rebellion, no police action.  Instead of these, singing.

Singing?!?  Yes, singing,

"Peace on Earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!"

I have been greatly troubled this evening and transfixed at my twitter feed regarding this whole Eric Garner case.  The protesters have moved me to tears, the apparent divide in some sectors of the church has left me dumbfounded, and watching the video footage all over again... Lord have mercy.  I've started and stopped this post more times than I can count.

I am grateful to God for the assurance which comes from the biblical portrait of how the same almighty arm with which He executes justice and power is also celebrated for mercy and restraint.  It couldn't be more different than the over-exertion of force and it's abusive mis-use which so many, including me, are lamenting today.  I'm amazed at how God, when He could have pronounced war, declared peace.  The Lord, before doing unto us what we deserved, prepared to do unto Himself what He could/should have done unto us.  That's why I long to see the government on HIS shoulders.  The peaceful use of power is for His glory and for our good.  

God's way of thinking and our ways are as far apart as the deepest valley and the highest heaven (Isaiah 55:8-9).  His ways are beyond searching out (Romans 11:33-34).  We don't know all the answers to each problem we seek answers for.  But by prayer we trust that in providence,  God-honoring justice will be served on earth as it is in heaven.  But one thing I am convinced of: the peace that men are seeking tonight in NYC and in Ferguson is ultimately rooted in the One born in Bethlehem of Whom the herald angels sang, "Glory to the Newborn King!"  And that King is the Prince of Peace, Jesus of Nazareth.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Tree Trimming #2 Shepherds and Spiritual Outcasts


"When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, "Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us."  
Luke 2:15

In the digital age, our hands and fingers are trained for typing.  Very few of us who've embraced our technology-driven lifestyle know much about plowing, milking cows, or other aspects of what used to be called "animal husbandry".  Honestly, besides seeing Christmas plays and the occasional clergymen, when was the last time you saw someone carry a shepherd's staff?

We don't know much about shepherds in our day, but the Bible tells us plenty about shepherds in ancient Palestine and the surrounding areas.  While Jacob had apparently mastered shepherding as a science (see Genesis 30:35-43), his neighbors to the east in Egypt despised the occupation and anyone who had taken it up (Genesis 46:31-34).  There are notable exceptions in Israel (David and Amos were shepherds) but generally, shepherds were not thought well of at all.  For details on this fact, see Randy Alcorn's classic article, "A Second Glance at the Christmas Shepherds" from Moody Monthly Magazine.

The angelic announcement to shepherds is perhaps most clearly understood by the fact that the announcement was NOT made to Herod's court, a respected rabbinical school, or even to devout worshipers at the Temple.  Funny enough, in answer to Isaiah's question, "Who has believed our report and to whom as the arm of the LORD been revealed?"(Isaiah 53:1), we only need one word: shepherds.  It's a running theme in the Bible, isn't it?  The least likely candidates are the ones blessed to receive and believe God's word.

Abraham should not have believed that he would become the "father of many nations", but he did.  Why should a harlot named Rahab have believed in the God of Israel? But she did.  Shouldn't Paul have been the last to believe in Christ?  He was the last Apostle, but against all odds he did believe.  According to Deuteronomy 7:7-8, the whole nation of Israel, if based on it's own credentials, should have never been chosen as God's special vehicle to reveal Himself.  And yet, they were.

Have you ever thought about sharing the gospel message with someone and then after a second thought concluded it would probably do no good?  Have you ever intended to invite a friend to a Bible study, small group meeting, or church service but reconsidered because you didn't see any signs that they'd be interested?  Angels sent to random shepherds in the field illustrate God's intent that no one should be overlooked when it comes to hearing the gospel message.

In our preparations to celebrate the Incarnation of our Lord, let us remember how God sent special invitations to persons from the lowest rungs of the social ladder.   If we dare to underestimate a person's capacity to believe the gospel or interest in biblical truth and use our fallible thinking as a basis to abandon our ambassadorial duties to God for their sake (2nd Corinthians 5:20-21), we are in grave danger.  Why?  Because our underestimation of others is really an overestimation of ourselves and a prideful omission of the fact that when we should have been cast out, God called us and when we should have been shunned, God saved us (Ephesians 2:1-5).

In retrospect, maybe we should have expected Christ's birth to be announced to shepherds.  Why wouldn't the birth of a Shepherd (Matthew 2:6 ; John 10:11) be good news to shepherds?  


Monday, December 1, 2014

Tree Trimming #1: The Incarnation as Trinitarian Enterprise


Ornament #1 is the Triquetra, aka the "Trinity Knot".  

"The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.  So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God." Luke 1:35 (NIV)

When it comes to celebrating the holiday we call Christmas, I've been on both sides of the fence.  Growing up, I was like most kids and found excitement in Santa, the presents under the tree, and time off from school.  Sure, I went to Mass, enjoyed singing Christmas carols and loved Linus' scripture quotations from Luke's gospel in the Peanuts Christmas Special but Jesus wasn't center stage for me.  What I could milk the holiday for--THAT was center stage for me.

My shallow view was due to seeing only the holiday itself and not the biblical truth around it.  Say what you will about December 25th and it's pagan roots.  I know some believers who are sincerely troubled by the fact that many, if not most Christians celebrate it.  But disputes over the special nature of particular days is nothing new in the church (see Romans 14:5-8).  Whatever your position is on the day, all Christians simply must agree that the Incarnation--the revelation of the divine Son of God in human flesh--is certainly worth celebrating.  When Christians celebrate Christmas, we should be highlighting the Incarnation (and it's purpose) as the central focus.

Some, however, will continue what is often the uncharitable debate over whether or not to embrace December 25th with all the pagan mystique surrounding it.  Some will continue to embrace childish self-absorption in what they can get out of the holiday.  But perhaps the greater sin isn't the fighting or selfishness but the failure to see the cosmic effects of the Godhead's awesome design.  The incarnation is FOR us, but it's not ABOUT us.  It's about God.  In this 1st of 25 ornaments, let's start with Him.

The Father: The Incarnation highlights the lavish love that is entailed in the giving of His One and Only Son; the One Who was at His bosom.  The Father spared no expense to save rebel sinners.  As it is written, "But when the time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons" (Galatians 4:4-5).  It is through the Incarnation that the Father has adopted us into His family.

The Son:  Illustrating the extent of His loyal love and obedience to His Father, the Son, our Lord Jesus, condescended to live among us.  It's probably impossible to do better Philippians 2:5-11 which describes how Christ "made Himself of no reputation taking the form of a bond servant... He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross."  The inevitable presence of the manger scenes should be celebrated... but not at the expense of forgetting the Calvary's Cross which was the reason He came.

The Holy Spirit: Often considered The Trinity's "shy guy", the Holy Spirit features quite prominently in the Incarnation and birth of Christ.  The writer of the book of Hebrews does something very interesting with Psalm 40:6-8: he puts those words in the mouth of Christ (see Hebrews 10:1-7).  The "prepared body" referenced in the passage is the literal body of the historical man, Jesus of Nazareth.  There are many questions that we have today about the birth of Jesus.  But in Luke's account, the chief question is "How can this be since I do not know a man?"  Answer: the Holy Spirit prepared the body of our Lord Jesus.

I thought I'd tackle the heavy theological issues up front--before too much fruitcake, eggnog, fruitless romance flicks that pass for "Christmas movies" take up too much space in your psychological/mental hard drive.  Before too many details on your shopping list crowd your vision, pause to ponder a mystery for the ages.  With your mind's eye don't glance, but gaze upon scripture's picture of this season's enormity.  Bare witness once again--or maybe even for the first time--the master plan of our Triune God evidenced by the Babe born in Bethlehem Who came "for us men and for our salvation".

Sunday, May 11, 2014

When Wife Became A Mom

Here's a little something I dug up in the archives... the birth announcement we sent out by email announcing the birth of our firstborn.  You can read Nana's version of events at her new website: www.motherhoodandsanctity.com  Her blog is here

The Birthing Crew
First of all, we are pronouncing Jael like the two letters put together saying one after the other "J"+"L".  Jael.  We chose to name her after the biblical character from Judges chapters 4 and 5.  Jael's husband was aman named Heber the Kenite.  Although he was of the larger community of the Israelits, Heber was friendly with Canaanite kings to the point that Sisera (commander of the Canaanite forces) fled to Heber's protection.  The story takes an amazing turn as Jael ends up killing Sisera.  So Nana and I have honored Jael for her loyalty to God and faith in His promises.  We understand that it took courage to act in a way that demonstrated her dedication to God even if it meant possible strife in her family.  Please join us in prayer that our little Jael would prioritize love for God over all other loves and loyalties.  

Apart from the biblical character, the name Jael has Hebrew origin and means, "mountain goat", or "one who ascends".  We will be going with "one who ascends", thanks!  Ghislaine is my mother's name which means, "vow" or "pledge".  This evoked shades of Psalm 15:4b and Psalm 24:3-4.  We have dedicated her to the Lord from the time we knew we had a child on the way.  We have a confident expectation in Him that she will live up to her name and in the words of the psalmist,m "will never be shaken".  Please pray for us!  

Now the birth of Jael came about in this way:  Nana went into labor on Friday afternoon on July 8th.  Jessica Damille, one of our very close friends, along with my mother labored together with her.  Nana barely slept that night and the morning came pretty quickly.  Another close family friend, Cassandra Lewis (who introduced me to Nana) came to assist in the laboring also.  Nana and I took two walks around the neighborhood which (according to her) helped relieve the pain.  We received a lot of encouragement from the neighbors that day!  A little after 4PM, we left for the Family Health and Birth Center in DC since we had been working with the midwives there since December of 2010.  While still on Route 66 coming from God knows where in Virginia, Phyllis Anderson announced she was on her way and we met her at the birth center.  

Once there, Nana and I were order to walk more laps inside the building as the contractions grew stronger and closer together.  While we were walking, the ladies were eating and apparently having a rehearsal for what turned into a 2 hour praise and worship servie complete with readings from selected Psalms, praise choruses and classic church hymns in English, French, and Creole!  This is no exaggeration.  Even our midwife (Karen P.), a Seventh Day adventist remarked how she has never, ever worked on the Sabbath (Saturday) but was glad she had covered for another midwife that day.  She was excited to praise God and sang right along with us while working.  

At almost exactly 9:30PM, Nana was on the bed, ready to start pushing.  And she did!  I know my wife well, I know that she's a focused woman once she sets her mind to a task.  But I couldn't have known to wht degree she would be this way and maintain her compusure throughout something as strenuous as labor.  But there she was with no drugs, still saying "please" and "thank you" for 2.5 hours with very few breaks in between.  I couldn't be more proud of her.  

At precisely midnight, we discovered that we'd be using the girl name and NOT the boy name we had selected.  The LORD really came through for us because we were scheduled for an induced labor on Saturday night itself.  But He answered our prayers for a safe, healthy, and natural birth.  As I mentioned to my pastor, I don't know when or if Christians ever get to a point where we are not overwhelmed and surprised by God's faithfulness.  

Godmother Jessica

The Look of Love


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Speak No Evil II: The True Challenge of the Donald Sterling Story



In a strange way, I think I'm writing this just so that, 20 years from now, if the Lord tarries, I can remember what I really felt at this moment with respect to this story.

My Initial Reaction to the Recording...

I was really confused.  Sterling seemed so insecure.  It was clear in my mind that he didn't actually have a personal issue with any black person and I didn't think that he had an issue with Magic Johnson.  But he seemed totally engrossed with the "he-say she-say"game that some circle of acquaintances or friends were playing with him.  He didn't want his lady-friend to be "broadcasting" the fact that she was with black people or other minorities.  On the face of it, it seemed totally prejudicial in a mean-spirited way against blacks.

But this was also, in my mind, confirmation of the noetic effects of the Fall.  This is the phrase used to explain the intellectual diminishment of mankind as a result of sin.  In other words, sin makes us stupid.  We simply don't think well due to the dominance of sin in our lives.  If God is the ultimate reality, and sin is rebellion against God, then it makes sense that sin is a rejection of what's real.  How is this Sterling situation related to the noetic effects of sin?  Easy: Sterling thinks its okay to BE with an ethnically minority woman but condemns her for being SEEN with an ethnic minority man.  Hence, sin makes us stupid.

My Initial Reaction to all the Initial Reactions...

To be honest, I was just hoping that no one would make a complete buffoon of themselves.  Generally, I got my wish.  I was happy that nothing was said that took the focus away from a serious investigation or made the outcry against Sterling's comments more a story than the comments themselves.  However, I was almost certain that the NBA would try to skate past this for a few weeks and release a statement or official findings after the Finals.  I had no idea that Commissioner Silver would be rendering/announcing a decision this soon.

My Thoughts on the Decision...

Not too surprising that they came down on Sterling so heavily.  I was, however, intrigued at the apparent power of the commissioner.  How do you ban the owner from coming to see his own team play?  Of course, I have no knowledge at all about the nature of contracts and agreements that owners have with the league.  The scope of it was surprising but the moral indignation wasn't.

It's easy to condemn statements that are racially-charged and hurtful.  As a 40-year old, I can respect the fact that many in an earlier generation, perhaps Mr. Sterling's generation, are still amazed by the changes that have made this kind of talk so heinous in our day.  I guess that 40+ years ago, this might not have made the news.  But certainly since I became an adult, this is basically the America that I know:  Ignorance in the form of racial hatred and/or prejudice is simply not condoned.  I don't know another America than this one.  So really, I don't think it's time to congratulate ourselves or have more talk about a "Post-Racial America", and all that jazz.  Condemning what is worthy of condemnation is not a laudable act; it's a necessary one.  Here's the real challenge...

The Real Challenge...

"...the measure by which you judge will be used against you..."

In the context of the above verse of Scripture, Jesus is warning against hypocritical judgement.  In other words, we have no right to judge others when we are guilty of the same things ourselves.  If anyone is willing to make horrible comments in private but wants to be seen as wholesome individuals in public, how are we any different from Mr. Sterling?

How many of us are really willing to be judged by the content of what we thought were private conversations?  Isn't that what the collective nation just did?  A man with what I consider immoral and inhumane perspectives spoke his mind with someone who he obviously thought would keep a confidence.  And yet, that whole conversation spilled out--literally all over the world.  Dear Reader, I wonder what you'd be feeling if your worst private conversation was made public?

What if everyone, everywhere, at all times was being recorded?  What if our every word became part of a transcript somewhere for someone to scrutinize and judge?  Matthew 12:36 says,

"I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned."

In the end, we don't have to worry about multi-media condemning us, our own words will do the job for us if we are careless.  In conclusion, the real challenge is not our judgement of Mr. Sterling, but whether we will judge ourselves righteously in the realm of our own words and what those thoughts communicate about our hearts and our desperate need for a Savior to deliver us from the righteous punishment we deserve.  

Oh Lord, help us to consider our ways that we might walk and talk uprightly before YOU...

Friday, April 11, 2014

Child's Play

As I mentioned in another blog post, being a relatively new father brings new insights into my faith.  Reflections on my daughters as they learn and grow often cause me to consider some of my own childish ways.  Noting their dependence upon their mother and me is a daily reminder of my own need for God's protection and provision.  It's rare that those reminders/reflections don't pop up daily.  This post is about one such lesson.

Months ago, Jael began to master the alphabet.  It's been fun listening to her try to pronounce certain letters like "F", "H", and "X".  And who knew that "W" had 7 syllables?  Of course, at age 2, it's really cute.  As time progressed, she displayed more and more mastery and naturally, made her parents quite proud.  One day, I heard her behind me shouting out "DEEE!  DEEE!" over and over.  I looked over and saw her pointing downward by the glass sliding door.  As I walked over to see what she was pointing at, I saw the picture below.



Naturally, I laughed.  Everything my daughter does that isn't directly related to disobedience is a reason to dote on her.  How do I explain that door mats are no more the letter "D" than the old Twin Towers are the number "11"?  So, I did the only thing I could think to do: celebrate my daughter's recognition of the shape of a "D" and I kept it moving.  But the observation stuck with me.

My darling daughter, cute as can be, was utterly ignorant of the purpose for which this "D" was made.  The fact that it was on the floor by the door did not give her a single context clue.  Instead of asking what it was, she simply super-imposed her own idea based on her very limited frame of reference, vocabulary, and knowledge.

In other words, my daughter could pass for almost any "Word of Faith" preacher.

When reading the Bible, many persons make the same kinds of mistakes that my daughter made.  Classic examples from my own experience as a campus minister and Sunday School teacher:

1)  Jesus is at the Cross and says, to His mother Mary, "Woman, behold your son.", then turning to the Apostle John says, "Son, behold your mother."  The passage goes on to say that "from that time, the disciple took her into his home. My student's interpretation:  Jesus wanted John and Mary to hook-up and get married.  My student's rationale: "Why else would he take her into his home?"

2)  The Bible says that God "made man in His own image" and also that He "breathed" into man and he became a living being.  So a student got the idea that Adam looked exactly like God and since God's spirit was in Adam, he had the power of God.  You'd think Creflo Dollar and Joseph Smith were visiting my classroom.  That would be awkward.

The failure to comprehend certain cultural norms in a narrative or laziness which prevents us from discovering the ancient Semitic understanding of a given word can easily lead to the danger of imposing our own thoughts and opinions on a Bible passage.  When one reads Scripture without a serious attempt to understand the intent of the author, the most likely way the original audience would have heard, the Bible becomes a wax nose, mere clay in the hands of the reader.  Whether done in arrogance or ignorance, the great danger and sin is this:  it is we who are to be molded by God through the Holy Scriptures, not the other way around  He is the Potter, we are the clay.

The invitation to become like children to enter the Kingdom of God is not an invitation to immaturity or inventive imaginations concerning His word.  Handling the Sword of the Spirit is not child's play.


 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Speak No Evil




We really don't believe Jesus.  Oh yes, we believe IN Jesus (at least that He existed/exists), but we don't believe Him.  We really don't think He's serious when we read what He preached.  It's as if we've convinced ourselves that the Son of God hoped that we'd take His words with a proverbial grain of salt.  "Oh you know Jesus," we tell others as we wink, "you really can't take Him literally."  It's true that Jesus did use figures of speech and even hyperbole from time to time.  But I'm afraid that when we say one shouldn't take Jesus "literally", I think what we really mean at times is that we shouldn't take every word He uttered seriously.  Case in point:

Last night, I found myself confronted with past sins.  I left one ministry meeting and since I've grown fond of the young man co-leading another meeting, I stopped by to see how it was going.  It was basically a topic-driven prayer session and the topic was depression.  I guess to keep with the mood of the conversation, we shifted/drifted into a talk on suicide.  The two can be connected, obviously not always, but one can easily lead to the other.  That's when an old friend came to mind.  But first, think with me here:

What would you say about a grown man who stands by and watches someone pull out a knife and just start stabbing another human?  How would you view that man congratulating/encouraging the stabbing to continue?  What if, at the end of the liberal lacerations, the grown man and the stabber walked off with howling laughter together?  Even if the first man isn't the one with the knife, what is in his heart that enables him to give hearty approval to such violence?

"You have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.'  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing.' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, 'You fool.' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell."
-Matthew 5:21-22  (NASB)

You may have never witnessed a physical murder.  You might not ever give aid and comfort to a convicted murderer.  But according to Jesus, if you have spoken in anger, intended to harm or otherwise injure another human, "guilty enough to go into the fiery hell".

R.C. Sproul comments in his expositional commentary on Matthew,  "So when God says we should not murder, that means, by extension, that we should not do anything that damages  our neighbor's life.  Murder begins with unjustifiable anger and hatred, and it includes insults, slander, and estrangement from people.  That is why Jesus said that no one escapes the weight of the law merely be refraining from actual murder... Jesus does not say it is just as bad to be angry with your brother as to kill him.  Jesus  never collapsed the difference in degree of heinousness of various sins.  His point is that just because you have not gone all the way to murder does not mean that you are free from the full-orbed responsibility of the law." (pp. 108-109)

Of course, all the protests begin at this point... I've heard them all and I've used them all.  I'm not even going to engage in an argument here because I'm not the judge of any reader and God is the One to Whom we must all give an account.  But I do know this: I have not taken this teaching seriously enough and yet Jesus said that the accounting we face will take into consideration "every careless word" we've said.

All this came flooding over me last night because the only person I know of who, I am told, committed suicide was a young man who was verbally savaged by so many (especially women) for his size, shape, and appearance.  The code names for him were clever in the cruelest sense and funny at his expense.  I remember when I was told of his suicide, I blamed others.  But then again, I didn't do much to deflect the verbal daggers meant to bring derision to him.  As shocked as I was to hear he took his life, when I considered the kinds of things people said to him and about him even behind his back, I shouldn't have been too terribly surprised.

What can I say?  I'm a fairly sarcastic guy myself.  It comes naturally--too naturally-- to me.  I can rationalize and say I don't mean harm, it's only in fun, etc.  But I know myself and in the kitchen, I'm painstakingly careful with sharp knives as I suspect you are too.  However, are we as careful with our words?

"Don't let any anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in SPEECH..."
1st Timothy 4:12 (NIV, emphasis added)



Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Star Witness Part 2



"Your example can't save anybody.  It's not how you live, it's that He died!"
-Patrick J. Walker

Some years back, Rob Bell had re-popularized "The Ghandi Question".  Never heard it?  The Ghandi Question is a counter-apologetic move in a conversation intended to derail your gospel presentation and fluster the Christian.  It works like this:

You're presenting Jesus as He described Himself, "... the Way, the Truth, and the Life.", and declaring that no one has access to the Father except through Jesus (John 14:6).  You know it's not popular to express exclusivity in Christ but in your desire to be faithful to what you believe and in Whom you believe, you say it anyway.  Then it happens--the Ghandi Question-- "Well, Ghandi was practically a saint but he wasn't a Christian.  Are you saying that God is as narrow minded as you are?  What kind of God sends a good man like Ghandi to hell?".  Of course, it comes in variations, but the effect is the same.  You look like a bully, a buffoon, or worse.  Naturally, the questioner is smug or self-righteously angry with you and anyone else listening just knows you've lost whatever ground you thought you were standing on.  However...

God's standards are not the standards of men.  It doesn't matter who we think of as a saint.  We are not the judges of who enters Heaven or Hell; God is.  His standard is clear in both the Old and New Testaments: "Be holy, for I Am holy." (Leviticus 19:2, 1st Peter 1:16).  Psalm 15 is only 5 verses, but it will rock your world.  Can you claim any single attribute of one who dwells on Yahweh's holy hill?  Make no mistake: the only sinners who ascend the hill, do so on the back of Christ.  You can disagree if you want to, but God has already explained His thoughts about our thoughts and given His diagnosis of the human heart that doesn't yield to Jesus.  Thank God for the prescription!

But for the same reasons that Ghandi's life isn't enough to qualify him FOR eternal life, your life and my life--even this new life in Christ--is not the message OF eternal life.  If it were, wouldn't Peter's sermon in Acts 2 read very differently?  For our purposes here, it is just as interesting to observe what Peter didn't say as it is to observe what he did say in that sermon.  Think about it, who could have boasted a more "changed life" than Peter?  Certainly none of the Apostles had experienced what he experienced in the preceding 60 days leading up to his sermon.  Why didn't Peter stand up and say something like this:

"Men and brethren!  Just a few weeks ago, I was a coward and a fraud.  Forewarned by my Jesus of Nazareth--my best friend, of course-- that I would be tempted to deny him, I laughed at the thought and denied it outright.  But as I followed my friend Jesus after his arrest, I was shocked to find myself shaking like a leaf in front of a little servant girl.  I was too ashamed and too scared to even admit I knew Him.  I cussed like a sailor and when He looked my way after the 3rd time I had denied him, I wanted to drink myself to death and crawl under a rock.  And yet, here I stand here proclaiming the power of my Lord and Savior to change lives!  I'm brave enough to stand in front of thousands of you and unashamed to claim Him as the One Who transformed me.  He picked me up, turned me 'round, placed my feet on solid ground (does anyone know if this phrase rhymes in Aramaic?)!  And what He did for me, He'll do for you too!  Don't you want Jesus in your life?

Somehow, I doubt that they'd be "pierced to the heart" from such a "gospel" presentation.

But it's noteworthy and instructive to see how Peter "brought them to Jesus".  His delivery was:

1.  Historical... Jesus was presented as a real person that his audience knew.  His actions, ministry, arrest, death, and resurrection were addressed not as "faith" but as events that were verifiable.

2.  Scriptural... Peter proclaimed his message from two Psalms.  He used reasoned from Psalm 16 that David was not speaking of himself but of the promised Messiah.  And he used Psalm 110 for other purposes--

3.  Confrontational... This should not be over-looked.  Psalm 110 does not display Christ as One Who is pleading for an opportunity to make the lives of men complete.  Peter's use of Psalm 110 is almost threatening.  It's as if he's saying, "The Jesus you all killed?  Yeah, God is His Father and just put Him on a throne... and promised to crush His enemies.  Um... that would be you.  Any questions?"  Yes, we do make urgent pleas for unbelievers to come to Christ.  However, we must never neglect the importance of warning a world that is hostile toward God that He will break those who oppose Him with a rod of iron.  Therefore, we who believe this message must repent and believe even as we encourage others to "kiss the Son".

This is why Pastor Walker's quotation is vitally important.  No one can look at kindness, winsome dispositions, or other fine qualities and ascertain that Christ lived a perfect life, died as propitiation for the sin-debt of believers while simultaneously applying His righteousness to their account, resurrected on the 3rd day to assure justification and serve as the First Fruits of the Resurrection.  What?  Is the homeless guy I helped supposed to hear all that from me handing him a sandwich and a smile?  But rather, as it is written,

"I believed, therefore I have spoken."  (2nd Corinthians 4:13)

Lastly, this post should not be understood as a rationale for not sharing how one came to faith in Jesus.  But rather, it is a reminder that the story of how one comes to faith is distinct from the gospel story of salvation for all who believe.




Star Witness Part 1


"We are to be witnesses FOR Someone TO someone."
-Pastor Patrick J. Walker

Remember prepositions?  If it wasn't for Miss Puccarelli, my 4th grade teacher who taught us the list of prepositions by singing them to the tune of "Yankee Doodle", I wouldn't remember them either.  She did what she could, but I start drawing blanks after "during".  Anyways...

This past Sunday I was blessed and challenged by God through a major sermon from my Pastor.  As a congregation we were exhorted to expand and exhaust our opportunities to testify as "star witnesses" on behalf of the Lord--especially to those who don't know Him.

My followers on Twitter know that I quote @PastorPWalker ad infinitum, ad nauseum (take your pick) almost every Sunday.  This is so much so that when I don't tweet on Sundays around 8AM to 8:30AM, I get texts and IMs asking if I'm sick or out of town!  But the quote above captured my attention because of, strangely enough, the prepositions "for" and "to".

The sermon was crystal clear as to Who we are commanded to be a witness FOR.  Every Christian is privileged to serve as ambassadors for Christ (2nd Corinthians 5:20).  Not only do we have relationship with Him, it is an honor to speak on His behalf.  Pastor Walker also made it plain who we are witnesses TO.  As it is written, "Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men..." (2nd Corinthians 5:11).  Since we know that the "meek and mild" routine isn't in view for the Second Coming, we are duty-bound to warn and make appeals to the unbelieving that they would repent and believe... which leads to the meat of the matter:

If we know Who we testify for (Christ) and know our audience (unbelievers, primarily), what is the message?  In other words, we know who FOR and we know who TO, but do we truly know and understand what we bear witness OF?

My fear is that if professing believers were asked, upwards of 80% would say that they were called to bear witness of how Christ changed their life.  The formulaic presentation would be something like this:  "Before I knew the Lord, my life was (enter tragic events, tales of woe, and bad self-image here) but then I met Jesus (enter exciting details, lots of smiles, and over-used platitudes here).  It breaks down to Jesus as a product that once tried, revolutionizes the life of the user/consumer.  But consider this:

Commercials practically say the same thing about antiperspirants, toothpaste, cars, pills and gym memberships.  A college education is said to have the power to "change your life" too.  And if the truth be told, many a convert to Buddhism claims to have found "peace of mind".  Many prisoners who convert to Islam can also say that they have "found a new purpose in life".

We could go on and on but I think that the point is clear:  If your witness amounts to "Here's what I experienced in my life when I asked Jesus into my heart..." what could you possibly offer as an to answer someone who says that they tried Jesus but didn't have your experience of favorable events, circumstances, and feelings?  If our message is tied primarily to our experience of how Christ has filled our lives with positive emotions, physical/material benefits, etc. aren't we inviting our listeners to search out the trappings of a blessed life rather than seeking Christ Himself?

Stay tuned for Part 2 later...