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:  " 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: " 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".