Just be good for goodness’ sake.

american-atheists-billboard

Lifeway research has found that seven out of ten unchurched people have never been invited to church, and “eighty-two percent of the unchurched are at least somewhat likely to attend church if invited”(Dr. Thom Rainer, The Unchurched Next Door).  Interestingly enough, however, is this year’s holiday ad run by the American Atheists that references the popular Christmas song Santa Claus is Coming to Town, encouraging people to “just be good for goodness’ sake” and to skip church.  While culture is still widely open to at least exploring church, there is now a voice encouraging them that there is no essential need.

This is the root of American worldview, is it not?  Be good.  Just do your best.  Work hard and you will get a reward.  While this is not reality in much of the professional world, we have convinced the millennials that they deserve a high paying job that will change the world and satisfy them just because they exist.  We are teaching our children that everyone is a winner, just for trying.  Do your best, and define your own truth, it is all about you and your happiness.  You deserve it.

The philosophical problem with this worldview is clear, however:  How do we define good?  Who has the final say, if we all get to have autonomy?  Is it the law?  Is it some social standard that has been established culturally?  Is it some ever-progressing line of tolerance and acceptance?

We often seek to define “good” as not hurting anyone else.  This definition is weak, as it is the negative definition.  Instead of saying “benefiting others”, it simply is the void of doing harm to another.  But are we willing to say that anything is good, as long as it hurts no one?  Are we also willing to say that anything that hurts another is not good?  Is stopping a terrorist or locking up a murderer not good?  Is lying on our income taxes good, since it hurts no one?

And thus we are quickly left at a philosophical impasse.  As long as we are independent creatures with no higher authority, there cannot be an absolute truth and therefore no unifying good and evil.  There is no way to define good, en masse.

In order to adhere to true atheism, one must deny the existence of God – or any higher power.  We exist, and then we die.  When we die we cease to exist.  There is no moral law, other than what we define for ourselves and there is no ultimate meaning to life.  One cannot truly live by this worldview, however.  The moment he is threatened, the moment he is robbed, the moment his wife or child suffers, the moral law of God that is written on his heart begins to react, even if the thief is stealing simply to provide for his own family.

Thus we need a higher power to define good and evil for us.  Thankfully, God has.  We have the Ten Commandments.  We have the Old Covenant Law.  And we also have the Law of Christ giving throughout the Gospels and the New Testament.  We clearly see throughout Scripture that there is no possible way any human being can perfectly keep the law (Rom 3.23).  We have all lied.  We have all coveted our friends or neighbor’s belongings.  We have all lusted at some point in our lives.  We have all not honored God as first in our lives, kept the Sabbath or honored our parents.

Scripture teaches us that God’s standard is perfection, not “good”.  He kicked Adam and Eve out of His presence for eating a piece of fruit which He had told them to not eat.  Did you ever eat that cookie after your mom told you no?  Then you are as guilty as Adam and Eve – guilty of death and eternity in Hell.  But that is the very purpose of the Law:  to show us our guilt and need for a savior (Rom 5.20).  Since we are incapable of reaching God’s standard of goodness, we need a savior to rescue us from our sin and peril.

Enter:  Jesus.  He was God, and He was man.  He came to the Earth in human form and lived a perfect life, one not deserving death (because the punishment for sin is death – Rom 6.23).  But He suffered death and separation from God in our place, so that we can be forgiven.  God cannot simply overlook sin.  If we apologize to God for our sin, that does not appease His wrath for it.  Therefore, He poured His wrath out upon Jesus so that He can forgive our sin.  Jesus became our sin, paid the penalty for it so that we can become His righteousness (2 Cor 5.21).  He switched places with us, and it requires of us only faith (Eph  2.8-9).

When we recognize our guilt, when we confess our sins, and when we ask for forgiveness, we are born again and the Holy Spirit takes up residence in us to enable us to begin the process of dying to sin and living to righteousness.  He alone enables us to be good – according to His definition of good.

We can never be good enough on our own.  That is the truth we all know, deep down in our gut.  This is also the beauty of Christianity, that we do not have to strive to be good enough to earn God’s favor or merit.  We simply have to believe, and trust Him, and allow the Holy Spirit to transform us from the inside out.

So this holiday season, let us rejoice in the fact that Jesus has paid our debt and we can be welcomed into the presence of God by His merit and not our own.  Let us encourage people to not be good for goodness’ sake, but to know and love God.  And while there is a voice encouraging people to skip church, let’s remember that most will come if we only invite them – and Christmas is perhaps the most opportune time to invite them, since it is a holiday celebrating Jesus’ birth!  Let’s bring them in.  Let’s tell them the beautiful truth that we do not have to be good enough.  Let’s tell them the story.

 

Look Beyond the Star

christmas star

Have you heard the story of Jesus’ birth?  Do you have a nativity scene set up somewhere in your living room as part of you Christmas decorations?  Do you remember the part about the star?

“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?  For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.’  When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.  They said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, Land of Judah,
are by no means least among the leaders of Judah;
for our of you shall come forth a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.”’
Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared.  And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.’  After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

– Matt 2.1-10

The gospels Matthew and Luke give detailed accounts of the birth of Jesus.  Luke teaches us that shepherds came and saw Jesus the night of His birth, and Matthew teaches us about the wise men coming in from the East. The book of Matthew was written for a Jewish audience.  He deals with prophecies, with the Law and with Jesus as the Messiah, but he very intentionally teaches that Jesus came to be the savior of the world, and he therefore begins his story with Jesus being worshiped by non-Jewish men of wealth who were led to Him by a star and ends the story with the Great Commission.

There is much glory in the coming of the magi.  It is a fulfillment of prophecy:

“Nations will come to your light,
And kings to the brightness of your rising.”

– Is 60.3

And their gifts spoke to His identity and purpose as Messiah on the Earth.  Gold was a costly gift befitting a king, frankincense was an incense symbolizing His deity, and myrrh was an embalming oil used in burial which foreshadowed His death.  The wise men were wise enough to know that the King of the Jews whom they sought was also the Messiah.  Notice that they asked Herod where the “King of the Jews” had been born, and after having a conversation with them Herod called for the priests and scribes and asked where the Messiah was to be born.

But nestled in this glorious story is that pesky detail of the star.  Much has been said about the star.  The magi have been called astrologers because they saw and followed it.  Books have been written about the nature of the star.  Ideas have been formed and many have been distracted by this relatively insignificant detail.  We are told that a star appeared and the wise men followed it.  Based on the time of the appearance of the star, Herod had every child under the age of two years murdered, so it is possible that they saw and followed the star for up to two years.  The star apparently led them to Jerusalem, or they understood its appearance to signify the coming of the Messiah, and it reappeared to direct them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and they rejoiced at its appearing.

Bethlehem is five miles from Jerusalem.  They had been instructed by the priests to go there, and then the star reappeared.  How can this be?  How can a star in outer space direct someone five miles?  And “stand over the place where the child was”?

While is it an extremely interesting facet to the story, it is secondary – a peripheral point.  Yes, it led the wise men to Jesus.  Yes, it designated the guidelines Herod used to murder the children which fulfilled prophecy and typologies with Moses.  But the glory and importance of the Christmas story is God taking on the form of a human being and entering into history as our savior.

It is very easy to get caught up in secondary issues.  You have probably met those people in your church who are continually digging into and distracted by those peripheral and unimportant matters:  was it really an apple that Eve ate?  How did God get the manna and quail to the Israelites?  If the sun stopped in the sky, does that mean the world stopped rotating?  If so, how did everyone not fly off the face of the Earth because of the lack of gravity?  How big of a wind would be required to part the Red Sea?  Did Jesus really go preach to spirits in Hell?  Christmas and Easter are pagan holidays that Christians just added our meaning to…

Instead of focusing on Jesus, being broken over sin, clinging to Him for salvation and meditating on the glory of God, we can find ourselves wasting energy fighting over if it is evil to set up a Christmas tree or have an Easter egg hunt.  But Jesus came with a purpose:  To seek and to save that which was lost (Luke 19.10).  He came to rescue us from our sin, to give us the Holy Spirit who indwells believers and enables them to live godly lives, dying to sin.  To show us the way to eternity with Him.

As we continue through this advent season for the next week, do take the time to reflect on the beautiful details of the story of Christ’s birth which Scripture offers us.  Think about the star, and the sovereign God who caught the attention of wealthy scholars who would travel for up to two years to see the child.  Reflect on the fact that He is in control of everything, including the universe outside of the World, and utilizes supernatural occurrences to bring about His plan.  But when you enter into Bible study, when you teach your children the story, when you go to church and when you consider the faith, intentionally focus your heart and mind on those things that make an eternal impact.  Keep the secondary issues secondary, and glorify Jesus.  Look beyond the star, and see to what it is pointing.

We like Jesus as a baby.

baby jesus

We are two weeks away from arguably the most celebrated holiday in our nation:  Christmas.  Many will dress the family in their finest and usher them off to church for their once-a-year visit to hear the story of the baby Jesus.  Most have already set up Christmas trees, bought an abundance of presents, and decorated their houses and lawns for the holiday, and nestled in there was can sometimes find the nativity scene.  We get extra days off work, we visit family, we eat, and the devout among us say “happy birthday Jesus” or read the Christmas account out of the Bible.

We like Jesus as a baby.

Babies are helpless.  Babies are cute and cuddly.  Babies need us to take care of them, to nurture them and to love them.  Babies are lovable.  The the Christmas hymn “Silent Night” has perpetuated the myth that Jesus never cried (although we know He cried as an adult – John 6.35, and He wasn’t born speaking, so how else would He have let Mary know He was hungry?).  He was the perfect little baby.

The story of Mary and Joseph coming into Bethlehem on a donkey at nine months pregnant, the hotels all being full, and them finding shelter in a barn is so tragic – but yet normal to our ears.  We pity Jesus for having been born and laid in a feeding trough.  The story is quaint and humble, and it makes us feel good, while reminding us to help take care of the less fortunate.

The problem is that Jesus grew up.  He grew up and began to teach lessons that are just a bit too extreme for our ears.  Yes, we like the command to love, but we want to pick and choose who we get to love.  We do not want to hear the command to love our enemies and to bless those who persecute us (Matt 5.44).  Yes, we want to hear how to be righteous and right with God, but we do not want to hear that we have to sell everything that we have, give it to the poor, and follow Him (Matt 19.21).  We like the promises that He will provide all of our needs and give us peace, but we do not want to follow Him to martyrdom (Matt 24.9).

Jesus the man commands us to live in ways that we are incapable of doing on on our own.  In order to follow Jesus, we need the empowering of the Holy Spirit and we have to die to ourselves.  It is uncomfortable and difficult.

Jesus the baby is cute and cuddly, and we can unintentionally condescend Him.  The baby Jesus demands nothing from us, just receives our affection and pity, and teaches us to care for the less fortunate around us.  The angels announced with His birth “peace among men with whom God is pleased” (Luke 2.14).  And while Jesus did come to bring peace, but He also came to bring a sword.  Families will be divided because of Him and some will kill those who follow Him (Matt 10.34).  The peace is spiritual and between God and those whom He has forgiven, not for the entire world.  That will only be realized on the New Earth, where sin and suffering cease.  Until then we must allow the Holy Spirit to live through us to suffer persecution well and follow Christ’s example (Gal 2.20).

So these next two weeks as we approach Christmas day, as we see the nativities along the streets and in our homes, as we go to church to celebrate and as we meditate and pray about the reality of God coming to Earth in the form of a man, let us not leave Jesus in the manger.  We should, indeed, marvel at the humility it would take for the almighty God to strip Himself of many of His divine attributes, and take on the form of a man, in his most helpless state.  Jesus submitted himself to human form, to a mother and a father, was raised as a child, all while still maintaining His deity.  We should praise Him for that, and seek to humble ourselves to one another and to Him in response.

But let us also reflect on the reason that He came:  to seek and to save that which was lost, to bring life to dead, to die for our sins, and to teach us how to live in light of eternity.  Jesus is no longer a poor, cute baby in a feeding trough in a barn.  He is the king of ages, seated on the throne in Heaven, ready to judge the living and the dead and to welcome believers into His presence for eternity.

It is morally impossible to come before the cross with pride.

nativity

The Holiday Season brings about a variety of unique situations.  We unite with family and friends to spend a day being intentionally thankful for everything that we have, for everything that has happened the past year, and to enjoy a meal together.  The very next day we exert our energies (and finances) to shop at absurd hours in order to get the best deal on stuff.  We may be thankful, but we are selfish.

Then we take a break for a few weeks, preparing for our second round of family celebrations.  We decorate our houses, we drive ourselves crazy and broke looking for the perfect gift for aunt so-and-so.  We get in arguments with people who would greet us saying “Happy Holidays” because they have removed Jesus from Christmas, but yet we never slow down to consider Him in our festivities.

We are almost always disappointed with how the holiday season unfolds.  We each have different love languages, and those who need gifts to feel loved are rarely satisfied because the gift giver was not thoughtful enough with the purchase he made, those who need quality time feel overwhelmed by the masses and chaos, those who need words of affirmation get lost in the hubub and it is all but impossible for everyone’s expectations to be met.

Why?
Because of the root of almost all of our sin:
Pride.

Our ego and selfish desires are what naturally drive us until we begin the discipline of the Christian walk.  Until we recognize our sinfulness and our deserved damnation, our worldview revolves squarely around what we think, what we want, and what makes us happy.  We may learn the art of compromise or mutual respect:  giving to others what they want in order to get what we want, but it is always to the end of our personal gratification.

When we meet Jesus, however, we are transformed from the core.  In order to enter into a relationship with Jesus, in order to assure our eternity with Him, in order to “be saved”, we must recognize our sinfulness and His provision of forgiveness by paying our debt of death and damnation.  You cannot be saved if you do not recognize your sin, understand the wrath of God against that sin, and ask for forgiveness while repenting from it.

The very nature of salvation is humbling.  There is nothing that you or I can do to earn merit with God.  We simply cannot be good enough.  We are not worthy.  But He loves us anyway, and offers us salvation in spite of our wickedness.

Thus our pride is consequentially slain.

Salvation means recognizing your guilt and inability, and submitting to Jesus.

The death of our pride will be slow and often painful.  Jesus commands us to love our enemies – the same way He loved us while we were His enemies (Matt 5.44, Rom 5.10).  It is not easy to love our enemies, to pray for them, to bless them, or to give ourselves to them.  It is even more difficult to truly desire in our hearts for them to be saved.  We may be able to discipline our actions, but it takes much transformation by the power of God to care for our enemies on a heart level.

Jesus teaches us that the way to learn the discipline is to remember that which you have been forgiven:

“For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been  forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

– Luke 7.47

The more deeply you understand your own pardon, the more freely you can give it to others and love them.  And this is a necessity, not an option.  Jesus said,

“For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”

– Matt 6.14-15

This sounds like a threat, but it is a teaching method of cause and effect much like we use with children.  The result of having been forgiven is that we forgive and love others.  If we do not forgive and love others, we prove ourselves not to be in Christ, and therefore we have not been forgiven.  The result of our salvation is humility and offering love and forgiveness in the manner we have received it.  If you do not offer it, you have not received it.

The cross is the most humbling aspect of Christianity.  Jesus took the punishment that you and I deserve and paid for it.

The glory of the cross is that it puts us in right standing with God, and we can approach the throne of grace with confidence:

“Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

– Heb 4.16

Our confidence is not within ourselves, however.  It is in Christ and what He did.  We cannot draw near to the throne of grace in pride.  If anyone thinks He deserves to draw near to the throne of God, He will be greatly disappointed.  If anyone would attempt to draw near to the throne and consider another unwelcome, he will receive a terrifying judgment.  Because God alone is the judge and if we understand our own guilt, we would never pass condemning judgment on another who would seek to repent and be saved.

In the same manner you have been forgiven and loved by God, you will forgive and love others.  The cross is the very symbol of our guilt, and we cannot approach it in pride.  It is morally impossible.

Therefore, as we continue to wade our way through the holiday season, let’s take a moment and die to ourselves and turn to Jesus.  Are you thankful for His provision for your life which He paid on the cross?  Did you stop and thank Him over our weekend of Thankfulness?  If not, do so today.  As we approach the day which has been set aside to remember His birth, be mindful first of all of the sacrifice He made in simply coming to Earth, and most importantly for paying our debt.  And let the measure of your own forgiveness and the love which He has lavished on you be the measure of love you pour out on others.

Put your family and friends before yourself these next few weeks.  Does someone else desire and expect gifts?  Then love them in that manner.  Does someone else long for quality time and good conversation?  Then make the time.  Is there anyone whom you have not forgiven or against whom you are holding a grudge?  Then get over it, for by the same manner you judge you will be judged (Matt 7.2).

Remember Jesus first.  Love others second.  And let us lay down our pride.

He knows what is in your heart.

thinker

And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him.  And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.  And he came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to carry out for Him the custom of the Law, then he took Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said, “Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, A light of revelation to the gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.”  And His father and mother were amazed at the things which were being said about Him.  And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed—and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

– Luke 2.25-35

Simeon’s prophecy over Jesus is one of the most beautiful and illuminating prophecies in Scripture.  The people of Israel were waiting and longing for a political king who would come in like King David and set them free, restore them to political power and dominance, and free them from Roman authority.  After seeing the life and work of Jesus, it is easy to see the prophetic voice throughout the Old Testament that spoke of a suffering servant, a king who would set us free Spiritually and focus on our eternity rather than temporal wellness, but before He came the prophecies were vastly misunderstood.

There was a season of relative silence between the Old and New Testaments, approximately four hundred years, where we have no Biblical writings.  Occasionally Bible teachers will imply that God was not active during that time but was allowing Israel to suffer in captivity because of their rebellion, but when Simeon enters the scene he is described as a devout and righteous man – and the Holy Spirit was upon him!  Simeon was old when Jesus was born, and he had lived a righteous life.  He was devoted to God.  It is no small thing that the author takes note that the Holy Spirit was upon him.  Until Jesus completed the work of salvation, people were not indwelt by the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit would rest upon people who had been appointed and set aside for particular tasks.  King Saul, for example, had the Holy Spirit until he disobeyed God and then God removed the Spirit from him and gave the Spirit to David.

Simeon, this righteous man, had sought God and the Holy Spirit empowered him and told him that he would see the Messiah before his death.  What a phenomenal promise!  The Spirit brought Simeon into the temple at the very moment Jesus was being circumcised and named and revealed to him the Truth that Jesus was the Messiah.  At eight days old.

So clearly God was at work during this season of Biblically undocumented time (at least for a few years before!).

Two things stand out to me today about Simeon’s proclamation.  Firstly, he rocked the common understanding that Jesus was coming to politically redeem the Jews.

“for my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, A light of revelation to the gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.”

– Luke 2.30-32

It is possible to interpret this declaration of Jesus as “a light of revelation to the gentiles” in political terms.  One could say, “When Jesus overthrows Rome the gentiles (all non-Jews) will see the salvation of the Jews”.  One might understand it to be God declaring His authority and everyone finally seeing it through his intervention.  But we know, by the rest of the Gospel account, that Simeon’s prophecy meant salvation would be available for people of all ethnic backgrounds.  Yet Jesus was still the glory of ethnic Israel.  Jesus fulfilled the Law, He is the Messiah, the savior, and the glory of God through His completed work amongst His chosen people.

But what Simeon says to Mary is even more shocking:

“Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed—and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

– Luke 2.34-35

God sent Jesus from Heaven and appointed Him for the rise and fall of many in Israel.  Again, when perceived with the old mindset, this could sound political.  But the nature of Jesus’ mission was Spiritual:  Jesus was appointed to reveal the thoughts of the hearts of people.  He was a sign which had to be opposed.  Unless He was opposed, His work would be incomplete!  And the end of the opposition against Him was the revelation of the hearts of men.

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.  For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.  He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”

– John 3.16-18

John tells us that the condition of men’s heart is established.  Those who do not believe are already condemned while those who do believe have eternal life.  And the belief is in Jesus who died and rose again in our place for the forgiveness of sins.  The wrath of God remains on those who do not believe (John 3.36).  It is already there from the beginning.  And Simeon told Mary that Jesus came to reveal that.  He was appointed as the litmus test, to cause some to fall and some to rise, to reveal the hearts of men.

Has Jesus revealed your heart?  Have you examined your heart to see how you respond to Jesus?  If you believe, cling to Him and repent you will rise with Him.  You will reign with Him.  You will love and cherish Him as your treasure.  Believe today!  And let Him reveal you to be His own.  He already knows your heart, so turn it over to Him.

Christmas: Is Christ in it?

christmas

The internet, the news and even our front yards are littered (or inundated) with messages about keeping “Christ in Christmas”.  We are concerned about the proper greeting, “Happy Holidays” offends the devout amongst us and and even Ben Stein (a Jew) has stepped up to say “I don’t think Christians like being pushed around, no one likes being pushed around…So let’s just admit this is what it is, its the birth of Christ that we are celebrating…“.  Political correctness and tolerance are getting so out of hand that we cannot decide who has the greater right:  Do Christians have more rights to declare the holiday a Christian holiday?  Or do non-Christians have the greater right to declare it non-Christian – irregardless of its history?

But the simple reality is that we are wasting all of our energy fighting over words and yet giving into materialism and worldliness and pushing Jesus completely out of the season.

Some people like to give and receive gifts.  Some people have real needs and desires and it is a pleasure for someone else to meet those needs.  Hopefully we give gifts because we are reflecting on the fact that God gave the greatest gift to the world at the first Christmas, His Son Jesus.  But is Jesus glorified in your gift exchange?  Does that transformer that you give to your eight-year-old point him to the Savior and the entire reason we celebrate the day – the word for which we fought so adamantly?  Or do you go to the store out of obligation and search the shelves just to have something to put under the tree, and then have a meaningless exchange of objects that no one needs or wants, without ever considering the gift you have been given by God Almighty?

Christmas decorating is a tradition and exciting activity for many families and individuals.  Do you set up your tree, line up your nut crackers and run tinsel, garland and lights throughout your house in praise of the Savior?  Or is it just a tradition?  Or do you put a giant blow up Santa Claus in your front yard or on your rooftop, trivializing the gift of salvation that was purchased in blood for your eternity?

Why would we spend our energy fighting over the terminology, “Christmas” when we have already removed Him from our traditions and our activities?

Christmas is not the greatest holiday.  Easter is.  Christmas is the coming of Christ to Earth, and the anticipation of His saving work.  Easter is the culmination of His Earthly ministry marking His death, burial and resurrection, and it is through this alone that we have access to God and eternal salvation.  Christmas is glorious because of what it looks forward to.  And yet the world will not help you prepare to celebrate Easter with carols, lights and over a month of anticipation.  We would, however, be well served to reflect on the humility of Jesus in coming to Earth as a man.  God Himself limited Himself in the form of an infant:  completely dependent on human beings and restraining His power.

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant,and being made in the likeness of men.

– Eph 2.5-7

The media will continue to fight over the terminology of Christmas.  You will receive some cards in the mail in the next few weeks that read, “Happy Holidays”.  But let us follow the example of Jesus: let us humble ourselves.  Let us remember to make Him the center and focal point of our events and traditions.  And let us remember that the fact of a baby being born is not what we celebrate, but the coming of hope and salvation.

Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

– Eph 2.8-11

Joy to the World!

second_coming

I recently learned the history and intention behind the popular Christmas carol, “Joy to the World”.  Isaac Watts, a prolific hymn writer, first published the words to this song in 1719.  He wrote it, however, in anticipation of Jesus Christ’s second coming, the end of the age, rather than in reflection of Jesus’ first coming.  He wrote it upon reflecting on Ps 98:

O sing to the LORD a new song,
For He has done wonderful things,
His right hand and His holy arm have gained the victory for Him.
The LORD has made known His salvation;
He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel;
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth;
Break forth and sing for joy and sing praises.
Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre,
With the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
Shout joyfully before the King, the LORD.
Let the sea roar and fnall it contains,
The world and those who dwell in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
Let the mountains sing together for joy
Before the LORD, for He is coming to judge the earth;
He will judge the world with righteousness
And the peoples with equity.

Let us meditate today on the glory of Christ’s impending return as we praise His first coming in these glorious words:

Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns;
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

It’s Christmas, let’s cancel church!

I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord.”

– Ps 122.1

What does Church mean to you?  Is it a building full of hypocrites who gather together to pat themselves on the back once a week?  Is it somewhere you go to see your friends and socialize?  Do you go, or try to go, to get right with God?  To make amends for those bad decisions you made during the week?  Is it your weekly, spiritual nourishment?

God gave us the Church for encouragement, accountability and community.  A gathering of people who glorify God by corporately praising Him, testifying about His goodness, calling sinners (ourselves) to repent and grow in Him and to serve and love the world by making disciples of all nations.

But unfortunately, many Christians consider church something we “do”.  Once a week.  And it’s for me, not for God or one another.  We change churches when trials come, or “I’m just not being fed”.  We want to come, sit in the pew/seat, hear a good teaching that will fill us up and last us until next week, see our friends, hear some music and go home.

This becomes evident by the way we treat our church attendance and gathering habits.  Is it a big deal if you miss church?  I lived in Indianapolis, IN for eight years and many churches there cancelled their Sunday services on “race day”.  You know, the Indianapolis 500.  That’s right, on Memorial Day weekend, when the city is bursting with visitors from around the world, we cancel our gatherings to worship God and pray for the world who has come to our doorstep because, hey, we like to have fun.

What’s that?  It’s Christmas?  Let’s cancel church!  Because Christmas is about family and gifts and being with one another and traditions.  Not about the miraculous incarnation of God in human form, coming to die on your and my behalf so that we do not have to spend eternity in Hell.  No, we ought not bother ourselves to remember Him.  Because Church is just to see our friends and feel good about ourselves.

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”

– Heb 10.23-25

We are exhorted here, in the book of Hebrews to not neglect church.  We are to gather together to encourage one another, and all the more as we move closer to the end of the age!  Not less.  Growing up, my family was at church all. of. the. time.  Two services on Sunday, one on Wednesday, and sporadic trainings, meetings, and other service opportunities.  That is not necessarily the model.  The Simple Church movement that has begun is removing many of these activity-based gatherings and replacing them with community and accountability groups.  Gathering with one another and encouraging one another to know and love God does not necessarily mean that you have three services a week.  But it does mean that you are regularly gathering corporately, as a body, to worship and learn, and that you are in community that holds you accountable and pushes you on to maturity and good deeds.

Ask not what the church can do for you, but how you can serve her.  If Jesus Christ has eternally saved you from your sins and damnation, you can give Him at least a few hours a week to gather with other believers, worship Him and encourage one another.  And by all means, let us keep our priorities in line!  Worshiping Him is infinitely more important than a race.  And holidays that were set aside in His honor?  Let us never so disgrace Him as to cancel our gatherings and defame Him so.

“No Christ in your sermon, sir?  Then go home, and never preach again until you have something worth preaching!”

– Charles Spurgeon

Born to Die

Jesus came to the Earth with a purpose:  to die a propitiatory death for all who would believe so that we can be forgiven and have right standing with God.  He was born to die.  I grew up listening to my mom sing this song:

Shepherds gaze in wonder
While angel voices sing.
The night of nights has come
And brought the world
The long-awaited King.
The earth is filled with gladness
And yet the heavens weep.
For heaven’s eyes can see
He was born to die for me.
Jesus, baby Jesus,
Is that a tear in Your eye?
Jesus, sweet baby Jesus,
You must know
That You were born to die.It must have broken God’s heart
For the future He could see.
Yet He formed the hands
And feet knowing one day
They’d be nailed to a tree.
So all the world could know Him,
A gift came from above.
For God so loved the world
That He gave His only Son.

Jesus, baby Jesus,
With a tear of love in Your eye.
Jesus, sweet baby Jesus,
You knew You were born to die.

So, Jesus, thank You, Jesus,
For Your gift of eternal life.
My Jesus, Jesus,
‘Cause for me You were born to die.

As with many Christian songs from the 80’s, there is a bit of poetic interpretation that is not present in Scripture – like the tear in the infant Jesus’ eye because of His understood fate.  And we also have record of the angels rejoicing and praising God, not weeping over the birth of Christ in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth.  But that last applicational chorus rings through my mind often during the advent season.  Yes, thank you Jesus, for your gift of eternal life.
There are characters who grab my attention in the Christmas story today, and they are the magi.  The wise men from the East.  There is much tradition and interpretive differences throughout the centuries as to from where exactly these men came, some saying they were Jews from Yemen, or Persia or Babylon – while some guess as far as from India.  But what grabs my attention is the gifts that they presented to the infant.
We see in Matthew chapter 2 that the magi (wise men) came from the East and immediately requested and audience with Herod to find out where the King of the Jews had been born.  It is uncertain if the star appeared at the moment of his birth or beforehand to lead them to Christ shortly after his birth, but we do see that because of the timing of the appearance of the star, Herod had all male children two years of age and younger murdered – to be sure that Christ was killed.  Logic therefore lends that Jesus was approximately two years old when the magi arrived.
While Scripture does not say how many wise men there were that came to worship Jesus, we do see that there were three gifts given:  gold, frankincense and myrrh.  While it has been argued that these were normal gifts for royalty, with myrrh being commonly used as an anointing oil and frankincense as a perfume, it is also indubitably clear that these gifts were used in the preparation and burial of the dead.  Frankincense was used in many religious ceremonies as outlined in the Old Testament, most notably for the general perfume of the temple, as well as an additive for the meal offering and an emblem of prayer.
Myrrh was invented by the Ancient Egyptians for the purpose of mummification.  It was also used in temple rituals such as the anointing of the temple and priests.
Gold is clearly a gift for a king, or for the wealthy.
The Christmas Carol “We Three Kings” denotes the traditional interpretation of these three gifts and their symbolism to the purpose of Jesus:
We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar.
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain,
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign.Frankincense to offer have I.
Incense owns a Deity nigh.
Prayer and praising all men raising,
Worship Him, God on high.

Myrrh is mine: it’s bitter perfume
Breaths a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

Jesus is the King of kings, and Lord of lords.  He also is God:  full deity.  Lastly, He came to earth to die.  To fulfill redemption’s plan, to pay the penalty for our sins.
Is it possible that these three gifts were not allegorical in meaning?  Perhaps.  Scripture does not tell us specifically that this is the application and meaning of the gifts.  However, Church fathers such as Origen from the second second century AD considered this a worthwhile mediation.  Jesus was not a regular guy who happened to be a good prophet and teacher and consequently God asked Him to take on this role of being the Savior of the World.  No, this was the plan from the beginning.  From before the World was created.  Jesus was slain from the foundation of the world!
He came, on that first Christmas day, to die to pay the penalty for our sins.  For your sins.  For my sins.  Receive that greatest gift today.  And if you have already received it, let us rejoice anew at its wonder.

Sweet Baby Jesus

 

It is Christmas Eve, we are here once again!  You have probably gathered with family or will in the next 24 hours to give one another an abundance of gifts, eat an absurd amount of food, laugh, cry, relax, stress out and celebrate Christmas.

Chances are high that you have heard the story of Christmas:  the true reason this day is set aside as a holiday.  A holy-day (the origin of the word).  Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God was born of a virgin in the “Little town of Bethlehem” on a “Silent Night” when there was no room for them in the inn, so He was born “Away in a manger”.

Nativity

This is a glorious day.  Were it not for the birth of Jesus, we would not have a Savior.  The angels announced on the night of Jesus’ birth to a group of shepherds this unprecedented, unfathomable news:

“Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

– Luke 2.10-11

Jesus forever changed the world, religion and humanity’s ability to have a relationship with God by coming to Earth.

But not just by coming to Earth.

Jesus’ name has become household for many people, but for some it is only in profanity.  Have you ever heard someone swear, “Sweet Baby Jesus”?  It can sound almost humerus when you hear someone say that, but we must remember that is it taking the name of Almighty God in vain.  However, what catches my attention more is the concept of Jesus as a baby.

Jesus is no longer in the manger.

There is an appeal to keeping Jesus in the manger.  He is a precious baby.  He is dependent on His mother.  He cannot speak or walk or expect anything of us.  We can look down on Him, because He is helpless, and we can meet His needs.  When Jesus is in the manger, we have the miracle of a virgin giving birth, and a sweet story of a young couple making the best of their situation, shepherds coming to see Him, and a beautiful star marking the location of  His birth, but no demand for a response. 

But Jesus grew up.  The reason His birth is important enough to make it into a holiday is the life that He lived, the death that He died and the resurrection that He preformed to pay the penalty of our sin to offer us eternal salvation.

Eight days after Jesus was born, His name was given to Him and then He was circumcised and brought to the temple to be presented to the Lord.  There was a man in Jerusalem who was of the Lord, with the Holy Spirit upon him who had been promised, by God, that he would not die until he saw the Messiah – the one who would save Israel.  God led Simeon to the temple at the moment Mary and Joseph brought Jesus in to be presented to God, and he announced that God had fulfilled His word:  He had seen the Savior.  After blessing God, he said to Mary:

“Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed—and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

– Luke 2.34-35

Even though the nation of Israel was looking for a King, a political leader who would set them free from the tyranny of Rome, there were an abundance of prophecies that spoke of Jesus’ death and sacrificial work.  Is 64 spoke of Jesus on the cross, and here in this dedicatory blessing, Simeon tells Joseph and Mary that Jesus would cause the rise and fall of many in Israel.  Many would reject Him, and to them He was/is a stone of stumbling (1 Peter 2.8) – those would fall because of Him.  Many would receive Him, and them He raises up (Eph 2.6)!

Jesus was a sign to be opposed.  He Himself spoke of His death, burial and resurrection as the fulfillment of the sign of the prophecy of Jonah in the belly of the fish (Matt 12.39, 16.4).  And while His redemptive work on the cross was much more than a sign, His existence and claims were both verbally opposed and called heresy (Matt 26.64-65), but it was also physically opposed when they crucified Him.  And it was this crucifixion that pierced Mary’s soul.  And this all to the end that the thoughts of many hearts would be revealed.

The thoughts from many hearts may be revealed:  Some will rise and some will fall.  Some will embrace Jesus and His salvation, and some will reject Him and fall.

Jesus is sweet in a manger.  We can all accept Him as a baby, swaddled in cloth and surrounded by animals.  We can pity Him.  We can coo over Him.

But Jesus is not sweet on the cross.  He was crucified for my sins.  For your sins.  And as the risen savior, He demands a response:  Repentance or rejection.  Surrender or dispute.  Submission or rebellion.  And at His return, your heart will be revealed.  My heart will be revealed.

Let us not keep Jesus in the manger.  Let us know Him as the Savior of the World.  The king of kings and Lord of lords.  Let us know Him as God, and bow to him in submission and receive His salvation.