Tuesday, December 31, 2013


My Long and Winding Way post:  He loves me, oh how he loves me

One of the words that is repeated throughout the Old Testament to the children of Israel is “remember”.  They were exhorted to remember their God, the care He had given, the love He had shown.  It would keep them going when the world around them tried to tell them that He had left them.
It’s an important factor in this world where we live.  For often circumstances try to tell us a different story than what we are choosing to believe.  Today, for me, it was a day to remember.  I find it ironic that at this moment as I sit here to write it all down the song playing in the background bellows “He loves us oh how He loves us”. It’s been 16 years now, but I can remember it, even now, like it happened yesterday.
It was one of the more difficult seasons in life.  It felt as if the world around us was taking over. David had his own business at the time where jobs were few and far between.  Our five children were ages 10 to 5 months.  Feeding a family of 7 and keeping a roof over our heads felt like an ominous task on the little income we had coming in.  Each penny became sacred as we trusted God to somehow stretch them like we had known Him to do with the loaves and fishes.
Out of nowhere it hit me.  It had been years since I had tasted it and even then I had only had it once.  I hadn’t thought of that honey baked turkey since.  Yet on this day out of nowhere the memory of its taste flooded my very being welling up the desire to have it once again.
I started the calculations in my mind.  If I scrimped here could I have enough to pay the $25.00 and buy a small one to satisfy my longing?  If I could just buy one of those turkeys…I could smell it, taste it.
The calculator in my brain started adding it all up. Maybe somewhere I would find some leftover change. I reasoned it all out that we could eat it for a several days.  After much deliberation it finally hit me.  The purchase to satisfy my longing was just too costly.  I set the desire aside, speaking of it to no one.
A day or two later a friend called to invite me to lunch.  She had been through tough financial times before.  She understood what a nice lunch would do to my soul.   She would bring her children over to babysit mine.  How fast could I say yes?
As we drove down the road she told me.  ”I put dinner in your refrigerator while you were getting your children settled.”  Another oasis in the desert was offered.
We enjoyed a leisurely lunch where she listened, allowing me to reveal my weariness. She understood. Her husband had been in medical school for years, working odd jobs, to keep their family of 6 afloat. Having the opportunity to talk to someone who understood did wonders to me that day.  That in itself was a gift.  Little did I know it was only the tip of the iceberg.
Time passes too quickly in those getaway moments.  Before you knew it lunch was over and we were headed back home to my reality of small children and tight finances. She gathered up her teens, gave me a final hug and headed out the door. I headed to the refrigerator to see what we were having for dinner.
As I opened the door, there it sat.  My honey baked turkey breast.
The tears began to fall as I realized how deeply I was loved.  I had never spoken a word to anyone about my secret desire. There was only one who knew.  God, Himself.
Love came down and rescued me that day.  God placed a desire within me two days prior knowing He would bring it to pass.   While the walls of this world threatened to swallow me up, God came.  It wasn’t because I whispered some eloquent prayer.  Nor was it because I asked.  It was simply and only because He loves me.
He loves me, oh how He loves me.  I remember.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Gospel Centricity

Ray Ortlund post:  Centered on one or the other

“. . . a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”  Luke 7:34
What does it mean for a church to be gospel-centered?  That’s a popular concept these days.  Good.  What if we were scrambling to be law-centered?  But the difference is not so easy in real terms.
A gospel-centered church holds together two things.  One, a gospel-centered church preaches a bold message of divine grace for the undeserving — so bold that it becomes the end of the law for all who believe.  Not our performance but Christ’s performance for us.  Not our sacrifices but his sacrifice for us.  Not our superiority but only his worth and prestige.  The good news of substitution.  The good news that our okayness is not in us but exterior to us in Christ alone.  Climbing down from the high moral ground, because only Christ belongs up there.  That message, that awareness, that clarity.  Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.
Two, a gospel-centered church translates that theology into its sociology.  The good news of God’s grace beautifies how we treat one another.  In fact, the horizontal reveals the vertical.  How we treat one another reveals what we really believe as opposed to what wethink we believe.  It is possible to say, “We are a gospel-centered church,” and sincerely mean it, while we make our church into a law-centered social environment.  We see God above lowering his gun, and we breathe a sigh of relief.  But if we are trigger-happy toward one another, we don’t get it yet.
A gospel-centered church looks something like this album cover — my all-time favorite.  A gospel-centered church is a variegated collection of sinners.  What unifies them is Jesus, the King of grace.  They come together and stick together because they have nothing to fear from their church’s message or from their church’s culture.  The theology creates the sociology, and the sociology incarnates the theology.  And everyone is free to trust the Lord, be honest about their problems, and grow in newness of life.
The one deal-breaker in a gospel-centered church: anyone for any reason turning it into a culture of legal demandingness, negative scrutiny, finger-pointing, gossip and other community-poisoning sins.  A church with a message of grace can quickly and easily stop being gospel-centered in real terms.
A major part of pastoral ministry is preaching the doctrine of grace and managing an environment of grace.  The latter is harder to accomplish than the former.  It is more intuitive.  It requires more humility, self-awareness and trust in the Lord.  But when a church’s theological message and its relational tone converge as one, that church becomes powerfully prophetic, for the glory of Jesus.
May the Friend of sinners grant beautiful gospel-centricity in all our churches.

Make Love Your Aim

Jon Bloom post:  Your Most Courageous Resolution for 2014

Pursue love. (1 Corinthians 14:1)
Resolutions are good things. They’re biblical: “may [God] fulfill every resolve for good” (2 Thessalonians 1:11). And I think developing New Year’s resolutions is a very good idea. A year is a defined timeframe long enough to make progress on difficult things and short enough to provide some incentive to keep moving.
A resolve is not a vague intention, like “one of these days I’m going to get that garage cleaned” or “I’m going to read the Bible through this year,” but without any clear plan to do it. Resolves are intentions with strategies attached to them. You don’t just hope something is going to happen; you are planning to make it happen. To be resolved is to be determined.

Make Love Your Aim

But resolves can either be rooted in our selfish ambitions or in the love of God. We must think them through carefully. So as we make our resolutions for 2014, God wants them to all serve this one great end: “pursue love” (1 Corinthians 14:1).
“Pursue” is a very purposeful word. The Greek verb has an intensity to it. It means to “seek after eagerly,” like a runner in a race seeks eagerly to win a prize.
The RSV’s translation of this phrase is clearer: “Make love your aim.” It has a sense of single-minded focus to it. The NIV falls short: “Follow the way of love.” It has no edge to it. It sounds like a platitude that the most polite company could smile and nod to without feeling unnerved. It does not capture Paul’s intensity.
No, this is an aggressive verb. In fact, it can mean to “pursue with hostile intent.” That’s why in the New Testament, it is frequently used to mean persecuting or harassing someone.
That sounds like Paul, the former persecutor who became the persecuted. What he is saying to us is that we should pursue love with no less fervency and determination that he once pursued Christians to Damascus — only our aim is not to stop love, but to unleash it and be captured by it, or, I should say, by Him (1 John 4:8).

Plan to Make Love Your Aim

Let this be the year that we pursue love. Let this be the year that we stop talking about love, that we do less regretful moaning about how little we love and how much we need to grow in love and actually be determined to love more the way Jesus loved (John 15:12). Let this be the year we actually put into place some strategies to help us love.
Each person’s situation is so unique that we can’t craft strategies for each other to grow in love. It’s something that we must each do with God, though some feedback and counsel from those who know us best are helpful.
But here are some of the Bible’s great love texts to soak in during 2014 that can help loving strategies emerge:
  • 1 Corinthians 13: soak in or memorize it and let each “love is . . .” statement in verses 4–7 search your heart. With whom can you show greater patience, kindness, and more?
  • John chapters 13–15: soak in or memorize them. Ninety-five verses are very doable. You can memorize them in 3–6 months and be transformed.
  • The First Epistle of John: Soak in or memorize it. You can do it! Forcing yourself to say the verses over and over will yield insights you’ve never seen before.
  • Take 2–4 weeks and simply meditate on the two greatest commandments according to Jesus (Matthew 22, Mark 12, Luke 10). Look and look at them and pray and pray over them. You will be surprised at what the Lord shows you.
  • Read Hebrews 13:1–7, take one verse per day and prayerfully meditate on what you might put into place to grow in each area of loving obedience. It may be one thing or ten things.
You get the idea. We don’t need all our strategies in place by January 1st. But we can make 2014 a year where we pursue love with more intentionality than we ever have before. And as we meditate, letting the word of Christ dwell in us richly (Colossians 3:16), the Holy Spirit will guide us in creating the strategies we should use.

The Most Courageous Resolution

But let’s also be clear: making love our aim in 2014 will demand more courage and faith than any other resolution we can make. Nothing exposes the depth of our sin like really seeking to love God with our entire being and loving our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:27).
So we must let our pursuit of love drive us to the gospel. None of us has ever perfectly kept either of the two great commandments. Ever. Our very best efforts have been polluted by our prideful sin. And we have rarely been at our very best.
We can only love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19) and sent his Son to become sin for us so that we could become the righteousness of God in him (2 Corinthians 5:21). Christ has kept the greatest commandments (and the rest) perfectly for us! So we are forgiven of our constant failure to love as we ought and are given grace to grow in the grace of love. And because of Jesus, someday we will love perfectly just as we have been loved.
So let’s make our resolution to pursue love this year more than we ever have, knowing that we have been loved with an everlasting love (Psalm 103:17).

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Renewing Shalom with Everyone

Ray Ortlund:  Restoration as a gospel priority

Aim for restoration.  2 Corinthians 13:11
“Aim for restoration” was highly relevant to this community in Corinth.  They were broken at multiple levels.  They were making progress, but there was much good still to accomplish.  So, “aim for restoration” was ideal as an all-encompassing intention.  For any gospel-defined church, then or now, restoration is an obvious priority.
But is it obvious?  Or, is it obvious to us today?  Few churches and movements, it seems, are free from relational strains and fractures.  A settled wholeness seems rare.  But I wonder if restoration is the priority it deserves to be.
Earlier in 2 Corinthians Paul defined his life work as “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18).  He defined the gospel as “the message of reconciliation” (verse 19).  That is why he did not say, “We have moments of reconciliation now and then.”  No, he saw his calling as “the ministry of reconciliation.”  In other words, “Reconciliation is all I do.  It’s how I roll.  It isn’t a preference.  It is a gospel necessity, an obvious one.”
I wonder how many of our churches and movements can honestly say, with the apostle, “Reconciliation is our ministry, because it is our message.  We have no higher priority.  We want to be living proof of the gospel.  This is obvious to us.”
Aiming for restoration deserves to be a matter of prayer and priority in 2014 for every gospel-defined church and ministry.  Settling for the status quo – where is that in the gospel?  We might not succeed in renewing shalom with everyone (Romans 12:18).  Some people will always be unsatisfiable.  But have we tried?  To whatever extent God gives success, we will be more ready for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit we all long for, for the salvation of many others around us.
What wonderful things might the Lord do for us all in 2014, if we allow the gospel of reconciliation to define, or perhaps redefine, our ministry priorities?

Living at a Different Pace

Scotty Smith:  A Prayer to Live at the Pace of Peace in the Embrace of Grace

     Simeon took him [Jesus] in his arms and praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” Luke 2:28-32
Dear Lord Jesus, we’re barely finished celebrating your birth and I’ve already seen the first naked Christmas tree on the curb. What’s the rush? It seems like we’re always in a hurry for the next thing. Traffic never moves fast enough, waiters don’t bring our food soon enough, and the mail isn’t delivered quick enough. I’m no exception to this harried way of doing life.
This is one of the reasons I’m drawn to Simeon’s story—a man who lived at a different pace than I naturally choose. We don’t know much about this “righteous and devout” man; but according to Luke, we know he was “waiting for the consolation of Israel”—that is, longing for the arrival of the Messiah; anticipating the fulfillment of promises God alone can keep; hoping to see you, Jesus, though he didn’t know your name.
Eight days after your birth, Simeon took you into his arms… what a holy paradox: Simeon’s arms held the One whose arms created and sustain all things—the arms that are presently ruling the world with grace and truth, and making all things new. Oh, the wonders of your incarnation…
Whether or not Simeon expected to die soon, the peace that resulted from that embrace changed everything. Jesus, it’s only because you embrace us in the gospel that I have the same peace Simeon experienced, for you are God’s promised salvation for Israel, Gentiles, and for me. In you I’ve found the “consolation” nothing and no one else can give. You are my forgiveness and righteousness, my center and sanity, my wholeness and hope, my holiness and happiness.
As we prepare to begin a new year, I want the peace of your grace to help me live by the pace of your peace in this next season. Slow me down, Jesus. Settle and focus my wandering heart. If I’m going to be in a hurry about one thing this year, may it be to linger longer in your presence—to be still and know that you are God. Everything else will take care of itself. So very Amen I pray, in your glorious and grace-full name.

Friday, December 27, 2013

An Entire Worldview in a Compact Narrative

Ross Douthat post:  Ideas From a Manger

PAUSE for a moment, in the last leg of your holiday shopping, to glance at one of the manger scenes you pass along the way. Cast your eyes across the shepherds and animals, the infant and the kings. Then try to see the scene this way: not just as a pious set-piece, but as a complete world picture — intimate, miniature and comprehensive.

Because that’s what the Christmas story really is — an entire worldview in a compact narrative, a depiction of how human beings relate to the universe and to one another. It’s about the vertical link between God and man — the angels, the star, the creator stooping to enter his creation. But it’s also about the horizontal relationships of society, because it locates transcendence in the ordinary, the commonplace, the low.
It’s easy in our own democratic era to forget how revolutionary the latter idea was. But the biblical narrative, the great critic Erich Auerbach wrote, depicted “something which neither the poets nor the historians of antiquity ever set out to portray: the birth of a spiritual movement in the depths of the common people, from within the everyday occurrences of contemporary life.”
And because that egalitarian idea is so powerful today, one useful — and seasonally appropriate — way to look at our divided culture’s competing worldviews is to see what each one takes from the crèche in Bethlehem.
Many Americans still take everything: They accept the New Testament as factual, believe God came in the flesh, and endorse the creeds that explain how and why that happened. And then alongside traditional Christians, there are observant Jews and Muslims who believe the same God revealed himself directly in some other historical and binding form.
But this biblical world picture is increasingly losing market share to what you might call the spiritual world picture, which keeps the theological outlines suggested by the manger scene — the divine is active in human affairs, every person is precious in God’s sight — but doesn’t sweat the details.
This is the world picture that red-staters get from Joel Osteen, blue-staters from Oprah, and everybody gets from our “God bless America” civic religion. It’s Christian-ish but syncretistic; adaptable, easygoing and egalitarian. It doesn’t care whether the angel really appeared to Mary: the important thing is that a spiritual version of that visitation could happen to anyone — including you.
Then, finally, there’s the secular world picture, relatively rare among the general public but dominant within the intelligentsia. This worldview keeps the horizontal message of the Christmas story but eliminates the vertical entirely. The stars and angels disappear: There is no God, no miracles, no incarnation. But the egalitarian message — the common person as the center of creation’s drama — remains intact, and with it the doctrines of liberty, fraternity and human rights.
As these world pictures jostle and compete, their strengths and weaknesses emerge. The biblical picture has the weight of tradition going for it, the glory of centuries of Western art, the richness of millenniums’ worth of theological speculation. But its specificity creates specific problems: how to remain loyal to biblical ethics in a commercial, sexually liberated society.
The spiritual picture lacks the biblical picture’s resources and rigor, but it makes up for them in flexibility. A doctrine challenged by science can be abandoned; a commandment that clashes with modern attitudes ignored; the problem of evil washed away in a New Age bath.
The secular picture, meanwhile, seems to have the rigor of the scientific method behind it. But it actually suffers from a deeper intellectual incoherence than either of its rivals, because its cosmology does not harmonize at all with its moral picture.
In essence, it proposes a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory. And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th-century New England preacher. And the rope bridges flung across this chasm — the scientific-sounding logic of utilitarianism, the Darwinian justifications for altruism — tend to waft, gently, into a logical abyss.
So there are two interesting religious questions that will probably face Americans for many Christmases to come. The first is whether biblical religion can regain some of the ground it has lost, or whether the spiritual worldview will continue to carry all before it.
The second is whether the intelligentsia’s fusion of scientific materialism and liberal egalitarianism — the crèche without the star, the shepherds’ importance without the angels’ blessing — will eventually crack up and give way to something new.
The cracks are visible, in philosophy and science alike. But the alternative is not. One can imagine possibilities: a deist revival or a pantheist turn, a new respect for biblical religion, a rebirth of the 20th century’s utopianism and will-to-power cruelty.
But for now, though a few intellectuals scan the heavens, they have yet to find their star.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Undivided, Straightforward, Sacrificial Focus for Good

Jonathan Parnell post: Football and the Warrior Instinct

One of the last things we need is for young men to think that masculinity is defined by tackles and touchdowns. That would be bad. But it would also be bad if the world were bleached of tackles and touchdowns.

Why? Because while “warrior culture” is dangerous, warrior instinct is endangered, and football stands as one of the last bastions of its enduring good.

What Is Warrior Instinct?

Undivided, straightforward, sacrificial focus for good. That is what I mean by warrior instinct. It’s a summary of the character Paul refers to beginning in 2 Timothy 2:3 — the character of a “good soldier of Christ Jesus.” Elaborating on the solider metaphor, Paul tells Timothy, “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.” Get this: Paul, the experienced missionary, encourages Timothy, the young pastor, with the example of a warrior. What exactly is that example? It’s focus. Warriors don’t get distracted. They don’t get caught up with the wrong things. They are clear about their aim. Life and death are on the line.

Okay, you might be thinking, but what’s war have to do with football? Well, actually, war and football (sports in general) have some deep connections.

Paul himself sees a connection as he continues his exhortation to Timothy. After the example of the soldier, Paul moves on to the example of an athlete with the same kind of commendation (2 Timothy 2:5). If the soldier fights with focus, the athlete only wins if he plays by the rules. Both of these examples, along with the painstaking work of a farmer, represent the character that Paul says Timothy should emulate.

We shouldn’t see these as three unrelated illustrations, but as one total, connected picture of what it means to be a good soldier of Christ Jesus. In a similar way, Doug Wilson notes that all the “overwhelmingly positive” metaphors of sports and war in the Bible point to the same characteristics of “discipline, sacrifice, hard work, focus, intensity, and so on” (“Empire, Sports, and War,” 292).

This passage in 2 Timothy, serving as a sort of snapshot of these combined metaphors, can be summed up as undivided, straightforward, sacrificial focus for good — what I’m calling warrior instinct.

Why We Need It

We need this warrior instinct more than ever because it’s increasingly rare in our society. We don’t have to look far to see that the ambition for an undivided, straightforward, sacrificial focus has been compromised by a distracted, weaselly, self-obsessed directionless. The studies are out and the articles have been written.

Distracted Like Never Before

Distraction is a problem, perhaps like never before. One clever smartphone commercial has already capitalized on the commonality of it, branding itself as the “phone to save us from our phones” — and it was three years ago. Apple recently chimed into the sentiment with their latest video of a young boy buried in his phone during the holidays with his family. Aside from the pleasant twist at the end, they brilliantly played into a recognizable scene — and we get it.

We understand how easily it is to be caught up in a hundred little things which, in the end, are just trifles. It’s not an altogether new issue. People have always loved distractions — or diversions, as Pascal calls it. It’s just that the air seems thicker now.

Deceived and Deceiving

And we lie. Human beings are weasels. One researcher claims that the average person tells a lie one out of every five interactions. This study, which broke ground a couple years ago, says that all this lying amounts to us being lied to between 10–200 times daily. Again, this is not really news. Lying has flourished since the fall. But there is something to note about the accessibility of information we experience now.

If lying is a pervasive issue of humanity’s sinful nature, and people are saying more things publically now than ever, then we probably shouldn’t believe everything we hear. And most don’t. Partial-truth, spinned-truth, no-truth — it’s expected, and almost tolerated. Almost. Faking a bomb threat to dodge a final exam will still get you into trouble. And at least some of the baseball players who lied about steroids have faced consequences.

Deluded with Self-Obsession

What about self-absorption? Well, we are in a narcissism epidemic. Again, this has already been said several times. Secular journalists have already warned us about the consequences of popular self-obsession. And again, this isn’t completely new to our times — it’s just that narcissism has never had so much technology at its fingertips. “Selfie” becoming the word of the year didn’t happen out of nowhere, and like Geoffrey Nunberg writes, “When we look back on 2013, we’ll recall this not just as the year when everybody was posting pictures of themselves on social media, but as the year when nobody could stop talking about it.”

Overall, this distractedness, dishonesty, and self-centeredness work together to qualify a general directionless. Unprecedented in American history, 36% of the Millennial generation (and mostly men) still live with their parents, an important study by Pew Research shows. And while there are some decent explanations to account for this change, undoubtedly fewer adults would live with their parents if they had somewhere else to go — if they had a career, or a spouse, or any focus besides Halo that could wake them up from their domestic hibernation.

How Football Helps

So warrior instinct is not in vogue. It’s increasingly rare, and therefore more and more precious. When its witness in society is diminishing so quickly, we should keep our eyes peeled for those institutions and practices that promote it, albeit imperfectly. This especially means football.

There is something wonderfully refreshing about this sport. How many other places are there where we can go to watch squads of eleven men at a time line up for a unified purpose? It’s offense or defense. You’re either working together to advance or stop an advance, all under the authority of a play clock that reminds you time is a limited resource. There’s a strategy for which each team member on the field must buy in. Every play requires undivided focus. You can’t check your newsfeed while you’re listening for the captain’s cadence.

Football is also a game without guile. Not only are there rules to which players must abide, but there are seven officials meticulously placed on the field of play who enforce these rules. You only score touchdowns or stop touchdowns if you do it the right way. Where else do we get this? Cooperative aggression. Combative fraternity. The game is almost like a dream come true in a world full of so much fluff and façade — in a world that manipulates words as masks to hide behind rather than couriers of truth. You don’t wear shoulder-pads to hide behind them; you employ their protection precisely because hiding is not an option, even on the quarterback slide.

Football is also a team game that demands individual practice. Every player has a specific role that, when executed properly, leads to team achievement. And that proper execution is the result of extreme training. Behind every move of every player is hours of work — of drills and sweat and pain — that ultimately targets one thing: team wins. Seriously. Make no mistake about it. Integral to football is real, tangible moments when personal comfort yields to a greater cause. The team wins because the team members sacrifice. They wear out their bodies for something bigger than their pain.

The More Perfect Display

What other cultural entertainment shows us this? Where else do we find this warrior instinct on display? Of course, sinful distortions in the heart of man taint this ideal. But this is the design, and in order for football to work, this character must be in motion. The sport requires this kind of man, or at least a semblance of him. And I think that’s a good thing. It’s remarkable that God’s common grace provides this picture to engrain itself in a people’s pastime. But there’s even more for the Christian.

Speaking of focus, we Christians know one who embodied it perfectly — who came into this world for one purpose and set his face like flint until it was accomplished. We know one who was himself the truth — who committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. We know one who sacrificed — who though he was rich, yet for our sake became poor and sweat tears of blood, enduring the greatest agony because something even greater was set before him. We know Jesus, you see.

Jesus is the standard of warrior instinct — of undivided, straightforward, sacrificial focus for good. Which means, Jesus is the true and better football player. And while we are here, knowing him and making him known, it’s nice to have this game around.

Our Desperation and Our Deliverer

Tullian Tchividjian post: Christmas For The Weary And Heavy Laden 

Christmas is supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year”, but for many of you it’s the most painful. It’s that time of year when budgets break, when you’re reminded of how dysfunctional your family is, when you miss the people you love who have died or left.
For some of you, this is your first Christmas as a divorcee. Figuring out how to shuffle your children back and forth between you and your Ex on Christmas Day is a new pain for you. For others, you’re afraid it will be your last Christmas because of your recent diagnosis. Or, you’re afraid it will be your last Christmas with your mom because of her recent diagnosis. A lost job, a daughter who won’t even call on Christmas day, a son you haven’t talked to in three years, a father who can’t get sober, a sibling in rehab–Christmas reveals our deepest frustrations and fears, our most sincere sadness and suspicions, our brokenness and bitterness.
Christmas has a painful way of revealing why the first Christmas was so necessary.
Tears are falling, hearts are breaking; How we need to hear from God…
Christmas exposes our desperation but it also announces our Deliverer—the one who promises rest to the weary and heavy laden; the one who promises never to leave us or forsake us. For those who feel lonely and lost, anxious and abandoned, tired and tense—for those who are guilt-ridden and grieving—Christmas is for you. Especially for you!
The Incarnation of Jesus serves as a glorious reminder that God’s willingness to clean things up is infinitely bigger than our capacity to mess things up. It is the fulfillment of God’s promise to confront our misery with his mercy, our confusion with his comfort, our guilt with his grace.
Christmas is the beachhead of God’s campaign against sin and sadness. It is the coming of light, life, and love into the occupied territory of darkness, death, and hate. Christmas is a war fought by a Peaceful Prince whose battle plan is to defeat death by dying, fear by forgiveness and slavery by salvation.
Christmas sets in motion the Divine pattern of God drawing near to us–not because we’ve done it right–but because we keep doing it wrong. Jesus came down to us because we are weak, not because we are strong.
Christmas highlights the inescapable fact that no matter how hard we try, we can’t do it. Apart from the Incarnation we are left to our own bankrupt resources. But at the same it shows us Jesus, who came to liberate us from the pressure of having to fix ourselves (and others!), find ourselves, and free ourselves. He came to relieve us of the burden we inherently feel “to get it done” and make it on our own. He came to set us free from the need to secure for ourselves the affection and approval we long for but cannot attain.
In short, Christmas is God’s answer to the slavery of self-salvation. From the cries of a baby lying in a manger, God shouts, “I’ve got this. I’ll take it from here.”
Fragile finger sent to heal us, Tender brow prepared for thorn; Tiny heart whose blood will save us, Unto us is born.
It is this crying baby that wipes away our tears as our Wonderful Counselor. It is this powerless child that conquers despair and dejection as our Mighty God. It is this needy newborn that is the source of everything we need and long for as our Everlasting Father. It is this helpless infant that restores okayness to our lives as our Prince of Peace.
As Everything, he became nothing so that you–as nothing–could have everything.
Merry Christmas, everyone!

Let All Within Us Praise His Holy Name

Another favorite:

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Living in the Light of the Incarnation of Christ

Bethany Jenkins post: The Shocking Implications of Incarnation

If we do not understand the weight of the miracle of Christ's incarnation, it is because we do not understand the weight of the holiness of God. The incarnation is shocking. It is outrageous to think that an infinite and holy God would voluntarily become finite to live with unholy sinners. In fact, the incarnation is so appalling that it separates Christianity from Islam and Judaism. The Jerusalem Talmud says, "If man claims to be God, he is a liar" (Ta'anit 2:1), while the Qur'an says, "Allah begets not and was not begotten" (Sura al-Ikhlas 112). Jews and Muslims understand how ludicrous it is to think that a holy God would humiliate himself by becoming human.

The holiness of God is fearful. But if we want to know God and ourselves, we must begin by seeing how much God loves his holiness and cherishes his purity. If we do not start here, the gospel will become cheap to us. As A. W. Tozer wrote, "Unless the weight of the burden is felt, the gospel can mean nothing to man; and until he sees a vision of God high and lifted up, there will be no woe and no burden. Low views of God destroy the gospel for all who hold them" (The Knowledge of the Holy).

Under the old covenant, people responded to the holiness of God with awe and reverence. When Moses met the Lord, he "hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God" (Exodus 3:6). Then, years later, when he begged to see God's glory, God said, "You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live" (Exodus 33:20). When the ark of the Lord was being brought back to Israel, some men looked inside of it and, as a result, the Lord struck down 50,000 men. The people despaired, "Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God?" (1 Samuel 6:20). When David was bringing the ark to Jerusalem, one man merely touched it, and God struck him down immediately. "And David was afraid of the LORD that day, and he said, 'How can the ark of the LORD come to me?'" (2 Samuel 6:9). The nearer Ezekiel approached the throne of the Lord, the less sure his words became: "Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell on my face" (Ezekiel 1:28).

Not only did people tremble at his holiness, the Lord himself frequently spoke about it. Through Isaiah, he said, "Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel? . . . All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness" (Isaiah 40:13, 17). When Job finished calling his character into question, the Lord answered from the whirlwind, "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? . . . Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" (Job 38:2, 4).

Jesus embodies the holiness of God because he is God and has been with God from the beginning. This means that, when God acted under the old covenant, Jesus—as part of the godhead—was right there with him. This is why the incarnation is a shocking miracle. In Christ, God has effected self-disclosure. Our holy God, who told Moses, "for man shall not see me and live," became incarnate. People saw him and lived. Our holy God, who struck down a man for touching the ark and another 50,000 for looking inside of it, became incarnate. People spit upon him and lived. Our holy God, whose throne was so magnificent that Ezekiel failed to find words to describe it, became incarnate. He was born as a baby in a manger, not a throne. Our holy God, who demanded blood sacrifices to atone for sin, became incarnate. He allowed himself to be butchered on a cross. Our holy God, who asked Job, "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" became incarnate. He was born in an insignificant little town and worked as a mere carpenter in Nazareth.

Incarnation Today

What does the incarnation mean for us today? First, the incarnation means that we live in the world, but not of it. As Jesus prayed for his disciples, "I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world" (John 17:15-16). In other words, we pursue holy lives of obedience and sacrifice even as we engage in our cities, neighborhoods, and families.

Second, the incarnation means that we seek opportunities to deny ourselves. Self-denial is not a popular topic in our culture, but it is the starting point for Christian growth in the mind of Christ. When Jesus became incarnate, he voluntarily denied himself the privileges of being God in order to be mocked and killed. He did this because he longed to redeem us and knew that, in order to accomplish our salvation, the demands of his holiness had to be met. We could not meet them, so he met them for us. We, in turn, are to have the same mind, "do[ing] nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count[ing] others more significant than [our]selves" (Philippians 3:3). We deny ourselves to love others.

Third, the incarnation means that we do not love money. God is the richest being in the universe. Everything is made by him, through him and for him. Yet as he looked upon the world and decided into what family he would come, he chose the poorest of the poor. When Mary and Joseph went to the temple after the birth of Jesus, Luke recalled, "And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord . . . and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, 'a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons'" (Luke 2:22-24). Under the law, the regular sacrifice was a lamb, but there was a provision for poor mothers: "If she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons" (Leviticus 12:8). This is what Mary brought. Jesus, who had all the riches of the world at his disposal, chose to be incarnate into a family that could not even afford a regular sacrifice. Let us not love riches.

Fourth, the incarnation means that we should not overvalue physical beauty. Our culture loves external appearances, but the incarnate Christ chose to come as someone who had no physical beauty or majesty. He is the most glorious person who has ever lived, but we did not recognize his glory. Thousands saw him with their eyes, but they saw nothing with their hearts. We, in turn, must look for beauty in our world with the eyes of our heart. What will we see when we look at the world this way? We will see that, today, the Lord lives in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner. As Jesus taught, when we care for such people, we do this unto him.

Finally, the incarnation means that God is for us. Paul was not merely referring to the crucifixion when he wrote, "What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:31-32). He was also referring to the incarnation, when Jesus left the side of the Father to become man and accomplish our salvation. The incarnation means that God is for us. Jesus left the godhead and all the privileges thereof to die. He lived a humiliating and self-denying life to bring us to God, where there are pleasures forevermore. He veiled his awful and fearful holiness so that we could touch him, see him, know him and love him. No longer does he say, "No man can see my face and live." Today, he says, "See my face and be satisfied" (Psalm 17:15).

When we live in light of the incarnation of Christ, our lives will be shocking to others. Although we are sons and daughters of the King, we will humiliate ourselves by serving others. All things may be permissible, but we will deny ourselves certain things or activities so that we can grow in our love for God and others. We will earn money, but we will strategize how to give it away for the sake of the kingdom. Living in a physical world, we will spend more effort on cultivating our inner beauty than our outer beauty. We will trust in the promises of God more than our circumstances because we know he is for us.

When we live this way, people will think we are ludicrous. They will find our choices shocking. Yet we will point to the miracle of the incarnation of Christ. Our lives will testify to the great news of Advent: Christ has come, God is with us.


This article has been adapted and originally appeared at Gospel-Centered Discipleship

Joy of Every Longing Heart

843 Acres Advent post (by Bethany) : Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus

Requested by an email subscriber. Disclosure: This carol and the one coming tomorrow are my personal favorites. I saved “the best” for last. Merry Christmas! – Bethany
The Text
And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38 ESV)
The Story
Many Hebrew prophets pointed to the Messiah’s coming. Isaiah, for example, spoke about “a sign” – “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” [1]. Micah, too, prophesied about his origins: “Bethlehem Ephrathah … from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” [2].
Although these prophecies were spoken to Israel, the Hebrew Bible has hints that the Lord had a plan for the world, not just Israel. For example, Isaiah prophesied, “In that day, there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and Assyria will come into Egypt, and Egypt into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. In that day, Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance’” [3].
This is astonishing. The Lord was telling Israel, his chosen people, that their enemies would be called “my people” and “the work of my hands.” Up until this point, only Israel had been described using these tender, intimate words. What was God doing?
In the first verse of “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,” Charles Wesley celebrates the fulfillment of the Hebrew prophecies in the person of Jesus. Written in 1744, this carol is one of almost 9,000 hymns written by Wesley – that is, a hymn every day for almost 25 years. Wesley describes Jesus as the “long-expected” Messiah and “Israel’s strength and consolation,” which is a reference to Luke’s gospel, where Simeon is “waiting for the consolation of Israel” [4]. Yet Wesley, too, points beyond Israel, saying that Jesus is the “hope of all the earth” and the “dear desire of every nation” and the “joy of every longing heart.”
The second verse talks about the purpose of the Incarnation (“to deliver”), the dual nature of Christ (“a child and yet a King”), his ability to save us (“by Thine all sufficient merit”), and the future for which we long (“raise us to Thy glorious throne”).
The Lyrics
Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s Strength and Consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.
Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Doing All Things Well

Scotty Smith:  A Prayer Celebrating the Hard Providence of Jesus’ Birth

     But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heirGal. 4:4-7
Dear Lord Jesus, as I meditate on these words from the Apostle Paul, it occurs to me how the story of your less-than-ideal first birthday gets told in ways that often misses the point; worse than that, in ways that disregard sovereign grace and the glory of the gospel. We judge Jerusalem for missing their moment; we criticize innkeepers for gross inhospitality; and we pity Mary for the birthing room she had to endure. We moralize and sentimentalize, and miss the point.
Yet everything happened that night just as you, our Father, and the Holy Spirit planned. “Doing all things well” didn’t just start happening after your resurrection.
“But when the set time had fully come,” you came—not a day early and not a day late. As humbling as it was to be born under the ceiling of a stable, being born under the weight of the law was a far greater burden.
Yet that’s exactly why you came into the world. From the manger to the cross, you did for us what we could never do for ourselves. The law demands a perfect obedience we cannot possibly offer, and it requires a justice that would have left us eternally condemned.
Because you lived in our place and died in our place, we’re no longer guilty, powerless slaves to sin; rather, we’re beloved daughters and sons of the living God—enjoying the full rights thereof. We’ve been robed in your righteousness and sealed with God’s Spirit, who enables us to cry out, “Abba, Father”.
And, as Paul wrote, our future looks over-the-top amazing as well; for we’ve been made co-heirs with you of the new heaven and new earth. It’s hard to wrap my head, heart and imagination around such love, grace and hope. But it’s true and it’s ours, all because of you, Jesus.
I won’t waste any more time judging innkeepers, but I will rejoice in the God of all grace. Hallelujah what a salvation! Hallelujah what a Savior! So very Amen I pray in your matchless and merciful name.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Our Unexpected Paths

Jon Bloom post:  When a Sword Pierces Your Soul

Simeon had a painful message for Mary. But she discovered that for those who trust God, he uses soul-piercing events to unleash more grace, salvation, and joy into the world than we could have ever imagined.
It was mid-morning when Joseph and Mary and their infant son entered Jerusalem’s Fountain Gate at the city’s southern tip. They passed the pool of Siloam where the disabled and diseased hoped for a healing stir of the water. They walked northwest up the street that led to the Temple Mount. It bustled with the rattle and hum of morning chores and commerce.
It had been forty days since Mary had birthed her boy. Under the Jewish law, this had made her unclean and required a purification sacrifice on the fortieth day. She and Joseph had made the nearly ten-mile trek from Bethlehem the previous day, camping with a few others a half-mile or so outside the holy city.
Outside the temple complex Joseph bartered with merchants for two turtledoves. The inflated prices angered him. Profiting from purification! He also felt shame that he couldn’t afford a lamb. Doves were a poor man’s sacrifice. He was barely eking out a living in Bethlehem, taking whatever odd job he could find.
Mary watched Joseph return with the cloth bag, its erratic movements divulging an inner turmoil. Sorrow flashed through her. She always recoiled at the sacrifices: the struggle, the fear, the violence, the blood — innocent life killed because of another’s guilt. These two frightened creatures would soon die to make her clean. She held Jesus tighter.
They entered the complex and made their way across the noisy Court of the Gentiles toward the Eastern Gate of the inner wall. Hundreds were praying, men with covered and women with uncovered heads.
Suddenly, in front of them, an old man appeared. “Let me see the child!” He sounded almost distressed. Joseph stepped up and shielded his wife. The man looked up at Joseph first confused and then smiled. Taking Joseph’s prohibiting hand in both of his, he patted it and said, “I’m sorry, my son. You must forgive old Simeon. Please don’t be afraid. Your child is in no danger from me. I’ve just been waiting for him so long.”
Mary knew immediately that he knew. The old man looked to her and gently asked, “May I see your son?” Mary smiled and nodded. Joseph stepped back. The man moved near and looked in awe at the child. Barely audible he muttered, “The salvation of Israel. The glory of Israel.”
Without taking his eyes off Jesus, he asked, “May I hold him?” Mary felt no fear as she placed Jesus into Simeon’s arms. He gently rocked him and mouthed silent praise with tears streaming. Mary glanced at Joseph who was wordless too.
Then the old man broke into a half sobbing prayer, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel (Luke 2:29–32).
Mary again felt the shivering wonder that her baby, this one she nursed and changed and bathed and cradled, was “Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
Simeon, still gazing adoringly at the child, said, “Years ago the Lord promised me that death would not come until I had seen his Christ. Today, I opened my eyes while praying and there you were — an infant! I had never thought you would be an infant!” Looking to Joseph with laughing eyes, he said, “One never thinks of the Christ as an infant!”
With a kiss of blessing Simeon softly placed Jesus back in his mother’s arms. He dried his eyes with a sleeve and turned to Joseph, laying a hand on his shoulder, and said, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed, so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34–35).
Then turning back to Mary, he gently cupped her head with his hands and said tearfully, “And a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:35). He kissed her forehead and with one last look at the child, he moved away slowly through the crowd.

“A sword will pierce through your own soul.” The most wonderful, gracious event in human history was God sending his Son into the world — to the cross — to “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21), and this gracious event caused indescribable grief for Mary. This is important to note.
As God works out his salvation of sinners, he leads us along unexpected paths that result in unexpected and sometimes agonizing pain. When it does, we can remember Mary. The darkest moment of her life, the sword that stabbed deepest into her soul, was the moment that God used most to bring salvation and joy to the world — and to her!
That’s how he works with us too. When the sword pierces, all it feels like is terrible pain. But later we discover that our deepest wounding often becomes the channel through which the most profound grace flows.