December 6, 2016

How Silently

How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him, still the dear Christ enters in.
Phillips Brooks, O Little Town of Bethlehem

These words are, in my estimation, some of the most attractive in all the carols of Christmas. The poetry itself is elegant (did you notice more than one rhyme scheme?). And Lewis Redner’s famous tune backs the words marvelously. And, most of all, the theology is grand as well! For, says Brooks, just in the same way that Jesus came into the world in relative silence, so He enters many a heart in much the same way! And that is worth our pondering for a few moments this Christmas season.

Now, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that that famous stable in Bethlehem was not literally silent on that first Christmas night. I have six-fold experience that tells me childbirth is not quite like a gentle stroll through the freshly fallen snow! There is some little commotion, isn’t there? And, of course, there was a choir of angels singing out in the nearby fields that holy night, too! So Jesus didn’t literally come into the world in absolute silence. But I think the sense of Brooks’ words is that it was a relatively peaceful and secluded scene that night in Bethlehem. Yes, the magi would eventually bring a regal procession to the scene. But that first night, it was just a poor young couple, and their little son, and a few shepherds quietly enjoying God’s gift. Not much hubbub, outside the angel songs out in the fields. No great human announcements, pronouncements, or crowds (as when a British Royal finds herself, even in the throes of labor, followed by the paparazzi all the way to the door of the hospital). Not much that would indicate, to a passerby, that this was anything but a sweet little no-name couple, cuddling their firstborn son. As far as the world stage was concerned, this King came into the world rather “silently.”

And “so” (or, in the same way), says Brooks, God also sends His Son and His salvation into the dark nights of our hearts. It’s true that, sometimes, God engages in His saving work as with “a noise like a violent rushing wind.” Sometimes, for His glory, God converts people to Christ in very public and noisy ways (as with the demoniac in Mark 5, for instance). But very often, too, Christ enters the souls of sinners relatively quietly, as with “a sound of a gentle blowing” (think of Lydia in Acts 16). Or sometimes God imparts Christ and heaven to human hearts with what one church calls ‘gospel + safety + time.’ That is to say that, as the good news is proclaimed, and as sinners are loved (rather than condemned) by those who seek to win them, and as God gives time for these things to marinate, Christ enters many hearts … gently, quietly, almost silently. The changes will eventually be obvious, to be sure! But, to borrow from C.S. Lewis, they may appear on the horizon of the soul something like the gentle rising of the sun, rather than like a lightning bolt. “No ear may hear His coming.” And eyes may at first have trouble perceiving exactly what God is doing in a given soul. But He is doing it just the same, just as He was in that relatively obscure and quiet stable in Bethlehem!

Do we, therefore, discount the lightning bolt conversions? No! On the contrary, we pray for them! And we continue to urge people to repentance and faith with urgency, because we do not know how much time any given person may have before it is forever too late for turning to Christ! And yet we also realize that God does know the timing, and that He chooses to bring many people to Christ slowly, quietly, patiently, and often (as with His Son in Bethlehem) without some of the fanfare that we might have expected if we were writing the script. And therefore we do not grow discouraged (and we keep on working, praying, and believing) even when ‘all is quiet.’ It was quiet in Bethlehem 2000 years ago … and yet God was working the greatest work that ever was wrought! And He continues to gather its fruit even to this day. “No ear may hear His coming, but in the world of Sin, where meek souls will receive Him, still the dear Christ enters in.”

December 1, 2016

Light Bulbs for Lottie Moon

You yourselves also know, Philippians, that at the first preaching of the gospel, after I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving but you alone; for even in Thessalonica you sent a gift more than once for my needs. Philippians 4:15-16

These are the words of a grateful missionary. Paul was out in the far reaches of the earth, preaching and praying and loving the people with all the strength that God would give him. But he knew that he was desperately dependent on those back home who supported him financially. There were times when he didn’t have that support, so he had to work a secular job to keep himself afloat. But there was this one church—the church at Philippi—which he knew he could count on. There was this one church that, when everyone else seemed to forget about the missionaries, didn’t forget. There was this one church that, again and again, sent Paul supplies and monetary support. So Paul’s letter to the Philippians is, in large measure, a thank you note.

Wouldn’t it be gratifying to get a letter like that from someone so committed to and successful in missionary endeavors as Paul? Wouldn’t it be gratifying to know that your giving was leading to the conversion of precious souls in some far-off corner of the globe? Just think about how many people came into the kingdom because the Philippians’ financial support enabled Paul to devote himself to full-time ministry! When you think of it like that, giving to missions becomes very exciting!

This is what I hope our Lottie Moon Christmas Offering® (100% of which supports our Southern Baptist international missionaries) is for our congregation—exciting! One of my most prized childhood memories is the Lottie Moon® offering in our church. I didn’t know who Lottie Moon was. I didn’t really know how all the money was gathered and disbursed. But somehow this money was going to help people hear about Jesus. And the church folks seemed to be excited about it!

We collected our offering throughout the month of December … and every year we had a church-wide goal—let’s say $2000. On the wall, just to the left of the baptistery, there would be a Christmas wreath with ten big Christmas light-bulbs on it. Each bulb represented $200. For every $200 dollars that came in, another light would be lit up. So every week through advent season, it was a delight to arrive in the church auditorium to see how many lights were lit up this Sunday. And I think many of the adults enjoyed it as much as us kids. Giving to missions was fun! I can assure you, I look back with much more joy on that Lottie Moon wreath than on any Christmas present I ever got. More importantly, in heaven I’ll rejoice more in those $200 light bulbs than in all my earthly possessions put together!

What about you? Do you love the cause of world missions? Do you get excited about being a part of it through “giving and receiving”? Is the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering®; (or your church's equivalent) fun for you? You don’t need a wreath to make it so. You don’t need light bulbs, either. You just need a Philippian heart. You need an eternal perspective on your money. You need a compassion for souls and a passion for the fame of Jesus. Then giving to missions will be a delight! And the more you give, the more delightful!

November 22, 2016

"In everything give thanks"

It is such a good thing that we have this national holiday, every fourth Thursday of November, to remind us to give thanks to the One who “gives to all people life and breath and all things” (Acts 17:25). Indeed, the Thanksgiving holiday itself is another one of those things for which we should give God thanks! And, of course, we can readily think of many other blessings for which to thank Him this late November. Some of us have had very signal blessings in the last year … or very timely deliverances. Many of us have family reasons for praise, or business reasons, or health reasons, or church reasons, or reasons of God drawing especially near to our own souls. God does indeed “satisf[y] your years with good things” (Psalm 103:5).

But what about those years and seasons when the good things seem to be overshadowed by events which, at least on the raw surface of life, seem not so good? Or what about the times when those things for which we normally give thanks around the Thanksgiving table seem to be few and far between? Even then, the apostle Paul would remind us, we can and should give thanks. “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:18, emphasis added). Not just when the reports are rosy; not just when you have the typical Thanksgiving round of reasons; but “in everything give thanks”!

Is that realistic? Is it just phony? How do the bereaved give thanks when a loved one’s place is now empty at the Thanksgiving feast? How do the lonely give thanks when they have no one to feast with at all? How do the unemployed give thanks? Or the cancer ridden, or those discouraged in their dead-end job? Should we just plaster on a smile and ‘say the right thing’? Or is there something even more to genuine thanksgiving than just the obvious reasons why most Americans (rightly) give thanks?

Well, there is the simple fact of the gospel, isn’t there? So that, if you belong to Christ, even if you cannot think of anything else for which to give thanks, you can give thanks for His shed blood, and for the forgiveness and eternal life that you have in Him! Because of Him, you can be thankful in spite of your circumstances!

But 1 Thessalonians 5:18 calls for something even more, it seems to me – not just thanksgiving in spite of our circumstances, but actually giving thanks in those circumstances. And that means that we must thank God for what He is doing in our trials, in our bereavement, in our discouragement. And what is He doing? Well, we don’t always know the fine print! And sometimes we can’t even seem to read vast sections of the large print! But, if we are in Christ; if we “love God”; if we “are called according to His purpose”, then “we know” that, even if we cannot see it, God is working every trial and heartache for our everlasting good (Romans 8:28). And we know (Romans 8:32), that if God was willing to give us His very best – His own Son! – then surely He will not withhold anything else that is needful. And we know that “the LORD is near to the brokenhearted” (Psalm 34:18) and that “the angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear Him” (Psalm 34:7). And so we can thank God, not just in spite of our trials, but for what He is doing in our trials – upholding us, encamping round us, drawing especially near to us in sorrow, wisely working good that we cannot yet see … and promising, with His Son as the earnest payment (Rom 8:32), that He will continue doing these things every moment of our lives!

So then, thank God around the tables at Thanksgiving! Thank Him for family, and friends, and health, and safety, and all that is going obviously well in your life. But thank Him, too, for how He is wise and good and faithful and strong even when “the mountains slip into the heart of the sea.” Even then, He is “a very present help.” And so, even then, we may give thanks.

November 16, 2016

Sermons from Psalms 145-150

We recently completed our lenghty and periodic journey through the book of Psalms.  Here are the final six sermons in the series:

Psalm 145 - "Every day I will bless you" - mp3
Psalm 146 - "Do not trust in princes" - mp3
Psalm 147 - A Psalm of Thanksgiving - mp3
Psalm 148 - All Creatures of Our God and King* - mp3
Psalm 149 - A Song and a ... Sword? - mp3
Psalm 150 - "Let everything that has breath praise the LORD" - mp3

Some (though not all) of the sermons from prior psalms are available here.  May the listener be helped and encouraged, and may the Lord be praised as we hear from this marvelous book of the Bible!

____________

*The sermon title for Psalm 148 was taken from the hymn of the same title by Francis of Assisi, paraphrased in English by William Draper.

November 14, 2016

Celebrate Well!

The craze of ‘the holiday season’ is nearly upon us. And I must confess that, as a child of American culture, I really do prize it as ‘the most wonderful time of the year’! The unique traditions, the broccoli casserole, the time with family, the carols and hot chocolate – all of them make the five weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s loads of fun. Indeed, though I don’t usually buy all that much, I even enjoy maybe an hour stroll around the mall with giant nutcrackers situated here and there, and Kenny G’s Christmas album playing in the background. I can only imagine if I lived in Europe with its open air Christmas markets! And it’s all about to hit!

But when it hits, along with all the delights of the holidays will also come all the busyness, the added obligations, the mania, and maybe even our own inner humbugs – much of which can suck the life, not only out of the season, but of the soul. And the soul is too valuable to be run over (or treated merely as someone’s target demographic) for the final five weeks of the year! And, indeed, the opportunities of this season are too valuable to be lost in the shuffle and the mad rush. So, a few tips for celebrating well instead of wearily …

Schedule wisely. You don’t have to do everything, be everywhere, see absolutely everyone, and make every party. Rejoice, yes! Get out of the house, to be sure. Eat well! But make sure you temper your schedule so as to eat with, rejoice with, and get out of the house for those who really need it most, those who really need you most – your children, your spouse, your siblings and parents, your church family, your close friends, and “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” (Luke 14:12-14). Don’t get caught in a holiday rat race. Slow down enough to enjoy the people that God gives you this holiday season! Give your energy to moments, and not mania.

Give generously. Douglas Wilson has written marvelously about why it is a good thing indeed to lavishly celebrate the birth of Christ! “Use fudge and eggnog and wine and roast beef. Use presents and wrapping paper.” We are celebrating after all! And thus presents under the tree (within the bounds of sanity) are a good thing! And it is an especially good thing if we lavish such gifts on those who need them most – the poor, the outcast, the gospel-starved. That is why inviting someone on the fringes to your holiday feast, and shopping for Operation Christmas Child, and giving to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering® are so fulfilling – because they allow us to celebrate and rejoice and give gifts … and do so, at the same time, with eternal purpose! So give generously over these final weeks of the year – to those near, who already celebrate Christ with you; and for the sake of those far, whom you long to see, someday, join you in the heavenly banquet hall.

Worship intentionally. Sometimes, like Martha (Luke 10:38-42), we can get so busy with all the preparations for the event that we forget why we’re having the event in the first place (or for whom)! So celebrate, yes! But don’t focus so much attention on the tinsel, and treats, and toys that you forget that there is a reason for all this merry-making! Pause, rather, amid all the pure fun … and turn your attention to the manger in Bethlehem, and to the God-man who lay there that He might live, die, and live again to “save His people from their sins.” Carve out time for real thanksgiving on Thanksgiving, and for the Christmas story on Christmas, and for caroling and praise throughout December, and for a family trip to a Christmas service (on Sunday this year!). This will feed your soul, and make all the delights of the body all the more meaningful and sweet.

Celebrating with you ...