December 12, 2017

Uncomfortable Christmas

We’d all like our Christmases to fit quaintly, picturesquely, onto a holiday postcard. A fresh layer of snow blanketing the ground, and spread perfectly, like icing, on every ledge of the house. Warm light glowing from the windows. The scent of apples, cinnamon, and warm meat lingering, enticingly, in the air. All the family gathered happily ‘round the fire or the tree. And, of course, cards mailed and presents bought and wrapped, well in advance! This is Christmas, as many of us envision it. It’s certainly how I like my late Decembers to look and feel. I long for my family to have our own little “silent night, holy night” on which “all is calm, all is bright.”

But maybe I import a little of my own Christmas longings, expectations, and traditions into the scene in Bethlehem. For, while there surely were parts of that holy night that fit right in with Joseph Mohr’s famous description of it (“silent”, “calm”, and “bright”) … let us also remember that, for Mary and Joseph, the night was probably less-than-quaint in a good many ways, too! They were living out of a suitcase on that holy night in Bethlehem. And few of us like to do that. Let’s not forget, either, that Mary was nine months pregnant, which comes with its own set of discomforts (which are usually not the portrait of Christmas cheer and charm, for the mother!). And that’s before we think about the process of actually giving birth! Remember, too, that things hadn’t quite worked out as well as the young couple might have hoped with the whole lodging situation. And so they weren’t staying at the Holiday Inn, or at a warm little cottage is the snowy woods, or even at grandma’s house! Surely it was, in many ways, an awkward and uncomfortable first Christmas, there in Bethlehem! Had we lived through it ourselves, methinks it would have seemed anything but picturesque!

And yet it was into a scene like this – not the one on the postcard, but the one in which a young couple is seriously roughing it – that Christ came to be Immanuel, “God with us”! It was on an uncomfortable first Christmas that God chose to send the world His joy, and peace, and hope, and mercy, and salvation in Christ! Why? I think as a reminder that God, in Christ, offers hope in the midst of our own less-than-picturesque lives! Sin has left us roughing it! And Christ has come as a Savior, not into a scene from Currier and Ives, but into the dirty snow cast up by the ever churning wheels of our brokenness.

Does that mean I am intentionally going to try and make my Christmas more like uncomfortable Bethlehem, and less like a Thomas Kinkade painting? No! But it does mean that, if this holiday season is awkward, lonely, difficult, nerve-wracking, painful, marked by failure, or in any other way lacking in traditional charm, I need not think that I have missed Christmas. For Christmas is about the coming of Christ! And this Christ chose to show up, that first Christmas, not in the postcard, but in a scene lot more like our own scrambled Christmases than we are sometimes prone to remember! And this Christmas (as in all the other seasons of our muddled lives); this Christmas, whether “all is calm and bright” or not – and precisely because, in reality, it is not – Christ will come to His broken people still.

December 4, 2017

Christmas and Missions

Every year at Pleasant Ridge, our missions emphasis overlaps with Christmastime. For good reason, Southern Baptists collect a Lottie Moon Christmas Offering®. Taking a cue from the Methodists of her day, the great Southern Baptist missionary, Lottie Moon (the offering’s namesake), pointed out to her own denomination how Christmas, the time of giving, is an appropriate time for giving, specifically, to world missions! And so Christmas and missions have long gone hand-in-hand for Southern Baptists!

But missions and Christmas overlap, not just because Christmas is a great time for giving, and specifically for giving to missions. Christmas and missions overlap theologically, as well! For one thing, as my friend David Bass reminded us in a sermon many years ago, Jesus, in His incarnation and earthly ministry, was the great missionary – leaving His home in heaven, and going on mission to lost and dying people who needed the good news! That’s what missionaries do, isn’t it? They leave home, and go on mission to some needy place, for the sake of the gospel! And that is what Christ did in entering the womb of Mary and the world of men! He was the greatest missionary! Christmas is about a missionary journey!

And not only that; not only was Christ’s coming to earth a mission trip, in itself … but it was the foundation and impetus for many centuries more of missionary endeavor; many centuries more of getting the gospel to the far reaches of the planet. The angels, at Christ’s birth, announced “good news of great joy … for all the people” (Luke 2:10, emphasis added). And Micah prophesied that the child of Bethlehem “will be great To the ends of the earth” (Micah 5:4, emphasis added). Wrapped up in the incarnation, in other words, is the expectation of world missions; the expectation that the news of Christ will get out, the world over!

In fact, we sing this expectation every year, too, don’t we? “Joy to the world”, Isaac Watts taught us to exclaim … because Jesus “comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found”. And, to “our long-expected Jesus,” Charles Wesley has taught us to cry, “hope of all the earth Thou art.” The birth of Christ, as John W. Work Jr. has taught us, compels us to “go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere” (emphasis, through this paragraph, is added).

And so I urge you to always keep these two things together – Christmas and missions. Let the thought of Christ’s mission to this desperate and needy world set your sights, and prayers, and desires, and generosity on the parts of it that are still desperate and needy for the “good news of great joy” which comes only in Christ!

November 30, 2017

December Devotions

In spite of all the unhealthy trappings of the holiday season, we are greatly blessed to have this yearly, cultural reminder of the promise and coming of “God with us”! And it is well if we capture that seasonal momentum, leveraging it toward the fixing of our gaze on the miracle of the incarnation. So, since we are already surrounded by the sights and sounds of Christmas, why not gear our personal or family devotions along the same lines? Why not spend the month of December reading, as individuals and/or families, a series of passages that will help us to consider the need, the promise, the narrative, and the blessings of the coming of Immanuel?

Sound like a plan? If so, print this article, tuck it into your Bible, and use the plan that I have sketched out below. Basically, I have selected five readings per week, for each of the four full weeks of December. The selections (meant to be read in order) begin by helping us see the need for the Savior, move to the promise of His coming, and then shift to the narrative and blessings of that coming. I hope and trust that, should you choose to make use of this little plan, it will prove a blessing.

     Week 1 (12/3-9)
     Genesis 1:1-25
     Genesis 1:26-2:3
     Genesis 3:1-7
     Genesis 3:8-15
     Genesis 3:16-24

     Week 2 (12/10-16)
     Isaiah 9:1-7
     Micah 5:2-5a
     Luke 1:26-38
     Luke 1:46-55
     John 1:1-14

     Week 3 (12/17-23)
     Galatians 4:4-5
     Matthew 1:18-25
     Luke 2:1-7
     2 Corinthians 8:9
     Luke 2:8-14

     Week 4 (12/24-30)
     Luke 2:15-21
     Matthew 2:1-12
     Luke 2:22-40
     John 3:16-17
     1 Peter 3:18

May God richly bless you and yours this Christmas season!

November 3, 2017

Wait, What?

The LORD had just delivered His people from the madness of Pharaoh … parting the waters of the Red Sea, bringing them safely across, and then letting gravity resume its course when Pharaoh and his hoards ventured onto the seabed. “Then they believed His words” we are told in Psalm 106:12. And then “they sang His praise.” And rightly so! They had doubted Him (v.7) when their backs were against the wall of the Sea, with Pharaoh in hot pursuit. But God had saved them anyway, “for the sake of His name” (v.8)! And rightly did they sing! And rightly did they now believe God’s promises to them! It must have been a marvelous scene!

And they all lived happily ever after, right? They went right on their way from the Red Sea, singing with faith, right? Surely that’s what the psalm will tell us! So let’s keep reading this story of triumph:

Then they believed His words;
They sang His praise.
They quickly forgot His works;
They did not wait for His counsel
Psalm 106:12-13

Wait, what?

Did I miss something between verses 12 and 13? They believed God? Yes. They sang? Yes, and rightly so! And the very next thing we read is that these same people forgot the mighty deeds, and “did not wait for [the] counsel” of the very same God who had just rescued them? Yes!

I know, I know. Most of us know the details of these events well enough that verse 13 doesn’t actually surprise us. We know about the Israelites’ backsliding. But it still ought to startle us to read about the rapidity of it! “They believed His words; They sang His praise” … and, without missing a beat, the very next words of the psalm are: “They quickly forgot His works; They did not wait for His counsel”? Not to say that they forgot and became impatient as rapidly as we can read about it in Psalm 106. But it did happen “quickly”! And the rapidity of the about-face between vv.12-13 is startling. And so are the sad details of that about-face, rehearsed for us as we read on in the psalm.

How quickly Israel forgot the kindnesses and promises and mighty acts of their God! And how rapidly they began doing things their own way! And aren’t we glad that we are not like that? Except that, sometimes, we kind of are!

Now it’s true, the New Covenant people of God (all of whom are truly converted, Jeremiah 31:31-34) will not usually turn as far, and forget as deeply, as Old Testament Israel sometimes did. And we praise God for that! But, even though we who have been born again may not typically fall as hard or as far as the Israelites, we still often find ourselves fairly rapidly forgetting the promises of God, and the mighty deeds that He has done, and the prayers He has answered. And we still often find ourselves doing things our own way, don’t we? We still find ourselves, sometimes, moving fairly quickly from faith to forgetfulness, and from singing to self-direction! We still sometimes find ourselves doubting, sulking, murmuring, despairing, disobeying, and taking matters into our own hands.

Sometimes the testimony of our lives can read: ‘They believed! They sang! They forgot! They turned to their own ways!’ So let us be warned by the rapid backsliding of Israel. By God’s grace, let us cultivate better memories! And by His grace, let us dig deeper wells of faith! And the better those memories, and the deeper those wells, the more consistent will be the songs and the obedience which flow from them!

October 26, 2017

Post Tenebras Lux

Or in English: ‘After Darkness, Light.’ This became a motto the Protestant Reformation. For, after centuries of unbiblical, superstitious, soul-destroying Roman Catholic darkness … God, through the reformers, made His gospel light to shine clearly once more. Post Tenebras Lux.

But this phrase, famously connected with the Reformation, could equally be described of other great periods in the history of God’s dealings with mankind, could it not? And it could be written as the caption beneath many lesser-known interventions of God, as well.

We might hang this beautiful Latin phrase as a banner over the great reformation and revival that took place under King Josiah of old (2 Kings 22-23), when God’s book was (literally) rediscovered, and God’s worship was rightly restored. Post Tenebras Lux.

We might also inscribe these lovely words on the record-books of the great Evangelical Awakening that overspread Great Britain in the 18th century. The clouds had grown dark, spiritually and morally, by the early 1700’s. But, through the preaching of men like Whitefield, Wesley, Rowlands, and others, the light of Christ dawned once more. Post Tenebras Lux.

Your own story, too (if you are in Christ) is an example of this same theme, is it not? Your sins left you shrouded in darkness. But God, in the gospel of His dear Son, “called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Post Tenebras Lux.

And, of course, the greatest bursting of light into darkness came when Christ Himself, “the Light of the world”, entered into the darkness, not only of “Galilee of the Gentiles” and Judea of the Pharisees, but of an entire world fallen into sin … so that “the people who walk in darkness” (the Galileans, in Isaiah 9:2; but not limited to them, in the grand scheme of things) would “see a great light.” Post Tenebras Lux.

‘After darkness, light’ is God’s modus operandi, you see! He loves to rescue, redeem, restore, and revive. And the Reformation, whose 500th anniversary is nearly upon us, is one of the greatest examples of this love! And there are many more examples, too – each of which should add to our confidence in the Post Tenebras Lux God! Each of them should urge us – when we think of the spiritual night that seems to be descending upon our land, or the deep darkness in which some of our family or friends continue to walk – “to pray and not to lose heart.” God is still the God of Post Tenebras Lux!