December 28, 2015

Old Habits for a New Year

We, as a culture, are obsessed with the new. And, in some ways, understandably so. Because the last 3-4 generations of Americans have lived through the most rapidly changing technological advances, perhaps since the days of Tubal-cain in Genesis 4:22! My German grandmother used to travel to America, not on a jet, nor even a propeller plane, but on a ship! My father has told me stories, from his boyhood, about buying blocks of ice with which to refrigerate their food. When my mother was growing up in Montana, there were still Native Americans who spent at least part of the year in teepees! And I myself can distinctly remember when our family got its first microwave and VCR (under 25’s may have to ask your parents what a VCR is!).

But here we are today with super-charged computers travelling around with us in our pockets. And just look at the special effects in the movies, say from the first Star Wars flicks until now. This week I sent a Christmas card to China instantaneously. And on and on we could go! And so of course we are a little enamored with that which is latest and greatest. Because we have been the recipient of so many of the benefits of ‘new.’ Today we have an app for just about everything!

But some things never change. Indeed, the most important things never change. And when it comes to the Christian’s walk with the Lord, it is still in “the ancient paths” that we will find “the good way” (Jeremiah 6:16). Our spiritual growth will still be watered from the same basins whose names Sunday School children have been reciting for decades and centuries – Bible reading, prayer, and going to church. Yes, there may be apps to help you do the first two of those things! But the fundamental habits are still the same, are they not?

If you want to grow, you should set your eyes regularly on the word of God. It should be a daily routine to seek the voice of the Lord in His written word. Maybe a chapter a day in 2016. Maybe more. Maybe less. Maybe in a paper Bible. Maybe through an app. But it is still a simple and basic truth that the word of God is “the pure milk” by which we “may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). So drink it in in this coming new year – the same milk that Christians have been drinking for centuries. Keep yourself in (or return to) “the ancient paths.”

And the same can be said of prayer. Every child in Sunday School knows that we ought to do it. But most of us, as adults, struggle to cry to the Lord nearly as often as we should. Maybe it’s all the new inventions that keep us from the old paths of prayer! But it is fundamental to find time to be with God in your closet – confessing your sins, thanking Him Christ, praising His character, presenting your own requests and those of your church family, remembering the missionaries and unreached peoples, petitioning on behalf of the persecuted church, and so on. This is “where the good way is” – the pathway of prayer. “Walk in it” in 2016.

And then there is, perhaps, the most basic fundamental of all … which is simply a commitment to be in church every healthy Sunday, hearing the word of God and fellowshipping with the people of God. Would you commit to that in 2016? Would you “remember the Sabbath” by setting aside any and every other Sunday activity so that you can fix your mind and heart on God each Lord’s Day? Indeed, would you plan even your out-of-town trips so that you need never have a Sunday outside the walls of a church (whether your own, or one you visit when away)? You will not thrive like you ought if you seek to live your Christian life, even partially, on your own. But with God and His people, you will prosper! So commit to the church of Jesus Christ in 2016 … “not forsaking our own assembling together, but encouraging one another.”

Finally, let me encourage you who are heads of households to implement the above disciplines in your family as well! Gather together daily for family worship – for family Bible reading, prayer, and song! And take up what Terry Johnson calls a family pew. In other words, let Sunday church be such an inviolable habit for you, your wife, and your children that it’s almost like you have a reserved seat!

There is nothing new in anything that I am saying, is there? I’ve said these things more than once before. And they have been the staples of Christian growth for two millennia. But this is “where the good way is” – not in the latest innovation, but in “the ancient paths.” Walk in them, more than ever, in 2016!

December 24, 2015

Sea Sickness, Christmas, and the Gospel

Have you ever been sea-sick? I had an up-close-and-personal experience with it last Tuesday. No, alas, we haven’t been up on Lake Erie. But Tobey and I did go and see In the Heart of the Sea at the theatre Tuesday night – the fascinating (and mostly true) story of an 1820’s whaleship, stove and sunk by a giant sperm whale, and what became of the desperate crew. Having enjoyed Moby Dick, and having read briefly of this story which helped inspire Melville’s novel, I was excited to see the film. But, of course, the story takes place mostly at sea. And (rightly so) there is camera work to match – up, down, and around with the crashing of whale and waves. Indeed, in the mind of this amateur, the filming was really quite excellent.

But here’s the deal. Have you seen those home video’s where the dad is filming his kids? And the camera work is a little shaky? And then he whips around the room, following one kid and then another. It literally makes me nauseous – not the doting of the dad (which I get now!), but the here, there, and everywhere of the camera. And such, I suppose, is the nature of the cinematography when making a movie about a whaling vessel bead-butted by an 85 foot long whale! Great work! But not great for the faint of equilibrium! I had to give it up halfway through, and go read the movie’s Wikipedia page out in the hallway!

And what has all this to do with Christmas?

Well, it occurs to me that, on the surface of things, going on a whaling voyage seems quite exciting – romantic even. Leaving my own landlocked world, and venturing out onto the open seas? What an adventure it would be! But, while I’d like to think that my lightheadedness is only related to dizzying camera movements, what if I got out on the wide Pacific and found my head spinning for months on end? It’s not always, in other words, as romantic as it seems to leave one world and enter another – especially when that other world is tumultuous and distressing.

And so it is good to remember that, quaint as Christmas seems to us, entering into this sin-tossed world was not just an adventurous fling for Christ! He knew the troubled waters that lay ahead. He was not a naïve greenhorn, shoving off blithely onto this riotous sea! Indeed, He was full aware of the temptation and hardship He would face (and the blood He would spill) entering into the roiling waters of our planet. And yet He made the voyage just the same. And He withstood the waves, and the difficulty, and the opposition without losing His equilibrium for even a moment. “He was tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin”* and He “endured the cross”* (for our sin) willingly, and without exiting the theatre because He couldn’t handle the drama. He held fast through all the storm, all the sickness, all the blood, and all the sin of this world … for me and my salvation. And for everyone who will call upon His name, each of you friends and family inclusive.

So do enjoy the quaint of Christmas! I certainly will! But remember, too, that, for Jesus, the incarnation was not just a romantic adventure – but a commitment to 33 years on an open and unfriendly sea. And marvel that He came to begin with – and that, unlike yours truly, He stayed on until the end – battered, broken, but unstained … and finally victorious. Marvel. And believe. For “whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”*

And, on behalf of the Cincinnati Strassners … Merry Christmas!

December 23, 2015

Christmas Poem, 2015: A Thousand Thoughts Ran Through Her Mind

I've just completed this year's Christmas poem ... to be read, Lord willing, at tomorrow evening's Christmas Eve gathering at PRBC (6:30pm).  Keep in mind, as always, that these poems have a good deal of reading between the lines in them ... as I try and place myself into the history and wonder about the sorts of things that may have gone through the minds of the various players in the incarnation accounts.  I'm wondering these things aloud, not to try and re-write the story (much less to assert that my imaginings are factual), but simply as a way of getting at the narratives afresh, and trying to draw some lessons from them.

You can listen to the poem here, or read it below the page break.

Christmas Poetry

Most every year at our church's Christmas Eve service, I read a Christmas poem - an imaginative (but biblical) angle on the incarnation ... seen, each succeeding year, from the perspective of a different player in the drama of the incarnation. Here they all are, collected in one place, now with audio files included:

2003 - There's Always Wheat Among the Tares (Simeon) - Read - Listen
2004 - Let them Say what they will Say (Joseph) - Read - Listen
2005 - The Not-So Wise Man (Magi) - Read - Listen
2006 - Lost Sheep, that's who the Shepherd's for (shepherds) - Read - Listen
2007 - Pregnant Pause (Zachariah) - Read - Listen
2008 - The Day I Leapt for Someone Else (John the Baptist) - Read - Listen
2009 - House of Bread (a shepherd) - Read - Listen
2010 - Just when you Think all Hope is Gone (Anna) - Read - Listen
2012 - The Return of the Magi (Magi) - Read - Listen
2014 - Good News, Great Joy for People All - Read - Listen
2015 - A Thousand Thoughts Ran Through Her Mind (Mary) - Read - Listen

December 18, 2015

Sermons on the Beatitudes

We just finished a series of sermons working our way through each of the eight Beatitudes.  Listen in.

Matthew 5:3 - "Blessed are the poor in spirit" - mp3
Matthew 5:4 - "Blessed are those who mourn" - mp3
Matthew 5:5 - "Blessed are the gentle" - mp3
Matthew 5:6 - "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness" - mp3
Matthew 5:7 - "Blessed are the merciful" - mp3
Matthew 5:8 - "Blessed are the pure in heart" - mp3
Matthew 5:9 - "Blessed are the peacemakers" - mp3
Matthew 5:10-12 - "Blessed are those who have been persecuted
                                    for the sake of righteousness" - mp3

December 17, 2015

"The Word became flesh"

It's one of the most beautiful of passages, isn't it?  "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God ... And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory." (John 1.1, 14).

But why?  Why did God become flesh?  Ten Reasons:

1. So that sinful men might see God. God, majestic on His throne, cannot even be approached by sinful men (much less seen by them), lest they be incinerated by His holiness. But in Bethlehem, Mary, Joseph, and a group of ragamuffin shepherds laid eyes on Him who is very God of very God. And so may we. “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (John 1.18).

2. To testify to the truth. Jesus was born to teach. The crowds were amazed as He spoke for God with authority and understandability. “For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (John 18.37).

3. To bring grace and truth together. Truth without grace is hard. And so many legalistic people (Old Testament and New) experience the hardness of the Law without a Savior. But Jesus came, upholding the highest standards of truth … yet lavishing the greatest mercy on people who were unable to live up to them – see John 8. “The law was given through Moses…grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (John 1.17).

4. So He might “save His people from their sins” (Matt 1.21). Sin must be punished. But God has a purpose to set sinners free. So how will He do it? He will lay their sins on another. But who is there who has no sins of his own for which he must pay? There is no one like that … unless God Himself, the only sinless one, becomes a man and dies for sins Himself!

5. To be a “light of Revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2.32). Up until that holy night in Bethlehem, God’s plan of salvation had been at work almost exclusively among the Jews. But the Babe was born to bring salvation to every tongue and tribe – and that means us!

6. So we might be God’s children. Not only does God forgive our sins and treat us as righteous. He also adopts us as His beloved children. That’s why “in the fullness of time God sent forth His Son, born of a woman … so that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal 4.4).

7. To rule the world. The lowly child in the manger came to take over this planet – and your life. “His kingdom shall have no end” (Luke 1.33).  "He will be great to the ends of the earth" (Micah 5:4).

8. To bring peace for the future. Isaiah prophesied that “every boot of the booted warrior in the battle of tumult, and cloak rolled in blood, will be for burning, fuel for the fire. For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us…” (Is 9.5-6). That baby of Bethlehem is going to one day bring about an end to all war, famine, pain, revenge, and evil. What a day!

9. To bring peace on earth now. The angels sang “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among men with whom He is pleased.” Resting in Jesus, we have peace even now, though the world crumbles around us.

10. To prove that God does the impossible. If God can become man, and come to dwell in a teenager’s womb, surely He can meet you in your “impossible” circumstances as well! For “nothing will be possible with God” (Luke 1.26-38).

Ten reasons the Word became flesh.  Ten reasons to celebrate this Christmas!

Taken from a previous article: Ten Reasons God Became Flesh.  See also the blog category 10 Reasons for other, similar lists.

December 10, 2015

Sermons from the Book of Joshua

We just completed a fairly brief study of the book of Joshua.  Listen in.

Joshua 1 - "Be strong and courageous" - mp3
Joshua 2 - An Unlikely Candidate - mp3
Joshua 3-4 - Crossing the Jordan - mp3
Joshua 5 - Lessons from Gilgal - mp3
Joshua 6 - The Importance of Words - mp3
Joshua 7-8 - Sin in the Camp - mp3
Joshua 9:1-10:15 - Lesson from Gibeon - mp3
Joshua 10:16-12:24 - "He left nothing undone" - mp3
Joshua 13-19 - Every Tribe in Place - mp3
Joshua 20-22 - Special Cities, and a Special Altar - mp3
Joshua 23-24 - "Choose for yourselves today whom you will serve" - mp3

December 8, 2015

Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh

These, of course, were the most famous Christmas gifts of all! And they remind us that our tradition of Christmas gift-giving is not totally unfounded. But what will we give to Jesus this Christmas? He was the object of the magi’s affection and openhandedness. Will He be the object of ours? It may seem simplistic, even cliché, to ask it. But I think it’s a legitimate question: What will I give to Jesus this Christmas?

A few suggestions:

Give Him your sins. Doesn’t sound like a very good gift, does it? But that is why Jesus came, is it not? To take our sins upon Himself, and to carry them away from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). And yet, so often, we like to keep them right in our own ZIP+4 don’t we? But isn’t it time we gave them up? And isn’t it time we gave them over to Jesus in repentance? He’ll gladly take them, and receive your repentance as an act of love toward Himself.

Give Him your obedience. Now this is not all that unlike the previous point, is it? To give up your sin is basically one and the same with giving obedience. But there are sins of commission … the kind we must stop. And then there are sins of omission … the kind whose antidote is that we start doing what we have so far neglected. And some of us need, this Christmas season, to give to Jesus a commitment to begin doing that which we have far too long allowed to slide. What is it for you? Something that you know you need to do, but have been dragging your feet about doing? There is no better time than the present to give Jesus your obedience!

Give Him your time. Sometimes our greatest gifts might not be those things we ought to be doing for Jesus, but the time we ought simply to be spending with Jesus. Remember Mary and Martha. What was best, on that day, was not Martha’s bustle, but Mary’s willingness to sit with Jesus and listen. How long since you did that? Not a rushed devotion or a quick prayer … but real time with the Lord, listening carefully and unburdening your soul unguardedly with Jesus your friend. If it’s been far too long, now you know what to give to Jesus this Christmas … and every other time of year, too! He’ll be more than glad to have lunch or coffee with you!

Give Him your spiritual gifts. Now here we talk about gifts given to us by Christ – teaching, giving, admin, hospitality, mercy, and so on. But why has He given them? Not for us to spend on ourselves, or to bury in the ground … but (as with the talents in Jesus’ parable) to invest, as stewards, on the Master’s behalf. So how has the Lord gifted you? And how can you give that gift back to Him, this Christmas, by using it for the good of His kingdom?

Give Him your resources. One of the great blessings that God has given His people in the West is incredible monetary ease. We have enough in this country … and far more than enough! And so we have an obligation, an opportunity, and (yes!) a privilege to translate that financial blessing into kingdom investment. So give Jesus the gift of missionary investment this Christmas. Give to Lottie Moon®, or to HeartCry, or to church planting in new England, or to some other gospel cause you believe in … so that the missionaries will be sent, and the good news will be proclaimed, and the nations will “be glad and sing for joy”, and Christ’s praise will abound to the ends of the earth!

It’s true – Christianity is, at its root, about receiving. In ourselves, we have nothing to offer to God but our sin. And the message of the gospel, therefore, is that God gives to us – new life, and forgiveness, and right standing in His sight, and adoption into His family, and spiritual gifts with which to serve Him, and good laws by which to live, and a heart to keep them, and an eternity in His gracious presence! But we are stewards of these things … not lords. We mustn’t be like those ungrateful children who tear open their gifts without a word of thanks, and then immediately begin shouting ‘MINE’ to anyone who comes within a 24 inch radius. We have been given so much … why? Not so that we might hoard, or spend on ourselves … but so that we might, voluntarily, return the blessings, and the praise, and the gifts, and the good will back to the One who gave them. Let’s do that this December … and the whole year round.

December 1, 2015

Spreading Joy

‘What are the candles for?’ That’s what the Dollar Tree cashier asked me as I laid a handful of taper candles on his conveyor belt this afternoon. I wish I’d been better prepared to answer; to speak of the hope we have in Christ, and how the advent wreath is simply a quaint way of counting down the days and remembering the Babe of Bethlehem, who broke into our world, bringing light to those who walked in darkness. I did get out a few words about counting down, and Jesus’ birth … and I hope the Lord will stir them into a mixture by which that young man will eventually come to know and love the Son of God.

But, reflecting on that little encounter, it occurs to me that ‘tis the season when I will likely have several other unique opportunities for spreading that “good news of great joy” that was announced in Bethlehem, and accomplished in Galilee, Golgotha, and beyond. And it is likely that you will have a unique handful of such opportunities, too. Yes, it’s true that much of the world’s recognition of the virgin, and the manger, and the inn, and the baby is largely just lip service and custom. And there is surely much to lament when people give mere lip service to Christ. And yet the traditions that flourish around us every December do provide us with opportunity to give more than just passing acknowledgement to the events of Bethlehem; to speak more than mere clichés about ‘the reason for the season;’ to actually give meaningful voice to the good news that is in Christ Jesus. Indeed, allow me to mention just a few possibilities you may employ for spreading the “good news of great joy” this Christmas season:

Christmas Letters (or Cards). Many of us feel obliged to send Christmas cards to a whole slew of people each December. Not a bad thing! Well-conceived Christmas letters can be even more of a blessing, because they allow for more considerable outlay of information. And this year, along with the news of your children and vacations, perhaps some strands of the gospel could be woven in as well – some words of gratitude for who Christ is, and what He has done, from the cradle to the cross. Or, if a letter seems daunting, perhaps a few words in season written above your signature inside your Christmas cards. Here is an opportunity for you to write a little gospel tract, and to have it read by a few dozen people!  And what good might God do with it?

Family Worship. The Christmas season finds many of us with added names on our December guest-lists – family, friends, and so on. Why not invite them, before the curtains come down on the evening, to join you for your family devotions? Many of you will be reading passages related to advent, which may capture their attention all the more. But even if you’re reading through Genesis or Romans, family worship can be a marvelous opportunity for your friends and neighbors to see “the hope that is in you.” This principle holds true year-round, but Christmas provides added hosting opportunities for many of us – and Christmas Eve or morning all the more so. On those days, amid all the other festivities, gather your family together to read the nativity accounts. Sing some of the most theologically sound of the carols. Pray thanks to God for sending His Son. And spread the “good news of great joy” right in the middle of your living room!

Christmas Eve Services. This one is simple. Your family knows that you are Christian. So tell them (in the most humble way possible) that you’d really love to attend a Christmas Eve (or morning) service of worship; that you really want to remember and praise Christ on this occasion. That request in itself will be a testimony of what Christ means to you! And all the more so if you can convince some of the family to come along. Our service is at 6:30pm on the 24th. And surely there is a gospel church somewhere near you who will be proclaiming and praising His name on the 24th or 25th. Maybe you can’t get your family to church any other time of year. But this, peradventure, may be the time they will come! And even if they enter the building looking only to add a few coals to the warmth of their holiday traditions, God’s word is “living and active” … and can capture hearts even when they least expect it!

Missions Giving. You and I aren’t the only ones trying to proclaim Christ this December (and January, and February, and so on). All over the world are missionaries working hard to make Christ known where there are no Christmas carols humming through the car radios, and no Christmas Eve services at which to light advent candles. And the people there need the “good news of great joy” just as much as do our own unbelieving neighbors and family. So this Christmas, why not make your top gift-giving priority the cause of world missions? Our church collects a special offering for world missions during the month of December. Perhaps yours does as well. Give to it … generously. Or, if this is not missions month in your congregation, make it so in your family. Give the gift of the gospel to the nations by giving to missions.

And finally, look for those random encounters, like mine at the Dollar Tree – encounters, more correctly, which seem random, but which have been orchestrated by God from eternity past so that some complete stranger might have another little strand of gospel woven into the fabric of his consciousness. “Always [be] ready” says Peter, “to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you.” Let the hope that is in you burst forth this Christmas season! Deck the halls! Buy the candles! Sing the carols! And be readier than I was on a Tuesday afternoon to speak a brief, thoughtful, kind, hopeful, joyful, non-cliché word about Jesus!