December 27, 2016

"The race that is set before us"

“Let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Every day, of course, is ‘the first day of the rest of your life.’ And thus, every day is an opportunity to consider again, and address ourselves afresh, to “the race that is set before us.” But New Year’s Day has a peculiar effect on us – pushing us, by some (perhaps God-given) inner clock, to take stock, and to re-up, and to resolve afresh, and to thoughtfully look out over the next 365 days’ worth of “the race that is set before us” and think it all through. And this yearly calendrical reminder of the need for self-assessment, planning, and goals is a good thing – one that we are wise to make use of in service to our own souls! And I trust many of you are already taking the opportunity in hand … and that a few more of you might, after reading this article.

And as you do so, I do want to urge you to think of 2017 as ‘the first year of the rest of your life;’ the first year of the rest of your Christian race. And I urge you, from our text above, to ask three questions as you consider this next leg of that race:

1. What sin must I lay aside this year? What was the sin, in 2016, “which so easily entangle[d]” me? And how must I, by God’s grace, lay it aside in the year 2017? Indeed, how might I begin that process today, on this first day of the rest of my race?

2. How might I “run with endurance” this year? What slackening of my spiritual pace have I fallen prey to in recent weeks or months? What temptations might there be to pull off to one side of the track in 2017? And how am I going, by God’s grace, to keep from being like Aesop’s hare, or like Bunyan’s pilgrim, and laying down in the middle of the Christian race?

3. How am I going to fix my eyes on Jesus this year? Here is the key to both running with endurance and laying aside our sin – “fixing our eyes on Jesus.” And so how will I do that in 2017? What plans do I have for Scripture reading, meditation, prayer, and Sunday worship … all of which are not merely boxes to check off, but active ways to keep my eyes on Christ, toward whom I am to continually run?

Answer these questions well – and do what your answers say you should do – and 2017 will be a year of great progress and faithfulness. May the Lord direct our steps!

December 19, 2016

Of Oboes and Bagpipes

He is born, the holy Child;
Play the oboe and bagpipes merrily!

So says the traditional French Christmas Carol, and so we will sing (with gusto) this Christmas morning – although accompanied by a piano, rather than an oboe or bagpipes! I don’t think we have any oboe players, actually. Or bagpipes, either. But you get the idea, I think! The birth of Christ, the long awaited Messiah, is worth a little merry-making! Indeed, it’s worth a good deal of merry-making! For here is the Son of God, come into our world as the bearer of God’s light, joy, freedom, and peace (Isaiah 9:1-7). And that’s worth singing about, dancing a jig over, and holding feasts of celebration. It's worthy of oboes, bagpipes, pianos, and whatever other ways we can make merry! Christmas is the announcement of the happiest event that ever yet was – and is worthy of being celebrated accordingly!

How will you celebrate?

Well, one way to celebrate is to join with others who are doing the same! And so I hope you'll find your way to the house of God this coming Sunday morning – there where the people are gathered to rejoice: aloud in their singing, interpersonally as they visit together, and in the depths of the soul as they think (in sermon time) about the “good news of great joy” in the birth of the Savior. They'll be glad you came. And my hope is that you will leave the gathered celebration even merrier than you already were when you went in!  If you're local, here's our Sunday info.  We'd love to make merry with you!

Another way to celebrate is through the exchange of gifts, which many of you will do in the next few days. If we can remember that the reason for gift-giving is not merely because of American convention, or out of sheer familial obligation, but as a way of showing our joy in the birth of the Savior … then even gift-giving itself can be a show of our delight in Christ! In warning us not to let our piety about ‘the true meaning of Christmas’ turn us into scrooges, Douglas Wilson has memorably written: “If you’re godliness won’t imprint on fudge, then it is not true godliness.” Amen. For again, Christmas is a time of celebration – of oboes, bagpipes, and all manner of chocolate, too! After all, the Savior has been born!

And then we should remind ourselves that Christmas isn’t the only day for oboes and bagpipes! If you have, like the shepherds of old, found your way to the place where Jesus is … then, also like the shepherds of old, you will have reason to go on your way (Luke 2:20), still rejoicing even when the birthday is spent and you go back to your daily routine. Because Christ doesn’t stay behind in the manger, and in the latter weeks of December. But, for those who know Him by faith, His promise is: “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20, emphasis added). And that means that every day is a good day for breaking out the bagpipes, and singing glad songs, and doing good to others for Jesus’ sake! So play your oboes, my friends – today, and all the year round. May you make merry this Christmas! And may Christ make you merry every day hence.

December 12, 2016

Child in the Manger

Child in the manger,
Infant of Mary;
Outcast and stranger,
Lord of all.
Mary MacDonald, tr. Lachlan MacBean

Here is another of my favorite Christmas carols (especially if you can find it in the tune sung by Michael W. Smith (track 10)!). The whole song is tremendous, but the little quatrain above is among its most outstanding … simply for the way it succinctly (and abruptly!) places, side-by-side, Jesus’ humility and glory.

The humility is there, right off the top of the song, and is quite expected, as in so many other Christmas Carols. We are constantly singing about “Mary” and her “infant” and the “manger” during this final month of the year. A little more startling are the words “outcast” and “stranger.” But they are accurate, are they not? Why was Jesus in that manger in the first place? Because his family was in from out of town, and couldn’t find an open hotel room. Perhaps the fact that they were poor didn’t help them in that search. And so, yes, “outcast and stranger” is appropriate language for a little boy born in a stable.

And this, of course, is the yearly anticipated narrative of Christmas – “child in the manger, infant of Mary, outcast and stranger, Lord of all.”

Wait, what? “Lord of all”? That’s not usually the kind of phrase you find tagged behind “outcast and stranger.” Yes, I know that at Christmas, such a juxtaposition is not surprising; and in the gospel, such a combination is expected. But just imagine yourself a passerby that first Christmas, without Luke 2 and a whole host of Christmas carols half-memorized. Imagine yourself on the way home from a friend’s house, and stumbling upon this little family tucked away in a cattle stall out in back of the local inn. What words might you have mumbled to yourself as you walked past the little family in the stable, with a manger for a cradle?

Perhaps in those days, before our modern attention to hygiene, the situation may have seemed a little less alarming. But still, with the family sleeping near the animals, and the baby in a feed trough, you might have thought the scene looked a quaint kind of pitiful. You might have smiled at the hope of a new little life, and at this young couple doing the best they could. But you may have also quietly prayed as you continued along your way: ‘O God, help that little baby who seems to be starting off life with already a strike against him. Give him and his parents a chance to make something of their lives, even as far behind the curve as they seem to be beginning. “Child in the manger, Infant of Mary; outcast and stranger,” help him survive.’

Isn’t that how you’d pray, today, if you saw a down-on-their-luck young couple leaving the hospital, with no coats on, carrying their newborn baby in a patched up old car-seat, and wearing worn out clothes? Once again, you’d smile at the beautiful baby, and at the parents doing their best. But you’d also whisper: ‘O Lord, give that baby a chance in life. Help his parents to make ends meet. Take care of them in their obvious need.’ Yes, you might venture to tell yourself that this child could become the next John Glenn or Lottie Moon (and he or she could!). But, if you were like me, you’d probably be less filled with big dreams, and more so with prayers that this little one would simply make it in life.

Which is why it’s so surprising, a few days later, to find this poor little family in Bethlehem surrounded by magi, and being showered with gold, frankincense, and myrrh – and why it ought to be a little bit startling to find that first quatrain of Child in the Manger change directions so quickly! “Outcast and stranger, Lord of all”?

Yes! That’s the way God does things! It’s the way He worked with Joseph in the Old Testament; and with Queen Esther; and in Bethlehem; and at Golgotha! And it’s the way He is at work in our own day, when the name of Jesus is so often so unpopular and unacceptable in our culture, and when His followers are becoming more and more outcasts and strangers, even in their own land. It may look, to the casual passer-by, that the cause of Christ is in its sunset, with not much more hope for a bright future than a child born in an animal shed. But the principle of Christmas is still true! Jesus, the outcast and stranger, is, in God’s economy, still Lord of all! And His people, who are cast out and estranged with Him, will reign with Him someday, too.

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!