Posts tagged ‘Gospel’

Unleavened Living

Credit: Alev / Pexels.com

While writing to the church at Galatia, Paul issues the Christians there a warning in metaphor:

A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough. (Galatians 5:9)

Though this may sound strange to us, it would have been powerful to its first-century readers.

Yeast plays a prominent role in a seminal event in Israel’s history – the Passover. When God is preparing to rescue His people from their slavery in Egypt, He gives them some instructions on a meal they are to prepare:

Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the LORD’s Passover.

This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD – a lasting ordinance. Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt. (Exodus 12:3, 6-8, 10, 14, 17)

On the night of the Passover, God promises to rescue His people from their slavery in Egypt. Before their rescue, God calls upon them to prepare a meal. But it has to be prepared and eaten “in haste.” Thus, rather than preparing leavened bread and having to wait for the yeast to rise, they bake and eat unleavened bread.

When the Israelites slipped out from their surly bonds of Egyptian slavery, they did not have time to do much of anything – even bake properly leavened bread. But that’s okay – because God did everything. He was the One who rescued them. He was the One who redeemed them. He was the One who saved them.

When Paul writes to the Galatians, he writes to a group of Christians who have been infiltrated by some false teachers who argue that, in order to be saved, even Gentile converts must be circumcised according to Jewish Old Testament law. Paul is forceful in his denunciation of their position:

I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. (Galatians 5:3-4)

Paul argues that to follow one part of the law in order to somehow add to your salvation means you must follow the whole of the Old Testament law, which negates the need for Christ. After all, if you can follow the Old Testament law perfectly, then you are perfect and do not need a Savior. Paul follows this assertion up with his metaphor:

A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough. (Galatians 5:9)

In other words, even a bit of self-salvation like, let’s say, adding a requirement of circumcision to what Christ has done won’t stop there. More and more laws will be added. These laws will work their way through the whole batch of your life. And the harder you work to follow these rules, the more puffed with pride you will become – just like yeast puffs up dough. But you will only be fooling yourself, for even your best efforts will be revealed plainly to be pitiful when measured against God’s perfection.

Paul’s invitation, then, is this: live unleavened. Don’t live puffed up. Just as God did all the work to save the Israelites on that Passover night, God has done all the work to save you on the cross. You do not need the yeast of self-righteousness and your works, but the bread of life, who is Jesus Christ, and His work.

Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch – as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. (1 Corinthians 5:6-7)

February 15, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

More Than A List Of Names

Last week on this blog, I took a look at one of the most beloved parts of the Christmas story – the journey of the wise men. This week, I’d like to take a look at one of the most often overlooked sections of the story. The Gospel writer Matthew opens his version of the Christmas story not with an angel, or with a star, or with some startled shepherds, but with a genealogy:

This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife, Solomon the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, Abijah the father of Asa, Asa the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram, Jehoram the father of Uzziah, Uzziah the father of Jotham, Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, Manasseh the father of Amon, Amon the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.After the exile to Babylon: Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel, Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, Zerubbabel the father of Abihud, Abihud the father of Eliakim, Eliakim the father of Azor, Azor the father of Zadok, Zadok the father of Akim, Akim the father of Elihud, Elihud the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah. Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah. (Matthew 1:1-17)

You can be honest: did you read the genealogy above just now, or did you skip to the bottom to see what in the world could be said about a list like this? I know the temptation. When I’m reading through the Bible, I’m tempted to skip sections like this, too.

In the ancient world, genealogies were considered critical. They reminded the Jewish people of their history and God’s faithfulness. Genealogies were ways of keeping track of how God had guided and grown His people through the ages. This is especially true in Matthew’s genealogy. Matthew includes a section in his genealogy he titles, “After the exile to Babylon” (Matthew 1:12). When the Babylonians ransacked the city of Jerusalem and carried its residents into captivity, the Israelites wondered if God had turned against them. In the book of Lamentations, they cry:

The Lord is like an enemy; He has swallowed up Israel. (Lamentations 2:5)

Oftentimes, when the Old Testament writers speak of God, they call Him “LORD.” The capitalization of all the letters is meant to cue the reader that the Hebrew behind this translation is “Yahweh,” the personal name for God. The Israelites called God by name because they believed He knew their names – and cared about their lives. But in this line from Lamentations, they do not cry out to God personally, using His personal name Yahweh. Instead, they talk about Him formally – not as “LORD,” but as “Lord,” the Hebrew word here being “Adonai,” which is not a personal name, but a title meaning, “Master.” The God the Israelites once spoke to personally now feels like a harsh Master who is abusing them savagely, as they languish in exile in Babylon.

Matthew’s genealogy reminds us that, even during their darkest moments, God had not given up on His people. The names of those who were driven from Israel were still and recorded in the annals of God’s people and are now remembered as ones who pointed to the One in whom this whole genealogy finds its apogee: “Jesus who is called the Messiah” (Matthew 1:16).

In a year that has been full of so much pain for so many people, this genealogy can remind us that we are also in the annals of God’s family, even when we feel exiled – from friends, from family members, and from normal routines as a pandemic that just won’t quit drags on. My encouragement to you is to take a moment to reflect on the names in Matthew’s genealogy. After all, because of Christ, this genealogy is not just a list of names, it’s your family history in faith – and we should all take some time to learn about our family.

December 14, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

In a World Full of Much News, Christmas is Good News

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Credit: Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

Christmas is almost here. As many of us go on last-minute buying binges while we search and shop for the perfect presents for all our special someones, it is worth remembering that what makes Christmas special is not everything we do for this holiday, but what we are called to focus on in this holiday.

The first Christmas was a birthday punctuated by an angelic announcement to some shepherds who were in close proximity to a historically incomparable infant. An angel said to these shepherds:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)

Here, in this angel’s message, we find a sort of executive summary of what not only Christmas, but Christianity, is all about. The angel explains that a Savior has been born who is “good news.”

This two-word phrase – “good news” – is the echocardiogram by which the heartbeat of the Christian faith is measured. If this phrase permeates Christianity, the Christian faith is alive and well. If it does not, the Christian faith is doomed to anemia and obsolescence. Here’s why.

Culturally, two types of religion are prevalent. In more traditional cultures, religion that demands “good behavior” reigns. This version of religion promises that if you do what you should do and don’t do what you shouldn’t do, God will be pleased with you. This version of religion rewards one who walks the straight and narrow and lives as a straight arrow. Conversely, in more progressive cultures, religion that focuses on “good feelings” carries the day. This version of religion eschews what it sees as the needlessly constrictive and primitive commands of traditional religion and instead seeks the supernatural in what makes you feel good. Creeds of this religion include, “You do you,” “If it feels good do it,” and, “God wouldn’t want me to be unhappy.” Interestingly, though these two religions sound different, at their core, they share the same assumption: the onus for spiritual fulfillment is on you because religion is about you. You are the one who is responsible for your spirituality – either by your behavior or in your emotional state.

Christianity is utterly different. Christianity is not about you. Instead, Christianity is for you. And there is a world of difference between these two.

Christianity is about Christ – His birth that an angel announces to some shepherds, His ministry that He carries out in front of a myriad of eyewitnesses, His death that He dies in place of sinners, and His resurrection by which He conquers death. This is why the angel calls Christ’s birth “news.” News is about what someone else from somewhere else has done. Christ is someone else from somewhere else – from heaven itself. And He has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He has lived the life we cannot live, died the death we deserved to die, and offered the penalty for sin we cannot pay. Christianity is news about Christ. But it is not just “news,” it is “good news.” Why? Because, as the angel says, even though Christianity is about Christ, it is “for all the people.” And “all the people” includes you. What Christ has done, then, He has done for you.

Christianity promises that responsibility for spiritual fulfillment does not rest on you. Instead, it rests on the One who lies in a manger, dies on a cross, and empties a tomb. Jesus has done all the work necessary to procure the ultimate spiritual fulfillment of salvation for you. That’s the news the angel offers these shepherds. And I, for one, happen to think that news is quite good.

My prayer for you, this Christmas, is that you think it’s good, too. And that you believe that this news is for you. For it is this news that makes Christmas merry and hope real.

December 23, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Happy Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving Dinner, Autumn, Fall, Food

Credit: Max Pixel

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  So much of my day-to-day life centers around what I must do.  There are tasks to complete and errands to run and bills to pay and conversations to have and decisions to make and Bible studies and sermons to write and preach.  These things to do are often, even if not always, joyous, but Thanksgiving reminds me that I must never get so caught up in what I have to do that I forget about what has already been done.  God has done great things for me.  He has given me a family I adore, a church I love, and a forgiveness I need.  And for these things, I am called to be thankful.

Thanksgiving keeps me humble.  When I am tempted to boast in all I have accomplished, Thanksgiving reminds me of all I’ve been given.  Even my life itself is a gift of God’s grace.  This is why I must continually and humbly rely on Him.

Each year, I make it my tradition to read a Thanksgiving Proclamation from one of our nation’s founders.  This year, I came across George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789.  In it, he thanks God:

…for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

President Washington rattles of a list of the many blessings for which, he believes, a newly minted nation should be thankful.  And he’s right.  These are things for which our nation should still be thankful.  But what I love most about his proclamation comes in what he says next:

May we then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions.

President Washington was under no delusion that our nation’s blessings were somehow the product of our nation’s – or her individuals’ – intrinsic merit.  This is why he offers not only a prayer of thanksgiving, but a prayer of confession.  For he knew that God had blessed this new nation in the same way He has always blessed every nation:  by grace.

When God chose Israel to be His people and gave to her a Promised Land, He made sure she knew her blessings came by His grace:

It is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.  Remember this and never forget how you aroused the anger of the LORD your God in the wilderness. From the day you left Egypt until you arrived here, you have been rebellious against the LORD.  (Deuteronomy 9:6-7)

God did not bless Israel because of her righteousness, but in spite of her unrighteousness.  God works this way with every nation and every person.

Ultimately, then, to be thankful is to be repentant, knowing that we have what we have not because we’ve earned it or deserved it, but because God has willed it.  Thus, each Thanksgiving, I am called to make little of myself and my accomplishments, which are few, and much of God and His blessings, which are bountiful.

As this long weekend draws to a close, my prayer is that the holiday of Thanksgiving becomes a habit of thanksgiving.  After all, I have plenty to be thankful for.

You do, too.

November 26, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Only Sacrifice You Need

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“David Plays the Harp for Saul” by Rembrandt, circa 1650

The downfall of Saul began with a sacrifice.

We usually think of sacrifices as being noble – like when parents sacrifice for their children or when soldiers sacrifice for their country.  And these sacrifices certainly are noble.  But King Saul’s sacrifice was different.  King Saul’s sacrifice was not noble, but self-serving.

In 1 Samuel 15, the prophet Samuel instructs Saul, “Go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them” (1 Samuel 15:3).  Saul does attack the Amalekites.  He does defeat the Amalekites.  But he does not destroy all that belongs to them:

Saul and the army spared…the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs – everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed.  (1 Samuel 15:9)

Saul disobeys Samuel’s – and, by extension, God’s – instruction.  When Samuel confronts Saul in his disobedience, Saul first tries to deny that he disobeyed at all.  He says to Samuel, “I have carried out the LORD’s instructions” (1 Samuel 15:13).  When Samuel catches him in his lie, Saul claims, “The soldiers spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the LORD your God, but we totally destroyed the rest” (1 Samuel 15:15).  Samuel, though, is having none of it.  He asks:

Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams … Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He has rejected you as king. (1 Samuel 15:22-23)

Saul thought he could use a sacrifice to weasel out of his disobedience.  He was sorely mistaken.

What was true of Saul’s sacrifice, the Bible says, is true of all sacrifices.  God cannot be somehow bribed to overlook sin by a sacrifice.  The preacher of Hebrews says of the Old Testament sacrificial system:  “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (Hebrews 10:11).  Sacrifices do not fix sins.  That is, except for one sacrifice:  Christ’s.  For by Christ’s “one sacrifice He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:14).

Whereas kings and priests would offer broken sacrifices in their sin, Jesus offered a perfect sacrifice for our sin.  The one man who needed no sacrifice for Himself because He was sinless was the one man who made a sacrifice for all in their sinfulness.  And His sacrifice changed everything.

The next time you are caught in a sin, then, do not try to hide your sin, like Saul.  Instead, confess your sin freely.  And do not try slyly redeem yourself by making a sacrifice, like Saul.  Instead, rejoice that you have been forgiven by a sacrifice already made.  Jesus is all the sacrifice you need.

November 12, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

CIVIL RIGHTS LEADERS MARCH

1968 was a watershed year in American history.  It was in 1968 that North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive against South Vietnam and its ally, the United States.  It was in 1968 that two U.S. Athletes stared downward at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, hands stretched upward, after winning the bronze and gold medals in the 200-meter sprint, to protest racial inequities.  It was in 1968 that 11 million workers in Paris – more than 22 percent of France’s total population – went on strike, with riots erupting that were so violent, they forced the French president, Charles de Gaulle, to flee the country for a short time.  It was in 1968 that the leading Democratic candidate for president, Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.  And it was in 1968, on April 4 – 50 years ago this past week – that the venerable icon of the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated while standing outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

To this day, American society is still seeking to come to terms with Dr. King’s death and the horrific racism that sparked it.  Debates over how, how deeply, and whether large swaths of America are racist rage, with no end in sight.  In a decade that was rife with segregation, Dr. King was a powerful and prolific voice for racial reconciliation and human dignity.  This is why 50 years after his death, we still need his wisdom and vision.

Dr. King drew from the rich well of the biblical prophets’ cries for justice to paint a portrait of what could be.  From the dream that he so vividly described on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 to the melancholy and pointed letter that he wrote to Christian clergymen while in a Birmingham jail earlier that same year, Dr. King knew that racism was a sin that could – and must – be overcome.  As he explained when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964:

I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him … I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality …

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant … I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. “And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.” I still believe that we shall overcome!

Dr. King’s fight against racism was tireless, and his optimism that racism would one day be overcome by brotherhood was indefatigable, for it was rooted in a hope in a God who creates all men equal.  Dr. King unwaveringly believed that God’s creative design of dignity could conquer even the acridest apartheid of men.

As Christians, we must never forget that racism cuts against the very heart of the gospel itself.  Racism exchanges the love of all for the hate of some and forgets that the very people it hates were loved by Christ so much that He died for them.  To be a racist is to make a mockery out of the very love of God.  In this way, racism is not only an ugly blight societally, but an extremely dangerous gamble spiritually, for God will not be mocked.

Dr. King was hated by many.  But those who hated him, he declared:

I have … decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate. I’ve seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. 

Jesus decided to love – and He redeemed mankind.  If love has this kind of power, there is simply no better thing to choose.

April 9, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Sharia Law and Biblical Grace

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  This is the apostle Paul’s sobering summary of the human condition.  And he’s right.  Not only is there is not a person alive who lives up to God’s standards of righteousness, there is also not a person alive who lives up to the standards of righteousness he sets for himself, as any person who has ever attempted – and failed at – a New Year’s resolution can tell you.  Sin is universal.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, in the Indonesian province of Aceh, two Christians were publicly whipped, according to the dictates of Sharia law, “for playing a game at a children’s entertainment complex in a way authorities say amounted to gambling.”  Aceh’s population is 98 percent Muslim, and people can face floggings for acts including “drinking alcohol, adultery, gay sex, gambling or having romantic relationships before marriage.”  Indeed, the province’s courts are imposing hundreds of whippings a year for acts like these.  Last January, a Christian was sentenced to 36 lashes for selling alcohol.

I do not believe that drinking or selling alcohol, in and of itself, is sinful, though I do believe that drunkenness is.  Likewise, I don’t believe that a good-natured raffle for a few laughs is inherently wicked, though I am also well aware and wary of the dangerous greed that gambling can stoke and how the gambling industry, especially in the form of state lotteries, cynically preys on the economically disadvantaged.  I do believe in a traditional sexual ethic. So, I would say, as do the courts in Aceh, that any sexual activity outside of the confines of marriage strays from what is appropriate.  In short, though I would qualify certain things, I find myself in broad agreement with Aceh’s moral concerns.  But I also find myself fundamentally at odds with Aceh’s response to these concerns.

The radicalized form of Islamic law that Aceh’s theocratically-minded courts seem to be bent on propagating addresses sin through judgment.  Each sin, in these courts’ minds, deserves a flogging.  Christianity, however, addresses sin in a whole different way.  Christianity acknowledges the reality and ubiquity of human sinfulness – “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) – but addresses such sinfulness not with judgment, but by grace: “All are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).

In John 8, Jesus is famously confronted by some religious leaders who bring to Him a woman who has been caught in the act of adultery.  In a breathtaking display of theocratic virtue signaling, they crow: “In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do You say” (John 8:5)? In their recounting of Mosaic law, the religious leaders conveniently overlook the fact that it was both the adulteress and the adulterer who were to be punished by death, as, in this case, they bring to Jesus only the adulteress. They also needlessly restrict the method of execution to that of stoning, even though Moses makes no such specification.  Nevertheless, they are broadly correct that adultery was, according to Mosaic law, punishable by death.  Jesus, however, instead of debating the finer points of where the adulterer is and what method of execution should be used, simply responds:

“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:7, 9-11)

Here, Jesus brilliantly puts His finger on the problem with responding to sin with judgment instead of with grace.  If one responds to sin with only judgment, there will finally be no one left to mete out any judgment, because no one is without sin.  Everyone will have been stoned.  Only grace can address sin in a way that leaves anyone standing.

Christianity certainly understands and accepts the role governing authorities play to discourage wickedness by means of penalties.  But Christianity also knows that people need more than a penalty in the face of sin.  They need a Savior who does not condemn them, but forgives them.  And this is what a theocracy like Aceh’s, which plays the roles of both political and religious authorities, cannot provide.

Interestingly, the Bible does accept lashings as appropriate remuneration for sin.  But the lashes do not fall on us. They fall on God’s Son:

He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

The courts of Aceh, it turns out, are lashing out far too late for it to do any good.  The lashing that was really needed already happened 2,000 years ago.

It’s time to put the whips down.

March 5, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Every Day Can Be Christmas

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Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

The first Christmas was a work day.

These days, Christmas is one of the few days of the year widely marked by time off.  But for the first people to hear of Christ’s birth, Christmas day was not a holiday, but a normal day:

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:8-11)

There was no glistening tree, no holiday feast, no gift exchange, no melodic carols, and no time off to be with family when an angel appeared to some shepherds that first Christmas night.  There was only another day at the office of the open field, with lots of sheep milling about.  The first Christmas was a work day.

The holiday of Christmas is, of course, precious.  I love to open gifts with my family and enjoy all the traditions and accoutrements that accompany this time of year.  But if the message of Christmas is kept within the boundaries of the actual holiday of Christmas, the truth of Christmas will be quickly lost.

The heart of the Christmas message is that God became human in the person of Jesus Christ.  He “took and flesh and made His dwelling among us” (John 1:14).  But Jesus did not become human to give us a holiday, as wonderful as that holiday may be, but to change our everyday.   This is why Jesus poured Himself into twelve men for three years.  This is why He healed the sick and fed the masses.  This is why He taught the curious and rebuffed the self-righteous.  He poured Himself into the everyday lives, struggles, and sins of people not to give them another holiday, but to show them that He was for and with them every day.

Assuming the traditional chronology of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is correct, I find it telling that the climax of Jesus’ work – His death and resurrection – occurred between holidays.  The Thursday night before Jesus died, He celebrated the high holy Jewish holiday of Passover with His disciples.  The Saturday Jesus was in the grave was the holiday of a Sabbath.  Jesus died on a Friday and rose on a Sunday.  He accomplished His mission not on important holidays, but during two common days.

The message of Christmas extends long beyond the holiday of Christmas, for the message of Christmas reminds us that Christ is with us not just during a day full of carols, decorations, presents, and food, but “always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).  So, as we celebrate Christmas today, let’s not forget why need Christmas tomorrow – and all year long.

December 25, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Price of Mercy

King DavidIf I was David, I would have been tempted to say, “The devil made me do it.”

When “Satan rises up against Israel and incites David to take a census of Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:1), David can’t resist the opportunity to figure out just how big and powerful his empire really is.  David, it seems, has become more prone to glorifying his nation than he is to glorifying his God.  But the Lord is not pleased.  So “He punishes Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:7).

David may be easily conned by folly, but, in this instance, he is also a man of quick repentance:  “I have sinned greatly by doing this.  Now, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant.  I have done a very foolish thing” (1 Chronicles 21:8).  God answers by giving David three options for punishment.  Israel can (1) endure three years of famine; (2) endure three months of attacks from surrounding enemies; or (3) suffer three days of attacks by the Lord Himself against Israel.  David chooses option three, citing this reasoning: “Let me fall into the hands of the LORD, for His mercy is very great; but do not let me fall into human hands” (1 Chronicles 21:13).

God gets to work.  In a flash, 70,000 people die.  David’s census numbers must be amended.  God then sends His angel to destroy Jerusalem, but “as the angel was doing so, the LORD saw it and relented concerning the disaster and said to the angel who was destroying the people, ‘Enough! Withdraw your hand’” (1 Chronicles 21:15).  It is at this point that it becomes clear that what David has said about God is true of God:  His mercy really is very great.  Three days would have been more than enough time for God to destroy everything.  But instead, God preserves most things.

David, however, is not convinced that God’s tour of destruction has ended.  So he cries out to God, “Was it not I who ordered the fighting men to be counted? I, the shepherd, have sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? LORD my God, let Your hand fall on me and my family, but do not let this plague remain on Your people” (1 Chronicles 21:17).  To a God who David has just called “merciful,” David offers his blood.  David may say God is merciful, but he doesn’t really seem to trust in His mercy.

But God does have mercy – even for David.  Indeed, God, mercifully, does not ask for David’s blood.  But He does ask for an altar and a sacrifice: “Then the angel of the LORD ordered Gad to tell David to go up and build an altar to the LORD on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite” (1 Chronicles 21:18).  So David goes to Araunah who offers both his land and all the materials needed as a gift to David so he can make his offering.  But David refuses Araunah’s gift: “No, I insist on paying the full price. I will not take for the LORD what is yours, or sacrifice a burnt offering that costs me nothing” (1 Chronicles 21:24).  David deems it unacceptable to offer to God a sacrifice that costs him nothing.

But why?

Abraham didn’t seem to have any problem offering God a sacrifice that cost him nothing when, in place of his son Isaac, he offered a ram caught in the thicket – a ram that God Himself provided.  And the very sacrifice to end all sacrifices – the sacrifice of God’s Son – cost humanity nothing even as it cost God everything.  The best sacrifices, it seems, are the ones that come as gifts.

God acts mercifully toward David when He tells him to go the field of a man who will offer everything David needs to make a sacrifice, but David can’t quite bring himself to receive the gift.  He’d rather pay.  David may call God merciful, but again, he doesn’t really seem ready to rejoice in His mercy.

It is true that sacrifices can be costly for those who offer them.  Indeed, sometimes, sacrifices should be costly for those who offer them.  Such sacrifices can stretch us and help us grow in our faith.  But sacrifices can also come as free gifts.  And it’s not wise to despise a gift.

How often do we, like David, confess God to be merciful as a matter of doctrinal truth, but then refuse the very mercy that God tries to give?  We’d rather pay.

God received David’s sacrifice, even though David did not receive Araunah’s gift: “The LORD answered David with fire from heaven on the altar of burnt offering” (1 Chronicles 21:26).  But I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if rather than saying to Araunah, “Let me pay!” David simply said, “Thank you.”  I can’t help but wonder if God would have been pleased with David’s sacrifice just the same.

The apostle Paul writes, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship” (Romans 12:1).  A holy and pleasing sacrifice does not require a payment from us.  Rather, a holy and pleasing sacrifice can simply flow from the mercy of God.

So the next time God is merciful to you (which should be in no time at all), remember to receive His mercy.  You don’t need to pay.  You can just say, “Thank you.”

May 9, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

How Starbucks (Didn’t) Steal Christmas

Credit: Starbucks

Credit: Starbucks

It was the coffee kerfuffle that wasn’t. When a story about Christian outrage over Starbucks’ plain red holiday cups began trending on social media, something about it seemed off to me. Sure, there was a video of a self-styled evangelist shoving a red Starbucks cup into the camera and shouting about how Starbucks employees are not allowed to say Merry Christmas and explaining in a Facebook post that “Starbucks REMOVED CHRISTMAS from their cups because they hate Jesus.” And sure, there were the stories about all the controversy it was igniting in the Twittersphere. But as I checked my own social media feeds, what I saw was not Christian outrage over the Starbucks’ minimalist holiday cups, but outrage over the fact that there was so much outrage over something as inane as a coffee cup. Outrage over outrage. Is it just me, or does this all seem, well, outrageous?

I have a funny feeling that the evangelist who opined his offense at Starbucks’ holiday cups on Facebook may have done so more for clicks and shares than out of earnest conviction. In my opinion, this is little more than a shoddily manufactured controversy. But even if I am right and this controversy is manufactured, I am grateful that commentary by Christians on the controversy has been largely thoughtful. Take this from Ed Stetzer:

Folks, we really need to calm down. If you’ve posted an outraged Facebook update, take it down.

Starbucks cups are red because of the Christmas season. Starbucks is not persecuting you. Starbucks may be attempting to respect those who don’t celebrate Christmas – and that’s OK. That’s their choice. They’re a business that exists to serve all customers without preference, regardless of what winter holidays they do or do not celebrate. If they choose to do that by means of a plain, red cup, that’s their call …

Here’s what I would say – this is the wrong fight and being done in the wrong way. And, it’s just making Christians look silly, like so many of these fake controversies do.

We have a better story to tell than one of faux outrage. So let’s tell it. It’s not the job of your barista to share the gospel. It’s your job to share the gospel.[1]

Ed Stetzer is exactly right. It’s ridiculous and embarrassing when a man trying to start a faux movement to protest red coffee cups gets more attention than the Church who has been charged to be an ongoing movement to spread the gospel.

Setting coffee cups aside for a moment, it is important to understand that this kind of unhelpful outrage has implications far beyond the clear-cut inanity of supposedly, but not really, offensive coffee cups. Far more serious ethical and cultural issues like abortion and same-sex marriage and stewardship of creation and treatment of the poor have ignited no small amount of outrage. And make no mistake about it: we, as Christians, should have plenty to say about these issues. But if we become so embroiled in outrage over these issues that we lose sight of the joy of sharing the gospel of Christ’s death for sinners, we have become lovers of issues rather than people. And when this happens, we lose sight of the gospel.

It is interesting to me that for all the well-documented differences between conservative and liberal Christians, they can both often fall into the same trap. Sure, more conservative-leaning Christians may beat the drum about issues like abortion and same-sex marriage (and they should) while more liberal-leaning may beat the drum about issues like stewardship of creation and treatment of the poor (and they also should). But in both instances, each side can easily wind up becoming so obsessed with current ethical and cultural issues that they lose sight of the evangelical and soteriological cross of Christ. In this regard, both sides, whether conservative or liberal, have traded Billy Graham for Walter Rauschenbusch. The soteriological gospel has been sacrificed to the social gospel.

It is this that takes us back to the Starbucks, ahem, brew-haha. The evangelist who posted his now viral Facebook tirade suggested that customers tell baristas their name is “Merry Christmas” so servers will be forced to write “Merry Christmas” on their holiday symbol-less cups. Besides the fact that I am pretty sure that this will do little to nothing to shift cultural sentiment concerning Christmas and what it represents, I am even surer that it adds nothing to the proclamation of Christ and Him crucified. Thankfully, most Christians already know this. That’s why they have rejected his strategy.

So let’s take this lesson from a bout of Starbucks silliness about what’s most important and use it to keep our priorities straight as we engage our world on much more pressing topics. Our witness to the world on these topics must never be only ethical and cultural. It must be first and foremost evangelical and soteriological. For without Christ and Him crucified, ethics and culture become nothing because they save no one.

Crux sola est nostra theologia.

________________________________

[1] Ed Stetzer, “When We Love Outrage More Than People: Starbucks Cups and You,” Christianity Today (11.9.2015).

November 16, 2015 at 5:15 am 2 comments

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