Christmas Can’t Be Spoiled

Horrific headline news doesn’t ruin Christmas. It reminds us why we need it. “ For every boot of tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a Son is...

Corrupt politics, debauched leaders, racial strife, myopic media, broken families, entrenched poverty, personal heartaches—Christmastime isn’t holly jolly for everyone. We need some good news that transcends mere tinsel and lights and warm sentiment.

The good news is that bad news can’t spoil Christmas. Rather, the bad news reminds us why we need Christmas. Christmas is about hope. We have been given hope in the Christ of Isaiah’s prophecy, whose kingdom of peace will one day fill the earth.

For every boot of tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.

For to us a child is born,
to us a Son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called

Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God,
Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

— Isaiah 9:5-7

Bethlehem was the kindling of a cosmic bonfire. The Prince bids you come and throw in your battle garments. He will prevail. No amount of bad news can stop him.

And so we celebrate.

Hope is in the Middle

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“’The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.” — Lamentations 3:24-26

Jesus read these verses of Scripture. Can you see him standing at the desk in the synagogue, calloused hands resting on the scroll, poring over the poetic anguish of Lamentations in light of his future suffering?

He would not have failed to see God’s judgment against Israel. The edges of Lamentations—large edges that we call chapters 1-2 and chapters 4-5—are full of the judgments of the Lord. God has torn apart his disobedient people like a bear lying in wait and a lion in hiding. Perhaps Jesus pondered how he himself, the true Israel, would one day be torn to pieces. Had he not come for this very purpose: to bear judgment, to drink the cup of God’s wrath, to become a curse for us? Yes, he would be torn to pieces. Israel’s judgment was but a foreshadowing of what he would soon face.

Judgment is all around the edges of Lamentations. It encircles the sufferer, taking away every place to stand, until the only ground remaining is a tiny island in the middle. But, oh, the ground in the middle is good! It is solid ground. The middle of Lamentations—what we call chapter 3—is a place of hope, like a roaring campfire on an icy evening. Yahweh is there, blazing in goodness.

How encouraged Jesus must have been by Lamentations 3:24-26! It’s easy to imagine him taking these words upon his lips, speaking them out loud to himself. They were his Scriptures before they were ours. (Indeed, they are now ours only because they were first his.) With the devastation of the cross looming in his future, Jesus would take his stand on the middle ground of the lament. He would remember, when everything else is taken away, that his Father is portion enough. He would hope in the goodness of his Father. He would seek his Father quietly, believing that the Lord would save him from death.

And now, dear Christian, behold the risen Christ! Jesus was no fool to have made the Lord his portion. His hope did not disappoint, and neither will yours. Just as surely as Yahweh raised his Son from the dead, so in him you too will be raised. You will see the salvation of the Lord.

Inscribed on the coins of Geneva, Switzerland, and on the wall of the city are the words post tenebras lux: “After darkness, light.” This phrase is the motto of the Reformation, yet it captures the hope of Lamentations. No matter how deep the darkness encompassing your life, light is coming. If your feelings tell you otherwise, just look at the empty tomb. Jesus is alive, and he will lose none of those whom the Father has given him. So stand with Jesus on the middle ground of Lamentations. Seek the Father in him. Wait quietly on his salvation.

You will see the light.

Combustible Preachers

Jeremiah saw a lot of this coming. All he had to do was lighten up a bit:
“ Come, let us make plots against Jeremiah…. Come, let us strike him with the tongue, and let us not pay attention to any of his words. (18:18)
Then Pashhur beat Jeremiah the...

Jeremiah saw a lot of this coming. All he had to do was lighten up a bit, and some of his trouble could be avoided:

Come, let us make plots against Jeremiah…. Come, let us strike him with the tongue, and let us not pay attention to any of his words. (18:18)

Then Pashhur beat Jeremiah the prophet, and put him in the stocks. (20:2)

When Jeremiah had finished speaking all that the Lord commanded him to speak…, all the people laid hold of him, saying, “You shall die!” (26:8)

The officials were enraged at Jeremiah, and they beat him and imprisoned him. (37:15)

They took Jeremiah and cast him into the cistern…. And there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud. (38:6)

The prophet’s description of persecution includes verbal abuse, death threats, physical assault, and imprisonment. What compelled Jeremiah to keep preaching in the face of such severe backlash? How did he resist softening his message about the Lord?

If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. (20:9)

The word burned like a fire in Jeremiah’s bones. He was combustible with the glory of God. He felt as if he would explode if he didn’t speak in the name of the Lord.

O, for more preachers like this! For more Christians like this! May Almighty God set us on fire in the grace and truth of Christ Jesus, no matter the cost.

 

Evangelistic Prayer

It is no small thing that the apostle Paul, uber church planter, would ask the churches to pray for his effectiveness in spreading the gospel. I never had a course in logic, but I figure if Paul needed the Spirit’s help, then we do too.

Below are Paul’s evangelistic requests, summarized in four key words. We can’t go wrong adopting his requests as our own. We should pray for:

OPPORTUNITY

“At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ.” (Col 4:3)

CLARITY

“[Pray] that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.” (Col 4:4)

BRAVERY

“[Pray] that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel.” (Eph 6:19)

RECEPTIVITY

“Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you.” (2 Thess 3:1)

Father, please open a door for me to speak of Christ crucified and risen. And when that door opens, give me the boldness to walk through it and the ability to make the good news of salvation clear. Finally, grant a receptive heart in the hearer so that your word may be honored through repentance and faith. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

A Quick 3-2-1 on #MeToo

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The #MeToo movement is a horrific revelation about the prevalence of sexual abuse. As a pastor, it makes me wonder how many dark secrets are tucked away within my own church. For my own benefit, and hopefully for your benefit as well, here’s a quick 3-2-1 for consideration: 3 questions, 2 books, 1 prayer.

THREE QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

(1) “Where do I have power?”

Sexual abuse cannot succeed apart from power. The victimizer must possess, even momentarily, some measure of authority or control or influence or strength over the victim. Exhibit A: Harvey Weinstein. Exhibit B: anyone with power, which includes every one of us, at least in some of our relationships. It would serve us well to be aware of the power we hold in various contexts. Whether through the position we occupy, our credentials or reputation, our gender, age, physical size, bank account, or intellect, we need to steward the power we have over others for their good rather than for their exploitation. In what relationships do you have power? How do you wish to use your power?

(2) “What perceived gain would entice me to turn a blind eye toward sexual abuse?”

Honoring a friendship? Protecting authority? Keeping my job? Maintaining my income? Advancing the greater good? Of all I’ve read to-date, Joe Carter hits the hardest on this point. The whole article is worth reading. Here’s a relevant excerpt:

Would you be willing to turn a blind eye to accusations of sexual assault and abuse if it might benefit you in some way, either directly or indirectly?

Of course not. Unlike the denizens of Hollywood, we Christians have stringent moral standards. As servants of Christ we recognize it is our duty to protect the powerless and vulnerable from harm.

And yet . . . in the last election we had a choice between two candidates who have both contributed to the systemic abuse of women. One major party candidate had more than a dozen credible accusations of sexual misconduct against him, and had even been caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women. The other candidate had spent years aggressively covering up credible accusations of sexual assault and harassment against her husband, a former U.S. president. In both cases, the candidates attempted to shame the alleged victim into silence. Despite these actions, millions of Christians were willing to not only overlook the misdeeds of these politicians but were even willing to reward them by giving them the most powerful job in the world.

But that’s different, right? We had no choice but to cast a vote to support our preferred candidate, because otherwise our political enemies would have gained power. We had Supreme Court nominations on the line. We had important political concerns that could be set back for decades if the other party won. And, after all, the other side was as complicit in sexual abuse as our candidate was. We therefore shouldn’t be held responsible for making the best of a bad situation.

(3) “What steps might the church take to prevent abuse?”

From a satellite view, this question is relatively easy to answer: the church needs to speak up. It is good that we have child protection policies in place, but we also need to talk about sexual abuse, and not just on social media. We need to talk about it:

FROM OUR PULPITS — teaching the need to have new hearts in Christ; to fear the Lord; to value the image of God in others; to appropriate the promises of God in faith; to love the light more than the darkness; to bear the fruit of self-control; to love our neighbors as we love ourselves;

AROUND THE TABLE — among a band of brothers or a small group of sisters, engaging in down-to-earth, nitty-gritty, rubber-meets-the-road conversation in which we help each other keep in step with the gospel;

IN OUR HOMES — equipping our children to protect themselves and to be protectors of others;

ON OUR KNEES — asking the Father to uncover abusive situations in our church; to agitate the consciences of the guilty; to bring healing and restoration to the wounded; and to purify the hearts of us all;

WITH THE AUTHORITIES — reporting abusive situations to law enforcement without hesitation.

Admittedly, this list is pitched at a satellite view. It needs to be zoomed in and explored at the street level. Which is to say, it needs much more detail. But I believe it’s a good start at prevention.

TWO BOOKS TO READ

One book I would recommend is Making All Things New: Restoring Joy to the Sexually BrokenDavid Powlinson’s counsel extends not only to those who are broken due to their own sins but to those who have been broken by the sins of others. His book is uniquely beautiful in applying the gospel to both people: “Jesus, the merciful, steadily intervenes. To the indulgent, he brings forgiveness, covering perverse pleasures with new innocence. To the frightened, he brings refuge, the name that calms our fears and bids our sorrows cease. There is pleasure and protection in Christ, God’s inexpressible gift.”

Another book I would recommend is Rid of My Disgrace by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb. This book is most helpful for the abused and those who care for them.

ONE PRAYER TO PRAY

Heavenly Father, our shameful record of sexual abuse shows our desperate need for you. Please bring it about that your name is honored as holy, that your kingdom in Christ explodes into our mess, and that your will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Do this especially in your church, Father. Expose our hidden sins, bring us into your light, wound us that we might be healed.

Give us today all the resources we need to live sexually faithful lives unto you.

Forgive us for our lusts, for our sinful sexual advances toward others, and for those times that we have exploited others for our own physical gratification. And, Father, with all the empowering grace of your resurrected Son and indwelling Spirit, enable us to forgive those who have harmed us sexually. Whether victims or victimizers — or both — we want to be made whole in you.

You are powerful, Father. Please use your power to keep us out of any situation in which we will be sexually tempted. Deliver us from the Evil One, who would love to see our lives ruined as sexual abusers.

Thank you for the hope you’ve given us in the gospel. We can’t wait to be in your presence, completely and gloriously renewed in your image. For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

The Alchemist

Before yesterday, I had never read “The Alchemist” nor even heard of it. I’m glad my ignorance has been undone. Patricia St. John has crafted something truly beautiful. Outside of biblical poetry and perhaps a few hymns, I can’t name another poem that has stirred my wonder more over the grace of God in Christ.

My Master an elixir hath that turns
All base and worthless substances to gold.
From rubble stones He fashions palaces
Most beautiful and stately to behold.
He garners with a craftsman’s skilful care
All that we break and weeping cast away.
His eyes see uncut opals in the rock
And shapely vessels in our trampled clay.
The sum of life’s lost opportunities,
The broken friendships, and the wasted years,
These are His raw materials;
His hands rest on fragments, weld them with His tears.

A patient Alchemist! He bides His time,
Broods while the south winds breathe, the North winds blow,
And weary self, at enmity with self,
Works out its own destruction, bitter slow.
Our gallant highways petered out in mire,
Our airy castles crumbled into dust,
Leaving us stripped of all save fierce desire,
He comes, with feet deliberate and slow,
Who counts a contrite heart His sacrifice.
(No other bidders rise to stake their claims,
He only on our ruins sets a price.)
And stooping very low engraves with care
His name, indelible, upon our dust;
And from the ashes of our self-despair
Kindles a flame of hope and humble trust.
He seeks no second site on which to build,
But on the old foundation, stone by stone,
Cementing sad experience with grace,
Fashions a stronger temple of His own.

(From Patricia St. John Tells Her Own Story [Shoals, IN: Kingsley Press, 1993], 267.)

What Do You Do in the Day of Trouble?

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“Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” Rembrandt, 1633

One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple. For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock. –Psalm 27:4-5

King David spoke of “the day of trouble.” He should know. His neighbors weren’t the sort who drop by to borrow sugar. No, their intent was a bit more malicious. Philistia and Co. wouldn’t have been happier than to see David’s head impaled on a stick. What did David do when threatened? What do you do in your own day of trouble?

MANY THINGS

Many things are worthless in the day of trouble. But that usually doesn’t stop us from doing them anyway. I’m speaking of fretting, pacing, jittering, sighing. Of biting nails and wringing hands. Of tumbling the problem around and around in our heads like shoes thunking in a dryer. Or, when weary of all that, of distracting ourselves with media and malls and munchies and a million other bromides. Just make it go away!

SOME THINGS

But not everything is worthless in the day of trouble. Some things are good, if they are done in faith. A brisk walk might help you, or hitting the gym, or running the trails at a nearby park. Sleep can put things in perspective too. You don’t need a psychology degree to discern that a lack of sleep frays your emotions. Trust God, and go to bed. Seeking counsel from godly friends also can be helpful.

For King David, add to these good things the drawing up of battle plans, mustering the army, and taking up the sword. You too may choose to pursue justice through means and authorities appropriate to our new covenant era. Whether the day of trouble is mild or severe, some things are good to do.

ONE THING

Yet, despite these good things, Jesus tells us that only “one thing is necessary” (Luke 10:42). King David says the same thing. In the day of trouble—and on every other day—our fundamental need is to be close to the Lord, gazing at his beauty and communing with him. No other thing, including those things that are good and necessary, rivals our need for this one thing.

In our day, gazing at God has everything to do with the gospel. The temple was but a shadow; Jesus is the substance. Were David to make his same request after the cross and resurrection, he would no longer ask to enjoy God’s presence in a place but in a person. We behold the beauty of the Lord in the face of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:6).

Ask God for the one thing. Ask him, for he loves to give good gifts. Then seek after the one thing by faith, with your Bible open and the word filling your mind. Redirect your gaze from your problem to the Lord. Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face.

In beholding the beauty of the Lord, you will find yourself in the safest place you can ever be. You will find that you have power to do every other good thing you may need to do. You will find yourself persevering in the day of trouble. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.