Peace To End All Wars: What Christ’s Birth Has Done and Will Do

christmasThere is a story from WWI that reminds us that in the worst of times, there’s still hope. Nearing the end of December 1914, 5 months after WWI began, British soldiers heard their German foes singing Christmas Carols after a day of fighting.

In the dark, huddled in their cold trenches, the British soldiers wondered what to make of this. But soon, they joined in, singing well-known and well-loved Christmas carols. And so, through Christmas Eve, the two warring armies celebrated the birth of their Messiah.

Amazingly, the Christmas spirit continued the next day, as “some German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines across no-man’s-land, calling out “Merry Christmas” in their enemies’ native tongues.” For the rest of the day, these sworn enemies traded gifts, played soccer, and celebrated the peace that only Christ can bring.

More than a century later, with the bloodiest century on record standing between us, the Christmas Truce of 1914 flickers a light of hope that only Christ can bring. Only between two nations with Christian heritages could such an armistice be considered. Still, the peace Christ brings intends to do more than foster temporary cease fires. As Micah 4:3 says of the Lord,

He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall decide disputes for strong nations far away;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore. 

What a day that will be when all wars cease, when the peace of our Lord is fully realized, when Micah’s prophecy comes to fruition. But for now, we still in a world filled with threat, hostility, violence, and war. Therefore, it is worth asking in what way does Christ bring peace? And how can we know that peace this Christmas? Continue reading

Our Long-Awaited Hope: Seeing God’s *Son* Through the Scriptures

hope

From where does hope come? And why does it take so long to get here? 

In our microwave age of instant information and Siri solutions, we don’t wait well. Yet, Christianity is a religion of patient endurance, long-suffering, and waiting—pure and simple waiting. Throughout the Old Testament, the people of God are told to wait. After the Exodus, Israel is forced to wait forty years because of their sinful unbelief, and at the other end of the Old Testament, Israel is left waiting for their messiah to bring a new exodus. Just the same in the New Testament, Hebrews 6:12 instructs, be “imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”

We should probably take it as axiomatic, then, that God wants his people to wait. Anyone who has ever prayed knows that the waiting is where God does his working. Saints are not matured in a day; they are formed in periods of years, decades, and generations. Hence, in this season of Christmas when we reenact Israel’s waiting of the Christ’s birth, we do well to think about the way that God promised his Son, so that in our waiting, hope would flourish.

From Genesis 3:15 to Jesus (to Revelation 12 too), the promise of a child-savior runs through the Bible. During Advent, we remember most explicitly the details related to the Angelic host, the Magi, and the Bethlehem Star, but God’s inspired apostles also send us back into the Old Testament to remember all that led up to Christ’s birth. Thus, in keeping with the pattern of waiting and watching in Scripture, it is worth observing just how and how often and how long God prepared the way for Jesus to come through a myriad of promises and prototypes leading up to the birth of Immanuel, God with us. (Fittingly, what follows is not short. But how could it be? The arrival of Christ’s birth took millennia.)

What follows is a thread of verses that trace how God prepared the way for Jesus. It begins with God’s promise of son in Genesis 3:15 and continues to see how this theme is expanded and developed through the history of Israel. It’s not a short journey, but neither was the voyage the Magi took to worship Jesus (approx. 500 miles in around two months time). In this age of fast-paced consumerism, may God give us grace to look long and longingly at the Messiah whose arrival took millennia to achieve, and may God produce fresh hope in us for the second advent of God’s Son. Continue reading

Immanuel: How God Came to Us (Matthew 1:18–25)

advent03This week we started a new sermon series through Matthew 1–2. As we celebrate the birth of our Lord, we look to the way Matthew explained his birth as the “fulfillment” of God’s promises of old. For instance, as Matthew writes, Jesus is Son of Abraham and the Son of David (Matthew 1:1), the “Immanuel” promised in Isaiah 7:14 (Matthew 1:23), the royal son born in Bethlehem, the city of David (Matthew 2:6; Micah 5:2), and the child like Israel who God brought out of Egypt (Matthew 2:13–15; Hosea 11:1)—to name but a few. 

Matthew’s Gospel begins by introducing  who Jesus is and how to read the Old Testament in the light of his coming. So important is this information about the Messiah’s identity, Matthew crafts a 42-person genealogy to identify Jesus. Two years ago, Jared Bridges preached on Matthew 1:1–-17, so we began this year with Matthew 1:18–-25.

In what follows, I have included discussion questions about Sunday’s sermon and resources to consider biblical interpretation and the birth of Jesus Christ. You can listen to or read the sermon on online. Or even better, if you are in Northern Virginia, come join us during this advent season. Continue reading

The Story of God’s Glory: Celebrating Christmas Year Round

gloryIn a few days, our family will take down all our Christmas decorations. I am sure you will do the same. There is a sadness that comes with the end of Christmas season. Thankfully, for those who know Christ as the Incarnate Lord, Christmas as a holiday on the calendar is trumped by Christmas as a yearlong testimony to the everlasting incarnation of God the Son.

Therefore, while it is right to take down the tinsel and wreaths, we can continue to celebrate and rejoice in the fact that God became a man. Immanuel. God is with us. And with that never ending reality in mind, I share a Christmas thought that I shared with our church a few weeks ago.

*****

Christmas songs tell the wonderful story of Christ’s glorious birth. Think of how many speak of Jesus’s coming in terms of his glory. (Hymn numbers taken from The Baptist Hymnal [1991]).

Hark, the herald angels, “Glory to the newborn King.” (“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” 88)

Angels, from the realms of glory, Wing your flight o’er all the earth; Ye who sang creation’s story, Now proclaim Messiah’s birth. (“Angels, from the Realms of Glory,” 94)

Son of God, of humble birth, Beautiful the story;
Praise His name in all the earth, Hail the King of glory. (“Gentle Mary Laid Her Child,” 101)

See, to us a Child is born—Glory breaks on Christmas morn!
Now to us a Son is giv’n—Praise to God in highest heav’n! (“See, to Us a Child is Born,” 104)

Add to these lines the choruses praising God’s light breaking into the darkness and his splendor coming to earth, and we come to understand why our Christmas hymnody is some of the most sublime in all our hymnals.

But what is the glory of God? And what does it mean to give God glory? Continue reading

A Heart for Christmas or for Christ?

images

“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”
– Jesus –

The Christmas music played in the background as Rod wrapped packages. While the music brought back many happy memories, recent events took his mind in another direction.

Work at the courthouse was increasingly difficult. Last year they removed the Ten Commandments. This year county employees received a memo requesting everyone to tone down “Christmas” rhetoric. They didn’t outright censor “Merry Christmas,” but they might as well have.

Closer to home Rod received his yearly Christmas list: Put up the tree. Buy non-perishables for the church’s homeless offering. Put up the crèche. Have some holiday cheer.

“Very funny,” Rod thought to himself. “My wife thinks of everything: Have holiday cheer!”

And she did. She knew the pressures of work and the added stress of church had made Rod more than just a “grouchy bear,” as she liked to call him. Only two weeks remained until Christmas, and he was overwhelmed with Christmas events at church. And as a result his Joy to the Lord was out of tune. So to spark his Christmas spirit, Rod’s wife put him to work on the crèche he loved. It worked marvelously. Continue reading

Thanksgiving According to the Psalms

thanksgivingWhile some of us may still be eating leftover turkey, most of us have moved from Thanksgiving to Christmas. This is understandable, as calendars and commitments require us to live in the present, not the past. But let us not forget that giving thanks goes beyond thanksgiving.

Indeed, in all Paul’s epistles minus Galatians—oh, those foolish Galatians!—he begins by giving thanks to God for the people he is addressing. Throughout the Bible thanksgiving is a normal and necessary part of saving faith. And so it ought to be a normal and necessary part of our daily living—not just a holiday season in November. Still, what does thanksgiving look like on a regular basis? And how can we grow in our expressions of thanksgiving?

Let’s go to the Psalms to answer that question. Continue reading

Christmas in Dark Places

Okay, so I must make a confession. I have become quite a fan of spoken word poetry. I didn’t know quite what to think when Jefferson Bethke ripped religion and rhymed for Christ—after all Scripture does commend (some) religion (James 1:27). But I think I am catching up now. And, after learning more, I greatly appreciate Jefferson’s viral video.

Jefferson’s craft (spoken word poetry), an art form which preceded him and has benefitted from his exposure, is a great medium for communicating punchy, lyrical rhymes about any number of biblical truths. At Halloween this year, I ran across Glen Scrivener’s “Halloween: Trick or Treat?” and thus when I heard he was doing a Christmas video, I was surprisingly excited.

Among other things, Glen is a spoken word poet who hales from the land down under (which you will need to know to understand his video) and now lives in the United Kingdom. His poem is very British (or Australian), but the message is right on. My favorite meditation reflects on the fact that the Word who spoke the world into existence became speechless.

What a thought! The Word in the form of a babe was for a time unable to speak. What incredible grace and patience to endure the muteness of infancy in order to speak to me—and to you!

Glen’s poetry, like Jefferson Bethke’s and others is something you should keep an eye out for. It will stir your heart and it is a great medium to share with others, especially unbelievers!

For more on the theme of light coming into the darkness, see my (more theological and less artistic) posts:

Darkness: The World Into Which Christ Was Born

Between Darkness and Light: The Lord Who Ordained the Darkness

The Light of the World Never Fades

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

The Light of the World Never Fades

[This article was originally featured in our hometown newspaper, The Seymour Tribune].

The weeks that follow Christmas present a unique challenge. For all the holiday highs, there often comes an unforeseen holiday hangover.

As the lights come down and the daily grind resumes, a wintry chill easily replaces Christmas cheer.

But is that how it must go? Isn’t there anything lasting about Christmas besides credit card bills and an unwanted fruitcake? Such naïve hope is often shoved aside because like everything else in life, what goes up must come down. To get through it, we tell ourselves, life is short and so are most of its pleasantries.

However, it is different for those who know the child born in the manger. For Christians, there is just as much light on Jan. 13 or Aug. 27 as there is on Dec. 25. Indeed, if January blues follow the red and green of Christmas, it probably is the case that you are paying too much attention to the flickering lights of this world and not enough attention to the true light of the world.

In truth, Christmas is much more than a festive season; it is the announcement that the light of God has entered the world to stay. Those who know this know that the light has come to dwell among a sin-darkened people and will one day remove all darkness.

In fact, the gospel of John says as much. It reads, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming to the world” (1:9). In a word, this is Christmas. However, this luminescent arrival is only the beginning.

Christ gives light for all seasons. In fact, John later records the words of Jesus: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (8:12). In context, Jesus says these words during the festival of booths, a season in Jerusalem when the whole city was covered with lights. Jesus intends for his audience to know that he is the superlative light, one that will never fade away.

The same is true today. He is the true light today, and all those who follow him, walk in the light of his truth, beauty and goodness. His radiance is able to outshine the darkest winter night, and his love is able to fill the emptiness caused by another Christmas past. For, he is the light of the world, and his light will never fade or disappoint those who look unto him for light and life.

On the Incarnation: How Should We Talk About Christmas?

Yesterday, I preached from John 1:1-5 on the eternal Son of God who came to be God with us.  One of my main points was the fact that while Jesus had a beginning, the Son of God did not. The Son takes on flesh to become fully human, but in no way does God the Son lose or set aside his deity.

Today, Matt Smethurst says something very similar in his post at The Gospel Coalition.  In his article, “God Plus or Bust: Lose the Incarnation, Lose It All,” he helpfully points to an article by J. I. Packer called “The Vital Question” which articulates two kinds of Christologies.  Matt’s synthesis of Packer’s article points out that “All Christologies . . . can be boiled down to two basic brands: “Man Plus” and “God Plus.”  He unpacks this saying,

“Man Plus” Christologies almost unanimously agree that Jesus was an utterly unique figure. He was no ordinary man. He was man plus a number of things—a unique sense of the divine, uncommon personal charisma, unfettered religious devotion, God-given insight, and so forth. Jesus of Nazareth was a godly man, perhaps even the godliest man ever to walk the earth. Nevertheless, the idea that Jesus was God is a myth. It doesn’t correspond to space-time fact, nor does it really need to.

“God Plus” Christology, on the other hand, is the orthodox position. It’s the view that Jesus of Nazareth was actually—that is, historically, publicly, objectively, necessarily—God incarnate. He was divinity plus humanity. Wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger was the eternal second person of the Trinity.

Understanding the nature of the Incarnation is vital–not just for the seminary lunchroom–but for all believers.  Knowing who God is and how he has come to rescue us is vital for our faith.  Celebrating Christmas as a holiday that commemorates a special child born in a manger who just happens to be divine–whatever that means–sets the believers faith in a vulnerable position. Such a belief is true as far as it goes, but it is little different than the “man plus deity” of liberal theology.  By contrast, knowing that God himself took on flesh–that he added something to his deity, namely a human nature–in order to save his people with the full power of Deity Incarnate, gives vitality and endurance to believe that what God started two millenia ago, he will finish at the end of the age.

Much praise is due to God for all that he is especially for the fact that Jesus is not just “man plus.”  He is “God plus,” “God with us!”

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Darkness: The World In Which Christ Was Born

The Darkness 

While we think of Christmas as a season of light, the truth is, the birth story of Jesus Christ is filled with darkness.  Anticipating the birth of the Christ child centuries before Mary was great with child, Isaiah writes that the light that was coming into the world, came to a people shrouded in darkness (9:1-7).  Gloom, anguish, and contempt were just some of the adjectives used to describe this darkness.

Thus, in order understand the full revelation of the light which came into the world when Christ was born, we need to recognize the darkness into which our Christ was born.  Today, we will consider seven aspects of the darkness, aspects not out of God’s control, but rather sovereignly ordained such that Christ’s light would radiate all the more brilliantly.

First, when Christ was born, the word of God had not been heard for four centuries.  Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament, written in the fifth century BC.  It concludes with the statement that God would send Elijah the prophet as a forerunner for the Messiah.  But since that last pregnant statement, which would eventually be fulfilled in John the Baptist, God had been silent.  And everyone knew it.  Listen to some of the Jewish writers of the day.

Babylonian Talmud, Yomah 9b:After the latter prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi had died, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel, but they still availed themselves of the voice from heaven’

Josephus, Against Apion: From Artaxerxes to our own times a complete history has been written, but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit with the earlier records, because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets’

1 Maccabees: So they tore down the altar and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until there should come a prophet to tell what to do with them.’

Without the word of God present among them, the people walked in spiritual darkness.

Second, the people of God were under the oppressive rule of Rome.  This is evident in the birth story of Jesus.  Luke 2:1 records the census taken up by Caesar Augustus.  It was a blatant reminder that the people of Israel were owned by another.  Likewise, Herod, a descedent of Edom, ruled in Jerusalem.  Long gone were the days of a Davidic king. Much like today, soldiers walked the streets of Jerusalem.  Only they were not 19-year old Israelis with M-16’s.  They were Roman guards, called to police the city of David.

In some ways, Israel had escaped exile.  No longer did they live in Babylon.  But in many ways, they were exiles in their own country.  Even their own temple was built by a foreigner—Herod the Great was a descendent of a rival nation.  Political darkness reigned!

Third, the nation of Israel was fracturing.  Four groups in Israel sought and fought to lead the people.  (1) The Pharisees resided in Jerusalem.  They attempted to shape religious life in Israel through their traditions.  Jesus had many run-ins with these legalistic Jews, who led astray the people of God (cf. Matt 23). (2) Sadducees opposed the strict legalism of the Pharisees, and only embraced Moses law (Gen-Deut).  They rejected the resurrection, belief in angels, but still had a influential place in the temple and law courts.  (3) The Essenes, who lived in a commune near Qumran–they were the scribes who penned and preserved theDead Sea Scrolls–lived an especially pure life.  They devoted themselves to God, and prayed for God’s overthrow of Rome. (4) The Zealots were a band of brothers who did not pray for change so much as they sought violent means of overthrowing Roman rule.

The result of these four competing sects in Judaism led to constant friction, only increased by the oppressive rule of Rome.  Riots were common.  Tension was unceasing. Darkness permeated Judaism.

Fourth, the birth of Jesus came through a virgin.  Now, in our day, we celebrate Mary as an example of devotion and faith.  We send Christmas cards with creche scenes on them and sing songs praising God for this humble servant.  But it was not so then.  Matthew 1 records that Joseph, who was a righteous man, one who loved Mary, sought to divorce her quietly.  Why?  Because everyone knows how a child is conceived!  Mary’s child would grow up ridiculed as the son of an unchaste women (cf John 8:41).  A virgin birth was not a celebrated event in ancient Israel.  Darkness surrounded it!

Fifth, the census was a considerable imposition.  Living in Nazareth, Mary and Joseph lived more than 100 miles North of Bethlehem.  Yet, there was no way around it.  They were forced by legal constraint to make the arduous trip.  Without a highway, a car, a cushioned seat, or a suspension system; the teenage couple were forced to walk over hills and through streams.  While we celebrate the pilgrimmage today with illumined festivity.  This was a dark walk.

Sixth, the poverty of Mary and Joseph did not fit the royal son they had.  Not only were the conditions leading up to Christ’s birth dark, so too was his birth.  Luke 2:7 records that there was “no place for them in the inn.”  This is probably because it was filled up with travelers coming for the census; but it may also be the case that Joseph, a carpenter by trade, did not have the means to pay for or to pay extra for a room.  Money talks, right?  But it is clear, that Joseph had no bargaining power.  Mary and Joseph went to the stable, where Jesus was born and laid in a manger.  Without family or hospitality, darkness surrounded them.  

Seventh, through the hostile forces of Herod, Satan tried to kill Jesus.  Poverty was not the only source of darkness; persecution followed Jesus’ birth, so that he was constantly under threat.  Matthew 2 records the details.

Matt 2:1-8. Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'” Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”

 Herod, so paranoid for his own position and power that he had multiple family members executed, attempts to use the wisemen to lead him to the Christ child—not to worship, but to exterminate. When he learns that the wisemen have not complied with his scheming, he orders the execution of all the children in and around Bethlehem.

Matt 2:16. Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.

The Good News of Great Darkness

Darkness is everywhere in Christ’s birth, which should not come as a surprise when we think of the prophecies in the Old Testament and the conditions of the world that God created.  As John 1 says, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world, . . . yet the world did not know him.”

The reality of Christ’s darkness is not in itself comforting, but when we consider that Christ came into the darkness in order to bring light, the truth is staggering beautiful.  For we all face seasons of darkness, and God in the flesh knows exactly what that looks like and feels like.

Remembering that the light of Christ came in the darkness of night gives us hope that God can still pour light into our hearts and shine light into our lives.  No matter how dark it may be, no matter where the darkness comes from, God is the light who enlightens everyone, and has come to take up residence in the lives of those who look to Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss