Monday, December 24, 2012

At just the right time: A Christmas Meditation

The following is adapted from my Christmas Eve message:

We wait all year for Christmas to come and now, it’s almost here. Tomorrow is Christmas. It’s time to worship and celebrate the coming of the Son. Since I am tasked with a significant role each year in leading the celebrations that we make at Chilli Bible, I get the magnificent luxury, each year, of spending significant time thinking about the wonder and meaning of Christmas, about why we celebrate and how.

I really can’t quite imagine what it must have been like, all those generations back, to stand or kneel beside a manger in a little barn and, amidst the animals, the mess, and the exhausted but beaming mother and father, knowing that the little child staring up at you with eyes that can’t yet focus is nevertheless the Creator God and Savior of humanity. The awe of being there must have been intense. And the incongruity of seeing God in baby clothes, never mind seeing Him face-to-face, lying helpless in a feed trough, must have been almost literally mind-blowing, a reality too overwhelming for your brain circuits to process.

And yet…And yet, it was the fulfillment of centuries upon centuries of prophetic expectation, given with enough detail that every priest in the land knew the place and family of Messiah. Every pious Jew would have known he was coming and anticipated it with joy. But for many of the years of Israel’s long and troubled history, it must have been like living through a year in which Christmas might come, only to get to the end of the year and find that it didn’t come after all, and to think, “Maybe next year.” And then, finally, it did come, at long last.

In a verse we don’t normally associate with Christmas, the Apostle Paul describes Christmas this way:
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. ~ Galatians 4:4-5 
 “When the fullness of time had come” carries with it the idea that Jesus didn’t just show up on the scene in some sort of grand and glorious divine surprise. He didn’t arrive because God had failed to account for humanity’s Fall into sinfulness and so God then decided to intervene on a whim. No, Jesus’ coming was part of God’s explicit plan from before there was a humanity, even before there was time itself. John tells us in Revelation that “the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:18). God knew that given the choice, humanity would reject the path of obedience and continued communion with Him and go its own way. He knew the Fall would happen. He planned therefore for the coming of the Messiah even before He made either people or the universe they would inhabit. And down through the years between the Fall and that first Christmas, the words of the prophets echoed closer and closer, like the footsteps of a man approaching down the tiles in a darkened hallway, until finally, he stepped into the light at just the right time, in accordance with all that God was doing in His grand plan and in a way that would make his arrival both unmistakable and fulfill all the prophecies He had sent to His prophets.

 And Paul reminds us here in Galatians 4 that "God sent forth His own Son." Jesus was not a mere man, specially empowered by God to fulfill certain tasks and purposes, like Moses or Joshua or David or Abraham. No, he was a man, but far more than that. He was the actual incarnation of the Second Person of the Triune God. He is God in the flesh, Deity with a fingerprint and toenails and taste buds. He was "born of woman, just like every human being, so that He might share their nature and thus be capable of bearing their sin, for as Gregory of Nazianzus taught centuries ago, “what is not assumed is not healed.” He had to be fully God to be capable of saving all humanity by his death. He had to be fully human to be a perfect substitute and sacrifice for human sin. Thus God took on a fully human nature.

He lived, as Paul says, “under the law,” meaning he was fully subject to God’s law and the penalties those who violated it incurred. The fact that He is God could allow Him no “King’s X,” no special exemption from the requirements that He, as God, had placed on His creatures once He became one of them. He had to keep the Sabbath, just as He required of His people. He had to be circumcised, observe the feasts, make the sacrifices required on the appointed days, attend worship at the synagogues and the Temple. He had to conduct himself in relationship with others just as He required of us. And when he was falsely accused of blasphemy, which was the crime for which he was eventually wrongfully condemned to death, He had to go the cross. It was the penalty God had decreed, so it was the penalty His Son paid. Jesus lived his life, from beginning to end, subject to God’s law.

And then as you look at this verse, you see that marvelous transition, that magnificent conjunction, which in Greek is the little word “hina,” but appears in the ESV simply as “to” and “so that.” If you’re in a scholarly mood, it’s a conjunction giving the purpose or result of God’s plan being carried out, which is: “to redeem those under the law so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Under the terms of the divine Law, we all stand condemned. We all justly deserve death for the rebellion and treason against the God who made us that we commit every time we sin by word, thought, or deed. So God sent the Son to redeem us, to purchase our lives with His, to satisfy the righteous requirement of the Law in a way that does not result in our death, but in His. And he did all these things, according to His magnificent sovereign plan so that we might receive adoption as sons. God might have redeemed us in order to make us servants. He might have simply set us free to follow our own desires, but freed from the penalty of sin, like a banker who cancels a debt but doesn’t want much to do with you afterward. Instead, he redeemed us to make us His sons! He sent the Son to His death so that we could be joint heirs of all that He possesses and all that He is with His only begotten Son, Jesus.

What can we say? How can we ever exhaust the need for worship of the God who has worked such great salvation for us? Though we celebrate Christmas once a year, every day ought, for the Christian to be in some ways, a Christmas celebration; a life lived in light of the fact that Jesus Christ came into the world to save us from sin and death by becoming sin and tasting death for us. Thus, we have life that is truly life. Thus we have reason to say to one another today, and every day, “Merry Christmas.”

Merry Christmas to you. Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas in Newtown

Last week, a murderer went on a rampage in a locked schoolhouse, killing 26 people before turning the gun on himself. And whenever things like this happen, the question is always asked: “Where was God?” That question is often asked, but it is seldom given a good answer. As a Christian, I believe that the Bible provides good answers to many of life's toughest questions, including that one. And one of the answers is provides, believe it or not, is Christmas. I can tell you that I love Christmas as much as the next guy. I love the stockings, the tree, the candy, the spiral hams, the parties, the Christmas music, the gifts, the cold and snow that hopefully will show up then. I love it all! I’m still a big kid, basically, when it comes to Christmas.

But Christmas, as anyone who has listened to Linus each year could tell you, isn’t really about any of those things, nice as they are. What it’s really about is how the God who made us loved us and invaded our world. He came on a rescue mission to put right the world we broke (and continue to break) and to do it in a way that doesn’t involve destroying all of us for the evil that lurks in our hearts. Christmas is about that, about God not only loving us, but loving us enough to wade into the darkness of this world and take that very darkness and the punishment it justly deserves upon Himself so that the world and its people would be healed from it and restored to relationship with Him. Christmas is about how God isn’t removed, watching us from a distance, like some absentee landlord, but willing to wade into the muck and mire of human life as one of us to deliver us from the destruction we by nature bring on ourselves and everyone around us.

Ever since the Fall in the Garden, every single human human being has flung himself or herself headlong into rebellion against God. That rebellion takes many forms, from pride, coveting, lust, greed, and other common, nigh unto "respectable" sins, to the darker ones like hatred, immorality, wrath, idolatry, rage, adultery, murder, and yes, schoolhouse shootings. All of it is fruit from the same tree, which is a twisted heart, bent away from God. Which is why whatever "solutions" we come up with to prevent the next example of this kind of evil may succeed in the short run, but will not eliminate evil from our society. As Solzhenitsyn said, "the line of good and evil cuts through every human heart. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?" There are only two solutions: either eliminate all the dark hearted people (which is all of us!) or change the hearts of men.Without changed hearts, we will never run out of tragedies and examples of the deep evil present within human beings. Next week will probably bring another one. In fact, so will a good look in the mirror.

But the joy of Christmas is that Jesus came, just like God promised over and over and over through the Hebrew Scriptures. He is the Seed of the Woman, the son of Judah, the true Passover Lamb, the son of David, the Son of God, who had a ministry that began Galilee and ended with his rejection and death. God used heinous evil committed against His own son to bring restoration from and forgiveness for evil to all who will trust in Him. That is what Christmas is all about. That is the reason we celebrate Jesus’ birth, the certain knowledge that all the things in the world that are not as they should be will not always be the way they are. Indeed, we human beings, who have the most the do with the reason the world is the way it is, have the opportunity to be made right. That is God’s reason for Christmas, His Christmas gift to us.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The pull of the old ways...

Yesterday was my day off. I try as hard as I can to ensure that as little of my life is consumed by ministry on Mondays as possible. I don't usually answer the phone, don't usually go the office, or work on anything remotely pastoral. Instead, I spent the day hanging out with Karen, going for a run, and taking a nap. It's my small attempt at maintaining some helpful "margin" in my otherwise crazy life. As part of the day, we watched a little Michael Strahan and Kelly Ripa, who were interviewing Hugh Jackman (Valjean in the Les Miserables movie) and listening to Richard Marx (last seen in the 80's doing Right Here Waiting for You). Jackman was engaging, funny and, in the clip of film I saw, amazing as Jean Valjean. But what was really interesting was Richard Marx. He sang Casting Crowns' version of I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. As long-time readers of this humble blog know, this is my all-time favorite Christmas hymn. The lyrics are based on a Longfellow poem written in 1863 at the height of the Civil War, after Longfellow's own son had gone to join the fight for the Union.

The carol's third verse is: "And in despair I bowed my head. 'There is no peace on earth,' I said. 'For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth goodwill to men.' And this is the verse that concluded Marx's rendition for Kelly and Michael. It ended despairing, with perhaps a glimmer of hope in the chorus about "peace on earth, goodwill to men," but without any real basis for that hope. For some reason he left off the final verse, which is: "Then pealed the bells more loud and deep, 'God is not dead, nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth goodwill to men.'" Without God, there is no hope. Without a living God, able to help, desires for peace and goodwill on earth will remain that, simply desires.

I think that in many ways, this rendition of the song is a metaphor for our culture here at the end of 2012. We still love the ancient traditions, the old songs, and the old ways, but without the substance on which they are based. We want "peace on earth, goodwill to men," but without the intervention of the Savior on whom that certain, though yet future, hope is based. We want brides in white dresses and church weddings, but without the chaste living the dress symbolizes. We want a middle class lifestyle, but without the work such a life requires. We want a powerful nation without any sacrifice of life or treasure, liberty without responsibility, and the whole world to bend around our individual desires. These are hopes and dreams that are bound to be dashed because they do not align with truth or correspond to reality.

Yet here at Christmas, the pull of the old ways is perhaps at its strongest, because even as we dash around making merry, we remember what really matters: faith in God, family, and living well by doing good. My Christmas prayer is that the old ways would not be forgotten when the last of the lights are stored away, that the basis for our hope at Christmas would not go unmentioned, and that we as a people would once again "seek for the ancient pathways" and find our Lord and Savior standing at the end of them.