Archive for December, 2016

“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 24: Those with Whom God Is Pleased

December 24, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Luke 2:13-14

glory_cover_finalWhen we hear the Christmas story in the Bible, it often sounds better in the classic King James translation:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

The shepherds weren’t “terrified” (NIV) or “filled with great fear,” they were  “sore afraid.” Outside of this scripture, I’ve never used “sore” as an adverb. But in the Christmas story it just sounds right.

Of course, our preference for one translation over another often comes down to style or nostalgia. But the classic King James rendering of the second half of verse 14 is misleading, if not wrong: “on earth peace, good will toward men.”

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This translation makes it seem as if the angels are pronouncing God’s favor toward everyone without condition. Granted, in a culture that values “inclusion” above all other values, this idea fits nicely. Bible scholars now believe that this isn’t what the angels meant.

Modern translations, they say, have it right: “on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased” (ESV).

Among those with whom he is pleased? If that’s the case, we better find out who these people are with whom God is pleased—and why!

Theologian Joseph Ratzinger, better known as the former Pope Benedict XVI, provides this helpful answer:

Now, with regard to this question the New Testament itself provides an aid to understanding. In the account of Jesus’ baptism, Luke tells us that as Jesus was praying, the heavens opened and a voice came from heaven, saying: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased…” (3:22). The man “with whom he is pleased” is Jesus. And the reason for this is that Jesus lives completely oriented toward the Father, focused upon him and in communion of will with him. So men “with whom he is pleased” are those who share the attitude of the Son—those who are conformed to Christ.[†]

Here’s the good news: If we have accepted Christ as Savior and Lord, God is “well pleased” with us, not because of who we are and what we’ve done, but who Christ is and what he’s done for us. As Paul says of himself in Philippians 3:9, he no longer has a “righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.”

Do you agree with the following statement: “God is well-pleased with me, not because of who I am or what I’ve done, but who Christ is and what he’s done for me”? Why or why not? Do you believe that any part of salvation depends on your “earning” it?

Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (New York: Image, 2012), 75.

“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 23: Surrendering to God

December 23, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Luke 1:28-38

glory_cover_finalNotice in verse 38 that Mary isn’t necessarily saying that she’s happy to be God’s chosen vessel for bringing God’s Son into the world. Her joy would come later—after she visits her relative Elizabeth later in later in this chapter. Right now, she is likely nervous, uncertain, and afraid. In spite of her feelings, however, she says “yes” to God. She surrenders her will to God. She says, in so many words, the same thing her son would say more than thirty years later in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Not my will but thine be done.”

Although our circumstances will be different from hers, all Christians must be prepared to do the same. Like Mary, we must learn to surrender to the Lord.

Pastor and author Tim Keller gives us an idea what this looks like. He describes an experience decades ago at a Christian conference:

Two questions were put to us. First, are you willing to obey anything the Bible clearly says to do, whether you like it or not? Second, are you willing to trust God in anything he sends into your life, whether you understand it or not? If you can’t answer these two questions in the affirmative, we were told, you may believe in Jesus in some general way, but you have never said to him, “I am the Lord’s servant.” These questions were startling to me, but to this day I believe they are accurate indicators of what Christians are being asked for.[†]

Can you answer these two questions in the affirmative? What changes do you need to make in your life to become a more faithful servant of the Lord? Pray for the grace to change.

Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas (New York: Viking, 2016), 91.

Tim Keller in the New York Times

December 23, 2016

kellerIn today’s New York Times, op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristoff interviews my favorite contemporary preacher, Tim Keller. You can read the interview here. While I would have pushed back harder on the resurrection and the Bible’s alleged “fuzziness” (Luke’s virgin birth story was “written in a different kind of Greek”? Huh?)  the interview was edited, as Kristoff indicates, so we can’t know what else Keller had to say.

Still, these are not softball questions. As a useful exercise, in the spirit of 1 Peter 3:15, you might try formulating your own answers to these questions.

I want to highlight a couple of Keller’s responses. First, when asked about the alleged inconsistency between faith and science, I liked his answer. I’m including it here mostly because I want to remember that Plantinga quote, which I’ve highlighted:

I don’t see why faith should be seen as inconsistent with science. There is nothing illogical about miracles if a Creator God exists. If a God exists who is big enough to create the universe in all its complexity and vastness, why should a mere miracle be such a mental stretch? To prove that miracles could not happen, you would have to know beyond a doubt that God does not exist. But that is not something anyone can prove.

Science must always assume that an effect has a repeatable, natural cause. That is its methodology. Imagine, then, for the sake of argument that a miracle actually occurred. Science would have no way to confirm a nonrepeatable, supernatural cause. Alvin Plantinga argued that to say that there must be a scientific cause for any apparently miraculous phenomenon is like insisting that your lost keys must be under the streetlight because that’s the only place you can see.

Next, when asked about Christianity’s exclusivity (Is Gandhi in hell?), Keller gets to the heart of the matter: Who can be saved by being good? Who is good? And if being good were the criterion, wouldn’t that also be exclusive? The alternative to a works-based salvation, as Keller notes, is universalism: everyone will be saved in the end. But where does that leave justice? Should evil go unpunished?

What I admire most about Christianity is the amazing good work it inspires people to do around the world. But I’m troubled by the evangelical notion that people go to heaven only if they have a direct relationship with Jesus. Doesn’t that imply that billions of people — Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus — are consigned to hell because they grew up in non-Christian families around the world? That Gandhi is in hell? 

The Bible makes categorical statements that you can’t be saved except through faith in Jesus (John 14:6; Acts 4:11-12). I’m very sympathetic to your concerns, however, because this seems so exclusive and unfair. There are many views of this issue, so my thoughts on this cannot be considered the Christian response. But here they are:

You imply that really good people (e.g., Gandhi) should also be saved, not just Christians. The problem is that Christians do not believe anyone can be saved by being good. If you don’t come to God through faith in what Christ has done, you would be approaching on the basis of your own goodness. This would, ironically, actually be more exclusive and unfair, since so often those that we tend to think of as “bad” — the abusers, the haters, the feckless and selfish — have themselves often had abusive and brutal backgrounds.

Christians believe that it is those who admit their weakness and need for a savior who get salvation. If access to God is through the grace of Jesus, then anyone can receive eternal life instantly. This is why “born again” Christianity will always give hope and spread among the “wretched of the earth.”

I can imagine someone saying, “Well, why can’t God just accept everyone — universal salvation?” Then you create a different problem with fairness. It means God wouldn’t really care about injustice and evil.

There is still the question of fairness regarding people who have grown up away from any real exposure to Christianity. The Bible is clear about two things — that salvation must be through grace and faith in Christ, and that God is always fair and just in all his dealings. What it doesn’t directly tell us is exactly how both of those things can be true together. I don’t think it is insurmountable. Just because I can’t see a way doesn’t prove there cannot be any such way. If we have a God big enough to deserve being called God, then we have a God big enough to reconcile both justice and love.

Approaching Christ with empty hands

December 22, 2016

The following comes from an Advent sermon in 2008 by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the Pontifical household. It’s a poignant illustration about justification by faith alone (h/t Mockingbird, emphasis theirs).

This is the most necessary conversion for those who have already followed Christ and have lived at his service in the Church. An altogether special conversion, which does not consist in abandoning what is evil, but, in a certain sense, in abandoning what is good! Namely, in detaching oneself from everything that one has done…

This emptying of one’s hands and pockets of every pretension, in a spirit of poverty and humility, is the best way to prepare for Christmas. We are reminded of it by a delightful Christmas legend that I would like to mention again. It narrates that among the shepherds that ran on Christmas night to adore the Child there was one who was so poor that he had nothing to offer and was very ashamed. Reaching the grotto, all competed to offer their gifts. Mary did not know what to do to receive them all, having to hold the Child in her arms. Then, seeing the shepherd with his hands free, she entrusted Jesus to him. To have empty hands was his fortune and, on another plane, will also be ours.

“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 22: Giving and Gratitude

December 22, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Matthew 2:10-11

glory_cover_finalThe Bible teaches us that every good thing that we have is ultimately a gift from God (James 1:17). By contrast, we Americans have been taught all our lives that we need to be “self-made” men and women, to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, and to earn everything we have!

Clearly, these two ideas are in conflict with one another.

But think about it: Our heavenly Father has given us the gift of life and breath; of time and health; of an amazing world which supports our lives; of this great nation; of our mothers, fathers, and family; of teachers and coaches, doctors and nurses—people who’ve cared for us, set an example for us, and sacrificed for us in order to shape us into the people we are today.

God has given us the gift of our talents and skills, which enable us to do meaningful work and create beautiful things. Yes, we must do something, but what we do is infinitesimally small compared to what God has done for us!

When the people of Israel were about to cross over the Jordan into the Promised Land, Moses warned them, “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth…”

The point is, our Father gives and gives and gives. And he asks us, in return, to also give. In the Old Testament, God’s law said that God’s people, Israel, had to give a tithe, which means to give ten percent of their income. That’s a biblical standard of giving. Is that a law for us Christians? No, we’re no longer under the law; Christ has fulfilled the law for us—it’s as if Christ has given a tithe on our behalf.

But that hardly means the law is bad or wrong: it just means that we now follow God’s law for a different reason. And it’s the same reason for which the magi give their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus: out of love and gratitude, not compulsion.

Besides, the evidence from the New Testament is that the tithe may not be enough for many of us! Remember the widow’s mite. Her two copper coins were all she had, Jesus said—more than a tithe. Remember the Rich Young Ruler? Jesus asked him to give everything he had—more than a tithe. Remember Zacchaeus? He gave half of his money and possessions—more than a tithe. Remember Acts chapter 4? Luke tells us that in the early church, “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need”—more than a tithe.

I’m not saying that we’re supposed to do the exact same thing; only that there are many examples of New Testament Christians who are extraordinarily generous with their money—in ways that far exceed ten percent!

Do you tithe? Why or why not? When you give your gifts to Jesus, do you do so grudgingly, because you’re “supposed” to? Or do you give out of gratitude and love? Pray that the Lord will make you more faithful in your financial giving.

“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 21: The Chief End of Man

December 21, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Luke 2:20

glory_cover_finalJohn Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, used a revised version of the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1648 to teach the Christian faith to new believers. The first article of the catechism is the following:

Question 1. What is the chief end of man?

Answer. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

In other words, the most important thing that we human beings are supposed to do is what we see the shepherds doing when they leave the holy family at the manger: glorifying God. Yet I don’t think I’m alone when I say that, outside of Sunday morning worship services, I spend little time thinking about glorifying God. Why?

C.S. Lewis explores this problem in his book Reflections on the Psalms:

We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people round every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand. Thus a picture, at once ludicrous and horrible, both of God and of His worshippers, threatened to appear in my mind. The Psalms were especially troublesome in this way—”Praise the Lord,” “O praise the Lord with me,” “Praise Him.” (And why, incidentally, did praising God so often consist in telling other people to praise Him?…)[1]

Of course, unlike any tin-pot dictator, God is the one object that perfectly deserves all of our praise all the time. He doesn’t need it, but we need to do it—for the same reason, Lewis says, that we need to praise a great work of art, only infinitely more so:

The sense in which the picture “deserves” or “demands” admiration is rather like this; that admiration is the correct, adequate or appropriate, response to it, that if paid, admiration will not be “thrown away,” and that if we do not admire we shall be stupid, insensible, and great losers, we shall have missed something… He is that Object to admire which (or, if you like, to appreciate which) is simply to be awake, to have entered the real world; not to appreciate which is to have lost the greatest experience, and in the end to have lost all…

The world rings with praise—lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game—praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars.[2]

Nothing, Lewis says, brings us greater delight than to praise what we enjoy. To praise is to “complete” the enjoyment; it is, Lewis writes, “its appointed consummation.”

If this is true of everything that is less than God, how much more true is it of God? Lewis even refers to the catechism when he writes the following:

The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.[3]

Is glorifying God a priority in your life? Think of five things right now for which God deserves your thanks and praise. Spend time worshiping him.

1. C.S. Lewis, “Reflections on the Psalms” in The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis (New York: Inspirational Press, 1986), 177.

2. Ibid., 178-9.

3. Ibid., 180.

Sermon 12-18-16: “Wise to Follow the Newborn King”

December 21, 2016

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One main theme of my Advent sermon series is that we’re not so different from the men and women in the Bible’s Christmas narratives. In today’s scripture I focus on three responses to the birth of the newborn king: hostility, indifference, and transformation. Chances are, your life, like my life, reflects all three responses. What do we need to do to become more like the magi?

Sermon Text: Matthew 2:1-12

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download a MP3.]

A company called Modern Nativity has made a splash this holiday season by reimagining the manger scene as having happened to a group of present-day hipsters. “Hipster Nativity”! So Mary, holding a cup of Starbucks coffee, and Joseph, with his smartphone, are shown taking a selfie of themselves and the baby Jesus in a stable with a solar-paneled roof. A shepherd is shown uploading pictures of the joyous event to Instagram or Snapchat. And the wise men, the subject of today’s scripture, are shown wearing skinny jeans, riding Segways, and carrying their gifts to the newborn king in Amazon boxes—naturally.

hipster_magi

Hipster magi, with their gifts in Amazon boxes

I don’t love this nativity set, to be honest—especially for the $130 that they’re asking for it. But I do think if the magi were giving gifts to Jesus today, Amazon would somehow be involved. This was literally a picture I took yesterday of one delivery to my house! [Show picture of Amazon boxes.]

Remember when we used to go to stores to buy stuff—we used to go to the mall? I don’t miss those days!

But getting back to Hipster Nativity, I also appreciate that contemporary nativities help us imagine ourselves in this story. As has been my theme throughout this Advent sermon series, I want us to see that we’re not so different from the men and women who took part in these events related to Christmas about 2,020 years ago. We can see ourselves in them!

In fact, I want this sermon to focus on three very different responses that we see in today’s scripture to the events of Christmas and the birth of Christ.

First, we see in King Herod the response of hostility. Read the rest of this entry »

“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 20: Doers of the Word

December 20, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Matthew 2:1-8

glory_cover_finalThe magi were experts in both religion and astronomy. Among other things, they believed that important events on earth influenced the night sky—and vice versa. Therefore, when they saw the Star of Bethlehem, they pieced it together with what they knew about Judaism and concluded that the Messiah had been born.

They followed the star as far as it would take them: to Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel. Surely, they reasoned, Israel’s Messiah would be born here. Upon arriving in the capital, however, they learned otherwise. Bible scholars in Jerusalem pointed them to Bethlehem. Scripture, these scholars said, foretold that the Messiah would be born in David’s hometown.

Given that Herod was “troubled” by the news—as was the populace in Jerusalem—the magi’s journey was hardly a secret. Perhaps Jerusalem’s citizens knew from painful experience that when their king was “troubled,” he took it out on his subjects. Regardless, many people in Jerusalem, including the Bible scholars that Herod and the magi consulted, knew about the star and the magi’s journey. As best we can tell, however, the magi made the journey to Bethlehem alone.

Why? Didn’t these scholars believe the Bible? Even Herod believed it—enough to go on a murderous rampage! These scholars must have believed it was possible, if not likely, that scripture was being fulfilled. Yet they stayed home. They didn’t accompany the magi to worship the newborn king.

Their inaction or indifference reminds us of James’s words in James 1:22: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” And his warning in 2:17: “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

Do you try to live your life according to God’s word? Would the people who know you best agree with your answer?

“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 19: The “Little Herod” in Each of Us

December 19, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Matthew 2:13-15

glory_cover_finalKing Herod went to murderous lengths to oppose the kingship of Jesus Christ. Yet, in the following passage, Tim Keller argues that even we Christians have a little bit of “King Herod” living within us:

Why do you think it is so hard to pray? Why do you think it is so hard to concentrate on the most glorious person possible? Why, when God answers a prayer, do you say, “Oh, I will never forget this, Lord,” but soon you do anyway? How many times have you said, “I will never do this again!” and two weeks later you do it again? In Romans 7:15 Paul says, “What I hate I do.” There is still a little King Herod inside you. It means you have got to be far more intentional about Christian growth, about prayer, and about accountability to other people to overcome your bad habits. You can’t just glide through the Christian life. There is still something in you that fights it.[†]

How does that “little King Herod” manifest itself in your life? Pray for forgiveness and repent. Ask for the grace necessary to fight him back.

Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas (New York: Viking, 2016), 73.

“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 18: Great Things for Me

December 18, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Luke 1:49

glory_cover_finalNotice that in Mary’s song, the Magnificat, she expresses amazement that God is bringing to fruition his plan of salvation for the world through her. The gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for her, personally: “He who is mighty has done great things for me.”

What about you? Have you personally experienced the gospel of Jesus Christ as good news?

I have. And I’d like to share one way that the gospel has been good news for me:

I am someone who is a naturally fearful person. For example, growing up, I was afraid of dying in a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union—Russia. In fact, I was fairly certain that I was going to die in a nuclear war.

The early eighties, after all, were a scary time for fearful kids like me. For example, when I was in eighth grade there was a made-for-TV movie called The Day After starring Jason Robards, which imagined the world after the Russians dropped the bomb on us. For weeks, news about the movie was all over newspapers, magazines, and TV news.

missile_commandSting had a hit song about nuclear war, in which he wondered “if the Russians love their children, too.” We played video games like “Missile Command.” Remember this game? You’re in command of a missile silo, and your job is to protect six cities from being hit by fast-approaching nuclear missiles. And these missiles just keep coming, wave after wave. You have to shoot them out of the sky. And no one wins in the long run: eventually all your cities get reduced to rubble!

Around the same time, President Reagan was talking about building a real-life “missile command” system that could destroy Russian nuclear missiles before they landed on U.S. soil!

We also watched movies like WarGames, in which a young Matthew Broderick is a computer prodigy who hacks into the Pentagon computers and nearly launches World War III—by accident.

And you may be wondering, “Brent, you’re a pastor now! Instead of being afraid, why didn’t you just place your faith in God, and trust that he would take care of you?” After all, Jesus said, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Jesus also said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.’” In other words, there is a healthy kind of fear that we’re supposed to have, and it’s the fear of the Lord, which comes from believing and trusting in him as our Savior and Lord. If we do that, we don’t need to worry about all these other things! God will take care of us!

And I believe these words are true from the bottom of my heart now. But back then… I didn’t know Jesus as my Savior and Lord. I wasn’t saved. So I was even afraid that when I died, I wouldn’t be prepared meet the Lord, because I hadn’t yet received the gift of forgiveness, salvation, eternal life that he freely offers us.

But that changed one weekend in February 1984, when I went on a winter youth retreat to Black Mountain, North Carolina, with my church youth group.

The gospel was preached in a way that finally made sense to me: I understood that I was a sinner whose sin had separated me from a holy God. As scripture says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” I understood that because of my sins, I deserved death and hell.

But just as importantly, I also understood that God loved me—that God loves all of us—way too much to let us die in our sins. He wants to save us. He wants to have a relationship with us—both now, in this life, and in eternity. I understood that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

I received this gift of eternal life that weekend, and I’ve never been the same. For one thing, I’m not nearly as fearful as I used to be. I have peace of mind and a sense of security and belonging. And it’s because of Jesus.

Along with Mary, I can say, “He who is mighty has done great things for me.”

Reflect on the “great things” that Christ has done for you. You might want to write them down. Could you, speaking from personal experience only, share this good news with others?