Archive for December, 2018

God help me, I am a man of unclean lips!

December 31, 2018

In Psalm 12, David writes the following in verses 1-4:

Save, O Lord, for the godly one is gone;
    for the faithful have vanished from among the children of man.
Everyone utters lies to his neighbor;
    with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.

May the Lord cut off all flattering lips,
    the tongue that makes great boasts,
those who say, “With our tongue we will prevail,
    our lips are with us; who is master over us?”

To say that the “faithful have vanished from among the children of man” paints a bleak picture. And what are the tell-tale signs of this absence of godliness? The words people utter, “flattering lips,” the “double heart” with which people speak, the “tongue that makes great boasts”—in other words, the things that people say.

This is a recurring theme in the Book of Proverbs, not to mention James 3:1-12, which couldn’t offer a more dire warning against the danger of the tongue.

But here’s what I now realize: The biblical authors don’t quite say what I want them to say, or what I expect them to say, about our speech. I want them to say that the words we speak are, at worst, a symptom of the problem in our hearts.

Not that they aren’t a symptom: Jesus himself tells us that “out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). David makes the same point here when he refers to the “double heart.”

One problem with “flattering lips,” for instance, which Proverbs also warns against, is that they don’t tell the truth. They don’t come from a place of integrity, in which thoughts, words, and deeds align perfectly.

All this makes sense to me.

But the biblical writers go beyond that. In the scripture above, for instance, the problem is not merely the sinful pride in one’s heart that gives rise to “great boasts,” but the boasting itself. The words are a problem. From the perspective of the biblical authors, speech is something far worse than the outward manifestation of what’s in our hearts. In other words, while it’s one (sinful) thing to have the impulse to boast, it’s something worsedare I say far worse—to give voice to this impulse.

Again, this is not the way I want to see it. I want to believe that words—like cursing and gossip—are superficial. “Solve the problem in your heart, Brent, and your angry cursing and gossip will cease.” (Most of my sinful speech relates to my anger.)

This perspective simply doesn’t do justice to the Bible’s teaching. Words have more power than that. Perhaps we can’t “solve the problem in our hearts” without, at the same time, solving the “problem in our words.”

So I need to change. I tend to be very forgiving of myself when it comes to sinful speech (and often very unforgiving when it comes to other ways in which I fall short!). When I confess my sins in prayer, for example, I rarely even think of sinful words I’ve spoken. They are, at worst, “breadcrumb sins” (Dylan, “Gates of Eden”). I see now that I’m wrong.

Merciful God, I am “a man of unclean lips” who has tolerated this sin for too long. Give me the grace and the power to rein in sinful words. Amen.

Advent Devotional Day 31: “To Thy Pleasure and Disposal”

December 31, 2018

During the month of December, I’ve prepared a series of daily devotionals to help my church get ready for and celebrate Christmas. I created a booklet (if you’d like a copy, let me know), but I’ll also post devotionals each day on my blog.

Devotional Text: Luke 1:38; Philippians 2:5-11

United Methodists have a liturgy for the new year called the Covenant Renewal or Watch Night service. I’ve never been part of a Methodist church that observed it (frankly, it would be a tough sell against our culture’s traditional New Year’s Eve celebrations), but we often include a prayer from the service on or around New Year’s Day. Wesley didn’t write it, but he adapted it for this service:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.

The prayer emphasizes God’s sovereignty to a possibly uncomfortable degree. What would it mean, after all, for us to “have nothing” or to be “laid aside” or “brought low” for God? Do you really want to find out? If we did, we might be tempted to imagine that God were punishing us. Not necessarily, this prayer says. 

It also challenges us to resist the temptation to imagine God as a sleepy, grandfatherly figure, who may not like what’s going on in the world but isn’t powerful enough to do anything about it. It assumes that what God wants will not be frustrated by human sin or naturally occurring events.

This prayer challenges us to place our lives at God’s disposal, trust that we’ll be O.K. one way or another, and learn to say, “So be it.” Just like Mary in Luke 1:38.

In fact, the prayer puts into words a prayerful response to Paul’s words in Philippians 2, when he urges us to have the “same mind” among us as is in Christ. When we pray, “Let me be empty” and “I heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal,” it’s hard not to think of the self-emptying love of God in Jesus Christ, “who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself.”

Just think: Christ emptied himself so much that he let himself become the size of a single cell in Mary’s womb. And he let himself be born not in an opulent palace but a lowly cattle stall.

Would you be content to be “laid aside” for God’s sake? Would you be happy if God let you have nothing? Why or why not?

Advent Devotional Day 30: “Hope for Dark Moments”

December 30, 2018

During the month of December, I’ve prepared a series of daily devotionals to help my church get ready for and celebrate Christmas. I created a booklet (if you’d like a copy, let me know), but I’ll also post devotionals each day on my blog.

Devotional Text: Daniel 3:8-30; Luke 1:38

When we read in Daniel 3 about God’s miraculous rescue of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, we often think of it as God’s sparing these men from suffering. But how can that be? The fact is, God made the three friends endure the worst part of the furnace.

Allow me to explain: First, they had to wrestle with the decision to go to the furnace (versus bowing down to the statue) and, second, anticipate the horror of the furnace: What would happen the moment they’re thrown in? What would dying that horrible death feel like?

By all means, the three friends hoped that God would deliver them. They knew that God had the power to do so. But this kind of faith isn’t the same as rock-solid certainty, as they acknowledge: “But if [God doesn’t deliver us], be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

And so it is with Mary in Luke 1:38: Following her words of perfect submission and faith, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” Luke writes, “And the angel departed from her.” Like the three friends, Mary must endure a great deal of suffering before she reaches her happy ending.

Joseph Ratzinger, aka the former Pope Benedict XVI, reflects on this verse:

The great hour of Mary’s encounter with God’s messenger—in which her whole life is changed—comes to an end, and she remains there alone, with the task that truly surpasses all human capacity. There are no angels standing round her. She must continue along the path that leads through many dark moments—from Joseph’s dismay at her pregnancy to the moment when Jesus is said to be out of his mind (cf. Mk 3:21; Jn 10:20), right up to the night of the Cross.

How often in these situations must Mary have returned inwardly to the hour when God’s angel had spoken to her, pondering afresh the greeting: “Rejoice, full of grace!” and the consoling words: “Do not be afraid!” The angel departs; her mission remains, and with it matures her inner closeness to God, a closeness that in her heart she is able to see and touch.[1]

Notice the last sentence: Ratzinger implies that God uses Mary’s suffering—this struggle in her alone-ness—for a good reason: to bring her closer to God, to mature her faith.

Haven’t we found that our own “dark moments” accomplish the same purpose in our lives?

Think of times in your life when God intervened to save you from something that your feared. Did the experience help you in any way? Did you learn something from it? Can you see how God was working through that experience to “mature your inner closeness to God”?

1. Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: the Infancy Narratives (New York: Crown, 2012), 37-38.

Advent Devotional Day 29: “The Light Shines in Darkness”

December 29, 2018

During the month of December, I’ve prepared a series of daily devotionals to help my church get ready for and celebrate Christmas. I created a booklet (if you’d like a copy, let me know), but I’ll also post devotionals each day on my blog.

Devotional Text: John 1:1-5

In the movie Back to the Future, Doc Brown, the inventor of a time-traveling DeLorean, asks Michael J. Fox’s character, Marty, if he wants to travel back in time and witness the birth of Christ. We then see him set the clock on the DeLorean’s dashboard to December 25 of the year “0000.” 

This is wrong for two reasons: First, there wasn’t a year “0000.” (The calendar changed from 1 B.C. to A.D. 1) Second, Jesus wasn’t born on December 25—or, more accurately, he had about a 1 in 365 chance of being born on December 25.

But the Church chose the date of December 25 to celebrate Christ’s birth for an important reason: Under the old Julian calendar, it marked the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. For the next six months following the winter solstice, each day will be marked by progressively more daylight.

Some Christians are bothered by the fact that Christmas falls on (or near) what was traditionally a pagan holiday. Ancient people celebrated the solstice because it meant “the end of gloom and darkness and the victory of the sun and the light over darkness.”[1]

As Adam Hamilton points out, however, the solstice is a fitting symbol of Christmas:

Many believe that when Christians in the fourth century settled on a date to celebrate the birth of Jesus, they chose the date not because it was a pagan holiday, but because the heavens themselves declared at this time the truth of the gospel. The winter solstice represented astronomically what John’s Gospel proclaimed was happening spiritually in the birth of Jesus Christ. Just as darkness was defeated by light, so in Jesus, God’s light would defeat the darkness of sin and death.

This meaning is captured in John’s telling of the story. John doesn’t mention angels or shepherds or wise men; he speaks only of light and life and the defeat of darkness. John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with  God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:1-5).[2]

Describe in your own words ways in which the “light of Christ” has driven out darkness in your own life. In what areas of your life do you still need Christ’s life to shine? Pray that God will make that happen through the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.

1. Adam Hamilton, The Journey (Nashville: Abingdon, 2011), 126.

2. Ibid.

Advent Devotional Day 28: “Life Is Like That”

December 28, 2018

During the month of December, I’ve prepared a series of daily devotionals to help my church get ready for and celebrate Christmas. I created a booklet (if you’d like a copy, let me know), but I’ll also post devotionals each day on my blog.

Devotional Text: Romans 8:28; 1 Thessalonians 5:16, 18

In the holiday classic movie A Christmas Story, the family’s Christmas turkey dinner is ruined when the neighbors’ dogs steal the bird from the kitchen counter. The narrator, a grown-up Ralphie, says, “Life is like that. Sometimes at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.”

This was a minor disaster, to be sure. But I love the way the father responds: Despite the fact that Christmas turkey was his favorite part of the holiday, when it was taken away from him, he controls his anger, forces a smile, and tells his family, “Go upstairs. Get dressed. We’re going out to eat.”

If you’re a parent—if you’re a human being in general—you are constantly called upon to rise to the occasion, to deal with adversity, and to handle disasters with equanimity.

So how are you doing at it? 

I have a friend who teaches psychology at a university in town. He said that most of our suffering in life comes not from the disaster itself, but how we respond to it. In my experience, I know that’s true.

But my friend is speaking only from a secular perspective. We believers have God’s Word. In it, we’re told things like “Rejoice always… give thanks in all things.” We’re told that God has “hemmed us in, behind and before,” and that we are held securely in God’s hand. We’re told that in all things God works for good of those who love him. We’re told that the grace of Jesus Christ is sufficient in every circumstance. We’re told that nothing separates us from God’s love.

This means that God has a plan for our lives, and he’s working that plan “when our joy is at its zenith, when all is right with the world, and when disasters, large and small, happen”—and they will. But when they happen, we can say, “Well, this isn’t what I planned or wanted—but I’m not in charge here. I wonder what the Lord is up to? He must have something better for me than I planned.” 

God must have something better for me than I planned!

Do we have the faith to stare a disaster in the face and say that?

In my own experience, and in the experience of any number of people I’ve ministered to over the years who’ve survived disasters, God has a way of taking the bad stuff and transforming it into something good. Have you experienced God this way? If so, how can this experience help you the next time disaster strikes?

Advent Devotional Day 27: “Chip Off the Old Block”

December 27, 2018

During the month of December, I’ve prepared a series of daily devotionals to help my church get ready for and celebrate Christmas. I created a booklet (if you’d like a copy, let me know), but I’ll also post devotionals each day on my blog.

Devotional Text: Matthew 1:20-24

The movie Elf, starring Will Ferrell, has recently become a beloved holiday favorite. It tells the story of Buddy, a human child who grows up among Santa’s elves in the North Pole. Buddy becomes a hero in his own right, but I want to take a moment to appreciate an unsung hero of this story: Papa Elf, played by Bob Newhart. He is the adoptive father to Buddy.  

Think about it: Buddy becomes the person he is, and is able to do the heroic things that he does, in part because of the role that Papa Elf played in his life.

If that’s true of Buddy the Elf, don’t you think it’s true of Jesus, too?

Before we answer that, let’s think through the mystery of the Incarnation: Jesus didn’t emerge from the womb on that first Christmas endowed with superhuman knowledge, power, and wisdom, fully equipped from birth to be Messiah and Son of God. On the contrary, after the 12-year-old Jesus visits the temple in Jerusalem in Luke chapter 2, Luke writes that Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” While he was without sin, Jesus grew physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

That’s why, by the way, I never understood the line in “Away in the Manger” about “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” He was as helpless and vulnerable as any baby, needing the love and care of his parents. Of course Jesus cried! Why wouldn’t he cry?

The point is, Jesus grew into the person that he did in part because of Joseph—his love, his example, his instruction, his discipline. Jesus wasn’t simply a “chip off the old block” because he was like his heavenly Father—although he was that, too—but also because he was like his earthly father, Joseph.

In fact, every time Jesus spoke of God as a loving Father—for example, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son—he did so in part because of his experience of Joseph as a loving father. I can only imagine that God chose Joseph to be Jesus’ father because he was the greatest earthly father who ever lived!

To say the least, this challenges me to think more soberly about my role as a parent. How about you? 

If you have a child, have you ever considered that God chose you to be that child’s parent? What an awesome responsibility! But if God chose you, that means he’s also giving you the grace to be successful at it!

Christmas Eve 2018 Sermon: “In Christ, God is Well Pleased with You”

December 26, 2018

I preached the following sermon on December 24, 2018, at Cannon United Methodist Church in Snellville, Georgia. I apologize for the video quality: I took it directly from the Facebook Live feed. But the sound quality is O.K. Scripture is Luke 2:1-20.

Advent Devotional Day 26: “Those with Whom God Is Pleased”

December 26, 2018

During the month of December, I’ve prepared a series of daily devotionals to help my church get ready for and celebrate Christmas. I created a booklet (if you’d like a copy, let me know), but I’ll also post devotionals each day on my blog.

Devotional Text: Luke 2:13-14

Linus, in A Charlie Brown Christmas, understood that when we hear the Christmas story in the Bible, it just 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” (ESV), 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.

Unfortunately, the classic King James rendering of the second half of verse 14 is misleading, if not wrong: “on earth peace, good will toward men.”

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. But Bible scholars believe that this isn’t what the angels meant.

Modern translations have it right: “on earth peace among those whom he favors” (NRSV), or “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.[1]

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?

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

Advent Devotional Day 25: “Veiled in Flesh, the Godhead See”

December 25, 2018

During the month of December, I’ve prepared a series of daily devotionals to help my church get ready for and celebrate Christmas. I created a booklet (if you’d like a copy, let me know), but I’ll also post devotionals each day on my blog.

Devotional Text: John 1:14

At around noon on May 30, 1984, my eighth-grade classmates and I stood in a field near our high school to witness an annular solar eclipse. For a few moments, while the moon passed in front of the sun, it appeared as if the sun were completely blacked out. Our teachers warned us repeatedly: “Don’t look up at the sky! You might go blind!” Or at least, they said, the light from the sun that isn’t blocked by the moon could damage our vision.

So instead of watching the eclipse directly, we watched it indirectly, through pinhole projectors made from shoeboxes.

As exciting as this was—and as happy as I was to be excused from class for most of the afternoon—I was too worried about being accidentally blinded by the sun to enjoy the experience. After all, if someone tells you not to think of pink elephants, what do you think of? In the same way, if someone tells you not to look up at the sky, what are you tempted to do?

Fortunately, I didn’t go blind, nor was my vision damaged. But the experience reminded me of an important Old Testament truth: It’s dangerous for us sinners to see God—even to get too close to him.

In Genesis 32, for example, Jacob is grateful to be alive after he realizes that he had been wrestling all night with God. In Exodus 33, when Moses asks to see God’s glory, God shields Moses’ eyes when God’s glory passes by. Otherwise, God tells him, the experience would kill him. In Isaiah 6, the prophet Isaiah has a heavenly vision and shouts, “I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!”[1] He realizes that he is in God’s presence, and he knows that sinners can’t get close to God without being destroyed.

Something changed, however, when Jesus came. In his hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” Charles Wesley describes it this way: 

Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with men to dwell
Jesus our Immanuel

Not only could humans get close to Jesus Christ—who is God-made-flesh—when he was on earth; now, because of Christ’s atoning death on the cross, we can be close to God all the time. 

Remember what Christ did: He took our sins upon himself and suffered the penalty for them. (See 2 Corinthians 5:21.) He lived the life we were unable to live and died the death we deserved to die. In exchange, we who place our faith in Christ receive his righteousness as a gift. 

From God’s perspective, then, it’s as if we’re no longer sinners at all. We are instead God’s beloved children, holy in God’s sight!

Think of how much parents want to be close to their children. God desires that kind of relationship with you! That’s why God became incarnate at Christmas.

Do you believe that God longs to be in a close relationship with you? Do you believe that God wants to spend time with you in prayer and speak with you through his written Word, the Bible? Do your actions reflect this belief?
I’m praying right now that you and your family and friends will have a wonderful Christmas Day!

1. Isaiah 6:5 paraphrase

Advent Devotional Day 24: “Surrendering to God”

December 24, 2018

During the month of December, I’ve prepared a series of daily devotionals to help my church get ready for and celebrate Christmas. I created a booklet (if you’d like a copy, let me know), but I’ll also post devotionals each day on my blog.

Devotional Text: Luke 1:28-38

Notice 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. True, her joy would come soon enough—after she visits her relative Elizabeth later in this chapter. But right now, she is likely nervous, uncertain, and afraid. In spite of these feelings, 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.”[1]

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.[2]

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.

1. Luke 22:42 KJV

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