Archive for December, 2018

Advent Devotional Day 23: “Bearing Our Guilt and Shame”

December 23, 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 1:19

What does it mean when Matthew tells us that Joseph, “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose [Mary] to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

I understand that Joseph wanted to spare Mary both her life and public humiliation, but how would annulling his marriage help with this? Even if he “dismissed her quietly,” the conspicuous fact that Mary was pregnant would become more and more apparent. And someone was the father! Wouldn’t people put two and two together and assume that Mary slept with someone else, and that Joseph, in his justifiable anger and hurt, divorced her for this reason?

Not according to Adam Hamilton in his book The Journey. By keeping quiet about the reasons for the divorce—rather than loudly accusing Mary of infidelity, as most men would do—people would assume that Joseph himself slept with Mary. By divorcing her and letting people believe that he was the father, Joseph would bear the shame, not Mary. Meanwhile, by divorcing Mary, Joseph believed he was giving the “real” father the chance to do the right thing and take Mary as his wife.[1]

So out of great compassion, Joseph was willing to let people think that he was an irresponsible jerk. He was willing to bear the shame and guilt of someone else’s sin—so far as he knew—for the sake of love.

Who does that remind you of?

Jesus Christ paid the penalty for all of your sins—past, present, and future—on the cross. Whenever we confess and repent of our sins, we can be confident that God will forgive us. As John says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:19). Spend time confessing and repenting of your sins. As you do so, be confident that God has forgiven you!

1. Adam Hamilton, The Journey (Nashville: Abingdon, 2011), 44.

Advent Devotional Day 22: “The Meaning of Christmas Is Easter”

December 22, 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 1:1-18

In January 2007, a 50-year-old construction worker and Navy veteran from New York named Wesley Autrey was taking his two young daughters home on the subway in Manhattan. While he was standing on the subway platform, a 20-year-old film student suffered a seizure and collapsed onto the tracks in front of a fast approaching train. The student was dazed. He struggled vainly to climb back onto the platform but fell down. That’s when Autrey did something so brave and heroic I can’t comprehend it.

Without having a moment to spare, Autrey leapt onto the tracks as the train neared. There was a trough between the two rails about a foot deep. Autrey pushed the student down into the trough and lay on top of him, holding him down, while five subway cars passed over the both of them, inches above Autrey’s head. Autrey, who was underneath the train, shouted to bystanders that they were O.K., and could someone look after his two daughters until he got out.

Both men were saved. Autrey said afterwards, “I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right.”[1]

All I can say is, I hope Wesley Autrey is around if ever I’m in trouble!

I said a moment ago that I can’t comprehend his act of heroism, but that’s not quite right: I can comprehend it, but only because I’m a parent. Not that I’ve ever had to put it to the test—and not that I want to—but when my daughter was born—my firstborn—I understood for the first time the impulse to sacrifice one’s life for someone else. I remember thinking for the first time, “In the interest of love, I would do anything to protect and save this precious life. I would jump in front of a speeding locomotive to save her. I would push her out of the way of a fast-approaching bus. I would take a bullet for her. Without giving it a second thought!” (And, by all means, I would do the same for my two boys!) That’s love, and I fell in it deeply and unshakably and unfailingly when I became a father.

Now consider our heavenly Father’s love for us: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 KJV). The “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” so that God could lay down his life to save us, his children. 

My friend Kevin Hargaden, a Presbyterian minister in Ireland, put it well in a Facebook post one Christmas: “And remember, folks, the real meaning of Christmas is Easter.”

Christmas means that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And the word that God spoke so powerfully through the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of his Son is “I love you.”

Have you experienced God’s love for yourself? You can!

If you’re ready to receive God’s gift of salvation in Christ, begin by praying this prayer:

Almighty God, I confess to you that I am a sinner in need of your forgiveness. I know that because of my sins I deserve nothing better than death and hell. But I also know that you loved me too much to leave me this way. I am sorry for my sins and with your help I am turning away from them now. I believe that your Son Jesus is Lord. I believe that through Jesus—through his death on the cross and through his resurrection from the dead—you are offering me forgiveness and eternal life. Enable me to receive that gift now. I promise, by your grace and power, to be a faithful follower of Jesus for the rest of my life—in this world and in the world to come. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

If you prayed this prayer, please let me (brentw@cannonchurch.org) or someone else know. I would love to help you as you begin this journey as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

1. Cara Buckley, “A Man Down, and a Stranger Makes a Choice,” New York Times, 3 January 2007.

Advent Devotional Day 21: “Doers of the Word”

December 21, 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 2:13-15

The 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 to this question?

Another pastor questions the Virgin Birth for no good reason

December 20, 2018

Pastor Brian McLaren, who, alongside his former “emerging church” colleague Rob Bell, used to identify as an evangelical, said that the “literal factuality” of the Virgin Birth is beside the point—which is really, he says, a statement against “patriarchy.” Or something.

Anyway, in response to this tweet I tweeted the following:

It should read “whomever.” Sorry. When will Twitter let us edit tweets?

I’ve blogged many times about the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. Here’s one representative post.

Advent Devotional Day 20: “The ‘Little Herod’ in Each of Us”

December 20, 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 2:13-15

King 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.[1]

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.

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

Advent Devotional Day 19: “Great Things for Me”

December 19, 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 1:49

Notice 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.

Sting 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 missile silos, 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.”[1]

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.’”[2] 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 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.”[3] 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.”[4]

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?

1. Matthew 6:31-33 NIV

2. Matthew 10:28 NIV

3. Romans 3:23

4. John 3:16

Make me your prisoner, Lord, because “free will” isn’t working for me

December 19, 2018

Yesterday, when journaling through Zechariah, I came across this evocative verse: “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double” (Zechariah 9:12). In context, the prophet is speaking to Jewish exiles in Babylon. But that phrase, “prisoners of hope,” inspired me to write the following:

9:12 “O prisoners of hope”: Imprison me in this same way, Lord. Make my heart captive to your Word and your gospel, such that I can never leave. If you capture me against my will (which is true by definition), then please transform my will. Change my desires so that I desire only you. Make me a prisoner of hope, rather than a prisoner of despair, or bitterness, or resentment, or fear, or vainglory. I’ve been a prisoner to those things too long!

The older I get, the lower my anthropology becomes, which is to say, the less optimistic I am about human nature. (Maybe I know myself too well?) Regardless, my “free will” isn’t working for me, let’s face it. I want too many things that are bad for me. So now I’m pleading with the Lord to make me want him and his kingdom: Make me your prisoner, Jesus. It’s the only way I’ll stay close to you! And in my best moments, when I am sufficiently under the influence of your grace, I want to be close to you more than I want anything else. And I am happy.

Sometimes when I say or write things like this, which cut against the grain our culture’s “moral therapeutic deism,” some of my well-meaning fellow Christians try to comfort me: “There, there,” they say. “You’re not so bad.” But I am! Besides, when I begin to think otherwise, I’m tempted to climb back on the hamster wheel of self-improvement that too many Methodists call “sanctification” and make myself miserable all over again.

No, I like being reminded that my standing before God doesn’t depend on me. That is incredibly good news!

And don’t forget: the gospel is, first and foremost, news. Pastor Tim Keller puts it like this:

Advice is counsel about what you must do. News is a report about what has already been done. Advice urges you to make something happen. News urges you to recognize something that has already happened and to respond to it. Advice says it is all up to you to act. News says someone else has acted. Let’s say there is an invading army coming toward a town. What that town needs is military advisers; it needs advice. Someone should explain that the earthworks and trenches should go over there, the marksmen go up there, and the tanks must go down there.

However, if a great king has intercepted and defeated the invading army, what does the town need then? It doesn’t need military advisers; it needs messengers, and the Greek word for messengers is angelos, angels. The messengers do not say, “Here is what you have to do.” They say rather, “I bring you glad tidings of great joy.” In other words, “Stop fleeing! Stop building fortifications. Stop trying to save yourselves. The King has saved you.” Something has been done, and it changes everything.[1]

The gospel is not what we do; rather, it’s what’s been done for us. Rest in this thought for a moment. Refresh yourself with this good news. Hear Jesus’ words: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

By the way, Joel Osteen’s Twitter game has been on fire recently. When I first read this tweet, my heart objected: “No way! It’s too good to be true!” But then, this is the way the gospel ought to strike us, right? We ought to be amazed at what God has done to save us. This tweet gets to the heart of the gospel, the meaning of justification, and Christ’s imputed righteousness. As Fleming Rutledge (in case you need  a more “respectable” source than Osteen) says in her book on Atonement, sanctification means “becoming what you already are.”

Regardless, this tweet is music to my ears!

By all means, find something to disagree with here. I can’t.

“Wait, wait… This grace can’t apply to addicts!” No, God’s grace is for them, too. “But not until they’ve cleaned up their acts a little bit first!” No, God sent his Son because none of us sinners is able to clean up our acts, a little or a lot. “But God doesn’t show favor to the really bad sinners!” I don’t know… Paul called himself the “foremost” of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), and look at the favor God showed him! “But what about repentance?” By all means, we must repent! But what is repentance? Confessing to God that we are utterly helpless to solve the problem of our sins. “But we must do something!” Well, yes… because faith without works is dead (James 2:20), and our “doing” is a means of testing the authenticity of faith (2 Corinthians 13:5). But our “doing” plays no role in saving us, nor by doing can we claim credit for any subsequent change in our hearts that the Holy Spirit accomplishes. Christ saves us entirely. Solus Christus!

1. Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas (New York: Viking, 2016), 21-22.

“Burned as Fuel for the Fire”

December 18, 2018

One classic Advent text, traditionally read during Christmas Eve services, is Isaiah 9:2-7. This is a messianic prophecy about the way in which Christ our king will defeat God’s enemies, establish his kingdom, and usher lasting peace into the world. It includes these words from verse 5:

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

These are not words of judgment, as if the warriors themselves, who wear the boots and garments “rolled in blood,” are being thrown into a fire; rather, apparel that they wore in order to conduct war is being burned. But notice it’s not simply being destroyed; it’s being used for a good purpose: as “fuel for the fire.” Fire for warmth and cooking is good and necessary. In this way, this verse is much like another Advent text, Isaiah 2:4: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” 

Both verses describe ways in which God transforms the suffering, failure, and defeats of the past (or present) into something that will be in the best interests of his people. No experience, no matter how painful, is wasted; our ever-resourceful God uses it all for our good.

We see this principle at work even in the conversion of the “wise men from the east” in Matthew 2:3: “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.”

How did these pagan astrologers learn about the birth of a “king of the Jews” and why would they care? My ESV Study Bible offers this insight:

The wise men would likely have been familiar with OT prophecy through interaction with Jews in Babylon, and they may have remembered Balaam’s prophecy that “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17). This was understood by Jews to point to a messianic deliverer (e.g., Dead Sea Scrolls, Damascus Document 7.18-21; Testimonia 9-13).[1]

Did you notice this: “through interaction with Jews in Babylon”? The deportation and exile of Jews to Babylon, the empire by whom God judged and punished Israel for her sin, represented the worst failure on the part of God’s people. Yet even through this experience God would ultimately bring these pagans into a saving relationship with the one true God. Who could have imagined at the time of Judah’s humiliating defeat that God was, as always, working his redemptive plan?

God transformed this experience, in the words of Isaiah, into “fuel for the fire.”

I believe there’s a lesson here even for God’s people today—not least of all a lesson for me. Not that most of us Christians are fighting in a literal war. Our clothing is not stained with blood. Our Enemy’s attacks rarely leave visible marks. Yet one day, in God’s glorious future, when we can see “face to face” what we now see only in a “mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12), we will see how God transformed all our suffering into “fuel for the fire.”

So what’s the worst thing you’re facing right now? A scary medical diagnosis? A broken marriage? Family strife? Job loss? Academic failure? Loneliness? Confess your fears to God, embrace the promise of Romans 8:28, and trust that our Lord is using this difficult trial for your good.

1. The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 1822.

Devotional Day 18: “Seeing God’s Hand in Natural Events”

December 18, 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 2:1-6

Several years ago, I visited a parishioner who was convalescing at home after a debilitating illness. He was a former NASA scientist—with a Ph.D. from Harvard—who was also an amateur astronomer. (“Amateur” in the truest sense of the word: he didn’t need compensation to pursue his love for the stars.) To pass the time and keep his sanity during his long recovery, he engaged in some astronomical research.

“I’ve made a discovery,” he told me with excitement as he greeted me at the door. “I know the date on which Jesus was born!”

“Really?” He sensed skepticism in my voice. He then qualified his earlier words: Maybe he didn’t know the exact date, but he had a narrow range of dates, within a couple of weeks, given certain assumptions. “Look, I’ll show you.” He explained his findings using a star chart, the Bible, and various clippings from astronomy journals.

Surprisingly, it all seemed very… plausible to me. And he wasn’t a crackpot. He said that it wasn’t actually a star, per se, but a morning star—Jupiter, I believe—which would have been visible to the magi at this particular time in this particular region. Contrary to popular illustrations of the Star of Bethlehem and Christmas songs like “Do You Hear What I Hear,” this astral phenomenon was not something just anyone would have noticed. But for men like these magi who made their living studying the night sky, this would have been an incredibly curious event.

The point is, my friend believed that through this natural event, God was speaking to the magi.

If I could go back in time and talk to him, I would ask him about verses 9 and 10, which describe the original star “going before them” and “coming to rest over the place” where Jesus was. That doesn’t sound like it can be explained by a merely natural phenomenon, but that’s not important for the purposes of this devotional.

What’s important is that this parishioner helped me appreciate once again the importance of God’s providence: God is always at work in our world—not merely through supernatural events—but through completely normal, natural, predictable, scientifically explainable events! Nothing happens outside of God’s sovereign control. If something happens in the universe, whether caused by God or allowed by God, it happens according to God’s will, for his purposes, for his glory.

So even if the Star of Bethlehem was a natural event—and I have no idea—it was a natural event designed by God to bring these magi west to Jesus Christ—to bring them to salvation through Christ.

From my perspective, then, this means miracles happen all the time—even if we can “explain” them naturally. God’s fingerprints everywhere!

Are we aware of God’s presence in the ordinary, the mundane, and the everyday? Is God trying to get our attention? Are we paying attention?

Devotional Day 17: “Ready for Whatever God Has in Mind”

December 17, 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 1:5-25

I have experienced many times in my pastoral ministry when I’ve thought, “I was born to do this! Nothing makes me happier than doing this particular thing. I’m so glad I can serve the Lord in this way.” I’m not alone in this feeling: When we answer God’s call—to whatever task God calls us—God has a way of making us feel deeply happy and satisfied. 

Pastor Frederick Buechner put it well when he said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright reflects on the way in which this is true for Zechariah and Elizabeth:

This story, preparing us for the even more remarkable conception and birth of Jesus himself, reminds us of something important. God regularly works through ordinary people, doing what they normally do, who with a mixture of half-faith and devotion are holding themselves ready for whatever God has in mind. The story is about much more than Zechariah’s joy at having a son at last, or Elisabeth’s exultation in being freed from the scorn of the mothers in the village. It is about the great fulfillment of God’s promises and purposes. But the needs, hopes and fears of ordinary people are not forgotten in this larger story, precisely because of who Israel’s God is—the God of lavish, self-giving love, as Luke will tell us throughout his gospel. When this God acts on the large scale, he takes care of small human concerns as well.[1]

Have you experienced the “deep gladness” that comes from “answering God’s call”—whatever that call may be? Do you believe that God wants you to find happiness in him? What could God be calling you to do right now?

1. N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2004), 7-8.