Archive for December, 2019

Podcast Episode #38: “It Was a Very Good Year”

December 31, 2019
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On Instagram this morning, I read a post from the Desiring God organization in which the author said, “Take steps to remove or keep yourself from whatever is keeping you from the Bible.” I immediately double-tapped the screen to register my approval of this post: But I saw the irony immediately and commented, “But then I wouldn’t be reading this post right now!” Because the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is reach for my phone and browse social media—as a way of easing into the morning before getting out of bed. I’m pretty sure most of us do this. 

Before long, a half hour slips by, and I’m still clicking and tapping away on my smartphone—a half hour that might otherwise be devoted to—you know—reading or meditating on or memorizing God’s Word.

By all means, take distractions away, Lord, but not the distractions of Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook! I like them too much!

Anyway, while I was on social media I also read about how difficult the year 2019 was for some people—and how eager they are to turn the page, to reset the calendar, on a new year. 

What do you make of that kind of tweet? Don’t get me wrong. I understand what it’s like to have a difficult year… And objectively speaking, 2019 was hardly a stroll through the park! But on what basis would I complain? I mean, seriously… Inasmuch as 2019 was difficult, it was, like, 99 and 44/100 percent my own fault. These difficulties were self-inflicted. Because it wasn’t the circumstances that made 2019 a challenge for me, it was my response to those circumstances. 

And that will surely be true for 2020 as well.

Also, inasmuch as God did not spare me from suffering the consequences of my self-inflicted problems in 2019, how can I not be grateful. Because I learned from these experiences!

Listen, we all know the apostle Paul’s words in Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” And the way I’ve interpreted this verse for the vast majority of my life is like this: In spite of what we’re going through, no matter how bad things are right now, we always have reasons to rejoice—we can console ourselves with the conviction that “this world is not our home,” like so many gospel songs of a certain vintage say; we’ll “fly away to a land on God’s celestial shore.” At least we’ll have a better life on the other side of eternity. 

In the meantime, we can just grin and bear it. Heaven is the consolation prize for life not working out so well right now.

That sounds awful, doesn’t it? 

No, it’s not in spite of these bad things that we can rejoice. The Bible goes much further than that. Take, for instance, Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:20. Now, this verse is in the middle of a long sentence with participial phrases. It reads literally, “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” But there’s an implied imperative, and some translations break it up into smaller sentences. The Good News Translation, for instance, puts it like this: “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, always give thanks for everything to God the Father.”

Always give thanks… for what? For everything.

So if you’re a Christian, from Paul’s point of view, there’s no rejoicing “in spite of.” That’s far too mild. There’s only rejoicing because of.

And Paul is hardly a Pollyanna about suffering and evil. Listen to what he says in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9, in which he describes his suffering and imprisonment in Ephesus:

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.

So to be clear: If any experience would put Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:20 to the test, surely it was this terrible experience in Ephesus. Could Paul actually “give thanks” for being “afflicted, utterly burdened beyond his strength, despairing of life, and feeling as if he’d been given a death sentence”?

And his answer would surely be yes. Why? Because, he says, God had a purpose for letting him endure it: “to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises from the dead.”

So when Paul reached the end of that particular calendar year, would he say, “Thank God this year is over”? Or would he say, “Thank you, God, for what you put me through this past year because look at how you used it for my good”?

In some Psalm 119:71-72, the psalmist writes:

It was good for me to be afflicted

so that I could learn your statutes.

Instruction from your lips is better for me

than thousands of gold and silver pieces.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve ever learned anything important in life except through affliction. What about you? And it’s interesting that the psalmist says that God’s Word is better than “thousands of gold and silver pieces.” Because when I’m afflicted, it’s usually because I’m seeking my treasure in something or someone other than Jesus Christ. And then, when the Lord graciously refuses to give me this treasure I seek, I’m disappointed and filled with resentment. And I suffer. Because I didn’t get whatever “gold and silver” I was seeking outside of Christ.

If you’re a Christian, God’s purpose in all of our affliction ultimately is to give us more of Christ. Do we want more of Christ? Is he enough for us? Or are we going to keep on looking for treasure elsewhere?

So thank you, God, for afflicting me in 2019. These afflictions were blessings in disguise—as the old Laura Story song says. And thank you for all of those blessings over the past year that were not in disguise. There were many, many more of those anyway. 

Two-thousand-nineteen was a very good year.

Sermon 12-29-19: “The Real War on Christmas”

December 30, 2019
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I read an article years ago, written by an historian, which asked a strange but thought-provoking question: “in popular imagination, who was Hitler before there was a Hitler?” In other words, for the past 70 years or so, when we’ve needed to compare an evil ruler, dictator, or king to someone from the past who was really evil, we needed look no further than to Hitler and the Nazis. For us, Hitler is the living embodiment of evil, the personification of evil. 

So the question this historian was asking was a good one: Who was Hitler before Hitler even existed? Prior to about 1945, who was the evil ruler to whom people routinely compared other evil rulers?

And the answer, according to this historian? None other than the evil king we encounter in today’s scripture, King Herod, or “Herod the Great.” And this was in large part because of what we see him do in today’s scripture. 

Remember from last week, he sends the Wise Men to Bethlehem to find the newborn King of the Jews. He says it’s because he wants to worship him. Yeah, right! The reality is, he wants to kill Jesus, because he perceives that Jesus is a rival to his throne. And when God warns the Wise Men in a dream what Herod is up to, they go home “by another way,” at great risk to their lives. Because Herod was not somebody you wanted to cross. So he finds out that the Wise Men had tricked him, he flies into a murderous rage, and he sends his army to slaughter all male children two and under in and around Bethlehem. Why “two years”? Because earlier he had asked the Wise Men when the star first appeared. Apparently they told him two years earlier.

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Sermon 12-24-19: “Good News of Great Joy”

December 27, 2019
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So the new Star Wars movie opened last week: “Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker.” My kids and I saw it last Friday. Not to spoil anything, but I was very surprised to learn that the heroine of the trilogy, Rey, was the granddaughter of Jar Jar Binks. I did not see that coming at all, did you?

I’m kidding, of course. I’m not going to spoil the new Star Wars by giving away the ending. But I hope you won’t mind if I spoil the beginning: because it begins the exact same way that the previous eight installments of the series began: a black screen with these words: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” This is, in other words, the filmmakers’ way of saying, “Once upon a time…” “Everything that you’re about to see—no matter how impressive the CGI and special effects—it’s all just make-believe.” Despite the fact that according to a recent census of Great Britain, a depressingly large number of respondents—at least thousands—claimed “Jedi” as their religious identification, the Star Wars universe is nothing more than a glorified fairy tale. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with fairy tales, but let’s please notice how drastically different the beginning of the Christmas story is. Luke tells us that the following events occurred in a specific time and place in history—when Caesar Augustus was emperor. But he was emperor for a long time—from 27 B.C. to A.D. 14. So Luke is more specific: This was Caesar’s first registration—you know, the one he did when Quirinius was governor of Syria

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Sermon 12-22-19: “They Rejoiced Exceedingly with Great Joy”

December 23, 2019

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We sing a song about today’s scripture during this season: “We three kings of orient are/ Bearing gifts we traverse afar/ Field and fountain, moor and mountain/ Following yonder star.”

Literally one of my favorite Christmas hymns. Just a beautiful melody. Yet it’s wrong in nearly every detail!

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“The gospel in a gangster movie”: meditation on Genesis 45:16-20

December 10, 2019

“Have no concern for your goods, for the best of all the land of Egypt is yours.” Genesis 45:20

Last week I watched Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Irishman. I think I now understand the appeal of gangster movies: because I want to know the favor of someone who has the power and resources to get things done for me—who would enjoy doing so. And if I had such a person in my life, I would gladly give him love and loyalty in return. (Of course, I might also live in fear of crossing him, because mobsters in movies, if not real life, are capricious, to say the least!)

Not to compare the Pharaoh to a mob boss, but something like this is happening in today’s scripture. Jacob and his sons have found the favor of a seemingly all-powerful, eminently resourceful benefactor. And they’ve done so not on their own account, but on account of their relationship with Joseph.

I’m jealous!

But not so fast. If we’re in Christ, aren’t we in a similar position—only infinitely more so? As Paul writes, “So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23).

These words are astonishing: Do all circumstances, all events, all people, and all things—through God’s sovereign hand—serve me and my interests? And not just me, of course, but everyone who is in Christ? How is this possible?

Yet, how could it be any other way? “We are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” I’m reminded of a quote, which I can’t find at the moment (I think it’s Robert Farrar Capon), which reads something like this: “We are so bound up with Jesus that if the Father wants his Son, he gets us, too.”

As with Jacob’s family, we enjoy God’s inexhaustible favor not on our own account, but on account of Jesus and his relationship to his Father. In other words, because we’re with Jesus, the Father is pleased to give us the “best of the land” and the “fat of the land”—for which he’ll spend our lifetimes preparing us.

To say, as I want to say, “But I’m not worth this,” is to miss the point: I’m not worth it, but God’s Son Jesus is.

Sermon 12-01-19: “Your Prayer Has Been Heard”

December 3, 2019
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I’m always intrigued by the way angels are depicted in Hollywood. Think, for example, of Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life. Think of Michael Landon in Highway to Heaven. Think of Roma Downey and Della Reese from Touched by an Angel. All these depictions of angels have one thing in common: the angels are completely nice, friendly,and non-threatening. They would never do anything for which they would need to say, “Fear not”—because no one who encountered them would ever be afraid of them!

Clarence the angel from “It’s a Wonderful Life”

Needless to say, Gabriel, the angel who shows up to talk to Zechariah in the sanctuary of the Temple—he’s not a Michael Landon/Roma Downey kind of angel. He’s a “fear not” kind of angel. I’ll get to him in a little while. But first, who is Zechariah, and what’s going on in today’s scripture?

We’re told that Zechariah was a priest serving in the temple. Priests were responsible for leading worship services, burning incense, accepting sacrifices and offerings, teaching the people God’s Word, and, more than anything, butchering animals for sacrifice. There were about 24 divisions of priests, each comprising about a thousand priests. Luke tells us that Zechariah served in the “Abijah” division. He and the other priests in his division served in the Temple for one full week twice a year—and also during the festivals of Passover, Pentecost, the Feast of Tabernacles, and the Day of Atonement. In today’s scripture, Zechariah is serving during one of his two regular weeks. 

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