Results tagged “Christmas” from Reformation21 Blog

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

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Think back on an exciting time in your life when you were overwhelmed with emotion at the sight of something beautiful, a sudden surprise that captured your attention, or a moment of intense grief that seemed to cause your heart to fail within you. Any scenario we might recall of such intense emotional response pales into insignificance when compared to what the little group of shepherds witnessed the night Christ was born in Bethlehem. What the shepherds saw in the starry night skies was unprecedented in human experience. An angel, escorted by a countless multitude of other heavenly messengers, abruptly and unforgettably intervened in the mundane, working-class existence of the shepherds' lives with a proclamation to rival all other proclamations--the long-awaited Christ, the Savior of the world, God in human flesh, had just been born in nearby Bethlehem (Luke 2:8-14).

After the angels departed back to the glories of heaven, the shepherds' response in Luke 2:15 indicates an ongoing kind of discussion among them in which they reiterated again and again their desire to go to Bethlehem and validate what the angels had declared. They were in full agreement that nothing would detour them from immediately going to find the newly arrived Savior: "Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has make known to us" (Luke 2:15). As soon as possible, the shepherds set out on the two-mile journey from the fields up to the ridge upon which the small town of Bethlehem sat to "see this thing that had happened." The Greek term, "thing" literally means "word" or "reality." In other words, this ragged group understood that they had received a direct word from the living God, and the reality of it was that the Messiah had been born that same day. Such a reality would be verifiable because the angel gave them a "sign" to look for, "a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger" (Luke 2:12).

No time wasted, the shepherds set out to verify the angelic message. Luke 2:16 denotes "they came with haste." They didn't just travel with speed, they searched for this child in the manger with inquisitive eagerness and enthusiasm. Scripture does not reveal exactly how the shepherds search for the holy child and his parents, but it's reasonable to assume they enter the city gates of Bethlehem asking questions: "Does anybody know about a baby being born here tonight? Have you seen a pregnant woman about to give birth? Has a crying baby been heard in the town?" Other babies may have been born the same night as the town was swollen with occupants for the census. These men may have knocked on a few doors throughout the town asking many questions. But they were not searching for any ordinary baby boy. They were searching for a baby lying in a feed trough. Finally, they "found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger" (Luke 2:16). At that moment, as they gazed upon this young girl just having given birth, her husband caring for her, and this newborn child wrapped in rags and lying in a manger, this band of shepherds knew within their hearts that every word of the angelic announcement was absolutely true.

It is unclear how long this band of men lingered with Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. Luke notes that upon leaving that nothing could restrain them from witnessing to others of the glorious truth they had witnessed. Luke says, "Now when they had seen him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this child" (Luke 2:17). At that moment of belief, the shepherds join Zacharias, Elizabeth, Joseph, and Mary as witnesses to the greatest news mankind will ever know. What was their instant and abrupt response? They conveyed the story. Can you imagine them running throughout the town sharing the story of the angelic hosts, sharing the story of Joseph and Mary, sharing the story of seeing the baby Jesus lying in a manger, and sharing within everyone that they had met that the Savior, the Messiah, the King? It has been said that this small group of shepherds became, in effect, the first New Testament evangelists. They couldn't restrain themselves from sharing the good news of the advent of heavenly joy.

The response of the people at such magnificent news was marvel and astonishment. Luke tells us, "all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds" (Luke 2:18). The clear indication is that the news being reported by the shepherds was created quite a stir among the citizens of this small Judean town. Sadly, like most good news, the people marveled for a few moments and then went on with their lives. How often we tend to do the same. We are held in momentary amazement of the glory and grace of God, only to quickly get on with our lives. Instead of dismissing the angelic visit as an apparition to be questioned, the shepherds embraced this message from God. They were caught up into wonder and amazement as they took into themselves all the sights of heavenly glory, sounds of celestial worship, words of Joseph and Mary, and the sight of God wrapped in flesh. Their mundane, simple, wearied existence would be changed forever.

The shepherds story is analogous to the Christian life--it begins in the depths of sinful despondency, God invades our lives with the revelation of his gospel, we receive his good news by embracing Christ, and having become witnesses to a divine salvific transformation of our lives we immediately proclaim what has happened to us. This Christmas season, may we be held in the same glorious wonder that spurred the shepherds to widely broadcast the good news that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).

 

Dustin W. Benge (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is editor of Expositor Magazine, a publication of OnePassion Ministries, and lives with his wife, Molli, in Louisville, Kentucky.

 

The Mission of the Church in the Story of Jesus' Birth

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As 2018 draws to a close, we look back on a year in which perhaps the most pressing issue for Reformed Christians is the relationship between the church and the world. How does the church respond to cultural shifts in terms of human identity and sexuality? And what is the mission of the church when it comes to matters of social justice?

It occurs to me as I read the Gospel accounts of Jesus' birth that here the question about the church's mission finds an answer. Consider three episodes in the birth narratives, each of which focuses the purpose of Christ's birth on the spiritual mission of redeeming his people from sin:

In Matthew 1:20-21, Joseph has just learned the troubling news that his fiancée is pregnant. But an angel informs him that the child is conceived by the Holy Spirit. The angel declares: "She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." Notice two things about this declaration. The mission of Jesus is directed toward "his people," that is, the elect. Moreover, the aim for which Jesus was born was salvific, delivering believers from sin.

In Luke 1:30-33, the angel Gabriel reveals to Mary that she will conceive a holy child. Here again, his name will be "Jesus," meaning, "Yahweh saves." His mission is conceived not in terms of the influence he will exert in worldly society but in raising up the kingdom of God: "the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end" (Lk. 1:33).

Luke 2:13-14 reports the angel song before the astonished shepherds outside Bethlehem: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!" Here again, the incarnation is directed towards the elect (those with whom he is pleased) so that they would receive peace with God and peace from God. This is the work of the gospel, bringing the spiritual ministry of saving grace into the lives of God's elect people.

How clear and striking it is, as we hear the voices announcing the birth of Jesus, to see the spiritual focus on the gospel work of salvation from sin. The angels did not announce a reform agenda for Herod's regime or a critique of class distinctions in Caesar's Rome. They announced a Savior, born on earth from heaven, as the Son of God incarnate, and his mission of delivering his chosen people from their sin. As we conclude 2018 and look ahead to a new year that may be counted on to be filled with struggle and strife among men, our calling as a Church is to spread forth the good news of the angels: "Unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Lk. 2:11).

Why Keep Christ in Christmas?

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Along with the carols, tinsel, gaudy inflatables, red kettle ringers, and frazzled faces of exhausted shoppers which appear around this time of year, another indication of Christmas arrives in the form of signs or bumper stickers reading: "Keep Christ in Christmas". Often, I see this slogan with a passing glance, and nod approvingly in my head, drawing comfort from another believer. 'Yes,' I think. 'One of the clan. Another who stands counter-culture, who pushes back against the tides of secularism. One day, together, we'll beat this "season's greetings" nonsense once and for all.'

But each year, I also ask: What does that phrase really mean? What does such a sign communicate? As Christians, it comes as a reflex to surge in support to any person or cause that contains the phrase: "Keep Christ in". After all, what's the alternative, except to "keep Christ out"? The Bible tells us that whether we eat or drink, or whatever we do, do it all to the glory of God, (I Cor 10:31) and at the very least that has to include Christmas. Each year, we encounter, with a stab of conscience, the difficulty we have maintaining a spiritual compass pointed toward Christ amidst the storms of commercialism, peppermint bark, and viewings of Elf. And so we raise our voices to ourselves as much as to anyone else to return to Christ as the reason for the season.

So far as that goes, such a cause is right and noble. But once again, we must ask the question: what does the phrase "Keep Christ in Christmas" actually mean? There are two primary meanings:

1) A battlecry of the culture war. This is the wrong use. Sadly, it is also the association most people, Christian and non Christian will make when they see that phrase, even if only subconsciously. As a battlecry, the call to "keep Christ in Christmas" flows out of a sense of tribalism alien to the gospel. It is the comfortable, insular desire for people around me to look and sound like me, regardless of what is going on at a heart level.

Certainly it does no harm to wish someone a Merry Christmas (unless you know they do not celebrate), but when that phrase becomes a sort of shibboleth to sort the good from the bad - who gets a warm smile versus an awkward stare, then it has become a tool by which you place yourself in the judgment seat of God. We must remember I Cor 4:20, where Paul warns the arrogant, self-secure among the church that "the kingdom of God does not consist in talk, but in power." We, as Evangelicals, can easily succumb to a conquering, colonial-like mentality, where we delight in the proliferation of nativity scenes, advent calendars, and mall renditions of 'O holy night', as if these were little flags publicly marking the expanding territory of the kingdom of God.

We make snap judgments based on what we see on the outside. We have no idea of whether we are smiling approvingly on houses which, behind the synchronized light displays and shepherd figurines, conceal the ugly dysfunction of domestic abuse, greed, and envy. We, like the Pharisees of Jesus' time can run the risk of fixating so much on the forms of Christian tradition, that we forget the substance. In this case, Samuel's warning to Saul applies to us: 'Has the Lord as great a delight in stars of Bethlethem and posting Christmas eve photos as He does in obeying the voice of the Lord?" (paraphrase) Remember that the kingdom of God advances through the power of the gospel and the Holy Spirit, not because you brought manger-shaped cookies into your child's 1st grade class.

2) An admonition for personal re-focusing. This is the right use. If you've been a Christian for at least a few years, you know what this holiday is about. You know the sermons you're going to hear, and the texts they will come from. You know the songs that you'll sing, and the cards that you'll get, and the Scripture that will come on those cards. You know it'll be printed in those fonts, on those scenes. That's the trouble with religious traditions, and the reason why we need the same stirring plea each year: "Keep Christ in Christmas."

Used in this way of personal motivation, 'Keep Christ in Christmas" applies with perennial urgency to each Christian individually. We can appeal to ourselves to remember the most undeserved gift in this history of the universe. We can ask God to not let our hearts grow cold, frosted with yearly repetitions and checklists. We can ask ourselves whether tradition is eclipsing our charity, joy, and thanksgiving this time of year. We can offer the gift of Christmas to those who have never experienced it through our kind words, peace, and patience (see fruits of Holy Spirit). We needn't worry about whether Christ is still in Christmas- He never left. And we celebrate that most truly when we emulate and display His character.

A Merry Luther Christmas

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Of all the advent sermons I have read, none are so profound and moving as those preached by the great German Reformer, Martin Luther. Luther was accustomed to preaching in step with the liturgical calendar so as to focus on the chronology of the birth narratives. In the dedicatory section to Prince Frederick, the Elector, in his Church Postils (homilies), Luther explained his primary purpose in preaching of these sermons:

"I have written not for those that are experienced but for the common people and those that have the Spirit, who are highly esteemed before God...I hope that I shall do enough if I uncover the purest and simplest sense of the Gospel as well as I can...in order that the Christian people may hear, instead of fables and dreams, the word of their God, unadulterated by human filth. For I promise nothing other than the pure, unalloyed sense of the Gospel suitable for the low, humble people." (Luther, Church Postils, vol. 1, p. 7)

Luther's commitment to write for "the low, humble people" was rooted in his own astonishment with the fact that Christ was born into an impoverished family in impoverished circumstances and lived an impoverished life. This is evident from often Luther employs the word "poor"  throughout his advent sermons. Luther was, no doubt, tracing out the words of the Apostle Paul in 2 Cor. 8:9, "You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich." This theme permeates swaths of Luther's house postils. For instance, In his advent sermon on Matt. 2:1-12, Luther explained why Bethlehem was the fitting birthplace for Christ. He wrote, 

"He comes without pomp, without violence, without estate, without money, without sword and muskets. He disregards the great and mighty cities, Jerusalem the most holy, Rome the most powerful, and others of the kind, and chooses for His birth-place the poor and lowly Bethlehem, so that one might judge, from the very place of His birth, what a Governor He would be: poor and mean before the world, but rich in spirit and all heavenly gifts." (Luther, House Postils, vol. 3, p. 202)

Then, in his sermon on Luke 2:22-32, Luther explained the supernatural faith of Simeon--a faith that enabled him to see the true identity of the poor beggar baby. He noted, 

"Simeon has a very penetrating eye. In this child this is no kingly mien or royal garb to see, merely the form of a poor beggar. The mother is poor, with hardly five pennies in her purse to redeem her child in keeping with the law. The child is wrapped in very poor swaddling clothes. Nevertheless, Simeon comes right up, without anyone's testimonial, and publicly attests: This child is the Savior of the world and a Light to all the Gentiles. This is a remarkable sermon and wonderful witness on behalf of this child, as Simeon looks upon this little infant wrapped in shabby rags. By reasoned judgment he would have to say, "This is no king, but a beggar child." But he does not allow his reason to judge by what his eyes behold, but denominates this child as a king, greater than all the kings in the world. For he calls Him a Savior, prepared by God for all nations, and a Light to lighten the Gentiles all over the world. Indeed for Simeon, this was to open one's eyes wide and look far beyond oneself. His eyes behold the whole world, from one end of the earth to the other. Wherever, in the whole world, he says, there are peoples and Gentiles, there this child is a Savior and a Light. Thus he comprehends everything that the Holy Scriptures state, and associates it with the child now lying in his arms."

In similar fashion, Luther drew attention to the fact that the wisemen overcame their unbelief and by faith came to pay homage to the infant Jesus as a great King over all the earth, irrespective of the impoverished circumstances in which they found him. He observed,

"When the wise men had overcome their temptation and were born again by the great joy they were strong and took no offense at Christ, they had overcome in the trial. For although they enter a lowly hut and find a poor young wife with a poor little child, and find less of royal appearance than the homes of their own servants presented, they are not led astray. But in a great, strong, living faith they remove from their eyes and their minds whatever might attract and influence human nature with its pretense, follow the word of the prophet and the sign of the star in all simplicity, treat the child as a king, fall down before him, worship him, and offer gifts. This was a strong faith indeed, for it casts aside many things which impress human nature. Perhaps there were some people present who thought: What great fools are these men to worship such a poor child. They must indeed be in a trance to make of him a king" (Luther, Church Postils, vol. 1, p. 363).

Finally, Luther entered into the experience of Mary and Joseph in receiving the prophecies made about Christ--despite what outward appearance would otherwise dictate. He explained, 

"If Joseph and Mary had judged according to outward appearances, they would have considered Christ [nothing] more than a poor child. But they disregard the outward appearance and cling to the words of Simeon with a firm faith, therefore they marvel at his speech. Thus we must also disregard all the senses when contemplating the works of God, and only cling to his words, so that our eyes and our senses may not offend us." (Luther, Church Postils, vol. 1, p. 252)

It would do us well to meditate anew this Christmas on the One who left the infinite glories of heaven to be born into a world of poverty, to a poor virgin, in a poor city, wrapped in poor clothing, surrounded by poor shepherds so that He might be the Savior of poor sinners like us who live in spiritual hopelessness and helplessness by nature. This is the grace of the Lord Jesus, "that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich." 

'Tis the Season

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Sinclair Ferguson has recently released his second advent themed book, Love Came Down. Together with his previously published Child in the Manger, this has quickly become one of my favorite sources for advent meditations. That is not at all surprising, as I have found Sinclair's advent sermons to be among the most thought provoking and spiritually enriching. There are gold nuggets in all of them. For instance, in one of his sermons on the virgin birth, Sinclair explained, 

"If God was to speak the language and the mathematics and the physics that was necessary to express creation out of nothing and virginal conception, our minds would seek to expand to their limit--to take it in until we reach the the point that we said, 'I'm sorry that I asked the question. I am just a man or a woman, a boy or a girl. This is too great for me!' And you see, that's the point that we come to recognize that here is the difference between the believer and the unbeliever. That's the point where the believer is content to say, 'You are God and I am not, and I'm content that it should be that way.' Whereas the unbeliever will say, with Friedrich Nietzsche, 'If there is a God who can do such things, how can I bear not to be that God; and so I will not believe.' Yes, it is an amazing, supernatural miracle; but like God's great works-creation, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection-done safe from men's prying eyes. He brings light out of darkness. He brings His Son into the dark womb of a virgin."

Dr. Ferguson preached a significant number of advent sermons during his time at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC. He has also preached a few in St. George's Tron in Glasgow, Scotland and in St. Peter's Free Church in Dundee, Scotland. You can find these messages below:

 

St. Peter's Free - Carol Service (Matthew 2:1-12)

The Night Before Christmas

The Incarnate Word (John 1:14)

Led by Another Way (Matt. 2:1-12)

The Rejected Word (John 10:1-13)

The First Woman in His Family Tree (Gen. 3:1-21)

The Light Giving Word (John 1:4-9)

Mary: Mother of Jesus (Luke 1:26-38)

The Eternal Word (John 1:1-3)

Joseph: The Prophet (Matt. 1:18-25)

Joseph: The Journeyman (Luke 2:1-75)

Joseph: The Dreamer

Joseph: The Son of David

And the Baby Lying in a Manger

The Under Shepherd's Presents

A Four-Legged Wooly Hump of a Christmas

How Christmas Brings Everything You Need (Heb. 2:5-18)

Celebration: the Joy of Christmas

Adoration: the Effect of Christmas #1 (Luke 2:14)

Incarnation: the Meaning of Christmas (John 1:1-14)

The Man with PCSS (Post-Christmas Stress Syndrome) (Matt 2:1-15)

Jesus, Name Above All Names: Immanuel (Matt. 1:18-25)

Name Above All Names: Jesus (Matt. 1:18-25)

Jesus, Name Above All Names: The Fourfold Name (Isaiah 9:2-7)

Name Above all Names (Phil. 2:1-11)

A Troubling Visitor (Luke 1:5-25)

Magnificat (Luke 1:30)

Around the Manger:Shepherds (Luke 2:1-20)

Around the Manger: Jesus (John 1:1-18)

Around the Manger: Mary (Luke 1:26-38)

Exodus II (Matthew 2:13-23)

An Angel's View of Christmas: What Angels Long to See (1 Peter 1:1-12)

An Angel's View of Christmas: What Angels Come to Do (Matthew 1:18-25)

An Angel's View of Christmas: What Angels Want to Say (Luke 2:8-20)

Born Into a World of Poverty (Luke 2:1-7)

A Teenager's Christmas (Luke 1 & 2)

The First Christmas (Luke 2:8-20)

Announced Very Unexpectedly (Matt. 1:18-25)

Prepared in Ancient History (Matt. 1:1-17)

Promised in Earliest Prophecy (Gen. 3:1-15)

Glory to God in the Highest (Luke 2:8-20)

The Coming of Messiah (Isaiah 9:6)

It Was the Best and Worst of Times (Luke 1:26-38)

Virgins Don't Conceive, Unless...!

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I love the ease with which C.S. Lewis answered objections to the Scriptural record of the the miraculous conception of the virgin Mary. In Miracles: A Preliminary Study, he wrote:

"You will hear people say, 'The early Christians believed that Christ was the son of a virgin, but we know that this is a scientific impossibility'. Such people seem to have an idea that belief in miracles arose at a period when men were so ignorant of the course of nature that they did not perceive a miracle to be contrary to it. A moment's thought shows this to be nonsense: and the story of the Virgin Birth is a particularly striking example. When St Joseph discovered that his fiancée was going to have a baby, he not unnaturally decided to repudiate her. Why? Because he knew just as well as any modern gynaecologist that in the ordinary course of nature women do not have babies unless they have lain with men. No doubt the modern gynaecologist knows several things about birth and begetting which St Joseph did not know. But those things do not concern the main point--that a virgin birth is contrary to the course of nature. And St Joseph obviously knew that. In any sense in which it is true to say now, 'The thing is scientifically impossible', he would have said the same: the thing always was, and was always known to be, impossible unless the regular processes of nature were, in this particular case, being over-ruled or supplemented by something from beyond nature. When St Joseph finally accepted the view that his fiancée's pregnancy was due not to unchastity but to a miracle, he accepted the miracle as something contrary to the known order of nature. All records of miracles teach the same thing.

C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 73-74.

Of Mary's Virginity and Humility

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A seasonal quotation from Sermons of St. Bernard on Advent and Christmas:

"Who is this Virgin so reverently saluted by the angel? and so lowly as to be espoused to a carpenter? Beautiful commingling of virginity with humility! That soul is in no small degree pleasing to God, in whom humility commends virginity, and virginity adorns humility. But how much more worthy of veneration is she, in whom fecundity exalts humility, and child-bearing consecrates virginity."

"Virginity is a commendable virtue, but humility an indispensable one. The first is of counsel, the latter of precept. Of the one it is said, "He that can take, let him take it." Of the other, "Unless you become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." To the one reward is offered: the other is exacted under a threat. Again, we can be saved without virginity, not without humility. A soul that has to deplore the loss of virginity may still be acceptable to God by humility: without humility, I will venture to say that even the virginity of Mary would not have been pleasing to Him, the Divine Majesty. Upon whom shall my spirit rest, if not on him that is humble and peaceable He says not on the virgin, but on the humble. If, therefore, Mary had not been humble the Spirit would not have rested on her. If the Holy Spirit had not rested on her, she would never have become fruitful; for how without Him could she have conceived of Him? Therefore, as she herself testifies, in order that she might conceive of the Holy Ghost, God the Father "regarded the humility of his handmaid," rather than her virginity. And if by her virginity she was acceptable to Him, nevertheless, it was by her humility that she conceived Him. Hence it is evident that it was her humility that rendered even her virginity pleasing to God."1

1. Bernard of Clairvaux (London: R. & T. Washbourne, LTE, 1909) p. 28.


*This post originally appeared at Reformation21 on December 21, 2007. 

Death, The New Year And The Hope of Christ

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2016 was a sobering year for our celebrity-driven culture. A recent CNN article reminded us of the many well known individuals that we lost over the course of the last year. More names have been added just in this past week. More than usual, it seems that many of these celebrities and artists lost in 2016 were icons of culture--a part of people's personal identities and memories. Social media has provided an unprecedented forum for shared grief and lament. (On a humorous note, one man even started a Go Fund Me page to "protect Betty White from 2016".)

From a biblical perspective, these social laments don't go far enough; and, sadly they seem to miss the point altogether. 2016 has not been all that unusual of a year--although it may have been more providentially jarring for some. People are shocked by tragedy and tragedies are supposed to be shocking. But tragedies are not surprises. They are reminders. Tragedies help to awaken us out of an illusion of what is not to what is actually the norm in this world. There is nothing more normal to history than evil and death. It is not strange. It is tragically normal.

I heard someone once say that people in this world are like people in prison who pretend most of their lives that they are not in prison. And every once in a while when tragedy strikes, they are forced to come out and stare at the bars and be reminded of what is real.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a Christmas letter from prison during WWII in which he said, "A prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent. One waits, hopes, does this or that--ultimately negligible things--the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside."

So what is the biblical lesson and answer in the face of a tragic reality? Can Christianity offer any hope in the New Year in the face of death? To the surprise of many, the Christian answer does not sugar-coat reality. The Christian Gospel has always been set in the midst of tragedy--from the cradle to the cross.

Matthew's Gospel shockingly records how Jesus' birth led to the slaughter of innocent children in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16-18). Why would the Lord want such a story associated with Christ's coming? How could God warn Joseph while allowing those little boys to be killed? Why would He allow any things like that in the first place?

It's not an easy question. And the Bible doesn't candy-coat the response. This is the reality of a fallen world. This was the reality of Jesus' birth, the kind of world He came to--a world where tragedies are not surprises, where 152,000 people die every day around the world, where 21,000 children die every day, where the U.S. alone averages 5 child murders a day. And this is actually what the Gospel story is about--not a shallow joy and peace, but a deep joy and peace in the face of a tragic world because of a Savior has come to redeem us.

The fact that an angel had to warn Joseph tells us that the incarnation was real. God really became man, which means his life was truly threatened. God really and truly came into the reality of a fallen world, into the valley of the shadow of death, and became exposed and vulnerable.

The fact that Jesus got away and survived the slaughter of Bethlehem was actually for the comfort of Bethlehem; it gives us the only answer and comfort possible in the face of tragedy.

One got away. And because of the one who got away, there is hope. Like Moses before him, Jesus got away at his birth to provide a greater salvation. Jesus survived as an infant so that he could later do something no one else could do for His people. When the dragon of death sought to devour Him and his brethren (Rev.12:1-17), He was rescued for the proper time in order to go under the waters of death, and to destroy death once for all, and to crush the serpent's head (Gen.3:15, Heb.2:14). He became the firstborn from the dead (Col.1:18), the one who truly got away, and the one who goes before us to lead us all the way to the promised land.

So what is the real answer to death and the New Year? As we face the reality of a fallen world and the fact that "a few more years shall roll, a few more seasons come and we shall be with those that rest asleep within the tomb" (Horatius Bonar), we must recognize that what Bonhoeffer said is true: "The door is locked and can only be opened from the outside." There is one real hope in all this world. And it's not a sentimental movie answer, that we all become "one with the Force and live on in all things". It's a very real, gritty, tragic, hope-filled answer - that God gave his only Son, that he came into this fallen world, that he came to be with us, to touch all of our uncleanness, even death itself - to break our chains and to lead us out.

Today the gate is open, and all who enter in, 
Will find a Father's welcome, and pardon for their sin. 
The past shall be forgotten, a present joy be given, 
A future grace be promised, a glorious crown in heaven. (Oswald Allen, 1861)

Matt Foreman is the pastor of Faith Reformed Baptist Church.  Matt is a graduate of Furman University and Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He currently serves as the Chairman of the General Assembly for the Reformed Baptist Network, as secretary for the RBN Missions Committee, and as lecturer in Practical Theology at Reformed Baptist Seminary. Matt also writes music for worship; some of which be found here. Matt and his wife, MaryScott, have four children: Katy (2002), Darsie (2004), Liam (2007), and Molly (2010).

The Wondrous "Why" of Christmas

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Christmas is a time of mystery and wonder. The Virgin Mary was told by the angel that she would conceive and bear a son: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy - the Son of God" (Lk. 1:35). It is hard to encounter a more exalted event than this! The mystery of Christmas is celebrated in our churches amidst scenes of beauty and majesty that prompt the hearts of children of all ages to rejoice in wonder!

The marvel of Christmas is amplified by the prologue of John's Gospel. In his theological Christmas account, John writes: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...All things were made through him." This is who Jesus is. Then comes Christmas: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (Jn. 1:14).

John encourages us not so much to consider the mystery of the how of Christmas. The Divine Word, who was with the Father in the beginning, by whom all things were made, has come into our world as a baby! How could the Creator-Son enter the experience of a fragile baby we can never fathom! But the why of Christmas is given in Scripture as a source of wonder and endless joy. Let me suggest three lines of thought regarding the marvelous why of our Christmas celebration of Christ's incarnation.

First, in keeping with his emphasis on the priestly office of Christ, the writer of Hebrews states: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Heb. 4:15). Here is one why of Christmas: God the Son came into our world to know the entirety of the human condition and to sympathize with our weakness and sorrow. The incarnation is the ultimate fulfillment of God's question to Adam and Eve in the garden after the Fall: "Where are you?" (Gen. 3:9). Man being unable to answer, God has come seeking in the person of his Son. Some theologians argue that it is impossible for God to have gained information by means of experience, since he eternally knows all things. This objection, while true, misses the point. Genesis 3:9 and Hebrews 4:15 involve not a denial of God's transcendence but rather the mystery of the transcendent God becoming immanent.

We may therefore take at face value this wondrous why for the incarnation: Christ became human to draw near to you and know you experientially, so as to sympathize fully with your weakness. As you bathe in the lights of a Christmas tree and sing carols in the church, open your heart to a Divine Savior whose love wanted to draw near to you in a way that required the taking on of mortal flesh. You are not alone, for he came to know, sympathize with, and help you. Perhaps Charles Wesley has put this mystery best: "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail th'incarnate Deity, pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel!"

A second why of Christmas was given to Joseph in the famous verse giving our Savior his name: "you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (Mt. 1:21). Jesus became incarnate to seek but also to save us from our sins. To this end, Jesus' birth launched a series of divinely planned events culminating in his death on the cross. Hebrews 2:17 states plainly that Jesus "had to be made like his brothers in every respect. . . to make propitiation for the sins of the people." How we impoverish Christmas if we isolate the incarnation from the atonement! The best of our Christmas carols celebrate the first with an aim to the second: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear."

A third wondrous why of Christmas returns us to the book of Hebrews. In his second chapter, the author tells us that Christ was incarnate not only to give us sympathy and make atonement for our sin, but then to sanctify us for an eternity in heaven with him. Hebrews 2:10 states that "it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering." Did you catch the phrase: "in bringing many sons to glory." This is the final why that makes Christmas such a joyful wonder. Wesley celebrates: "Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth!"

How did the eternal Word, the Creator-Son who was with the Creator-Father in the beginning, actually become a baby boy? This is a mystery in which little progress can be made. But why? Here is a wonder for us to know and celebrate: Christ came to draw near to us in sympathy, to make atonement for our sins, and ultimately to bring us into heaven for eternity with him. We say that Christmas is a time for gifts. But this is because it declares God's great and wondrous gift to us. May the why of Christmas fill you with wonder and joy over the gift God has given to you in his Son. What a wonder John has exclaimed, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (Jn. 1:14).  

When in Babylon...

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Regard for the Lord's Day is on a steep decline, and, sadly, has been for quite some time. Disregard for the Lord's Day is evidenced by the fact that many churches have decided to cancel their worship services this Sunday in order to encourage families to spend time together on Christmas. The Babylon Bee recently ran an article titled "Church Honors Birth of Jesus by Cancelling Worship Service." The satirical (though it would be straining to call it entirely fictional) piece goes on to hilariously put words in the pastor's mouth: "I can think of nothing more worshipful on the Lord's Day than foregoing worship services in order to tear into gift after gift after gift from under our ornate tree... Also, I'll get to play with my new iPad that I just know my wife, Kate, got me. I felt the package. I'm pretty sure it's the Pro edition."

It's a brilliant piece of satire. However, many have become extremely defensive about it. I know that I shouldn't be surprised, but I'm naïve enough that I was shocked at the vitriol in the comments section under the Facebook post. It is clear to me that very large segments of the readership of The Babylon Bee don't have what we might call a "robust" view of the Lord's Day.

Now, I also know that massive swaths of the church (sadly even those in the Reformed camp) would like to see the Larger and Shorter Catechisms consigned to the dust bin of history. And it causes me no loss of sleep to think that someone, somewhere, is having fun on a Sunday. What does concern me is the sorts of arguments that people are offering in favor of cancelling church whenever the Lord's Day and everyone's favorite holiday should come into conflict. Here are some of the more troubling comments from the Facebook post:

  • "Love the Bee but, since the church is not a building, place or event, it is never closed. There are other ways to BEE the church this coming Sunday, Christmas Day!"
  • ""Thus saith the Lord, 'Thou shalt have a church service every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night without ceasing, and shouldest never to cancel any service for any reason under the sun'." II Opinions 3:12"
  • "Don't be so hypocritical to condemn those who realize that church isn't a building you have to go to worship but the fact that through salvation we are able to worship him in our heart."
  • "I'm not trolling and have intention of starting a flame war but only legalism dictates church has to be open...ready and willing on Sunday morning or God is not honoured."
  • "It seems that many people prefer the sacrifice of 'going to church' on Christmas, but maybe Jesus desires the compassion of letting people have the freedom to worship the day as they see fit. Go and learn what this means..."
  • "Our church building IS closed on Christmas day and we are not holding services. We can spread the Good News in other ways."
  • "Some people spend too much time in Church, and not enough time with their families. I think it's important for families to be thankful together at home. We as a church must never stop worshipping, but we can get caught up in feeling as if going to church service and true worship are the same thing."

The comments go on and on like this. One could fill pages with the arguments that have been set forth. The most serious problem is that arguments of this sort prove too much. If these arguments are correct, then the end result isn't just that Sunday worship can be displaced whenever it comes into orbit with a better holiday. The logical result is the elimination of any day of the worship of God in the gathered assembly of the people of God for local churches.

If it's really true that we can "spread the Gospel in other ways" than holding services, it is reasonable to ask why we have services in the first place. If the "doors of a church don't need to be open" in order for God to be honored, then why should they open at any time? If it's enough for us to "worship him in our heart," then why do churches even gather? If we should "have the freedom to worship the day as [we] see fit," then everyone can have their own Lord's Day - why have any services? If "it's important for families to be thankful together at home," and if it's not the case that "going to church service" is true worship, then there is literally no reason I can think of why churches as local gatherings of God's people need to exist at all.

On top of all of these problems, these sorts of arguments lead to a church that is not only scattered geographically already, but is also scattered chronologically. If you take for granted that any day is fair game, and if it's just a matter of when you want to worship, then an anarchic approach to picking which day to worship on means the church would no longer even be temporally united. While the early church gathered on the first day of the week to break bread, meet as one group (Acts 20:7; 27:35), to take up offerings as a collective, and to meet with the Apostles (Acts 20:11), many of these arguments would have the believers disband out of a sense of "compassion" (see the third comment from the bottom in the list of comments above) or out of a sense that it is sufficient to "worship him in our hearts." We have entered an era when it is actually viewed as lacking in compassion for the early church to have met every time the first day of the week rolled around.

What I can't help but think in the midst of this all is that many actually have such disdain for meeting together with believers as The Church that they view Sunday worship as "lacking compassion." And I'm left just shaking my head. Is it really that bad? Meeting together with our family which is closer than blood? With people closer than blood - with whom we share the Holy Spirit? Is it really that bad? Hearing the Savior tell his people from his Word that he loves us? Is it really a burdensome yoke that God would call us together?

While this disdain for the worship of the Lord is troubling, we need to know that there are more than just fellow evangelicals looking in on this whole situation. I conclude with one comment which beautifully illustrates the ugliness of it all for "Protestant" churches:

  • "For real, if your church is closed, the Catholic Church will welcome you in, standing room only, with lots of smiling folks making room for you. Gathered together near the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist."

Our churches need to be open, because there will be people looking to worship with God's people in spirit and truth according to His command (Exodus 20:8-11; Hebrews 10:24-25), and they will be expecting to do it on the same day that God's people in the New Testament era have always gathered (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). If we don't hold out the light, someone else will be holding out the imitation.

The Advent Season: Not Just Christmas

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Early in my pastoral ministry a thoughtful young man came with an interesting question while our congregation was in the midst of celebrating the Advent season. The question arose from a hymn sung during a Lord's Day worship service. The hymn was the Isaac Watts classic "Joy to the World." The question was, "Pastor, why are we singing a hymn during Christmas containing lyrics that refer to the 2nd coming of Christ?" My pastoral response was twofold.

First, together we examined the hymn. It soon became obvious the hymn actually contained lyrics that referred to both the 1st Advent (i.e. His Incarnation and Birth) and lyrics to the 2nd Advent (His Second Coming). Furthermore, the hymn, verse by verse, traces the triumph of Christ as the Redeemer of His people from His 1st Advent to His 2nd Advent.

Secondly, we noted there are multiple hymns sung during the Advent season which exalt the Lord for His redeeming work in both the 1st and 2nd Advents. Then, it was my turn to ask a question. "Why do you think so many Advent hymns sung at "Christmas" extol both Advents of Christ?" The answer though simple has been lost to many. But, if recaptured can lead us to a profound blessing.

The reason so many hymns and confessions associated with the Christmas celebrations reference both the 1st and 2nd Advents is because the early church intentionally designed the Advent Season to celebrate both the 1st and 2nd Advents of Christ. Why?

The Advent is a work of God's grace whereby God Himself has come to us, to be among us and become one of us in order to save us from our sins and will come again for us to be with us forever. The Old Testament, through types, symbols, prophecies and Christophanies (i.e. pre-incarnate appearances of Christ) anticipated the coming of the Messiah - the Promised One - in whom "all of the Promises of God are yes and amen." Those Messianic prophetic Promises can be summed up with two specific Promises.

  • The first Promise was that the Messiah would "save His people from all of their sins" and deliver them from all of His and their enemies.
  • The second Promise was that the Messiah would not only defeat these enemies but would ultimately destroy them and deliver His people into a glorious forever Kingdom.

But when the Messiah came into the world to fulfill God's promises He revealed a surprising yet Biblically consistent truth. The Epiphany of the Messiah was not one Advent to accomplish two Divine Promises but two Advents, each one designed to accomplish one of the two Promises.

The 1st Advent or the Incarnation when the Son of God humbled Himself by taking upon Himself true humanity through the prophesied Virgin conception/birth was designed to fulfill the first Promise that God would "save His people from their sins" and defeat all of His and their enemies. The second Promise that He would receive His people to Himself and destroy His defeated enemies in His 1st Advent would be fulfilled by a 2nd Advent when He would "come again" in that same incarnate body now resurrected and transformed for all eternity - Two Epiphanies - Two Advents.

"For the grace of God has "appeared" (ἐπεφάνη - 1st Advent) bringing salvation to all men; disciplining us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in this present age; looking for the blessed hope and "appearance" (ἐπιφάνειαν - 2nd Advent) of our great God and Savior Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession zealous for good deeds" (Titus 2:11-14).

Gradually for multiple reasons the Advent season initiated by the celebration of His 1st Advent - Christmas - when He was born "to save His people from their sins" and to defeat His and our enemies at the Cross, became the singular focus of the Advent season. One reason is that the 1st Advent is the occasion of His humiliation which was accomplished, not by the subtraction of His deity but, by the addition of His humanity. Another reason is that the 1st Advent celebrates His Incarnation, a necessary act of God to save sinners - "by a man came death, by a man comes the resurrection of the dead." Yet another reason is that the triumph of the 1st Advent assures the 2nd Advent and the 2nd Advent consummates the victory of the 1st Advent. A final reason is the 1st Advent is a fact of history while the 2nd Advent is a prophetic promise which makes it pre-written history.

But pastorally, while not being enslaved or conscience-bound to observe a church calendar, I would suggest that if we intentionally returned to the historic emphasis of the Advent season which intentionally celebrates the 1st Advent while also anticipating the 2nd Advent we could add a theological focus which would enhance our pastoral ministries of both celebration/worship and discipleship/equipping. So, here is a pastoral recommendation: Start reclaiming the vibrancy of the advent season from secularization by enhancing our commitment to the great commission of making disciples through emphasizing the inseparable dynamic relationship of both advents of Christ.

In a word, let's return to the historic objective of using the Advent season to affirm both the victory of Christ in His 1st Advent and our longing for the consummation of His victory in the 2nd Advent. In so doing we would not only minister to a heart-felt need in the lives of God's people we would also more effectively disciple God's people and more effectively proclaim the Gospel of Hope to the world.

The Advent season, historically, was designed to minister to the grace-implanted and grace-nurtured heart of every Christian. A heart which both "rests" in the joy of our Savior's victorious 1st Advent and yet a heart which is also "restless" in the anticipation of our Savior's 2nd Advent to receive us to Himself that we might be with Him in a New Heavens and a New Earth forever.

"I go away to prepare a place for you and if I go away to prepare a place of you I will come again so that where I am there you may be also... Even so come quickly Lord Jesus."

 

The Soul Felt Its Worth

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We all wrestle with feeling worthless at some time or another. The world imputes value to individuals, whether it admits such or not, on the basis of gender, race, age, physical appearance, profession, possessions, income, intelligence, accomplishments, character traits, ability to make others laugh, and so on. Too often, Christian communities happily follow suit, making individuals within them feel valued (or not) on the basis of their standing relative to similar if not identical criteria. Fall short (as it were) in one or more of the categories just named, and you inevitably start to wonder, "what am I worth?" -- even if you formulate the question in different words, or struggle to formulate it at all.

Questions about self-worth may follow changes to our status in one or more of those categories that we, in obedience to the various cultures we inhabit, use to gauge our own value. It may be the slow process of aging and related breakdowns in physical and mental prowess that trigger doubt regarding one's worth. It may be the more sudden realization that someone else, perhaps an employer or a spouse, simply doesn't want you. Some years ago, an individual who (at that time) occupied a position of authority in my life told lies about me to persons both inside and outside our shared place of work. Consequently, I wrestled for many months with anger and a desire to take vengeance into my own hands. But more significantly I faced the temptation to believe the lies told about me, and measure my own worth by the standard of another's malicious judgment of my character and actions. I equally faced the temptation to believe the competing and well-meaning voices of friends, family, and colleagues, as well as my own internal voice, all assuring me that this individual's lies were simply that and encouraging me to gauge my worth in relation to my place on the scale of one or more of those closely cherished criteria (named above) for determining personal value. Sin savors lose-lose situations.

The gospel gives us radically different criteria for gauging our worth. In Christian theology we impute value to ourselves and others on the basis, first of all, of every person's creation in God's own image. "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Gen. 1:27). Every human being, no matter their gender, race, appearance, accomplishments, etc., is created in God's image, and as such has unique value, even if they squander every gift given to them and devote themselves to the worst imaginable behavior for the course of their lives. Scripture calls us to specific ways of living in relationship to others on the basis of their divine image-bearing status: "With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so" (James 3:9-10). Translation: Treat others, both in word and deed, with the dignity demanded by their standing as image-bearers of God.

The reality of our creation in God's own image should also and equally inform assessments of self-worth. "What am I worth?" Quite a bit, actually, as one who both in solidarity with others and in my own unique abilities and gifts, whatever those might be, reflects the Triune God who made me.

But Christian doctrine also, I think, prompts us to discover our value in the lengths that our Triune God went to in order to rescue us from sin, death, and hell. This truth is captured by that gripping line in the nineteenth-century Christmas hymn O Holy Night: "He appeared, and the soul felt its worth." The worth discovered, or felt, by virtue of Christ's incarnation is the simple yet profound worth of being simply and profoundly loved by another. It is the recognition that "he" appeared not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many, of whom, for reasons I will never fully fathom, I am one.

Of course, assessments of self-worth rooted in recognition of God's deeply loving and saving activity on our behalf must not become subtle means of smuggling the world's criteria for determining value back into our hearts and our communities. God has not loved and rescued us because we, as his elect people, have made (or ever will make) the grade in terms of gender, race, age, physical appearance, profession, possessions, income, intelligence, accomplishments, character traits, ability to make others laugh, and so on. Scripture is unambiguous on this point. "One will scarcely die for a righteous person -- though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die -- but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5.7-8). God's love for us, and saving work on our behalf, is not a product of our worth. Our worth is a product of his love and saving work for us.

For my part, I have learned the value and worth that simply being loved by another establishes from my four-year-old daughter Geneva and her most treasured possession in life, "puppy." Puppy is a stuffed animal (a "soft toy" for Brits) that originally stood about seven or eight inches tall before he (or she, depending on Geneva's mood) lost all ability to stand or otherwise compose himself. After four years of fervent affection from Geneva, puppy is a brown and white shapeless blob that, having lost both ears in the course of his love relationship, now resembles an earthworm more than a dog. No one seeing puppy lying on the ground would bother picking him up, unless it were to perform his civic duty of discarding puppy in the nearest trash receptacle. But my wife and I would move heaven and earth to protect puppy, or to recover him were he lost. With the exception of the people and dog living under my roof, puppy is the single most valuable object in our home -- the thing that, more than any other, I would go out of my way to protect and preserve from harm or loss. Puppy has no apparent intrinsic worth. He is not loved because he is valuable. He is valuable because he is loved.

So too with us. As creatures made in God's own image, we do, unlike puppy, have intrinsic worth. But we derive immense, additional value from the simple fact that, as believers, we are immensely loved by God -- loved with a depth that led our Triune God to plan and execute our rescue through the appearing, suffering, and death of the beloved Son.

"What am I worth?" Quite a bit actually, in light of God's deep love for me, love that prompted him to go to such great lengths in order to secure for me a place in his eternal presence. As you ponder all that God has done for us in Christ this season, let your thoughts inform your appreciation for the immense value his love for you imparts to you.

As is generally known, the Scottish reformers took a dimmer view of Christmas festivities than their continental peers. When Knox and company drafted the (First) Book of Discipline for the newly Reformed Kirk, they identified Christmas -- along with "holy days of certain saints" and "fond feasts of our lady" -- as a "Papist" invention lacking biblical warrant, declared it "abolished from this realm," and affirmed that persons persisting in the celebration of it would be subject to "the punishment of the civil magistrate." (By way of contrast, the Second Helvetic Confession and Canons of Dordt explicitly approved religious celebrations in "memory of the Lord's Nativity.")

Getting rid of Christmas was easier said than done. Kirk session records and repeated legislation by the General Assembly aiming to enforce the abolition of Christmas festivities testify to the common people's reluctance to desist celebrating the birth of their Lord. The 1575 General Assembly implored civil authorities to play their part in reprimanding persons who observed "Yule day" by "banqueting, playing, fasting, and such other vanities." In 1592, the year that Scottish Presbyterianism reached the peak of its influence in the sixteenth century, the Scottish Parliament finally signaled its intention to back the Kirk in suppressing the celebration of Yule. But in a Reformation progress report conducted by General Assembly three years later the Kirk lamented the reality that many superstitious practices persisted among the Scottish people, not least of which was the "singing of carols at Yule." Interestingly, provincial records from these early decades of the Reformed Kirk's existence suggest that ministers were among the most guilty of perpetuating Christmas observance.

Yet, when we look to the seventeenth century, we see some evidence of the Kirk making progress in convincing even lay persons that celebrating Christmas really was naughty. One significant factor working in the Kirk's favor was, somewhat ironically, King James's new-found conviction that Scottish Christians really should celebrate Christmas. James put significant pressure on the General Assembly of the Kirk meeting in Perth in 1618 to adopt, among a variety of liturgical/practical reforms, a religious calendar consisting of at least a handful of religious days, one of which was Christmas. For James, getting the Scots to celebrate Christmas was one small step towards creating uniformity of religious practice in his lands, which as of 1603 had come to include England. In any case, so far as the common people and their proclivity to celebrate Christmas went, it turned out that telling them they must celebrate Christmas was the surest way to keep some of them at least from doing so.

Scottish Christians' increasing enthusiasm for not celebrating Christmas in the face of royal pressure to do so is colorfully illustrated by the case of Edward Cathkin, an Edinburgh bookseller who was hauled into King James's presence in 1619 on charges of harboring in his home the author of a pamphlet criticizing the decisions of the 1618 General Assembly. An account of the conversation between the King and Cathkin suggests that James was well aware of, and unimpressed by, the resistance his imposed "reforms" of worship were meeting north of the border. Here follows extracts from the exchange between James and Cathkin (as discovered in the first volume of the Bannatyne Miscellany [Edinburgh, 1827]):

King: What religion are you of?

Cathkin: Of the religion your Majesty professes.

King: The devil take you away, both soul and body! For you are none of my religion! You are a recusant! You go not to the church!

Cathkin: If it please your Majesty, I go to the church; I think no man will complain of me in that.

King: Was you there on Christmas day?

Cathkin: No.

King: And why were you not there?

Cathkin: Because, Sir, holy days have been cast out of our Kirk, and has ever been preached against since ever I can remember; and we have been taught that it was superstition to keep them.

[...]

King: Are you not a Christian? Should you not keep in memory the birth, and passion, and ascension of Christ?

Cathkin: Every day should be the birth and passion day of Christ.

[...]

King: You are worse than Turks and Jews! [And turning to address the Lords present:] I can never get an order of this people of Edinburgh. [...] The devil rive their souls and bodies all in collops, and cast them in hell!

The dialogue turns eventually to one specific charge against Cathkin; namely, that he called the 1618 General Assembly at Perth an "unlawful assembly."

Cathkin: I spoke not these words.

King: What was it you spake, then?

Cathkin: If it please your Majesty, I said it had been good if our ministers [at Perth] had aquainted the session[s] of the Kirk before they had brought in these novelties upon us.

King: Farts on you and the session of your Kirk both! When I was in Scotland I kept Yule and Pasch in spite of all your hearts.... You are recusants, that will not come to the Kirk on holy days to hear preachings.

There is, I think, much to be learned about human nature from the reality that, to all appearances, Scottish enthusiasm for the rejection of Christmas increased in proportion to royal directives to celebrate the same. The whole exchange between King and Cathkin also imports entirely new meaning to the phrase "King James English."

Aaron Clay Denlinger is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford FL. He is the editor of Reformed Orthodoxy in Scotland: Essays on Scottish Theology 1560-1775 (Bloomsbury, 2015) and the author of a highly disregarded book on covenant theology and original sin in sixteenth-century thought, which book recently won the much un-coveted tenth position on Mark Jones's Top Ten List of Books That Will Never Make a Top Ten List.

Tomorrow's promise, today's indulgence

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The new year is not far away. That is when we will being that new regime of diet and exercise, start taking our health more seriously, get a grip on ourselves, whip ourselves into shape, and so on. Tomorrow is always the big day, the start of something good and new?

christmas pudding flaming.jpgSo, today? Well, let's eat, drink and be merry, and tomorrow we'll try. Perhaps one of the reasons why the festive season is one of such excess and abandonment is because we indulge with the self-satisfying assurance that we will be sorting everything out tomorrow. So, whether it is food and drink, spending, or general laziness and laxity, we let it all hang out because tomorrow will be different.

We can do the same thing spiritually. We promise ourselves that tomorrow is the big day, the day when we will really begin to pray against a particular sin, wrestle against a particular temptation, address a particular habit. And what happens? First of all, our own sinful hearts will incline to one last fling, one last binge - after all, we will be taking ourselves in hand tomorrow. But more than that, Satan will begin to whisper. He will assure us that we might as well give in to temptation - after all, we can repent later and start over the day after. And how often does this happen?

Furthermore, that temptation to have one last day of high living weakens all our resolve. Compromise breeds compromise, in the same and other areas of life. A little indulgence here weakens our determination there; pandering to this appetite primes us to gratify that one. It may seem strange, but the wall of the soul needs to be maintained all the way round, all the year round. Persuade yourself that you can eat that food, and it will be easier to watch that film. Let anger take control, and it will be easier to submit to sexual lust. A habit of watchful maintenance on every side is the only way.

And then, of course, once we have indulged, the Adversary will return. Having assured us before that the Lord will forgive so we might as well sin, he will now insist that, having sinned, there is no forgiveness for sin. Distress and even despair enter in. And the result? Well, you might as well give in again, and plunge into the pit of indulgence more entirely - after all, the whole thing is blown apart anyway.

So, in whatever sphere, let us not fall into the trap of making tomorrow's promise an excuse for today's indulgence. Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, and can do with a good and well-instructed conscience, do all to the glory of God" (1Cor 10.31). Especially in a season when careless indulgence - if not quite riotous excess - is the name of the game, let us keep up our guard.

A seasonal warning

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You may be planning a seasonal sermon. In a spirit of ministerial solidarity, I would bring to your attention a fell tale from long ago. Be warned, gentlemen, be warned!

Ends of the incarnation

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Christmas (along with Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost) is one of five "evangelical feast days" that celebrate key moments in the Son of God's saving mission. On these days, the church turns its attention in a special way to the redemptive historical events that mark "the fullness of time" (Gal 4.4; Eph 1.10): the time that realizes God's saving purpose and therefore that decisively determines all other times for the people of God (Rom 6; Col 2.9-10; 3.1-4). As we approach Christmas, it is worth reflecting upon the incarnation, the first epochal moment in the saving mission of the Son of God. 

Reflecting theologically on the incarnation requires that we consider three topics: (1) the uniqueness of the incarnation in relation to other historical events, (2) the nature of the incarnation, and (3) ends of the incarnation. Following some brief comments on the first two topics, I will focus a bit more fully on the third. 

(1) The uniqueness of the incarnation

Although the incarnation fulfills various Old Testament promises and prophecies, most notably those related to the Davidic Covenant, the incarnation does not follow from prior historical antecedents. The incarnation is a "new thing," an event that exists in a class by itself. The incarnation is a mystery, once hidden but now revealed: "Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh" (1 Tim 3.16). 

For this reason, it is (strictly speaking) improper to classify under the label of "incarnation" any events or activities that happened before or after the coming of the Son of God in the flesh (see Todd Billings's excellent discussion of this point). In a proper sense, there is and only ever will be one incarnation: the incarnation of the Son of God. Though the incarnation opens up new ways of seeing and acting in the world (see Luke 1.46-55), Christmas is not the occasion for launching an "incarnational" social program. Christmas is the glad announcement that God's saving program has begun in the incarnation and it is the announcement that God's saving program will be consummated when the incarnate one returns (Heb 9.26, 28). 

(2) The nature of the incarnation

The uniqueness of the incarnation follows from the nature of the incarnation. The incarnation is a divine invasion of human history from outside of human history: "I have come down from heaven . . .," the Lord repeatedly declares (John 6.38; 10.36). Unlike prophets and apostles who are called by God from their mothers' wombs into their vocations as ambassadors of God's word (Jer 1.5; Gal 1.15), the eternal Son is sent from the Father's side into his mother's womb to assume human nature into union with his divine person: "when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman" (Gal 4.4). 

This divine invasion is necessitated by the human race's impotence to deliver itself from its self-imposed state of sadness and misery, an impotence signified in the fact that a human father has no role to play in Jesus' conception in Mary's womb (similarly, see Rom 8.3). The incarnation reveals that only God can help us. And the incarnation reveals that God has indeed helped us by stooping down to become one of us. "In Christ two natures met to be thy cure" (George Herbert).

(3) Ends of the incarnation 

To speak of "ends" of the incarnation is to speak of "reasons" for the incarnation, to address Anselm's question, "Why the God-man?" The Bible presents at least five answers to this question. 

First, the Son of God became incarnate in order to become the kinsman-redeemer to God's elect children. "It is not angels that he helps," according to the author of Hebrews. "He helps the offspring of Abraham" (Heb 2.16). In order for the Son of God to help us, God's law requires that he assume a kinship relationship to us (Lev 25.25), that he assume the nature of his siblings: "Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people" (Heb 2.17).

Second, the Son of God became incarnate in order to satisfy our debt to God's law. By nature and by choice we were slave-debtors to God's law, having failed to fulfill all that the law requires and being liable to bear the full extent of the law's curse. Through the incarnation of his beloved Son, God made provision to satisfy our debts. "God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law" (Gal 4.4-5). 

Third, the Son of God became incarnate in order to secure our adoption as God's sons and daughters. Not only is the incarnation ordered to our redemption, it is also ordered to our adoption. The one who is Son of God by nature assumed our lowly human state in order that we might become sons and daughters of God by grace: "God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, ... so that we might receive adoption as sons" (Gal 4.5).

Fourth, the Son of God became incarnate in order "to destroy the works of the devil" (1 John 3.8). The incarnation of the Son of God was the first strike in God's plan to vanquish the devil and his kingdom (Heb 2.14). The incarnation put the principalities and powers of this age on notice (consider Herod's response!). Luther's hymn well summarizes this incarnational end:

The Son obeyed his Father's will,
Was born of virgin mother;
And God's good pleasure to fulfill,
He came to be my brother.
His royal pow'r disguised he bore;
A servant's form, like mine, he wore
To lead the devil captive.
 
Fifth, the Son of God became incarnate in order that he might be worshiped as the firstborn son among a family of redeemed siblings (Rom 8.29). The ultimate end of the incarnation of the Son of God is the glory of the incarnate Son of God (Ps 2.7-8; Col 1.18; Heb 1.2). Thus Thomas Goodwin observes: "God's chief end was not to bring Christ into the world for us, but us for Christ. He is worth all creatures. And God contrived all things that do fall out, and even redemption itself, for the setting forth of Christ's glory, more than our salvation." 

Throughout the year the church sings and celebrates the saving mission of God's beloved Son. As we celebrate the first moment in that saving mission at Christmas, let us celebrate the glorious ends of the incarnation as well. Above all, let us celebrate him (Matt 2.11; Heb 1.6).
Henry van Dyke, an English literature professor at Princeton University in the 19th-20th centuries, wrote, "As long as habit and routine dictate the pattern of living, new dimensions of the soul will not emerge." We, therefore, prize spontaneity. Many things that come prepackaged are overly familiar and sometimes boring. It is common to place one's daily activities in the realm of "habit" and "routine."

Every morning you awake to the same tune--whining children, an alarm, whistling birds outside your window. You look in the mirror at the same face, use the same toothbrush, wear the same shoes for work, and drive the same car. You come home at the same time, unless traffic prohibits, to an empty house or perhaps your family. As your evening retires, you awake the next morning, provided the Lord wills, to do it all over again. Where is the freshness? Where is the novelty? With such a life, will "new dimensions of the soul...emerge?"

If you are not careful, the Christmas season could easily fall into nothing more than habit and routine. Every year after Thanksgiving, you begin preparing for Christmas. The brown, red, and orange decorations are buried in the boxes while the green, red, and gold colors emerge. The nativity scene--lest baby Jesus--is placed on a table in your house, and the reef is placed on the front door. The initial days of December afford you the right to purchase a Christmas tree. Your home is now newly revived with a scent of pine. Presents are placed under the tree as you await 12:01am on December 25th. All this is routine. It is a pattern that emerges year-after-year. Where is the freshness and novelty? They both come not necessarily from decorating your home or Christmas tree, though that can provide a sense of joy. The novelty, if I may put it this way, comes from 'what's in the box.' That's the excitement--new presents. That's the freshness--new toys. 

We may not consciously be thinking about this at the moment we open our gifts, but the gifts ultimately point to the Greatest Gift--the Lord Jesus Christ. This costly Gift is ours; we celebrate it every Sunday; we celebrate it during the Christmas season. This is Christmas Doctrine 101--what then does this have to do with the star on your Christmas tree? My observations, I believe, will neither take away nor add to the gospel of the Lord Jesus. Rather, it may provide an insight to the Christmas season that might, according to the late Professor van Dyke, add "new dimensions [to] the soul." 

First, let's consider the historical narrative leading to the birth of Christ. 

"Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, "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." And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was" (Matt. 2:1-2, 9; ESV). 

Far from Matthew foreshadowing the first On Star navigation system, this star represented something so striking it is no wonder people want to take the Christ out of Christmas. However, in order to comprehend the meaning of this star, and correspondingly the star on top of your Christmas tree, one must take a trip down memory lane to Numbers 24.

There, the king of Moab was fearful that Israel was going to destroy his nation. He, therefore, called a seer, Balaam, to prophesy against Israel. In his final prophesy, he said,

"I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth. Edom shall be dispossessed; Seir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed. Israel is doing valiantly. And one from Jacob shall exercise dominion and destroy the survivors of cities!" (Num. 24:17-19; ESV). 

Contrary to what the King of Moab desired, Balaam prophesied that the enemies of Israel would be destroyed. "Edom [would] be dispossessed; Seir also, his enemies, [would] be dispossessed." The star, along with the scepter, indicated destruction was near. The scepter represented sovereign rule, the duty of a king, and the star indicated destruction, the movement of a king.

It is fitting that Jesus, therefore, in Matthew's Gospel is portrayed as king (Matt. 1:1, 2:2, 4). He exercises dominion over all nations and peoples (Matt. 28:16-20). It was his duty, nevertheless, to do much more than rule. Jesus also came to destroy. More particularly, he came to destroy all his and your enemies (WSC 26).

The star in Matthew 2, mentioned also in Numbers 24, was a sign for the people that God was going to stretch out his right arm of power. He was going to retrieve what was ruined by sin and Satan. He was coming to destroy. As the wise men, therefore, were somehow led by the star, their final destination--the resting place of the star--indicated that they found the king, the one who exercised sovereign dominion over all the nations and peoples, the one who came to destroy his enemies. 

It must have been striking to be led to a child. How could a child rule and destroy the enemies of God and his people? Whatever their thoughts, Jesus did accomplish all that his Father purposed. Yes, while Jesus offered great hope for sinners, we must not forget that one part of his mission was to destroy the enemies of God. Colossians 2:15,

"He disarmed the rulers and authorities, and put the to open shame, by triumphing over them..."

Therefore, this is an exciting time of the year, one that, while it is filled with routine, provides opportunity for an invigorating taste of the past and the future. The Son of God clothed himself in human flesh to destroy his enemies. Then, it was largely spiritual (Col. 2:15). However, when he comes again, he will destroy people (Rev. 20:11-15).

Does the star atop your Christmas tree point you to destruction? Are you reminded that just as the wise men were led by a star to the Great Gift--one who would destroy his enemies--so, too, you are led by the star atop your Christmas tree at dusk to lesser gifts? As you look at that star, are you reminded that just as your savior came once to destroy, he is coming again? You, who are united to Christ, have a great hope, namely your savior who is coming to bury all your enemies, which includes sin and death, once for all. 

Do not be completely immersed in the idea of routine and habit this Christmas season. It is easy to be conditioned by pattern without experiencing joy. Routine is good; habit can be as well; the new dimensions of the soul, however, is what will come when all that the star atop your Christmas tree represents is fully realized and you see your savior face-to-face, for you will be like him.

The unbearable heaviness of being Levy

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I am always - well, sometimes - grieved to grieve Mr Levy. Clearly I have burdened an already burdened man, and in ways that I have not (on this occasion) intended. And so a little comeback on his pushback: I agree that evangelising can become just another stick to beat people with. In some circles, it seems more acceptable to neglect almost any Christian duties except that of evangelism or 'mission.' If we do not think carefully, we can too easily introduce a new law and a new legalism, and that would be abominable.

I do think every Christian ought to be a faithful evangelist, but that is not the same as saying that every Christian should be a minister of the gospel, an open-air preacher or a door-to-door worker, for example. The faithful father who instructs his children at family worship and speaks to his neighbours about his Saviour; the earnest mother who 'preaches' to, pleads with, and prays for her growing children; the loving friend who gives a reason for the hope that is in him or her to friends at school: these are equally examples of personal evangelism - a true testimony to Christ.

However, I agree entirely with Paul when he says that the root of these things should be love for and delight in Christ. If we are Christians who know the joy of God's salvation then to speak of Jesus ought to be the spontaneous overflow of a heart full of love for God and men (cf. 1Pt 2.9-10). That is one of the reasons why saints need to keep hearing the gospel - it keeps their sense of these things lively, stirring them up to love and praise and spurring them on to make known the Christ who loved us and gave himself for us, and who will save whoever calls upon him. Our goal in witnessing is, first and foremost, the glory of God, the God who has pre-eminently revealed himself in the Lord Christ. When we lose sight of that, and slip into what Paul calls "an evangelistic frenzy," it is likely that we have dropped our gaze too low, and may downplay those truths which give the gospel its substance and edge.

But then something more follows: what happens when we ask, "How can I express this desire to glorify God in making him known for salvation?" That is where the question comes in, "How can I do this more effectively? How can I more thoughtfully, competently, wisely and righteously make Christ known to the lost?" I take it for granted that a Christian wants other people to be Christians; I therefore presume that they want to know, from the Word of God, how they might do that in the right way, with the right motives, employing appropriate means to legitimate ends. I acknowledge that my recent posts have focused more on the more public and formal means; I hope that those who use those means have found those thoughts helpful. Maybe I should also write some posts to encourage those using other means, and then Paul can complain about how long they are.

Finally, as a sop, and a means of removing another burden, I offer him the longed-for Christmas illustration (no, not the one about Santa Claus not being real). Like almost all illustrations, it falls short and has its inconsistencies, but I am sure a gifted man like Paul Levy could make something of it:
Amazon.com provide a service called Certified Frustration-Free Packaging. The idea seems to be that whatever it is you order comes ready to use right out of the box, eliminating that 'wrap rage' to which I am sure we are all endlessly subject. It is advertised with a video in which two customers receive the same product, one in traditional packaging and the other in frustration-free packaging. A troubled woman spends about fifteen minutes trying to put her item together and is left with a pile of waste and a pained expression; a cheerful chap pretty much pulls his out of the box and is left with oodles of happiness and more time to enjoy his gift. Now, what kind of salvation are you seeking? Salvation is an intricate, glorious, wonderful thing, needing to be complete and perfect if it is to be effective. But man's efforts are not unlike receiving a box with countless thousands of pieces but no tools and no instructions. Despite all our efforts, we can never put salvation together, and are left with nothing but frustration and waste. In Christ Jesus, the Lord of heaven has provided us with the finished article - there is nothing to do except to receive it, and to enjoy what has been given, full and final.
Levy, you owe me a kebab.

'Twas the Sunday pre-Christmas: a cautionary tale

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I do not often sympathise with Anglican vicars, but I did feel a mite of solidarity with the Reverend Simon Tatton-Brown of St Andrew's Church, Chippenham, Wilts., when I heard his unfortunate story. Caught short by the demands of a nativity address, he decided to regale his infant congregation with fables of Nicholas of Myra restoring to life three children who had been pickled by a wicked butcher to be sold as ham. Had I been there, quite apart from the obvious, I could have told him that you mess with any iteration of this gentleman at your peril. You see, I once made the unforeseen error of mishandling the modern take on the bearded one. Apparently, even in some Dissenting congregations, to fail to revere Santa Claus is a fearful mistake to make. Here is my tale of woe. May it serve as a warning for fellow ministers.

UPDATE: To clarify: yes, it really did happen; no, the violence is embellished for comic effect but everything else is true to life; yes, we do call Santa the Christmas Clown in my house; yes, I have no particular appetite for Christmas as a whole; yes, I may have overstated the case about telling your children the truth, but I think that there's a good-sized kernel of truth there; no, it's more a bit of fun, and I hope that you enjoy it.

'Twas the Sunday pre-Christmas ~ a cautionary tale

'Twas the Sunday pre-Christmas, and all through the church,
On the laps of their parents the children did perch.
All sitting agog in great anticipation
Of the visiting preacher's pre-sermon oration.

(For this was a place where the children receive
Their own little talk and then promptly they leave,
And the preacher is left with a half-congregation -
But that's not my point in today's proclamation.)

And so I began to compare and contrast
With an image I hoped would be sure to stick fast,
Between God and his goodness in giving his Son
And the myth of the Chubby and Red-Suited One.

I spoke of a gift that is given, not earned,
Made other connections I hoped could be turned
To some gospel advantage; to bring to a close
To a climactic contrast I gradually rose.

"Here is the great issue," I cheerfully said,
"There's a man on a cross and a myth dressed in red:
And I hope that by now you all know and you feel
That the difference between them is - Jesus is real."

The youngsters then left, and I (not a bit nervous)
Proceeded to get through the rest of the service,
Descended the steps and, without a thought more,
I walked down the aisle and I stood at the door.

The first lady out was a grandma in rage,
Who I think would have been better off in a cage,
On a mission, it seems, to accuse me of sin:
She swung with her bag but I blocked with my chin.

As I slumped to the floor - though I listened intently -
She spoke straight and clear, crisp and sharp, and not gently,
That I was a preacher perverted and sick
For telling her darlings there is no Saint Nick.

The next lady out seemed a little more gracious,
But was, to be frank, still a tad disputatious;
As they ranted, the details began to emerge -
A story explaining their violent urge.

For it seems that the classes of children that day
Were awash with salt tears and with waves of dismay.
Why was it their sweet little hearts did all break?
Well, the preacher had told them that Santa was fake.

So I strapped myself in. It was well that I did
For time after time the poor preacher was chid:
It was my presumption to pull off the veil -
That's parental business, a pastoral fail.

Here and there I received a brief word of respite,
But these were scant stars in a very black night;
But to see the full horror, you must understand
That the evening service already was planned.

When I got there that night I was taken to pray,
But before we began they had something to say.
That the poor chap was harried was clear in his eyes:
"Your effort this morning seemed rather unwise."

It seems that a battle quite royal had begun;
Yours truly, unknowing, had started the fun.
While some were quite happy with what had been said,
A number of others had called for my head.

As I walked to the pulpit I should have been bolder;
To be honest, I kept looking over my shoulder
In case the fierce lady who clobbered me one
Had returned for the service equipped with a gun.

I tried to make peace, made a plea for goodwill,
But in spite of the season, there lingered a chill
As I, without wishing to retract a bit,
Confessed no intention to cause a church split.

I had no idea, I explained with heart humble,
That my little message would cause such a rumble.
(I had never imagined a Christian would spew
The nonsense that old Father Christmas was true.)

Then I mopped off my brow and I took up my theme,
Making clear I'd been told I was part of a team
Working section by section through deeds apostolic,
And was tasked with explaining some things diabolic.

The pattern there was to progress through a book,
Each preacher in sequence the next section took;
Now, brothers and sisters, I give you facts:
My part was assigned from the Book of the Acts.

"Which chapter?" you ask? It was chapter nineteen.
With the quickest of looks it will quickly be seen
That my problems were mounting, my troubles were legion:
I had to expose superstitions Ephesian.

We began with Paul casting out spirits of evil,
And how this had caused a great social upheaval;
Then the saints in the place, when they saw what occurred,
Began to confess, being thoroughly stirred.

When they saw deeds of darkness exposed by the light,
They abandoned those things which belonged to the night,
Took what they'd indulged in while wandering lost
And burned it all up without thought of the cost.

I made it quite clear: when the heart is made new
We hold to those things which are clean and are true;
Abandon the false and all crass superstition
And serve the Lord Christ of our own free volition.

I governed my tongue and I took no cheap shot
(And not just because one shook out a garrotte).
I went Puritanic: "You're wise, you apply it,"
But I don't think too many were ready to buy it.

But how can you offer both truth and a lie,
Then hope that your children will learn to rely
On your words about Christ, while they just filter out
All the fabulous nonsense you readily spout?

When I finished, I strolled down the aisle to shake hands,
While keeping an eye out for bag-wielding grans;
The first chap came out, and he said, "That was needed;
You might want to leave, you're about to be bleeded."

And there, down the aisle, rolled a gaggle of nans,
A choice set of weaponry clutched in their hands,
And with them a cluster of parents all fuming;
It seemed that the poor preacher's doom might be looming.

And what was the crime? How had suffered their youth?
The dastardly fellow had spoken the truth.
The reason the visitor had to be fried
Was the kids had discovered these people had lied.

Their eyes were aflame and their flesh a chill pallor,
And sometimes discretion's the best part of valour,
So I picked up my bag, swiftly shrugged on my coat,
And with that I dashed out before I could be smote.

I sprang to my car, turned the key, to the floor
Pressed the pedal before I had quite closed the door;
And they heard me exclaim, 'ere I drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night."

This Lent I am giving up . . . reticence

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I will make no bones about it: I am an Old World (for which please read 'continental European') Christian, of Puritan inclination, and a Dissenter - specifically, a Particular or Reformed Baptist. That means several things. By conviction and heritage I belong to those who left the Anglican communion as a matter of conscience, sick of its halfway reformation and unwilling to conform to the general shabbiness and unscriptural demands of the Act of Uniformity. My conscience with regard to the extra-Biblical trappings of mere religiosity is tender. My attachment to simplicity of worship as a gathered church is sincere. I am sensitive to those doctrines and practices over which my forefathers spent their energies and shed their tears and sometimes their blood, both from within and then from without the established folds of their day. I see things with an awareness tuned by walking the streets, graveyards and memorials of men and women who suffered and sometimes died for conscience' sake.

Out of such an atmosphere I cannot help but be sickened by the seeming obsession with Lent and Easter at this time of year, and Christmas at the end of the year. Please do not misunderstand me: conscience also demands that - where the cultural vestiges of a more religious society patterned to some extent on the significant events of the life of Christ provide for it - I take every legitimate opportunity to make Christ known. If an ear is even half-opened by circumstance, I willingly and cheerfully speak into it, and seek to make of it a door for the gospel. I do not see the point of making a point by not preaching about the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord if some benighted soul wanders into the church with at least some expectation of hearing about his humiliation and exaltation.

But what chills my blood is the unholy elevation of things not mandated by the Word of God. I find it odd that some of the very people who obsess about contextualization and resist 'religion' have swallowed hook, line and sinker the empty traditions of men, that the men who wear Mickey Mouse T-shirts (quite literally) all the year round besides dress in sombre suits every April, telling us with one breath that all of life is worship and so tending to level out our experience and the Biblical rhythms of our relationship with God (especially dismissing the one-day-in-seven pattern established at the first and the new creation), and with the next telling us that this is Holy Week, and we are somehow falling short if we do not build it into some unholy jamboree. Meanwhile, those who trumpet their credentials as the true heirs of the Reformation either seem willing to stop with the house half-clean or seem quite keen to redecorate it with the junk that their more enlightened forefathers were in the process of throwing out (establishing the principles of the matter even if they never quite got round to that corner of the attic themselves).

Whether or not it is a vestige of the Emerging/Emergent appetite for a range of 'spiritualities' or an enthusiasm for an over-ripe liturgical renewal, I cannot say, but I wonder if it is in part a matter of distance both of time and space. This alleged 'recovery' of Lent and Easter is not actually a matter of historical sensitivity and an inheritance regained but of historical unawareness and an inheritance lost. Whether or not it is the high-grade muppetry of entire churches being urged to tattoo one of the stations of the cross on some part of their anatomy, or some gore-drenched re-enactment of the unrepeatable sacrifice, or some spotlit image-fest in which a total insensitivity to physical representations of the Christ - the image of the invisible God - is displayed, or some be-robed priest-figure half a step away from incense and obeisance, it does not come from Scripture and it does not belong in Christ's church. It is a replacement of God's order with man's notions, a disruption of God's regular rhythms of true religion with the unholy syncopation of mortal religiosity. As John Owen somewhere says, where genuine spirituality is substantially absent, men will turn either to fanaticism or to ritual - or perhaps to both - in an attempt to fill the void. Whichever way you sniff at it, and whichever way the wind blows, to the trained nostril it all begins to smell a touch Romish.

But there is a solution. This year there are - if you wish to see it this way - fifty three Easters. Most years there are fifty two. Each is a high and holy day, an opportunity to remember and rejoice in the one thing that the saints of God are commanded to remember and rejoice in: the Lord of Glory - the incarnate Son - who was crucified but who rose again, in whom we live eternally, and for whom we perpetually look with eagerness, our eyes straining for the first glimpse of the one whom not having seen, we love, who will shortly appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation. Each is a day of sober and grateful remembrance and recollection of his being and his doing. We have our regular (if not all of us a weekly) meal at which we remember the Lord's death until he comes, celebrated usually on the day of resurrection. On these days, putting aside the trappings of the world, we begin the cycle of time on our weekly peak, equipped by communion with God in Christ by the Spirit for the challenges and the opportunities of the days ahead.

Frankly, it seems odd to me that many of those who have proved very quick to abandon all manner of patterns and habits and convictions of Christians over decades or centuries, retain Lent, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter (Resurrection) Sunday as set in stone in the calendar, one of the high points of the Christian year (which pattern, we are informed, provides the central event in the church year - the climax of worship, expectation, and celebration, an exercise of the church's discipline). If you're not sold on Easter, you might be dismissed as one of the "diehard Reformed" for whom "this [Easter] Monday is like every other Monday because Easter Sunday is like every other Sunday." To say that Easter Sunday is like every other Sunday is not to suggest an upgraded view of Easter Sunday but a downgraded view of every other one.

I try not to be a Scrooge (although I cannot help but shed a silent tear that I am now literarily reduced to trying not to be a Grinch, but it's only a silent one and fairly dry, because Dickens' plotting makes many modern soap operas look like masterpieces of restraint and reason). I try not to be whatever is the Easter equivalent of a Scrooge or a Grinch (probably something that destroys bunnies or steals eggs). Again, for the record, I delight in the incarnation, and love to explore the excellence and wonder of Christ's coming into the world. I love to do so at any time of year, and find it grievous that I am sometimes not expected to handle those truths or sing incarnation hymns apart from at the dead of winter. Neither do I for one instant deny the centrality of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the only Redeemer of God's elect, in the glorious good news that the church of Christ declares.

But when we are told that this is the time of year when Christians begin to think again about the death and resurrection of Christ, does it not prompt the question of what we are supposed to be doing for the rest of the year? When men speak after their so-called Holy Week of the abating euphoria of the resurrection, surely they are explaining why a merely annual remembrance is insufficient? Christ Jesus is the risen Lord for 365 days of every year (plus the extra one when required), and we have a weekly opportunity for the distinct recollection of his death in an atmosphere conditioned by his resurrection. To flatten the whole year, perhaps rising only to a few unnatural annual peaks, is to miss so much, to lose so many things, to gain so little.

Christ died to set us free from empty things. Men died to liberate us from the rigamarole of unscriptural traditions and man-made routines and performances of religiosity. I hope that you will hear a voice from the blood-washed streets of the Old World, where those battles and the cost of their victory are ground into our consciousness, where the issues and enemies are neither distant nor tame, and where the lines remain clearly drawn in the collective memory of some of the Lord's people, and consider whether or not the prizes so hardly won ought to be so quickly abandoned.

Trueman's Annual Christmas Article

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Click here for Trueman's latest optimistic take on all things relative to Christmas.