Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Christmas is for the Broken-Hearted

Luke 2:1-7
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register the entire empire…” 

I find it intriguing how God decreed such a cosmically preeminent occasion as the incarnation of the Son of God, having just celebrated the glad prophecy of Zechariah and the grateful Magnificat of Mary, by placing it in the context of “those days” of another decree.  The decree of the Roman Emperor, the most powerful human law of the time.  Even now Caesar Augustus, or Octavius, is still considered one of the most powerful men of history, having taken Julius Caesar’s empire to an even greater place of world dominance and influence by stabilizing The Roman Empire for almost 20 years of peace after decades of war.

So, when Octavius ordered a registration for every person in the empire, Mary and Joseph obeyed.  I like to wonder, however, what they thought of such a law.  A tax law, if you will, to fund a pagan Empire which had been hostile to the Jewish nation.  Caesar was going to be assessing his coffers and making sure that his favored city, Rome, was secured by the power of the gladius, the centurion, and the bribe; the sword, the soldier, and the statesmen.  How do you feel when your taxes go to fund unrighteous purposes and are bound up in the corrupt schemes of powerful men?  Some things never change. 

And this decree was not merely a political annoyance, but because of their Jewish custom, they were also required to return to the town of their ancestry, making this decree a particularly burdensome life disruption.  They had to now travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a distance of roughly 80 miles, on their feet, two of which were pregnant feet. 

How would you handle such a decree?  Such a disruption?  Such governmental interference into your life and expectations and comforts?  I know when I sit in my recliner and fill out the paperwork for my tax return every year, sipping my favorite drink and nibbling on some chocolate...I whine about how oppressive and unjust the government may be.  The great irony and deception of my sin reveals itself again when I sit at my morning reading of the Exodus and wonder how the Israelites could grumble against God when they had seen such a miraculous salvation and then I get in a bad mood when I find a little mold on the 12-grain that somebody else baked and bought and placed in the bread basket.  “Why didn’t I just die in Egypt?!”  Blind faithlessness.  That’s what it is.  Blind doubt and a dimmed view of history and a dim-witted view of God’s grace.  A thankless heart which has forgotten its former slavery and the greatness of the salvation which someone else secured for it.

Thankfully, God is not impeded by dim-wits, be they in government or just grumbling cheapskates who don’t want to pony up and hire a CPA like they should. 
The amazing wisdom of God is revealed in this governmental annoyance.  Though the most powerful government in the world, led by an impertinent and arrogant narcissist, compelled the loathsome discomfort of a woman stretched with child, we find that such a law was actually God’s very means of fulfilling His greatest promise.  For, it was through this decree of Octavius, and unknown to the buyers in the markets, to the man plowing the fields, to the woman getting her children up in the morning after a long night of repairing the frayed edges of clothes fully played out, that the divine Curse-Breaker was coming to Bethlehem just as He had promised.

You see, the sage eloquently notes that it is always God who meticulously directs history, and no other.  Though men make choices according to their desires and based upon the short-sighted wisdom of their dirt-born minds, it is God who directs their paths.  He says, “the king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever He chooses.” (Pro. 21:1)  No decree of governing powers is ever outside the sovereign power of God.  It is simply God’s means to a greater end.  

No dictator or tyrant, no elected or appointed official, no usurper or rebel can ever direct a path for history that is not ultimately turned or directed and sewn into the fabric of History by the omnipotent and omniscient and good hands of the Almighty.
Therefore, this brief note in the Christmas story informs us that we need fear no decree, imposition, or law, whether it be just or unjust, for our God is tying together all the strands of history, even if iron-chained or blood-stained, in order to accomplish His great and glorious good.  This decree of the wicked Octavian was at the very root of God’s foreknowing wisdom as the means of transporting Mary and Joseph, through their suffering no less, to fulfill His greater and more glorious good.  

What about all the other families, put out by the decree, travelling to their hometowns around the empire?  They went for the same purpose, though they did not perceive it, caught up in the river of God’s redemptive flow, coursing down into the ocean of God’s greatest mercy:  the advent of the Serpent-Crusher, the Curse-Destroyer, the Death-Defeater, the Hero of Mankind.  Had they all known this great truth, would they have rejoiced at the decree?  Would they have traveled through their Winter troubles with a Spring-ier step? 

The manner of the incarnation tells us, then, that no matter how foolish, or even evil, the governmental powers of this world may be, we know that God is working out His will through them, and that no matter what we may see, we can rejoice in the outcome that they are sure to produce:  the glory of God, the redemption of His people, the defeat of Evil, and the restoration of Creation, all through the Christ.  Will this knowledge lighten your steps, too?  Will it change the way in which we respond to the supposed history-makers in the light of the great History Writer?  Consider that no-vacancy sign, that final annoyance at the end of the long road of discomfort after discomfort, having hoped that you finally reached a place of rest, only to find “You Can’t Stay Here.”  What no-vacancy sign do you now see?  What refusal of rest, that if you knew its purpose in the wisdom of God would make your sufferings, both small and great, full of meaning and significance and glory which far outshine this present darkness?  There is no such restlessness which does not have a promise of God suitable to it and superior to swallow it up for joy. 

It is in the midst of “those days” of annoyance and aggravation that the Maker of all which has been made, advents to the Made.  To a girl and her fiancé, travelling amidst the throngs of other itinerants pressing in on the road, heavy with traffic and her heavy with child. 

And of course, her shame is multiplied by this no-vacancy sign, for this unwed couple whom, in the eyes of Bethlehem’s self-assured, was surely unrighteous.  So, they were forced to take refuge in a stall.  That’s what the word “manger” means.  In fact, the use of the word most often refers to the pen, not the feed trough.  Tradition informs us, and archeology shows us, that Bethlehem has numerous caves surrounding it where shepherds and ranchers would stall their animals for safety from the elements and predators.  The shepherds would put feed on a raised stone shelf.  It was most likely this stone upon which the Rock of Ages was shelved. 

In fact, the Scripture tells us of another woman in God’s story of redemption who gave birth near Bethlehem.  Rachel, Israel’s beloved wife, fatally gave birth to her final son just short of Bethlehem.  As her life fled from her, she named her son Benoni, which means either “son of my sorrow” or “son of my affliction.”  But his father named him Benjamin, which means “son of my right hand.” 

In like manner, the Savior of the world will leave his stall on a two-fold tale of terrible joy.  His first path is that of the man of sorrows acquainted with grief, the suffering servant of the Most High, the humiliated horror which was rejected by men, walking the path of doom as the one who would bear the weight of the world’s mutiny, hatred, and violence before the burning presence of the thrice-holy God and pay it down through being afflicted by God.  In His birth, the Infinite made Himself Infant, the Vigorous made Himself Vulnerable.  While political powers deceive and hide, the Almighty God stooped in honestly, openly, and exposed.  And in His death God doomed Himself so that He would be both just and merciful to grant us salvation and reconciliation with Himself.  He was born a son of sorrow, the Son of God’s affliction.

Yet, the second path is that of God’s most glorious Son, the Delight of His Father’s eyes, the obedient one who would receive all the inheritance promised, the triumphant Champion who gains the Triumph from Heaven, who secures the redemption of the elect given to Him by the Father as His reward, and who would sit down…at the right hand of God having fully completed His work.  He is the son of God’s right hand, who laid down His life and took it up again.

So he receives the twin titles of the only Divine King:  Lord of Glory and Suffering Servant.  And this was the two-fold path which God Himself ordained for His birth of absolute dependence.  The shame of this unmarried couple was the means of God’s self-ordination of glorious humility.  His Bethlehem birth in an animal stall, eternity bound up by strips of cloth, revealed His regal glory and His human humility.  The insignificant son of an unwed mother and an artisan father, to a poor family from a backwards town, nothing in the eyes of men.

God ordained such an entry for the Son.  While our birth is our fate, His birth was His deed.  And He chose humility.  He worked humility.  He owned humility as His choice on the path to glory.  Lowliness is forced upon us, but it was His trade, His craft, His artistry elect from before the foundations of the world and brushed upon that stall.  He strove for humility and beckoned it near because He knew that’s where he would find us.  In the dung heap, with the animals, huddled in the darkness.  Christmas is for those on the dunghill. 

And that is where we find Him in His death, too.  Our death is our fate, but His was His deed.  It was He, who in the words of the apostle, “humbled Himself to the point of death, even death on a cross.”  This King of glory, whom Zechariah pronounced was the “horn of salvation” redefined in such an entrance what it means to be truly human: to serve one another.  God could have ordained a wealthy family, an established family, an honorable family, a powerful family.  He could have ordained a room in the house, an open bed, a welcoming family where there was a place for him.  But he didn’t.  He came to where “there was no place” for him.  Christmas is for those with ‘no place.’ 

Why did God do it this way?
So that you and I would know that our Master knows our suffering.  Maybe you feel like there’s no place for you.  That you’re unwanted, an outcast, a throw-away.  So is His Son.  He has cried your tears.  He has winced at the sideways glances of the haughty, the shaming wags of the heads of those who knew him as a bastard, fatherless nothing whom they did not esteem at all.  You see, it was for your sake that God chose humility.  It was for your sake that the Almighty, with no need pressing upon Him, chose to salvage and save and sanctify you.  To come to you in the dung heap and drag you up into His triumph. 

 “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor. 8:9)

It was for your sake that God ordained Joseph and Mary to leave their comforts.  It was for your sake that God ordained no place for His Son in the inn.
It was for your sake that God ordained an animal stall for His Anointed Son.
It was for your sake that God ordained no family around to rejoice.
It was for your sake that God ordained the humble beginnings of David’s heir and Savior-King.

Now, this precious grace of God, this kindness, this undeserved compassion should shame our love of sin.  It should deeply and irreducibly humble us.  You see, He is pure.  We are not.  Our dung heap is our own making.  We chose it, not for love, but for spite.  We would rather have our self-will and self-deceived “freedom” on a pile of manure than submission in the household of God.  We only wanted our Maker on our own self-centered terms.  We, the creatures made from dirt, whom a single blade of grass can destroy, who succumbs to a miniscule germ, make demands of the Uncreated One on how he should be!  How petulant!  We sought to destroy His beauty, and we did destroy the beauty of His creation!  We stole it and we ruined it.  Even worse, we took His own Son, and we killed Him!  WE KILLED THE SON OF GOD!  People ask why God is angry at sinners:  the same deluded self-dependent arrogance and carelessness which took the fruit off the tree is the same deluded self-dependent arrogance and carelessness which crucified the Son of God!  We killed His Son.  Would you not be angry?  It wasn’t just a piece of fruit.  It was hatred in a thin façade of leaves.  And if you, being wicked, can tell that such violence is heinous, how much more so the Father of all life in whom there is no shadow or variation or evil at all?

And we think that we don’t need a mediator with God, that God should just let us into His presence and be happy about it.  My friends, in the words of Thomas Goodwin, you have a better chance of standing in the presence of a thousand burning suns and not being burnt up than you do standing in the presence of God without a mediator who can shield you.

So when we see the great glory of the Uncreated God in the face of this humble peasant child, and we know that it was His choice to take our place in such a way to redeem us, we see the depths of His love.  When we see the holiness of this God in the face of this humble peasant child, it reveals to us how scandalously wicked our sin really is, the frivolity of our self-ascribed worth over such a holy God of kindness as this?!  It brings us to our knees to know that we have taken advantage of such immense grace and kindness. 

And when we see the promise of the Covenant-making God in the face of this humble peasant child, the promise of forgiveness, the expulsion of darkness and sorrow and guilt and shame and grief, of life for your death and glory for our transience, we rejoice in His arrival and proclaim with the angel hymnists:  “Glory to God in the highest!”

So, how shall we respond to this kind of king?  This King of Kings, whose power is supreme over all powers, who fashioned the Cosmos by sheer command, to whom Creation itself obeys when He speaks, yet who enters so humbly, to be cradled by feminine hands; so self-sacrificially, to be fully included into our shame and our guilt and our sorrow? 

First, we trust Him.  The kind of God who does this, can be trusted.  He can be trusted when we cannot see beyond the ‘no vacancy’ sign.  He can be trusted when we cannot see beyond our government’s foolish and unjust decrees.  He can be trusted when we are called to walk the road of painful joints and swollen digits, of cancer-cells and tragic losses.  Whate’er my God ordains is right, even when it costs me dearly.  Emmet Johnson reminds us, “We when cannot understand God’s ways, we must throw ourselves upon God’s heart…upon the heart that so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that whomever would believe in Him would have eternal life.” 

So, in Him we must put our trust.  He is the sovereign King, the Lion who tears apart, the ferocious fire who consumes all things and in whose right arm is the power to form the galaxies.  We do not come near to a mere lamb, but to a lion capable of tearing us limb from limb. 

And for now, at this present time, we recall the moment when the Lion became a Lamb for you.  When the tearing apart which we deserved, He endured.  The fearsome fury of the infinitely holy God against the wicked (us) and evil ones (us again) who aggressively attacked Him and ruined His creation and destroyed the life which He created, was born by this Son of the Stall.  We killed Him and God tore Him apart so that His killers would go free.  And Jesus humbled Himself for this, so that He might bring many sons to glory through His suffering.  He, and He alone, can take your ungrateful sin, and put it away by being torn apart for you.    

In the words of Augustine, “Man’s Maker was made man that the Bread might be hungry, the Fountain thirst, the Light sleep, the Way be tired from the journey, the Truth might be accused by false witnesses, the Judge of the living and dead be judged by a mortal judge, Justice be sentenced by the unjust, the Teacher be beaten with whips, the Vine be crowned with thorns, the Foundation be suspended on wood, the Strength be made weak, the Healer be wounded, and that Life might die. Wake up, O human being! For it was for you that God was made man. Rise up and realize it was all for you. Eternal death would have awaited you had He not been born in time. Never would you be freed from your sinful flesh had He not taken to Himself the likeness of sinful flesh. Everlasting would be your misery had He not performed this act of mercy. You would not have come to life again had He not come to die your death. You would have perished had He not come.”

Therefore, O those who have fled to Jesus, let us walk as ransomed men.  Freed men.  Holy men.  Let us live to boast of our humble King, our stooping sovereign.  We are nothing but freed slaves, dead men reborn, wicked men forgiven, and by His blood made sons of God.

And let us walk like our Master, as humble men.  Greatness, true greatness, is not found in wealth or palaces, in airpower or valor.  It is found where the Great One was found:  in the low point.  The shameful place is now a place of honor, the low point is the high point.

Can we lay aside our rights to comfort, to honor, to freedom, to power, to wealth?  Can we leave them in Nazareth and instead lay down on the cold stone floor of the ashamed ones?  Can we instead take up a cross, and die a thousand deaths to our own glory and reputation and rightness, for the sake of others?  Can we, today, follow the humble beginnings of our great and glorious King?

Christmas is for the broken-hearted, the weary-laden, the humiliated and crushed in spirit.  It is for the mother whose children have rejected her, but of the God who has not.  It is for the parents whose teenager walks the shadows of death, but of the God who walks with him to light the path.  It is for the brother whose sister is diagnosed with dementia, but of the God who sees and knows and enters in.  It is for the lonely girl, desperate for someone to see her, who has no place, but of the God who comes all the way into the darkness of her cave to find her.  It is for the young man, ashamed of his weakness and failure, but of the God who assumed the shame and dragged it down to hell for him and raised him up a new man with new life. 
The Christmas story isn’t mere mangers and shepherds, announcements of peace and travelers from the east with unpronounceable gifts.  It is also a story of genocide and tyranny, the slaughter of innocents, the oppression of government, the normal sorrows, and of the reality of my hardened heart.  It is the story of the God whose death is His deed, whose suffering is His choice, who ordained humility for Himself into the very heart of His violent rebel creation so that He might redeem it through His own doom.  What kind of God is this?  What child is this laid upon the shelf of an animal’s stall?

The Christmas story is far more than the sentimental swag that our culture advances with feverish frivolity.  It tiptoes into life with a realism which is unavoidable and when truly apprehended will break the strongest men upon the anvil of divine grace. 

For Himself God ordained an understated birth, a life with no place, in the shadow of violence, shame, agony, terror, and death, so that you and I might give “Glory to God in the highest” and find peace with Him and make peace with one another.  His joy was to bring your joy in delighting in God by the mercy of God for the sake of God.  May His favor rest upon you this morning as you humbly submit to the King who loves you more than you can even imagine, rejoice in the Sovereign King who humbled Himself for the sake of defiant invaders, and returned to greatness so that the People of the Broken Heart might be swaddled in the newness of His life.

Monday, October 31, 2016

In Clods and Clots He Found Me

Our history isn’t pretty.  Our human history.  It’s not beautiful and appealing.  It is glorious, but not alluring.  It’s dirt and blood, clodding and clotting.  It’s fear and anxiety and longing.  Adam’s expulsion from the Beautiful lanced the souls of all men to bleed.  We long for such Edenic beauty again, when God walked in the cool of the day with man, when the earth worked with us instead of raging against us, and when there was no shame lurking behind wetted eyes, and when blood was never spilled into the grains of the earth to harden black in the endless heat.  Man became murderer.  God became merciful.  The only pretty one in our story is God.  The only beauty is the curse-speaking Majesty whose curse exuded mercy, another day to behold and wait for a hero to pull us out of the blood and the mud.
The story of humanity isn’t pretty.  From Adam’s murderous family we haven’t prevailed to a better condition.  Nor was there ever a time when humanity was said to be great.  The patriarchs in the Bible are not spoken of as great men and women of beauty, but of depravity, weakness, violence, deception, and fear.  Yes, there is faith there, and it is good, but it is the faith of sinners, not supermen.  Lamech’s violence bred hope in Noah as the curse-breaker.  Yet, the promise of mercy in that mosaic of watery color brought hope of a future deliverance, but it did not bring relief from the sticky reality of blood swallowing dirt.  Sin, death, and misery sailed its mutinous voyage stowed away in the hearts of that “blameless” man.  The first words of God outside that floating sin-incubator, back on the cursed soil, is about blood.  The clinging clods of earth and stone covered in blood.  Through this bloody earth the promise of redemption was bent towards the sky, like a loaded bow ready to fire the violent arrow against its Maker.  That is our story.  Noah, the typified hope of Mankind, stumbled and passed out in the shame of nakedness, which preceded a curse – a crushing déjà vu of despair. Yet, God redeemed Noah through that blood-stained soil.  God, while cursing the earth, at the same time and in the same event brought the dove through the waters to live.  God is the only hero in this land.
Abraham’s cowardice bred the jealousy of siblings rivaling to power, Isaac’s failures blossoming into slavery in the brick-making mud of the delta.  The abortive violence of the Pharaoh’s fears crushing the heads of the infant sons of Jacob.  Mud and blood.  It didn’t end in Goshen, and Abram broke no curse.  The seeds of Adam’s weeds grew thick over the whole hearts of men.  And the cry of the patriarchs shakes and chokes their souls as they long for the garden of God.  But God…God flew down to rescue His chosen ones, to pluck them from the mud and the blood through the gash in the sea.  Grasping them in talons of mercy and with the heart of a Father, he set them down in the wilderness to show them His glory.  He hemmed them in cloud and fire, the smoldering fog of holy terror protecting and guiding them while they feared and faltered grimacing at the flashing power on the holy mountain.  And he revealed Himself as holy, approachable only by blood.  Adam’s sons, formed of the clod, would only be brought near through the terrible gore of the spilling life-blood.  Israel was bloody mess.  Daily sacrifices, the expense of sin and conscience and guilt and reconciliation always and ever filling their ears with silenced bleating and filling their noses with acrid accruing of their holy debts parlayed…for that day.  Every sunrise the whetted blade traversed the boundary between life and death contained from ear to ear because of that damned and damning curse of their sin.  The constant blood flowing in pulsing streams down the altar to pool in the dirt as the endless dirge of humanity’s perversity and the desperate need for a Hero to kill the dragon.
Why do we recall at this table the wine and the bread?  Why do we speak of blood, sacrifice, and the terror of the holy?  We retell the true story, always and often, of the One whose divine majesty transcended the bloody clods of our curse, who is clean and pure and untouched by our hideous hate.  We tell His story, for He is the hero who voluntarily, according to the riches of His own grace, sent His Son to bear up the bloody justice for our wanton violence, to bear the shame of our hidden delights in the filth, to take it upon Himself to submit His holy blood to the cursed ground.  Why?  For Father’s fame…and for me!  For me!  “How can it be that I should gain an interest in my Savior’s blood?  Died He for me who caused Him pain?  For me, who Him to death pursued?  Amazing love!  How can it be, that thou, my God, should die for me?” 

The steel which pressed against my flesh, pierced His holy heart instead; 
of me who being Adam’s seed deserved the wrath, the rod, to bleed.
But it was love, divine, unique which brought the timeless Son to seek; 
to bear my curse through opened veins, torn apart to cleanse my stains

The table set, it tells the story, terrifying, grievous, gory; 
that through His bleeding death my pardon, purchased to dance in Heaven’s garden

My name is not “Beauty” this story has shown, He set His love on the vicious with hearts made of stone; 
in clot and in clod He endured my disgrace, to name me, "Beloved", what wonderful grace!

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Gospel Proclaimed is at the Center of Church Life

Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret.  For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful.  What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.  Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say "Amen" to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?  For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.  I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.  Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
(Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, 14:13-19, ESV)

How is it that we edify one another?  We edify one another through the mind by speaking the gospel to one another in a language that is propositional, engaging, and understandable!

Paul does not diminish one’s personal spiritual time of prayer, gratitude, and praise of the Lord, whether in communicable language or not.  However, he also notes that the Church is not edified through such experiences, but is only edified through the work of understanding, intellect, reasonable thought communicated so that others can hear and understand.

Thus, this passage is about speaking, communicating, announcing the particulars of the message of God’s great reconciliation through Christ Jesus and all its glorious motifs, so that others hear, understand, and are exhorted to act and persuaded to hope in Christ, for this is what humanity was created for and in what they flourish in eternal life.  This type of proclaiming/hearing theme is the common methodology of Church life together.  It is the means of prophecy, instruction, praise, teaching, and growth in the Scriptures.  This was particularly true in cultures where many people did not read (thus needed to hear the Word proclaimed) or in languages where the written Scriptures did not yet exist.  In fact, the potency of the Word proclaimed, rooted in the Word written or as the (at that time) yet-to-be Canon, is evidenced by the commands to proclaim, witness, testify, announce, herald, and praise.  These are all verbal terms dependent upon the speaker, not experiential terms dependent upon the hearer.
Yet, along with the verbal terms (but never apart from them) we must not diminish God’s revealed symbols of meaning, words pictured by enactment, dramatized through festivals, rituals, dramas in blood and odors of fire, waters sprinkled and beautiful stones set in breastplates of a mediator.  In the preaching and hearing of the gospel the imagination is engaged and enlivened, making the contextual artistry of proclamation in the preacher's targeting of the imagination all the more emphatic.  All of these biblical images and symbols have meanings which supersede and fulfill their telling.  

The blood of the lamb pre-images the story of the Son of God whose blood reconciles God and Man.  The beautiful stones set in the High Priest's ephod display the treasure of God whose heart delights in His chosen people, whom He redeems through the Mediator, Jesus, the same Son whose blood was spilled.  The Passover preaches through drama narrated by the haggadah and played upon the senses by the elements upon its actors, finalizing its fullness in the bread as the Christ's body broken for His people and the wine as his blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins.  The smoke of the altar proclaims the prayers of the saints and the sufficiency of Christ.  Every element chosen by God to display and exhibit the message which the prophets spoke, the priests players in the preaching.  In like manner, the celebration of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, graces us with the constant retelling of the climax of the story, the Cross, through the tactile script of taste, touch, smell, and sight as our ears hear the message of God reconciling sinners to Himself at His own precious expense.  Through the Word preached and enacted we understand more and more the glory of God’s insurmountable grace towards those who believe in Jesus.
This relationship between understanding of the mind and the hearing of the Word is a constant in the Scriptures.  Romans 10:12-17 clearly reveals that people believe in their hearts what they have heard with their ears and understood with their minds (v19).  It is the word of Christ preached, heard, and believed upon by those whom are sent to proclaim a message, a collocation of historical facts of what God has done through Jesus Christ.
Thus, the work of the Church is not to be manipulative of emotions, as if the experience of emotional conditions were the goal.  There are methodologies which appeal to the emotional experience of men, which seek to move emotions by worldly means to attain some kind of experience.  I denounce that as not only unbiblical, but harmful to the Church.  It does not edify.  In fact, I would argue that it harms the Church by teaching as the confirmation of God the means, methods, and manipulations of man.  Gaining a “decision” for God by means of self-centered affections and worldly promises is not the regeneration of heart and God-delighting humble faith which is revealed to be of God in the Scriptures.  By manipulating emotions and experience to seize the will of the heart, we have strayed from the mind of truth, the proclamation of God’s works and worth, avoided the offensive revelation of God’s Word like original sin, eternal judgment, the universal inability of man breached by the sovereign grace of God, and the hope of justification through faith alone, in Christ Jesus alone, by God’s grace alone.  These glorious truths engage the mind and convict the hearts of men, not by their emotional consequence but by their claims of truth and submission to God as the final Truth-revealer.

Now, this does not mean that the Christian’s walk and experience is to be without emotion, a stoic display of disconnected, dispassionate headiness.  That has more aligned with Buddhism and its destruction of personality by attempting to loose oneself from all attachments.  No!  We are profoundly attached to God, to one another, and to Creation in an ever dependent way.  Christianity engages the emotions of these attachments because God has engaged Himself, by sheer grace, to attach Himself to us.  God experiences joy, sorrow, wrath, and delight; affections which are rooted in His very character and expressed as He relates to others.  Our emotions, however, are not always rooted in what is true, but merely in what we believe to be true.  God’s emotions never rule Him like ours do us.  His are never because He has believed a lie, as ours often are.  Yet, a Christianity where believers are detached from one another, not patient and kind, a Christianity where believers are characteristically proud and boastful, rude, and keep a record of wrongs is no Christianity at all.
I must serve the Law of God with my mind, even as my desires are prone to unbelief.  I must, by the Spirit of God applying it, hear the Word of God reasonably so that its Truth may correct the lie which my heart is believing.  For example, if Tom stole my lunch and wrath is flowing up from within me, I am not feeling merciful.  How can I love like 1 Corinthians 13, with kindness, loving mercy, not keeping a record of wrongs?  I must identify why I am angry in terms of what I am believing to be true.  What do I feel that I have to have right now to be OK?  Maybe I believe that I need lemon yogurt and a bologna sandwich to be OK?   More likely, my heart believes that I must have respect to be OK.  I am angry, not because I am not receiving bologna, but because I am not receiving respect, honor, and power.  Thus, I am believing that without Tom’s respect, I will be nobody, a withering worthless nothing.  Yet, what does the gospel teach (catechize) to me?  What honor do I have in Christ?  What respect do I possess in Him?  God has “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus.” (Eph 2:6-7)  What must I receive from Tom?  Can I show him mercy when I believe that my seat is in the heavens with Christ?  What more honor do I need now?  What respect?  What position?
So, you see, the gospel proclaims to our minds the great truths of God’s work, the historical (both past, present, and future history) facts of God’s “great and glorious works” so that we might eulogize (speak good words about) and eucharist (give good thanks to) Him as we hear and believe such precious truths (v16) and lay aside the unbelief of them which so easily entangles our feet and trips us up as we attempt to walk in line with the gospel.  In this manner, with the gospel holding the center, we behold the urgent need to create a Christian community that is profoundly counter-cultural and dependent upon God's grace towards us in Christ Jesus.  What does this love say about inter-generational relationships?  About race?  About forgiveness and reconciliation in our personal relationships?  About how we think of our brothers and sisters in our highly diverse corners of our heavenly Father’s world?
This truth, that God transforms our hearts and affections by the renewing of our minds through the proclamation of Christ, the eternal Word of God, is the guiding principle of the philosophy of ministry at EBF.  Every endeavor, from the cradles of the nursery to the caskets of the funerals, is rooted in the ministry of the Word of God proclaimed and exhibited.  Sometimes it’s one-on-one, the commands, exhortations, encouragements, promises of the gospel spoken and applied to the personal situations of a life stretched thin in a world of broken shalom.  Other times it’s the broader applications of the gospel truth to small groups, whether Bible studies together or home groups.  Finally, it is the Word of God preached to whole Church on Sunday mornings, in the celebrations of Maundy Thursday or Christmas Eve, etc.  In each of these ways, our goal is to minister the Word of God in a way that is heard, understood, and believed, so that the Body of Christ is built up into the knowledge of the eternal Son of God, thus unified in the incorruptible faith, to the maturity befitting the always and ever sons and daughters of the holy God.
We do not believe that one can persuade people to the truth by means of attracting them with the attempt to meet the world's felt needs according to the world’s values, the Flesh’s desires, or the Enemy’s tactics.  D.A. Carson relates a story from an Ivy League colleague about what drivers most of the young women whom she disciples every week:  

“She mentioned three things.  First, from parents, never get less than an A.  Of course, this is an Ivy League campus!  Still, even on an Ivy League campus, grades are distributed on a bell curve, so this expectation introduces competition among the students.  Second, partly from parents, partly from the ambient culture, be yourself, enjoy yourself, live a rich and full life, and include in this some altruism such as helping victims of natural disasters.  Third, from peers, from Madison Avenue, from the media, be hot – and this, too, is competitive, and affects dress, relationships, what you look for in the opposite sex, what you want them to look for in you.  These demands drum away incessantly.  There is no margin, no room for letting up; there is only room for failure.  The result is that about 80 percent of women during their undergraduate years will suffer eating disorders; close to the same percentage will at some point be clinically depressed.  The world keeps telling them that they can do anything, and soon this is transmuted into the demand that they must do everything, or be a failure in their own eyes and in the eyes of others.  Even when they become Christians, it is not long before they feel the pressure to become the best Christians, as measured by the measurable like attendance at Bible studies, leading prayer meetings, faithfully recording their daily devotions.  But where is the human flourishing that springs from the gospel of grace, God’s image-bearers happily justified before God on the ground of what Christ has done, powerfully regenerated so that they respond in faith, obedience, joy, and gratitude?  The conventions and expectations of the world are pervasive and enslaving.  The gospel must be worked out or these women, and demonstrated in the life of the church, so that its issues in liberation from the wretched chains of idolatry too subtle to be named and too intoxicating to escape, apart from the powerful word of the cross.” (Prophetic from the Center)
We believe, with our 1st generation brothers and sisters, that “the gospel is the power of God for salvation, for the Jew first and then for the Gentile.” (Rom 1:16).  We believe it is the gospel, proclaimed and applied by the Holy Spirit, which produces fruit in believers, as Paul teaches the Colossian believers in very similar emphasis as the Corinthians:
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, 5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, 6 which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing-- as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth, 7 just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf…” (to the Colossians 1:3-7)

We must labor earnestly, not to derive relational values from the gospel, as if the gospel laid a foundation upon which we must build, and still less by focusing on the vanity of sounding spiritual with unintelligible groaning or the mystical murkiness of inner experience, but by precisely and prophetically preaching and teaching and living out in our churches the glorious good news of our precious Rescuer.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Warfare of Christmas (2013)

Christmas is cosmic D-Day, that violent hopeful moment when the war turned in God’s redemption of Man; that moment when the light surged upon the pages of our hopes and forced the shadows of our fears into full retreat.  What we remember as in the past, was not always in the past already written into the pages of Man’s experience, but for much of time was still a mysterious promise, a hope hidden, an unknown undoing of Eden’s curse.  It was the promise of the Dragon-Slayer, the Seed of the woman whom, in the ancient promise, was foretold to crush the Serpent’s head; of the Promise-Keeper, the son of Abraham whom would receive and give the blessings of God to those from every nation; the King of Light, the son of David whom would rule victorious over evil on an eternal throne to protect and provide for His people in absolute security; the Divine Joy-Bringer, the Son of God, who would draw His people into the very glorious ring of fellowship, love, righteousness, and joy within the eternal God by His grace.  We are blessed to see His advent already written upon the pages of history, the story of God’s doings with Man.
But, what if you were born before the arrival of the Dragon-Slayer?  What if all you heard were whispers of His coming and of a time of blessing once believed, but now thought lost?  What if D-Day had never happened and the Dragon still roamed the countryside, full of fire and fearsome bellows of taunting terror?  What if the Hero had not arrived on these bloodied shores, but rather chose to remain on the far shores of the Fair Havens? 
Sometimes I don’t appreciate the marvelous blessings of God because I am too familiar with them.  Or, at least, I perceive them to be familiar, so near and present that I do not see them, really see their beauty, and thus don’t marvel at their awesome weightiness and glorious eternal significance.  In reality, I’m probably not familiar enough with them to feel such substantive presence.  Recently, I was engaged, in the arena of my mind, upon a battle so ferocious within my soul that I despaired of life, seared by the fiery darts from the Dragon’s lying bow-string, overcome by the terrible possibility of losing the ones whom I hold most dearly in this world.  In the tumult of his tremors, my faith failed.  I ceased to see.  It was a fearsome anxiety of overwhelming force of which I had never experienced nor foreseen; a blitzkrieg of panic washed over me and completely dominated my soul but for the Holy Spirit’s sure grip upon me when my grip of Him was shaken by the Enemy’s blow.  It was a dreadful day of austere loneliness that, though fantastical, haunted my thoughts in the burned out battlefield of my mind with this singular darkness:  What if you were rejected and alone?  In that moment, through the blurred vision of fear and anger, I was deceived and fell prey to the Lie, and I felt alone.  I knew the cold darkness and the expulsion of desire that lapped up the last of my hope and left my soul naked and shattered.  Fear deceives to ruin when unrestrained.  Now, I would hope that our Lord does not see such battles fit for you, but I will tell you this:  I wouldn’t trade this sparring for the world, for it brought me back to reality, to an acknowledgment of the depths of darkness which spring forth within me and the greatness of His glorious grace towards me in spite of my own powerlessness and capacity to hate all that is good.  It revealed to me the beauty of the blessings of God, for in the darkest of nights the glories of the heavens shine brighter and more beautiful to our vision.  It’s not that the stars had changed, but my vision has changed!  When the Lord’s light broke through my dark travails, I beheld His light in renewed wonder and awe.  When the battle is won, one appreciates the joys of rest, of bread and wine, of peace.  He led me through the valley to show me His glorious heights are much higher and glorious than I had previously thought.  So, I rejoiced!  And my expressions of joy, gratitude, and songs of love are growing again, fertilized by darkness and the light of Christ.
So, what does this have to do with Christmas?  Have you pondered what your life would be like if the Triune God had not sent the Dragon-Slayer?  What if the Promise-Keeper had never promised, the Son of Abraham silenced in Ur?  What if David’s rule was the last chapter, a family and realm divided in dysfunction?  What if God had said throughout the Story, “Well, you’re on your own.”?  What loneliness would compare to this?  What hell hath swallowed up the one who knows not the presence of God?  We shall never know the “good news of great joy which will be for all the people” if we fail to comprehend or forget the frailties of our front lines in this cosmic battle for the hearts of men.  When forgotten, we take the glory of Bethlehem for granted and profane the providence of the promised Dragon-Slayer who shines into the deep darkness of our hearts and our experiences to give us hope as the dawn breaks upon us.
Christmas is a war story; the chapter where the Hero greets the pages with fulfillment’s filial hope.  The hearts of men had waned and wandered, and left to ourselves, we were overcome, but for the Hero sent from the ages, determined by God and determined for God to rescue the girl from her delighting ruin and slay the Dragon who held her in his sway.  The Lion who reigns with fearsome power has been born, but He enters the story not with the roar of expectant war, but with the cry of an infant’s abrupt expulsion into the dust.  Glorious eternity birthed between a humble girl’s knees. The Lion, so powerful in His splendor, is also the Lamb slain before the foundations of the earth.  Hell furiously took up arms at the advent of Christ Jesus, born into the dust which He created, and Jesus delivered death over to destruction by becoming destroyed for us.  The Dragon raged and tries to swallow Him up, but in the swallowing was pierced from within. 
Remember this on Christmas Day, when the kitschy collections of our joyful décor threaten to hide the glorious grandeur of the begetting-begotten-God.  He is the Hero of His own story, the Slayer of the Dragon and the Savior of the working girl that He might love her forever and that she might savor Him for all eternity.  He loves her.  He adores her.  He cherishes her to such an extent that the Son of God was born where He knew He would find us:  with the animals, outside the home, rejected and alone.  God did not reject her, but came her to die like a Man that he might destroy the Dragon’s greatest weapon, death, and bring us into His house.  So this advent we recall the darkness into which Christ Jesus was born and we rejoice with even greater joy at His advent at which point the war turned to hope and to victory.  For D-Day was brought forth from the virgin’s womb, and V-Day burst forth from the darkness of the tomb, and the Wedding party will break out with the Hero’s return.  This Hero of the War of the Ages, the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Father of Eternity, the Prince of Peace, has brought the darkness of our warfare to the radiant expectancy of a banquet fit for a King and His beloved in white who had mourned in lonely exile here until the Son of God appeared.  We rejoice with Isaiah, for the Hero has arrived!

Isaiah 40:1-5 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken." (Isa 40:1-5 ESV)

Monday, April 27, 2015

Inflated Self Deflated

‘Be true to yourself’ the moral queens say
There’s no other Higher or Better foray
No duty to harken or summon to call
But interest of Self and seared conscience withal

Yet what wisdom flows from this stagnant infirm
This frame that succumbs to miniscule germ
With skin that is pierced by the simplest straw
And falters at winds or the water’s full draw?

Can this soul break the sun and its withering heat?
Or wrangle the cold and submit it to beat
Back the ice that breach trickling channels of blood
Or heap up the seas into bundles of flood?

I am but a frailty of lightless disgrace
Emboldening violence with wanton embrace
No command to halt all of Nature’s desires
Arrogance bowing with quickening tires

Be true to myself with no power at all
The one who can’t seize any honor or call
Which would bring any good to this cosmos or sphere
But the tribute of futile and foolhardy fear

This darkness that sets such a glowering stage
Shows glorious colors of the Author’s bright grace
Illumined against the blackness and dross
Shines the love condescending to the height of the cross

Your glory, O Soul, is not of your own
He sets His heart on the dead who respond as a stone
To make them alive by His sovereign grace
And call them, "Beloved", with warming embrace


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What Stayed the Hand of Ancient Strength?

"Now the men who were holding Jesus in custody were mocking him as they beat him.  They also blindfolded him and kept asking him, 'Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?' And they said many other things against him, blaspheming him."
(The Gospel According to Luke, 22:63-65)

Hammer and the anvil greyed o’er time and space and starlight made
By your expulsive word and trade when timeless arm of glory played

The sword which cuts through spirit’s bone divided up Orion’s home
Gleaming blade of light was shone enwrapped in Son of Man, alone

Face of swollen purple bleeds though you had scattered starry seeds
At mocking jeers of weakened knees you hid the fists which poured the seas

Power held within your breast bore shame and scoffs of worthlessness
“Restrained” is much too small address to wear such mercy thus expressed

What stayed the hand of ancient strength to suffer such perverse disgrace?
“Your will be done” to every length though vile spittle marks your face

For Father’s honor, glory, fame endured corrupt disgusted shame
That I, the swinger of the same,might be delivered by your name

An act of might never beheld as that of love which inward held
Your righteous power from war-cry yelled consuming fire which should have felled

Hanging stars and planets pale to strength of soul which did not fail
In torrents of injustice gale when God’s Son leashed and bridled hell

February 5, 2015

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Master's Hold

What weapon against me will dare bare its blade
  If heavens are bowed by the Master who made
The stars pull apart from their seedy abyss
  and the voice that compelled lips of Heaven to kiss

the earth which now quakes under quivering feet
  laying grip to my soul pressing certain defeat

Hold firm, O my Master!  Hold firm to the wheel
  For my take is unclear on this worn rugged trail