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Good tidings, great joy.

Luke Chapter 2, verses 8-18:

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. “For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. “And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

“Do not be afraid.”

The birth of Jesus (the incarnation) answers all human fear. Why? Because it says that God has already begun to enact the solution to all the things that scare us. At the bottom of every human fear is the fear that we’ll be ruined and destroyed forever—that pain and darkness and loneliness and futility will never end. But fear not—the man who will end all those things, forever, has been born. The birth of Jesus guarantees that no matter what you’re facing now, that hard situation is meant to be temporary.

“For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.”

The announcement that we don’t need to be afraid comes with the announcement of the best possible news. It’s the kind of news that, if you hear it and understand what it means, it fixes you on the inside—you find something called joy welling up in your heart—the happy, life-filled exuberance that floods away fear and pain and says, “It’s all going to be ok. In fact, it’s all going to be awesome.” And the announcement is that this joy is meant for everyone. No culture, no country, no ethnic group is left out—all our culture’s obsession with division and oppression is answered in one stroke. If anyone denies that this message transcends boundaries, heals old wounds, ends oppression, and sweeps away the logic of intersectionality, well, the angels say they’re wrong. Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and no one can keep his joy out.

“For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Jesus is a savior. He Knows how to rescue us all, out of everything. He can sort out the mess. He can sort out our mess. And he can keep us alive and well in the process.  He comes from the ancient line of kings—he is the promised son of David, the messiah, and the king of everyone and everything. When he is born, it is time to start telling the world that he’s arrived. This changes everything. The angels know it. And now the shepherds do too.

“And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

Here is the Christmas part of the whole thing. God shocked us all with this way of doing it. It’s so big and crazy and awesome that we go nuts once a year for like a whole month—we decorate our houses and set up indoor pine trees and string lights and sing songs and give gifts and make everything look way better than it usually does—all because God shocked us with how generous, and big-hearted, and courageous, and close to us he was willing to be. God the baby, looking up at us out of little human eyes. All the global pessimists, worry-mongers and dooms-dayers should think about that. One baby ruins all your predictions.

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’”

Peace hasn’t grown up and taken over the world yet. But it was born. The King of Peace was born, he grew up, and he’s already done the hardest part of his work. When he became a man he lifted up the burden of all human evil, and he carried it to the cross, where they killed him, and he died under the weight of every one of our sins, and then rose again from the dead. And that means that the good news is now even bigger than the news that he was born. It’s the news that he also died and rose again, and that anyone who believes that he’s the king and savior, and repents of their sins, will be fully forgiven of their sins, and will have Jesus Christ’s guarantee that they will be rescued from the wrath of God when God decides to end the history of human evil, and push it into the background forever, and bring to the foreground the new history of divine blessing and human good that he began that night in Bethlehem. The kingdom of God is already 2000 years in the making, and when it arrives in full, it will complete the awesome thing that happened on this night.

On that night…

  • He came into …our sickness. …our political upheaval   …our incompetent society   …our ignorance and bigotry  …opposition to God’s work.
  • He was not afraid …to be a baby …to live under a repressive government …to face misunderstanding   …to contend with people who loved sin.
  • He was not defeated …by darkness   …by lies   …by Satan   …by sin    …by death.
  • He was born …to live …to die …to pour out his spirit …to return  …to reign.
  • He preserved Humanity. He cemented God’s glory on earth. He ensured God’s ultimate plan.
  • We will praise his name no matter if we face …darkness …lies …Satan  …sin …death …sickness …political upheaval …incompetent society …ignorance and bigotry …opposition to God’s work.

There is nothing more important than the Glory of God and the Kingdom of Christ.

There is nothing more important than obeying his commands and testifying to the fact that he defeated death. There is nothing more important than living, gathering, and spreading the message of repentance in the face of the coming kingdom. And so, there is nothing more important than continuing to hold and proclaim the news that God the Son became a man, so that we could be with him forever.

Families, Resistance Cells

One of the most powerful parts of Rod Dreher’s Live Not by Lies is Chapter 7, entitled “Families Are Resistance Cells.” In it, he writes:  

Family is where we first learn to love others. If we are lucky, it is also where we first learn how to live in truth.

The loosening of family ties and of traditional commitments to marriage has left Americans without the kind of refuge in the home that anti-communist dissidents had. US Christians, alas, are not especially different from unbelievers.

There is a strong model of anti-totalitarian resistance based in the Christian family: the Benda clan of Prague. The Bendas are a large Catholic family who suffered greatly in 1979 when the Czechoslovak state sentenced their patriarch, Vaclav, to four years in prison for his activities fighting for human rights. Vaclav Benda and his wife, Kamila, both academics, were among the only believing Christians working at the topmost level of the Czech dissident movement.

[Benda wrote,] The family cannot survive as a community if the head and center is one of its own members. The Christian statement is simple: it has to be Christ who is the true center, and in His service the individual members of this community share in the work or their salvation. One hopes that the well-grounded family can exist even without it distinctively religious affiliation; however, the focus of service to something “beyond”, whether we call it love, truth or anything else, seems essential…

Benda said that the family house must be a real home, “that is, a place which is livable and set apart, sheltered from the outer world; a place which is a starting-out point for adventures and experiences with the assurance of a safe return” – in other words, a haven in a heartless world. The loving, secure Christian home is a place that forms children who are capable of loving and serving others within the family, the church, and the neighborhood, and indeed the nation. The family does not exist for itself alone, but first for God, and then for the sake of the broader community – a family of families.”

About all this, Dreher observes:

In the coming soft totalitarianism, Christians will have to regard family life in a much more focused, serious way. The traditional Christian family is not merely a good idea – it is also a survival strategy for the faith in a time of persecution. Christians should stop taking family life for granted, instead approaching it in a more thoughtful, disciplined way. We cannot simply live as all other families live, except that we go to church on Sunday. Holding the correct theological beliefs and having the right intentions will not be enough. Christian parents must be intentionally counterculture to approach to family dynamics. The days of living like everybody else and hoping our children turn out for the best are over.

The Benda family model requires parents to exercise discernment. For example, the Bendas didn’t opt out of popular culture but rather chose intelligently which parts of it they wanted their children to absorb. To visit the Benda family home is not to step into Spartan barracks but rather into a place filled with books and art and life. The Benda family judged that they could be open to the good things in the world around them because of the disciplined moral, intellectual, and spiritual lives they lived within the family.

And they acted with openness to the world. Vaclav Benda taught that the family does not exist for its own purpose but for the service of something beyond itself. When you pay a call on Kamila, you sit on chairs and sofas that are well worn from years of hosting guests invited to share in the joy of her clan’s Christians lives. True, they had to judge carefully who to let their home and what to say around them, but there was not doubt in the minds of Vaclav and Kamila Benda that their role as Christians was not to draw the shutters and hide, as so many Czech Christians did, but to be of active service to the church, and the world. For those who survive Vaclav – Kamila, her children, and grandchildren – it still is.

There is a lot to think about here. And it is all very relevant to the young adults of our church–especially as you think about founding a household. Maybe that is what we should say to ourselves when we consider marriage: “I am about to found a household.” We are called not only to marriage (if singleness for the kingdom is not your gifting and calling), but to bearing children (assuming God grants that blessing), and therefore, to founding and cultivating and guarding a family, a mini-society in which children can grow and the world can be ministered to for Christ’s sake. The health of the church, and the spread of the gospel, the continuation of the knowledge of the faith–all these things are (at least partly) carried on by God’s institution of the family.

So, if you’re just beginning one, or getting ready to start one, let these thoughts shape your decisions. And, if you’re not there yet, cultivate a life of following Jesus now that will flow seamlessly into this other kind of life, when your opportunity arrives.

Help them see.

“You need to confess him and worship him in such a way that people can see that this world is a lie.”

–Yuri Sipko, Russian Baptist pastor. Quoted in Live Not by Lies

Confronting the Biggest Tyrant of All

I just finished reading Rod Dreher’s new book, Live Not by Lies. It is not over-long; it’s a fast-paced read; and I highly recommend it. In the first half of the book, Dreher interviews many different people who lived through Soviet rule in Russia and Eastern Europe, and draws parallels with the kind of totalitarian instincts that seem to be on the rise in our culture today. The book is not alarmist, or filled with conspiracy theories. It is, rather, a sober, clear-eyed look at very public, well-known developments in main-stream culture, from the point of view of people who have a perspective that is very different from ours. The second half of the book uses insights from the interviews to detail some prescriptions for how Christians should think and live in a culture like ours, moving in the directions it’s moving. Dreher’s advice is practical and forward-thinking. It includes thoughts like these:

  • Value nothing more than truth. Refuse to repeat or support to lies.
  • Families are resistance cells. Christians should be starting, cultivating, and guarding homes and families which are both protected from the culture, and open to all kinds of people who need help.
  • Religion is the bedrock of resistance. Christians should cultivate a deep personal faith and obedience to Christ, as well as deep, real connections with other believers.

There’s a lot more, and it’s all helpful. Here’s an especially illuminating section to whet your appetite. Dreher writes about a Slovakian filmmaker named Timo Krizka, whose grandfather had been forced out of his ministry as a priest by the Soviets in the 1950s:

Several years ago, Krizka set out to honor his ancestor’s sacrifice by interviewing and photographing the still-living Slovak survivors of communists persecution, including original members or Father Kolakovic’s fellowship, the Family. As he made his rounds around his country, Krizka was shaken up not by the stories of suffering he heard – these he expected – but by the intense inner peace radiating from these elderly believers.

These men and women had been around Krizka’s age when they had everything taken from them but their faith in God. And yet, over and over, they told their young visitor that in prison they found inner liberation through suffering. One Christian, separated from his wife and five children and cast into solitary confinement, tested that he had moments then that were “like paradise.”

“It seemed that the less they were able to change the world around them, the stronger they had become,” Krizka tells me. “These people completely changed my understanding of freedom. My project changed from looking for victims to finding heroes. I stopped building a monument to the unjust past. I began too look for a message for us, the free people.”

The message he found was this: The secular liberal ideal of freedom so popular in the West, and among many in his post communist generation, is a lie. That is, the concept that real freedom is found by liberation the self from all binding commitments (to God, to marriage, to family), and by increasing worldly comforts – that is a road that leads to hell. Krizka observed that the only force in society standing in the middle of that wide road yelling “Stop!” were the traditional Christian Churches. And then it hit him.

“With our eyes fixed intently on the West, we could see how it was beginning to experience the same things we knew from the time of totalitarianism,” he tells me. “Once again, we are all being told that Christian values stand in the way of the people having a better life. History has already shown us how far this kind of thing can go. We also know what to do now, in terms of making life decisions.”

From his interviews with former Christian prisoners, Krizka also learned something important about himself. He has always thought that suffering was something to be escaped. Yet he never understood why the easier and freer his professional and personal life became, his happiness did not commensurately increase. His generation was the first one since the Second World War to know liberty – so why did he feel so anxious and never satisfied?

These meetings with elderly dissidents revealed a life-giving truth to the seeker. It was the same truth it took Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn a tour through the hell of the Soviet gulag to learn.

“Accepting suffering is the beginning of our liberation,” he says.

“Suffering can be the source of the great strength. It gives us the power to resist. It is a gift from God that invites us to change. To start a revolution against the oppression. But for me, the oppressor was no longer the totalitarian communist regime. It’s not even the progressive liberal state. Meeting these hidden heroes started a revolution against the greatest totalitarian ruler of all: myself.

Krizka discovered a subtle but immensely important truth: We ourselves are the ultimate rulers of our consciences. Hard totalitarianism depends on terrorizing us into surrendering our free consciences; soft totalitarianism uses fear as well, but mostly it bewitches us with therapeutic promises of entertainment, pleasure and comfort – including, in the phrase of Mustapha Mond, [Aldous] Huxley’s great dictator [in his novel Brave New World], “Christianity without tears.”

But truth cannot be separated from tears. To live in truth requires accepting suffering. In Brave New World, Mond appeals to John the Savage to leave his wild life in the woods and return to the comforts of civilization. The prophetic savage refuses the temptation.

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

This is the cost of liberty. This is what it means to live in truth. There is no other way. There is no escape from the struggle. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance – first of all, over our own hearts.

So there’s a taste of the book. Reading it wouldn’t be a bad use of some of the cold nights ahead in December.

Let us love and sing and wonder

A hymn for Saturday morning, by John Newton:

Let us love and sing and wonder,
let us praise the Savior’s name!
He has hushed the law’s loud thunder,
he has quenched Mount Sinai’s flame:
he has washed us with his blood,
he has brought us nigh to God.

Let us love the Lord who bought us,
pitied us when enemies,
called us by his grace and taught us,
gave us ears and gave us eyes:
he has washed us with his blood,
he presents our souls to God.

Let us sing, though fierce temptation
threaten hard to bear us down!
For the Lord, our strong salvation,
holds in view the conqueror’s crown:
he who washed us with his blood
soon will bring us home to God.

Let us wonder; grace and justice
join and point to mercy’s store;
when through grace in Christ our trust is,
justice smiles and asks no more:
he who washed us with his blood
has secured our way to God.

Let us praise, and join the chorus
of the saints enthroned on high;
here they trusted him before us,
now their praises fill the sky:
“You have washed us with your blood;
you are worthy, Lamb of God!”

Only a dead church can disappear.

I recently picked up a new collection of writings from A.W. Tozer called “Culture.” (I admit the title grabbed me.) Thought he died in 1963, Tozer’s writings remain incredibly timely and relevant. For instance, check out this chapter from the book, entitled  Nothing Can Destroy Christianity If We Live Like Christians: 

I don’t think communism is the great danger to Christianity. I don’t believe that communism can ever destroy Christianity, if Christians will really live like Christians…

They couldn’t destroy Christianity in the Roman empire. Every time they killed ten believers, one hundred others came forward and said, “Kill me, too.” History tells us that. The emperors threw so many Christians to the lions in the pits that began to get embarrassed, and said “What are we going to do with these fools? We kill ten, and a hundred others stand up and confess that they are Christians, too.” So, they had to call it off. And they said, “Let’s try to save face. Don’t kill so many – the place is getting too bloody.”

Christians were willing to live like Christians, and to die like Christians. Christian blood was the seed that made the church grow. That’s why I say that communism can never destroy the church of Jesus Christ. And you need not worry about the true church behind the Iron Curtain. My brothers and sisters, there have been periods down through the years when Christians met in damp basements, among the flatworms and cobwebs, and worshipped their God. Then they had to sneak out to their jobs, and at night like Gideon, went again to some hiding place and prayed and sang in a low voice, and read in portions of Scripture they could get. They kept the fire alive in the midst of the fiercest and most brutal persecution.

The fire of God can’t be damped out by the water of man’s persecution.  It is only when the church is rotten inside that she can die. If the church in Russia is dead today [remember, this was written in the middle of the 20th century – BW], it is not because of communism – though communism is from hell, there’s no question about that – but hell can’t destroy the church. I say, if the church in Russia is dead – and I don’t think it is – it is because the institutional church has died from within.

The tree that is blown down in the storm is rotten in its heart or it wouldn’t be blown down. And the church that falls because of persecution is a church that was dead before it fell.

Well, Tozer always called it like it was. I recommend, Culture, and if you haven’t ever read his classic’s, The Pursuit of God, The Divine Conquest [God’s Pursuit of Man], and The Knowledge of the Holy, you can now get them in one great hardback volume from Moody Publishers. Highly recommended.

“Our thanks, receive”

A hymn for Thanksgiving Day, by Charles Wesley:

Meet and right it is to sing,
Glory to our God and King:
Meet in every Time and Place,
To rehearse his solemn Praise.

Join, ye Saints, the Song around,
Angels help the cheerful Sound:
Publish thro’ the World abroad,
Glory to th’ eternal God.

Praises here to Thee we give,
Gracious Thou our Thanks receive:
Holy Father Sov’reign Lord,
Ev’ry where be Thou ador’d!

Thro’ th’ injurious World exclaim,
Sing we still in Jesu’s Name,
Saviour, Thee we ever bless,
Thee our Lord and God confess.

By “meet,” he means, “good, right, and appropriate.” Amen, Charles.

Peace, friends. King Jesus has done things for which we will give thanks for ages to come. Nothing can undo what he’s done.  “Let us love and sing and wonder, let us praise the Savior’s name!”

A Prayer for Those Flooded by Too much Information

A friend passed this prayer along to me the other day. Enjoy:

In a world so wired and interconnected,
our anxious hearts are pummeled by
an endless barrage of troubling news.
We are daily aware of more grief, O Lord,
than we can rightly consider,
of more suffering and scandal
than we can respond to, of more
hostility, hatred, horror, and injustice
than we can engage with compassion.

But you, O Jesus, are not disquieted
by such news of cruelty and terror and war.
You are neither anxious nor overwhelmed.
You carried the full weight of the suffering
of a broken world when you hung upon
the cross, and you carry it still.

When the cacophony of universal distress
unsettles us, remind us that we are but small
and finite creatures, never designed to carry
the vast abstractions of great burdens,
for our arms are too short and our strength
is too small. Justice and mercy, healing and
redemption, are your great labors.

And yes, it is your good pleasure to accomplish
such works through your people,
but you have never asked any one of us
to undertake more than your grace
will enable us to fulfill.

Guard us then from shutting down our empathy
or walling off our hearts because of the glut of
unactionable misery that floods our awareness.
You have many children in many places
around this globe. Move each of our hearts
to compassionately respond to those needs
that intersect our actual lives, that in all places
your body might be actively addressing
the pain and brokenness of this world,
each of us liberated and empowered by
your Spirit to fulfill the small part
of your redemptive work assigned to us.

Give us discernment
in the face of troubling news reports.
Give us discernment
to know when to pray,
when to speak out,
when to act,
and when to simply
shut off our screens
and our devices,
and to sit quietly
in your presence,

casting the burdens of this world
upon the strong shoulders
of the one who
alone
is able to bear them up.
Amen.

–by Douglas McKelvey, taken from Every Moment Holy

Do What You Know.

I recently read Jeremy Treat’s book God’s Will for my Life: A Theology of Decision Making. It is very short, very practical, and, I think, a helpful guide to helping you make decisions in God’s will. Here is an excerpt. He is referring to a graphic in the book which shows concentric circles representing the different areas of our lives. The center-most circle is shaded, and it says, “God’s will.” Treat explains:

In the outer area, we have sinful choices: decisions that don’t honor God or people, that disregard the commands of Scripture, and that are detrimental to ourselves and others. We know such actions are not God’s will. Also in the outer area are choices that are just plain foolish: decisions that don’t proceed from prayer, thought, and counsel. We know what’s foolish by using wisdom, and we know what’s sinful based on Scripture.

In the middle of God’s will: a variety of choices within what God has revealed in Scripture and which aren’t foolish. This middle area is broad, comprising many different life situations. You could be living in Mongolia as a missionary or in Detroit as an engineer, but if you arrived in those places by seeking to glorify God and wisely steward what he’s given you, then you’re in God’s will.

As [another author] puts it, “If we truly seek God above all, then we will always be doing the will of God, no matter where our particular choices lead us, because seeking God’s kingdom first is God’s will.” How freeing! since every decision doesn’t bear the weight of eternally missing the will of God, I can make choices with confidence and peace as long as I’m speaking first the kingdom. As Augustine once said, “Love God and do as you please.” This means that if we’re truly seeking to love God and please Him, then the choices we freely make will be in line with what God wants.

We can make a broad variety of choices and still be within God’s will for our lives. This raises an important question: does God have a specific plan for our lives? Isn’t he sovereign and all-knowing?

Yes, God does have a plan for our lives and, indeed, for all of history (Ephesians 1:11). But as we see in Scripture, there are two aspects to God’s will-his hidden will and his revealed will. God’s “hidden will” refers to the future will that God has for the world and all of us in it. God’s “revealed will” refers to the things God has made clear to us in Scripture, where we are commanded to love God with all our heart, soul and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:2).

Scripture does not tell us to try to discover God’s hidden future will, but rather to do his revealed will in the present. God doesn’t expect us to figure out his hidden plan before we make a decision!

We are never told in Scripture to ask God to reveal the future or to show us his comprehensive plan for our lives.

Instead, we’re told to ask for wisdom and to obey God is what he has clearly revealed (Deuteronomy 29:29).

[Jeremy Treat, God’s Will for my Life: A Theology of Decision Making, p.13-14]

More and more, this counsel is probably what we all need to remember. There might be many confusing things in life, but the simple, clear truths and directions of scripture are not confusing–and we know those are true and trustworthy (and eternally binding on us). So stick with that, and you’ll know what to do.

 

 

“None shall find God’s promise vain”

A hymn for Saturday morning, by Isaac Watts:

I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath;
and when my voice is lost in death,
praise shall employ my nobler powers.
My days of praise shall ne’er be past,
while life, and thought, and being last,
or immortality endures.

Happy are they whose hopes rely
on Israel’s God, who made the sky
and earth and seas, with all their train;
whose truth for ever stands secure,
who saves the oppressed and feeds the poor,
for none shall find God’s promise vain.

The Lord pours eyesight on the blind;
the Lord supports the fainting mind
and sends the laboring conscience peace.
God helps the stranger in distress,
the widow and the fatherless,
and grants the prisoner sweet release.

I’ll praise my God who lends me breath;
and when my voice is lost in death,
praise shall employ my nobler powers.
My days of praise shall ne’er be past,
while life, and thought, and being last,
or immortality endures.

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