Outside Our Comfort-Circles

Hospitality matters because God is generous.

In Genesis 18 Abraham showed grand hospitality to three strangers. He didn’t know it at the beginning, but he was entertaining angels along with the Lord Himself. Abraham quickly prepared and served a great banquet to his unexpected guests. The author of Hebrews urged his readers to be ready to do the same.

Abraham was a man of means, but hospitality is a responsibility for every believer. The apostle Peter commanded his readers to it. He wrote, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9). Usually Paul is the one we look to for the “one anothers,” and Paul did exhort the Romans, “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality” (Romans 12:13).

Hospitality is a kindness in welcoming guests and, it used to be, applied to those outside our comfort-circles. Hospitality is a way to love others through generously taking care of them. Invite, greet, serve, repeat. You don’t need to kill the fatted calf, but you do need to kill self-serving pride. You also don’t need to make sure everything is Pinterest perfect in your house. But you do need to clean up any bitterness or begrudging in your heart.

Most of Peter’s readers probably had rationalizations to avoid showing hospitality, such as fear of exposure as Christians or lack of resources, not to mention they were exiles. Yet the imperative stands as an expression of love. We are stewards of God’s varied grace, and we are to imitate Him in giving ourselves for others.

Like Esau?

There is an unexpected allusion to the reunion of Jacob and Esau in the Gospels. It is another reunion story with an uncertain outcome at the start, another story with two sons.

In Luke 15 Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son and the gracious father. After the younger son disrespects his father and leaves the family, he takes a journey into a far country. He eventually loses all that he has and decides to try his luck at home. Jacob doesn’t quite match the pattern since he left his father empty-handed and returned to his homeland in prosperity. But it’s the father who is the interesting connection.

“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him kissed him” (verse 20). These are three of the four verbs used in Genesis 33:4 when Jacob returned. What is exceptional is that the father in Jesus’ parable is like Esau.

It is a parable, so not everything represents something. But the point of this parable is the eager, glad reception of the father to his sinful child. Jesus alluded to this sort of reception of Jacob by Esau. And if Esau, the non-chosen, previously enraged, older brother can gladly run and embrace Jacob, how much more God the Father?

How can we know that? The Father sacrificed His very Son to reconcile us. We were lost, now we’re found. So we eat and drink at the Father’s celebration with our family.

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Christmas

As we continue to move closer to Christmas I said that I would give a series of exhortations to help with our focus. Last week I urged us to be spiritually broken which is important for perspective keepers.

The second exhortation is: embrace the flesh. This also helps our perspective, but needs a clarification. There is a way, and it is the primary way, that the New Testament talks about the flesh where the “flesh” represents the sinful pull in all of us. The lust of the flesh, the works of the flesh, the flesh as enemy of the Spirit is most definitely not what we should embrace.

But “flesh” in those respects is not referring to material, not the muscles and nerves and blood and bones, which is also the flesh. This is the flesh that Jesus took at (what we celebrate as) Christmas yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). If God created that flesh and also clothed Himself with it, it can’t be all bad.

The incarnation shows that the flesh is not God. God, in the Word who was God before creation, existed without one. So we worship the Maker not the material. God is outside, before and beyond, human flesh. Christmas truth should keep us from worshipping our bodies let alone stuff.

The incarnation also shows that God identifies with human flesh. God, in the Word, became like us. “Since the children share in flesh and blood, he himself partook of the same things” (Hebrew 2:14). He took on our form, with the physical limits and needs and in every other respect. Christmas truth means that we don’t have to escape the flesh to please God.

And the incarnation shows that God redeems humanity. God, in the Word, showed grace and truth. In His flesh He obeyed, He washed feet, He broke bread, He suffered, He endured torture, He was put to death (and rose again). Christmas truth is our hope for joyful and fruitful obedience on earth.

So we must not teach a gnostic incarnation by our practice. As people of the truth we tend to prefer two-dimensions; three-dimensions are hard. We want our Word on a page, not in a body. Too often we have great Christmas ideas without glad sacrifices and generosity and being worn out and used up to spill grace onto others.

In your body love, be joyful, be patient, show kindness, do good, be self-controlled. Decorate, bake, clean, sing, give, cry, so that the life of Jesus may be manifest in your body (2 Corinthians 4:11), just as He was manifested in the flesh (1 Timothy 3:16). Let our celebrations not be spiritualized, but be filled with the Spirit to keep Christmas in our flesh.

A Noble Trick

I highly recommend Eve in Exile and the Restoration of Femininity by Rebekah Merkle. Here is a taste of the book where she describes the glory of a woman who gives substance and shape to an idea.

Our job as women—and it’s a phenomenal responsibility—is to enflesh the weighty truths of our faith. If our role is to make truth taste, to make holiness beautiful, then what does that look like in the details?

As a random example of this, take Christmas. Christmas is, of course, when God did ultimately what we women can only shadow. The ultimate enfleshing. At Bethlehem, God’s Word became flesh and dwelt among us, the Consolation of Israel was born of a woman–and that moment was so staggering that even the stars had to come down and see it. And then, every year, we celebrate that moment. We take one of the most difficult theological truths—the Incarnation—and attempt to show that truth through our celebrations. The men can talk about the Incarnation, church fathers can write important treatises about it, pastors can preach about it, theologians can parse and define it…but we women are the ones who make it taste like something. We make it smell good. How crazy is that?

“And for my next trick, I will take Athanasius’ De Incarnatione and I will say it with cookies and wrapping paper and cinnamon and marshmallows and colored lights and tablecloths and shopping trips and frantically-last-minute-late-night-Amazon-orders and ham–and I will do it in such a way that my four-year-old will really get it, and it will send roots deep down into his soul where it will anchor his loves and his loyalties and shape his allegiances well into his nineties.” (175-76, one paragraph that I made into three)

Knocking down dualism is good, but not as good as never letting it be built in the first place. I’m thankful for my wife who helps me get it better, even if late.

Made Limp in order to Lean

We will probably not wrestle God in flesh (like Israel did in Genesis 32). We will, all of us, be touched by God in a way that changes how we walk, that stops us from relying on ourselves. We will prevail only by struggling on the mat of suffering that compels us to be comforted by God.

Paul blessed “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” as he penned what we know as his second letter to the Corinthians. He blessed God “who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction.” He reasoned: “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” This is not the removal of pain, it is comfort for patient endurance.

Do we want to be comforted or comfortable? Being comfortable doesn’t require anything special or supernatural. God will wrestle us, make us limp in various ways, until we, like Paul, are “so utterly burdened beyond our strength what we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.” How could it get worse? What else could be added? “But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5, 8-9).

The Lord’s Table reminds us of His death, but we also rejoice that He is risen as He said. God—the merciful, comforting God—is sovereign and powerful over life and death. He would have us rely on Him. He has no needs. We eat and drink in total dependence on Him, the only God who raises the dead.

Be comforted, Christian, that He heals the broken. He puts to flight death’s dark shadows. He bids envy, strive, and quarrels cease. You are beyond your capacity, not beyond His.

Why God Sometimes Conceals His Remedies

From John Calvin’s commentary on Genesis 32:

[T]he Lord willed that the mind of his servant (Jacob) should be oppressed by this anxiety for a time, although without any real cause, in order the more to excite the fervour of his prayer….For although he anticipates our wishes, and opposes our evils, he yet conceals his remedies until he has exercised our faith.

We, also, are to learn from him, that we must fight during the whole course of our life; lest any one, promising himself rest, should willfully deceive himself. And this admonition is very needful for us; for we see how prone we are to sloth. Whence it arises, that we shall not only be thinking of a truce in perpetual war; but also of peace in the heat of the conflict, unless the Lord rouse us.

Not to High-Five Our Righteousness

Christmas comes in less than four weeks and, since we’ve finished the Thanksgiving leftovers, it is time to turn toward the next set of festivities. The end of year holiday season is especially full and it can be difficult to focus. So this begins a short series of advent exhortations as we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth.

The first exhortation is: be broken. Christmas is not a time to decorate our pride or feed it with sweets. Christmas was necessary to kill the curse of pride.

When the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, the angel told him that Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit, that she would bear a son, and that he should “call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). The name “Jesus” is a shortened form of Yehoshua meaning “Yahweh saves.” Jesus didn’t come to high-five our righteousness or to award points for our wonderful worship. He came to deal with our rebellion, to weed out the thorns of wickedness.

When we say “Merry Christmas,” when we argue about keeping “Christ in Christmas,” we are acknowledging that Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one came to offer sacrifice for our sins and sorrows. We lied, we got angry, we wouldn’t submit, we served self, we spent ourselves on things that do not profit. We need a deliverer.

So be broken. That is a good way to keep Christmas in perspective, and we also know that it pleases God. “A broken and contrite spirit, O God, you will not despise (Psalm 51:17).

In this respect Christmas offers yet another occasion for us to confess our sins and trust that He is faithful to forgive us for our sins. Jesus came to show the wonders of His love by saving His people from their sin.

Thanks Not Required (at least in the way we might think)

I’ve observed before that the reason we give thanks around the Lord’s Table is because the Lord Himself did. “On the night when he was betrayed [he] took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you” (1 Corinthians 11:23-24a). Then in the next verse Paul recorded, “In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (verse 25a). The phrase “in the same way also” can’t refer to breaking the cup just as breaking the bread. It refers to giving thanks. A comparison of the Gospels confirms it (in Luke’s account Jesus gives thanks before the bread and in Matthew’s account Jesus gives thanks before the cup).

Every Sunday we have a Thanksgiving meal. Every Lord’s Supper we pray in thanks twice, once before the symbol of His body and again before the symbol of His blood. We are following His pattern.

But isn’t it interesting that Jesus instructed His disciples to eat and to drink yet He didn’t instruct them to pray? He thanked God, He didn’t require us to thank God.

We thank God for Jesus, for His sacrifice of love that purchased our redemption and eternal life in joyful fellowship with Him and the Church. But what was Jesus thanking God for?

He was thanking God for the meal, the bread and the wine, but He was also thanking God that His hour had come, that it was time to confirm the promised covenant, that His suffering would atone for the every sinner given to Him by the Father, that the the Trinity’s plan would be vindicated, that His glorious grace would be displayed, that His resurrection three days later was certain, and that good news would spread and transform hearts and homes and the world itself. We are not just thankful for, but with our Savior. We are drawn up into His thankfulness and we do this in remembrance of Him.

Lapping the Pace Car

Most people agree that being thankful is good. Most people also agree that cardiovascular exercise for twenty or more minutes, three to five times each week is good, but that doesn’t mean they do it. For Christians who want to make progress in their thankful-fitness, I want to offer a couple cautions at the beginning of the program.

Caution #1: An increase in thankfulness routinely correlates with a decrease in pride, especially pride as seen in personal independence or, in extreme cases, even isolation.

Caution #2: An increase in thankfulness routinely correlates with a decrease in pride, especially pride as seen in laziness or, in extreme cases, pretentiousness.

Here’s one example. Let’s say that you want to give thanks for (or to) your spouse, a husband for his wife, though it could easily work the other way. A husband who earnestly takes the time to consider all that his wife does will realize that he could not do all of the things that she does on his own. He doesn’t have the interest, the intellect, the skills, or the time. If he actually calculates her value to him for sake of giving thanks, then he cannot continue to hold onto his delusion about being a solo-hero.

Such an exercise of thankfulness for his wife may cause him to realize not only how much he depends on her, but also how much she is outworking him. A thinking man won’t make too much of all her work for the Thanksgiving feast on Thursday, let alone all the previous days of preparation, because that attention will throw too much contrast on his own afternoon full of watching sports. It’s not just on special occasions either. If he looks too closely he might see that she lapped the pace-car a long time ago.

We could just avoid these attacks on our pride by being unthankful, by working to distract ourselves with food and games and Thomas Kinkade pictures of family where we rarely have to see persons. But God commands us to give thanks, so holding onto our pride is going to have to go anyway.

No Other Bride for Christ

While studying Genesis 29 I was encouraged by the thought that God is nothing like Laban. We will not wake up one morning in heaven (if we sleep at all) to find that we’ve been tricked. God promised us Christ, and that is who He’ll give us. How can we know?

Unlike Laban God does not make us work for our relationship. Salvation is not a wage we’ve earned. We couldn’t earn it in seven years or seven thousand years. He is not seeking to employ us for His advantage, though He does call us to work. We work in joy because He adopted us, not because He hired us or because we must justify our position with Him.

Unlike Laban God will not switch the prize, and we know that because God already gave the prize for us. All our treasures are in Christ (Colossians 2:3), and Christ already came and died and rose again for those the Father gave Him. He will be given to us because He has been given for us.

Of course we are actually the Bride in the illustration, so we are also like Rachel, not just Jacob. God will not put another bride in front of us, either to be equal to us or to replace us. “Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her…so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or writing or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). There is no other Bride for Christ.

It is good to be reminded that God is true, His Son is true, His Spirit is true, His Word is trustworthy and unfailing. The bread and wine of communion represent our Beloved, and we cannot be separated from Him. That is worth celebrating every week.