Seasonal Sound Bites

Printed on Christmas cards for generations, Luke 2:14 remains one of our favorite seasonal sound bites. We’re probably most familiar with the King James Version, starting in verse 13:

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, good will toward men. (Luke 2:13–14)

This is a great statement. The incarnation demonstrates God’s love for the world, His intention to bring peace.

But perhaps you’ve heard someone point out that “peace, good will toward men” does not come from the earliest/best manuscripts. Maybe you’ve noticed the difference yourself, especially if you’re reading the NAS or ESV.

“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
(Luke 2:14)

This is quite a different statement. “Good will toward men” sounds indiscriminate. “Peace among men with whom he is pleased” sounds limiting, much more narrow. The NIV makes it sound even more specific: “Peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

Manuscript issues aside, we know that peace between God and men comes because of Christ’s work on the cross. The incarnation was stage one of His earthly work, and His faultless life, sacrificial death, and resurrection were necessary in order to bring peace. According to Colossians 1:20, He “made peace through the blood of His cross.” We can only be reconciled to God by the death of His Son and now that we are reconciled, we shall be saved by His life (Romans 5:10).

God is only pleased with those for whom Christ died, those who are justified by faith (Romans 5:1). The incarnation was absolutely necessary part of the peace plan. We rejoice that God sent His Son to take our judgment. But we do not rest in Christmas card theology. We rejoice in the cross and the empty tomb. That is why Christmas and Easter go together. That is why we commune together around this table.

Spiritual Assets

Do believers gather together on the Lord’s day to give or get?

Faith will never reach that degree of maturity where it could live without receiving. A grateful reception of God’s gracious gifts will always remain the task of Christian worship, for it is impossible to evolve a church service out of the spiritual assets of believers.

—Vilmos Vajta, Luther on Worship, quoted in The Lord’s Service by Jeffrey Meyers, 94.

Like We Do

A common Christian abuse of Christmas poses in a spiritual position. The abuse occurs when Christians reluctantly, or refuse to, love others who don’t rise to the level of understanding that we think they should have about Christmas. In other words, since they don’t get Christmas like we do, they’re not worthy to share our Christmas joy. If only they would grow up, then we wouldn’t have to teach them a lesson by being so fussy.

This behavior reverses the gospel, it abuses Christmas.

Jesus didn’t wait for people to get it before He came. He didn’t take on flesh because that’s where the glory was. Flesh is precisely not where the glory was. He came to redeem and restore fallen men. That’s the point of Christmas.

In some ways, Christmas is the anti-holiday, at least as the Hallmark channel portrays it. The incarnation in Bethlehem was the anti- “everything is just right” moment that brings people together. We stress to arrange all the details to be perfect. Jesus came because nothing was perfect, and He came in an inconvenient and unacknowledged way. Interestingly enough, 2000 years or so later, we’re still talking about the love He displayed.

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:9–11)

It is easier to despise Christmas than to love Christians. We want to be with people when they get it. Jesus went to people because they didn’t.

Word and Sacrament

Gospel ministers are sometimes referred to as ministers of the Word and sacrament. There’s no need to freak out over the word sacrament; here it means the same thing as ordinance. Not only in reference to the work of ministers, but all Reformed definitions of a church require these two elements as well, often including the third element of church discipline, which actually is hard to disentangle from the Word and sacrament.

Why both, Word and sacrament? Isn’t the Word enough? Many in the truth-tube camp–our camp–only look out one side of the car. We have trouble tripping too many steps outside our minds, usually for fear of falling into the material. For example, we gladly affirm the miracles of Jesus. We’re perhaps even more glad that we don’t have to fit miracles on our shelves today. Surely we’ll all turn into Benny Hinn healers or Joel Osteen prosperers if we think that Jesus might actually do something we could see.

Visible things didn’t make Jesus nervous. He did many wonderful works that confirmed His word. His word prepared the way for His works to be understood and the works gave the words gravity.

The same is true with this meal. It is real, and the physical nature of the bread and cup do not make them lesser class citizens. God loves the tangible, He made it and He became it, with body and blood and stuff. Without the Word to explain it, we would be ignorant in our eating and drinking. But when we receive the Word, we aren’t just going through the motions at this table until we can get our super spiritual Casper capes.

The Word became flesh. Do we believe in the actual incarnation? He died and rose so that we might live. He is food for us. This meal confirms and builds our belief in His Word. Let us not despise what God has put together, Word and sacrament, faith and food.

Our Familiar Celebrations

We often say that familiarity breeds contempt. Our contempt starts with that statement itself; it’s contemptible to hear about how easily we’re made contemptuous. But our condition is one in which we get dirty and forget about it, we develop callouses and live with them, we fall down and it’s easier to stay there. We need to be washed, we need to have the hard parts cut off or filed down, and we need to get back on our feet.

We’re familiar with Christmas. Jesus is the reason for this season, we know, so how does He fit in our familiar celebrations? It’s hopefully more, though not less, than reading the story of His birth on Christmas morning. For sake of scrubbing our holiday grime, let’s start with our Christmas trees.

Consider our pine tree configurations. We stand our trees in a location for maximum visibility. We place our presents under the tree for others. We hang lights and garland and other ornaments on the branches. We typically perch a star at the top most point. Which part is for Jesus? Which part is meant to honor Him?

Isn’t He pictured and honored every where? He is the visible center. He is the Father’s gift to sinful men. He is the light of the world, the creator who decorated the universe. Not only did a star mark His birthplace for travelers, He Himself is the guiding star. We can’t limit where we honor Him. He is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, worthy to be honored from top to bottom. He ought to be so in our Christmas celebrations.

We cannot be overly familiar with Christ, only wrongly familiar in a way that doesn’t honor Him everywhere at all times. If we don’t honor Him with every part of our Christmas trees, are we honoring Him everywhere else?

Two Days with Jesus

How did the town of Sychar change after two days with Jesus (Johh 4:39-42)? Many of the townspeople believed in Him and knew that He was the Savior of the world. What type of transformations took place? In a small community, when a good number of people get their worship fixed, how could that not radically altar their day to day interactions?

We don’t know everything that Jesus explained to them. We don’t know how much He told them about His own future. Based on the fact that He didn’t tell His own disciples all the details about His death until later on, and that they didn’t understand it anyway, it seems unlikely that He went into too many particulars about being nailed to a cross.

So I wonder, after having their lives changed forever by the Savior, how did they react almost three years later when the news arrived in Sychar that Jesus was dead? Certainly they’d been following His ministry from afar, but to learn that He was crucified as a criminal, what sorrow must have overtaken them?

But then, can you imagine the response later on Sunday when reports trickled in that some women saw Jesus alive? Would it have been even more joyful than those days when He was among them?

Jesus changes persons and peoples. He offers living water to the broken outcasts. He sows and reaps eternal life, and in that is great rejoicing. He did the will of Him who sent Him, accomplishing His work. He died to atone for our sins. He rose again to resurrect us to eternal life. He is the Savior of the world and we proclaim Him as such when we eat and drink at His table. As we do, we’ll never be the same.

Hard to Take

It’s hard to take responsibility. It is much easier to push, not only blame, but to push work onto others. That’s no good. When we’re lazy, when we wait to see who else will serve first, we remove ourselves from the channel of joy.

God didn’t make us to be idle or to find others to do our work for us. He created us to labor. He often uses an agricultural metaphor to encourage us when He says that we will reap what we sow. He’s established the world the way He wanted and in Him this principle holds together. We ought to believe it and work accordingly.

A farmer who plants corn seed should expect corn to grow, not wheat. But the point is not necessarily about produce genus, the point is that everyone reaps. “From the fruit of his mouth a man is satisfied with good, and the work of a man’s hand comes back to him” (Proverbs 12:14), which also means that a lazy man’s hand will receive another sort of fruit. A farmer who plants nothing reaps something, he reaps starvation. He may blame it on the weather. He may complain to his buddies down at the co-op. “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied” (Proverbs 13:4). If he doesn’t plant any seed, his field is just empty.

We have many areas of application. We will not reap sanctification if we’re not sowing God’s Word into our schedules. We’ll not raise our kids to maturity if we’re not diligent to love them with discipline (see Proverbs 13:24). We won’t reap godliness unless we worship Him in spirit and in truth and see more clearly what we’re to become.

This may sound like a lot of doing. Don’t Christians live by faith, not works? Yes. But faith trusts God. So we trust what He says when He says that our shelves will be full of whatever we put on them, or don’t.

Stoppers at the Wrong End

In John 4:31-38, Jesus told the disciples that His food was to finish the Father’s will as He worked in fields of souls to harvest the fruit of eternal life. We might be tempted to say that the food part was for Jesus alone. However, just as He was sent, so He sends. As He sowed and reaped eternal life, so we sow and reap eternal life. He says that the work was His food, and so it is for us as well. The work itself is wages and fruit and rejoicing. In other words, soul work doesn’t drain us, it fills us.

God made us to be conduits. We drink the living water and then it flows out of us (John 4:14; 7:38). When is a conduit full? Only when the water streams, when the in and out is constant. We often try to plug the “out” end with a stopper, keeping the goodness to ourselves. But that’s disobedience and that sin puts a stopper over the “in” end.

We want others to drink the living water but we don’t want the hassle of them drinking from our spring. We want the rejoicing without the laboring. That means we don’t harvest much. It also means we don’t rejoice much, either. But God calls us to a satisfying life of being spent for others. It’s a humbling work and a full one. That’s the soul food Jesus is talking about.

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A Gluten Free Option

Jesus told the woman at the well that true worshippers worship the Father in spirit and truth. He didn’t say anything about hymns and Christmas carols. He didn’t collect an offering or read Scripture. He prepared no prayers, no liturgy, no Lord’s day service plans. And He mentioned nothing about table fellowship.

Perhaps, then, we have missed the mark and corrupted the simplicity of “spirit and truth” worship. Maybe all our liturgical efforts are heavy trappings, vain repetitions no better than the gnat-straining Pharisees and white hat-wearing Popes. But, hey, at least we have a gluten free option.

Let’s not let acquit ourselves too quickly. It is possible to attend services every week, sing Psalms and hear sermons straight out of Scripture, give sacrificially, even chew and drink these religious symbols and yet still be dead in spirit and without knowledge of the truth of Jesus Christ.

Yet worship “in spirit and truth” tells us the nature of true worship, the realm of worship, not the activities of it. The How? we should do it doesn’t answer the What? we do.

In the Old Testament, God commanded the sacrifices that He called sometimes called abominable. His problem was first with the how of the heart and then the He wanted the what of worship obeyed as well. For that matter, Jesus Himself instituted the supper (Matthew 26:26-28). Paul received from the Lord the instructions he delivered (1 Corinthians 11:23).

We come in obedience to this ordinance, this divine order, to celebrate and proclaim salvation in the Lord’s death and resurrection. By faith, we come with living spirits, “in spirit.” We eat and drink because He made us alive and this meal nourishes our souls. Likewise, we come “in truth.” The substitutionary sacrifice of the Lamb is good news, the imperishable seed of truth. Jesus is the truth, the revelation of God in bodily form. Believers eat and drink at this spirit and truth table and, when they do, it is true worship.