What was He doing here?

Someone has said before that many babies have been born a king, but only one king was born a baby. Jesus came to inaugurate His kingdom coming to earth.

In Pilate’s headquarters Pilate questioned Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus was disrupting things already, but not in the typical way. He said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” His kingdom is not established by family lineage or use of force. If that were true, then His servants would have been fighting already.

His kingdom is not of this world, it’s not worldly, but that doesn’t mean that His kingdom is not in the world or for the world. If His kingdom had nothing to do with the world, then why did He come into it? What was He doing here?

Pilate replied, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37). Truth is a large category, and there are many truths that Jesus embodied, taught, and confirmed by His incarnation and life. The particular truth He’s talking about with Pilate, the truth for which He was born, is that He is King.

This was the question of the wise men. “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” This is why Herod the king was troubled so much that it boiled over onto all Jerusalem (Matthew 2:2-3).

Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King.”

Jesus grew up. He’s fought and won His greatest battle, defeating sin and death. Now He invites us to eat and drink around this outpost table of His kingdom until He returns to reign on earth.

Songs Working Overtime

Advent is a season of anticipation. I’ve given four exhortations to confession for sake of our preparation the previous four Sundays, and, now that we’re here on Christmas day, I’ve got a final imperative: rejoice exceedingly with great joy!

The angel told the shepherds that he brought “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). If we don’t have great joy, then we haven’t believed the good news. And when the wise men came a while after Jesus’ birth, “when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10). Surpassing delightedness, not barely not complaining, is the response of those who see the Son of God, the Son of Mary.

One of my favorite lines from our Christmas carols, the line that has provoked my imagination more than others this December, is “let men their songs employ.” It makes me think of a company hired to promote a new cure, or a product certain to please those who get it. The team must consider how to get maximum reach, the most appropriate medium, and utilize their best resources to pull off the announcement.

Here we are to receive and respond and proclaim that His blessings flow far as the curse is found. Earth should receive her King. He rules in truth and grace. What should we get ready in order to rejoice exceedingly with great joy? We need to find some songs and put them to work. It’s going to be a long day for some of these songs, and some of them have been working overtime for a month or so. But the songs can handle it. Joy to the world—Jesus Christ is born to save-let men their songs employ.

The Suburbs of Fellowship

We have a natural tendency to think about relationships in spacial terms. Some are close, some are far. It makes sense when we think about Aunt Jane who lives two-thousand miles away. We don’t see her very often; we’re not that close.

Of course actual distance between people doesn’t actually determine their unity, their fellowship, their closeness. Your spouse might be in New Zealand and yet she is in your bosom. Or your spouse might be sitting in bed next to you eighteen inches away and yet a world apart.

Some of us have been reading Dante’s Inferno and there is a sense of spiraling distance from God the deeper into hell the pilgrim descends. Sinners get the punishment they deserve. That’s why, for example, gluttons who were never satisfied on earth, will gulp handfuls of mud. That’s also why those who rejected God are judged to stay away from the goodness of God’s presence.

As Christians we might feel that we are close to God, or further from Him at times. We do grow in our fellowship as we know Him better and relate to Him in love and obedience.

But He does not choose some for His favorites and push others in the suburbs of fellowship. We are in the center circle, not out on the periphery. He is no Jacob. Through the true Israel, Jesus, we are all sons of His right hand, not just those who write psalms. Through the true vine, we are all branches grafted in; you don’t have to graduate from seminary. None of us deserve it, but “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18a).

Emmanuel – “God with us.” Hallelujah – “Praise the Lord,” us with Him. The bread and the wine is for all His children, no hierarchies to climb, no great distance to cover. We have communion with Him, seated at His Table.

A Time to Give, Apparently

We are less than a week away from Christmas day, and we’ve been trying to make sure we’re ready. It’s not best to do all your gift-buying at the last minute, and neither to do all your heart-prepping. I’ve exhorted us to be broken, to embrace the flesh (with provisos), and to expect anticipation.

With crunch time upon us, here is the fourth exhortation: give blessing. My son said the other night, “Christmas is a time of giving, apparently.” Yes, it is, apparently.

Here is our time to be little-Fathers, copying our heavenly Father who loved and gave His Son (John 3:16). We are also little-Christs, to be Christians, imitating the Son who gave Himself (Galatians 2:20).

Such divine giving was not according to the worth of the receivers. We’re just indirect objects. The greatness is in the subject. In other words, the ones who get aren’t the standard, the one who gave is. We learn something about His nature, especially when we realize what kind of grabby, selfish, petty kids we are.

So give, but not grief. Give freely, not with strings attached. Give generously because you are generous, or at least because your God is generous and you want to be more like Him.

And give blessing. That means that you desire the good of the other person, not just to give them something good. This can feel impossible when they are in a mood to complain and criticize. He is ungrateful about the package you gave him, which, if he saw the price you paid on the receipt in your wallet, he probably would have at least kept quiet. She is irritated at the food you cooked for her, too much refined sugar, or not enough. Okay, so you are not done giving. Give the gift, then give a gift in your response to how your gift was received.

“Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for revealing, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called that you may obtain a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9). Here is a call for the sacrifice of the saints. We must give up our lives for others, as many times in a row as it takes. We’ve been called to give blessing all the time, and remembering the gift of Christ is a bright star to follow.

Then He Was Washed

Dishonorable conduct always comes at a high cost. It could cost reputation, relationships, alimony, jail time, lost endorsements or contracts, jobs, and sanity. Just the weight of a man’s thoughts about what should have been and if it will ever be better can bury him.

Consider the men in Genesis 34: Jacob, Jacob’s sons, Shechem, Shechem’s father, and the men of Shechem. Every single one of them committed something foolish or outlandish or horrific that he would have to live with. Or, in the case of Shechem, his dad, and their people, they didn’t live with it very long. There is always a price to pay, and it can be steep.

What is really amazing is that any of these sort of men can be saved because a higher price has been paid. Jacob could not out-sin what Jesus did. Levi could not out-sin the work of the great High Priest. Simeon could not out-sin the substitutionary sacrifice of the Savior. Men are ransomed “with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:19).

Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9–11)

Paul himself was a murderer, one who authorized the execution of Christians, but then he was washed. All of this shows that we are not saved because we have avoided certain sins. And even though not every temporal consequence is removed, Jesus died and rose again for the sake of our forgiveness, our fellowship, our cleansed consciences, our increasing sanctification, and our eternal life. This is good news worth celebrating, which we do together around His Table.

We Need the Wait Training

Counting today Christmas is only thirteen worshipping days away. For the previous two weeks I’ve given a couple exhortations for sake of keeping our focus during this delightful, but overfull, season. First was: be broken. Second was: embrace the flesh (make sure to mark the qualifications).

The third exhortation is: expect anticipation. What I mean is, remember that getting there takes the whole way until you’re there. And we’re not there yet. And we’re not there yet because God doesn’t want us to be there yet.

Some people just “get to” their destination. They don’t care at all about anything between points A and B. Other people more naturally want to explore the process. They don’t mind taking longer in order to see more.

Advent, at least in the more general sense, is about anticipation. We are waiting. Israel waited for generations for the promised Messiah to appear. What we celebrate as Christmas was known to them only by pregnant faith. While we remember Christ’s first advent we are trying to learn how to wait well until His second coming. We also must walk by faith.

So the build up to the big day is part of the joy, not something that keeps us from joy. The work to get ready and the anticipation of fulfillment is appropriate. Expect it.

Of course we know when Christmas will arrive; it’s on the calendar. We don’t know what day Jesus is returning. But we need the wait training. We might be tempted to lose heart, to give up hope, to put down our faith. God knows His Son’s return certain, and this is important, helpful practice. We are a people who celebrate before, not just after all the presents are opened.

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.