Christmas Counters

The apostle John wins for covering the Christmas story with the least amount of paper: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). What is there on earth or heaven that hasn’t been changed, or at least received orders to change, since the day our Savior took on a body?

The incarnation of the Son of God teaches us that God does not despise flesh, stuff, or material belongings. He made all things through the Word, the Logos (John 1:3). His ultimate revelation of Himself came when the Logos was born in the likeness of men (Hebrews 1:1-3; Philippians 2:7). In flesh Jesus served, making meals from loaves and fish and washing feet with a towel. In flesh Jesus suffered torture, died on the cross, and was buried in a grave. And in flesh He rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.

As Christians we are still learning not to despise flesh but how to enjoy and to use more than words. We like our sentences but, while Christmas can be summarized with words, it is itself the glorious story of stuff and places and persons. The good news of Christmas come as “great syllables of words that sounded like castles” (as when Dimble spoke the Great Tongue in That Hideous Strength). The words represent more than words.

The communion table is also more than words. So should our Christmas celebrations be. Christmas counters dualism. We were born in flesh, our bodies are a gift from God. He redeemed us and saved us to work here on earth for now, in body. We should honor Him with bread and wine, and with plates of cookies and strands of lights and stuffed turkeys and Scotch tape and pine needles and sticky buns. He calls us to give, and give ourselves, to eat and drink and sing as men not just mouths.

Not Your Gift

After midnight one Christmas Eve, when all the family had been in bed for a couple hours, the youngest of two teenage brothers couldn’t sleep. He tiptoed out of his room, down the stairs, and pulled up an arm chair next to the star-topped tree. Instead of getting sleepy, he became more awake as he grew tired of waiting for everyone else to wake up. So he did what anyone in his situation might do; he decided to open some presents. But, instead of opening the ones with his name, he opened the ones tagged for his older brother.

The first package contained a video game. He fired up the console and played at the station for over an hour. The game was great fun and, when he was done, he re-taped the paper and put the present back under the tree. Still no sounds were heard from the bedrooms upstairs so he took a second. It was a Seahawks jersey, two years too big for him. But he put it on anyway and pantomimed as Russell, as Richard, even as the Beast. After routing every imaginary opponent he rewrapped the shirt with care in hopes that his brother would never be aware.

Finally he grabbed the only other present left for his brother. It was a model rocket kit that his older brother had been coveting for a while. Having by this point lost his conscience, the younger brother took it outside, lit the fuse, and watched the rocket launch right into the side of the house. The crash woke the family and they found him in his pajamas busily gathering up the broken pieces.

The younger brother had taken what was meant for someone else and used it for his temporary pleasure. At best he hoped to deceive his brother. With the last gift, he did irreparable damage.

According to 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 Christian brothers ought also to think about proprietary gifts when it comes to sexual purity and relationships. Too many young men transgress and defraud their brothers by taking what isn’t meant for them, not only in terms of private parts but also regarding intimate affections. God prepares gifts and He avenges those who disregard His warning not to mess with gifts meant for others. People are not property, but there are owners. God’s will is that sanctified men refuse to take what isn’t theirs or tread where their don’t belong.

Lawless Laws

In the ECS Omnibus class we’ve recently been reading the foundational documents of the United States. We spent a few weeks reading and rereading the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution with all her Amendments. We just read and discussed some of the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers. And one of my take-aways so far, especially in light of our current regime, is that legislation becomes unruly when men will not take responsibility for themselves.

Take our economic regulations as an example. The law works when it penalizes men who won’t work. The law is in trouble when men who won’t work write laws to penalize those who are, or to cushion the lazy from their empty field come harvest time. Nothing good comes when the Have-nots write laws, or vote for lawmakers, to redistribute what the Haves have. The government arrives with the Sheriff of Nottingham’s gun but wearing Robin Hood’s hat, or, if you prefer, carrying Goliath’s shaft and cloaked in Joseph’s jacket, passing out benefits and breaks for everyone, except for those they took from in the first place. It is selfish men legislating their lawless greed.

There are a few ways to learn to take responsibility, but perhaps the most vital place where we learn not to blame others for our problems is when we come to confess our sin. We do not look to rewrite the Law. We submit and admit that we have disobeyed God. We also look for a Savior, “to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” We know we aren’t entitled to help, but we come for His grace.

The only way that men will be free under the law is when they are free from their lusts. Otherwise we will keep expecting others to fix our issues without bothering to acknowledge that they are our issues. A society of irresponsible blame-shifting citizens will self-destruct; we see the cookie crumbling today. Christian politics starts with worship and recognizing our responsibility to God and our responsibility for our sins. We will know that God is acting when, like He promised to Israel, His Spirit causes us to remember our evil ways, and our deeds that were not good, and we loathe ourselves for our iniquities and abominations (Ezekiel 36:31).

Reached the Quota

Consider the statement Paul made about the Jews in 1 Thessalonians 2:16. He said that they opposed “all mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved–so as always to fill up the measure of their sins.” They did not think that they were heaping up a pile of predefined sin. It would be too bold for Paul to claim that he knew the quantity. So who had the measuring bucket? God.

Isn’t this true for everyone? When God covenanted with Abram He said that Abram’s descendants would return to the land in 400 years for the “iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16). Jesus told the scribes and Pharisees, “Fill up, then, the measure of your [murdering] fathers” (Matthew 23:32). God knows the amount of sin and He knows when we’ve reached the quota.

This also means, does it not, that God knows exactly how big the bucket of sins was that He poured on Christ. That bucket included all the sins of all those who would ever believe. Each and every person who is part of the redeemed can say that wrath has been taken for them at last! The measure of all our sins was filled up and taken by the Lamb.

We are great sinners. But we Christians have confessed our sins and He has forgiven us because His bucket of grace has no quota. It never runs out. Think about how many cups, no matter the size, have been filled for sake of celebrating the Lord’s Supper by Christians since the Last Supper. We have gone through approximately 5,000 cups at our church alone in less than four years. Imagine how many more have been used by our brothers and sisters throughout the world today. Multiply that by some 1975 years or so. Not one of those cups has represented partial payment. Not one of them has been a symbol of Christ’s incomplete taking of wrath. Christ took all the wrath for us and gives to us all the grace.

Our Pile of Sin

Sin is not sweet. We shouldn’t ever look at it, or look back at it, with nostalgia. Confession is not a time for warming ourselves by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa telling a wistful story about the time when we blew it, and doesn’t it just take us all back to a happier time? And, hey, look how transparent we were!

Sin is gross. We should be gentle with babies when they soil their pants. But we should be gentle as we clean off the mess. I realize that some Christians still can’t seem to explain why it stinks everywhere they go. They aren’t acknowledging their mess, they don’t ever confess their sin. But it is also possible to run around holding our pile of sin under everyone’s nose. “Isn’t this great?” No, it’s disgusting.

Sometimes I confess my own sin publicly, occasionally during our weekly time of exhortation, maybe as an application from something the in sermon, even at a Men to Men or Life to Life meeting. Isn’t that showboating? It could be. If I did it to attract attention to myself it would be wrong. If I did it without actual repentance that would also be wrong.

I try to do it so that it’s clear that persons need to repent. We can study what the Bible says about confession, but then we need to do what it says. Confession is a doctrine that we must practice. Even persons in positions of leadership and authority need to confess; men and husbands and fathers and pastors sin. I need to repent of my sins more than I need to be an expert at seeing the sin of the other guy. I never had an example, so it can be helpful to see what repentance might look like. But the sin is ugly. My sin stinks. Sometimes I confess in public so that you know I know it’s good to kill it.

We don’t need sympathy for our sin. We need a Savior from it. Don’t confess your struggles here, or in a small group setting, or on your blog, or over coffee because you think it’s a treasure to show it to everyone. That’s not necessarily more honest, it may just spread the stink around.

Things That Stand Out

What kinds of things can be learned by imitation? Behaviors such as how to small talk can be learned, as can preferences such as how you like your meat cooked, or traditions such as what to do on holidays, or even partialities for dying or artificial Christmas trees. Maybe the better question is, what kinds of things can not be learned by imitation? We talk about many different styles of learning, but the Trinity wired us to watch and pick up on patterns and mindsets, even when those go against the words spoken or printed. Kids more often do what their parents do even when their parents tell them to do as they say.

The inevitability of imitation can be as encouraging as it is overwhelming. It means that we can make a difference with our kids, with our fellow small groupers, with our neighbors, students, co-workers, and friends. It may take time. It will take time. But consider that the Thessalonians earned quite a reputation in a short while. Entire regions knew about their imitation of the Lord within months of the start of the church. Obedience, joy, work, those are things that stand out.

Paul told the Ephesians,

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1–2, ESV)

When we come to the Lord’s Table things turn. We see what Christ did and we learn to do likewise. We also show what to do as we come. We consider His example and then become examples. This is why some of our kids want to participate. That’s how it should be. We demonstrate who saves and that our joy is in Him. Our joy demonstrates that we believe that God has provided forgiveness, not that we can earn or purchase it. We don’t come to win His grace, we come to receive it. We’ve turned from the idols of human effort to the living and true God, to the loving and sacrificing God in Jesus His Son. That sort of thing gets around.

Turn, Turn, Turn

When Paul defended his ministry before King Agrippa in Acts 26, he included the charge that the Lord gave to him. Jesus said to him,

I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ (Acts 26:16–18, ESV)

Jesus commissioned Paul to work for conversions. This converting work still happens today as men become Christians, and in another sense it also still happens within Christians.

When we gather on the Lord’s Day, we say that our eyes have been opened. We acknowledge that we have been converted, that we no longer walk in darkness but in light. We worship the true and living God. We declare that have sinned but that we also have received forgiveness. And we take our place among the holy.

We are still tempted, though, and we still sin. The Lord set us apart, converted us, but He continues to convert us as well, changing our behavior by changing our longings. He is still sanctifying us, still turning our loves away from sin, from unholy and unworthy desires.

A fundamental break was made when he first granted us repentance, but our feet get dirty day by day. We must continue to repent, to turn away from the ways of the world and be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Are you continuing to turn? Do you think about your ongoing conversion? Are you seeking further sanctification by faith in Him? If yes, then confession of sin is a time to look forward to. It continues the purifying process and in doing so declares whose side we’re on.

Forsaken by God

More than David, more than Job, no man ever felt more forsaken by God than Jesus. Near the end of His time on the cross (Matthew 27:46), Jesus took a line from Psalm 22 as His own.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1a)

The next few lines of Psalm 22 also fit with His affliction.

Why are you so far from saving me,
from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
(Psalm 22:1b–2)

We sing about when “The Father turned His face away” from the Son. Yet Jesus certainly did nothing wrong. He had no sin of His own. And He felt forsaken. We know that He wasn’t doing drama or mouthing the words.

Our righteous God cannot look at the unrighteous. But the good news is that the Father forsook His Son for a time so that He could never forsake His redeemed, adopted children.

We can be encouraged to know that the godly have such times. We can be encouraged to know that ours will never be an experience as bad as that of Jesus. And we can be thankful that Christ endured being forsaken in order to secure our eternal fellowship with God. Do you feel isolated from God? Then come, eat and drink in remembrance of Him and in fellowship with Him by faith.

Thanksgrabbing

Ah, the winter holiday season is upon us and it starts this coming Thursday with Thanksgiving. We are learning that God is honored when we feast and not only when we fast. We are also learning that feasting is a whole lot of work.

Fasting takes a lot of discipline. We could even call it work. But it is mostly mental and spiritual work. In order to honor the Lord with a fast, no one needs to compile a shopping list, or vacuum the floors, brine the bird, roll the dough, mash the potatoes, fold the napkins, whip the cream, uncork the wine bottle, or wash all the dishes. Denying the flesh requires effort but a lot less clean up.

That said, those who do a lot of work to feed bodies have a different need to deny their flesh. Prepping a great meal is an example of something that can happen anytime, but the Thanksgiving holiday sets the table for what we could call Thanksgrabbing, a tradition some of us may already be observing.

Thanksgrabbing occurs when we expect to be seen and praised for all our work. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be thanked; of course you should. But if bitterness grows every hour you’re on your feet because no one seems to notice, let alone offers to help, or if your leftover casserole cooks in a broth of hurt feelings because guests didn’t acknowledge all your effort, then you may be grabbing for thanks.

Again, attitudes can sour in a cornucopia of ways and it isn’t particularly a matriarchal sin. It’s the kind of sin that happens when one trades a monk outfit for a lightweight martyr outfit, serving and sacrificing in order to obligate thanks from others. Deliverance from dualism involves new difficulties, but they are difficulties worth fighting. Don’t let resentment make you the biggest turkey at the table. Remember, “The liberal soul shall be made fat,” and those who gladly share gravy will be gravied themselves (see the KJV of Proverbs 11:25).

Most Saturday Nights

On most Saturday nights our household makes dinner into an event. The food may be a bit more fancy as well as the decorations on the table. We get the kids involved with some quick-fire catechism type questions, we all sing the doxology, we pray, and then we feast as an appetizer for Sunday morning’s feast of worship.

One thing I usually do is poor the drinks. Everyone around the table gets a glass of wine, be it a large glass or a kid cup, and to whatever degree it is cut with seltzer water. It’s part of our celebration and my privilege to pour out the portions. Dad sets the tone by doling out the wine.

The Lord also fills cups. The wicked get the cup of fire and sulfur and scorching wind to drink as David described in Psalm 11:6. For the righteous, we can sing along with another of David’s songs,

The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
(Psalm 16:5–6)

The Lord is the one who gives us our cup. He gives it to us Himself and in it He gives us Himself. He gives Himself to us now, during worship, as a taste of a forever feast.

What more proof do we need than the word that declares the goodness of the Lord’s Supper? God gave Himself for us so that He could give Himself to us. He gave His body and blood, He gives us Himself. He is our cup and the cup today is an endowment for an eternal heritage of fellowship.