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.

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.

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.

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.

Christmas Is Overboard

How do we learn what we should do on Christmas? By remembering what God did at Christmas.

Celebrate the stuff. Use fudge and eggnog and wine and roast beef. Use presents and wrapping paper…You do not prepare for a real celebration of the Incarnation through thirty days of Advent Gnosticism. At the same time, remembering your Puritan fathers, you must hate the sin while loving the stuff. Sin is not resident in the stuff. Sin is found in the human heart–in the hearts of both true gluttons and true scrooges–both those who drink much wine and those who drink much prune juice. If you are called up to the front of the class and you get the problem all wrong, it would be bad form to blame the blackboard. That is just where you registered your error. In the same way, we register our sin on the stuff. But–because Jesus was born in this material world, that is where we register our piety as well. If your godliness won’t imprint on fudge, then it is not true godliness. Some may be disturbed by this. It seems a little out of control, as though I am urging you to “go overboard.” But of course I am urging you to go overboard. Think about it–when this world was “in sin and error pining,” did God give us a teaspoon of grace to make our dungeon a tad more pleasant? No. He went overboard. (God Rest Ye Merry, 89-90).

Sympathy and Division

Our family advent plate was full the two weeks before Christmas so I didn’t post the last two communion meditations. Here they are, combined into one post-holiday casserole. The previous weeks we considered that God, in Christ, came and manifested. He did not wait for us to get to Him, nor did He wait for us to figure Him out. He took on flesh here among us and He revealed the One who dwells in the heavens. In the incarnation, God also, in Christ, sympathized with our weakness.

Christmas time seems especially suited to expose all sorts of weaknesses. As much as we’d like world peace, we’re faced with anything but peace in the world, or in our homes let alone our hearts. We expect others to give us what we would never give them, the Christmas version of the golden reversal. We wrap envy and bitterness and impatience with holiday words.

But Jesus took on flesh. He was tempted in all ways like we are, He joined us in our sorrows, but He did not sin. He knows our weakness. He sympathized, and then He sacrificed. God did not drop sympathy cards from an unarmed drone. The incarnation demonstrates sympathy as a clear fact more than any sentence ever could.

In Jesus, God also divided men. When Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple for eight-day circumcision, they met a man named Simon. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die before he saw Israel’s Consolation, the Lord’s Christ (Luke 2:25-26). When Simon took Jesus in his arms he praised God. Then he told Mary,

Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that is opposed…so that thoughts for many hearts will be revealed. (Luke 2:34-35)

The incarnation divided between those who rejected Him and those who received Him. Not everyone is welcome at His table. But He invited all those who believe in Him to come.

From the earliest days God in flesh revealed hearts. It’s why many hated Jesus. It’s why, by the work of the Spirit, we have come to Him. We know that we need a Savior from our sin. We sense the distance that our sin took us away from Him. So, yes, God, in Christ, divided. He also delivered His people into His kingdom where we will fellowship with Him forever. Christmas was just the start.

Merry Communion!

We are taking these four Sundays before Christmas as an opportunity for advent Lord’s Suppers. That is, we are considering how the incarnation affects our communion. Last Lord’s Day at the Table we rejoiced that God came. We can also celebrate that God, in Christ, manifested Himself.

According to John, “no one has ever seen God” (John 1:18). If that’s accurate, then fellowship with Him is out of the question. But, “the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). Jesus Christ exhibited the eternal God.

Paul, referring to the living God, said, “He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 3:16), even if not in that order. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail th’incarnate Deity.”

God, in Christ, showed that God is full of grace and truth, that God is love, that God descends to take on flesh and serve and take pain for others. God puts the broken back together, He heals, He reconciles, He sets prisoners free.

Jesus reveals God. In Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19). Through Him we not only know more about what God is like, we are brought to God (1 Peter 3:18). If we’ve seen Jesus we’ve seen the Father (John 14:9) and have fellowship with Him. “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.” With all that Christ has shown us, we can greet each other at this meal, Merry Communion!

No Pilgrimages to Holy Places

Yesterday was the fourth Sunday before Christmas, the usual time to begin the advent countdown. It also happened to be the first day of December, so we sang a number of carols to start our recognition of the season. For our Lord’s Table meditation we considered Christ’s coming and its relation to communion, which is also the plan for the following three Lord’s Days.

How does the incarnation encourage us? First, the incarnation means that, in Christ, God came. God took on flesh and it was His idea. He initiated and He travelled. He did not wait for us to draw near to Him but He clothed Himself with frail humanity.

Our salvation is not the result of any long pilgrimage on our part to some holy place, it is the result of the Son’s sojourning among unholy people. We do not globe-trot or cross galaxies to get to God. He covered the distance. We could not reach Him, but we can also not get too far away from Him that He cannot reach us.

Eternal life draped Himself with a body so that mortal flesh could put on immortality (1 Corinthians 15:53). Heaven came down and glory fills our futures. “‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us” (Matthew 1:23). We give thanks for salvation and fellowship we enjoy with God because He came.

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?