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.

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.

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.

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.

Grasping and Grabbing

If one of the central sins in the heart of man is grabbiness (and it is), then what would be the best solution?

When the kids can’t wait to rip open the twelfth present before they’ve finished opening the seventh, what do responsible parents do? They calm everyone down with a grapefruit face, then make a mental note that next year no kid get more than six presents. Actually, they don’t need any.

When a greedy man gathers as much as he can, hoarding it away not just for himself but away from others, how would we counsel him? We’d say he’s wrong because having more doesn’t guarantee happiness. Look around.

When a critical woman complains and lost her gratitude in the back of the pantry months ago, how would we help her? Similar to the above, we’d probably tell her that she’s not looking hard enough, and, if she did, then she would realize it isn’t as bad as it could be and, that it turns out she has plenty of good.

I’m not saying that self-control or training your kids to have self-control is bad, nor am I saying that mammon gluttony and whiners don’t need an attitude adjustment. But when we see how God responds to grasping, grabbing men, we see that He gave.

To save us from our selfishness God gave His Son as a sacrifice and His Spirit as our strength. Greed is overcome by a superior satisfaction not by trying to gut desire. God so loved the world, which He saw enslaved to grabbiness, that He gave the spotless Lamb. Law doesn’t change man’s heart, grace does, and from Christ’s fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

Wrapped with Ribbon

I am fond of saying that there are a lot of ways to mess things up. Gift-giving is one of those subjects that falls under such a proverbial tree. Let’s say that there are four kinds of ribbon you can use to wrap your gifts, and only one of them is well-received.

Three kinds of ribbons stick to your fingers. First is giving wrapped in guilt. You feel like you must give because that’s the “tradition,” or you must give because the other person gave you something last year and it was better or nicer than what you gave him. Or you give because you just haven’t been around or you haven’t been kind to that person, or your kid. The present functions as a kind of payment.

Second is giving wrapped in fear. You are worried about what that person is going to think about you if you don’t give or depending on what you give. Or you are worried that they won’t give you something nice if you don’t give them something nice. Or you are afraid (parents) that you will ruin their idea of Christmas for years to come if you don’t make it special.

Third is giving wrapped in self-righteousness and pride. This may be the worst because it often looks like a different color on the top of the ribbon whereas guilt and fear show quickly. This gift-giving terrorist knows how to wait. He gives to be given back to, not in terms of a gift but in terms of recognition and appreciation. She counts how many days it takes for the thank-you card to arrive. This is grab-giving, taking by giving.

The last is giving wrapped in love. It is free, glad, and humble, It seeks to make happy, not to fulfill an obligation or to make a requirement. This is true giving, the only kind with no strings attached.

We have many opportunities to give and be given to, especially around this time of year, and there are a lot of ways to sin. By God’s grace we can repent, and we can also get His grace to help us do it right.

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).