O Come Again, Emmanuel

Maybe some of you have family that you haven’t seen for a while coming to your house for Christmas, or maybe you are headed to see them. If things are good, you’re even eager to see them and share the day together. You’re looking forward to it, and you’re preparing for it. You’ve invited them, you’ve got their trip itinerary printed and hung on the refrigerator door, you’ve put new sheets on the kids’ beds, you’ve bought enough food for two feasts, and you’ve wrapped the presents and put them under the tree.

There’s a lot of work to do for those we love even when we’re not with them. Our care for one another is integrated into how we plan our days, how we spend our money, what we think about and work toward. But by comparison, none of that replaces being with those we love.

As Christians we are eager for Christ’s second return. We live by faith, which is not the same as living quietly in our heads. Our trust in and love for Christ should be integrated into the rhythms of our weeks, into the lines in our budgets, into the extra seats around our tables, into the lyrics we sing and the products we buy and the words we use to communicate. It’s all for Christ.

Yet by comparison none of those things will mean as much to us as when we get to see him face to face. When that happens, our joy will be complete (an even better expectation than that in 2 John 12).

Now we eat with Him by faith, but the day is coming when we will eat with Him face to face. O come again, Emmanuel.

When We Have Problems

The Lord’s response to Paul’s request to have his thorn removed is archetypal.

He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9a)

That is a fantastic truth. We should share that on the Internet. Someone should print it in a sympathy card, probably using a gentle, italic font, and adorn it with a soft colored flower. It’s perfect, especially for Paul, and other people.

Paul continues:

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9b-10)

How many of us don’t really want to be content, we want to be content in a Thomas Kinkade Christmas painting hanging on the wall of a set in a Hallmark Channel movie? It looks so calm, cozy, and probably chocolaty. The fire is delightful, and, if the kids are awake, they’re not stirring one another up to irritation.

But of course the first Christmas was God’s own experience of traveling away from home, of family being displaced, being uncomfortable. God was born in obscurity and weakness, to poor and tired parents.

Us, though, we’ve got big plans to be joyfully adoring Him, until you can’t find the wrapping paper where it was supposed to be, and the house is more messy than Walmart shelves two hours after Black Friday sales started. You wanted to host the extended family, but, not like this.

Christmas, and contentment, is harder than it looks. But God’s grace is sufficient, and He wants His power to be seen as the power of Christ rests upon us when we have problems.

Born with Flesh

The apostle John wrote that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). A few chapters later John recorded Jesus, who was talking with some grumbling Jews, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51).

The enfleshing of God in Jesus led to the death of God in Jesus, which we know led to the resurrection of God in Jesus, and then led to eternal life with God to anyone and everyone who believes. We eat Jesus’ flesh by faith, we drink His blood by faith; the eating and drinking are abiding in Him, and we do that in constant dependence on Him.

This is our life, and this is love. In his first epistle John wrote, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16).

You can’t take on flesh, you were born with flesh. But you can give it, and that is the way of glory and truth. Love Jesus, love the soul satisfaction only found in Him, eat His body and drink His blood. He is our greatest good and will be forever. So “beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7).

Deserving a Different Christmas

During this advent season we focus our thoughts on the first coming of the Messiah, about the Father sending His Son from heaven to earth. The Christmas story, as told by Matthew and Luke, is a story of the Son’s contentment with His Father’s decision.

In those days many gods of men were getting a lot of man’s attention. But Jesus didn’t come out of petty or bitter jealousy. In fact, that sort of jealousy doesn’t come from above.

If you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. (James 3:14-16)

James wrote to believers. Christians aren’t the only ones who have these problems, but they are at least the ones who should know better. Instead, too often what we think is that we deserve better, or we wished we had better.

It’s not only kids who are discontent in December; “But I want THAAAAAT!” Big people have their “virtuous gimmes” when they see someone else blessed, and assume that those blessings are absolute, no heaviness attached. It must be better to have more money, a bigger house, an easier or more secure job. It must be nice to have more energy, to need less sleep, to be more strong. “I want THAAAAAT!”

This is not Christmas wisdom. This is not Christian wisdom. This is earthly, unspiritual, demonic, and divisive, even if it’s only in your heart.

If anyone “deserved” a different Christmas it was Jesus. Yet Jesus was content with His Father’s plan and timing to get Him glory. Are you?

When You Can See More Cracks in Contentment

I thought it would be good to check in on #NoDiscontentDecember. Well, what I mean is I thought it would be good to give you a report about how our #NoDiscontentDecember is going, since the Higgs are the ones who committed to it; we didn’t make you do it. It’s just supposed to be sparking ideas for you and/or your family.

The first thing, now eight days through December, that I can report is that contentment is both harder and easier when you focus on it. It’s harder because I didn’t lead our family in this particular hashtag month because we were awesome at it already. We need to work on this, and you can usually see even more cracks when you’re trying to fill the holes.

It is also easier in another way, though, because it’s the plan. It’s like wearing a brace; it keeps pushing or holding things in place that are trying to get out of place. The more I meditate on contentment, the more I’m thinking about being content. The more days you run on the treadmill, the less surprising it is the next day; it’s discipline, and it becomes what you do.

Contentment also connects with a point I made last Sunday night about our lives as an apologetic, especially with our giving of thanks for the abundance of blessings we have. I’ve mentioned Jeremiah Burroughs (The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment) a few times this past year, and his book is all about Philippians 4:11 where Paul said that he learned contentment when he was brought low and when he was abounding. Burroughs entire book is about being content when being brought low, except for the final paragraph.

Now there is in the text another lesson, which is a hard lesson: “I have learned to abound.” That does not so nearly concern us at this time, because the times are afflictive times, and there is now, more than ordinarily, an uncertainty in all things in the world. I such times as these are, there are few who have such an abundance that they need to be much taught in that lesson. (228)

That’s the last thing he addressed, which he didn’t feel was quite as applicable to his audience. It’s absolutely applicable to us. We need to learn contentment in our many blessings, and seek the blessing of contentment.

No Discontent December

If you could have only one thing for Christmas, and you knew you would get what you asked for, what would it be? If you could commit yourself to do one thing for Christmas, what would it be? I’m sure there are some great answers, but I’m going to share one as an example.

We decided as a family that there was too much to do in December to have bad attitudes about it. I mean, really, starting with myself and Mo, we don’t have enough time to complain about all the extra events and responsibilities, and then confess the complaining and then try to get back into the right spirit of things. With #NoQuarterNovember still ringing in our ears, we committed to #NoDiscontentmentDecember. This starts with me, in my heart, it’s something that Mo is likewise excited about (I didn’t make her agree to it), and something that we’re going to require of our kids.

If I could look back at advent season 2018, and I will look back at it one way or another, how great would it be to get the gift of contentment in our house? This is something that we can ask God for, it is something that we can commit to. Paul learned to be content in any and every circumstance (Philippians 4:12), why can’t we do it for a Christmas season?

For fun, even though it’s quite a serious ask, we’ve agreed that if one person is not quite fulfilling the hashtag, one of the others get to choose a line from the Grinch song (“you’re as cuddly as a cactus,” “you’re a bad banana with a greasy black peel,” and so on) and happily ask the temporarily incarnate grinch if that’s really how they want to ride the sleigh. This applies from kid to parent, too.

Maybe your next four weeks are more free and you have time to be envious, or bitter, or anxious, or grumpy. You still shouldn’t be.

Still Bringing People Together

Birth brings people together. One of the seasonal favorite songs, “The First Noel,” celebrates the good news about the birth of the King of Israel whom we know is the King of kings.

The word noel seems to be borrowed from French (nael) which itself is a derivative from Latin (natalis) meaning nativity, “the occasion of a person’s birth.” The first birth was not the first in history but rather the first in preeminence. Jesus is the true “firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth” (Psalm 98:27). He is the one who brings together.

Consider the group that His birth brought together. There was the unwed, teenage mother, Mary. There was the unheralded but steady Joseph. Then add the dirty “poor shepherds” outside the city, and also the “wise men came from country far.” God used a Caesar to get Mary and Joseph in place, angels to get the shepherds in place, and a star to get the wise men in place. Though all of them weren’t actually together on the same night, they did all come together around Jesus.

As do we. Who are we? We are not many wise according to worldly standards, not many powerful or of noble birth (1 Corinthians 1:26). We are more the previously sexually immoral, idolators, adulterers, effeminate, homosexuals, thieves, greedy, drunken revilers (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). But a baby was born. God by His grace and Spirit has brought a ragtag group together around the baby.

Matthew’s genealogy includes the outcast, scandalous, and foreigner. The family Jesus comes from anticipates the family he has come for. (Sam Allberry)

We who believe in Jesus are a new family, a new humanity in the Second Adam from above. Jesus’ birth, leading to His death and resurrection, is still bringing people together.

Keeping the Incarnation on the Front Burner

For the past three weeks I’ve been reminding us that God came in the flesh. We need reminding about certain things, and the Christmas season is a strategic time to keep the incarnation warming on the mental front burner. The apostle John stated that to deny Christ came in the flesh is the spirit of the antichrist (1 John 4:2-3). The apostle Peter referred to Christ’s suffering in the flesh as key to our thinking (1 Peter 4:1-2). And the apostle Paul considered the truth of Christ’s incarnation to be the church’s responsibility to protect.

He wrote to Timothy about “the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). The church supports and defends the truth. Then he continued with an amazing hymn of truth.

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)

Most of these belong with godliness. It suits God to be vindicated and appreciated and believed then received into heaven’s glory. All of those fit. It does not fit, not naturally, that godliness would first be “manifested in the flesh.”

The Old Testament prophesied it. The virgin would bear a son and his name would be called Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14). God would be with us (Matthew 1:23). But it was still a mystery. It still didn’t all make sense. Yet now we know. God, and true godlinesses, was revealed in Jesus.

We are to love and proclaim and believe and support that truth. It is not secondary or optional. Our salvation depends on it. And we also should desire that godliness be manifest—made known, gone public—in our own flesh. The work of the Spirit is a sanctifying work until we are taken up into glory with Jesus.

A Season to Be Made More Sturdy

We believe that by the power of the Holy Spirit God’s Son became incarnate from the virgin Mary. We believe that He is now recognized in two natures, truly God and truly man, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation. There is no one like Him.

We confess that Jesus came in the flesh (1 John 4:2-3). Not only so, we remember that Jesus came in the likeness of sinful flesh (Romans 8:3). And what did He do in the flesh? Among all the normal human things such as eating and drinking and sleeping and walking and working, He suffered.

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. (1 Peter 4:1-2).

Peter’s previous paragraph talked about Christ the righteous suffering for the unrighteous. He was “put to death in the flesh” (1 Peter 3:18) for us. It is amazing that God became man. It is more amazing that God came to suffer.

It is an annual temptation to forget the suffering part, His and ours in imitation of Him. Christmastime is not a time to get out of suffering, it’s a time to remember the God who wrote Himself into the suffering story with us and for us. Christmastime may include sweet things to eat and a sense of security, but those are only possible because others sacrificed, and in some cases died, to give us what we have.

We receive cards that use soft colors to portray calm, warm evenings by a fire with lots of presents under a decorated tree. Such sentimental sketches don’t keep anyone from sin, they often stimulate false expectations and holiday idols. The same is true with so many “seasonal” songs; they are superficial and saccharine and don’t make us more sturdy. But Christ came in the flesh and suffered in the flesh so that we also would live for the will of God, and that includes our sanctified suffering, even on and around Christmas.

The Spirit of AntiChristmas

Christmas is seven days closer than it was last Lord’s Day. I don’t really care if your shopping is done, or close, or not. I do care if your soul, and body, are in harmony.

We believe that God, in Christ, came in the flesh. This has been debated since Jesus’ birth, and it was an issue the apostles addressed unequivocally even in the first century.

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and is now in the world already. (1 John 4:2-3)

It was so important that John repeated it in his second letter.

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. (2 John 7)

To deny the truth that Jesus Christ has come “in the flesh” makes one an antichrist. As we are the church assembled for worship in the name of Jesus, I do not suspect there are many among us who deny the teaching. But I do suspect that we may deny the doctrine in our behavior. Let us call it AntiChristmas.

You believe that God took on a body, rubbed elbows with smelly men, ate untasty or cold meals, dealt with unappreciative people. It’s all true plus some. So what do you do when people are late, or make you late, or keep you from doing what you want, or get in your way? Do you want Christmas without getting tired? Then perhaps you want to celebrate the idea of incarnation and not the incarnation itself. This is the spirit of AntiChristmas, and it should be forsaken.