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).

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.

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.

The Sin of Seasonal Humbug

I hate Christmas for a different reason than I used to. I used to hate Christmas when I thought I was more of a saint. Now I hate it because I know how much more I am a sinner.

Christmas used to provide a great platform for my self-righteousness. My strong seasonal humbug spiced up my holiness. Obviously, I was so serious about Jesus that I couldn’t be dragged down into the fray of shopping and sweaters and wassail. I worshipped Jesus better by not getting involved.

I realize now that my “worship” was mostly defined by how I wasn’t like “those” people. Yet many of those people went down from the outlet mall more sanctified than me. Not all of them. An idolator will use any reason to worship his idol, even if that reason is named Jesus. I hated Christmas because people abused it. But I threw the Baby out with the busted LED lights.

I hate Christmas now because it exposes the atrophy of my celebration muscles. I can’t lift much true cheer even though the burden is light. I realize, of course, that this means I don’t really hate Christmas, but Christmas does cause me to hate my sin more. I am not like Christ. I do not naturally give myself away, serve from love, or laugh when it’s hard. I prefer to stay away from mess rather than take it on.

That said, Christmas is JOYFUL because Jesus did come. He took on our weaknesses so that He could fill us with His joy. As we remember that He came we remember why we need Him. We also remember what He gives us: peace, hope, and joy.

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!