The Very First Blessing

We continue our series of exhortations to confession based on the idea of blessing. Receiving our blessings well is part of our worship as well as part of our witness to the world. We’ve considered already that forgiveness is God’s blessing, as is fruitfulness.

The very first blessing of God to man came on man’s very first day on earth. It is the second use of the word “blessing” in Genesis 1, but applied to human beings in verse 28.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on earth.

God looked on His newly created image-bearers with favor. He had given them life and, in light of how Genesis 2:15-25 fits between verses 27 and 28 in chapter one, God had given them each other. For Adam, breath and a bride were both blessings. But verse 28 makes the blessing seem like still more, and I think the blessing is connected with the rest of the verse. Blessing is purpose.

This is a big purpose. On the large scale, you are blessed to make family and culture and technology. But on the day to day scale, this is hugging and feeding your kids, this is filling the car with gas so you can get to work, this is trying to figure out how to help your boss or co-workers or clients better, this is putting the laundry away and baking bread.

We complain often about some of God’s best gifts to us. Our bodies are tired or hurting, but what an amazing grace that they work at all! Our spouses and our kids give meaning to our accomplishments and they provide stories to tell and retell, but we grumble about the challenges. The long task list doesn’t excite us, it overwhelms us, and it may be because we don’t see the blessings. Are you tired because there is a lot to do? Good, God gave you a lot to do.

Our unbelieving neighbors have been given no less purpose. They are made in God’s image. Though they don’t deserve all the meaning that is around them, their failure to recognize it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, it means that they are more accountable for their denial. Life seems to them like vanity and striving after wind, but that’s because they refuse to relate their purpose to their Maker.

God didn’t have to give you relationships or responsibilities. But He did. A person with only potential isn’t finished, and we often give such a person grief, but many having many potentials to pursue is good. God blessed you with purpose. How are you receiving those blessings? Does how you’re receiving them make others jealous?

Forgiveness Equals Freedom

Of all the things that Christians have, what would make an unbeliever most jealous? Of course those who are outside of Christ, those who don’t have the light of the gospel, are in no better position to determine value than a blind man could count the stars through a telescope with the lens cap still on. For those of us whose eyes are open in Christ and who have His Word about things, we’re actually in a better position to know what the unbeliever should want whether he can express it or not.

The Bible describes how men should want God’s blessing. Our eschatology anticipates that an entire people group will envy what we have from God so much so that they will repent and believe in Christ (for example, Romans 11:11-12). What blessings are such a powerful pull?

There are many blessings that God gives. Last week I wrote that stability and fruitfulness are His blessing, and I started with Psalm 1 because it is a timely reminder as we make plans for a new year. But the verses we read in the liturgy that reminded us of our forgiveness from Psalm 32 state that forgiveness itself is a blessing, and it may be the most important one of all.

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
(Psalm 32:1–2)

This blessing of forgiveness comes to those who confess that they are sinners. This happiness (the plain meaning of “blessed”) does not come to liars, suppressors, or even to hiders. Verse 3 refers to David’s “bones” that “wasted away” in his silence. Verse 4 describes God’s heavy hand of conviction, drying up strength “as by the heat of summer.”

But when he “acknowledged” and “confessed” (verse 5) he received blessed forgiveness. Men cannot cover their sin on their own, they cannot escape God’s righteous requirements or His all-seeing judgment. Sin is an agonizing burden in the consciences of men. While there is a sense in which discipline equals freedom, and another sense in which gratitude equals freedom, first and foremost forgiveness equals freedom. We who own up and come clean are covered by Christ’s atoning work. How blessed we are.

Really Blessed

For a few months I have been in a #blessed mood. In a sermon near the end of the summer I recommended The Blessed Option as a way to think about our influence in the world. We ought to see His blessings and thank Him for them in such a way that would provoke others, not just to want similar blessings, but more so to come to the God who gives them. Could we want something other, or even in addition to, God’s blessing? We can’t, at least not as consistent Christians.

But “blessing” is one of those Bible words that we hear and use and have only a vague sense about what it actually means. So I’m going to do a series of confession exhortations based on different descriptions of God’s blessing in the Bible. I think it will be especially timely as we count down the beginning of a new calendar year.

There are some famous blessings in the Bible; we will get to some of them. For this morning, consider that the very first word in the hymnbook of the Old Testament is the word blessed: “Blessed is the man…” (Psalm 1:1).

The immediately following lines in verses 1-2 do not describe this man’s blessedness but rather his chosen source of information and direction. He does not spend time listening to sinners and scoffers. He doesn’t hang with them or identify with them. They don’t dominate his radio station presets or podcasts, his favorite cable news channel, or his social media feeds. Instead he delights in and mediates on the law of the Lord. He marinates his mind in God’s Word.

The blessing, more accurately, blessings plural, are found in verse 3.

He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
(Psalm 1:3)

The blessings of God are stability and fruitfulness. The blessed man’s roots are established and he is not easily moved by the wind. His source of life is abundant so he is not threatened by the heat. He bears fruit when it is time.

To be blessed is not to be driven by fads or driven by fear or driven to doubt by the wicked chaff. Blessing grows out of our chosen meditation. What do you plan to really think about this next year? It will affect whether you or not you are really blessed.

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.

Twenty-Four Whole Days

One of the most important jobs of a pastor is to tell the flock things that they already know. He must remind them of God’s truths regularly. A disciple is a learner, and sometimes we need to learn things again, to learn afresh. Equipping the saints for the work of ministry means furnishing them with staple/basic supplies, not just surprises.

It is also true that we cannot be reminded about everything always. I have a growing list of verses and thoughts that I wish I could keep in the front of my mind every moment. That’s not how God made us to work. So we need reminders that are placed strategically.

The month of December is strategic in that it has twenty-four whole days before the 25th, the day that has been recognized as the day of Jesus’ birth for many centuries. I don’t believe Jesus was born on 12/25/00; I don’t think any of those three numbers work. And I don’t have to in order to see it as a strategic time to remember, and remind my people, that God came in the flesh.

Emmanuel means, “God with us.” John said, “The Word become flesh and dwelt among us.” This is what we mean by the word incarnate: enfleshed. So I want to consider implications of the phrase “in the flesh” these advent Sundays.

As glorious as the idea is that the eternal, almighty Maker of heaven and earth became a man, as joyful and celebratory as this season can be, it is because when Jesus came in the flesh He came “in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin” (Romans 8:3). He didn’t just do it because He had always wanted to visit in person, but because He had to partake of the same things as “the children…in flesh and blood” (Hebrews 2:14) in order to destroy the sinful flesh.

However we plan to celebrate advent and Christmas, let us remember that He came to bid our fleshly envy, strife, and quarrels cease.

More Hope for Fools

It’s one thing to live with zero desire to be respected and it’s another thing to live dishonorably and demand to be respected. Some people are hard to steer, others are hard to motivate, and still others are both yet they love to give advice.

The common denominator, and it is the lowest one, is of persons who are deceiving themselves. They think they are wise, but they may be the only ones who don’t know the truth.

These sorts of fools use proverbs but they are useless, like a lame lan’s legs. They get assignments but they hurt those who send them or hire them. They do the same painful, sickening things over and over, like a dog that returns to his vomit.

Solomon once took eleven verses to talk about how bad a fool is, only to follow it by saying: “Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 26:12).

The issue of self-deception is explicitly bad in James 1:22-24. There is a religious person, a person who hangs out with church people and even one who listens to God’s Word, but who cheats himself from the blessing of obedience.

The word “deceive” comes from the idea of catching or ensnaring. To deceive someone else is to try to gain an advantage over them, to deceive oneself is to make-believe something that isn’t true. The only advantage of deceiving oneself is to not have do deal with uncomfortable reality. There’s more hope for fools than deniers.

Against Raising Our Kids to Be Pornographers and Prostitutes

When I first started to think that God was calling me to be a pastor I was still in high school. And I did not want to be a youth pastor. One reason for that was because it seemed, based on my friendship with my youth pastor at the time, that the person who got to talk to the parents of the youth had a more strategic position.

My exhortation to confession today is loosely connected to the sermon text about how our work will be revealed (1 Corinthians 3:10-15 which is aimed at church leaders), and more specifically directed to parents of our junior high and high school and college age young people based on some things I’ve observed about our kids.

I want to start by saying that I am against raising our kids to be pornographers or prostitutes. I assume that we are all in agreement about that, and I wanted to take my initial step where the common ground was secure.

So we can and do agree that certain ends of our kids’ sexuality are no good. That’s good because the godless parts of our culture are in a tailspin of confusion and inconsistent condemnation over sexual corruption. They don’t know what they’re doing. But I want us to consider, do we?

We don’t want our kids to grow up and be prostitutes, but how much perversity are we willing to tolerate for them? We may not like thinking of it in those terms, but what are we thinking when we let them watch it, or mimic parts of it? Would we be okay with their promiscuity as long as it’s heterosexual? No? Then why in the world do we let them play around with transient relationships? Why do we let them practice being slaves to their feelings, because (when it’s not awful) it’s cute? Or because we don’t want to face the wrath of their feelings against us?

When it comes to parental purposes, it seems that we are either not thinking or, worse, our purpose is to avoid an imagined puritanical prudishness that causes too much cultural embarrassment. We have a plan, and that is to let them have fun and have crushes and not have to control their fleshliness too much beyond not getting pregnant.

Shouldn’t the purpose be for purity, in parts and hearts? We should want our kids to get married and be fruitful and multiply, and we are not taking that seriously enough. Parents, our work is on display.

Give Me a Break

We are a people who love breaks. We love lunch break, coffee break, Christmas break, summer break. We want others to give us a break. Maybe the most masterful ad campaign of the modern era is “You deserve a break today.”

We live in a time when we can take breaks and (because enough other people haven’t) expect that there will still be food at the store in the wintertime. God has blessed our economy enough that we don’t feel the squeeze too badly, and we can relax more often with less consequences than our grandparents could. This is not an exhortation against vacations, but against faulty expectations.

Jesus asked His disciples,

Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? (Luke 17:7–9)

If this sounds unjust to our ears, it may be because we forget our place. We want to say, “I would never treat someone like that.” But such a response shows that we’ve imagined ourselves in the wrong position. Jesus continued,

So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ (Luke 17:10)

We are the servants not the master. We are not working for our salvation, we work because He saved us. The Lord does give us occasional breaks so that we can rest, and that is so we can get back to the daily, weekly, monthly, yearly labor He has for us to do. So as a friend of mine likes to say, Get after it!

Your Neighbor’s Slop

It is a universal law that all men seek their own advantage. It is obvious by reflecting on one’s own motives, it is obvious by looking at one’s neighbors and at the history of humanity. It is an inescapable reality that parents know, that philosophers and policy makers write about, and that advertisers depend on. Every human being thinks about himself or herself first.

The question is not if this is true, the question is if this is good. It’s hard for most of us in conservative Christian circles to consider, but if there was no god, what would be bad about self-interest and self-preservation? Or for those who grew up in a culture with a pantheon of selfish gods, knowing that we become like what we worship, a culture of self-firsters makes sense.

Worldly wise men have even attempted to build nations on the principle. Thomas Hobbes in his book Leviathan provides a perfect example. Here’s his argument (in my words, not his). Men are pigs, but they can’t help being pigs. Don’t tell them that being a pig is bad, just try to convince them that they’ll actually get more slop overall by not stealing their neighbor’s slop. If the neighbors get mad they might kill you, meaning less slop for you. Fear is a powerful motivator.

God’s Spirit says that this is fleshly. The self-principle in man produces immorality, impurity, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, and “things like these” (Galatians 5:19-20). It is natural, but it’s not good.

The alternative is to walk by the Spirit and “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). Of course it’s natural for us to listen to our flesh, and this is why we need to meditate on the cross. As John Owen might have told Hobbes, “Be killing self or it will be killing you.”