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.

Down with Dualism

I have read the Psalms a couple dozen times, and parts of some Psalms probably hundreds of times, just as many of you have. Yet as I read them again recently and read a few introductions to prepare for a preaching series, I have been gladly surprised by a number of things. Here’s one of the most surprising surprises.

I’m surprised at how touchable the Psalms are.

I’m still not sure that touchable is the best word to name this observation, but think along with me. The Book of Psalms is a book of songs. The Greek name, psalmoi means “songs sung with musical accompaniment.” The Hebrew title is tehillim, meaning “songs of praise.” We think of it as Israel’s worship book, and we’re right.

But when we (21st century, Protestant, epistle-loving church-goers) think about worship, we think about spiritual realities, about heavenly glory, about God’s transcendence. Yet the omnis aren’t the only stars in the Psalms. There are praises about God’s great glory, followed by thanks for great crops.

We observe numerous types of psalms: thanksgiving, lament, and praise. We see royal psalms, Sabbath day psalms, psalms about creation, about the exodus from Egypt, psalms seeking deliverance from gossips and liars. There are Psalms confessing sin, others seeking forgiveness. Psalms utilize standard poetic conventions such as parallelism, acrostics, laying down patterns like embroidery, stitch by stitch. We find knees and hands and laying down prostrate.

We see David on the run from Saul. David on the run from Absolom. David’s guilt after adultery and murder. National captivity. Want for justice. Dangers, defeats, doubts, depressions, and delays.

In other words, the Book of Psalms deals with the terrestrial, with earthy needs and troubles and gifts maybe even more than it does with celestial, incorporeal truths. There is more about nature and nations than the temple. Or, better, God’s people sang about nature and nations in the temple.

God made it all. He holds it all together. He causes time and the sun to run their courses. God is no dualist. His people know and rehearse and rejoice in His supernatural attributes, yes. They praise attributes such as His holiness, His mercy, His judgment, and His steadfast love. But these qualities are always connected to something tangible that He has done, that His people can see or that they have hope to see. God is active, and the psalmists who complain about His inactivity do so because that’s not normal for Him (Geoffrey Grogan, Prayer, Praise and Prophecy, 73).

We’ve begun to learn to sing Psalm 128 as a church.

Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD,
who walks in his ways!
You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands;
you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you.
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine
within your house
;
your children will be like olive shoots
around your table
.
Behold, thus shall the man be blessed
who fears the LORD.
The LORD bless you from Zion!
May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life!
May you see your children’s children!
Peace be upon Israel!
(Psalm 128:1-6, ESV)

Too many of our (post)modern songs fail to promote worship in the flesh. We have a lot of songs that are fleshly (in lyrics or in style), in that they cater to the flesh, but they are not fleshy, that is, addressing life here and now. The Psalms care about the soul and body, about forever and today, about heavenly handwork and rich soil. This is one reason to sing entire Psalms. Songs that borrow lines from certain Psalms are fine, but the appropriated lines are usually only the sacred lyrics.

Worship should always be a preparation for living the Christian life in the real world and not simply a means of temporary escape from it. (Grogan, ibid., 8)

God glorifies Himself, God makes and fulfills promises, God loves His people in time and space. The Psalms have handleability, and it’s good to get our lips and hands working together.

Thanksgrabbing

Ah, the winter holiday season is upon us and it starts this coming Thursday with Thanksgiving. We are learning that God is honored when we feast and not only when we fast. We are also learning that feasting is a whole lot of work.

Fasting takes a lot of discipline. We could even call it work. But it is mostly mental and spiritual work. In order to honor the Lord with a fast, no one needs to compile a shopping list, or vacuum the floors, brine the bird, roll the dough, mash the potatoes, fold the napkins, whip the cream, uncork the wine bottle, or wash all the dishes. Denying the flesh requires effort but a lot less clean up.

That said, those who do a lot of work to feed bodies have a different need to deny their flesh. Prepping a great meal is an example of something that can happen anytime, but the Thanksgiving holiday sets the table for what we could call Thanksgrabbing, a tradition some of us may already be observing.

Thanksgrabbing occurs when we expect to be seen and praised for all our work. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be thanked; of course you should. But if bitterness grows every hour you’re on your feet because no one seems to notice, let alone offers to help, or if your leftover casserole cooks in a broth of hurt feelings because guests didn’t acknowledge all your effort, then you may be grabbing for thanks.

Again, attitudes can sour in a cornucopia of ways and it isn’t particularly a matriarchal sin. It’s the kind of sin that happens when one trades a monk outfit for a lightweight martyr outfit, serving and sacrificing in order to obligate thanks from others. Deliverance from dualism involves new difficulties, but they are difficulties worth fighting. Don’t let resentment make you the biggest turkey at the table. Remember, “The liberal soul shall be made fat,” and those who gladly share gravy will be gravied themselves (see the KJV of Proverbs 11:25).

Punching Entitlement in the Face

The more I think about it the more I believe that the most powerful weapon God gives His people to fight dualism, entitlement, and hypocrisy is thanks.

Consider the apostle John’s transition from the story of Jesus feeding the five-thousand (John 6:1-15) to Jesus’ offer of Himself as the bread of life (John 6:22-34). Tucked into John’s description of the crowd’s movement from the “other side of the sea” back to Capernaum is a key repetition. John does not repeat the miracle Jesus performed, He repeats the thanks Jesus gave. “Other boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks” (John 6:23, see verse 11 for the first mention of Jesus giving thanks).

Thinking back over the story, as far as we’re told, Jesus is the only one who expressed thanks. The disciples don’t. The crowd doesn’t. The crowds follow Him because they wanted more bread, not because they wanted to express gratitude. They wanted to make Him King so that He could give them security not so that they could give Him appreciation.

The bread by itself wasn’t the problem. Jesus was glad to provide bread of both kinds, imperishable and perishable. He didn’t make them a meal in order to make them feel guilty on full stomachs. Thanks keeps the imperishable in mind while enjoying the perishable. Thanks fights dualism which says only the spiritual matters. But the crowd couldn’t recognize the distinction or receive the full benefits of either bread as evidenced by their lack of thanks.

Thanks also fights entitlement. The crowd didn’t get bread because they were great or because they deserved it or because He was obligated to meet their expectations. For us, thanks enables us to receive what He gives, even to seek provision from Him with a dependency that honors Him rather than with an self-referential expectancy. It is hard to be grateful and demanding at the same time. Pride buys entitlement a drink and sits down to commiserate. Thanks punches entitlement in the face (in the right way).

Thanks also fights hypocrisy. Take communion as one example. The point of this ordinance is not half-hearted, let alone hardhearted, participation. We fight against externalism, Pharisee-ism, going-through-the-motions-ism by stirring up and starting with thanks. And how much life, here and forever, we have to be thankful for at this Table.