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Lord's Day Liturgy

The Seven Spirits of Grumpiness

I have given similar exhortations before, and this should wrap up and tie a nice flip-sequin bow on the recent mini-series about emotional control.

Christmas is a perfect test of our emotional control, especially when it comes to our responses. Parents are typically worn out, kids are typically wound up, and that can make for a vicious vortex of unpleasant feelings. There are unmet expectations to manage, there are unmanageable relatives coming to dinner. Your nerves are stretched as precarious as that old strand of lights you hoped could make it through one more season. How will you respond?

All of that is blessed-case scenario. Some of you are approaching Christmas for the first time without the presence of a loved one. Some of you are in isolation, or you are isolated from those in isolation. The ostensible physical protection from viruses contrasts with the obvious discouragement of hearts. How will you respond?

Kids ripping into presents too quickly is better than ripping into their siblings too quickly, and being heavy with burdens is better than never having known a full table. But these are not actually the hardest parts of Christmas.

The most difficult emotional effort is rejoicing with joy inexpressible and filled of glory (1 Peter 1:8). The angels announced good news of great joy for all the people (Luke 2:10). It is much too easy to be dull to the King of David. How will you respond?

Emotional control for the Christian is more than casting out the seven spirits of grumpiness. If your emotional house isn’t run by the strongman of gladness and love, the unclean spirit will return and plunder your joy tank (see similarly Matthew 12:29, 43-45; Luke 11:24-26). “Let loving hearts enthrone Him.”

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Lord's Day Liturgy

The Great Conjunction of Death and Joy

Monday night we have our final college astronomy class of 2020. One of the things we hope to see is Jupiter and Saturn so near to each other than they appear as one bring light. I say we hope to see it because our Snohomish weather forecast includes cloudy skies. We’ll try.

The orbits of these planets near each other according to a measurable and predicable pattern. From our view on earth into the heavens Jupiter and Saturn get within a degree of each other every 20 years. But at sunset tonight they will be separated by only one-tenth of a degree. They haven’t been so close since 1623, and won’t be again until 2080.

Saturn, top, and Jupiter, below, are seen after sunset from Shenandoah National Park, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Luray, Virginia. The two planets are drawing closer to each other in the sky as they head towards a “great conjunction” on December 21, where the two giant planets will appear a tenth of a degree apart. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Some astronomers have wondered if this event was the Christmas star the wise men followed to find Jesus. Apparently in 7 BC Jupiter and Saturn were within one degree of each other three times in eight months. As fun as that theory is, the inspired account in Matthew makes it sound not only as a single star, but a star close enough to earth that “it came to rest over the place where the child was,” over a single house (Matthew 2:9-11), not just above the horizon.

I’m mentioning it for a few reasons. One, anyone could look toward the southwest at sunset to see the sky above proclaiming God’s handiwork, one night’s revelation of knowledge (Psalm 19:1-2). This is a once-in-a-lifetime event, give glory to God! Two, don’t forget that God established lights in the heavens for signs and seasons, and for days and years (Genesis 1:14). Wintertime, Christmastime, 2020time, these are His to rule and reminders of His vast and enchanted cosmos.

Three, God ordained not just stars, but a Son who is the “light of the world” (John 8:12, also 1:4, 9). That Son ordained a simple supper, not to stretch our conception of space, but to swell our calculation of salvation by grace. We are privileged to observe it every week.

And one more thing. In an older cosmology, Saturn was understood to have the characteristic of death, and Jupiter a sense of joy. Is there any other place we can look to see such a great conjunction of death and joy? When we look at the Lord’s Table, we proclaim His death (1 Corinthians 11:26) with great joy (Luke 2:10) and the light of our salvation is made more bright.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

Downplaying Salvation

It is always possible to downplay our sin. I’m concerned with ways professing Christians downplay, not at the moment with those who just play around.

The Corinthian church had trouble with this very issue. They apparently didn’t take their sin very seriously, not only as evidenced by saying nothing to the man who had taken his father’s wife (chapter 5), but from the beginning of the letter with their quarreling and positioning. Paul could not commend them for showing any sort of love or unity (1 Corinthians 11:17, 22), and so he warned them about eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner (1 Corinthians 11:27).

Consider David’s response to his sin, well known to Israel in Psalm 51. After his sin with the wife of Uriah David asked for abundant mercy (1), for God to blot out his transgressions (1) and wash him thoroughly from his iniquity (2). His heart was broken and contrite, and David knew that such sacrifices were pleasing to God (17).

Yet this was not the end of David’s prayer nor the goal of his contrition or his song. He desired to be made clean, and then to “hear joy and gladness” (8), for God to “renew a right spirit” (10), for God to “restore to me the joy of your salvation and to uphold me with a willing spirit” (12). With deliverance from the God of salvation, David said “my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness” (14). He prayed, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise” (15).

Which connects again to the point of the genealogy of Jesus. Sin ruins everything, makes a painful and sorry mess among men. And therefore Jesus came. He is the true and better Adam, the true and better King, the merciful and faithful high priest who made propitiation for the sins of the people (Hebrews 2:17).

Do spiritually mature, Christlike disciples have truer and better remorse? Do those with great faith or little faith focus on their sins from twenty years ago? Will heaven finally give us enough time to reheat old transgressions into a sorrow casserole? Isn’t this just downplaying salvation? Or when we eat the bread and drink the cup in remembrance of the Lord’s death, do we rejoice in the joy of our Savior?

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Lord's Day Liturgy

The Umpire over Rogue Responses

In order to please God we must have perfect emotions. God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). Jesus punctuated His sermon with it. “You therefore must be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). This was after taking aim at feelings of anger and irritation, passions of lust, overconfident emotion, as well as resentment and bitterness. Temptations to these are not sin, but there is a line that can be crossed where the heart sins before the parts sin.

Disciples of Jesus not only should develop emotional control, they must, when necessary, confess some of their emotions as sin. This is a much higher standard than some of us prefer to consider.

But that means that what we really prefer is to need less grace than God offers.

We ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.

In other words, our hearts pumped bad blood. We were controlled by our sinful emotions.

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7)

Here are two points. We ought to mourn our sinful hearts rather than justify sinful hearts, and when God justifies us by faith then we must “let the peace of Christ rule in [our] hearts” (Colossians 3:15).

It is worse than we often admit, but in Christ it is also better then we often apply. Do you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead? Then you are justified by faith and have peace with God (Romans 5:1). You are under blood-bought, Spirit-enabled obligation to let the peace of Christ umpire all the rogue responses in your heart.

May false guilt be damned. May memories of previous sins and the attendant sorrows be constantly brought back to your identity as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

Heavenly Food

If I could only keep one, Christmas or communion, I would choose communion every time. This is not just because Jesus ordained the ordinance of the Lord’s Table, which He did, and which overrides whatever seasonal sentimentality might get in the way. I would choose communion every time because as important as it is that Jesus took on flesh, Jesus said that it was necessary that we eat His flesh.

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats 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 King was betrayed, and beforehand He broke bread and said, “This is my body which is for you.”

In our blessed position, we don’t have to choose between two good things. Even in the verse from John I quoted, Jesus said He “came down.” John’s gospel opens with the eternal Logos, the Word, taking on flesh, and John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes way the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Christmas and Easter, the King’s birth and death and resurrection, go together like garland and lights. This once-weekly part of our liturgy presumes the annual reminder of the incarnation, our more-than-mental-worship by bread and wine repeating the sounding joy.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
in the body and the blood;
he will give to all the faithful
his own self for heavenly food.

(“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”)

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Lord's Day Liturgy

Guard Rail Posts Scotch Taped to the Road

As sparks fly upward, so man was born to riot against being told what to do. Every generation has its millennials, or millennials are like every other generation in some ways, namely, disliking, deriding, disobeying authority. I myself have thought a lot of things sounded good to do until someone asked me to do it.

When it comes to emotional control issues, young people have a fleshly tendency toward being fussy about submission. This is not due to adolescence, it is due to being in Adam. Sin makes you steer directly at the guard rails, who in this illustration are the authorities God has put in your life to keep your feelings from driving off the cliff.

But the ones I really want to address today are the authorities, the dads and moms, the bosses and teachers, the shepherds and disciplers. Teaching others about keeping their fleshly feelings in check won’t work if our guard rails posts are Scotch taped to the road.

Parents pass things down. Every sinner is responsible for his own sin, and also, is it really so surprising that a son acts like his father? We look at a kid, we say she has her father’s chin and her mother’s eyes, and we look at her again and say she has her father’s anger and her mother’s anxiety. It’s not pretty.

Many years ago I heard the phrase covenantal permission. A Christian household is held together on a promise to honor the Lord and vows from the spouses toward each other. A dad who preaches against lust to his son while watching porn on his phone is obviously a hypocrite, but is actually condoning, if not promoting his son’s behavior. His words are like fighting a forrest fire with cotton balls.

A popular word today is systemic, related to how a system is connected. A family is connected, a flock is connected, and a mother who hates her husband’s instructions and priorities is raising haters, even if she spanks them for it.

This does not mean that you must be perfect before you can say anything, especially to someone you are responsible for. But God says you must be perfect even as He is perfect, which at least means it’s wrong for you to expect someone else to be at emotional peace while you’re raging on the inside like a toddler with fetal alcohol syndrome.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

40 Miles Uphill

I’ve run a few marathons in my life. The most brutal was the Seattle Marathon in 2003. It’s always the weekend after Thanksgiving, and having a full gut doesn’t make the running easier or make the weather warmer. The course covers 26.2 miles, and I’m sure at least 40 of them are uphill. Marathons are a metaphor for good reason.

The author of Hebrews exhorted his readers to such a long distance faith-run.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us (Hebrews 12:1)

The “witnesses” include a bunch of waiters in Hebrews 11, those who “died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar” (Hebrews 11:12). They finished their race, they kept the faith, we have their example. We also have Jesus’ example.

looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2)

“Consider him…so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (12:3). This is not getting someone to pat your hair, this is getting someone to wipe the sweat out of your eyes so you can keep running.

In most marathons these days they have water stations and even food stations spread throughout the route. It’s not only a long distance, but slower runners like myself could be out there for multiple hours, and the edible energy helps. In our long faith-fun, we also get bread and wine, and the opportunity to “consider Him” who endured hostility so that we can enjoy hope.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

Holes Punched on Your Frequent Sadness Card

When it comes to more typical (rather than traumatic) emotional control problems, we considered that some of the problem is what we want. We want/covet the wrong things or the right things for the wrong reasons. Sometimes we want the right things at the wrong time. This leads to a consideration of emotional control while we wait.

Life is waiting, and God is not surprised by that. He invented the concept as much as He created time to begin with. He determines how fast or slow it goes, and His Word is filled with the call: wait.

Wait for the LORD;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the LORD!
(Psalm 27:14, ESV)

Waiting assumes a better situation, and that you’re (perhaps painfully) aware of it. You know. You want it to be over, and you’re thinking about it being over. That’s what waiting is about. Dinner will be good but it’s still the middle of the afternoon; giving birth will be a joyful relief but you’re only in the first trimester; surgery will be helpful but it’s not even scheduled; getting married will be quite a celebration but you’re only fourteen; Christmas will be great but it’s still November. You have to wait. It is possible to want these things without coveting, but it is also to want them now and complain.

Not everyone needs to know that you know, though. Say your current situation is so bad that you’ve committed some fasting time to it. Do you want it to be past the problem, or could you be satisfied with others thinking you’re a spiritual person for fasting about a problem? Lower your standard and you can have your reward (Matthew 6:16-18). Or, don’t let them know, which includes not whining.

Prayer is part of emotional control; make your requests (for something better) to God with thanks (Philippians 4:6). Maybe someone will think you don’t realize how bad it is because you’re thankful, but you’ll know how hard the battle was to be so thankful. If you are not praying at all, how do you expect to glorify God for His answer, and/or for His strength for your rejoicing in heaviness (1 Peter 1:6)?

Seeking counsel (to get to something better) can also be helpful for emotional control, but seeking more holes punched on your frequent sadness card from soft hearts is like putting the wrong cream on your rash; you’re just going to make it worse. Likewise, ignoring the (wise/tough) counsel that tells you the problem is you, as in your wants or your timing, sets you up for feeling like no one understands you, which makes you very understandably in danger of thinking your hurt feelings are a virtue.

They who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
(Isaiah 40:31, ESV)