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Lord's Day Liturgy

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.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

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.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

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.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

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.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

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!

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Lord's Day Liturgy

No Pilgrimages to Holy Places

Yesterday was the fourth Sunday before Christmas, the usual time to begin the advent countdown. It also happened to be the first day of December, so we sang a number of carols to start our recognition of the season. For our Lord’s Table meditation we considered Christ’s coming and its relation to communion, which is also the plan for the following three Lord’s Days.

How does the incarnation encourage us? First, the incarnation means that, in Christ, God came. God took on flesh and it was His idea. He initiated and He travelled. He did not wait for us to draw near to Him but He clothed Himself with frail humanity.

Our salvation is not the result of any long pilgrimage on our part to some holy place, it is the result of the Son’s sojourning among unholy people. We do not globe-trot or cross galaxies to get to God. He covered the distance. We could not reach Him, but we can also not get too far away from Him that He cannot reach us.

Eternal life draped Himself with a body so that mortal flesh could put on immortality (1 Corinthians 15:53). Heaven came down and glory fills our futures. “‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us” (Matthew 1:23). We give thanks for salvation and fellowship we enjoy with God because He came.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

The Hardest Part

The hardest part about Christmas is not shaking off the lingering effects of tryptophan at 2 AM while shopping on Black Friday. The hardest part is not squeezing SUVs into compact parking spaces at the mall or outjoying cranky checkout clerks. The hardest part is not choosing the perfect (and budget fitting) gift for the picky person in your life. The hardest part is not securing the tree straight in the stand. The hardest part is not troubleshooting strands of dead lights or even dealing with deadbeats around the dinner table. The hardest part is not paying off all the credit card bills by May. The hardest part about Christmas is caring.

No sentiment from a Hallmark holiday movie or lick from a thick peppermint stick can guarantee to get your heart in the mood. No matter how much the thirsty needles on your tree smell like they might burst into flame, no decorated indoor fir can catch your heart on fire. Celebrating the first coming of Christ and letting that party push us to wait even more eagerly for His next coming is hard heart work.

The liturgy of the season is an advantage to us if we repent and believe. As is true of our worship every Lord’s day, confessing and communing, offering and singing, praying and receiving the Word challenge us to be renewed in love for Christ. So setting up trees and giving gifts, baking ham and greeting family, all provide cover for cold hearts or provide discipline to melt them.

Is your preparation for the 25th increasing your anticipation of the great day? Are you pursuing holiness more these days, not only so that you’ll be ready for righteous rejoicing on Christmas, but also so that you’ll be ready for Christ’s return? If not, now is a great time to confess the sin that strangles sanctification and hope so that we can enjoy more of both on Tuesday.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

Our Familiar Celebrations

We often say that familiarity breeds contempt. Our contempt starts with that statement itself; it’s contemptible to hear about how easily we’re made contemptuous. But our condition is one in which we get dirty and forget about it, we develop callouses and live with them, we fall down and it’s easier to stay there. We need to be washed, we need to have the hard parts cut off or filed down, and we need to get back on our feet.

We’re familiar with Christmas. Jesus is the reason for this season, we know, so how does He fit in our familiar celebrations? It’s hopefully more, though not less, than reading the story of His birth on Christmas morning. For sake of scrubbing our holiday grime, let’s start with our Christmas trees.

Consider our pine tree configurations. We stand our trees in a location for maximum visibility. We place our presents under the tree for others. We hang lights and garland and other ornaments on the branches. We typically perch a star at the top most point. Which part is for Jesus? Which part is meant to honor Him?

Isn’t He pictured and honored every where? He is the visible center. He is the Father’s gift to sinful men. He is the light of the world, the creator who decorated the universe. Not only did a star mark His birthplace for travelers, He Himself is the guiding star. We can’t limit where we honor Him. He is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, worthy to be honored from top to bottom. He ought to be so in our Christmas celebrations.

We cannot be overly familiar with Christ, only wrongly familiar in a way that doesn’t honor Him everywhere at all times. If we don’t honor Him with every part of our Christmas trees, are we honoring Him everywhere else?